Thursday 28 February 2013

Listening to the Past and Moving Through The Fair

Much research for fiction involves listening to the past. It so happens that in Researching this new novel I am becoming absorbed in all things Bronze Iron Age and British-Roman. 

Then the ineffable Lola Borg drew my attentions on Twitter to the programme Soul  Music on Radio 4. Lola said,  "All about dreams and longings and unexpressed desires". If you just missed this on She Moved Through the Fair 
The programme  featured commentators and singers - most centrally Sinead O'Connor  -   trying to nail the peculiar magic of this song.

 It's a song sung on international stages by celebrities and in pubs and  hearth-gatherings of families and friends by un-lauded singers. Sinead tells a story on the programme that at the end of the  funeral after the early, unexpected death her partner Padraig they played a recording of him singing this song. As it's a story of the fragility of human experience and of obsessive love that lasts beyond the grave this was curiously appropriate. She said,  'My dear one had departed. He always had  a huge sympathy for people who were in trouble. He was an old soul and a very kind man... He 'sang' at his own funeral. I found it consoling.'  

Perfect circularity.     I listened and was  swept away.The song and its music have been whirling in my head ever since. Apparently the music is older than the song they are both lost in ancient times.
black swan
There are words here about worries rooted in the soul. There are strands of meaning here about collective memory and human history. The song and its music ask questions to which we can only invent an answer, Line by line the words are perfectly honed to pose the questions and offer answers in shades and revenents.

Every  lines (in full below) are worth quoting but  the I particularly like the lines -

Then she went her way homeward with one star awake/
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake 

- which are full of pain and with the keening sounds of the ancient music allow the singing of this pain. 

The Soul Music programme showcases several versions of the song including that of Sinaed O'Connor herself and Van Morrison and The Chieftains.  I have found many versions and everywhere the meaning of the words and the music transcends style and fashion. 

I liked this one by Loreena McKennit. 

 Although the setting is rather grand for such an apparently simple song, she sings - very appropriately -  to the harp and she definitely looks the part,

(LATER) And the lovely blogger 60 Going on Sixteen (See comment below) recommended the purely exquisite 1941 version by the legendary John McCormack. I see he is accompanied bu Gerald Moore, the equally legendary  pianist. Give yourself a treat and listen to the past in two dimensions - World War 2 and The ancient past.

(EVEN LATER...) and this version by Van Morrison and The Chieftains appropriately sung - almost spoken  - by Van Morrison  shows the tragic young man at the centre of the story.

Listening to the past makes sense not just for writers but for all of us who are trying to solve the puzzle of what it is to be human and spiritual at the same time.

She Moved Through the Fair

My young love said to me, my mother won´t mind 
And my father won´t slight you for your lack of kine, 
And she stepped away from me and this she did say, 
It will not be long love ´til our wedding day. 

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair, 
And fondly I watched her move here and move there, 
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake, 

As the swan in the evening moves over the lake. 

The people were saying no two were e´er wed, 
But one has a sorrow that never was said, 
And I smiled as she passed with her goods and her gear, 

And that was the last that I saw of my dear. 

I dreamt it last night that my young love came in, 
So softly she entered her feet made no din, 
She came close beside me and this she did say, 

It will not be long love ´til our wedding day.


  1. Soul Music - such a wonderful programme, Wendy, and now into its fifteenth series, which means it must still attract many listeners! This particular edition had a personal resonance for me: ten years ago, the parish priest who married my daughter and her husband, sang this at their wedding reception. He had a fine Irish tenor voice, sang unaccompanied and was note perfect. There was absolute silence in the room from the moment of the first note, jaws dropped in wonder and, at the end of the song, a brief silence before everyone burst into thunderous applause. Those of us with even a hint of Irishness in our blood were moist-eyed; we talk about it still. So, for me, that will always be THE performance of She Moved Through the Fair, closely followed by that of Van Morrison and the Chieftains. And, on YouTube, you can find what many believe to be the definitive version, sung by another fine Irish tenor, John McCormack

    1. Thank you dear Boots for your wonderful story about the impact of this song within your life. I have just come upon it in my life and am still relishing it and it is still making me wonder. You will see above that I have added the link on the blog to the so-sweet John McCormack version, as well as that of the excellent Van Morrison and the Chieftains. Like all great art this songlends itself to many different interpretations and still remains pure. It could so easily seem sentimental but its spirituality and sense of tragedy makes it still hard and strong. Wxx

  2. I was captivated by this song the very first time I heard it on the album Irish Heartbeat and I taught myself to sing it by copying Van Morrison's version. I sang it for my husband on his fiftieth birthday accompanied by some folk musicians who'd come by to play for him. I don't think I got all the words quite right (great to see them here although my singing days are mostly over)but the sentiment I hope I caught something of that- I know it was well received and that it was a special moment in the evening. It's a song that simply stops people in their tracks - it is universal and ancient in its expression of lost love and the longings of the human spirit.

