Meanwhile Murdo, a man with may quests behind him and a shap nose for the essence of palaces of culture and learning, had been to the University shop. This turned out to be a gleaming epiphany. They had books here and there. But mostly, to our eyes at least, they had sweatshirts, bags, jackets, teddy bears and mascots, baseball caps even. Mudo got himself all swagged up but said nothing. Then the weather cooled, Malcolm’s head noticed immediately and after that no hat was safe. You can see what happened.
The present whereabouts of Murdo’s hat are not known.
The Celtic Colours Festival was on and we heard some of it. Paula got us into a concert at Sydney Mines in a Presbyterian church of amazing theatricality where we arrived in time for much fiddle music. We sat and watched with our mouths open as the whole audience rose for the entrance of Otis Thomas. We saw this again at the closing concert in honour of Jerry Holland. I was slightly alarmed – I’m easily alarmed by the unanimous worship of anything. Classical music concerts now alarm me, also the heritage kind of theatre and most of the way opera is performed and received.
Maybe it was because we met mostly the kinds of people you’d expect us to meet, but we did feel great waves of energy going into making Cape Breton as Scottish as it can be – and it can be, and is, mighty Scottish already. We saw fiddles everywhere; the whole of Cape Breton seemed to be fiddle-branded
Louis talked about the ways places like Cape Breton were developing ideas of their own identities that emphasised their links to places of origin: how this process might mean a shrinking identity even when all the energy which is obviously bursing out all over seems to mean the opposite; and that there will likely be dificulties welcoming new citizens and new identities. We Irish of course specialise in Identities and may have learned a thing or two – mainly, I think, that you can’t define identity; that your shouldn’t try; that identity is a thing to grow from and not sink into; and that being in trouble about identity is the only healthy way to be.
Anyway, the Otis Thomas music was for string quartet, harp and, of course, guitar. The music was unusual. It sat well within what I understood to be the usual language of Cape Breton music but all the time was feeling its way towards the limits but in a very gentle unassertive way – added notes that could have been blue without being very blue. The concerts were very interesting – the audiences even more than the music, so we followed some of them into Paula McNeill’s kitchen.
Paula and Paula’s mother, father, husband and family took care of us, fed us, told us to sit down, talked to us, played music for us and made sure we at least started for home in the right direction. There were lots of McNeills, they being the famous Barra McNeills and one of them turned out to be a piper with the good sense to play the Uileann Pipes. This was very good news, I thought, not only for listeners but also for the way Cape Breton music might be going. They have preserved there kinds of Scottish music and ways of playing it that were cleared out of Scotland in the extraordinary process of regimenting and exploiting Highland culture that the Union executed from around 1800 onwards. And this is extremely valuable; but traditional music preserves by live transmission and is proud of the fact; and transmission changes things; for every passing-on, something is gained and something is lost. I wish traditional players would be more straightforward about this and also face up to the fact that we want to listen when the playing is wonderful, well-reserved or not.
In the middle of the University launch Stewart McNeill started doing some very skillful things with the bellows of his accordeon, things that may or may not been traditional. I remembered Tony McMahon and the way he weaves multi-coulours into his slow airs with his immensely tender bellows control, a control that surely very few players have ever had, tradition-bearers or not.
I think this occurred to me because we had the poets with us and doing their stuff, as they often have been on Great Book journeys, often with traditional music and there was never any funny stuff going on about tradition; we had the new, related to its past, invention going on, relationships obvious and acknowleged. On the other hand, Ireland often does horrible things to its tradition: at the moment we are building a motorway through the Hill of Slane and I think most of us now wonder what on earth new visitors make of post Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Maybe it’s good for them. Cape Breton was certainly good for us. I wonder what we did and didn’t do for them. As far as I could see, everybody took to the contemporary aspect of the Great Book naturally and took to us with amazing and practical friendliness. Mary K MacLeod and Jan Curtis told us about a concert in the Highand Village at Iona and led us there. It was only when they went off home after delivering us and making everything easy for us there that we realised they had driven all that way just to look after us.
We came back to Scotland and Ireland and are still blinking into the fading autumn light and wondering. The Great Book is still there in Sydney, having adventures without us.