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Flèche
by Tony Scotland
publ. 2018
80 pp
Shelf Lives

As a young railway enthusiast, I was fascinated by the Golden Arrow (or Flèche d’Or). The thought of a train and boat journey from London Victoria to Paris’s Gare du Nord played to my imagination. In my day, it was hauled by an electric locomotive, so it had lost some of its pre-war romance. I was never to travel on this very special train before it ceased running in 1972.

The idea behind this book is simple. In a letter by Lennox Berkeley to his boyfriend Alan Searle, the composer revealed that he had ‘run in’ to Igor Stravinsky, his ‘secretary’ Vera Sudeikina and the violinist Samuel Dushkin on the Golden Arrow as they all returned to Paris. This was immediately after the premiere of the Russian’s Persephone at the Queen’s Hall, London, on 29 November 1934. Stravinsky invited Berkeley to join his party for a rubber of bridge in his Pullman salon and later for lunch in the ‘celebrated Wagon Restaurant. From this meagre reference Tony Scotland has created a ‘factional’ account of the ensuing conversations.

There are a few books exploring the life and times of Lennox Berkeley. The most fundamental is Peter Dickinson’s The Music of Lennox Berkeley 2nd ed. edition (2003) and Stewart R. Craggs, Lennox Berkeley, A Sourcebook (2000). In 2010 the present author published Lennox and Freda which is a biographical exploration of the composer’s life and times. The most recent offering is Peter Dickinson’s fascinating compilation, Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters and Interviews (2012). The present volume adds something deeply personal and highly imaginative to this selection of books.

The general progress of the book is from London to Paris, with several digressions along the way. Chapter I introduces the reader to the Golden Arrow train, the scene at Victoria and the meeting between Lennox Berkeley and the Stravinsky in the on-board Pullman bar. A brief resumé of their careers, their family connections and their ‘complicated’ love-lives follows. The second chapter, ‘En Route to Dover’ deliberates on the recent performance of Persephone, introduces Vera Sudeikina and her relationship with Stravinsky. Tony Scotland imagines Vera’s interrogation of Berkeley about his boyfriend Alan Searle. There is a discussion between the two composers about Persephone, followed by an assessment of the work by contemporary music critics. ‘Crossing the Channel’ (Chapter III) finds the them aboard the SS Canterbury, where they settle down for a game of bridge. There is a conversation between Berkeley and Samuel Dushkin about Stravinsky and his musical and personal ‘paradoxes.’

Soon they are aboard the French train running from Calais to Paris. Chapter IV opens with a brief study of music inspired by steam locomotives. Stravinsky treats Berkeley to lunch where they enjoy Crayfish and several prestigious wines. Vera Sudeikina and Samuel Dushkin have retired and leave the two composers to chat. Perhaps the most important moment for Berkeley on this journey was the ‘discussion’ he had with Stravinsky about his ‘new’ work, the cantata Jonah, with the older man providing suggestions as to the piece’s progress and content. Chapter V examines the relationship between Stravinsky’s son Soulima with Daintha Roberts Walker. Finally, the train arrives at Paris Gard du Nord and the two composers go their separate ways.

Flèche contains several illustrations reflecting the journey to Paris. These include a colour print of a painting showing the Golden Arrow train leaving Victoria, albeit hauled by a British Rail Britannia locomotive (post 1952), rather than a Southern Railway Lord Nelson class engine. Other transport images show the SS Canterbury, Paris du Nord Statin, the French Super-Pacific loco and the ornate hall of the Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria. There are portrait photographs of all the main protagonists in the story, including characters who are mentioned, but were not aboard the train, such as Alan Searle, José Raffalli, Nadia Boulanger, André Gide, Ekaterina Stravinsky and Freda Berkeley. There is a good bibliography which details several important sources for this book, including the Meccano Magazine (May 1927), studies of the game of bridge and several railway books. There are references to the standard works on Berkeley and Stravinsky.

The book is a nicely bound hardback, with the single word ‘Flèche’ (underlined by an arrow) on the front cover. There is no dust jacket and no clue to the volume’s subject matter. I guess a bookshop browser would not begin to imagine what the book was about, unless they opened it. The book is quite expensive, at £15:00 for 80 pages. Yet it is an attractive production that feels good, is well produced, printed in a readable font, and, as noted, well-illustrated. Flèche was designed by Susan Wightman of Libanus Press and is published by Shelf Lives. It is a signed and numbered limited edition. My copy is No.102 of 250.

This book will appeal to three groups of readers. Firstly, enthusiasts of Lennox Berkeley, one of the most important (but undervalued by concertgoers) of 20th century British composers. For these folks this is a major story of a crucial meeting between ‘their’ man and one of the towering giants of ‘modern’ music. For Stravinsky fans, this story will prove an interesting footnote. And finally, for railway enthusiasts this is an absorbing portrayal of iconic pre-war travel. I guess that it will be the first category that will invest most heavily in this volume.

Clearly, this book, as a ‘moment in time’ for the two main characters, does not pretend to provide extensive biographical and musical details of both composers’ music. That said, there is plenty of background information given ‘incidentally’ as the story unfolds. I guess that most readers will have a basic grounding in 20th century musical history and the lives and times of these composers before beginning to read this volume. This book makes an attractive short read. I finished it in a single sitting in the garden on a warm spring day. I felt that I knew a lot more about Stravinsky and Berkeley than I did before I began: this increase in understanding is inversely proportional to the relatively short length of the book.

John France
 





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