Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Discovering Ivor

When I first became aware of Ivor Gurney in 1983, I never thought that one day I would write his biography. At the time I was only interested in him because he had been part of Gerald Finzi’s life. In 1982 I had founded the Finzi Society of America to promote wider interest in Finzi’s music and life there. The following year I wrote a brief article about Gurney and Finzi for my newsletter. I didn’t think much more about Gurney after that. To me he was little more than a footnote and Marion Scott was like a leaf on the wind, seen one minute then blown away and forgotten!

In 1984 I attended the Summer Weekend of English Music, a Finzi event held at Oxford, where I met Joy Finzi for the first time. Over dinner one night, my life was about to change in ways I could not imagine. Joy had read my article and started talking about Gurney and his family without any prompting from me. She told me about the work she and Gerald had done to preserve Gurney’s legacy and a little about some of the people involved. I don’t remember the details because they faded into the background when she launched into a description of the tailor’s shop run by Gurney’s brother Ronald in Gloucester. With her artist’s eye for detail and her poet’s sensibility for atmosphere, she described how the opening and closing of the door sent a breeze into the shop’s dark interior that lifted the corners of bolts of cloth giving them the illusion of ‘bats fluttering about’. It was an image I would never forget.

After our first meeting, Joy and I corresponded regularly and I would see her when I visited England. Inevitably she would turn to Gurney in her letters and in conversation. We never discussed Finzi. Was I being directed to look more deeply at Gurney, I began to wonder?

I decided that perhaps there was more to him than I realised so I re-read Michael Hurd’s biography, bought P.J. Kavanagh’s excellent edition of Gurney’s poetry, found a few recordings (LPs in those days) and enjoyed getting to know Gurney better.

When I was in England in 1988, Joy insisted on taking me on her own tour of ‘Gurney Country’. We set off on a dismal wet and windy September morning, coincidently the thirty-second anniversary of Gerald Finzi's death. As we headed west the rain stopped, leaving the landscape cloaked in a lingering white mist. I could see only hints of what lay in the shrouded distances. When we neared Gloucestershire, the sun broke through almost as if on cue. With Joy as my guide, I saw for the first time Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire: the Cotswolds, Birdlip Hill, the city of Gloucester with its cathedral so central to Gurney's early life, and finally at the end of the day, the Parish Church of St. Matthew at Twigworth where Joy, tired by now, sent me off alone in search of Gurney's grave in the overgrown cemetery. I remember well the abandonment and neglect that then pervaded the church building, bordering on eerie with its cold stone fa├žade and unkempt grounds. I felt unsettled. It was not a place of comfort.

Outside the church grounds I saw sheep grazing in a field and beyond that the pale blue line of the Cotswolds. Then I turned and saw May Hill with its distinctive cap of trees and I felt that Gurney was at least lying between the hills he loved. The grave itself was overgrown with grass and weeds, the marker pitted and covered with lichen. It was not what Marion Scott had in mind when she wrote to Gerald Finzi that ‘there is something tranquillising now in the thought of him lying at peace in Twigworth Churchyard’ in ‘an oak coffin lined with elm and cushioned with white satin’, after a burial that ‘befitted a poet’.

Joy Finzi's tour had come to a bittersweet climax. When we reached the motorway, rainbows began arching over the landscape. Sometimes we seemed to drive into them. They were all around us. Marion Scott, a metaphysician, would have interpreted them as a ‘sign’. Maybe they were, I don’t know, but by the time we returned to Joy’s home, I knew that Ivor Gurney was going to be in my life for a long time. - Pamela Blevins

Pamela Blevins' dual biography of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott is available now from all good booksellers - you can read an extract here. For more information about Gerald Finzi, read Diana McVeagh's acclaimed biography and visit this website.
The Clock of the Years, compiled and edited by Rolf Jordan, is an anthology of writings by and about Gerald and Joy Finzi.

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