Finlandia – Jean Sibelius
1964. We are in our new house. Perched above the village road behind a thick privet hedge, but we can see the farm opposite, the farmhouse, the barns, the fields beyond. We can smell the farm opposite. There’s a sloping narrow path up from the road to our gate. A large garden. Two trees. A large vegetable garden which my dad dug and dug, and where we buried Caesar the large tabby cat I’d owned since I was 1 year old. He was wrapped in a pillowcase. My dad dug his grave too. A back lawn, with another privet hedge, and a gate leading out onto an endless sheep field. Beyond that, the Manor House. Sherrington Manor. They owned our house. They owned most of the village. Selmeston. East Sussex. The Lewes-Eastbourne A27 at one end, the Lewes-Eastbourne train level-crossing at the other. One mile long. About 200 people I calculated one day, including the vicar, the farmer, the Catchloves, the Whitakers, the Criddles, the Bristows, the Colemans, Miss Lamb at the village schoolhouse, Gilda who looked after Paul when things went wrong, Geraldine next door who was Italian and mentioned shopping in “Marks Expensive”, the Spillers at the top of the road on the other side of the A27 and whose daughter Valerie Spiller was my first crush aged about nine. They were brown-coloured maybe Indian but nobody ever mentioned it. I hugged my pillow imagining it was her. Funny feeling in my tummy. At least I thought it was my tummy.
I would walk to school every day – the village school up near the main road, the pub the Barley Mow, the only shop, the mini-petrol station. Across the road from the school was the cricket pitch, an acre they said, so you could see what an acre looked like. It was big. Sometimes we’d have our breaktime in the cricket field and Midge Millward whose mum was the school cook would tell dirty jokes to us younger ones. Probably Rastus & Liza. “I’m fucking dis custard” etc. I laughed dutifully because of the word “fuck”without knowing what was going on. Steve ‘Eggy’ Burton and his younger brother Chrissy Burton, Stephen Criddle, David Bristow, Graham Sutton the postman’s son, Mick Spiller and me and my brother Paul. There were 30 kids in the village school, aged between 5 and 11. Some of them came from Berwick, or Firle, Chalvington or Alciston.
At home we had a black and white TV which my dad didn’t really approve of, but the kids (Paul and I) were growing and presumably becoming a handful. Andrew arrived in May after a long labour and a fight with the nurse over gas and air. Mum would later claim that she had too much. I remember fights over the TV between Mum and Dad. I remember him coming into ‘the front room’ where the TV was put (so that it wasn’t in the family room ?!), and switching it off, and Paul, Mum and I skulking out in disgruntlement. But he never switched off the record player. Or should I say “the gramaphone”.
We had a wind-up turntable on a box with a speaker which would fold up and down inside the lid, a corner compartment for needles – about 1/2 inch long – big buggers. It was my first experience with handling music – or possibly my second because I cannot discount picking up a recorder at the village school and being taught the simple fingering, following the dots on ‘Men Of Harlech’. But there is a huge difference between playing music and being a disc jockey as any fule kno. The records were in the lid, which I think means that it was a portable gramaphone, but I may have misremembered that. They were heavy shellac 78rpm discs and there were three of them. Three. One was Chicken Licken. One I cannot remember. And one was Finlandia.
I always connect Finlandia with my father. I’m sure it was his record. I don’t know where he bought it, or how long he’d had it, or whether it came with the gramaphone, or phonograph. Maybe there were other 78s in the house, but I don’t remember them. I remember three. The unknown one may come back via my dad or my brothers or my mother, all still happily alive and one day perhaps to read this account. But for now we’ll focus on Finlandia. Oh – but first, of course, Chicken Licken.
The story is of a chicken who has an acorn fall on his head. He thinks the sky is falling in and runs through the village yelling at everyone that the sky is falling. Henny Penny ? Is that a character? I can’t remember the rest but we played this story – on a 78rpm record – over and over again, winding the turntable, changing the needle for no good reason, playing it fast in squeaky voices, playing it slow in underwater voices.
Finlandia was a different matter altogether. It was a short classical tone poem, though aged six, seven it was just noise to me, music, horns, violins. No words. It was written in 1899 by Jean Sibelius and was part of the Finnish nationalist resistance surge against Russia during that period. The opening is very energised and expressive with full horn stabs and sudden silences. Then the timpanis start to thunder and roll. It is hugely dramatic, then the violins start to swirl and sweep and we get another surge of excitement and a part of a melody. Again all is excitement and energy, passion and pride. After about 4 minutes there’s a moment of pause and we are hearing a different tempo, a different hopeful moment, this is how the piece resolves, known as the Finlandia Hymn. It’s not quite the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s one of their main tunes. It will always remind me of my father, whom I have to acknowledge as a profound influence on my life, both musical and otherwise. When I think of him now in 1964 I see him as a young man with glasses and a receding hairline, fresh from Cambridge and moving his young family from Portsmouth, where he grew up, to East Sussex, where I grew up. He was the only boy in a family of five, all sisters older than him. His dad was a batman in the Royal Navy, the lowest rank, and they lived in a small terraced house in Fratton quite near the football ground. My dad – John – was bright and passed the eleven plus, winning a scholarship to Portsmouth Grammar. Again, although a working-class kid, he took the Cambridge entrance exam and passed, becoming one of the tiny intake of worker’s kids in Downing College 1955. I understand that he hated his first year, or maybe just missed my mum, whom he’d started walking out with as a teenager (after briefly dating her sister Valerie). At any rate that summer he was married to Heather my mum and they went back to Cambridge together for his 2nd year. I think my Mum hated it there even more than he ever could. My dad and his friends talked of D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot and didn’t really include her in the conversation. I was born in Cambridge in June 1957.
When I think of my parents now I think of them as young people and marvel. I don’t judge them, I just see them in their lives, making decisions, trying to do the best they can. I’ve spent so much of my lifetime in recrimination, trying to understand what went wrong, why my family was dysfunctional, who, in particular, was to blame, to unload all the pain onto. Well it turns out that every family is dysfunctional, and some far far more so than mine. I’ve put down my cross, the one I carried all those years, Lay Down Burden. Now I’m just trying to remember everything and write it down before it’s my turn to lay down. Not to say that there hasn’t been pain, upset, wrenching sadness and loneliness. But just to say that I’m just another human being in the end.
This is a wonderful recording of Finlandia conducted by Leonard Bernstein appropriately enough in 1965.