Ice, ash and fury: A meditation on eruptions from Mt St Helens to the Temple of St Paul’s Cathedral

Since I made The White North Has Thy Bones a year ago about our obsession with the Arctic and the North West Passage I’ve realised January has become a favourite time of the year. For this Something Understood the starting point is the violent eruptions of pre-spring: The exotic floral extravagance of winter flowering Magnolias and Camellias. Neil Rollinson recently told me that it was his delightful poem about Magnolias that was his own favourite in his latest collection, not the sexually explicit celebrations of masculinity which got more attention. You can hear it in the programme.

Metallic cold resonates throughout in our music: The exquisite tremulous beauty of the much underappreciated clavichord; apparently JS Bach’s favourite instrument. Carole Cevasi in a practice room at the Royal College of Music revealed to me its intimate and precious subtlety. Like the harpischord it’s often thought of as cold for lacking the soft Romantic cushioning of a pianoforte pedal and echo.

A cabin in a snow bound mountainous Wyoming erupts with violence in Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight. Ennio Morricone’s Oscar nominated score, as Tarantino recently pointed out to me on Front Row, is not so much a reference back to his spaghetti Westerns, as it is the sound of horror. An eruption of blood that we know will come.

The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 which killed 57 people and devastated thousands of surround acres of land had a profound effect on my adolescence. It was the physical embodiment of all my generation’s nuclear war terror in the energy and the grey mushroom cloud released. Most disturbing was the fact that no one saw the red of lava; the massive heat wave which burned like acid through the forests was grey like a fog. Reading geologist Richard Waitt’s excellent recent book In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St Helens it’s striking how many survivors remember the silence of the eruption that accompanied the speed of the travelling ash cloud. Waitt worked on the volcano at the time of the eruption and many of the survivors had refused to speak of what they’d witnessed for 30 years.

Rage is the human eruption that makes for 2 fascinating religious stories. In Indian Hindu  myth women’s worth is almost always measured in their obedience, humility and endurance of suffering. Which is why it’s all the more intriguing that there is such a rich vein of female rage in the scriptures: Goddess Durga the Demon slayer and her skull-wreathed dark incarnation Kali the avenger.  I’ve gone back to one of my favourite and unsettling (of course!) childhood stories – that of Kannagi, an ordinary woman who invokes her purity as a submissive Hindu wife in her rage. After her husband is wrongly accused of stealing the Queen’s jewels and beheaded she marches on the palace, proves his innocence, leading the King to commit suicide, then burns the city of Maduri to ashes with the curse of her own fury. She is still worshipped as a goddess to this day.

Photo by permission Jonathan Savage

Photo by permission Jonathan Savage

Giles Fraser came in to analyse the story of Jesus’ rage in the Temple – overturning the tables of the money changers. He pointed out that in 3 of the gospels the story takes place in Jerusalem, close to his arrest and execution – establishing him more clearly as a political troublemaker than in the gospel of St John, where the story is longer but carefully placed much earlier in his chronology. Giles reflected honestly too on his own eruption at St Pauls, from where he resigned over the Cathedral’s decision to allow the Corporation of London authorities to seek a police clearance of the Occupy protest camp that had set up in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

The omissions, sadly include Giles’ own brilliant observations about Bob Hoskins and the abattoir scene in The Long Good Friday: “There’s been an ERUPTION.”

And for time reasons we also had to drop a rather treasured section on the secret heat of Weimar Germany’s cabaret scene and a beautiful song from Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee – A winter musical play, which premiered in Leipzig 3 weeks after the Nazis seized power. There are 2 versions of the song of the Poor Relation –  Lotte Lenya’s and Ute Lemper’s  – on my Spotify list of music featured in the programme. It evokes for me the icy wind of January and my memories of how Berliners have long sought out the hidden heat and decadence of secret bars and clubs till it passes..

Something Understood: Eruption is on Radio 4 on Sunday January 17th and on this iplayer link for a month after.

Spotify list of music from the programme

Further reading/listening

Carole Cerasi on the clavichord- Bach’s favourite instrument (Front Row 2014)

Quentin Tarantino on The Hateful Eight (Front Row Jan 2016)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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