It seemed completely appropriate that the second venue for The Lost Words exhibition should be The Foundling Museum in London's Brunswick Square.
For me personally because this is my 1970's happy-London-place, my known little corner of the city. From the window of my street-facing room in the nurses' home at 28 Barnard Street, just along from Russell Square tube station, I could look across to the square and the trees. The Brunswick Centre opposite, now listed and much-respected in architectural circles, struck us back in 1972, the year of its completion, as a bit of a concrete & metal-window eyesore if I'm honest. Useful for a supermarket, a newsagent and a cinema (Jaws and that all-night sitting through War & Peace; the latter, I'm sure I wittered on about endlessly the year we read the book as Team Tolstoy) but beyond that a bit of a bleak, uninhabited, grey wilderness in contrast to the peaceful beauty of the London square next door. Unrecognisable now with its cafe culture and bustling crowds. For me though it is still one of those found, known and familiar places that I inhabit with ease in my mind when I am away from it, and revel in when I go back.
And then there's The Foundling Museum itself. Now housed in a building across Brunswick Square, the original hospital (demolished in 1926) was founded in 1739 by royal charter 'for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.' Babies and children, left with tokens or a piece of fabric as a means of identifying a child, could be 'found' again should family circumstances improve. The Hospital for Sick Children would be established just over a century later in nearby Great Ormond Street, and Coram Fields in Brunswick Square the place where, as student nurses, we would be charged with wheeling out the babies who were well enough for an excursion and some 'fresh air.'
I went to the Threads of Feeling exhibition at the museum in 2010 and wrote about it here. I have never forgotten it and so I sensed connections, the thread of loss and re-finding continuing with The Lost Words and this exhibition.
Having loved The Lost Words so completely, to see the actual pictures, some hung deliberately at child's-eye level, is a real privilege so don't miss this one if you are in London...or Edinburgh, because it's next venue will apparently be The Royal Botanic Gardens there.
Bookhound and I had travelled up for the day last Friday, not only for the exhibition but to hear Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris talk about The Lost Words at an evening event at the museum. Their personable artistic rapport was completely engaging, lots of discussions about the book's genesis, the work on it and the impact it has made, much good humour and laughter too along with several wonderful readings of the spells including a 'duet' on Willow.
...and then there was the music.
Well, now then.
I hadn't really paid much attention to this bit in the run-up. Someone had set a couple of the 'spells' to music and if I'm honest I was expecting a bit of ethereal hand-over-the-ear singing and some twiddling about on a mandolin. Really no expectation whatsoever of what was to come.
Even when I saw Kerry Andrew and spotted the small amplifier resting on the chair I was still thinking, 'Hmm, mandolin and backing track.' Except I couldn't see a mandolin...only Robert looking worried with a small set of bells in hand, and Jackie looking dangerous with a small cymbal...'Hmm, participation percussion...'
What followed was...excuse the shouting (softly though) OUT OF THIS WORLD.
Really out of this world as both Wren and Bluebell (my favourite picture), having been written and painted into existence, were now sung into performance and permanence.
Kerry Andrew is an award-winning composer (indeed she has a PhD in it) of consummate musicality and with the voice of a nightingale. The 'backing track' was laid down live (by her) as she sang, replayed on a loop, another layer added, voice percussion created sounds, spoken word added more depth, some flute (no mandolin) and then singing. Kerry has diamond-clear diction and the most exquisite singing voice extending comfortably over a wide range, and I think I forgot to breath. In fact I think the whole room forgot to breath. Robert Macfarlane's bells were out-rung by the well-timed chiming of a Foundling Museum clock, which let him off the hook; Jackie looked so utterly enthralled (and I was far too deep into the bluebells to notice) that I'm not sure what she did with her cymbal, nothing dangerous or distracting anyway.
I'll swear the wren flew around the room, and that we all heard the swish of the bluebells as we walked through them; the words floating in the air long after the final note, and we all as of one, floating with them. It was one of those life-moments that will never be repeated and to have been there such a privilege. Bluebells had been commissioned by The Foundling Museum for this event, this evening its premier performance, and we can all only hope it will be recorded because that music most certainly cannot be lost either.
To give you a flavour....here's an audio version of Wren. Though to be there; to hear the fuller version, as we did; to watch the music grow and expand and take off in flight; to watch the expressiveness of Kerry's hands, to see it in performance, well it really is something quite extraordinary (sorry to go on but...).
It was good to say hello to Robert Macfarlane again (we first met when he braved the dovegreyreader tent at Port Eliot Festival in 2012) and Jackie Morris who I had first met at The Lost Words signing at Dulverton, but also to meet Kerry whose debut novel Swansong has just been published by Jonathan Cape.
Of Swansong Robert Macfarlane says this...
"Swansong is the real thing, right from the start: spiky, strange and contemporary, but always with a dark undertow of myth and folklore tugging at its telling. The voice jags at you, and the plot grips: this is a brilliant novel by a writer - and musician - of frankly alarming talent."
What I did next is something I NEVER do.
I dashed down to the shop and bought Kerry's CD. She sings as You are Wolf ,the CD, Hawk to the Hunting Gone. With its themes of birds in folklore Cuckoo, Swansong, Little Sparrow, Little Wren, Murmuration, Three Ravens, The Buzzard's Heart and one track called Doves, a version of 'When Doves Cry by Prince) it had me written all over it.
Anyway, I ripped the wrapper off , dashed back and asked her to sign it. Though Wren and Bluebell aren't on it (we can but pray to St Cecilia for a Lost Words CD from Kerry) everything else is in a similar style and I needed to take that voice home with me. I have the forthcoming CD Keld on pre-order (via Kerry’s website which links to Bandcamp) and the track I have heard so far confirms that I'll happily go where her voice takes me.
How other-worldly and other-wordly it was to play Hawk to the Hunting Gone in the car as we drove the fifty miles to the Tamar Valley and home from Exeter St David's at 2am, pondering the whole event and listening.
I plan to hold onto the bright joy of this evening for a very long time.