September 16, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
H.S. Cross's coming of age novel Wilberforce is an engrossing debut set in an English boarding school of the 1920s.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This literary, character-driven debut novel . . . rewards with its psychological insight and dry humor, leaving the reader longing for all that is good, peaceful, and hopeful. For Anglophiles, seekers, and those who enjoy the insular world of C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers novels and the haunting power of Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending."
Wilberforce takes place at a boys' boarding school in 1926 England. The novel concerns one Morgan Wilberforce, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy going off the rails: his loves, griefs, longings, confusions, and the actions of those close to him. I have a playlist called "Romantic England," which I listen to when I'm driving or running and want to be transported into the book. It's too distracting to listen to music while I'm actually writing, but a lot of thinking happens when I'm engaged in a right-brain activity, immersed musically in the moods of this world. Here are some selections from that playlist.
Young Sherlock Holmes soundtrack, Bruce Broughton
This silly movie about Sherlock Holmes's schooldays came out when I was seventeen. I was ridiculously excited to see it (because, English schoolboys!), and I bought a ticket for an early evening showing at the Ziegfeld in midtown Manhattan. Between school and the movie I went to the 42nd Street Library reading room, where I had tracked down a copy of F. W. Farrar's 1858 school story, Eric, Or Little By Little. This is an early classic in the English genre, and I'd discovered it from the characters in Kipling's Stalky & Co., who mocked it mercilessly. It indeed proved sincere, moralistic, and overwrought, yet…paradoxically compelling. By the time the credits rolled for Young Sherlock Holmes, I displayed all the symptoms of a teenager with a confused and confusing crush—a crush on this literature.
The "Main Title" has a sense of driving masculinity, mystery, and adventure, yet one contained within a classic, English environment. "Fencing Lesson" always makes me think of John Grieves, one of the teachers in Wilberforce, when he was a schoolboy himself. I imagine him practicing with a foil, observed by his friend Jamie Sebastian. Again, there's a clean, masculine momentum, but one controlled by logic and emboldened by the confidence of a young athlete. "Watson's Arrival" conjures a heart-expanding sense of romance—in this case romance for London, but London as I imagine it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The piece stirs my attachment to and nostalgia for an imagined past, one I long to return to, if such a thing were possible. "The Riddle Solved" is a long track that combines all of the above. Listening to it, I can see the boys in Wilberforce—playing sport, fighting, joking, having assignations, daydreaming in lessons, and all the other things they get up to on and off the page.
I don't know if they ever released the soundtrack for this 1984 film based on Julian Mitchell's play, but many people wished they had, if only for Storey's theme Another Country, too, takes place in an English public school, this time in the 1930s, and stars a young Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. The atmosphere here is dangerous, full of longing, pain, and alienation, as well as violent rivalries and betrayals. At the same time, there's a wistful sort of hope, an idealism taking root in spite of brutal realities. Listening to this after the Broughton is like going from a school story about the Famous Five to The Loom of Youth, Alec Waugh's uncompromising examination of public school life on the eve of the Great War.
Another Country was one of the first dramas that dragged me into the world of the historical English boarding school. I directed the stage version in college and watched the movie countless times. I was never very impressed by its thesis (schoolboy betrayed because homosexuality, becomes Soviet spy). The spy trajectory always felt forced, as if adolescent betrayal wasn't drama enough. To me, the play and film were about the turmoil of being seventeen. Even now, watching the opening sequence with Storey's theme and Peter Biziou's lush cinematography produces an erotic tension I haven't felt since I was a teenager.
"Before Thy Throne, O God, We Kneel"
This hymn (words: William Boyd Carpenter; tune: Leningrad, Dimitri Bortniansky) is sung during Lent at my church. In Wilberforce, the hymn is one of the Headmaster's favorites. At one point in the story, Wilberforce's friends mock him with it, and later, they're all compelled to sing it in chapel. The boys see the hymn as an old-fashioned, overdone call for repentance and punishment: "Give us a conscience quick to feel / a ready mind to understand / the meaning of thy chastening hand / what e'er the pain and shame may be / bring us, O Father, nearer thee." However, Morgan Wilberforce begins to find something attractive in it, despite his professed unbelief; as he crashes from one disaster to the next, he sometimes thinks of the hymn's last lines: "O God, be with us in the flame / a new-born people may we rise / more pure, more true, more nobly wise."
It's hard to find this sung except live in church, but on the Spotify list there's an "organ accompaniment" track, sans words, which themselves can be found here.
"There is a Land of Pure Delight," Grayston Ives
Ives wrote the setting of this gorgeous anthem (words, Isaac Watts) later in the twentieth century, but it always puts me in mind of Morgan Wilberforce in 1922, when he was just thirteen, right after his mother had died and left him so adrift, more bereaved than he could know.
"Who," "Charleston," "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue," "Sweet Georgia Brown"
These are four popular songs from 1926 that the characters hear when they tune in to the radio on homemade handsets, or when they are dragged to London parties during the holidays. The mood is upbeat, the sentiment resolutely cheerful. The singing and orchestration styles are unmistakably period, and these tracks evoke the wider world accessible outside the school, a society the characters think they crave, but one ultimately superficial in its attitudes and concerns.
"Slow Train," Flanders & Swann
The English comedic duo Flanders & Swann have a much loved song called "Slow Train," which they wrote in 1963 just as the infamous Beeching cuts were poised to close unprofitable train stations and local lines, transforming the character of British railways. The song summons the deepest, saddest nostalgia, and it seems not to matter whether you remember the slow train personally or whether you mourn something else, or someone else, gone forever. From the gentle, chugging vamp to the litany of station names, it evokes something living and beautiful and true being left behind. As T. H. White put it more broadly and less gently in The Goshawk, "It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away, not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger." When I listen to this song, I feel intoxicatingly sad, and in a way that defies explanation, I feel as though the song is an explanation for romantic England. Yes, I think, this is what happened, this is where I lost everything, what I used to have, when I lived there back then, when it was my home, before it passed away and left me in this place, here and now.
H. S. Cross and Wilberforce links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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