The Gwelhellin Experience

trumpet sil 3Weeks ago I was contacted on my other blog by a singular human being by the name of Jonathan Xavier Coudrille. Coudrille introduced himself and sent me a photograph that I, with my fondness for eccentricity and facial hair, could not have resisted even if I was inclined to try.

Coudrille saw in my blog a chance to promote the work of his band Gwelhellin, and after some chat, he invited me to a lunchtime gig they were playing at Amelie’s in Porthleven, and despite the fact that I have no particular attachment to jazz, rampaging stallions could not have kept me away from a place where bonkers moustaches would mingle with hats and cups of tea practically on my own doorstep.

Did I live to regret my hasty decision? I did not. And nor did my family who I forcefully dragged along with me. Gwelhellin are a revelation. They describe themselves as ‘an eight piece trio’, partly for the sake of absurdity, but partly also because between them they play at least eight instruments during a three hour set, and they do so with heart bursting aplomb. NOW I understand what jazz is all about. Clearly it’s not a genre designed to be listened to on the radio – it’s all about being there. Dangerous (“yes, that’s why they hide me at the back”) Dave, the gentlest drummer you could ever imagine, held everything together unassumingly in the background; Tony Apple, an accomplished jazz musician (even I could tell that) was doing that gently weeping guitar thing that excellent musicians can do, and when he wasn’t beaming all over his magnificent beard, was resurrecting Louis Armstrong right there on Porthleven harbour with his emotion seizing vocals. And the star of the show, of course, was Coudrille himself who is one of those human beings you only get one of. Ever. “He won Melody Maker International Soloist of the Year, once you know”, whispered Dave like a proud father. “And he lived with Cossacks for years – that’s where he learned to play the balalaika.” And play it he does – wondrously. He energised the whole place with the force of his personality and the speed of his blue-fingernails on the strings of the balalaika, banjo and his beautiful guitar. AND he wears Russian boots and changes his accents and hats at intervals throughout the set, AND he plays the trumpet with one of those muffling things on the end, AND he sings Cossack songs in Russian, AND he tells genuinely amusing anecdotes, AND he sang me a romantic song like an olden days troubadour (I am far too British to know how to deal with that of course, and my son found it too much to handle, but it was great fun).  Not bad for someone 23 years older than me – I have to have a bit of a lie-down after a particularly strenuous conversation. Not only that, Coudrille is an extraordinary Surrealist painter, too (it’s obvious there’s no God, because if there was he’d have shared the talents out a bit more evenly).

So, I can’t recommend seeing Gwelhellin enough. Frankly, it should be made compulsory for the sake of the nation.

Weltschmerz

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I received an email from a friend a while ago saying:

“Whoops. A student cried in my lecture today because the world is so unfair and we can’t change it. We were only doing the media representation of crime but we started talking about politics and the effects of everything on everything else. She’d NEVER realised that media is biased. She hadn’t questioned stuff. Her whole understanding of the world just shattered in my lecture. She got so totally overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know what’s right and also how dangerous irresponsible media is that she literally sobbed out loud.”

My friend wasn’t sure how to feel about the effect her lecture had had on this student, and nor am I. The part of me that still believes in education as a liberating force thought, ‘that was a powerful, eye-opening lesson. That’s what education is for – to make people more aware of the world around them and then to hopefully give them the wherewithal to make wise choices.’ This was the leftover idealist in me speaking – the tiny bit of me that still hasn’t been smashed to splinters on the shipwreck that is our current education system.

But the thought of this student sobbing for her lost certainty is actually a very sad one. It’s been rubbing like a pebble in my welly ever since I received the email because I had a sore spot there anyway. Part of what had been bugging me for a while was the question: what has knowledge ever done for me? When I was young I read a lot. I read about the slave trade, the (then) nuclear threat, the world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam… and I took it seriously, that knowledge. I absorbed and pondered it. I let it affect me emotionally. And if you take this stuff seriously it does affect you. It probably should affect you.

So what then are you supposed to do with the emotional detritus this kind of knowledge creates? How do you cope with the monumental sense of powerlessness you’re left with when you finally understand that most things are a bit insane? It seems there are three ways to deal with it. The first way is to go into politics or education or whatever is your particular interest and try to change things from within. The second way is to ‘drop out’ and try to change things from without by attempting to build a life outside the mainstream and engaging with protest movements. The third way,  (the way my friend took when she boycotted all forms of news because it made her sob to the point of meltdown), is to hide from it all and try to spend your life in your happy place (or just live your life perpetually off your face on drugs/alcohol).

I tried the second method for many years until I finally realised there really is no way to build a life truly outside the mainstream in the UK if you have no resources. I also realised that protests have very little effect unless they are gigantic and relentless and, again, you have resources. Nobody listens to the truly powerless. So I decided I’d join the education system and try to help things from within. Ten years later I, along with many wonderful colleagues, am battered, broken, disillusioned and exhausted. I have never developed the capacity to turn my mind away from things I think are wrong and just get on with life. I’ve never developed the capacity to shut my gob, either. And you can’t just live in your happy place when you have to go out into the wrong every day and earn a living. So that’s where I am now: stymied. I can’t change things, I can’t run away from things, and I don’t have it in me to ignore things.

So I UNDERSTAND my friend’s student’s response to the horrible realisation that the world is not as manageable as she first thought, and I hope she finds somewhere in her brain to file this stuff so she can walk the tightrope between unhappy knowledge and ignorant bliss much more confidently than I do.

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