SPRING?

Looking at recent figures, indicating an increase in number of people visiting the www.simplyflute.com website, alongside a quantity of positive messages from many of you in the past week or so, it appears that the Practice Along With Paul section of Simply Flute, is proving to be a useful contribution to the site and helping a number of subscribers on their various journeys with the flute. This makes me really very happy!

All being well, another duet, this time focusing on articulation, with a sustained melody in the other flute line, is planned for the weekend. The only small problem or issue at this end of the line, is that on a weekly basis, as the exercises appear in multiple keys, I really do have my work cut out recording both flute parts in time for you to engage with every Saturday! 

Although there is no new exercise to present to you today, with all of the extra time at home that many of us are currently enjoying/enduring/suffering (please tick as appropriate), more thoughts on the daily running of life at this moment in time, have been increasingly jostling for position at the forefront of my mind. 

Whatever the current situation with Covid-19 truly is and wherever it may, or may not be taking us, I am finding the added extra space, combined with the sustained pause in which to explore thinking that it has instigated, to be nothing short of a revelation. 

The death, destruction, hurt and devastation that the virus has caused is unspeakable, but on a purely personal level, to be having this opportunity to reflect and be almost subconsciously steered into what amounts to a voyage of self-discovery, has been eye-opening in the extreme. 

However, if I am going to attempt to put these thoughts down in written word, then some background will always be necessary to establish a context. 

I was born in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. The early years of my life were spent nearby in Southbourne and then in the very quiet village of Shipton Bellinger, north of Salisbury, where my father was the vicar of the parish.

At the age of five, the second great adventure of my life (arriving in this world five years earlier being the first) took place, when we upped stumps (it’s a cricket term!) and moved east from this sleepy and quite unvarying country idyll to the more dramatic rolling landscapes of the White Cliffs of Dover. My father had been appointed as the Chaplain, at the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, perched high up on the cliffs between Dover and Deal.

At the age of seven, I was sent away to school in nearby Canterbury (although these days a very simple and short motorway drive, it was back then a long and meandering drive through numerous small villages) and the remaining years of my education up to the age of seventeen, were to take place within the Precincts of the city’s magnificent cathedral.

It sadly didn’t occur to me at the time, that to be in such historic, beautiful and spiritually engaging surroundings for the lion’s share of my formative years, was nothing short of magical.

My levels of appreciation might well have been raised higher, if I had been a day boy rather than a boarder. As such, I would have returned home every late afternoon and evening, and along with the added luxury of weekends with family, my overall happiness would have soared. I considered my immediate surroundings at school to be nothing short of hostile.

The Duke of York’s Royal Military School, or ‘Dukies’ as it is referred to by those inhabiting it, is a standalone army educational establishment, covering some 132 acres of land (it has apparently grown since I lived there to 150 acres).

When I arrived there, in term (semester) time, this vast space with playing fields, swimming pool, general store, post office, parade square and Olympic sized running track, was heaving with khaki clad boys. As you would expect, such was the discipline in this particular school, that close up, you could see your reflection in the black boot toe caps of the boys. If you couldn’t, rest assured the miscreant would be sent away utterly castigated with some wax, a packet of matches and a healthy supply of lint cloth, along with the instruction to make sure that after a solid hour of polishing, you could! 

When the holidays arrived though, these boys all returned to their families, turning this most exciting of back gardens for my brother and myself into something approaching a Disney theme park, or Aladdin’s Cave of a playground. All 132 acres of it!

There were other families within the school, but as my brother and myself were both at boarding institutions, there was little opportunity for us to interact with these children. It isn’t easy to forge lasting relationships with your peers unless regular contact and interaction can take place. Apart from anything else, at a young age, when so much time passes between gatherings and when growing speeds are rapid, children become almost unrecognisable from one meeting to the next, reducing any ease or comfort with familiarity. 

Being away ourselves for substantial periods of the year, my brother and I therefore very much ended up creating our own entertainment.

Apart from the multiple and varied wonders of what was on offer within the school grounds (swimming, tennis and land yachts at the top of the list), bike rides beyond the perimeter railings were a favourite pastime and within twenty minutes, we could be at the cliff’s edge, looking down over the forever bustling ferry terminals of the Port of Dover.

This was and remains one of the major points of access to France, the rest of Europe and beyond. With a bird’s eye view from high up on the cliffs near the castle, observing cars and lorries moving on and off ferries and the hovercrafts inflating and gliding noisily on their way, was a constant preoccupation. On clear summer days the tall clock tower in Calais was visible to the naked eye and with a pair of binoculars, you could tell if it was time to head home for lunch! 

Hour after hour was spent conjuring up thoughts of the evidently more exotic lives, at least compared to our simple and localised cliff top experiences, those people arriving to and departing from these shores were experiencing. Where had they come from, where were they going to and perhaps the most important question never to be answered…why? 

With travel, in particular abroad, there is always a story. If there isn’t, then it really is time for an updated prescription and a new pair of spectacles!

The Strait of Dover, the busiest shipping route in the World, marks the point where the UK is at its closest to Continental Europe. 20.7 miles (33.3 kilometres) separate the two land masses. 

Frequently in the past, from 40,000 feet, flying en route to Helsinki for example and on cloud free days, I have looked down on this strip of water and the two areas of land, seemingly wanting to move closer to one another. From that altitude, the distance between England and France comes across as nothing exceptional. And yet, the discussions, attitudes, mindsets and reactions on every level, that this ‘stream like’ stretch of water spawns between people of different nations, is nothing short of vast and at the same time, as history has proven over and over again, utterly discombobulating!

