Eighteen years old. Standing at the window of my room in college. Staring out towards a low brick wall supporting a fence topped with barbed wire. Beyond it, the healthy green of a sports field.
Above the barbed wire, the intense summer-blue of the sky. The sun out of sight, way up high, shining fit to bust.
There’s a narrow path between the building and the fence. One of the disadvantages of a ground floor room.
After midnight, if your light’s on, you’re liable to hear a knock on the window. A friend with a man who’s scaled the locked gates is begging you to open the window and let him climb in. Then they’ll scurry from your room as quickly as they can. After checking the corridor for spies.
But it’s far from midnight and the day is full of promise.
I’m listening to a record I borrowed from a friend, on a record player borrowed from the girl next door.
Beneath my bare feet the grey floor is smooth and hard but not cold. The door to the little cupboard hiding my washbasin is ajar. An orange chair sits by the bookshelves. A single bed stretches along the wall that I share with the kitchen.
That was long ago and far away, but there’s something that always transports me back there – always.
It’s Sibelius’ fifth symphony.
I’d never heard a Sibelius symphony before I met Janet, a friend I see to this day. I was so impressed when she said, ‘listen to the tympani’ that I did. Again and again.
So many friends with so much knowledge to share – as well as records. And dresses. And books. We shared almost everything.
Or did I just borrow?
Anyway. For years I’ve listened to that symphony. I have two different recordings – one my own copy of that same record I borrowed.
Every time I hear it I’m whisked straight back to that room. To that sunny day, that barbed wire fence. To the dreams and hopes of eighteen year-old me.
As the music reaches a crescendo I’m standing on the deck of an imaginary sailing ship, cresting billowing waves. Salt spray flying. Wind in my hair. A thick rope grasped in my hand, keeping me safe.
Imagination – isn’t it wonderful?
At the point where I would usually be swept away by my phantom of a sailing ship, I lost my sense of time and place.
I was no longer anywhere.
I was swirling inside the music, conscious only of the movement and the sound. As if I was inside a ball of joyfulness – but also peace. Seeing nothing.
I can’t find adequate words to describe it. But it was – magical.
The conductor wore an unusual black jacket that, when he bent, as he often did, dipping and diving with the rise and fall of the orchestration, made him look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Not one of your cool calm and collected types, he threw himself into it, body and – I suspect – soul.
Now and again he clasped the rail around the back of his podium to steady himself, as if he was about to collapse, or teeter off the edge.
The interval came too soon and I wondered if we should leave – how could the rest live up to what had gone before?
But we stayed, for more Sibelius. For his sixth and seventh symphonies. I didn’t know these – but at times the strings took off like the musical equivalent of a murmuration of starlings, or a vast flutter of butterflies. Soft wings were everywhere – well, mostly inside my head.
As the orchestra prepared for the seventh symphony the stage crew came on and took away the harp – and then, the conductor’s music stand. He conducted the last piece from memory.
It’s possible the concert was made all the more exhilarating for me by the fact that I had walked to our local station, caught the train and walked up the hill to the concert hall. Not a crutch of mine in sight.
But I don’t think so.
Yes, it was a special evening.
Yes, Liverpool was abuzz – and even the middle aged woman, out of her mind, whom we swerved to avoid, couldn’t detract from its magnetism. Its energy.
Yes, the beggars and the rough sleepers were in evidence, too much evidence – but it was, at least, a warm night for desperation.
And we had plenty of change to dispense.
Yes, the bombed out church looked even more evocative of the spirit of survival than ever – and the two cathedrals soared.
Life-affirming though the city was, it was the music that kept me awake all night.
Today I’m tired. But happy.
I recommend Sibelius’ fifth. If you don’t like it the first time try it again – and again. There will come a point at which you get it. And you’ll be hooked. Forever.
No need for a barbed wire fence – but a blue sky and a sunny day? An openness to hope and a willingness to dream?