Music landscape and me [5]

14, February 2015

music, landscape and me [5]


I’m stepping back in time a few years from music, landscape and me [4] and returning to 1985 when I moved from Teignmouth to Southampton with Jane before moving from there to Skye in 1987. I was 22.

Totton Powerstation [oil on canvas 30 x 20 inches] as seen from over the water in Southampton, an apocolyptic vision painted in the early 1990s

I hated it – what a depressing place to live. We bought a nice little house but I didn’t enjoy the built-up, rundown, crowded city environment. At the end of our road was a ship-builders and a large, smelly sewage works!

I remember saying to Jane when we arrived on a bleak, damp, dark and foggy night – “I’ll give it two years!”

We were in Southampton because Jane was taking a degree course in medical sciences at Southampton University. Initially we lived in married quarters at the university [very cramped but not unpleasant]. Within a number of months we had bought a house in Swift Road and soon settled into that. After qualifying in Devon as a nurse for people with learning disabilities [1985] I managed to get a very good job working for Mencap as a residential care-worker not far from where I lived. I really enjoyed this work and continued to paint for 30 hours a week as well. But things were far from settled.

During the two years living in Southampton I underwent catastrophic change.

I was still painting landscapes – still the same sort of thing. I had a few exhibitions organised but was badly let down – betrayed even, by several galleries in the south and west and was still messing about trying to break out of the ‘trap’ of representational painting, often with little success, leaving only a legacy of frustration.

My thoughts were turning to composition with increasing frequency, too, but I found nothing but frustration there, as well. I tinkered, wrote a few bits of pieces but was instantly unhappy with the results. I completed little, eager to move on and learn the next lesson. I knew where I wanted to be, or at least the direction I wanted to head in but really had no means of getting there. The disconnect between my inner musical world and my ability to communicate it to anyone else, especially through notation, became desperate.

To add to this, my mind was disintegrating.

It began quietly; fears and anxieties that unsettled me, haunting and taunting from the dark recesses of my subconscious.  This disquieting grew over months until it manifest as relentless waking dreams and visions of such terrible intensity I began to live in constant fear of these scenarios acting out and becoming reality. For some reason I had become obsessed with everything I knew and held dear being utterly destroyed by war; especially nuclear war. The anxiety was continual; I could think of nothing else but civilisation and the world coming to an appalling end. I would see these scenarios when I slept, but also when I was awake – towns and cities flattened, burning, the sky horrific colours after the destruction – death everywhere – it was utter hell. And I was living this every day.

My mind became mangled; it began to affect my daily behaviour. I became physically ill, demoralised, depressed and reclusive. I could see no hope, no reason to continue. The visions and dreams intensified and grew in graphic detail to such a point it became difficult to draw the line between external reality and the reality in my mind. This sounds psychotic, but I was always aware that these things were happening and I was torn between two worlds. I knew something was badly wrong – psychosis, however, is generally a condition the sufferer is unaware of where they think their mental state is normal and everything else around them is wrong. Neurotic, perhaps, but psychotic, no. What was certain was that I was having some kind of mental breakdown.

I remained sane at the same time as being totally terrified. My belief in these visions [I call them that for want of something better – no ‘spiritual’ implications intended] was fuelled by a number of premonitions that preceded and were frighteningly accurate in their specifics and detail. I shared these premonitions, often of significant world events with others before they happened so they who could verify their accuracy and I could rest assured I wasn’t imagining these things or falsifying their potency. I found these premonitions very unsettling and their accuracy only served to make me take seriously the visions I was having in Southampton some months later. I had no idea what was happening, just that I wanted it to stop!

I went to the Doctor – he said stress and prescribed beta-blockers. I didn’t take them. I didn’t know whether I needed a psychiatrist or an exorcist!

Jane supported me through all this. It must have been a terrible strain on her. She used to walk me around the streets of Southampton at night and talk to me – I was so afraid of falling asleep and having the same terrifying dreams.

It was on one of those midnight walks that Jane said something about my [tragically dysfunctional] relationship with my father. I can’t remember the very words just now, but I do remember that what she said made me cry. I am not someone who cries easily – even when I want to, but as I cried I sensed a release – small at first but deeply felt. It was like the first crack developing in a vast sheet of ice.

From that point on, slowly but surely, the balance in my mind between the world outside and the world inside began to stabilise. This was not a fast process; it took 6-8 months with many setbacks along the way, but the general momentum was toward normalisation.

What became apparent, for whatever reasons, was that the very damaging relationship I had had with my father and the psychological and emotional brutality I lived with had scarred me in ways I hadn’t realised. I always thought I got through the bullying, fear and insecurity unscathed. People who knew my background would remark how ‘well adjusted’ I was considering the circumstances of my childhood. It seemed that somehow, a great deal of this damage had associated itself with my fear of everything I had subsequently built [secure relationships, love of music, painting, the landscape] being destroyed – taken away from me. The legacy of insecurity my father had left me had manifest into the horrors of nuclear war . . . . perhaps, and Jane’s comment about my relationship with my father had triggered a release or realisation?

You may wonder why my mother is not mentioned here. She was wonderful but unfortunately died of cancer when she was 44 and I was 15. She could not act as a buffer between my father and me any more. My father made her life a misery for long enough, too.

It also became clear that I had to get out of Southampton to begin a new life elsewhere. I wasn’t out of the woods yet but I knew the right direction of travel in and it was a long way from Southampton!

Around this time and just before leaving Devon I was an avid Radio 3 listener [in the days when they played contemporary music regularly and you didn’t feel the need to submerge yourself in a ‘relaxing’ bath to enjoy it]. What a great resource this was. Armed with my trusty tape recorder and a copy of the Radio Times I would hunt for anything that I thought sounded interesting. I was hugely ignorant of contemporary classical music and those who were working around me; Radio 3 was my contact with the rest of the musical world.

It was through Radio 3 listening that I first discovered the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies [and Mahler at the same time] and not the tuneful Max – I first heard Black Pentecost and though it dark and shockingly marvellous and extreme. Not so long after that I heard his 3rd. Symphony of 1984. It still remains my favorite piece of Max’s – its amazingly taunt structure, intense soundworld and desolate, uncompromising beauty haunts me to this day.

This was the first contemporary music I had really heard and it spoke to me. And what a contrast from the English pastoralism I had surrounded myself with before. Here [certainly in the symphonies] was a new language that to my ear at least, still concerned itself with landscape, but this time, through a continually evolving, Sibelian like transformative process, on the surface of its sound, at least. I was so interested to know how it was made, how it was written down. Shortly after this I also encountered Harrison Birtwistle’s music and was equally enamoured and struck by his obsessions with landscape and ritual using an entirely new language that owed more to Starinsky than Sibelius but nevertheless held a monolithic, timeless beauty.

This music somehow resonated with my bleak state of mind at the time and I loved it.

I wasn’t interested in pretty tunes and neat harmonies written by living composers – that had already been done and oh so well by the many ‘dead composers’ who have left the legacy I love. This newfound relationship with Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle helped to move me further towards my goal of being a composer – it inspired me to try and find out how to write down the sounds l heard. I truly had no idea; I also had no access to scores or other musicians to help. 

What I didn’t know I simply made up. This approach has stood me in good stead ever since!


New doors – new locations – new techniques for painting and composing were about to open. The catastrophic experience of Southampton was to unleash an enormous change in my painting and open the compositional floodgates!