by Mark Trezona
Have you ever done that thing in London where you go outside – especially in the smallest hours of the morning – and just listen in to as many sounds of the city as you can hear?
‘…that indefinable boom of distant but ever-present sound which tells that London is up and doing, and which will swell into a deafening roar as the day grows older [and] now rises faintly but continuously upon the ear’. (Charles Manby Smith, 1857)
The ‘roar’ here suggests the presence of some great beast, but more significant is this sense of continuous, distant sound as if it were a form of meditation or self-communing…
London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness. It is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature. But it is also a token of its energy and power.
Its noise is ancient but always renewed, a perpetual sound that’s variously compared to Niagara, in its persistence and remorselessness, and to the beating of a human heart. It is intimate and yet impersonal, like the noise of life itself…
A celebrated American of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell, has written: ‘One other thing about London impresses me beyond any other sound I have ever heard and that is the low, unceasing roar one hears always in the air; it is not a mere accident, like a tempest or cataract, but it is impressive, because it always indicates human will, and impulse, and conscious movement; and I confess that when I hear it I almost feel as if I were listening to the roaring loom of time.’ (Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography, pp.71, 75, 76)
Tuning in acutely to these sounds and feeling a connection to this vibrating chorus of so many different lives and possibilities and relationships and stories happening – and heading towards happening – gives me a rush so strong that I always want to hug myself and shout out how fucking lucky I feel to be living here and calling this great over-sized mess of a city my home.
This same rush of euphoria pulses through every cell of me if I stop myself walking midway across any of London’s bridges and ‘take time to stand and stare‘. In these moments the sights of the city overwhelm its sounds, and I hear, instead, myself, sounding out again: This is my city. This is where I live. This is my home. This is the feeling that I felt the first day I arrived here and I feel it still just as strongly 27 years later.
And, even if it’s the middle of the day and London is glistening and prickling in its busyness, the feeling I get is of a moment locked into its own steel blue circular intensity that unstoppably re-conjures whatever echoes I can remember that moment from William Wordsworth’s enduring poem:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
All this powerful presence.
All this history and all this yet to be.
All this that I live in and amongst and call my own.
This is London, my home.
Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply…
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?
Oh is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly”? How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?
These lines are used by Matthieu Ricard to start the first chapter of his book, The Art of Happiness: A Guide to Nurturing Life’s Most Important Skill. I am reading Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, photographer and author, and a man whose happiness has been widely studied and is considered to be the happiest man on the planet as part of my ongoing exploration through the subject of happiness and human flourishing. (Check out Happiness Is A Skill, and his TEDTalk The Habits of Happiness for an introduction to his gentle wisdom.)
It pleases me very much to find the words of one of our New Zealand writers helping to elucidate wisdom from the happiest man in the known universe. Just as it pleased me to discover that Katherine Mansfield is the only writer Virginia Woolf ever felt jealous of. It makes me feel plumped up about being a New Zealander.
But back to the blissed out Bertha Young, home now in her London house of 100 years ago:
…in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply. She hardly dared look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something…divine to happen…that she knew must happen…infallibly.
And here is the second dimension of what living in London feels like to me – that sense of possibility, that at any moment at any time in any part of the city you could meet someone extraordinary and make a connection and something intense and special could happen, maybe just for the shortest moment, maybe for much longer, maybe even for the rest of your life. And that, if it didn’t happen today, this week, it will happen, and happen again many times more. This city is too rich and magnificent and full of people with all of their experiences and expectations and dreams and demands and eccentricities and impossible certainties and jangling anxieties for you not to bang into someone, something, that feels… what? meant? important? uniquely personal? only possible here?
It happens for Bertha with a woman she has newly met and invited to a dinner party in her London home:
…the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering pear tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to a point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round silver moon.
How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in the circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?
For ever – for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: “Yes. Just that.” Or did Bertha dream it?
This is what living in London is for me. An ever-present effervescence of possibility, where any time could bring surprise and discovery, where there is still more potential and life to be uncovered than any living yet done could use up. And where you can be whoever you decide to be today – so far as you yourself will allow – and walk out into the city and the city will absorb and make a perfect fit of the you you’ve made – or are imagining – yourself to be.
