Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 March 2019

Malcolm Guite visits a place resonant with musical history

THERE are particular places — old churches, the studies or writing rooms of great poets, places that have witnessed or absorbed something exceptional — which are, in some sense, resonant, as though the memories they preserved were themselves a kind of sound or music, whose faint traces or vibrations still tingle through the stone and wood to touch the modern pilgrim.

Usually, the place is ancient and the resonance is no more than a metaphor. But, last Friday, I visited just such a place, whose resonance was more than metaphorical, though its history goes back less than a hundred years: I visited the recording studio at Abbey Road.

Even as you approach the place, emerging from the Underground at St John’s Wood, the echoes of the Beatles begin, with the kiosk at the Tube station, as full and colourful as those at a Catholic shrine; and, by the time you get to the famous zebra crossing, you are aware that many others are taking the same path, just to cross the crossing, to gaze at the studio through the railings, and to write their messages of gratitude for that glad music in red felt pens on the long white wall, which is filled to the brim, and every three months whitewashed and filled again.

But I was going a little further. By a happy chain of events, I had an appointment to record songs and poems there for the Ordinary Saints Project.

So, I found myself in the inner sanctum: Studio 2, where the Beatles recorded every album, including the eponymous masterpiece which made Abbey Road so famous. But I soon realised that the Beatles were only a small part of the resonance of this place. I walked past photographs of Elgar, at the opening of the studio, with his friend George Bernard Shaw; photographs of Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, recording here just before the fatal plane crash; photos of Jacqueline du Pré, looking up from her cello radiant with joy; and, amid them, wonderful pictures of the Beatles in all their varied phases and stages, from cuddly mop-top to transcendental guru.

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As he set up the beautiful old Neumann microphones, dating from the ’40s, into which so many of my heroes had sung, the sound engineer told me that, because of the way in which sound decays, the way it fades, each moment half as much as before, it is theoretically the case that no sound is ever lost entirely; that, somehow, all the music ever made here is still around. Resonance, indeed.

After I had recorded the scheduled poems and songs, I recorded one more: a new poem, from my sequence responding to George Herbert’s poem “Prayer”. It is a poem reflecting on the phrase “gladness of the best”, and it gave me a particular pleasure to record it in this particular place:

 

Gladness of the best

If prayer itself is gladness of the best,
Then all the best in everything is prayer.
Everything excellent, from east to west,
The best of sacred, best of secular,
The Beatles sing you know you should be glad
And that glad song is gladness of the best,
You know you’re loved, you know that can’t be bad,
Your once-lost love is found and you are blessed. 

From that exultant sound in Abbey Road
To jubilation in the Albert Hall,
From well-honed phrases, to a well-wrought ode,
Whatsoever things are lovely, all
Brought to the source of every excellence,
That God might give them back as sacraments.

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