Everything was foggy at the beginning. That was a long time before you came down from Finland to the music room of a Scottish school. I was twelve when you came. You were eighty-four, Finland’s national treasure. ‘Sibelius to the rescue’, I’ve often thought. All my life since then I’ve wanted to thank you.
You couldn’t clear the fog but you gave me a way of living in it. The lenses of my glasses were as thick as milk-bottle bottoms. My eyes looked tiny through them from the other side, like a pig’s. The frames had to be thick too, to carry the weight of the lenses. If I wasn’t ‘Piggy’ to the boys in my class I was ‘Specky’ or ‘Four Eyes’ when I stumbled into chairs and bumped into desks. The glasses hardly seemed worth the ridicule, they delivered so little of the world.
The English teacher was acid. He was telling us how to deduce character from appearance.
‘For example’, he said, ‘I distrust a person who wears spectacles with heavy frames’.
The class sniggered. Heads turned to stare at me. I kept my eyes down on my desk, but in the distortion of my peripheral vision their faces were distended pale balloons of derision.
‘An attempt to add an air of distinction to an otherwise featureless face’, the English teacher said, driving the nail home.
How could someone who taught poetry be cruel like that?
People were blurs with voices and smells. I knew how my parents looked in photographs, because I could hold the brown-paged albums at the end of my nose. And I knew what their hands looked like from when my mother applied sticking plaster to a cut and from my father’s regular clipping of my fingernails. My father insisted on short back and sides for hair and close to the quick for nails. He’d clip a finger and hold it up for me to see what a real boy’s nails should look like.
At the centre of the fog was a semi-detached house on Glasgow’s south side. The air was full of war.
Sibelius, you were only two when your father died and you were snatched with your mother and sister out of your first home in the town of Hämeenlinna. I was two as well when Hitler dislodged my mother and father and me from a city tenement flat at Anniesland Cross. That’s in the West End of Glasgow. The building was on the Luftwaffe’s flight path to the River Clyde where there were shipyards to be bombed. It was safer on the south side of the river. When we went there we had, as they said, ‘evacuated’. The district was called Whitecraigs. That sounded posh enough to be safe. The Anniesland flat was sub-let to an elegant Polish doctor and his beautiful olive-skinned wife. Throughout the war the doctor performed illegal abortions on our dining-room table. The beautiful wife kennelled her under-exercised Alsatian in my bedroom. You could say that my bedroom carpet was a casualty of war.
Well-to-do friends of my parents lent us the house on the south side rent-free and evacuated themselves even further away from Hitler. This didn’t seem fair because it meant that there were degrees of safety unequally available. The Polish doctor and his beautiful wife got a nice flat with a view of the Old Kilpatrick Hills, but a bomb could fall on them; we were not as safe as we could have been because there was the much safer place my parents’ friends had gone to. Hitler was everyone’s enemy, so why didn’t everyone go together to the safest place of all?
‘You’ll understand later’, said my father.
Holding my hand on the way home from shopping, my mother stopped and looked up at the sky. I saw nothing, but heard the plane’s engines.
‘You see that dot in the sky?’ said my mother.
‘Yes’, I said because I knew I was expected to.
‘That’s a German reconnaissance plane’, my mother said.
‘What’s reconnaissance?’ I asked.
‘Looking around’, my mother said.
‘Can it see us?’ I asked.
‘We’d better take the shopping inside’, my mother said, ‘Look where you’re going.’
Dear Sibelius, you’ve been my companion for so long that I’ve just been surprised to realize you didn’t know about all this. I know your country sided with Germany and I understand that this wasn’t because you supported Hitler but because Finland couldn’t go along with Stalin. Russia had hammered your people for generations. Sometimes it’s been quite hard for Scotland to go along with England for similar reasons. I know the war depressed you but I’m glad that you turned down Britain’s offer of asylum. You stayed Finnish, true to your earth and light and swans and cranes. There’s heartfelt patriotism in your greatest hit, Finlandia, originally called Finland Awakes. ‘Pure inspiration’, you called it. You wrote it in 1899 – the year the Tsar withdrew your country’s freedom of speech – as part of the music for a series of tableaux at Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre. A gala occasion. The authorities thought it was in aid of a Press Pension Fund, but it was really a show of Finnish opposition to Russia.
