Art work and lay-out design by Neringa Normantaite
Art work and lay-out design by Neringa Normantaite
Whenever it is discovered that someone attended boarding school, the focus of conversation gets interesting questions. Is it really like the Harry Potter novels? What was the food like? Did you join the pillow-fights? Did many run away?
Girls frequently ran away. One of my girlfriends did. So did I. It was quite unusual for a boy to run away. As you will read, I ran away after being beaten up by a master. I was returned the same night by my naieve mother, persuaded by the headmaster ….
photo: Dora Kazmierak
Pulled by long mop top hair,
pushed down two flights of stairs,
the master had the upper hand,
I tumbled terrified – (you understand….)
Fists impacted my frame, furiously,
border-boys peered out windows, curiously
not even the prefects intervened –
I was utterly all alone, it seemed…
Reluctantly I apologised – (because sore)
the beating stopped – but not the score:
my empty school desk evident next day,
a homebound train carried me away.
Silly mother sent me back same night:
(just before Easter) – educators always right;
collected from the station by worried headmaster:
teen defiant drama turned into pastoral disaster.
Confidences disclosed: my father’s school debt;
self-exile silently decided (with much regret)
sealed by stupidity, this fragile teen’s fate:
overburdened by far too much family freight…
Decades later, I walked through those doors:
O sweet remembered scent, waxed parquet floors.
Newtown: I got my first good-start there.
Newtown: reluctantly I left my heart there.
Fifteen of us re-united thirty years after,
much poignancy present but also laughter,
gone master’s name, not worth a mention;
thankful for kinder teachers, many detentions.
Newtown, you fed my hope-hungry heart,
you almost-redeemed me with music and art;
I still yearn those years, I’m so easily upset:
how to repay so tremendous a debt….?
In November 2016 I revisited Newtown, my old boarding school. I brought along my friend / photographer, Dora, to capture the spirit of that fondly-recalled, foundational place. Like others, I was bullied a bit but the senior sadists didn’t break my spirit….I was much helped at the time by the happy, hopeful top-ten gospel song, ‘O Happy Day’.
photo: Dora Kazmierak
Remembered: the drop-kick ball slap,
cheek-sting, my spectacles misshaped
Other juniors distracted, I escaped
repeat impact then; often terror trapped
in the junior common room: one exit only:
senior hyena-laughter, first-form boy lonely.
Scared by the sound of ball-ricochet bang.
On the valve radio a black mass choir:
how hopeful those one-time slaves sang,
Hawkins almost set this soul on fire:
‘O happy day’ the gospel anthem rang.
Bullies failed to beat up this boy’s heart:
boarding school safe shelter, emotional ark.
Wintry wind tunnel-tumbles through trees:
engine-insistent, vacuuming bare boughs;
my early a.m. sleep is stolen successfully.
Awakened, yawning, at least luke-warm:
mattress generous, antique four poster:
snug-soft pillows, duvet bosom-plump.
Short-sighted, grappling the stubborn switch,
reluctantly turned on, bedside light soft,
thoughts typewriter-tapped on a black tablet.
Dawn squeezes through unbuttoned shutters,
I cold water wash, don un-warm clothes,
descend the dark draughty sweep of stair.
Last night’s stove ash, silken silver slivers
poked through grate gaps, void cast-iron cold,
chopped log inferno-flames worry the window.
Harboured from harm by high stone walls,
unacademic and sports-coach never called;
– spartan-lunches schooled us in justice,
Quaker-soaked silence this rebel trusted.
O sweet those three special girls adored,
shoe-skidded those waxed parquet floors;
readily I joined rowdy-night pillow fights,
unsanctioned walks in early-dawn light.
Long-anticipated each supper dance,
psychedelic strobes, surreptitious glances;
late-sixties student, born to be wild:
underground sounds, flower child.
Art, English and Music held appeal,
nothing else needed, my Achilles Heel;
grateful for many issued detentions,
bullies long-gone, names I won’t mention.
