A phantom ship and a barbed wire fence

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?

P1010930But last night I sat in a concert hall, hearing the symphony as if for the first time.
And something amazing happened. Something I have never experienced before.

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.

A classic Liverpool pavement - gum, not art

A classic Liverpool pavement – gum, not art

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.

The bombed out church - a war memorial beloved of the city and much used

The bombed out church – a war memorial beloved of the city and much used

The other end of the bombed out church

The other end of the bombed out church











Yes, the bombed out church looked even more evocative of the spirit of survival than ever – and the two cathedrals soared.

The Metropolitan (Catholic) cathedral at one end of Hope Street

The Metropolitan (Catholic) cathedral at one end of Hope Street

The Anglican cathedral at the other end of Hope street but seen from a classic old cobbled city centre street

The Anglican cathedral at the other end of Hope Street but seen from a classic old cobbled city centre street











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?


This entry was posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Liverpool and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A phantom ship and a barbed wire fence

  1. Christa says:

    A wonderful, evocative, piece Mary. I do envy your ability to listen to music like that. I must try harder. You have inspired me to do so.


    • Hello Christa and thank you so much – and for sharing it – I no longer share them on FB as I am sure people just get bored … Regarding the music – I was surprised that I instantly liked 6 & 7 as I had not heard them before but it really was all just magical – I didn’t have to listen in any active discriminatory sense! (And it was rather nice being ‘normal’ so to speak again) Mx


  2. Simply Sorted says:

    Lovely Mary! I was transported… Looking forward to seeing you both in June AND very pleased you’re sans crutches already. Well done. Love Alison xx


  3. EllaDee says:

    Classical music wasn’t part of my earlier life, and it simply doesn’t resonate. Unlike earlier in the week flicking through daytime TV I caught the end of The Teenage Years when entertainment and product, in this case music, combine featuring Neil Sedaka, The Drifters etc from the 50’s & 60’s much of which formed the soundtrack of my childhood… without thinking I sang along feeling like an idiot.
    While reading your post, curious, I Googled Sibelius 5th youtube, and listened to a Karajan clip until the G.O. gently suggested “kill that will you please”… I tried then, and I’ve tried before. There’s some, like Waltz of the Flowers and Peter and the Wolf, that I love but they are also something from my younger years.
    It doesn’t appear I can play catch up now with classical music.
    But music can take you on a trip back to places and times of good memories, and bad. During a particular time of life I listened to one Damien Rice CD that afterwards I had to throw out. But other music remains a lifelong joy. Joni Mitchell on repeat play now. The CD called to me from the drawer. Then Mrs S. came for a visit and begged me to burn it for her, so I bought the same CD, sent it and made her day.
    Whatever whenever music is enjoyed it has a lasting impact, and possibly cumulative with Sibelius taking you back not only to the first time you heard it but the last.
    Music is such a generous thing. And it got you out and about, which is a joy in itself 🙂


    • What a shame about the Sibelius – but I completely understand – my early exposure to classical music was all the more ‘traditional’ sounds like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. The first time I heard the Sib 5th it I was definitely not carried off on a sailing ship! I toyed with the idea of adding a link but when I listened to what was available on You Tube I didn’t like the versions I found and – oh dear – especially the Karajan you tried. Way too stodgy. It is music that to me is very cumulative, it teases, throws in lush tunes then dashes off into disharmony, builds tension – but anyway … we meet in Joni Mitchell – ahhhh! A companion in joy and misery. Blue is one of my favourite of her albums but I love Hissing of Summer Lawns too and the jazziness of Court and Spark. I’d want to take ‘ the wind is in from Africa’ to my desert island! And, yes, this was my first ‘real’ outing as opposed to trips out in the car with small walks. It felt like I’d climbed a big hill and seen the other side at last. Thank you, good to hear from you, supportively empathetic as always 🙂


  4. I love how this one piece of music changed for you over the years, first as a generator of memories and then as a world in and of itself.


Thanks for reading, please comment if it struck a chord

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