You can be.
And yet, and yet…
Alongside the heady hearty noisy rush of my claim to this city, there is always a parallel track of feelings of alienation, foreignness, displacement, nostalgia and longing for people, places, smells, tastes and sounds from another country.
I am not from here, of here. I am like the other 3 million of London’s 8.5 million residents, the 37% of Londoners who were not born in the UK, and, for as long as I live here I will always be living ‘away from home’. For us, as much as this place is about the thrill and possibility of its noise, the full quality of our presence here is as ambiguous and hard to discern as London’s silence, sensed only sometimes and partially as
…an absence of being…a negative force…
There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London. It is not a natural silence but a ‘play’, one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure. It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety. (London, p.81, 82)
No New Zealand Londoner I know makes their home here for a quiet life. That is what New Zealand is for, what pulls many New Zealanders back, and what those of us who stay here never quite stop romanticising up and longing after: that little piece of our own wide and spacious utterly natural and wildly beautiful New Zealand serenity. The Sounds. The Huka Falls. A Northland Beach. South Island’s West Coast. An art deco boutique hotel in Napier. Walking any one of our National Parks. The Coromandel. Substitute your own place of choice: even if you’re not a New Zealander, if you’ve been to New Zealand, you’ll have one.
We New Zealanders know why those of you who go there tell us it is such a special place. When we are ‘back home’ we expat New Zealanders are always re-amazed at the number and brightness of stars in our southern sky. We hold our homeland dear and remain constant and true to its natural wonderfulness, something we never expect London to begin to compete with. This is the universal call of our homeland: its promise of perfect uncontaminated astoundingly beautiful wide open silence.
(In fact, when I was last in Auckland I was shocked at how shouty and loud and noisy our city dwelling native birds are – until I got to Sydney, where the birds are even louder still.)
But in London the birds sing all night. London is never silent. London’s silence has to be heard and felt in the contrasting relative quiet of our bedrooms (we hope), and in the moments when we are stopped in our lives just long enough to feel its echo, and in the delay we still hear across our telephone and skype calls to friends and family ‘back home,’ and in the felt absence of a newsy email update sometimes, (or, much more likely in my case, in the guilt of still not yet having written one), and in the marking of big moments happening across the world in another time zone without us being able to be there, in ‘being there in spirit’, in missing the lives we are forced to live apart from.
This longing back to New Zealand is part of being a New Zealander. Katherine Mansfield very deliberately chose to live most of her life in Europe, but in March 1922, ill with the TB that she would die from less than a year later, she wrote ‘home’ to her father:
“ …the longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it. But New Zealand is in my very bones.”
Our silence is felt in a kind of constant sense of loss, that, like the bereaved’s grief, after a certain period of time, becomes too shameful, illegitimate, not really allowable to be voiced in public or even to ourselves, because, of course we know this, there are noisier more important life-must-go-on and we-really-do-feel-lucky-for-what-we-have moments of living to be had and cheered and enjoyed and – well lived.
The noise of living will always drown out the sounds of silence.
The silence of the living-away-from-home blissfully-at-home-here-in-London is mostly just that: silent.
And silence, just as is the case with listening, is mostly unappreciated, a passive not real thing, an un-action, a not-happening, an absence of dynamic, merely a pause in things before play is resumed.
Silence is the sound of not working, not making money.
This is not the silence of the countryside, where repose seems natural and unforced. The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence. It is a teeming silence. (London, p.83)
For us Shaky Isles folk the noisy silence we hear lying in the depths of this city, never quiet if mostly out of sight, is the creature we call our Taniwha:
It is the pull of this dirty and excessive city when you yearn for another home. It is that feeling … of knowing that someone – something – is just … over … there. (Taniwha Thames)
I have grown to love this unquiet silence just as fervently as I love the noises of this city. I know I will always have New Zealand, my motherland, in my veins and I love the pride this difference gives me as truly as I love the special pride I have for the courage and risk and expectation my nineteenth century ancestors must have had when they left England on their long uncertain voyage to make a better life for themselves and their families in New Zealand.
Being not from here, in fact, helps me to feel more of a true Londoner, for London is, and always has been, a city of outsiders. London is one of those cities where you can wear your outsideness loud and proud as a badge of authenticity. And this perhaps is the other dimension of what I love so much about London: its theatricality.
For Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic. (London, p.152)
London does not offer uncontested peace and tranquility, because its silences are as full of ambiguous nuanced potent possibility as are its noises. Strain your ears in to listen and hear the overrunning of its stories. London is a permanently live performance. London is a place and space of constantly amplified profound ambivalence, not just for its immigrants but for all of its inhabitants.
Ambivalence is, of course, the sense of having at least two – usually contrasting – feelings about the same thing… Being a theatre or performance audience or maker … can be an affirmative act of conversation and cosmopolitanism, an opportunity ambivalently to respect our differences and recognise what we share, to recognise the challenges we live with in our cities and to take up our cities’ opportunities. (Jen Harvie, Theatre & the City, 2009 p.77)
The theatre we are engaged in making in Shaky Isles, and the ways in which are making it, are in many ways a microcosm of the complex messy fluctuations of noise and silence in which London works itself out as a city.
There are rules, but these will be broken when they do not fit the purpose of our lives.
There is intention and desired outcomes, but these are deliberately kept absorbent, porous, malleable, a living system of multiple intentions and desires constantly infecting and being affected by each other as they rub into and through themselves.
There is apparent chaos, but it is really the forward fluidity of the flock that prevents stasis and keeps enough flow to be always in progressive movement, re-circling, re-firing, re-living, each iteration a bit different and a bit better than before.
These are the energies and rhythms we are learning to ride in Shaky Isles. We are interested in what unfolds from bringing different voices together to tell a stories that are simultaneously intimate, personal and particular and, at the same time, recognisable, eternal and universal. We use Open Space and Action Learning to uncover and discover our work together through and from and in our not-knowing. We are practicing and slowly mastering the skills and qualities of trusting and sharing and questioning and experimenting and listening and saying and reworking and refining. We are trying to get better at getting more of us in the room more often to do more of the work together.
And we know that the only way to make all of this work is to make it work together, as we go, as messy and as noisy and as ambivalent as this needs to be.
…the city is a model of dynamic relativism, a space where everything means more than one thing – a nondescript doorway, invisible for some, is for others the gateway to a magical garden…
Because the tensions they have out there, the secrets they have out there, the journeys they go on, things they wish for or fear out there are the things you might well seek to amplify, uncover or remix on the stage. Because what we might call the temporary community of the auditorium (negotiated each night, triangulated off the stage) reflects and refracts the temporary communities outside.
Because the city is a nexus of motorways, TV signals, Internets, dreams, global currents and trickle-downs, a place where our desires wash up, are fed, disrupted, chained, dodged or neutered by what people call late capitalism.
Because the city contains small beauties, zones of possibility…
Because it reflects the life you must reflect and must reflect on and the life already reflected in you.
Because the city can trap you, nurture you, teach you, unravel you, unspeak you. Because you are just one among many here, and the dynamic of one in relation to many (conversation, dialogue, difference, the negotiation of public space) is what theatre emerges from and thrives on, what art must address and what cities must somehow contend with if they are to survive. (Tim Etchells, Foreword to Theatre & the City, p.xii, xiii-ix)
Katherine Mansfield did not survive her illness and died away from home aged 34. The epitaph on her grave is one of her favourite quotations from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I which she had chosen for the title page of Bliss and Other Stories:
“…but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety”
In her short story , Bliss, despite the intense emotional re-firing her heroine experiences, Bertha’s night does not end happily. And yet…
…the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flowers and as still.
Living in London is built on the most fragile of frameworks: and being at home / not being home / making a home / missing home in London is perhaps the umbilical chord that holds many of us in together. And helps to make us work. Just as these same strands entwine to make London work around us.
Mark Trezona has a passion for sound and listening and, with his partner Martyn Duffy, makes sound with and for Shaky Isles shows. Through their company BridgeBuilders STG they make bespoke learning programmes in happiness at work, creativity, leadership, learning, team working & communications. He has his own blog, performance~marks, dedicated to an exploration of happiness, creativity & resilience and what makes great audience experience.
The next Shaky Isles Shake It Up evening is a theatre scratch night
7.30pm Wednesday 5th June, 2013