Sunday, 3 January 2010

Champaign bubbles up the spine

My name is Nicholas Breeze Wood and I am a troubaholic.

Amor de Lonh is a phrase in the medieval language of the South of France (occitan) which means ‘far away love.’ It is a kind of idealised love for a woman who the poet may never meet, and it is also the love of a far away place and a far away time.

For as long as I can remember, I have been haunted by troubadors. When I was a child, about 7 years old, I first heard the word ‘toreador’ (bullfighter), and when I heard it I recall, even now over 40 years later, that the everyday world around me seemed to melt in some way, and I saw, as clear as day, superimposed on the everyday world, a range of mountains far off in the distance, and I looked and looked at them in wonder.

I cannot explain that vision of mountains, but I can recall it even now, range after range of low hills, and a line of white, snow capped mountains in the far distance. As a child I had never seen mountains, but there they were, a great line of them in front of me.

I remember that for months I rolled the word toreador around in my mouth like a delectable sweet. But it was the ‘ador’ syllable that excited me; I sucked on it and played with it with my tongue, savouring it.

Around the same age I had two dreams and another moment of every day reality melting around me.

The dreams are still with me, one was of walking on the part built walls of a castle, there were workmen building the wall and all the business of a medieval building site, and I, and the few other people I was with, walked along the part completed structure, I can see the wall’s thickness still, I can see the meadow and low hills that lay outside of the wall, and I recall the taste and scent of the experience.

I cannot explain that dream, perhaps a therapist would say I was building a wall around myself as a child – that it was just metaphoric, well, maybe, but it was a pretty powerful experience none the less.

The other dream I had was of being in a medieval city in front of the entrance to a large church. There were a flight of steps running down from the grand Romanesque portico of the church, and I ran down them in great fear, all around me other people ran and there was a general air of panic.

I had never been to a church like that at that stage of my life, I lived in a small rural village in England and there were no buildings like that anywhere I knew, and being back in the very early 1960’s there was very little TV to draw images from, my house was impoverished with a lack of books, and I hardly ever went to see films at the cinema in the nearest town.

I remember at the time that both of those dreams greatly disturbed and upset me, and I woke up crying and calling my mother. I dreamt a lot as a child and learnt to control them a little, or at least stop the ones that disturbed me, I would ‘turn the channel over’ and dream something else by rolling over in bed as a deliberate act.

The second time reality melted for me in the waking world was also around this age. I was on a bus outside my village school, about to set off on a day trip out to somewhere. I don’t recall where.

It was summer, and it was bright and sunny and the lane was an old small country lane overhung with trees. As I sat on the bus in my seat, it melted and superimposed all around me were people on horseback waiting to set off on a journey, which I think now, with later understanding, was the start of a pilgrimage.

From my adult perspective, when I think of that occasion I see both images like a double exposed film, a bus with seats full of young children and a line of horses, two a breast, waiting to set off, both occupying the same point in space.

Beyond those few times of reality melt down, nothing shifted time for me in that way again during my childhood. I had lots of other ‘strange’ things happen to me, things that perhaps you could label as psychic (or psychotic – depending on your point of view). I accepted them all as normal, after all, what else could I do – normal is what happens to you as a child until you grow up and begin to question it.

The next melting point for me was when I was 21. I was working in the archaeological department of an English county council, responsible for drawing the pottery and other objects dug up in a ‘dig’ at a local Roman town.

I was never a physical person, even now gardening fills me with mortal dread, which put me in a dilemma regarding archaeology as I had a great interest in the subject, but a morbid fear of hard work and spades. But my job was office based, I only ever visited a dig a few times to watch others working and drink tea.

So I would sit, in the old maternity ward of a disused hospital that was now our offices, drawing potshards, bored out of my mind and, as I recall, suffering badly from hay fever.

The hours of the job were flexible, I just had to do a certain number a week, so I would generally start early and work late, and often managed to do all my hours in four days, giving me long weekends which I would use to paint, play music and generally mope about the place. And so, I would stay long after everyone else had gone for the day, kept company only by the office radio-cassette player and cardboard boxes filled with human skeletons, stacked on shelves higher than I was, forming a wall behind me.

One early evening, I went a short walk in the old hospital grounds to stretch my legs, and returned to the office with a rose picked from an overgrown, uncared for bush. I put the rose in an empty coke can, which I had washed and filled with water to act as a makeshift vase. placed the canned-rose on my office windowsill, and went to select a tape from the box by the player and put it on to play.

The tape I selected that day was of troubadour songs, brought in by an archaeologist called Sebastian. I had no idea even what troubadour music was, but as I put it on, and the music cascaded into the evening light-filled office, the world melted once more, and I again saw the mountains I had seen long before as a child, only this time I saw them from a different view point, with a track running from where I stood towards them. I was filled with the sound of the music, which i knew in a deep, deep way, and I felt as if I had been taken up in the air and suspended like a wind born leaf.

From that day on, I did all I could to put myself in the path of all things troubador.

A year later I left the archaeology department, most jobs in archaeology are on a temporary basis and my contract had run out. A few weeks before I left, I met a woman called Wendy. She was a fellow artist, brought in to draw potshards along side of me. Wendy saw my paintings and said I ought to put on an exhibition of them, and so in an almost unparalleled rush of courage I went to a local gallery and asked them if perhaps I could arrange an exhibition.

I had no work I considered suitable to be exhibited, but they had a cancellation, and thus a space in their calendar which they wanted to fill, in about four months time, and so I was given the two week long exhibition if I wanted it.

I of course said I would take it, and so I painted flat out every day, getting a body of work together, fuelled on a diet of junk food and music to keep me going. The music I listened to mostly was a mix of the rock band Yes and the few recordings of troubador and other medieval music I had managed to gather together.

I called the exhibition ‘lute songs’ – it seemed a suitable pretentious title and there were a few paintings with lutes in them (an musical instrument I was besotted with at the time).

I hung the exhibition, ordered bottles of wine for the private view, which turned eventually into a pub crawl by the gallery hanger’s-on once the wine had run out.

I didn’t sell anything during the two weeks, but that didn’t really surprise me.

I did however meet a woman at the gallery, and the meeting opened up immediately many more memories, or dream-like recollections of something that may have been a past life (if such things exist) in a time in Southern France during the cultural period of the troubadors. These perceptions, dreams, memories, delusions, imaginings or whatever they were, came unexpectedly to both of us simultaneously. In many ways they are beyond words, and they are also something we both tend to keep fairly private, and so I won’t go into them here.

The woman and I fell in love at once – instantly, both recognising each other from the melting of normal reality we both experienced when we met. I was 22 years old, on my 23rd birthday I left home and moved in with her, and in the evening we went to see a concert of troubador music performed by the troubador expert Martin Best. A few years afterwards we married, we are still ‘life conspirators’ and fellow artists today, 30 years later.

Troubador music has, more formally, run through my life since then, I can even tell you the song by the troubador Bernart de Ventadorn which I sang in joy on the morning of the birth of my daughter (Ara no vei).

And so this blog is about troubadors (and medieval music in general) and how I have struggled (and continue to do so), to make sense of the way it fills my life with a feeling like Champaign bubbles up the spine.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, have occasionally experienced that type of melting of reality and similarly experienced "discturbing dreams as a child that have stayed with me all my life. Both things, the reality shifts and the dreams, also seemed connected intense an interest in things that I had no "obvious" relationship with or prior knowledge of. Fascinating.