School report true: my existence “aimless”
my challenging conduct, far from blameless;
this academic failure, sometime class clown –
still missed old school – farewell Newtown…
photos: Dora Kazmierak www.instagram.com/dorakazmierak/
I had always been an adventurous child. Being the youngest of three, I was frequently the first for any new experience: smoking, kissing girls, solo travels and boarding school. That boarding school experience was both the making and unmaking of me. I have an unutterable fondness for all that Newtown School gave me…
A drab coat covered her plain pinafore,
her battered boots had seen better days
– unobtrusively, this old woman stood
on a St. Petersburg street corner,
silently holding up five crocheted hats.
She didn’t utter any plaintive, pleading pitch,
nor held any crude cardboard, Cyrillic sign,
advertising her five old-fashioned hats…
She showed no Soviet scowl,
nor naive hopeful smile:
– crushed by cruel Communism,
– pauperised by promising Perestroika
– conscripted into crony Capitalism…
No kindness offered from fellow citizens,
nor purchase made by this troubled tourist.
O, babushka! O, grandmother!
You waited on summer streets
offering gaudy-coloured hats for sale…
I entered the Spilt Blood Church
where heaven-haunted old icons
glowed gold, heaven-blue and blood-red,
depicting Byzantine biblical characters
who entreated us to remember eternity:
parables reprimanded the rich.
At the church shop, assistants refused
to change my large rouble note.
O, babushka! I bought an unwanted beer
to brake my note and buy from you
a baby hat that I certainly did not need.
O, babushka! I re-traced my journey
in the vain hope of making you smile.
O, babushka! Now apparently absent…
until suddenly, I spied your ghost
selling foil-wrapped garden flowers:
mere daisies, clovers and ferns.
I bought the second last bunch
and departed before change offered.
Again I spied your ghost, closing-up
a well-travelled, stained suitcase,
filled with a blizzard of paper icons.
I prayed for you in pain, as I pressed
hope into your grubby-lined palm:
an act of inadequate atonement…
Who can I send to St. Petersburg?
Who can buy me five home-made hats?
Sing, minor-chord Orthodox mass-choirs!
O bell sequence riotously ring!
O gold-robed priest, let incense-censer swing!
Pained prayers ascend candle-lit icons.
O weeping widow – prostrate, praying
before the altar of the Everlasting
– do you now smile at the Saviour’s touch?
Are you succoured by His abundant care?
Did He open “heaven’s windows” for you?
“Heaven’s windows” is a reference to Malachi 3: 10: ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in….’
Working In Carraig Books, a suburban second hand bookshop, had been a happy career accident. I had always been a reader. My mother had encouraged me to read Stendhal and other Penguin classics. Our sitting room was filled with books (and a bit of sheet music for the piano). I graduated from the French classics to Sartre, and other French existentialists. I had dropped out of secondary school: an academic-phobic, wanna-be hippy.
Prior to working Carraig Books, I had been working in Blackrock Printers, owned by the same family. It was situated at rear of the used bookshop. I was never going to make it as a printer, beyond apprenticeship level. To be a capable offset printer in the 70’s, you needed to be somewhat mathematician / somewhat scientist. I was neither.
It was with pleasure that I then heard that the bookshop assistant wished to get into the printing section. I wanted out of printing. We simply switched jobs. No interviews required! I spent two enjoyable years, baptised in the antiquarian, sweet scented atmosphere of used books.I learned to appreciate older typefaces, gorgeous prints, full calf covers, raised bands on leather spines and gilt edges.
One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books.
Other than that, I was serving calling customers, mostly men: geeky specialists, completists, obsessives and collectors. I also catalogued books on the electric “golf-ball” typewriter and swept the floor…
In December 1981, I won the Poetry Ireland / Padric Colum poetry award. A change was needed in my very modest career. I was never going to make much money in a small family business. With my poetry prize money, which equalled three months wages, I took a “career break”. That term was a laughable concept, if you only knew my career to date: kitchen porter, cloth cutter in backstreet textile factory, art-shop assistant, packer in my parents textile company.