What a jump from that new ignition of national pride to the plum-label 78 rpm record I bought in Glasgow as a twelve-year-old novice Sibelian. Daring a solo tram journey to the downtown record shop and reciting the catalogue number. Admiring the salesgirl’s quizzical eyebrows when I leaned into her across the counter to confide your name.
‘Is he a singer?’
‘Sort of’, I said, falling in love.
She handed me the record in its cardboard sleeve, plucked from shelves she visited only for weird people who didn’t want Bing Crosby or the Andrews Sisters. This was John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester. Six shillings and tenpence: a birthday postal order plus accumulated pocket money.
‘Fancy coming to listen to it with me?’ I said to the girl.
‘Awa’ tae yer bed for a month’, she said, taking my money. ‘Yer Granny’s a cowboy’.
Home on the tram, holding the record to my chest away from the press of other passengers, to watch the pick-up of the record player ride the grooves of clarion brass. Schoolboy adrenalin pumping with the drums and cymbals. Then astonishment when I found a hymn. It was the tune we sang in blazered conformity at school prayers. The hymn was horrible:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side;
bear patiently the cross of grief and pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in every change he faithful will remain.
No. Your music couldn’t mean this. I had no awareness of a post-war Lord and even less sense of whose side he might be on. Your music had nothing to do with acceptance of grief and pain. It was about proud identity, pain transcended and a hopeful vision of the future. But the hymn got worse:
Be still my soul: for Jesus can repay
So the Lord is on my side, yet his Jesus takes away. But not to worry. Jesus can also repay everything if he feels like it. The Church’s doubletalk. If Jesus was on my side he wouldn’t take away in the first place. In the school hall I swayed to your music in dreamy, rhythmic happiness but even then hated the words.
From his own fullness all he takes away.
Back to war and the house on the south side. It didn’t feel safe for long. This was partly because of the fog. I tripped on the front doorstep, split my forehead and sat in the doctor’s surgery holding cotton wool to the gash. The doctor’s rimless glasses, the cavernous menace of his panelled room and the gleaming steel dishes in which instruments for my repair were sterilized told me that I had been wickedly clumsy. I would be punished by new, sophisticated levels of pain.
But there was more to it than the fog. There was my father’s moustache.
It was a dark smudge below his nose. Hitler had one too, a rectangle of coal under his greasy quiff. Why did my father decorate himself with an emblem of the monster? And later, from the front row of the picture house, squinching my eyes into slits to make them telescopic, why did Charlie Chaplin? He had to be a good man, didn’t he? He made me laugh and cry for the mischief and poignancy of the tramp. When the air-raid siren whined its warning a mile and a half away, was it to announce the approach of a Nazi gang coming to get me? Would there be torture, unimaginably worse than the doctor’s surgery? Was the gang of terror – Hitler, my father and Charlie Chaplin – linked by the code of their moustaches?
The air-raid siren said we might be going to die tonight. My mother was clever about that.
‘Oh, listen’, she said, ‘there’s our friend again, Softy the Siren’.
Roger was the boy next door. He was my own age and we usually managed to be friends, though he looked down on me because I was evacuated and bumped into things. I condescended to him because he wasn’t and didn’t. He was having too easy a war, I thought. Roger’s house had high white rough-cast gateposts with flat tops about a metre square. A fir tree grew close enough to one of the gateposts for its branches to make a convenient ladder. Roger climbed the branches and stepped from the tree to the gatepost top. Here he surveyed the street and kept an eye open for Germans.
‘You can come up if you want’, he’d say, pretending not to care.
I always went up, scratching hands and face in the tree’s dark centre, swinging out towards the blur that was Roger on his concrete pedestal. After a moment’s exaltation I’d step over the unseen edge. When I’d picked myself up from the slap of the pavement and the smell of tar I’d take the shame home. My mother would speak calmly.
‘I’ll run you a bath’, she’d say.
