In November I received an usual email from Bea Colley, Literature and Spoken Word producer at the Southbank Centre. Would I, she asked, like to write some poems about the Royal Festival Hall organ? This was a strange offer, to say the least, and I was initially unsure of whether I would be able to get involved, given the amount of work I was already involved in at the time. But then I saw a picture of the 8,000+pipe organ, newly refurbished with the help of a seriously massive slice of heritage lottery funding. It is breathtaking. Despite my busyness and the fact that I know (well, knew) little to nothing about organs, the one thing I did know was that I couldn’t possibly turn down the opportunity to work on this project. Since then, 9 other poets and I – under the masterful leadership of poet and live literature producer Julia Bird, have been attending workshops at SBC, listening to the organ being played, exploring its inner workings, playing the organ ourselves(!), and even having a sleepover on the Royal Festival Hall stage next to the organ, all with the aim of producing two new poems each: one for inclusion in an exhibition all about the organ, its rich history, and its new life now; one to be performed at Pipes v Mics, an evening of unusual organ+? commissions, including a new piece for beatbox and organ, written and performed by beatboxers Shlomo and Reeps One, and organist Tom Bell. Pipes v Mics is this Sunday, 30th March, at 7:30pm in the Royal Festival Hall. The free exhibition opened on 18th March and runs in the SBC’s Clore Ballroom of SBC until 13th April, visitable 10am-11pm daily.
Why were we sleeping over on the Royal Festival Hall stage? Did they expect us to draw some supernatural, subconscious inspiration from prolonged physical proximity with the organ during the intimate hours of night, the hall’s house lights dimmed so in our bleary sleep-deprived states they might almost have been stars? Did they want me to write a euphemistic nod-and-a-wink poem called ‘Pipe Dream’? All of these questions crossed my mind. And, regarding the latter, I certainly thought about it.
The organ has a history so rich that the wealth of possible themes it suggested actually made writing my pieces (or, at least, deciding what elements to focus on) immensely difficult. It was built in 1954 by Harrison & Harrison, 3 years after the Royal Festival Hall opened as part of the Festival of Britain. Its designer, however, produced something immensely controversial, inspired as it was more by continental models than by what many then considered to be a truly ‘British’ organ. For a start, the organ had no façade, so its inner workings were clearly visible to an audience.
Naked organs, massive organs, huge erect pipes, mouths…the double entendres abounded. Indeed, we ended up having to set aside a few minutes of an early workshop just to get them all out of our system, though that wasn’t enough to stop just a few creepy into an early draft of my performance piece. But, penis jokes aside, even the language of the organ is so varied and inherently analogous, poetic and musical, that is has proved impossible to resist for many of us. The names of the stops are fantastic (‘Nazard’, ‘Quintadena’, ‘Hautboy’, ‘Salicional’, ‘Rohrflute’, ‘Rohrnazard’ are just a few that appear in my exhibition piece), and the organ – as it breathes and sings, standing solitary in the RFH, from where it can never leave – is surprisingly easy to empathise with on a human level. For my performance piece, I found particularly fertile ground in the shared vocabulary of both the organ and the bicycle. Inspired by the 300 mile bike ride undertaken by Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of the SBC, with a peloton of six, delivering the final organ pipe from the Harrison & Harrison factory in Durham to the RFH, I chose to anachronistically conflate this journey with Ralph Downes’s figurative battle to get the organ made according to his contentious specifications by setting up a 300 mile long race between him and traditionalist Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the design’s chief opponents. It’s become (I hope) a fun and irreverent look at embracing change and a more fluid concept of our national identity. This was having originally written 12 minutes of material for a 3 minute brief! Initially overwhelmed by the number of possibilities for the performance piece, and unsure which to pursue, I wrote lots and lots of stuff, hoping something would stick. Then, when I realised that it all hung together as a (semi) coherent whole, it came to 4-times the time limit! Whoops. I think writing a piece condoning positive change regarding attitudes towards national identity, sexuality, gender, and race, can sometimes lead one to have more than 3 minutes’ worth of things to say! Don’t worry; rant warning not needed – I’ve edited quite savagely (after all, I had to).
Working on this project has been an absolute privilege, and has given the opportunity to do things I would never otherwise have been able to: last week I went on Radio 3 to read my exhibition in front of a live audience in the Southbank Centre foyer, during the station’s groundbreaking festival-long residency at SBC (you can listen again here (I start at 1:05:27)); on Sunday I will perform in the Royal Festival Hall, in front of a 2,000-strong audience (it’s selling fast, but tickets for this FREE concert are still available to book here); I’ve written, shared, made bad sex puns, laughed hard, and been inspired with the highest standard and loveliest group of writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They are Keith Jarratt, James Brookes, Charlotte Higgins, Ricardo Marques, Indigo Williams, Carmen Thompson, Jon Stone, Abi Parry, and (last but by no means least) Julia Bird. These wonderful people, not to mention Shlomo, Reeps One, Tom Bell, Weston Jennings, Kit Downes and Tomas Challenger, definitely deserve a sell out crowd on Sunday, and I feel I can say with some confidence that if you’re among that crowd this weekend, you will not be disappointed.