Category: Writings & music (page 2 of 4)

Pie or Crumble?

I stop for a moment to gaze intently at the fluorescent pink of the Himalayan balsam plant that lines my path, adding a welcome burst of color to this rolling sea of green.  Yes, this plant’s an invasive import and  is considered a menace by many, and I actually know people that walk these very paths scything it down, violently uprooting its stems – but it’s a beautiful menace just like the rhododendron. I step closer and peer into the flower’s very being as it gazes back at me with its hidden jewels. Its elongated body is hat shaped and cavernous as if to shade  and obscure its innermost secrets. Above me  the tousled heads of thistles, once proudly purple, now bow their shriveled heads, now grey with age,  bowing to the earth, where they soon will  come to rest. Above them the mountain ash forecasts the onset of winter with polished berries, as eye catching as Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. 

The insistent singing of Hebden Beck navigates my scattered thoughts back to my morning’s reading, Glyn Hughes’s The Rape of the Rose, in which he describes the throstle machine which spun the cotton onto cones. A couple of manufacturers actually built child size versions of these machines so that children as young as five could be employed. Yes, employed, but disfigured, lungs ruined, fingers severed and lives cut short by this work in the new manufactories. The machines were named after the song thrush whose song they recalled. Residents of Lily Hall had been throstle spinners and throstle doffers, so it’s yet another link with my ancestry. 

Passing Dog Bottom  I imagine packs of wild dogs rampaging the steeply sided river bank before every inch of the river  was imprisoned by walls, whose outlines are  now softened, sculpted by stitches of moss into weird and wonderful creations that glint in the morning’s sunlight where a break in the trees allows the morning’s sunlight to penetrate the secret recesses, a green blanket  gently enfolding and softening the brutal sharpness of life in Foster Mill. I have ancestors who worked at Foster Mill. I have ancestors who lived at Dog Bottom too. Above me the cold, weeping stone spine of Heptonstall stands atop the ridge like a watchful sentry perched above the two valleys, leafy trees now hiding their dastardly deeds. I loved Hughes’s description of the people going home after work up the stone steps with their lanterns radiating from the glowing mill like a starfish. A rustling in the bushes to my right startles me for an instant, but I smile to myself and  console with the thought that  it’s just the ghost of a wild dog. Then “Pie or crumble?” comes an utterance, unexpected but unhindered by the beauty of the balsam or the sighing willow herbs’ fleecy down.  It rose  from the darkened cluster of trees beyond me. I froze – unsure of my response. But I was saved by a reply from behind me, where I’’d heard the rustling branches. “Jam.” 

Unexpected finds in Tod

(in an area where my ancestors lived)

‘What is this life

If full of care

We have no time

To stand and stare.’


Thwarted. Today I missed the bus. Literally. Despite the cloudless sky and Indian summer temperature there’d be no walk along ’t’ tops for me this morning. So a change of plan was called for – a walk along’t’ bottoms. I got the bus into Tod intending to walk back along the tow-path. I alighted at Lidl’s and tried several streets to access the canal towpath. But, horror or horrors, the towpath is still closed. ‘No access, towpath closed’ read the sign. Thwarted  again I found myself in a no man’s land of half ruined manufactories, spectres of the industrial revolution where broken off chimneys stand like sentinels over modern metal warehouses. A bike factory has pedaled its way into a derelict factory site. There’s even a wasp factory. No kidding.

The houses are still wedged tightly between these remnants of a bygone age and the streets are huddled together as if for protection from the grime and whirring of monster machines. Streets cower under the heavy burden of surrounding hills whose ancient mass weighs down onto the frailty of humanity. The houses here are snail shells where the sun never penetrates their exoskeleton, and from where the people venture out only to return quickly, recede, seek shelter and close the curtains on the outside world. Houses where the gentle, healing sunlight never penetrates, where Helios can never stroke his warming hand to soothe the savage breast, the bent and broken limbs of weavers, old before their time.  Here where back to back houses with serried ranks of wheelie bins and bicycles cover their eight foot frontage there’s not enough room to swing a cat, and there are plenty of felines available, slinking around doorsteps that, once weekly proudly polished with  donkey stones from the rag and bone man now rest, worn, grit ridden, cloudy with algae. One family have sought to bright things up a little! (see photo).

You take your life in your hands as you walk the back street in danger of being garroted by a dozen neon plastic washing lines perfectly positioned at neck height. Many of them display next week’s attire dancing in the breeze like a tormented ballerina on hot coals. I reach the last street, blinking for a moment as I emerge into the sunlight.

I find myself confronted with a tiny bridge over a small stream. As gaggle of geese shoo me over the bridge. From my elevated vantage point I look back at the back-to-back streets and think What a tip! In front of me, leaving the geese to waddle down to the water,  a wooded pathway leads to a playground. A rotting piece of paper  tacked to a notice board exhorts me to look out for  Water figwort, Knapweed, and purple loosestrife. It’s only then I notice the name of the park: Tipside Park. For real? But of course. They don’t mince words in this neck of the woods!