After the bath I comforted myself with the gramophone which lived in a corner of the dining room. The cabinet was made of walnut and smelled of felt and varnish. Inside the lid was a miniature of Francis Barraud’s painting of ‘His Master’s Voice’, and ‘Nipper’ became my favourite dog for ever. The first favourite record was Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol’ Man River’. Aching from the fall, warm from the bath, I wound up the motor, placed the ten-inch record on the turntable and swung in the mighty nickel-plated tone arm to bring sound-box and needle down to the run-in groove. In a second the magic would happen again. At my command the wise genie, my familiar, would bring me his sympathy through the gramophone’s wooden grille:
You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ and racked with pain.
‘Tote that barge!’, ‘Lift that bale!’,
You get a little drunk and you land in jail.
I get weary and sick of tryin’,
I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, he just keeps rollin’ along.
Robeson knew what it was like all right; you could count on him. He knew about the fall from the gatepost, body all aching. He knew about being weary and sick of the fog. Being told off for bumping into things was the same as landing in jail. He knew about being scared of dying, which I was whenever I saw my grown-ups look up at the sky or Softy the Siren announced the end of the world. But he also knew about the river which, godlike, would prevail in spite of Hitler. Robeson was God in the gramophone, the river’s voice, my unfailing friend.
But I failed him, because of the fog. After another fall from the gatepost and another bath I couldn’t find the record in its usual place. In frustration I sank to a chair and sat on ‘Ol’ Man River’. First came the obscure crack, then the horror of shellac fragments. I had killed the river and violated the genie. I had destroyed music and the voice of understanding. I had killed God. Hitler would kill me. My father would help him. I had brought disgrace on my family and Softy would never sound the ‘All Clear’ again. It was my first taste of death.
I told my mother, words mangled by tears.
‘It was an accident’, she said and withdrew into adult concerns. There was no room for a boy’s broken god in the wartime economy. We were waiting to be gassed. The grown-ups talked mostly about the gas on Sunday afternoons when the week-end had reached its doldrums. I sometimes thought they wished it would come.
Some grown-ups sounded quite jolly when they sang the song about the rabbit.
Run, rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run,
Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun,
He’ll get by without his rabbit pie,
So run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run.
I was glad the grown-ups were on the rabbit’s side, but suddenly the rabbit turned into Hitler.
Run Adolf, run Adolf, run, run, run,
Look what you’ve been gone and done, done, done,
We will knock the stuffing out of you,
Field Marshal Goering and Goebbels too.
You’ll lose your place in the sun, sun, sun,
Soon, you poor dog, you’ll get none, none, none,
You will flop with Herr Von Ribbentrop,
So run, Adolf, run Adolf, run, run, run.
How could Hitler be a rabbit, then a dog? He was more like the farmer with the gun. The other people in the song with ugly names probably had guns as well. If the grown-ups were so sure they could knock the stuffing out of Hitler and his nasty friends why were so many of them evacuated and scared of German planes and poison gas?
‘Don’t ask so many questions’, said my father.
* * * * * * * * * *
But there was time for holidays and I began to know the island of Lismore. It became my paradise as yours was the sea-faring town of Lovisa, where you stayed with your grandmother during school holidays, exploring the archipelago north-east of Helsinki and improvizing meandering concertos to the waves on your violin. Wherever you went you carried Lovisa with you. Similarly, Lismore took possession of me.
Lismore is a splinter of land in the sea of Loch Linnhe in Argyllshire. The name means ‘Great Garden’. The island lies off Port Appin to the north, seven miles by sea from the market town of Oban. By Loch Lomond, Loch Awe and the Pass of Brander the wartime train ride from Glasgow to Oban was sagging luggage racks, cracked leather window straps, roosters of steam, coal smuts and piercing whistles from the guard when it was time to leave each country station along the way. At Oban waited the gangway to the ‘Lochinvar’. Once aboard there was a visit to the engine room, then up on deck to watch the island of Kerrera slip past on the port side and to starboard, poised over the sea on the brink of its crag, Dunollie Castle, ruined stronghold of the MacDougalls. Lismore was less than an hour away, a ribbon of dark green backed by the gaunt hills of Morvern.
