Just spent a week and a half in Wales, the first three days in a caravan on a farm at the top of a hill. The view was as magnificent as the weather was cold. You could take photos from the doorstep – with a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper.
I must have been about seven when I stayed with my parents at the Tyn y Coed Hotel, at the foot of Moel Siabod. From the hotel, its profile appears Matterhorn-like. The sun catches impressive-looking craggy outcrops around its pointed summit. It is impossible not to want to climb it. I pester my parents until they take me on an expedition to conquer it. To their relief, I think, a quarter of a mile from the hotel I step into a stream that is too deep for my wellington boots. The water flows over the rims. Cold water rises inexorably up my legs. We have to empty my boots and turn back.The second, successful attempt on the summit has to wait over forty years. From the caravan where we are staying, the mountain’s profile is less imposing but it still exerts a magical attraction on me, nonetheless.
From the doorway you can see not only Siabod, but all the tops of the Carneddau mountains. If you stand in the right place, you can see the Snowdon group and the Glyders, too. In the photo, Moel Siabod is just to the right of the farmhouse.
In a bookshop in Porthmadog I come across At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I glance at it and get the feeling that if I buy it, I’ll not be able to put it down. I buy it and, no, I can’t put it down. In the first chapter she says how in the past two or three decades, the world has changed:
Some of those fashionable movements that knocked existentialism out of the way have aged badly themselves…
Quite*. Given the problems of the 21st century, she says,
there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy. They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully-human life… They tackled questions about nuclear war, about… the environment, about violence, and about the difficulty of managing international relations in dangerous times….
Above all, they asked about freedom, which several of them considered the topic underlying all others…
The book is a compelling mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy. She has the knack of explaining potentially difficult ideas in a way which is easy to read. She riffs on the newsreel that survives of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral. Watch out for Simone de Beauvoir and for the bearer who takes off his hat – only to hurriedly replace it when he realises that the other bearers have left theirs on, in deference to a man who defied convention.
As I think I’ve said in previous posts, all through the eye problems I’ve been having this year I’ve been listening to a lot of music. This increasingly meant the music of Les Six, and of those six French composers, the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was prolific, writing over 400 pieces. There’s a case for saying he’s one of the best kept secrets of twentieth century music. In Cob Records, a record shop in Porthmadog, I find a NAXOS CD of Milhaud’s piano music. It includes his Saudades Do Brasil:
It also includes Milhaud’s own selection and piano arrangement of his film music for the 1934 film of Mme Bovary. This is quite special, as it includes the actress Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow, reading extracts from the book between the short movements. Listening to it, I can’t help but wonder why his music’s not played more often. There is sometimes a deceptive lightness to it which perhaps leads people to take it less seriously than they should. With another prolific composer, Haydn, he shares a humane sense of humour. Also, being prolific is not always good for popularity: if you write hundreds of pieces (the same probably goes for creating books and paintings) people can find it hard to seek out your best work and “get a handle” on what you do. Added to that, Milhaud wrote a kind of music that fewer and fewer people seem to think they have a use for. Perhaps, like the existentialists, “there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting” his music. I certainly think so.
*Noam Chomsky has written about this.