Later that Spring I was touting my self-published booklet of poetry and prose, The Homecoming, around the same Dublin bookshops that I had called to, on behalf of Carraig Books. Hodges Figgis gave me a small book order. I was pleased…from modest beginnings etc. Before I left that well-regarded bookshop, I asked the same Irish interest buyer were there any jobs going.
Seconds after I asked my job query, one of the Hodges Figgis directors happened to pass nearby. I was introduced to him and was told that I could drop in for an interview – but that no job promises were on offer. I was game for that proposition. The next day I presented myself for interview.
“And what schools did you attend?”
I always feared that question, as my grades had never been good and I had never completed my secondary school education. I mentioned my Dublin suburban national school, then my co-ed Quaker boarding school, Newtown School, Waterford.
“Did you happen to know my sister, Wendy, who went there?”
Of course I knew Wendy! She was prefect, keeping order on my dining room table. From there on I had the feeling that it was almost a matter of “gentlemen, please adjust your school-ties!” A short while later I got a call from that director.
“Could you possibly start work in the bargain basement tomorrow, Friday?”
Certainly I could. Although not other staff member regarded working in bargain books as a “real bookselling job” – I jumped at it. What were bargain books, if not the close-cousins of “used books”.
On my first day working in the bargain basement of Hodges Figgis I noticed on the staff room notice board an intriguing notice. It stated that Hodges Figgis would be opening a religious bookshop. Not only that but it would be situated in an Anglican church, located a minute up the street, in St Ann’s Church of Ireland. It was directly across the road from The Hibernian Bible Society and long established theological bookseller.
I went up that first-day lunch time and found the bookshop-to-be. It’s location was imaginatively placed in an unused side-entrance to St Ann’s church, via a Romanesque style stone porch. Being a Christian, as well as a bookseller, this project enthralled me. However, I thought it wise to bide my time for a few weeks. It might be looked on askance to apply for this managerial position, on my first day working in the bargain basement!
After two weeks, I made enquiries and was interviewed by the Managing Director of Hodges Figgis. From what I enthusiastically related about my Christian faith and my love of books, he surmised that I was a good fit for this position. I was soon introduced to canon Billy Wynne, the jovial, slightly rotund clergyman who was in charge of St. Ann’s Church. He wanted top open up the church in different ways by introducing evening concerts, a sandwich cafe, daily communion and confession booths (highly unusual for the usually low church perspective). The church bookshop-to-be was to be part of that opening up of a typically moribund Anglican church.
I met Canon Billy Wynne in a local hotel, just opposite government buildings. We had a meal and a pint of Guinness each. He quizzed me about my faith and my interest in books. He also thought me the best fit for the bookshop-to-be in his church.
Knowing quite a bit about bookshop politics, from a regular reading of The Bookseller, I knew that this scheme would fall at the first fence. The holding company of Hodges Figgis had recently dumped their investment in an English evangelical Christian publisher. Why on earth would they initiate the development of an Anglican based bookshop.
Shortly, after my meeting with the Canon, that church bookshop idea, spearheaded by Hodges Figgis, was shelved. The shop had been fully fitted out in a very tasteful manner. What I didn’t realise then was that the APCK board was considering re-entering religious bookselling in a modest way. They soon took on ownership of the church bookshop project.
I knew that no-one in the general bookshop trade was interested in going for the interviews, to managing this bookshop. Apart from a few retired and bored Church of Ireland parishoners, I was front runner for this job. I was inwardly convinced that I would get this job. Due to illness, I was unable to attend the one-day specific interview process. I was very soon interviewed by a robed bishop and a business manager during my bargain bookshop lunch break. Half an hour later I was approached in the bargain basement and congratulated on passing the interview.
I had a very kind, very patient manager, during my two years in St Ann’s Book Centre. Every two weeks he caught the train from Lisburn to Dublin to brainstorm, guide, and chide – when necessary. He would arrive at 10.30, inspect the sales and lodgement books, take us out to lunch, have wrap-up chat and then leave until another two weeks time. His name was Jim McAdams, and he mentored me well.
He was funding this start-up on the profits of selling red-top newspapers, stationary, cigarettes and sweets! Albeit he had a small section of religious books for sale above this newsagent-styled shop. He let me try any section development possible, within rite and reason.
