Some esoteric thoughts on 11.11, musical stones and my favourite dish
It all began for me with the chocolate bourbon biscuits in the B & B (which I ate). Then the first walk along Main Street with its numerous delis, pub lunches, sweet shops, and ice cream vans… how to choose your favourite dish?
Nicola Atkinson.Davidson and Hanna Tuulikki assure me that I love pickles – which I do. But I also love Ukrainian rye bread; salted butter; tea with sugar and a slice of lemon in it; and fish and chips…. Not to mention my babcia’s zupa ogórkowa (sour gherkin soup), which I guess qualifies as a pickle in liquid form. To make things even more confusing Keswick has one of the largest and most diverse supermarket-cum-delis I have ever seen, featuring pickled quails eggs, apple smoked cheese, damson beer, exotic vegetable crisps I have never heard of before, and of course, the notorious CUMBERLAND SAUSAGE! Word has it you can even drive around the place in a tractor surrounded by gnomes, but I think I missed that bit.
So no hope for clarity on the subject of my favourite dish - unless you want me to write a book about it. So let’s broaden the horizon a bit. Eating is much more enjoyable in the open air on a sunny day, and it was indeed sunny as I ate my cider apple ice lolly whilst we made our way to Keswick museum and art gallery, the venue for a musical performance in celebration of Nicola’s latest work “I am a Dish”. It is wonderful to gaze out of the old windows of the museum towards lake Derwent, with its rolling hills climbing up and out of the lagoon like moss-clad turtles looking for a sunny spot in which to relax. There are templates hanging from these windowpanes, which can be used to identify the local peaks according to a number system that corresponds to a chart on the wall. But I prefer to just look at the hills… content in my ignorance. There are numerous artefacts of genuine interest in the museum however, such as two pairs of Victorian hiking boots, a catalogue of taxidermies (birds, badgers, ferrets, foxes, even a mummified cat from god knows when), a penny farthing bicycle, various rocks and minerals, and a man trap. The centrepiece however, is, of course, the stone xylophone, variously termed the stone dulcimer, the rock harmonicon, or the geological piano.
We (Aby Vulliamy, George Murray, Bill Wells, Hanna Tuulikki, and myself) played 4 pieces at the performance, all of which included the stone xylophon in some capacity, and all of which had at least a vague association with foodstuffs. We opened with ‘Souling Song’, an autumnal folksong and antecedent to Hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls, which describes the old tradition of children knocking on peoples’ doors and asking for ‘soulcakes’ in order the placate the dead, who are able to journey more easily into the world of the living at this time of year. The piece has an unusual, quite primitive sounding trichordal harmony that wonderfully evokes the mystery of autumn.
Bill wrote “Liquorice Tics”, a piece that also features on his latest album, a collaboration with the Japanese band Maher Shalal Hash Baz. The title is apparently an intuitive spelling of liquorice sticks (not, as I had wondered, a new variety of edible parasites invented by Bassett’s). I hit the wrong rocks in the actual performance but it didn’t seem to matter. We had practiced this piece in the dining room of the bed and breakfast earlier in the day, shortly after the last of the soggy cornflakes had been cleared away. It felt like Sly and the Family circa “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. No one was feeling sheepish on this one.
The third piece that we played was an improvisation, somewhat in the style of Meredith Monk, and jam-packed with vocal avant-gardisms. Essentially we read out-loud, randomly, from the list of foodstuffs that Nicola had produced in collaboration with Keswick High School, whilst improvising on the old rock piano. The only ‘rule’ was that if anyone said Cumberland Sausage we must all ‘freak out’ – which we duly did.
The fourth piece was “John Barleycorn”, another old folk song in which the protagonist is a personification of the important cereal crop barley, and of the alcoholic beverages made from it - beer and whisky (which we all made an effort to sample during our stay in the town). In the song John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death, and indignities that correspond to seasonal harvest patterns such as reaping and malting. Some believe that the song points to the survival of a Neolithic rite of paganism - and local treasures such as the nearby Castlerigg stone circle only act to excite such romantic wonderings.
The final piece was a twelve bar blues, less food orientated than the others, but nonetheless mouth-watering, for which we were joined by museum curator and general Hoochie Coochie man, Jamie Barnes, on mouth harp. All in all it was a lovely evening, replete with assorted vegetables and beverages – thanks are due to everyone who made it such a success.