In this place of limestone furrows and the stones of Picts and Vikings I gained a father. When he took me to the loch at the south end of the island to fish for trout from a leaky brown rowing boat his moustache ceased to threaten. Hitler would never have taken me fishing. The island brought my first glasses, the first stage in the clearing of the fog. When he watched me take the shortest of his split-cane rods and cast a Greenwell’s Glory or Silver Butcher into reeds, instead of to the side of them where the trout lay, my father realized I couldn’t see well enough to do important things.
‘We’d better have your eyes tested’, he said. So the first low-powered spectacles were prescribed.
Our Lismore home was at Kilcheran, a white-washed boarding house among trees with a view of the sea and a small island called, in Gaelic, Eilean Na Cloiche – Island of the Rock – because of its single stack of stone. It was like the Sphinx from one angle but, from another, the conning tower of a submarine, so the rock was a reminder of war even in the peace of that place. The sounds were best at Easter because of the lambs. Their voices blended with the cawing of rooks in the elms, the noises of cattle, the wind and the waves breaking on the shore below the house. Awkwardly, I told my father how much I liked this nature music and how it made me think of the sounds that came from the gramophone when the white dog on the HMV label span round. By now I’d got to know heavy, black-labelled twelve-inch records of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody, selections from the Nutcracker Suite and the Glasgow-born-pianist, Frederic Lamond, playing the ‘Moonlight’ sonata. My father took the cue and brought home more records of classical music, thinking that if his son couldn’t play rugby and cricket because of his eyes, he might find occupation through his ears.
With the last ‘All Clear’ and the Japanese surrender life slid back to the city. Everything contained in the idea of home belonged to Lismore so it didn’t seem to matter that the city flat had replaced the house on the south side. But now there was serious school, the ignominy of exclusion from games, and getting picked on for being different, a half-blind cissy. Sibelius, I need to tell you about the school bully, because I don’t think I could have stood up to him without you. Even now he’s part of a continuing present, and though I beat him in the end with your help, I still fight him again when I’m in what Huckleberry Finn calls ‘a close place’.
The bully’s name is Douglas. Flanked by his gang of younger toadies he is a minefield I must cross to reach the safety of the top-floor flat. My under-correcting lenses render no features, no detail and the lack of definition gives him a sinister radiation. The head above his thick body is a dark blob against the light. I fear he may be invincible.
‘Where d’you think you’re going?’ he says, punching my chest.
‘Stop that. I’m going home’, I say. ‘Please get out of my way’.
‘I’m no’ in your fuckin’ way’, he says, slapping the side of my head.
This is the warm-up, I know from the last encounter. He smacks my fist off its hopeless aim and spits. The gang laughs and despair claws up from my stomach to my chest. His next punch knocks my glasses to the gutter. When I bend down to feel for them, two of the gang shove me into the road and spit gobs at my cheek. Douglas punches me in the side. A car swishes past, swerving from the dubious activity spilling from the pavement. I scrabble in the gutter for the glasses, snatch them from the muck and put them on.
In staccato breaths I remonstrate with Douglas. ‘You’re being a bully. This isn’t fair. You’re bigger than me. Why d’you always pick on me? Why don’t you hit someone your own size?’
I have no endowment, no training for this. The war’s over, isn’t it? Didn’t the enemy surrender? These boys live in respectable council houses with gardens or in middle-class red sandstone tenement flats like mine. Why do they act like Nazis or torturing, slitty-eyed Japs? I have done them no harm. Is this Paul Robeson’s revenge for the broken record, and will it roll on for ever?
‘I’m no’ bigger’n you’, Douglas says.
‘Yes you are’, I shout, for there must, surely, be a recourse to visible reason, ‘Isn’t he?’ I absurdly appeal to the gang.
‘Naw, he’s no’ bigger’n you’, they say, ‘he’s the same size’.
‘Right’, says Douglas. He spits on the pavement, then on his hands. ‘Come on an’ we’ll prove it. Stand back to back wi’ me’.
