Circular Breathing

Catherine Coldstream considers Francis Spufford

image: Music Party, East Cowes Castle, by JMW Turner (credit: The Tate)


CIRCULAR BREATHING. Not something you expect to come up in conversation with an award-winning novelist and nonfiction writer whose obsessions span ice, mountains, polar expeditions, the 18th Century, Cold War Russia, Narnia, and whether Christianity can be publicly defended on emotional, rather than on quasi-scientific grounds. But Francis Spufford is married to an oboist, and an oboist of faith at that. The Revd Dr Jessica Martin, Canon of Ely Cathedral, has been alongside Spufford for much of his spiritual journey, and one senses holds the key to at least one magic wardrobe in his life. The world of faith, and of ‘learning to breathe’ with mindfulness and presence, was opened for him after a relationship crisis that saw him hit rock bottom and, from that place of self-knowledge, reach out for a lifeline that was, in part, mediated by music.

In his book Unapologetic (2012) Spufford recalls the agonising events that led to his sitting defeated, despondent, and alone in a café, one early morning in 1997. On some level, he felt his world had come to an end. And then the music started. It was the adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, a piece of music Spufford likens to ‘the way mercy would sound’ (borrowing the description from Richard Powers). No, it’s not a scintillating oboe, but the milder woodwind strains of the clarinet, a pipe and a flat reed chanelling something like pure loveliness, goodness, a quality that, like mercy, ‘is not strained in any way’. The powerful description of the ensuing process recalls other classic ‘conversion experiences’, but what perhaps sets it apart is the power accorded to music as a vehicle for reassurance, and indeed assurance that, whatever misery the world might offer, it ‘still has this in it’. Music lives. Music moves. Music breathes.

‘I breathe in, I breathe out.

I breathe in, I breathe out’

Circular breathing, a mysterious skill known only to woodwind players, has a suggestion of the magic trick about it. To the uninitiated it presents perennial fascination, being the famously hard-won technique of being able to ‘breathe in and out at the same time’. Oboists are famously skilled proponents of it. String players like me have been known to wonder from afar, catching snatches of conversation in the break at rehearsals, and to ask ourselves, do these people have three lungs? How on earth do they do it? One senses that the musical equivalent of smoke and mirrors might be involved. But then you listen and realise, no, these people really can hold a single note for thirty minutes.

Like many mysterious things in life there is an explanation behind it, and it turns out it’s something to do with storing air in your cheeks, as though they were pneumatic camels’ humps, and knowing how to feed it out again through your mouth while taking in new air through your nose. Something like that. But don’t hold me to it. I’m a viola player. The reason I mention this esoteric phenomenon is that Spufford, who writes insightfully on the life of faith and prayer elsewhere, has just this year delivered a novel – his second (coming after a series of excellent nonfiction works) – which is subtly concerned with the transcendent, and in which music plays a prominent part. It even mentions circular breathing, albeit as a figure of speech for the extraordinary effect of a group of amateurs synchronised into a grand harmonic relay. ‘Can they hear it, this immense organised sound they are making together?’ someone asks, and causes us, too, to wonder. Can we hear the inadvertent music of our collective lives?

‘The layering of notes is yet capable of sounding a chord that seems to lay hold on some order in the world that already existed before we came along and started to sing,’ he expands. The suggestion that music is, or has access to, some sort of pre-existent ordering principle, not unlike the Greek logos, is inescapable. ‘Music is strange’ he tells us, through the character of Jo, a rock singer turned music teacher, in the new book, and in so doing reminds us of the fluidity between spirit, sound, and breath, and the ways in which music – as ethereal vibration – comes close to the concept of the breath of life. Music moves. And it moves us, sensate, vibrating beings that we are, and can perhaps even change us on a cellular level.

‘The layering of notes is yet capable of sounding a chord that seems to lay hold on some order in the world that already existed before we came along and started to sing,’ 

I ask him, now we are settled at our screens a hundred miles apart, ‘How do you account for the power of the Mozart that you heard that gloomy day, back in 1997? Of course, it’s transportingly beautiful, but was the spiritual content of the experience in any way dependent on its being Mozart, or could it have been any other composer or style of music?’ The question triggers a flood of eloquence, something I’m getting used to, now that I’ve read three of his books, and met him on odd occasions in the past, when we’ve crossed paths at Goldsmiths College. 