  3. Dear Wendy, The words of the ballad remind me of RL Stevenson: 'Bright is the ring of words/ When the right man rings them/ Fair is the fall of songs/ When the singer sings them.' The Irish tenor John McCormack recorded She Moves Through the Fair. My brother, who lived in Los Angeles for 35 years, will say of someone whose style he admires, 'She moves through the fair.' A lovely image, carrying memories of being young and in love. Did you ever read the autobiography of Rosamund Lehmann? She took her title, 'The Swan in the Evening', from the ballad. She writes of her beloved daughter Sally, who died of poliomyelitis at the age of 23-24. Sally's husband, the distinguished poet and novelist PJ Kavanagh, describes this in his extraordinary memoir 'The Perfect Stranger' (the title is from a poem by Louis MacNeice). Rosamund Lehmann had a series of psychic experiences after her daughter's death. She turned to spiritualism. I have to say I am opposed to any form of spiritualism or channelling. I am an evangelical Christian, having been converted under the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I hope you and readers of your website will listen to the sermons of the late Dr Lloyd-Jones on his radio website. You can download them too. He is really something. Yours ever, John Haggerty, Glasgow.

  4. Dear John, Thank you for your inspiring comment. I do appreciate your thoughts. You will see on today's post (scroll upwards) I have commented more fully on your comment and how inspiring it has been for me. W

  5. Wendy, My brother would say of a lady possessed of poise and a certain inwardness, 'She WALKS through the fair'. He must have felt alienated in Los Angeles. He would call it the great wrong place (WH Auden) and even Psychopolis (Ian McEwan). When he returned to Scotland I would play him recordings of my favourite folk singers. Peggy Seeger, June Tabor, Jean Redpath, Julie Felix, Anne Briggs, Barbara Dickson, Bridget St.John, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy etc. 'Oh, she walks through the fair,' he would say musingly and help himself to another Johnny Walker Black Label. You can listen to Barbara Dickson's recording of She Moved Through the Fair on Youtube. Someone HAS set 'Bright is the ring of words' to music. I will track it down. While we are on the theme of ghosts and regrets, why not re-read Weir of Hermiston? Stevenson's opening poem sums up today's weather. 'I saw rain falling and the rainbow drawn on Lammermuir. Hearkening I heard again in my precipitous city beaten bells Winnow the keen sea wind. And here afar, intent on my own race and place, I wrote.' There is a photograph of RLS in his nightshirt, sitting up in his alcove bed in his South Seas home. He's playing some Scotch air on his tin whistle. In a similar vein is his poem Whaups. 'Be it granted me to behold you again in dying, Hills of home.' The whaups are the peewees, and the graves on the moors are the resting place of the Covenanters. You can roam the grassy Lammermuir Hills on a day like this. Stay a night or two in historical Haddington. Go to RLS's birthplace in precipitous Edinburgh, then head out to Stirling and Perth. And remember the words of James Kennaway in Tunes of Glory: 'All cities are lonely at night, but the old Scottish ones are lonelier than all. The ghosts wander through the narrow wynds ...' (Jack Haggerty)

  6. At the risk of being a 'blether' (or an awful bore) may I just add this? Annie Briggs does a gorgeous unaccompanied version of She Moved Through the Fair on Youtube. Also on Youtube: 'Folk Brittanica, the Watersons and Anne Briggs' (featuring the much missed Bert Jansch). Someone says: Annie appeared out of nowhere; at the age of 15 (in 1962) she was singing in the Troubador Club. She had impeccable timing and an almost visceral instinct for a song's meaning. She could take a sea chanty, Lowland Away, and somehow it becomes a love ballad. Blackwaterside is her other masterpiece. Aye, she walked through the fair all right. One last point (honest) concerning 'Bright is the ring of words' etc. I believe the poem was recited at the funeral of John Steinbeck. He loved Stevenson. There were very few writers at his funeral. Steinbeck, the most genial of men, had become unfashionable. Someone noticed John O'Hara, praying in a corner of the church. O'Hara was a great short story writer. You are a dab hand at that most difficult of forms yourself, Wendy. (All power to your pen, Jack Haggerty).