I put my back to his. He is taller by head and shoulders. The gang sniggers. Douglas reaches backwards to grip my armpits, bends forward to pull me up and over his head. He throws me to the ground. Winded, bleeding from forehead and nose, glasses gone again, I hear the enemy move away.
‘Bastard’, they call, ‘fuckin’ bastard, ya fuckin’ cunt ya, up yur hole ya specky cunt ya’.
The voices fade. Passers-by show no interest. When I get home I’ll make up something, say I tripped and fell again.
* * * * * * * * * *
‘Forget medicine’, the eye specialist said. He was a dark-suited, square, caustic man with an important title, ‘The Queen’s Eye Specialist in Scotland’. He had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a doctor.
‘That’s out of the question’, he said. ‘You’ll be blind by the time you’re twenty. Think of something you can do when you can’t see. Be a grocer’.
I couldn’t follow his reasoning, supposing that, if only for the sake of the customers, blindness would rule out grocery as conclusively as it ruled out medicine, but the continuing fog and daily headaches made his prognosis terrifyingly credible. After all, his title meant ‘Eyes by Appointment’ and he wasn’t appointing me any at all for the approaching future.
‘In the meantime’, he said, ‘keep your eyes closed as much as possible.’
So, as much as possible, I closed them and kept my ears open. This is how things were when I heard your Second Symphony.
The important-looking envelope on the breakfast table was addressed to me. An aunt who worked at the Glasgow BBC had organized two tickets for a live-broadcast studio performance by the BBC Scottish Orchestra. Its conductor was Ian Whyte, my first and only boyhood hero. He was one of the most gifted British musicians and would have been more widely known but for the sniffiness of London critics about culture in Scotland. His perfect pitch was legendary and his ear was always alert. When workmen were busy in the BBC canteen he remarked that one of their chisels had all the basic harmonics of C major. At a rehearsal he turned to his first horn.
‘Your note is so pure it has upset the rest of the chord’, he said.
Now he is about to perform one of his favourite works, your Second Symphony. I haven’t heard it before. My father has come with me, to see what this Sibelius can do. He’s sceptical about ‘the moderns’.
The red light comes on. Now we are live, on air. The lady announcer introduces the concert to listeners sitting by their radios. Ian Whyte walks across the studio floor to his orchestra. He crouches like a tense, dark monkey, baton outstretched. His conjuring, urgent stick jabs the air and the music begins. His visible control of the sound is a promise that the journey will reach its appointed end. He is not graceful to watch and there is nothing in him of the showman. He is a diviner, his baton a wand that finds the notes in the air, or a casting fisherman, catching the notes and miraculously joining them together a split second before they reach the ear.
The opening bars suggest an accompaniment looking for something to partner until the arrival of the dancing woodwind theme which meets the need and carries the music forward. The sound palette of the work recalls your observation to a pupil: ‘When we see these granite rocks we know why we can treat the orchestra as we do’. The truth of this music has nothing to do with a God who inflicts pain to prove his power by curing it, nothing to do with the triviality of playing or not playing games at school or with the fog. A voice is speaking at once mysteriously and with uncanny intimacy in a code that is strange beyond any capacity of language. Yet it is familiar. This is, somehow, the utterance I would make if I knew how to make it. Suddenly I am understood.
‘Yes, that’s right’, I wanted to shout, ‘That’s what I mean too. That’s what it’s like’.
The apotheosis has come and gone, followed by the silence which asks, ‘How does life continue when the music stops?’
On the walk home my father stopped by a street lamp, turned to me.
‘Grand’, he said, ‘grand’. Long pause. ‘He’s a big man, a big man. Grand’, he said, and held out his hand for me to shake.
Soon afterwards Douglas the bully and his gang closed with me for the last time. I was walking home from school, thinking of Lismore. It would be the Easter holiday soon and I’d be back with the lambs, the limestone crags, the rooks in the Kilcheran elms, the sea. I had been given a shiny new black ‘sou’ wester’. Its size was designated ‘Small Gent’s’. I would fish with my father in oilskinned companionship. My fly-casting would be more accurate, I hoped, because the Queen’s Eye Specialist in Scotland had prescribed stronger lenses so that I could catch and store as much as possible of the world before the predicted blindness. I’d keep my line clear of the reeds.