As an evangelical, emerging from a fundamentalist spiritual foundation, one of my modern Christian heroes, ironically, was
One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books. I took to heart one of Mother Theresa’s Order foundation Rules; apart from the daily Mass, and daily Scripture reading, was regular reading of church history. Her reason for this, was that all Christian denominations had made historical mistakes.
So, with this wonderful idea in mind, I started the first dedicated church history section in any Dublin bookshop that I knew of. I regularly trawled other Dublin bookshops with interest, to see what they were getting up to, in buying themes and promotions.
Among the cinderella-sections that I developed, were Christian Feminism, a bit of poetry (well, as I was a poet myself, this was an obvious move!). As I also had a strong Slavophile interest, I started stocking Russian Orthodox interest books and Orthodox liturgical records. (I had long interest in the unaccompanied Russian Orthodox choirs and lively church campanology. The first Orthodox liturgy LP that I bought was to celebrate my poetry award, previously mentioned.)
On occasions the Irish School of Ecumenics held Orthodox study weekends. I would buy in multi volumes of authors from the recommended reading lists, on sale-or-return. It wouldn’t be unusual to sell a couple of hundred euros of books over a couple of hours.
Regular trade was usually in the newly published hymn books and prayer books, ordered by parishes in their hundreds. This was the bread-and-butter turn over of this shop.
During my time in St Ann’s Bookshop I had a few unusual encounters. One such encounter was with Brigette, a book restorer, who worked on old manuscripts in nearby Trinity College. She was a similar age to me and was a bright, easy-going young woman. I met her as we both sheltered in porch of the bookshop. She had been bought a catechism-type book by the church curate, who had baptised her the night before.
We ended up having lunch together in the hip-music playing Marks Brothers restaurant, on South Anne Street. We met up for lunch a few times. We also attended Handel’s Messiah, under the sad drooping, tattered military flags in St Patrick’s Cathedral. I walked her back to her apartment at Trinity College.
Under high-arched, baroque cathedral roof
choir-sung oratorio echoed, pathos pervaded;
our eyes articulately spoke emotional proof,
under regimental flags no longer paraded.
Later kissed proffered lips, moonlight reflected
college courtyards, I cupped your freckled face;
such bright-eyed eagerness, quite unexpected,
dumbfounded by such feminine-firm embrace…
It was sweet and short, a very short relationship….
A year later I started a relationship with Liz, who had attended the same co-ed boarding school that I had. After a short while I learned that Canon Billy Wynne was actually a childhood friend of my girlfriend’s mother, both living in County Wicklow, in the 1930s.
Billy was frequently lauding my hard work inthe bookshop, when in conversation with Liz’s mother. That diplomatic up-talk possibly helped me when I later approached Liz’s parents, asking her hand in marriage…
One day, the one-time managing director of Hodges Figgis called into the church bookshop. He informed me that he was opening a new bookshop, to be called Bookshop, in a suburban shopping centre, in Blackrock. He asked me would I like to join his team there. As a career bookseller, and later to be married, it was a no-brainer to accept another move, after two exciting, ground-breaking bookselling years in St. Ann’s.
Billy Wynne accompanied me to see the shell of the shopping centre bookshop-to-be. It had not even been kitted out by shop-fitters at that stage. He asked me to pause within the bare concrete structure while he prayed for my future there. A kind and prophetic gesture, as it later turned out. My over-earnest Christian faith caused a few small storms during that period of my bookselling career. I missed vital corporate-cultural clues from time to time, but was pleased to be part of an almost-franchise type of business culture
When I left St Ann’s Book Centre, the man who took over, Fergus McCullagh, was my part-time assistant there. He got this position in an unusual way. Over a year before he had come in one day, and ordered a book on the church and unemployment. When I phoned to tell him that his book had arrived, I asked him was he unemployed. He had been unemployed for a few years, he stated. I told him that I would keep his name on file.