 ‘All kinds of music can do it,’ he says. ‘And music, of all the arts, has the greatest capacity to get round our conscious defences. But it doesn’t have to be Mozart, it doesn’t have to be that abstract, or rarefied, and it doesn’t have to be wordless either. The light tries its best to get through by any means necessary,’ he says, invoking Leonard Cohen’s famous Anthem: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering /There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’ Spufford picks up on the refrain, giving it a more explicitly theistic turn. God will find a way, and uses whatever he’s got.

For a conversation about his new novel, Light Perpetual, released in February 2021, we’re focusing rather more on sound and spirit than on the main storyline, which involves a counterfactual conceit, a 1944 V2 London bombing, and five children who the book follows through the stages of life to old age. But Light Perpetual is also a book rich in layered meaning, and interested in ‘light’ not only as the origin and stuff of being, but as pure energy that permeates every aspect of life, even the dullest. Certainly it permeates the music. Light is itself resonant with echoing overtones of eternal life.

‘One of the reasons why my new book, Light Perpetual, has got so much music in it,’ he says, ‘and so many different kinds of music, is that it is trying to be true to the way that music is the big serious thing which gets everywhere, and – other than firework displays making everyone go ‘ooh’ – I can’t think of anything, except music, which reaches into almost all lives.’

And when I press him, he says: ‘I really don’t think it has to be reduced to some sort of ‘state of purity’. I think all sorts of thick, passion-clogged, highly catchy ‘make-you-wanna-dance’ kinds of music can convey otherness as well. It’s not an accident that that kind of ecstatic experience lies on the other side of dance music, for example, and the whirling dervishes, and people who take a lot of ecstasy, are reporting similar things there.’

‘I can’t think of anything, except music, which reaches into almost all lives.’

At the mention of dervishes – and other things – Francis laughs. ‘I’m showing my age there!’ he says. I don’t comment, but the fact that the new novel so successfully resurrects London in the 1970s, for example, does rather give the game away. Spufford, born in 1964, has lived through enough decades to see London as an ever-changing chimera, something that could be reduced to dust, as part of it was during the Blitz, but equally as dust transfigured, capable of embodying the divine in as many ways as there are people.

‘In Light Perpetual, one thing that struck me was the agility of imagination you displayed in getting right inside the heads of your very different characters,’ I say. ‘The extent to which you inhabited and channelled each one in turn was masterful. Do you have a process for entering psychologically into different personalities?’ 

‘Well, fiction crosses the gaps between people,’ Francis again summons the theme of invisible energy, now applying it to the written word. ‘The underlying power of fiction is that it lets you do what you can never do in the rest of your experience, Catherine, which is to look through other eyes and ‘try out the view’ from inside other people’s heads. It is the great power of fiction. It depends on an illusion, obviously …’

‘But you also write with the factual confidence of a historian. Is there a great deal of research involved in the planning of your novels?’ I wonder.

‘I’m not a historian, definitely not,’ he says. ‘But it’s probably a factor that both my parents were absolutely proper scholarly historians, so I grew up in a house in which history was being done, with piles of photocopies and trips to archives and things. So, on the one side, that’s the reason why I’m absolutely sure that what I do is much more essayistic than that. But, on the other side, there’s an inheritance as well.’

It’s coming into focus, and I’m beginning to see the imaginative, visionary quality of Spufford’s approach securely tethered to a grounded, planned procedure. Fact and fiction, mind and matter are at interplay in writing that has been called ‘virtuosic’ (interestingly a musically evocative term) before now. I ask him to elaborate.

‘I like the exercise of informed imagination, of feeling and thinking my way into the otherness of other times. I guess that’s the storytelling urge, and that’s one reason why I’m not a proper historian. The point for me is not the facts, but the story that can be told about the facts, to illuminate the facts.’

Several of Spufford’s earlier books do this, without the overlay of fiction or overt imagination. I May be Some Time, written in 1996, tells the story of Scott’s polar expedition, something inspired by his reading of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, which made a huge impression on him as a boy. His is definitely a work of nonfiction, but one that plays imaginatively with form and concept.

‘I was a student in the early 1980s,’ he tells me, filling me in on the genesis of this unusual first work. ‘And I thought I was absolutely armour-plated against that kind of stoical suffering story with nothing but vast numbers of stiff-upper-lipped Edwardian men’s derring-do. But it knocked me over, and I thought, hmm, there is something I could creep up on here, to account for the intensity of my own reaction.’

Turning the gaze on his own ‘reaction’, as much as on the tale of extremity and bravery itself, not to mention ice and snow, strikes me as an interesting dual focus, a sort of wave-particle oscillation between feeling and observation. I ask him about how he navigated this, and what interested him most in that rather remote story.