  7. I'm now reading Rosamund Lehmann's Swan in the Evening, John, and enjoying it. It's very touching. In ways her life is quite tragic - which surprises me. I am looking forward to hearing the Annie Briggs version of the song. (Short of time at the moment)
    With your John Steinbeck story you are extending my string of pearls. (See my post above...) Didn't he write a kind of memoir account of his own quest for the roots of the King Arthur legend during a visit to Britain?
    And thank you for taking a look at my short stories. They are a different delight for me as a writer although I most love the novel form

  8. The death of one's daughter, indeed one's only child, must be the darkness of the heart as the Japanese say. It must be 1973 since I read The Swan in the Evening. Doesn't Rosamund Lehmann describe a memory of looking for the pasque flower with her little girl?And the child says (I only quote from memory), 'One day I will search for you and search for you, and I shan't find you.' It reminds me of John, Chapter 8, Verse 21: 'He said therefore again unto them, I go away, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sin: whither I go, ye cannot come.' Christ is confronting the Pharisees: 'Ye shall seek me and shall not find me.' Though I have no children myself, the death of my only daughter would half destroy me. I do wonder about atheists, Wendy, what reason can they give for the hope that is within them? John Calvin has a wonderful gloss on that passage from St John ('Calvin's New Testament Commentaries John 1-10,' Eerdmans/Paternoster Press):'We must go at once to meet Christ when He knocks at our door, lest He gets tired at our laziness and goes away from us. And indeed it is well known from many experiences in all ages, how greatly this DEPARTURE of Christ is to be FEARED.' If you want to hear preaching like that today, go online and listen to a man called Arthur W Pink (1886-1952). Men like Pink could convert the whole world. One other thing, they did a film of Rosamund Lehmann's novel The Echoing Grove. It's on DVD, called The Heart of Me, starring Helena Bonham Carter, who is so delightfully amusing in Toast and Sixty Six. Best, JACK

  9. Wendy, the best recordings of Arthur W Pink are to be found on YouTube. I recommend God's Sovereign Election, The Way of Salvation, Saving Faith, The Christian Armour, What is Most Needed Today, It Is Finished and (this one the liberals in the Church of England should really listen to) The Nature of Apostasy. Pink's writings helped Martyn Lloyd-Jones during a personal crisis. You'll find the full story in a marvellous little book, 'Dr D Martyn Lloyd-Jones' by Eryl Davies ( Bitesize Biographies EP Books, Faverdale North Darlington).

  10. The other day I was watching again a DVD of the brilliant Terence Davies movie, The Long Day Closes. An English film like no other, but with echoes of The Magnificent Ambersons. (Indeed, we actually hear the voice of Orson Welles.) Someone sings She Moved Through the Fair. Regarding your Romano-Brit novel, Wendy. Have you read Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Haughton? I have an old Puffin paperback copy. Arthur is not a king, but rather a general in the West Country. He is attempting to hold back the Saxon invaders. The Romans have gone, and the Dark Ages are imminent. The novel opens with a haunting poem; after his death, men will say: 'Arthur is gone.' This Arthur is buried on the Island of Apples, a Bronze Age Avalon and our present Glastonbury. Years ago, in 1987, I had dinner at the Clackmannanshire home of Anthony Kamm, formerly chief editor of the children's fiction section of Oxford University Press. (He is a Classics' scholar, and is married to the children's writer Eileen Dunlop.) Rosemary Haughton was one of his writers. You are correct about John Steinbeck. He lived in Somerset while working on his Malory-King Arthur novel. As he lay dying he told his wife that the Somerset interlude had been the happiest of his life. Steinbeck's Letters are a great read. PJ Kavanagh wrote an article about them in his old Spectator column, reproduced in a book of his essays. Rosemary Lehmann was his mother-in-law. Have a lovely April, JACK HAGGERTY