A brave attempt to brighten an entrance but even at noon the frontage is overshadowed by the houses across the street

The 901 bus to Huddersfield – a fabric artist’s view

The 901 to Huddersfield.


Blue-butted sheep clinging to the hillsides are woollen smudges on green felt

Faintly mottled with age and growing decrepitude.

Fragments of ancient walls crisscrossing the quilted landscape

Are half finished seams defining and redefining the juxtaposition of fabrics.

Hand embroidered backstitches create paths through the panorama

While roads are unravelled seams bordered by messy ditches to be constructed, moved and rethought time after time.

The motorway looming below is an ugly fray, brutally ripped open, causing mayhem to the surrounding countryside

Xs mark the placement of buildings clustered in their cross-stitched confusion along

A trailing blue ribbon slip-stitched in meandering waves through darkened valleys of worsted cloth.


It’s late afternoon and the winter light is fading.

In my workspace I turn on the overhead light causing the sun to break through brocade clouds

Bringing a luminescence to the tightly woven silken threads.

Circles of shining sequins sowed like seeds over the felt

Are reservoirs feeding thirsty machines and people

Living in their cross-stitched villages, in the shadows of their buckram chimneys,

Connected by their ribbon river and their running stitched roads

And tonight, secure in their blanket stitched beds.

Set in Stone?

Set in stone?


On viewing the West wall of Manchester Cathedral


A first view:

Black, pitted,

Scored by aeons of weather

Scared by centuries of man.

Man and horse struggled

Through the penetrating precipitation

Of a Mancunian winter to carry that once-golden stone

Masons left their marks

Gauged with chisels, struck with hammers, polished it until smooth.


Set in stone implies ‘forever’

Yet here the ravages of time, be they made by man or Nature’s serendipity

Have destroyed those chiseled lines,

Blurred those straight edges,

Roughened those smooth surfaces until

Only scattered remnants of fine tracery peak out with blinded eyes from beneath its wretched face.

And now, like an ancient mummy the once-smooth skin is black and pitted,

A volcanic crater of aging epidermis.


But wait,

A second viewing, now informed by a Father

Garbed in mockery of the knights that lie prostrate beneath our feet.

That ancient wall that spoke to me of medieval masons

Whose marks I’d traced with hesitant fingers,

Yearning to connect across the centuries,

Its marks are mutilations, wounds wrought by virtuous Victorians

Intentional disfigurements of medieval craftsmanship

By prim men in straight-laced garb

Yearning to cover the ancient disorder with modern clarity of line.


This wall, with its pock marks and scuffs bore witness to my forefathers,

Their birth, their love, their demise.

Music shrouds their spirits for

Without them I wouldn’t exist.

“That wall needs a face lift.

Cover the blemishes, obliterate the scars,” the renovators had said.

Today that white wash has flaked away into its own oblivion

Leaving the pitted West wall to conjure its own convoluted saga.

A musician’s view of the 12:27 to Leeds

The 12:27 to Leeds


“The next train to depart from platform one will be the 12:27 to Leeds

Calling at Mytholmroyd, Sowerby Bridge, Halifax, Bradford Interchange, New Pudsey and Leeds.”

The contralto’s opening recitative sends ‘shivers down my spine.’

This platform change has me running Prestissimo beneath the bridge passage synching my pulse to the finale of the William Tell Overture.

I slip for a moment on the wet cobbles but managing to avoid a fully fledged glissando,

I run up the stairs in whole steps and, with the leap of a tritone, like the Devil I jump aboard.

The iron Lion growls and lets out a roar as this Carnival of human Animals settles back in its seat to enjoy this Short Ride in a Fast Machine.


The Water Music to our left softly serenades with Tales from Vienna Woods

While the Ash Grove placidly sits on the hillside above soulfully singing Dido’s Lament over a ground bass provided by lowing cows.

Below me Mytholmroyd church still manages to keep its asymmetrical head above water

But with much more rain it’ll become La Cathédrale Engloutie.

But for now in these green quilted fields Sheep May Safely Graze

Farther along the valley abandoned factories resound to the rhythm of Bolero

As ghosts perform a Danse Macabre on the skeletal remains of neglected buildings.


Through a dense mist of atonal fog Britten’s Night Mail performs an accelerando through the entire Four Seasons

Coming at last to a rest in Winter at Sowerby Bridge

Where the platform is humming to the Waltz of the Flowers as Eidelweiss pirouttes with Roses from the South

But at this time of year all respectable Bumble Bees have already taken Flight.

Continuing at a tempo moderato the train goes ‘past cotton grass and moorland boulder’ and eventually

Rows of saw-toothed weaving sheds climax in Halifax’s phallic folly

As, through the rustling leaves of Der Lindenbaum, I glimpse The Lark Ascending.


Heading over Coley viaduct a phrase of staccato raindrops bounce off Satie’s umbrellas keeping dry the heads of men intently involved in Le Golf

As, high above them, marching with Pomp and Circumstance, huge pylons stomp across the course con moto like Martian fighting machines.


