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Full text from reading at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday 8 June 2012.

Drip

Drip

Drip

On 14 February 1984, I fell over outside a Fish and Chip shop in Bulwell. I got a black eye. My dad carried me home on his shoulders across Bulwell Golf Course. My mum gave me some ice cubes wrapped in an old tea towel to hold against my face and switched on the Black and White television set from Radio Rentals. I heard the music before I saw the image fizzing into life. Torvill and Dean were dancing to Bolero at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. When I hear the music now I can remember the fall, the smell of fish and chips and the feeling of watching the world from my father’s shoulders. I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks and the cold of the ice against my face as I watched two people from our home town dancing on ice somewhere very far away. I can remember the pain. I can remember the cold. I can remember the ice melting.

Drip

Drip

Drip

Now nearly 30 years later, I have been on a journey. I have been looking for Bolero. In raindrops. In the drips caught by buckets from a leaky roof. In road works. In the rhythm of a train. In the way footsteps fall. In the ticks of a clock. In the duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh of a mobile phone held too close to a speaker. In the way a car indicator clicks. Or a child grinds their teeth as they sleep. Or the washing machine whirs when someone has left pennies in their pocket. Or the fridge buzzes when there’s nothing in it. Or an alarm goes off at 6.30am in the morning. And I wake up. And I pack my bag.

A guidebook to Paris

A copy of Bolero on CD

A copy of Ravel’s biography

A map of Montfort L’Amaury

A red rose

I listened to the music all the way there and all the way back again. I listened to the music on trains, on aeroplanes, in taxis, sitting in theatres, on roadsides and beside Ravel’s grave. As I pressed play that day at Levallois-Perret cemetery all I could hear were the trains pulling into Paris. Their engines slowly winding down after their long haul across France. Back to the cradle of French industry where the Eiffel Tower was forged and the tomb of Monsieur Eiffel still stands proudly facing his tower. At odds to all the other graves which face the same way. His tomb is easy to find. Ravel’s took a little longer. I had to ask a man to show me where he was buried and he wished me a ‘bonne visitation’ as if I was visiting a relative or a loved one not someone I had never met. Ravel’s tomb is more modest, more unassuming, more like the man it gives a roof to. I was there in early January, nearly 75 years to the day when Ravel was lowered into the ground. I wondered who else was there then. How many red roses were laid at his feet like the one I left him. How many handfuls of soil landed before his coffin was covered up forever. How the soil sounded when it hit the wood.

For a moment, I thought I had forgotten to press play. But when the music bled through the noise of the trains it took me my surprise and, as I wrote, like I am now, to the music, something happened to my handwriting. It changed. Became less like mine and more like Ravel’s. I have seen it since. In his letters. In postcards. In notes on manuscripts telling composers to stick to the tempo. Then something happened to the tense. It becomes the present tense not the past tense. Then something happens to the voice. It becomes his voice not my voice. When I say I, I mean Ravel. When I say you, I mean me. I find myself writing his words to the music. Composing a letter from Ravel to me. To the writer of whatever this is going to be. Telling me how to tell his story. Telling me to listen to the music. Telling me to stick to the tempo.

One

Two

Three

Ravel lived alone in a house shaped like a ship. He was only five foot two. The ceilings are low and he hand painted the walls. He surrounded himself with pictures of his family in Montfort-L’Amaury. His beloved mother looks down at him from the wall opposite his desk. A photograph of himself as a child stands on the piano next to mechanical toys and trinkets, as if he could only compose his music through memories of his childhood. In that room I hear him. The room where he wrote Bolero. There are no right angles to make the acoustics clearer and they had to winch the piano in through the window. He is sitting on the front row at L’Opera Garnier. As I write on the balcony. Listening to the music. Picturing the scene in 1928 at the premiere of Bolero. He is waiting for the audience to arrive, not expecting the critical acclaim the music will receive. He doesn’t understand how people could enjoy a composition ‘without any music in it’. He is sitting there with me in the theatre, nervously holding his copy of the score, knowing it is too late to change but too early to tell. The curtain is raised and Ida Rubinstein and her dancers take to the stage. Then the conductor walks onstage and taps his baton on the music stand.

