Saturday, 23 September 2017

Doors Open Days

Throughout Scotland in September, doors are opened to the public that are mostly shut. In Edinburgh, our ‘Doors Open’ weekend is run by the Cockburn Association, and includes many places of interest from fascinating chapels and churches, private houses of unusual or unique design, museums, mausoleums, towers, tors, and turret windows. (This one is always open, with a free entry.)
It’s a great chance to see all sorts of hidden gems and curiosities, and being the curious type I make the most of this annual opportunity. This year, Doors Open clashes with another annual nosy-neighbour fest. In the row of streets around the corner from why I stay in Edinburgh, there is an unusually dense population of artists who open their doors to the public.
It’s a wonderful event that spreads out into the local bars and shops. Although I don’t live in the ‘Colonies’ – as these streets are so-named – at some point I hope to exhibit some of my work in one of the venues... but not this year, as I’m exhibiting in a private exhibition-party on the other side of the city.
My piece titled 26 Doors Between My House and Yours... fits into this story, as it traces a journey past the Colonies, through the Old Town towards the Southside where my friend lives. This happens to be a few streets away from where the private exhibition is taking place, which is a pleasing tying of threads.
What has been interesting in the year since I worked on this project, taking pictures of twenty-six doors and writing a ‘sestude’ on each, is realising how quickly things change. Doors shut, re-open, names change, people move away, and colours are ephemeral. My photographs, and accompanying sestudes, were mere snapshots, even if they symbolised something deeper, eternal.
One example is the pub, which had shut its door when the eccentric owner sadly died. It was a famously unique drinking hole, well-known for its décor, the dismal selection of beer, and disgustingly smelly toilets. But when ‘The Captain’ passed away, it was feared that this quirky wee joint would be mopped up and gentrified – like certain other establishments on the Royal Mile.
Thankfully, although it isn’t quite the living museum that my sestude celebrates, The Waverley has been given a new lease of life. The owners have attempted to stay true to the style of the old place, while giving the loos a much-needed spruce, and increasing the patronage – perhaps as a result. I hope they ditch the Billy Connelly link as claim to fame: there’s so much more in a name.
from 26 Doors Between My House and Yours...
The Waverley, St Mary’s Street
There is a type of personality
that thinks of itself as unique.
Edinburgh fits this category:
it has the only station in the
world named after a novel.
The Waverley bar is similarly
one of a kind. Behind the
boarded-up windows and
permanently closed door
lies a museum… testament
to this Festival City and
the Old Man’s individuality,
immortalised only in memory.
Over the road from the Waverley pub is the front of a café that changed its name after I published my 26 Doors sequence. Luckily, the door I pictured (in words and image) remains behind the newly-named café. Lost in translation.
Circus Café Garden, Gullan’s Close
Frequently, a door
tells only half the story
Tucked away
behind the hidden
garden of a café,
a yellow sun
smiles down
a winding road…
In the adjacent
section on the wall,
a child strides,
head held high
against the stench
of kitchen bins.
A couple in the garden
hear my camera click.
If I could speak their
tongue, I’d listen in.
Another door on my journey tricked me by changing even before the project was complete. Having remained blank for the sixteen years and hundreds of times I had passed by, when I came to take a photograph of this mysterious location, someone was painting letters above the door. Even so, the language and script retain mystery (for some) and I have yet to discover for myself the truth of the story about this legendary restaurant.
Mystery Location, Abbeyhill
According to Urban Myth,
there lies behind these doors
a secret restaurant.
Nobody knows how to book.
Those who go
are treated appallingly,
but report the food
is of the highest quality.
The customer service
is regarded as part
of the unique experience.
Maybe one evening I’ll treat you
to a meal-for-two.
I’d book a table… but how?
If only I knew.
So doors can change, but the symbolism remains... whether as entrances or exits, barriers, or invitations to places of encounter. My journey became a meditation on doors, on friendship, the imagination, and on truths beyond the physical location that I had – almost – arbitrarily chosen. As with friendship, for every door that closes, another will open... if you let it.
11, St Mary’s Street
We all do it…
Push at doors
for which we have no keys;
make choices where
there’s nothing for us to choose;
hope, expect, or long for welcomes
that are far-from forthcoming;
consider houses homes,
double-lock, bolt up every
door lest we,
becoming vulnerable to burglary,
allow the most intimate part
of our existence to be violated.
Our home?
Or our heart?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Fizzling Out

Last week, with Festival in its fourth and final quarter, I had been contemplating how I’d failed to fully engage with Edinburgh’s festivity. My idea of having a ‘year off’ had fallen flat: I felt like a distant spectator. Sure, I performed at various gigs although, with only a few exceptions, these were generic, perennial events. 
I’d supported some friends by attending their Fringe Shows; I soaked up the atmosphere on the Royal Mile, hob-nobbed at the Usher Hall among the International audience, and schmoozed about at the Book Festival.

