Channel Firing

Early in 2014, Clare Smith and Joanna Jones, the founders and guiding spirits behind Dover Arts Development, invited me to respond to the 1914-18 anniversary, as part of the DMAG ‘Joined up’ project, linking up with Dover Museum.  At that point, my thought and ideas were concentrated, as many of ours were, on the road to war, the terrifying path that would lead up to the ‘Guns of August’ of 1914.  Two starting points resonated in my imagination, both written in the ‘deep breath before the plunge’ of 1914. These were Edward Elgar’s extraordinary ‘Sospiri’ (Sighing) for violin and piano ‘Thomas Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing’.‘That night your great guns, unawares, /Shook all our coffins as we lay, […]’

Searching for my own path into the project, I realised that I needed to walk my way into the idea, quite literally the idea of roads to conflict took old of me, and it became clear to me that, I too, needed to find my road to Dover, to walk, the long way, towards the town which Winston Churchill would later call ‘Hellfire Corner’. Rupert Brooke’s account of embarking from Dover for the Mediterranean theatre of war offered inspiration:‘We marched to Dover, highly excited, only knowing that we were bound for a month. Old ladies waved their handkerchiefs, young ladies gave us apples, and old men cheered us on and children cheered and we cheered back, and I felt elderly and sombre, and full of thought of how human life was a flash between darknesses, and that x percent of those who cheered would be blown into another world within a few months; and they all seemed to me so innocent and noble, and my eyes grew round and tear stained.'[The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, with a Memoir, London Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd, July 1918]

Brooke’s ‘we marched to Dover’ is the walk downhill from Royal Naval Brigade camp at Betteshanger, However this fired in me the idea of a relationship between the roads to conflict, and peace time walking in history, most particularly, the idea of pilgrimage. My wife and I took a series of day-long 30 mile walks, along the historic ‘North Downs Way’ and the ancient pilgrimage road, from Winchester to Dover. In addition, we found our way along other roads to Dover, most particularly, along the coast. The first round of these walks took place in summer 2014, and then we returned to the paths in 2015.

Walking revealed many themes, including animals at war, the fear of cholera, and the ancient symbolism of the poppy, to name just three, in counterpoint with musical ideas. I started performing and recording these with pianist Roderick Chadwick. These include the music of Enrique Granados, the Spanish composer torpedoed off Dover in 1916. Of course, the Elgar work was central; my composer friend Robert Saxton reminded me that Elgar’s family had been Dover Pilots before they moved to the Midlands.

My work on previous projects for DAD (‘War and Peace’ and ‘Nautical Threads’) had convinced me of the importance of the ideas of young people to help me focus this project. A group of students from Astor College came to an event which I presented at the National Portrait Gallery in March of this year. I played Satie, Elgar, Kreisler, Granados and music by Kent-raised composer Nigel Clarke. Shortly after the concert, I led a workshop with the students at the Dover Museum. Their response to the music, writing and painting which was emerging from the project has proved vital to the focusing of the outcome. There have also been a series of ‘Soundboxes’ at the Royal Academy of Music, where I am the Viotti Lecturer, enabling me to develop the project in public: in one such exchange, a lady in the audience noted that Yew Trees, on the path, in Dover, in history, were and are a significant thread in the weave of ‘Channel Firing’, and gave me pointers to deepen my understanding.

In addition to the gathering of music as the walks continued, I also wrote and drew about my ways along the road, and my discoveries as I researched around what I discovered. This writing, drawing, painting and photography was collected and presented on the DMAG webpages. In the meantime, the Pharos Arts Trust, in Cyprus, invited me to present a collection of paintings based on the Rupert Brooke quoted above. The resulting exhibition of 30 paintings ‘A Flash between Darknesses’ was shown in Nikosia last spring.

In addition to the gathered materials, writing, drawing and musical performances, a CD has been released. On the CD, I am joined by the wonderful pianist Roderick Chadwick, and the writer Malene Sk aerved, whose extraordinary ‘Dogger Fisher German Bight, Humber Thames Dover Wight’, brought DAD’s 2012-13 ‘War and Peace’ project to a triumphant close. There are compositions from 1913-1920, by Satie, Elgar, Delius, Kreisler, Granados, Janacek, alongside my own ‘Acoustic Mirror’ inspired by the extraordinary early warning devices built along the downs and cliffs, and a work by Nigel Clarke, commemorating the death of Edith Cavell, the return of her body through Dover. In addition, there are texts, stretching from the 7th century to the aftermath of the war, read by Malene Skaerved and I. The legacy for Dover Museum will be a ‘virtual resource box’, bringing together many of the materials from the project on the Museum’s website, so that it can be of use in the future – the contents of this box have been very much inspired and shaped by the conversations which I have enjoyed with the young students from Astor College.

Associated Artist: Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Associated Museum: Dover Museum

Channel Firing on the Dover Museum Website