One

Two

Three

Ida Rubinstein gave Ravel a set of silver Russian teaspoons as a thank you with IR engraved on their handle. I hold them in my hand at his house. When the tour guide passes them over I imagine Ida Rubinstein passing them to Ravel. In the same way. In the same room. In the same house. Because of the same piece of music. I see his smile reflected in the silverware. I am following his footsteps. I am standing in his shoes. I play his piano. Only two notes. I try to tell the lady in A-Level French that ‘I couldn’t do it justice’ and when I get home I start to learn Bolero on the piano so if I ever return I will be able to play it again. In the same room. In the same house. Music he played on that piano. Music he wrote on that piano. As I leave to get the train back to Paris, the tour guide tells me that Bolero was inspired by the rhythm of trains. She gives me a seed from Ravel’s garden. A seed that will grow into a story. A story that will stick to the tempo. A story that will take me to Sarajevo.

A guidebook to Sarajevo

A copy of Bolero on CD

A copy of Ravel’s biography

A seed

I am on a plane to Sarajevo in the snow. A man on the plane tells me that when it snows nothing can get in or out of the city because it lies between the mountains. He says that this is why it was so easily besieged. Besieged by the war. Besieged by the weather. There is a Bosnian expression people used during the war that means ‘No nothing’. No electricity, no gas, no water, no fuel for the fire, no food. When I arrive nothing is open. One man tells me ‘Everything is closed. Sarajevo is closed. Like the war.’ The streets are full of cars cocooned in snow. It is a state of national emergency and all the men have been called upon to clear the streets. I see them near the city’s brewery shoveling the snow off the road and throwing it into the drains to be washed away. During the war, the brewery was one of the only sources of fresh water. They kept the taps running. Many people died from sniper fire or shelling as they waited here. People ran through the streets with their water bottles thinking they might be next. But there is no one running today. We slip. We slide. We skate. When I arrive at the ice stadium I find buckets left on the floor to catch drips from the ceiling.

Drip

Drip

Drip

The ice stadium was bombed. Used as an army base. Used as a morgue. The seats turned into coffins. The dead were buried here during the war. Then moved to the nearby hills. Now children skate over where children laid. I crunch around the stadium alone in the snow, my breath misting up like the fog people danced in when the snipers couldn’t see. An old woman hunches over the eternal flame. Keeping her hands warm. Remembering. Where shells fell across the city, the holes in the ground have been filled with red wax to make them look like flower petals. The streets here bleed flowers. They call them Sarajevo Roses. I could not find them in the snow, but I read the names engraved on the walls, marking those that lost their lives queuing outside shops, waiting for bread or filling their water bottle. I find a real rose left in the snow. Maybe someone remembering a loved one they lost. Maybe a loved one shot by a sniper here. Everywhere you walk in Sarajevo, you realise you can be seen from the mountains. You realise you are in the line of fire. You would have been a target. You would have been a rose. Like the Sarajevo Roses I cannot see under the snow. Or the rose I left on Ravel’s tomb in Paris. Or the roses thrown onto the ice at the end of Bolero.

Six. Six. Six. Six. Six. Six.

On my last day in Sarajevo, I meet the curator of the Winter Olympics museum, Edin Numankadic. He is an artist. I give him the seed from Maurice Ravel’s garden. He says he will plant it and watch it grow. But he will wait for the snow to thaw first. He calls me Mihail, he makes me mint tea, he tells me stories and he never stops smiling. He takes me into the stadium and lets me stand where Torvill and Dean danced in 1984. He tells me how the Olympics nearly didn’t happen until it snowed the day before. He tells me that when the Olympic Museum was bombed, he found a gold medal that had melted. He tells me how the Bosnian army moved his piano during the war. He tells me how he would listen to his wife playing music on the piano as the shells fell around them. He tells me how music gave them hope. He tells me how music should play a part in my story. He tells me to listen to the music. He tells me to stick to the tempo.

I am heading home on a plane with propellers drilling holes in the blizzard. I am listening to the music. As I look out of the window, I start to cry. Edin showed me a photograph of a child being buried outside the stadium. Their family look at the mountains as if the next sniper’s bullet will find them, their faces locked in grief and fear. Funerals lasted fifteen minutes during the war. The same length as Bolero. So there was no time to say goodbye. I hear the music filling the stadium when I stand there. I hear the music in explosions that tore it down ten years later. I hear the music in the gunfire that left holes in the walls. I hear the music played on an accordion in a bombed out theatre. On the way back to the airport, I pass a café called Bolero. As I fly over the mountains and look down at the stadium from above, I see where thousands of bodies were buried during the war. I see white crosses reaching high up into the hills around the city like fingers around a neck. Each one has a story. Each one has someone leaving them a rose in the snow. I can only imagine what it was like. I can only write this. I can only cry like this. Like the day when I fell over nearly 30 years ago. I can remember the pain. I can remember the cold. I can remember the ice melting.

Drip

Drip

Drip

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