 ‘I wanted to write about the way that the whole of our culture keeps alive this particular, unexpected memory, even though it was part of the kind of grand structure of imperial storytelling, all of which had by then long since gone. Yet everybody still knows the last thing Captain Oates said, which is why I called my book I May be Some Time. And that gave me a way in, to thinking about memory, and about public memory. I was interested in how it works, and how stories remain potent, and pick up different meanings, and change, and transmogrify, but go on being told and go on conveying something.’ 

This is fascinating. I’m particularly interested in the fact that the book is not so much about what it seems to be about, that is ice, and extremity, and risk, and heroism, as it is about memory, and public memory in particular. I am fleetingly reminded that this is something that could also, to a point, be said of the Scriptures. 

‘The story of Scott and Co. in the Antarctic was certainly a mortally dangerous story. And I was deeply interested in the costs of some kinds of stories, really extreme stories, and the way that people are able to commit themselves to them, and then pay in ways which it turns out may – or may not – have been worth it. That fascinated me.’

‘And you were also interested in ice in the English imagination?’

‘Well, I come from a temperate country, where Christmas is more often green than white, so for me ice and snow have the quality of a kind of magical transformation.’

‘Let’s talk about imagination,’ I say. ‘How exactly do you use it as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction’. The glow of Light Perpetual still lingers in my mind.

‘We need all kinds of art… We need the stuff that’s difficult to assimilate and takes difficult forms, because it’s the only form that delivers to us difficult understandings, and complex or difficult experiences’

‘There is a bit of me, deep down, which really believes that, as Virginia Woolf said, the imagination is androgynous and that when it’s working right, and you’re trying really hard, what you can do is to ‘send out a kind of spark’ of attention, to make forays into other people’s experience. That spark has no age, and no gender, and no class, and no particular origin, and it is as close as you can get – of course imperfectly – to a state of pure human sympathy, ready to pay attention to whatever it finds, or thinks it finds.’

‘And art?’ I say. ‘How much does artistry really matter, and do we, as a species, need art in the same way that we need a spiritual lifeline? Do we need so-called High Art?”

‘We need all kinds of art,’ Francis replies. ‘We need the stuff that’s difficult to assimilate and takes difficult forms, because it’s the only form that delivers to us difficult understandings, and complex or difficult experiences. We need paragraphs by Joyce and Virginia Woolf that repay years of close attention. But we also need Terry Pratchett.’

‘And do we need beauty?’ I can’t quite let go of the memory of the Mozart adagio, and of what Spufford calls the ‘unhurried lilt of solitary sound’ in his description of being touched by grace, and of the ‘deep waves’ of tenderness when the strings joined in.

‘Yes’, Francis replies, and I feel an almost guilty relief. ‘We do need beauty, which, because it’s in the eye of the beholder, has as many complexions and shades and local forms as there are eyes seeing it. The universal thing about beauty is the experience of it, rather than necessarily what is being found.’

But when I throw out the famous line of Keats, about beauty being truth, and truth beauty, and ask him what he makes of it, he is unhesitating:

‘I make of it that Keats was really, really young. It’s not my experience that the world is that harmonious. Some truths are really ugly and still extremely necessary, and some forms of beauty are really deceptive, and misleading, and flimsy. There are things that are lovely and inconsequential, there are things that are lovely and toxic, and there are things that are absolutely nourishing yet are ugly and hard going.’ 

‘Does art then not have to be beautiful?’ I ask.

‘No, it really doesn’t. Art should be interested in everything, including profound states of ugliness and disturbance and distortion. What makes art art is not that it is concerned with ‘beautiful things’ and selects them out of the world. It’s that it is serious in its attention to the whole, so far as we can manage it.’

‘Art should be interested in everything, including profound states of ugliness and disturbance and distortion. What makes art art is not that it is concerned with ‘beautiful things’ and selects them out of the world. It’s that it is serious in its attention to the whole, so far as we can manage it.’

So we are back to Spufford’s sympathetic and inclusive eye. He is very much the observer, surveying the many forms and faces of a beloved city over time, a creator-historian, one as sensitive to the grotesque as to the light and ‘freshness deep down things’. Of Light Perpetual he says:

‘I want the world to seem flimsy, and almost transparent at the beginning of the book, possibly with some other light shining through it, and then for it to seem thick and opaque and solid and extremely prosaic and absorbing in the middle, and then for the scenery to thin, and for the light to start shining through again, and for the flimsiness to become apparent again at the end of the book. I conceive of it as a sort of cycle in which the lights come up again, behind the scenery – not a scenery I made, but the scenery of the city itself – showing that scenery to be only a thin screen behind which some other light is shining. Ideally.’

