The Darker Half

As I write, we still lie within the Gaelic festival of Samhain- and are once again reminded that whoever transliterated the language of the Gaels to English deserves to go down in infamy.  Should any form of afterlife exist, I trust some special form of linguistic hell has been laid on for him (or her) in which to spend their endless days reflecting on their crime.

Samhain traditionally marked the start of winter and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year.  While I’m sure some neopagans still celebrate in this spirit – though I suspect in a manner which would be entirely alien to any time-travelling ancient Celt – it has mostly been subsumed in popular culture by Halloween.

When I was a lad, I don’t recall any special marking of Halloween, beyond perhaps some of the then three TV channels scheduling a scary film safely after the watershed (and I was tucked up in bed).  However, in recent years its importance had gown in this country so that it now almost outshines the important local festival of arson and resistance to knavish Popery (which will be the name of my latest business venture: providing bowls of dried petals and spices for even the most staunchly Protestant of homes).  Am I alone in fearing that an important warning to the masses not to contemplate the violent overthrow of the State is being lost?

No, today, Halloween offers an opportunity for young people dressed in scary (or merely atypical?) costumes to patrol the streets of our conurbations, great and small, seeking sweets with menaces.  This is very much not my bag – though Andrew Hunter Murray’s admission via Twitter that the only sweets he had available were high-cocoa dark chocolate was tempting, but I fear not widely practiced outside of his small corner of South London.  You might expect me as a curmudgeon of a certain age (spirit animal: Ed Reardon) to rail against this imported custom.  However, until the kids’ costumes include a functional flying broomstick, I can remain safely aloof from the hurly burly until it’s done (and any battles, lost and won) in my tiny first floor flat.  In fact, I was out on the streets while the local children were performing a parodic reenactment of their hunter-gatherer roots and it seemed that the whole process was surprisingly ecumenical.  I saw what appeared to be children from at least three of the world’s major faiths participating enthusiastically under the watchful eyes of their elders – which I feel must be good for social cohesion.

I celebrated the start of the darker half in the musical embrace of the ICP Orchestra: a curious Dutch chimera of chamber orchestra and jazz band.  ICP stands for Instant Composers Pool, but this knowledge did little to prepare me for the evening ahead.  Their music is very hard to describe but there were certainly elements of modern classical music – the odd hint of late Shostakovich perhaps – and of jazz.  I’d also throw in some Dada, manouche and mariachi and no doubt a whole lot more I didn’t recognise.  There was so much to take in, it was hard to believe there were only ten musicians – though about half played two instruments and there were occasional words(?) sung.  The concert also boasted the tattiest looking cello I have ever seen – it looked like it had been rescued from a skip moments before the gig started – but boy could it sing!  There was even an element of physical theatre – dare I say, dance – when the cellist (long past even the second flush of youth and perhaps retrieved from the same skip) conducted the band in a very unconventional manner for one of the pieces.  In the second half, when the band and audience had grown used to each other, there were even proper laughs.  Even when using a score, the music felt gloriously improvisational with order and chaos swirling around each other in a fertile maelstrom.  The ICP Orchestra have been going almost as long as I have – this year is their 50th anniversary – and some of them are clearly original members but there has been no slowing down in their musical creativity or physicality.  Even for a chap who goes to a lot of gigs, it was a unique night of incredible musical invention and fun.

As so often, I am forced to reflect on the musical riches on offer within 15 minutes of my door: if only a few more folk had taken a chance and swelled the rather modest audience.  Nonetheless, I shall continue my blog and Facebook proselytising in the hope of drawing a few more lost souls onto the right path: I can promise nothing for the next life, but plenty of enjoyable experiences in this one and a chance to get out of the house and meet some of your fellow hikers through this veil of tears!


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