Little did I know that I was very soon to undergo a minor but urgent surgical procedure. I quickly phoned him, asking would he like immediate work and he stayed on after my two week recuperation. I saw this, like many of the events around my career direction, as being directed by a caring, paternal-minded Father God.
In time, I was to work again in my home town of Blackrock. I worked in Bookstop in different capacities for the next eighteen years. While there, I was championing the usual “cinderellas” of minority interest bookselling, developing a dynamic special order section, and doing creative window displays. It was hard work adjusting to working with a team, under a management that never seemed to want to excel above the average. Growing up in an immigrant, entrepreneurial family imbued me with passion and vision that was tolerated, rather than welcomed and celebrated. During that turbulent and mixed career period I semi-retired, down-shifted to part-time work at Bookstop. I started selling used theological & Irish interest books online.
For the last ten years I have returned to work in Carraig Books, ad hoc style. As the shop slowly wound-down towards closure, I altered my working terms and conditions. Previously I had been “paid” in books but when I stopped selling books online, this was of no use to me. These days my “wages” are a sandwich/latte meal deal, by my choosing.
Coffee meal deal example
Sometimes there are very few customers, so I read a book, do some writing, or browse the internet, undisturbed in the main…
For me working in a bookshop is a special and unique vocation. It is a bit like being a patient counsellor, a burden-sharing confessor, and presenting actor on an unusual stage. You never know who exactly will push hard on the stiff, old fashioned door. It could be someone famous or someone unknown. What stories and dramas will these book browsers and buyers dare to share. Though I am a nuanced Christian, I have always try to let God direct the conversation direction in this unusual, one-scene bookshop setting…I will sorely miss the interaction with customers, the daily drama of a typical retailers day.
Catch dream delightful nasal whiff,
antique calf covers, pungent pages,
sentimental this second-hand sniff,
older books witness to past ages.
Second-hand bookshop unassuming,
frontage design from yester-year,
author arguments begin booming,
old fashioned, biblio atmosphere.
Piles of books, passage near-blocked,
some covers warped, or detached,
some printed contents worm-pocked,
older authors not quickly despatched.
Heritage honoured with due respect,
past authors offered warm embraces,
many ideas on pages freckle-specked,
playing hide and seek among bookcases.
The year was 1976. I had dropped out of secondary school, due to family fracturing and lack of academic engagement. I was pretty lost in direction. My goals were to immerse myself in music and female friendships. I’d had a small catalogue of sweethearts in my teens and quickly realised that volatile, nubile Pre-Raphelite beauties didn’t hold the answers that I sought.
I had grown up in a middle-class suburban housing estate. My parents were working-class-made-good textile entrepreneurs. Both of them also left school early, in the 1940s.
I had a series of short term jobs. I worked as a cafe kitchen porter, in a back-street textile factory as a pattern cutter, litho-printer. I was hard to fit in with my smoking, swearing and binge-drinking working class work mates. I retreated into myself and music. Most weekends I stayed in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes, and listening over and over to my revered rock LPs.
The fourth job that I landed was my happiest. It was a step up from factories. That job lasted only a year, when the elderly owner died, and the family shut down the shop. However, in that shop entered a ninety year old lady, who had recently started to paint! She shared gospel faith with me and wanted me to go a Cliff Richard / Billy Graham film event, run by a local Plymouth Brethren Hall. I declined. Why would I even consider going watch such a twat?? However, I didn’t mock or disdain that kind-hearted lady. And she didn’t give up on me either. She prayed and schemed to get a young Christian couple to take me on. That worked!
In time, I became an over-optimistic, evangelical Christian convert. A Northern Ireland “plain-spade” evangelist played his part in my first-time commitment. There was lots to learn and unlearn in my life. After all the euphoria, I struggled quite a bit, adjusting to the clap-happy atmosphere of unabashed church life. My background story was darkened by a family murder / suicide in the 1940s, and my parents bitter divorce in the 1970s.
Music was a central part of my pre-conversion life. It was an important part of my uncertain identity. It was the closest to a limited hope, offered by seventies singer-songwriter saviours. Confessional music was favoured most by this lost teen poet. Having started writing poetry at co-ed boarding school, I was entranced by the introverted and sombre Cohen’s ‘Songs From a Room’. Having learned piano I was also drawn to the emotionally-nuanced, feminine perspectives of Joni Mitchell even more.