I had even been allowed to go to the pictures at the local cinema. There I gorged my imagination on the mysteries and gangster movies of film noir, building a black-and-white fantasy life of portentous dialogue and shadow-laden camera work, shady characters and twisted love. I made up my own anthology of hard-boiled, romantic speeches.
I was a psychotic Robert Ryan in Caught giving the word to Barbara Bel Geddes.
‘You know enough about me to know that I can’t stand losing’, I tell her, ‘Only nice people lose’. There’s tough.
One day, when the acne dried up, I’d be the two-timing Jack Palance in Sudden Fear.
‘I’m so crazy about you I could break your bones’, he tells his mistress, Gloria Grahame.
Walking away from the girl who sold me Finlandia, I’d toss her that over my world-weary shoulder. She’d run after me, give me my money back and we’d go off and listen to the record together.
Most of all I was Bogart in Dark Passage. Lauren Bacall would look at me, eyes a little hooded, mouth a little pouty.
‘When I get excited about something, I give it everything I’ve got’, she’d tell me. ‘I’m funny that way’.
In return for everything she’d got I’d take her to Lismore. We’d climb to the top of the island, the Bàrr Mòr, and walk by the sea. We’d be silhouetted against skies of giant clouds and orange sunsets, understanding each other without need of words. We’d listen to your Second Symphony on the gramophone. But there were shady characters to deal with first.
There is no parleying this time. Douglas is planted in front of me, the gang at my back.
‘Hiya, Specky’, he says with the first quick punch.
Laughter behind me and one goading voice, ‘Belt him tae fuck, Dougie, on ye go’.
I shake my head and see the beatific island invaded, the great garden contaminated by filthy language and brute power. Nazi feet march and the death camps’ living skeletons appeal without hope from the newsreels of their liberation. Fear is cauterized by rage and disgust and my fists snap into position, up and out. Douglas’s punch hasn’t knocked off my glasses and with the new lenses I can see him well enough that my first return punch catches his ear. Incredulous, he flinches. A trumpet calls the fanfare theme from the last movement of your Second Symphony. I side-step his next punch, feint with my left and with my right send war into his mouth. Not a sound from the gang. Douglas drops his guard and staggers, spitting blood. He tries to speak, holds up his hands, palms outward, as if to push me away.
‘Wait. Wait a minute. You’re no’ fightin’ the right way’. He sags forward, coughs blood at the pavement.
I skip back, then run at him to pummel his face and belly.
I move back again, dancing now, and a voice behind me shouts, ‘Aw, for fuck’s sake, Dougie, melt the cunt, whit’s wrang wi’ ye?’
The Symphony builds its song of strings and my fists ring with the pulsing brass and woodwind. Douglas is down and I’m on him, legs scissored round his waist, squeezing the breath from him, while I grip his hair. I will smash his head on the pavement until he’s dead.
Another voice, ‘Specky, Specky, for fuck’s sake stop it, you’re gony fuckin’ kill him’.
Douglas is moaning. I hear running feet, the gang deserting. The Symphony ends. I smack Douglas in the face twice with my open hand, roll off him and walk away.
The music begins again. Not the Second Symphony now, but the three-note motive of ‘Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey’, the fourth legend of the Lemminkäinen Suite. I am the lover and adventurer of the thirtieth rune of the Kalevala, and you, Sibelius, are Tiera, my trusty ally with your spear of perfect balance. We have vanquished Pakko Pakkanen, the freezer of Pohjola, squeezing the bitter weather from him. My shady characters have been transubstantiated into the galloping rondo of a hero’s homecoming:
Then the wayward Lemminkäinen
Turned his troubles into horses
And his cares to great black geldings;
All his bad times into bridles,
And the secret hates to saddles.
Leaped upon the horse’s back.
On the white-blaze horse’s back,
Rode away with comrade Tiera,
Homeward to his gentle mother,
To his much-respected parent.
When I get home this time I’ll tell them what really happened. I beat the master race. I saved the island. But not single-handed. Me and the Big Man.