Blessay 6: And did those feet? Yes, they did

Thirty years ago in June 1984, I qualified as a reflexologist through the International Institute of Reflexology based in Harlow, Essex. The year before I’d been attending evening classes on the then new alternative therapies. Demonstrations of Iridology, the Alexander Technique, Reiki, Hypnotherapy,
Etc proved fascinating but didn’t prove as compelling as Reflexology.
When I practised as a reflexologist I had reached a point in my life when it didn’t feel enough to call myself a writer. I knew I needed to develop another
skill and that maybe that lay in the healing professions. Conventional medicine was not for me. But why of all the alternatives did I choose reflexology. Feet used to be a constant butt of silly jokes and puerile remarks. Back then did I unconsciously decide on work that was open to ridicule or admiration? ( I recall a jobs advisor, at a Job Centre, looking highly skeptical when I said I wanted to ‘work on feet’.)

So what did prompt my therapeutic interest in feet? Here are ten ‘good’ reasons.

(1) As a young boy, in Liverpool, I watched my father, exhausted from his job
as a road sweeper, light up his pipe as he soaked his unwashed and lopsided feet in a bowl of hot water laced with pine Radox salts.

(2) My mother would hobble round the house in badly fitting shoes; complaining of her bunions and her insufferably long wait for an NHS appointment with a chiropodist.

(3) The exercising of my feet on the pedals of my bicycle. (That all came to a
temporary end the day the left pedal fell off and I fell into a hole in Kilburn high road. My bruised foot healed leaving me wary of cycling near building site chasms).

(4) Aged 23 and paddling my feet in the Meditaranean close to the Lido by Venice and very frustrated that I couldn’t swim.

(5) Aged 24 and learning to swim. Letting my feet be liberated as they pushed against the chlorine doused water of the swimming pool.

(6) Attending Sunday school at the local church and doing a crayon drawing of a big footed Jesus walking on the sea. Even aged 10 I was highly doubtful that his Messianic feet could do such miraculous tricks. I tore up the picture and gave up religious instruction for the kiddies.

(7) Having a narcissistic fixation with my ‘good looking feet’ Though this attraction never slid into foot fetishism and a drooling over shiny shoes.

(8) Reading stories about Achilees being shot, by a poisoned arrow in his heel,
by Paris. I loved reading the Greek myths and imagined pulling out an arrow from my foot, laughing out loud and declaring my invulnerability to any street
kid version of Paris, who might be hiding, bow in hand, in an alleyway or up in a tree in the park.

(9) That the Biblical story of Jesus having his feet washed and dried by a woman’s hair was a further nail in the coffin of believing in the son of God.
Fancy letting a woman do that for him. God should have employed some angel with nothing to do.

(10) Wlliam Blake’s lines, ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk on England’s green and pleasant land.” Well I think the cockney Blake’s feet did do that in a gloriously irreverent and holy, to Blake, sweaty way; probably many times on Primrose Hill, very near to where I now live.

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Blessay 5: You never listen, but I do

“”You never listen” is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that in exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbre and the variations that you discern if you simply pay attention.”

Seth S. Horowitz

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

Igor Stravinsky

Our ears can be seen as absurd looking fleshy appendages to our head, sensibly hearing the world around us. Brains register many meaningful and also inconsequential sounds. We rarely properly listen to all this data, stimuli and input. For that demands time and patience to feel and understand what we are listening too. Music was once a joyful act of concentration. That was probably when there was less around. Now that we have too much it has become a distraction. Something in the background wanting to be heard so much, and so immeadiately, that slow and careful listening is considered a blockage to escapism. We never confront music anymore. We hide from its real pleasure. And that is active, deeply enjoyable listening – a state beyond just the music.

In classical music Anton Bruckner is a composer who wrote very long symphonies. A lengthy tonal musical line, with some dissonance en route, that asks you to be patient and wait as they realise their architectural structure. By slow degrees we get to the transcendent markers in Bruckner. Most powerfully in the 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies. Bruckner was notoriously lacking in self confidence, very impressionable to others often unhelpful opinions and deeply religious. We have many different editions of the Bruckner symphonies that have revisions and cuts. He listened to his critics and took them on board. Yet weren’t those critics actually only hearing Bruckner’s compositions in order to control him? How could they better what Bruckner had done? I don’t think they could possibly hear, what only Bruckner had uniquely first heard, a music that admits, with darker passages, love as a neccessary force engendering his love sounds for God.

Putting the God equation to one side I feel we only fully enjoy music when we are capable of loving it. If that sounds a bit trite and obvious then let’s go back to Stravinsky. “The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it.” For me the experience of such a love is not just simply being able to follow a music score, read everything about the composer or listen to many different recordings of a piece. It is the listening for the sub text, or pulse of the music. Now that text might be very different for each listener. It can consist of all you know about the music and knowledge of the circumstances that brought it about, on which you project your own thoughts and feelings, that strike an empathic chord with the composers intensions.

Last Thursday at the Proms I watched Vasily Petrenko conduct The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a performance of Elgar’s second symphony. Within minutes of listening to the first movement, you sensed an intelligent interpretation, and by the end of that movement what Elgar urgently wanted to say. The musicianship of Petrenko, and the propulsion of the committed playing of the orchestra, made the notes reveal themselves to me as what Elgar felt. Struggle, pain, comfort, joy, pride, despair, melancholy, nostalgia, believe, doubt, reflection, action, joy and anguish. We often speak of Elgar as our great conflicted Edwardian English composer. Last week at the Proms all those contradictions were on show.

I listened to the timbres and variations of a music being authentically displayed. It was aural musical communication of a high order that grabbed me by the throat, pricked up my ears and had me truly listening. The Royal Albert Hall was full of people both communally listening and in their own private space. If there were one or two Stravinskian hearing ducks, then they were probably a minority fowl, impatient for the music to end: anxious to the ring tone of their cell phone, respond to a caller, listen to a message or read a text. Whilst everyone else, leaving the hall, was hopefully still listening to Elgar pulsating on and on so much so that they missed their bus, decided to walk to the tube or even wandered through a darkened Hyde Park so as not to forget.