But it was after a Writers’ Reception at the latter that a strange lacuna appeared in my recollections. One minute, I was cycling home; the next, I was in an ambulance.
The crew were concerned that I’d sustained a head injury because I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Once I’d fully come to, I knew what was wrong, although it would be some hours later that an X-ray scan confirmed it.
The last time I broke my collar bone, I was 12. Cycling about the small estate where I lived, I zipped around a blind corner, swerved to avoid an elderly gentleman, and landed on the tarmac with a loud crack.
Sometimes things happen that defy understanding. They often occur in a so-called split second. One minute, everything’s ticking along; then, in the twinkling of an eye, nothing is quite the same. It is that ellipsis between those two states which is so hard to fathom.
In writing, it is often that ‘mystery bit’ that longs to be told.
This is why we don’t rely on memory – falsely retrieved or otherwise – neither on fact – which, it seems, can be presented duplicitously – nor on truth – for which there may be many interpretations. No: it is the amorphous imagination that we plumb in order to dredge the depths of human existence.
The last time I wrote about a cycling incident on this blog, it was someone else who dashed her chin on the pavement. My entire relationship with her is like that mystery split second – except it lasted several months. In my attempt to recall the events, I allowed my imagination free rein.
Last month I spoke about auto-biographical writing. I’ve been pursuing this lately – particularly during what has been a quiet few months for me with injured voice and now, arm hampering my activities. It’s not been easy. Whatever my understanding of events and relationships, the memory is unreliable, and truth, entirely subjective.
But this is not the stuff of mystery and myth. It is the only truth I know. And so, I write. And if I dip a little too far into the imagination, so be it. At least I’ve written it.
This is my truth. What is yours?

Friday, 28 July 2017

A Lump in the Throat

In the last couple of months, something very strange and upsetting has happened to me. It might sound as if I’m being melodramatic when I say it was this: I lost my voice. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the sense of a post-viral huskiness, or tired and shagged out after a long squawk, like a Norwegian Blue.

I mean, it broke (not in the adolescent sense) it was shagged (ditto) packed up and gone for good. At least that’s how it felt. One day it was fine, I was singing throughout my full range; the next day, I tried to do something and realised I could only use my chest voice. I could still speak, but could only sing in the comparative range of my speaking voice. We’re talking – and only just – from a low D to an octave above.
My highest note a few weeks ago!
These days I don’t do much work as a professional singer, yet my voice is essential in all the things I do. From spoken-word performance, presenting or hosting events, to interviewing people, having discussions or meetings, without my voice I feel like a rudderless ship. The Biblical analogy (if the tongue is a metaphor for the voice) is true: it is a small piece of gear, but has power to steer us through life... or (to mix in another metaphor) de-rail us.

For singers, however, the voice is something far more. It is our identity, our instrument, our raison d’être. Losing my voice always feels as if I’ve got a missing limb. So for me to find my voice not just temporarily gone but seriously ill was a shock. Even more distressing was that nobody seemed to know what had happened. I was worried that this sudden ailment was an indicator that there was something more serious wrong with me, and went to the Doctor.

Not an actual Singer

After several blood tests, a chest x-ray, breathing diagnoses, various medical discussions and a camera shoved up my nose and down my throat, no conclusion was reached other than I must have strained my voice, overworked it, or it had simply given up on account of stress and fatigue. I’d had a lot of work on, and my long hours often ended at dawn.

I wasn’t exactly giving my body a chance to recover... I’m not sure I was as honest as I could have been when my G.P. asked about my alcohol intake. Were I not a singer, I wouldn’t have noticed anything. But being classically trained, I was convinced there would be a medical reason. The Doctor at the ENT clinic assured me that my vocal chords were in fine fettle; my technique was impeccable, and there were no lurgies down there causing any problems.

The implication was that my voice would eventually get back into action. After some rest it was suggested I should start exercising again, slowly building up on my higher notes. Next thing, almost as suddenly as it went away, I began to gain some range; a few more notes, then more – as high as a middle C – but still a major fifth short of my full range. (My low notes rumbled away, but they have limited use in choral repertoire.)
Not an actual choir!
I’ve started singing again, just for a few services, but I know that things still aren’t right, and I am at a loss to know why. And yet, it has been an interesting – if testing – experience. If I may use another metaphor... as a writer I have been made to think about my ‘voice.’ If I can no longer perform, my writing will be the only voice I have.

Given my recent propensity to churn out doggerel and entertaining ditties for the stage, I have been given an incentive to re-hone my style. Also, to think carefully about my claim that all my writing is fiction. During my vocal sabbatical, I used a real episode from my life to write a story called ‘The Singer and The Soprano.’ It is the closest I’ve come to pure autobiography. Several of my musical friends will know exactly who it’s about.

Examining the reason for my decision to write this piece, apart from the loss of my actual voice, is not too difficult. In the past, many people have tried to silence me. Either because they can’t cope with parts of my personal history, or are afraid that what I have to say is true (albeit shrouded in fiction.) Perhaps out of malicious judgement or envy, people may continue to attempt to take my voice away from me. They will fail.

In the days of Stalin, when the henchmen of Art, hiding behind the façade of state-endorsed terror, continually threatened Shostakovich, he didn’t give up. “Even if they cut off my hands I will continue to compose,” he famously said. Hopefully I will get back my singing voice, and be able to perform to my full capability soon. My voice as a writer has never been stronger.
He who has ears...