  11. My kingdom for a good sub-editor. I have made a gaffe, Wendy. The author of Sword At Sunset is Rosemary Sutcliffe. Rosemary Haughton is a lay theologian I read and admired many years ago. An American living in England, she wrote The Drama of Salvation, The Knife Edge of Experience and The Catholic Thing. She was a friend of the late Thomas Merton. I am now reading a book entitled The Wounded Heart of Thomas Merton, and a short study of St John of the Cross by Father Iain Matthew, chaplain at the LSE. I can recommend both books. Yours aye, J Haggerty

  12. You are full of great insights Jack!

    I do indeed know the Rosemary Sutcliffe novel from a time ago and I really admire her intuitive insight into those times.
    However in researching and writing my - as you call it - Romano-Brit novel (nice, that) I am very careful not to read fiction but stick to primary sources as far as I can from the history and the archaeology of the times and the geography of the place. This process is very challenging with this book as the primary sources regarding the Brits are mainly archeological finds, objects, songs and myths. The written sources are Roman and Greek, are destructively biased and need careful handling.

    Reading fiction - ie borrowing into other people's imagination - somehow make full stop rather than a journey of the research; it influences too much the tone and the sweep of your own imaginative transformatiom from the sources into the world of your your imagined story.

    I have indeed heard of Anthony Camm. He had a good influence on the production of excellent fiction. All praise - rather a contrast to these days of commodification and slushification of some fiction,.

    You would see my current post on Rosamund Lehmann. I think as a mother in law she was perhaps a mixed blessing.

    Have a brighter April yourself.

  13. Wendy, You mention 'archaeological finds, objects, songs and myths'. I am no writer, but I can see the journey for the novelist has to be open-ended. If not, what is in it for the novel reader? I'm sure you know about Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University. She is the author of 'Caesar's Druids - The Story of an Ancient Priesthood' and 'The Quest for the Shaman: Shape Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit Healers of Ancient Europe'. There's also 'Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids' by Ronald Hutton. In my native city of Glasgow (the Dear Green Place as Archie Hind rechristened it in his novel) there was a kind of Druid school just off our old High Street. The site stands not so far from Glasgow Cathedral. Have you watched a Youtube interview with Alan Garner? It's titled, most winningly, THE SHOVEL. He found this wonderful Bronze Age worktool some years ago, and donated it to Manchester Museum. Pierre Teilhard De Chardin said he treasured a number of found objects which he called his 'idols'. Stones, tools, bits of ancient clinker, Chinese fossils. As a child Teilhard loved any object which seemed indestructible. He was horrified to see that even iron could be melted down. I wouldn't bother about Teilhard's theology. Karl Barth (you can see Barth speaking in German on Youtube) said Teilhard's ideas were a new form of Gnosticism. Barth likened the gnostic heresy to the curling serpent on the snakes and ladders board. It finds its way into much liberal theology, 'inclusive' churches, Jungian mysticism, Scientology, the books of Deepak Chopra, the goddess movement, the Sri Chinmoy cult, channelling, sorcery, spirit healing, theosophy, angel worship, Wicca, UFOLOGY, the so-called New Age coalition and of course the current interest in shamanism. Gnosticism is the hydra-headed heresy of the 21st Century. If only we had John Knox back in Scotland. You mention songs as an important resource. I love songs because, unlike metals, they are irreducible. I try to interest people in the recordings of Kathleen Ferrier but she doesn't seem to go down well today. Terence Davies used her haunting recording of Blow the Wind Southerly in that movie of his I mentioned. Her recording of Bach's 'Tarry yet, my Dearest Saviour' is what Pierre Teilhard was seeking. He was just looking in the wrong place. Best, JACK

  14. An addendum to yesterday's comment. From the Handbook of Catholic Apologetics (edited by Peter J Kreeft and Father Ronald K Tacelli, SJ, published in 1994 by Ignatius Press): 'Jesus never told us to be 'spiritual'. He told us to be holy. And since we are rational animals rather than angels, he gave us material ways to be holy, like feeding the hungry and healing the sick, as he did.' Chapter 17, page 429. Incidentally, Karl Barth was asked to attend the Second Vatican Council's open sessions, along with a number of other Protestant theologians. Illness prevented his initial appearance, but he came at a later date and participated in a debate with Catholic theologians and the College of Bishops. Barth, who had refused to take his oath of allegiance to Hitler, being a member of the confessing church which opposed the Third Reich, also contributed an introductory letter to a book by the RC theologian Hans Kung. Kung's book, Justification (Burns and Oates, 1964) usefully explores one of the key issues which separates the Reformed faith from Catholic theology. JACK

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