Every summer, our placid village by the Bay of Biscay was invaded by what dad called the Oxford tribe: dons donning white socks under sandals; fresh-faced dissertators in linen shirts; eccentrics; the odd Spaniard who had living in England for long enough that she now thought of those trips to our village as venturing abroad. There was a simple reason why they came to our village and not to any other – because an elder from their tribe was married to a woman from ours, and so from him came the idea of flying them all in and having a summer school. Every summer, the Oxford tribe garrisoned the local high school; they gave talks and taught seminars on literature, culture, history, linguistics. The local press reported at length, and the articles always finished with the hope that the summer school would spread the news that our village, too, existed.
There was another use of the summer school that no newspaper ever mentioned. It was thanks to the invasion that some among us realized that we secretly inhabited an imaginary country called Anglophilia. The invasion exposed us to the pull of almighty Blighty and left us dreaming of the day when we would finally be allowed to move there and leave the placidity of our village behind. Like a plant left to grow in the wrong soil, that’s how I felt every year after the Oxford tribe flew back to their spires; like a geranium in silt soil, a yellow iris in clay, I thought while I observed dad labour in his garden in early September. (Gardening, I now realize, is not something many people take up in Northern Spain. Maybe dad – such a dedicated gardener – was a secret Anglophile too).
The first few years, I wasn’t allowed into the talks, because I was too young. Still, I spied the Oxford tribe in the streets, the restaurants, on the beaches (in retrospect, it might have been those things, and not the summer school in itself, what lured some members of the Oxford tribe to us). I was particularly fascinated by a lanky, bespectacled professor in khaki shorts; he always turned incandescent by day two of his stay.
On the last day, the local wind band gave a concert in honor of the Oxonians; this I was allowed to attend. One year, the programme included a piece called:
Elgar: Marcha de pompa e circunstáncia nº 1
Pompa e circunstáncia? Pompa I knew, but it looked incongruous on a concert programme – because that’s how you say ‘bubble’ in Galician (as in, soapy bubble). As for circunstáncia, I didn’t know what it meant, but the word was certainly not unfamiliar to me. I knew the saying by a well-known Spanish philosopher: “I am the sum of myself and my circumstances,” and I also knew an idiom: Poñer cara de circunstancias, putting on a serious face to pretend you’re upset or sad (usually with the intention of misleading others).
“What does pompa e circunstáncia mean, and why there’s a march on it?,” I asked mum, but she didn’t know (mum never liked music that much). So I imagined it would be a march of Englishmen – maybe the Oxford dons themselves – pretending to be incredibly serious, yet blowing soapy bubbles left and right on the audience’s faces.
Pompa e circunstáncia, I discovered, was that. As if by magic, false friends have given Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance march no. 1 its true meaning. The introduction comes too suddenly, too unexpectedly, as if we’ve stomped across a wind band playing at an odd hour (nine o’clock in the morning? midnight? three in the afternoon, on a school day?) on a pier in Eastbourne. The opening theme is too bombastic; drunken Eton schoolboys could have written it as they rushed to complete their pastiche composition homework; and in the second theme the ascent of the violins is too angelic to be taken seriously. It’s the soundtrack written by a Victorian organist for a BBC period drama about his own time which won’t be filmed for a hundred years after his death. It is the epitome of Britain to someone who has never been there – but it can still be to someone who has lived in Britain for years. Only, you have to rearrange the notes differently for the portrait to become truthful.
The year after Pompa e Circunstáncia appeared on the programme for the first time, I turned thirteen; this made me old enough to be allowed into the summer school proper. And so I went, notebook in hand, even though I ended up taking precious few notes (I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I didn’t understand a lot of what was being discussed). The dons didn’t think anything of claiming that, say, the illustrious “I am I and my circumstance” philosopher was a passable journalist but in fact rather mediocre and out-of-date (even for his time) as a philosopher. In fact, when they said that sentence aloud, in their cut-clear English accents, the sentence sounded like something you would find in a self-help book, not in a philosophy tome.
For my romance with Britain to properly start, I still had to wait more than ten years. Before that, I lived in Anglophilia, which is not a bad country to live in. This was the soil I transplanted myself into, sometimes too blindly, too rushedly – but I still visit it from time to time and find great pleasure in doing so. The soundtrack is always Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance/Pompa e Circunstáncia, no. 1.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Eva Ferry is a bilingual writer in English and Galician. Her English-language fiction and non-fiction has been published in The Slag Review, A glimpse of, Caveat Lector, The Arsonista and Foliate Oak, among others. In 2018 her essay ‘Eight exercises about the past’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. As Eva Moreda, she has published two novellas and four novels in Galician, one of which has been recently published in English translation as Home is like a different time (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2019) with the support of a PEN Translates award.