Saturday 31 July 2021

When soft voices die


The first night of the Proms and a new composition by Sir James Macmillan setting two short poems of Shelley’s.  Four contrasting soloists took a verse each, until the four voices wove together in the final verse (the second of the two verses of this the second poem).

Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory -

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,

Are heaped for the beloved's bed;

And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,

Love itself shall slumber on.

The commentators were seduced by the fresh Prom experience, the opening word ‘music’, and the sense that the impact of music never dies – but the poem is about bereavement and the cessation of music just happens to be the first example

In my mind, the first verse could be about a walk home after a concert, possibly alone in the dark and cold and wet.  Not, Shelley says, a depressing lonely walk, because the tunes still echo in the mind, the scents of the evening (appetite sated and over indulged, perhaps) continue to enliven the spirit.  The warm glow of knowing that it been worth being there.

So, he says, bereavement ought to be like this.  What remains of what once flowered is piled wreathes on a grave (at least that makes as much sense of ‘the beloved’s bed’ to me as a petal strewn place to love and sleep), and what remains of what was once animated is accumulated reflection and insight (retiring alone to an actual bed now, not so much to ‘sleep on a problem’ as to ‘sleep on what love has given’).

In the morning, the final stage of the journey home from time with friends in John O Groates (where the pictures were taken) had been, unusually for me, by bus.  And there wasn’t Deborah, happy to travel anywhere without the car, the strap of her bag tightly round her coat, exploring fresh ideas in a book as she goes, most usually on her way into Bradford ready to help some refugees learn English or to engage with some activist or support group.

As a niece of hers commented on her obituary, ‘a reminder, always, of what goodness and grace really look like when out and at work in the world’.  Not just to catch still the tune, the scent of it, piled blooms and informed creative views, but, Shelley seems to say, to know these still to be the gift now however dull and solitary the walk.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether Mary Shelley, collecting together and publishing final work of her late husband including this fragment (whether a complete poem or something waiting to be worked up into a longer work?), had as much a sense of loss as a sense of what a privilege it was to have his work to share.

Friday 2 July 2021

Political disconnection

I’ve looked at the actual figures for a third recent by-election and I can’t work out why the substantial fall in voter turnout is not being widely discussed. 

Some of those registered to vote in 2019 will have died or will have moved away since, and some of those registered to vote in 2021 will have only recently become old enough to vote or have moved in.  But broadly it is the same pool of people – and 18.9% of them (between one in six and one in five of them, about 15 000 people) voted in 2019 but didn’t do so in 2021.

To be clear, of the people who actually voted last time, more woke up yesterday and decided not to vote at all than went out and voted Labour, and more people decided not to vote at all than went out and voted for Conservative. 

Put it another way, in 2021 Labour held on to only 59.4% of its 2019 voters and the Conservatives held on to only 68.6% of its 2019 voters.  This will be expressed in the standard media as a ‘swing from Labour to Conservative’, but it is actually a heavy swing against both.  

There was a maverick candidate who came third in both 2019 and 2021, two quite different people.  The first gained the support of 8.1% of the registered voters in 2019 and the second 10.4% in 2021, about 1830 more voters in 2021 than in 2019.  But this is a much less significant fact than the striking one that more than half of those registered to vote did not actually do so.

There is now a Conservative MP for Hartlepool, a Liberal Democrat MP for Chesham & Amersham, and a fresh Labour MP for Batley & Spen.  They and their supporters will be pleased.  But is it the disconnected whose size of the vote surged in all three by-elections.

The pictures are both public artwork close to each other in central Bradford.