At length a dolce phrase from a Bach Suite greets our arrival After Eight in Halifax, home to Mackintosh and Quality Street.

And several crochets climb aboard accompanied by small quavers stoically holding hands.

They scale the half steps and jump eagerly onto the two lined staff stretching across the page

While white haired minims and legless semibreves prop up the bar.


Subito, we plunge into the blackness of the Hall of the Mountain King,

Where sparsely orchestrated Catacombs lurk at ever diminishing intervals

“Where’s our Lux Aeterna when we need one?” I ask the ripieno gathered around me

‘But answer came there none’

For a grand pause was written into the score and everyone was silent.


Back under the Nuages Gris and ever onward past Jardins sous la pluie

We pause for a brief fermata at Bradford station

Where the train suddenly goes into retrograde motion for the remainder of the trip.

As we make a controlled ritardando into New Pudsey

The vast expanse of Asda’s car park is revealed as a Land of Hope and Glory

Wherein ‘the machine of a dream’ vies for space with a mercury Queen.

Ponies scatter on the sodden field dreaming of a life in the sun in Copland’s Rodeo

While at the Major’s poultry farm I spy a Ballet of Unhatched Chicks

Caused by a sharp cat wandering into the flat yard

And causing havoc in The Hut on Hen’s Legs.

Hen’s LegH

“Oh puss, get out” I cry to myself, sotto voce,

But my voice is lost in a cacophony of cell phones

As aleatoric pings Come Together in a final cadenza

Heralding not The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba into Leeds railway station

But a Fanfare for the Common Man.

Thoughts in a Café

The Loom Cafe – art by Chris Mould

The White Rabbit offers his pocket watch to me

As Alice looks on bemusedly.

Bobbins of spun cotton fill the coal scuttle that adorns my table

As jostles for air between cake and cappuccino.

Through glass, spotlessly clean, a crisp winter light pours in,

But, with eyes wide open I dim this light, cloud this glass, drown the music

And I’m in a dark forbidding place, a basement, where deafening thuds,

Piercing whistles and earth-shaking stomps

Transport me to a former time.

I glimpse a young boy, ten years old, flat-capped,

With thread-bare overcoat and scuffed clogs trampling along the shit drenched cobbles

Barely awake, barely cognizant of his surroundings

Where he s dwarfed by buildings so tall

That the sun never reaches the ground

Even in those times when, just for a brief moment,

It penetrates the ubiquitous smog and grime.

A surgeon signed his papers – he’s fit for work.

But he doesn’t stay long, and next time I meet him

He’s a gunner

Taking aim at other young men from factories and farms and homes

Where anxious loved ones await them.

Ishmael returned home,

Was he devastated?

Did he scream in nightmares in the living daylight?

In a gallery above me a striking wreath takes my breath away:

The dead eyes covered with pennies

The kit-box stenciled with numbers

Beyond my comprehension.

Dean Clough Mill, Halifax

My great uncle Ishmael worked at Dean Clough carpets which was, at the time, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world. Today it houses, art galleries and the Loom Café, decorated with Alice in Wonderland paraphenelia.

O my. I’m on Leeds TV!

Victoria Quarter’s Pianist!

A goof by the BBC Philharmonic leads to a new composition by yours truly

In a recent visit to a masterclass given by the BBC Philharmonic last week  at the BBC studios at Media City, Salford Quays, an error in the program listed Elgar and Copland as having the same dates. What fun! So I combined the two works that were featured in the masterclass – Appalachian Spring and the Enigma Variations.

Attending the Grand Finale of the Leeds International Piano Competition

Due to the strike on Northern rail train services I only managed to arrive for the final concerto of the evening. BUT, that was a performance by the overall winner of the competition, AND I got to sit in my favourite seat just below the organ. Oran music opened the awards ceremony and I was very nearly blasted off my seat. AND I didn’t expect to see Lang Lang there presenting the prizes, so overall it turned into a rather enjoyable evening.

I’m sitting just beneath the floodlit organ pipe on the right

Organ music opened the awards ceremony. It nearly blasted me off my seat!

View of the organ pipes from my favourite seat in Leeds Town Hall

Lang Lang was awarded an honorary doctorate from Leeds University and he presented the prizes. Last time I’d seen him was in San Francisco – small world!

Dame Fanny Waterman, the founder of the competition in 1961, comes to the stage

Applause for Eric Lu, the 20 year old American pianist who won the overall competition. I was fortunate to see his performance of the Beethoven 4th piano concert with the Halle orchestra under the baton of the charismatic Edward Gardner

A performance of Lily Hall

This performance of Lily Hall, from my new choral work ‘7 Songs of Hebden Bridge’  was given by Hebden Bridge Little Theatre choir. The song tells the story of my great great grandparent, Elizabeth Ann Whitham  who was born  in Lily Hall, Heptonstall in 1842.

Older posts Newer posts