It’s not the first time Francis Spufford has reminded me of a theatrical conjuror or magician. The smoke and mirrors virtuosity seems to be an innate facility. He’s already given me this glimpse into his own take on dramatic narrative technique:

‘It’s to do with the way that storytelling controls the sightlines of the person who is hearing it. So, the story dictates which direction they look in, and what they see needs to be very solid-seeming and fully specified, when actually that’s all there is. Behind them there could be an empty stage, and me, in a pair of overalls, moving a very short pillar on castors back and forth and hoping they didn’t see me.’

We both laugh. The Zoom session is nearing its close, and I sense we are both keen to get back to our books and our cups of tea. Or perhaps to our music. The overview that underpins not only Francis’s new novel, with its panoramic, cosmic-eyed view of a city and its myriad interdependent lives, but also his more overtly faith-based writings on spirituality, is shot-through with an awareness of otherness, whether as light, or love, or the transforming power of music. In Light Perpetual we meet Jo again, the muse upon her, and ‘she notices how inevitable the tune is already sounding: how meant, how deliberate, this thing that she has been pulling together from who knows what vapour, who knows how.’ It’s a clean, sharp evocation of the creative process.

In Unapologetic, experiences of otherness are styled delicately yet powerfully as ‘shimmers of sensation’ or even ‘wisps’ easy to ignore if inattentive. But the insights arising from them are persistent, as is the sense that ‘behind, beyond, beneath all changes, all wheeling and whirring processes, all flows, there seems to be flow itself.’

In one memorable passage describing entering an empty church, a ‘vessel of hush’, Spufford sits and focuses on his breath. He has come here ‘to get away from the unending song of his self’, and welcomes the overwhelming silence for a while. 

‘I breathe in, I breathe out. I breathe in, I breathe out,’ he tells us, refrain-like, over pages, steadily and untiringly. Half an hour passes. And then: ‘Day opens the daisies, sucks carbon into every leaf, toasts the land, raises moisture as clouds. Night closes flowers, throws the protein switch for rest in mobile creatures, condenses dew, pulls the winds that day has pushed. Breathe.’ The insights are cyclical and timeless.

Spufford breathes on. He may not have camels’ cheeks, or a third lung (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t) but he is aware of the sustained continuum of the One Great Overarching Breath in which circular breathing is but a temporary participation. Breathing in and out at the same time reassuringly has the ring of paradox about it, and it’s not for all of us. But all breath is life, and inhalation, exhalation, and halation too – the ring of light that appears around solid objects – are all gratuitous, in the sense of their being gifts.

Music lives.

Music moves.

Music breathes.

‘There is a doubleness in the word ‘gratuitous’,’ Francis says, ‘that I find beautiful and useful, in that gratuitous has both the sense of arbitrariness, randomness, and an almost terrifying kind of ‘why this rather than anything else? Why anything at all?’ But gratuitousness also has the sense of the word ‘gift’ in there.’

We’ve been talking about possible lives, and actual lives, and how he, as an author, gets his sense of perspective. Of course, viewing points change and shift all the time. No single perspective is guaranteed anything like permanence. All is gift, or random providence, or perhaps both. Nevertheless, ‘I’m being carried on the Universe’s shoulders,’ he writes, in Unapologetic, after his hour of mindful breathing in the empty church. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. There is something circular about the return to the centre. Breathe in, breathe out. Noises begin to filter in from the street. A car’s ignition, a bird in a tree. And then other sounds, ‘the audio assemblage of the world getting on perfectly well without me.’

Being married to a woodwind-playing priest may have something to do with it. But I suspect Francis Spufford’s sense of perspective, and his measured breathing skills are pretty innate. Yes, like musical proficiencies, and good writing, they will have been practised and honed. But reading Unapologetic, as much as Light Perpetual, one is reminded that, like the Ruach Elohim or the Greek Pneuma, Music lives. Music moves. Music breathes. And, being simple energy and vibration, on one level, music can never die. It is a pleasing thing that a novel called Light Perpetual has so much music in it. And, perhaps, that one called Unapologetic has so much Mozart. Now, it is time for that cup of tea.


MARCH 2021 Catherine Coldstream MONK

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