Now I was being challenged to find my identity in a more apparently-nebulous Christ. At that time, I was working in an evangelical religious bookshop in Dublin. I was paid modestly: bus-fares and sandwiches. That shop sold a victorious-only message. The books and records were flavoured by strident certainties. I immersed myself in this new life with zeal of the convert. I had unwisely traded my earlier, aesthetic musical interest for abstract, little-nuanced rock-hymns by musician-missionaries.
One day, flicking through the LP covers, I saw one cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. It was called ‘Fireflake’ – I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote from Jack Clemo, a Cornish poet. I had come across Clemo in one or two Christian magazine articles.
I quickly bought that LP and played it over and over. I was dumbfounded. The poetic, piano-based tracks had me entranced, the lyrics were poetic, the delivery was more downbeat than upbeat. I had found a musically melancholic substitute to my secular singer songwriters at last! Adrian Snell seemed to successfully integrate the broader spiritual quest in well-crafted poetic songs. Snell was classically trained, like many of the members of Yes. What’s not to like? All my critically important boxes were ticked.
Why was music so critically important for me? I was vainly trying to integrate my heart and mind with a culture-clueless Irish Christianity. I had grown up reading New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Rolling Stone. My father was a self-taught jazz pianist, who had privately recorded his own 78 blues disc. Various family members sang in school and church choirs. My brothers and I were made to learn piano, with varying degrees of success.
But rock music was altogether another thing. I was intense enough about music, to take a working day “off” to buy Stevie Wonders ‘Inner-visions’, on release date. My mother was away on business and I reported in “sick” to my employer. I played ‘Innervisions’ on auto-repeat all day. The backstory of Stevie Wonder’s near death and the element of spirit in these songs captivated me.
Adrian Snell’s ‘Fireflake’ lyrics were (almost) on a par with Joni Mitchell’s thoughtful reflections. His piano playing certain equally hers. Many of Snell’s lyrics were stark, and his music was very dramatic, sometimes bleak…
Where can I run to hide myself?
The world has fallen dark
What can I do to help myself
To save me from the dark?
I have tried to kill the light
And now it grows so dark-
I was smacked between the eyes, I was hooked by such awkwardly painful lyrics, all passionately sung to a repeated cascade of slightly dissonated chords. Wow!
I followed Adrian’s musical career with interest and bought each record as soon as it was released. But my interest cooled when some of his concept albums appeared. In particular, his LP about Mary, an anathema for any biblically-literate Irish evangelical. Aesthetically-ugly Marian statues abounded in Ireland, both in churches and outside.
But all was not lost, my wife-to-be, bought me a copy of ‘The Passion’. It was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. It had an extravagant and beautiful gate-fold sleeve and booklet of lyrics and drawings of the gospel drama. I regained audio interest in Adrian. I saw him perform at Greenbelt, as well as in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, in the late 70s.
With Adrian’s lighter-touch more “commercial” albums my audio-ardour waned again. One track ’Moments of Eternity’ on his on his album, ‘The Cut’ grabbed my attention. Its dramatic drumming and complicated keyboard structure helped me keep faith with Adrian’s output.
I had married in 1985, and after three years my wife and I started a family. It was a sweet time for me, to have a boy, being able to refashion family in God’s good image, rather than in my family’s emotionally-violent fraught pattern. Four family years passed, and soon another child was due to be born. All went well, until ten days before my daughter was due. We patiently waited…
Adrian had just released his ‘Beautiful, or What?’ Oh flip, not another “concept” rock opera album, I quietly groaned! It was reviewed enthusiastically in the UK but was reluctantly listened to by me. It was “a thematic pop/rock opera which uses the allegorical tale of a girl and her rag doll to bring a profound message about handicapped children and our attitude towards them”. I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside.
“Oh dear, what will I do with this recording now?? I certainly don’t want it. …I know… seeing as it is about handicapped kids, I will send it to my friend, who works in L’Arche”.
