Piazzolla, Stan Laurel and the Quakers – they were all there too
On Friday night I became one quarter of a Piazzolla tango band at a small cafe-restaurant in Ulverston, Cumbria, UK – a town mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. After the event I retired to the nearby accommodation at Swarthmoor Hall, a Quaker retreat from 1652, having reached this particularly enchanting part of the country thanks to Joseph Locke and the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway, constructed in 1840. Yes, I have to admit I am obsessed with dates! For me they are like the bannister on a staircase with each step an event in history, and what, may I ask, would a staircase be without a bannister but something a lot less interesting to look at?
Music was the thing, the main thing which dominated proceedings for me on Friday and Saturday, and also too for the town, with significant proportions of its population involved in the production and success of a festival, the Ulverston International Music Festival. My first participation was in Buenos Aires revisited - and what a great title. Astor Piazzolla turned the music of tango on its head, transforming it from an exotically sensual dance to a rhythmically complex and emotionally-loaded affair.
Buenos Aires' born Eduardo Garcia made all the musical arrangements, playing the reptile-like bandoneon with deep feeling, his facial expressions a perfect reflection of the music's emotional turmoil. Russian-born violinist Dunja Lavrova provided a neat counterpoint: standing, swaying and smiling as her bow swept its way through the beautiful melodies. As for pianist Anthony Howitt I can't tell you anything about his face for he had his back to me... but if his playing was anything to go by it must have been in a constant state of rhythmic animation. The ambience was great. The small cafe really did feel like a smoky cellar in Buenos Aires, not that I have ever been to such a place myself.
The silences of a peaceful country retreat deceive us into thinking that all has always been well
We finished the performance close to midnight and I eventually tumbled into bed in the small hours of the night. The accommodation just outside Ulverston was as quiet as quiet can be, the only sounds were the echoes in my mind of the evening's music. But the silence at Swarthmoor Hall is no true reflection of the dramas this place has witnessed. In the mid 17th century it became a focal point of the struggle for religious freedom of expression with its owner Margaret Fell at various times meeting with King Charles II to petition him, until she too was imprisoned. Such are the silences of a peaceful country retreat, they deceive us into thinking that all has always been well.
My second engagement was on the very next morning at 11am – a recital of two parts in the Coronation Hall. I was greeted by a full house and a beautiful natural acoustic, I could not ask for more. As I arrived I saw two statues on the pavement in front of the theatre. Well well, they were of Laurel and Hardy, for Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston to become one of the funniest men in the movies. Buster Keaton said:
“Charlie Chaplin wasn't the funniest, I wasn't the funniest, this man was.” And I agree with that.
By 5pm I was on my way back to London by train. I notice that many passengers, including myself, pass much of their journey chatting and looking out of the window at the passing countryside, or reading books, or newspapers, or writing on lap-top computers, or annoying everyone else speaking loud banalities into their mobile phones. Maybe some curious travellers wonder as I do about the construction of the railway line on which we are travelling. What did it take to build a railway line across bogs and reclaimed land, and across the Lake District hills and mountains? Why a mountain pass here and a tunnel there? All this struck me because of an interesting plaque I spotted at Lancaster station while waiting for the London connection. It reads:
“Lancaster station opened 1846 by Joseph Locke 1805-1860 engineer to the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway and President of the Institute of Civil Engineers”.
To read about the life of Joseph Locke is to learn something of the amazing engineering constructions of the 19th century. People like him changed the world around us to what it has become now. It is almost inconceivable that anyone could do so again, and may be that is a good thing too for railway lines cut through countryside and communities, defacing them and sometimes causing huge environmental damage. It could only have happened then in the mid 19th century, neither before nor after. Maybe that's why I am so keen on dates. Yesterday we built the railway lines, and the day before (in 1686 to be exact) we passed a law of religious toleration which allowed Quakers at last to worship freely in Swarthmoor Hall among other places.
Ulverston's population is barely 12,000 and yet it hosts a wonderful festival every year. That part we can see and enjoy, but round every corner and under every stone there is an invisible history of events and peoples past waiting to be rediscovered and remembered, but too often forgotten. They have shaped all that we are and all that we do now.
Meanwhile, back to Piazzolla's tango music. Few composers have re-invented music or a genre, as he did. How did he do that? Why did he compose the way he did, what was he like, and where did he grow up? That's a lot of questions. Oh dear, that date feeling is coming all over me. Back to the history books ….again.
Ulverston International Music Festival
Swarthmoor Hall, country house and Quaker retreat
Eduardo Garcia, bandoneon
Dunja Lavrova, violin
Anthony Hewitt, piano, and Festival Director
Laurel and Hardy Museum, Ulverston, Cumbria, UK
Joseph Locke, railway engineer
London, 1 July 2012