by Michael Symmons Roberts
Photograph by Julian Abrams
18 October 2011
“It looks like the people are in church, worshipping the god time, or waiting for some miracle – that’s in this piece. It’s not just the ordinary occurrence.”
Lavinia Greenlaw on Audio Obscura
That woman in a blue business suit scanning the departure boards with barely contained excitement. Has she got that promotion? Made that deal? Bought that flat? No. Look again. It’s not departures but arrivals that hold her attention. Who’s she waiting for? Lover? Child? A friend she’s lined up for a night out? No. Not friend. Not night out. The excitement is too much. She’s grinning. Almost laughing. Then she looks around to check no-one’s noticed. But you have. And you’ve noticed the bored teenager by the newspaper stand, clutching a bouquet of irises. And you’ve noticed the elderly couple outside the cafe, sipping their tea in silent, perfect synchronicity. And you’ve noticed the backpacker urgently glancing from phone to escalator, phone to escalator, phone to escalator.
The business of waiting, and watching other people waiting, is a serious one. It must be, because we work so hard at it. For many of us, daily practice takes place on railway station platforms. We wait, and we think, and try to read the thoughts of others. Lavinia Greenlaw’s evocative Audio Obscura is partly an attempt to explore these strange rituals. Railway stations are temples to waiting, because almost everyone who goes there is on their way to somewhere else, caught between home and work, weekday and weekend, friends and family.
Between is an interesting place to be: between places, times, states of being. That’s why so much art and literature is set there: caught between two lovers, torn between desire and duty, lost between two nations, two worlds, two lives. Between means border country, edgelands, disputed territory where lawlessness is rife, and frontiers porous. There’s an inherent creative tension in waiting, whether it’s for the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or the dawn of Henry V’s battle, or Romeo’s arrival, or (famously undermining all this waiting) Godot. Or that certain someone on the concourse at St Pancras.
And if a railway station is an ideal place to ponder waiting, then autumn is a perfect time. Now, as summer tightens into shorter, darker days, the liturgical year begins its ancient journey into Advent – the great season of waiting - a time of bare trees and cold, heading for the midwinter blaze of Christmas. But Advent’s between is the one that spans the whole of Christian history – between the birth and the rebirth, the first and second coming, the nativity and the end of time. When a secular society is no longer locked into the ancient patterns of the liturgical year, it loses more than a sense of history. It loses the connective tissue that links the daily acts of our own stories to a bigger, overarching story. We lose what philosophers call the ‘meta-narrative’. So where once Advent made us think about our own small acts of waiting as symbols of a greater waiting for the end of time, now waiting is just… well, waiting.
But works of art can still reconnect us with the greater waiting. In my late teens, caught between the desire to be a rock star and the reality of A Levels, I fell in with a group of musicians with eclectic tastes, who bought records on spec or because they liked the cover, then passed on discoveries to each other. I remember the days I first heard the Cocteau Twins and Gene Loves Jezebel, but most of all I remember the day I heard Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Before Messiaen, my only encounters with the end of time in films and books were grim, and tended to militate against the idea of waiting for it with anything but dread. The fantastic subtlety and emotional range of Messiaen’s vision, combined with the poetic power of his subtitles (one movement called Liturgy of Crystal, another Abyss of Birds) made a big impression on me. I was struck by the ordinariness with which he described (in sleeve notes) the extraordinary events of the end of time: angels bestriding oceans, trumpets sounding. The fact that the Quartet was written when Messiaen was a prisoner of war, and written for the only four instruments available in the camp, merely served to heighten the power of the piece, though Messiaen himself stressed that he was not driven by despair at the state of this world, just a simple and genuine longing for the next one.
Later, working at the BBC as a documentary filmmaker, I found myself still circling round these ideas. In America, I recorded interviews with cable TV stations devoted to the end of time, where current world events were interpreted in astonishing detail, mapping those details onto the Book of Revelation. I met people who believed for sure that the apocalyptic clock was ticking, and that the signs were there for all to read. I met people who claimed that the antichrist was one of several real life politicians (usually in Europe) duping us all before plunging us into the final conflagration before the second coming.
I’d go back to my hotel room and conclude they were insane, whilst barely admitting the fear that they might, just might be right. Then I’d switch on the TV and see the mainstream news channels talking a pretty good apocalypse themselves, be it disease or famine or global war. If Advent means anything in Britain today it means waiting for Christmas. But true Advent waiting is much more unsettling than that. If there’s waiting to be done here, it’s Messiaen’s kind of waiting, for the end of time itself, but what can that mean?
One American theologian I interviewed said it meant living simultaneously in the knowledge that we might indeed be living in the last days, but equally we could be the forebears, the founders on whose shoulders a long, vast history would be built. To my surprise, I found it harder to imagine the ‘founders’ model than the ‘last days’ model. The idea that long millennia of advents stretch ahead of us seemed to cut against our widespread popular (even secular) apocalyptic. Surely something will finish us off within a couple of centuries? Flu pandemics, global warming, new ice age, nuclear meltdown: delete as appropriate.
So what does this mean for our Advent waiting? The late poet and priest RS Thomas was aesthetically about as far from Messiaen as it is possible to travel. Messiaen believed that since the world was created by God he could draw on absolutely anything and everything in it to enrich his music. Thomas believed that truth was to be found in a much thinner gruel. He approached that truth by scratching and scraping at the surface of the language until his pared back naked poems took on a kind of transparency.
I once visited RS Thomas in his ancient cottage on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. The house was as bare as the poems – beautiful in its simplicity and in the natural objects – driftwood, animal skulls, stones – arranged inside it. In the poet’s study was a powerful telescope, trained not on the stars, but pointing through the window, straight out to sea. RS explained that this was called ‘sea-watching’, a kind of extreme bird watching without the comforts and distractions of trees or rock pools. His telescope was focused on an empty square of sky above the waves miles from the coast. Here, he would catch a glimpse of birds so elusive they never came inland. This was hard-core waiting.
The roots of the word ‘waiting’ lie in watchfulness, wakefulness, a kind of vigilance: what Simone Weil called ‘attention’. If Advent is a provocation, to contemplate the future rather than to make a headlong dash for it, to live in the present with the edge of fragility that makes it vivid and precious, then that’s worth practising. Perhaps then we can recover, as the poet Patrick Kavanagh put it in his poem ‘Advent’, ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children.’ See through that lens, time spent waiting in railway stations is more than character-building. It is soul-building.
Michael Symmons Roberts is an award-winning poet and writer of fiction, libretti and scripts for radio and TV. symmonsroberts.com