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Interview: Kenneth Wilson, cellist

07 June 2024

‘The cello sticks out behind the bike. It’s total madness, but it almost works’

I cycled from Hadrian’s Wall to Rome with the cello strapped to the back of my bike. It was hard work. It rained on me every day in England, and, once I was over the Alps and into Italy, it was 40° most days. The possibility of failure was ever present, and I was totally exhausted. But the music and daily miracles of encounter kept me going. I want to call it a pilgrimage.

It was one of those mad ideas that just pop into your head. By the time you’ve told three people, you have to do it, don’t you? You can read about the background to it all in the subsequent book, Highway Cello, and hear me play on the website and YouTube.

I live in rural Cumbria, in a tree-house: one room, with a mezzanine, but all mod. cons, near plenty of woodland and a lake, above a small stream. The sound of a dawn chorus accompanied by the water is rather amazing.

Cycling around there is good training. I’ve cycled up Hartside six times in one day to prepare for the tour to Rome. You do have to do some preparation, you have to work at it, not just get on your bike and hope for the best.

I have a carbon-fibre cello, which is good for outdoor performances and touring: it has a purer sound, and it’s very tough. It was invented by a yachtsman — also a cellist — who noticed that the sound under the keel of his carbon-fibre boat was very much like a cello’s sound, and wondered if he could make cellos out of it.

After four prototypes he got the sound right, and now even Yo-Yo Ma plays one. A lot of orchestras rejected them on grounds of looks: they’re cello-shaped, but totally rounded because it doesn’t need the corners to give it strength to hold together.

All cellists try and play Bach, of course, sometimes without being asked. Lots of slow Irish airs, some classical, a bit of film music. . . James Bond always goes down well. Rolling Stones. And I usually finish a performance with my own arrangement of “Amazing Grace”. This Lent, I did a 30-date tour of a Meditation on the Seven Last Words, interleaving meditative poems with the sarabandes from all the Bach cello suites. And I like to respond to invitations.

I always play unaccompanied. There’s something about the idea of being self-reliant and self-contained. It’s fragile, but if you’re the audience, and you have a single voice addressing you, it can be a very intimate conversation.

How do you get a cello on a bike? After much experiment, and failure, I built a rack out of square-section aluminium, and the cello sticks out behind the bike. It’s total madness, but it almost works.

My touring experience has been altogether positive. Because the set-up looks so bonkers, so hilarious, and I’m on my own, people think: we have to engage with this, hang around, and see what will happen. Lots of people have welcomed me into their homes.

Highway Cello is a fairly recent reinvention. It doesn’t quite pay the bills, but I’m working on it. There are two parts to the equation: getting the gigs in the first place, and then getting properly paid for them.

I came to this by a long and roundabout route. My first jobs were in town-planning and house-building. Then I was a vicar for eight years, before setting up a spiritual travel company focusing on India. I also ran a small property-development business. More recently, I’ve been planting trees in rural Cumbria, writing, and making music.

Life, it seems to me, is about invention, discovery, exploration, creation. The range of the possible just amazes me, and I want my response to opportunity always to be one of appreciation.

I’m hoping to take my Seven Last Words Meditation on a bicycle pilgrimage of English cathedrals. That’s a big project which will take a lot of planning. More generally, I want to make some progress in the reconciliation of my being and nothingness.

I had an ordinary suburban childhood, with an ordinary share of formative traumas. That’s perhaps easier to characterise than my current daily life, which, although quite structured — practice, then office work, then see where the wind blows — always surprises me.

Sometimes, our understanding of the foundations — what you might call “God” — changes so much that a question about the past becomes unanswerable. Too much assumption about what I must mean if I use that word. I want to find a different language for the things that are important to us.

I was rather definitely religious in my teens. I became a vicar because I wanted to do something more worth while than the other options I could see. After a lot of dismantling, I strive now to be non-theistic, but that requires constant vigilance.

I loved being a vicar, loved meeting people, helping them. Then I did an M.Phil. in the nature of religious language, and was persuaded by Wittgenstein that language doesn’t work in the way we think it does. It’s not purely referential, even with such nouns as “tables” and “chairs”. Language works because it’s part of a web of meaning — more obviously with abstract words like “love” or “honour”. It’s constantly changing, and informs how we think. Language creates the world we live in.

This is parallel to the enlightenment in Christian faith. We don’t have to believe in Jesus literally walking on water, turning water into wine. We can interpret these things.

This works fine till we get to two things: the existence of God, and the resurrection. I woke up and wondered: why are those things different in kind from other things? There’s no objective outside reality because there’s no “outside” to language. That doesn’t undermine the religious enterprise, but it makes it difficult to be professionally religious. Most people pay a vicar to believe the things we can’t possibly believe ourselves, as Betjeman almost says. So I had to give it up.

Bigotry makes me angry. And greed, misogyny, presumption, narrow-mindedness, hunger, prejudice (including my own), Israel in Gaza, headwinds.

Possibility makes me happiest, and impermanence, beauty, sunshine, people — well, not all of them, by any means — greenery, Bach, pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage” is one of the most problematic words, which is why I like to use it. Muslims divide the act into five stages: before, journey, arrival, return, afterwards; and possibly the most important is the afterwards. You are different from what you were before. The British Pilgrimage Trust tries to be all things to all people: “bring your own beliefs and make your own discoveries.” Yes and no: pilgrimage is about sacredness of place, but also what’s happening to you on the journey.

We no longer inform pilgrimage with the belief that we’re going to acquire some religious merit. Quite often, it’s undertaken in poorly thought-through ideas of a vaguely meaningful holiday. I used to run a travel company to India. I’d say to Christians: this is a holy place, take your shoes off, see what happens. Try not to have any pre-judgements about how you feel. People’s reactions were of all kinds, from deep spiritual encounters to a complete rejection and wanting to go home, and everything in between.

I live with a fairly equal balance of hope and despair. The destructiveness of human beings is mind-boggling, but so is our inventiveness. In the next hundred years, nuclear fusion will have completely solved the energy crisis, and we will have complete cures for cancer and lots of other things. That is, if we haven’t destroyed ourselves with AI or nuclear weapons or climate catastrophes.

I try not to pray.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d quite like a quick catch-up with my departed mother. I’m tempted to say Oliver Cromwell: I want to ask him what he thought he was doing — but people of such conviction are usually disappointing to talk to. So, either Charles Darwin or, better, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His discoveries about language are truly revelatory.

Kenneth Wilson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Highway Cello is published by City Village Books at £10.95 (Church Times Bookshop £9.85); 978-1-7393182-0-8.



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