Sunday 27 December 2015

A Candle in the Dark

As flood waters engulf swathes of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria (again) and certain places lose power as a result, there was a timely edition of Something Understood on Radio 4 early this morning. Its subject was 'The Candle'. 

(Last week's edition had a similarly timely subject - darkness!)

Something Understood has been uniformly excellent in recent weeks and, in the midst of all my complaining about the BBC, it feels right to say so. I wouldn't go so far as to say it justifies the license fee for me - as others do when praising such programmes! - but it does help me personally to feel a little less disgruntled about paying the damn thing, in spite of all that pesky BBC bias. 

There were some lovely pieces of music today - ranging from a beautiful Bruckner motet to a particularly fine Willie Nelson song. I even heard a piece of Vivaldi that struck me as being a cut above his usual routine - part of his Nisi Dominus:

There were some fascinating readings too - delivered by Joanna David and Henry Goodman no less! - though I wouldn't have been able to make head nor tail of the Sylvia Plath poem Nick and the Candlestick ("Black bat airs/Wrap me, raggy shawls,/Cold homicides./They weld to me like plums") had the presenter, Sarah Cuddon, not sketched what it was about in advance!

The most moving reading came, perhaps inevitably, from the diary of Anne Frank:
Dearest Kitty, 
When I looked into the candle tonight I felt calm and happy again. It seems Grandma is in that candle and it's Grandma who watches over and protects me and makes me feel happy again. I still haven't got over my fear of planes and shooting and I crawl into Father's bed nearly every night for comfort. I know it sounds childish but wait till it happens to you. The AKAK guns make so much noise you can't hear you own voice. It didn't seem nearly as bad by candlelight as it did in the dark. 
I was shivering as if I had a temperature and begged Father to relight the candle. He was adamant there was to be no light. Suddenly we heard a burst of machine gun fire, and that's ten times worse than anti-aircraft guns. Mother jumped out of bed and to Pym's great annoyance lit the candle. Her resolute answer to his grumbling was, "After all Anne is not an ex-soldier". And that was the end of that. 
Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.
Isn't that extraordinary writing, regardless of her extraordinary circumstances and her age?

There was also a touching interview with FT writer Matthew Engel, author of Engel's England, whose son died of cancer at the age of 13. (I can only imagine his grief). Coming from a Jewish-Anglican background, he has recently been to every one of England's 41 Anglican cathedrals, lighting a candle in each of them in memory of his son. I can see why he did it now. 

What especially made the programme for me though was its writer/presenter's poetic and, I think, rather insightful commentaries..., hats off to Sarah Cuddon!! 

And here are some transcriptions of what Sarah said on today's Something Understood for the delight of posterity (especially after the programme has had its 'Out, out, brief candle!' moment after 30 days on the BBC iPlayer):
When my lights flickered out at home recently a mini-blackout left me fumbling around in the cupboards looking for emergency candles. When I lit the room with them it was a reminder of the special intensity and quiet of candlelight. The world is stilled with a candle. I felt myself becoming more alert to the sounds and the shapes around me. Things are no longer black and white. They shimmer orange and gold......
We love the symbolism of a candle for celebration, memorial or for romance but....fundamentally candles are for comfort. They push against the shadows and stave off a basic human fear of the unknown......
Something in Sylvia Plath's image of the candle gulping and recovering its small altitude captures the fragility of candle light but also its ascension skywards as if that small flame is reaching for the heavens. And if the solitary candle somehow represents a single soul, the votive candle rack in a church or cathedral brings departed souls together......
Perhaps more than anything else the candle is our most important way of memorialising. A candlelit vigil allows us to commune together, united in the silence of the flames. As Matthew Engel knows, in a moment of profound feeling candlelight seems more suitable than words as an expression of something vital......
It is a cliché: candles and romance. But in the dark, with just the flickering of the candle, we do move closer together. We become conspiratorial, fold into each other and into the softness of the light......
There is inevitably something slightly deceptive about the romance of candlelight though. A candle bends and gilds the shadows with gold, it intensifies intimacy but it also conceals things which broad daylight cannot. That night the lights went out at home I didn't really want them to come back on again. The world was more beautiful by candlelight and there was little I could do but sit still.
How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

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