We soon got the bad news that our daughter, Holly, was dead in the womb. In between tearful hospital visits and vigil time alone, I decided to listen to this new composition, in the light of our devastating news. perhaps it can speak to me. As I listened, I thought, this could have been my child, physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?
My family’s psychic foundation was already over-burdened by mid-WW2 era suicides and the murder of a young relative. Then there was my parent’s acrimonious divorce. To add to that crying-catalogue, my wife and I now had the trauma of a stillbirth…
What other accidental existential pain is lurking?? Is this not enough, already? But little did I know that God, and his angels of empathy were waiting in the wings of this new domestic drama.
As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain in a meaningful way. I had written a rather wooden poem about her short life. I wanted hymns for her, of course, and chose ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its deep Slavic-tinged pathos.
I had the inspired idea of contacting Adrian Snell, and asking him for permission to use two tracks of ‘Beautiful or What?’ I thought that those tracks would make very appropriate entrance / exit music at this funeral. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.
Twenty one years later, those same musical tracks were also granted permission, to be used on my video-short about Holly, ‘Goodbye, Au Revoir Slan’. My video-short was to “celebrate” her would-have-been 21st birthday. I had always wanted a daughter. I had long-associated with the tender-gender, more easily than alpha macho-males.
That Vimeo video short was illustrated by my Russian friend, and artist, Katya Zhu. She had been through her own personal life pain and, although not particularly engaged with children, managed to convey the right spirit in her images.
Holly had changed my life….and so had Adrian Snell, and also Katya Zhu. That video ended up on Minnie Driver’s indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, called Return to Zero. It was broadcast on German religious TV. To top all that, I was interviewed about Holly and my booklet in the Sunday Independent (readership 900,000).
I stayed in touch with Adrian Snell from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry, impacted Adrian’s more old-school approach. His inspiration to compose new songs diminished quite considerably. I peppered him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent blue-sky, Snell music enthusiast.
One email reply lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he might just get inspired again. His current life was in music therapy, with children, rather than in Christian music ministry.
Around that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of wealth. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with that blessing. Money is not ours to hoard in banks. I offered to help a bit in the cost of a replacement piano, for Adrian.
When the piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage he knocked £10,000 off the £26,000 purchase price! I’m sure that Adrian was gobsmacked at such blessing. In 2013, he went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’ . That cd was mostly based on his experiences as a music therapist. It was Adrian’s first album after a seven year sabbatical.
The extraordinary range of instruments that are central to his music therapy contribute to the unique soundscape of the album. It was a privilege to visit to Bath and attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited the special school, Three Ways, where Adrian works., teaching music therapy class to profoundly handicapped children. Seeing that had me quietly crying in the back of one of those classes…Any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….
In early 2017, Adrian set up a crowd fund site to re-record his ‘Alpha and Omega’. This is a project, a journey of discovery along the roots of his Christian faith. The concept of that recording tries to grasp the meaning of conflict in the world, specifically WWII and the Holocaust, in light of his Christian faith.
Though I have moved away from earlier firm evangelical certainties, I decided to commit a bit of kick-start cash to this latest Snell project. Adrian is an oft-overlooked contributor to meaningful Christian music.
Besides, where would many minds and hearts be in the absence of such a thoughtful musician? Personally, I can safely say that Adrian’s music has made be part of who I am, and what I believe…
It’s the passion, the poignancy, the piano “singing true” along with the appropriate orchestration that engages my heart, soul and mind. Finally, It’s the redemption-reminding lyrics, calling aliens and strangers home:
“Who holds tomorrow, if its not the One who made us…”?
All this makes Christ so much more compelling, so right an answer, so compassionate of doubt and failures…and more…
image: Neringa Normantaite: www.facebook.com/artistneringa
Nervously-naked, tender pendulant bells,
between our legs sacred energy swells;
easily unclasped, compliant private purse,
sown seeds speed: shallow secret universe;
birdsong-seranded, tryst in private woods:
Eden-ordained passion: pure and good.