From high above when heading east, this area of southern England begins to take on the appearance of a somewhat gnarled and shortened, yet inquisitive finger, curiosity feverishly encouraging it to want to extend further out and touch the nearby landmass of the rest of Europe. You can sense that on the one hand it wants to play with what is almost in reach, but at the same time, it knows that if it does, the likely disruption to life will potentially just be too much to handle. However much it might struggle in its quest, the large and exceptionally heavy area of land holding it back, encompassing Wales and Scotland to boot, continues to ensure that absolute contact can never be achieved!

Another example in life, of being so tantalisingly close, yet at the same time, so hopelessly far away.

With cold winds coming around the corner from the North Sea and Scandinavia and the warmth of the Gulf Stream pushing up from the west, Dover enjoys a rich and varied climate.

When I lived there, winter could be harsh with plenty of bitter winds and large amounts of snow. It was in fact the only period in my life when snow on Christmas Day was not only likely, but also a regular occurrence!

Perhaps of greater concern were the long periods of fog, when visibility was reduced to next to nothing. The phrase ‘it’s a real pea-souper out there’, could easily have originated from Dover. Fog horns on tankers in the Channel signalled the severity of the situation, but equally, lying in bed at night time, their steady and intermittent droning provided a high degree of comfort and reassurance. It might be truly miserable and even dangerous out there, but I was very safely and warmly tucked up beneath sheets, blankets and a counterpane. Counting the seconds between the regular signals coming up from the sea was an easy way of getting off to sleep.

Summers were really quite enjoyable, but fresh winds were never far away. One season went seamlessly through to the next and there was little in the way of anything out of the ordinary taking place, at least as far as the weather was concerned.

Fast forward to March 2021 and I find that my attitude towards the current weather offerings has changed somewhat dramatically!

Everyone around the world recognises that a favourite general topic in British conversation is the weather, because we unfortunately appear to receive more than our fair share of the variety that veers towards being unpleasant!

Whilst I love certain aspects of winter (candles, log fires, cashmere…hot chocolate!), I am much more of a Spring and Summer creature. The short grey days from October through to March, coupled with ink black nights, constant rain and a general lack of sunshine, just don’t sit comfortably with me.

When I was touring for large chunks of the year and taking off from Heathrow on the darkest days at the beginning of the year, it was such a treat to finally get above the cloud and see that the sun really did exist! Breaking through that final layer of grey airborne gloom and misery, always managed to bring a smile to my face, along with all-encompassing sensations of well-being. 

Traveling throughout this part of the year was also a tremendous way of breaking up the dirge of a winter in the UK. Invariably, I wasn’t flying anywhere hot, but the dramatic changes of language, culture, diet and atmosphere more than made up for the fact that it was usually just as grey, wet and mirky at the other end of the journey! 

No such luck this year however. For the time being, the virus has grounded me firmly in the UK and I have been forced to endure the idiosyncrasies of our precarious British winter weather.

In all honesty, until really very recently, all has somewhat unexpectedly been going rather well. Whilst I have noticed the above list of negatives taking place outside, work has been so full on that I haven’t had time to grant them much attention and as such they have caused little in the way of impact on my daily existence and moods. A case of what you don’t know cannot hurt you.

But, in the past few weeks, nature has decided to disrupt my cunning plan to remain upbeat. Something of a nosedive has occurred. Nature has started to tease us. It really isn’t Spring yet, but in her inimitable way, she is luring us all into the most deceitful of traps.

Virtually on our knees after the despondency of the past six months, nature is now showing us small signs of hope by gushing with colour. Some pink and white blossoms are gloriously appearing on trees, a handful of vanilla flower heads are springing open on my Camelia, buds are starting to throb on the Wisteria and the leaves on the roses are gloriously unfurling in a blaze of vivid red. Nature is showing off and informing us of just how brilliant and remarkable she really is!

But whilst this constitutes the most magical eye candy possible and spirits of course are lifted, my body is still awkwardly stuck in the depths of winter. Like sheep well overdue a shearing and carrying around far too much weight, I can only truly appreciate the fallout of the lethargy and baggage that is the hallmark of recent months.

Why? Because this burst of colour and activity comes not from clear, sharp and deep blue skies, but from underneath that permanent blanket of low grey cloud that is always a feature of the month of March in this country.

The plethora of life and visual hope that is pouring forth from the soil is simply not reflected by its surroundings. Outside, the conditions remain as bleak as ever, with very rare moments of sunshine and throughout the days, a constant oppression of still, lifeless cloud. Rain and bitter winds have also decided to step in, to add an extra layer of misery to the ongoing party.

Desperate not to move on, Winter is making a final loathsome comeback, venting anger and disapproval at what it is witnessing, eager to stamp out the sprouting joys of Spring in the process. Nature is happily on her journey of rebirth and nothing will stop her now. Unfortunately though, the weather continues to be disruptive and harbours other plans!

If am to truly appreciate this early part of Spring in the future, then I am going to need to educate my body to shed its old pale skin and attitudes sooner. Rather than clumsily lagging behind and struggling to break free from the chains of winter, it would be so much more gratifying to be in tandem with nature. Navigating the changing of seasons would then become infinitely more enticing and enjoyable.

T. S. Eliot in his poem The Waste Land, very eloquently writes about April being ‘the cruellest’ of months. Well, that was quite a long time ago and before global warming. For me, without a shadow of doubt and by a country mile, ‘tis most definitely the month of March!

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