Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Love of Three Objects

The church that my wife and I attend encourages its members to join “Life Groups”, a zappy name for small groups that meet regularly in homes for friendship, mutual support and encouragement, study, prayer and general fun.  Over the 21-plus years we have been at the church we have been fortunate to be in groups whose leaders have been unfailingly creative in varying the diet of activities.

This Tuesday, for example, we went to spend the evening in the dwelling of our farthest-flung member, which is a canal boat moored at the bottom of one of the hills of North Middlesex, part of that county which has disappeared from the structures of local government but which lives on in the hearts of its residents and the drop-down lists used by website designers (I have on more than one occasion not been able to complete an online purchase without selecting the otherwise vanished entity as part of my address). As well as sharing fruit, cheese, dips, wine and juice that we had brought, the members of our group (eight on this occasion) had been asked to talk about up to three objects that had been especially important to us in the course of our lives.

A rich and beautiful evening it turned out to be, as we gave each other time to tell something of our personal stories and were introduced to some very interesting items. In the end “objects” was interpreted loosely, as some of us had brought pictures or used objects as symbols of a particular time or activity that had been important to us. Our host produced a photograph from 1854 of his great-grandfather in military uniform sitting proudly on a horse; the gruff-looking gentleman (the ancestor, that is, not our host) took part in the Charge of The Light Brigade and survived, finally dying in 1915. Someone else brought along the black velvet cap that he was entitled to wear as the recipient of a PhD from Cambridge, its style reassuringly unchanged since the 16th century and its tassels containing threads of real gold. We saw a postcard of Bath, the ancient town holding happy memories for one of our members. Another spoke of her love of family and social history and produced a volume of old family photographs—some of its subjects tantalisingly unidentified—as well as tiny envelopes containing letters from the time of the First World War. Yet another told us of how she had come on her own from Hong Kong at the age of 16 to study piano and been welcomed by a distinguished English musical family, the memorial service of one of whom she had attended that very afternoon.

These are the things I took to the gathering.

First, the walking cane that my grandmother brought back from Iraq (which she generally referred to as Mesopotamia) in the years just after World War I. This is its second appearance in this blog. It is not, I think, ebony, as I once believed: its dark colour seems to come from staining rather than being natural to the wood. Granny used to tell me how she and my grandfather had courted all those years ago and of romantic boat trips on the Tigris, of Arabs in long robes armed with rifles. She gave me the stick on my twenty-first birthday and it reminds me of many happy hours spent in her loving company; it speaks of my childhood and of its place in the family story, which I am in fits and starts documenting; it speaks of her youth (she lived to 101) and carries with it a distant echo of my dignified and beloved Grandpa, who died when I was eight; it testifies to the past of our nation, the troubles of Iraq to this day resting in part on Britain’s imperial ventures in the early 20th century.

The stick with the silver snake head

Can anyone tell me what the Arabic says?

Or this bit?

Next came the third drum that I ever bought, in a shop on the Portobello Road, in 1977. I still have my first percussion instrument, a very cheap pair of bongos purchased in Oxford, as well as the second, a Kenyan drum of indifferent quality made for the tourist trade and bought at the Ideal Home Exhibition, of all places. It was however the aluminium darbuka pictured that  first fed back to me a sound that encouraged me to develop as a player, although I never learned to play it in any authentic Middle Eastern style. Particularly satisfying were the cracking high notes achievable at the edge of the head, contrasting with the deep booming tones produced towards the centre, the fruit of the drum’s flaring shape. The drum does not have its original vellum head or plastic hoop, the hoop having broken in rehearsal when I cranked the tuning up too high for the flimsiness of the plastic. I was at the time in a group called Cloud that led worship at Holy Trinity Brompton (then getting better known as “HTB”) until 1988. Cloud was an eclectic mix of classical players and pop-folkies who, when I joined them in 1981, had to cluster around one or two microphones. I was their first regular percussionist, having—most unlike my then timid self—approached the group’s leader and principal songwriter, Phil Lawson Johnston, after an evening service. Cloud had already brought out three albums of original material and was planning a fourth; by the time the group disbanded a total of seven albums had been produced. My wife-to-be heard the sound of this drum on our recordings when she worked in Uganda in 1983 but we did not meet until 1985, when she joined the group. Cloud’s material is difficult to track down these days, never, so far as I know, having made it on to CD, but I did find a cover version of the song they sang at our 1987 wedding here. Our voices were less schooled than those on display in the clip, but the singers have reproduced the harmonies used on Cloud’s 1982 release Hallowed Ground, whose opening track began with a pattern on the darbuka.

Yashica FR, the last camera the company made with a brass body (it's heavy!)

Finally there is the single-lens reflex camera that my father gave me when I was in my late twenties, sensing my growing interest in photography. He had lent me one of his own cameras when I went to stand on Ludgate Hill to watch the wedding procession of Charles and Diana in 1981. Sadly only a few of my photos of the day and none of the gathering dignitaries and celebrities actually came out, as the camera failed to wind the film on, although this was not apparent while I was shooting as the frame counter had continued to work. Dad clearly decided that the time had come for me to have a more reliable camera of my own and so we made a trip to Tall’s Cameras in Twickenham (long since disappeared). The camera still works, although I have not used film for many years, abandoning it in 2003 when I bought my first digital point-and-shoot. I miss slides, which were my preferred medium with the old Yashica, but one has to be an earnest and determined person to use film these days and I was never into the paraphernalia of the darkroom. The camera reminds me of my father, who died in 2005, and of his own love of photography, for which he had a natural aptitude.

Darbuka, perfect for accompanying belly-dancing (although this one never has, shucks!)
Still visible is the sticker of the long-defunct London Drum Centre.

On Monday I had learned a bit more of the personal history of a friend of the family. We had gone to have lunch with my mother-in-law and also there was the friend, who is a very spry 91. He told me after the meal about his having worked in Hamburg for some months before World War II and mentioned that he had been able to get a sighting of Hitler. The dictator’s name passed through the cosy English room like an electric shock. My mother went to the same city as an army nurse after the war, but by then the inhabitants of the centre were eking out a living in the basements of devastated buildings.

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