THE HEARING TRUMPET




ONE: TEA PARTY

Today is the day. Five invitations have gone out to residents of Kilchattan Bay, here on the south east corner of the Isle of Bute, and Kate has reason to suppose that all five will turn up.

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Illustration from her book, The Hearing Trumpet. Drawing by Leonora Carrington


Guests names will not be disclosed at this stage. Guests names will not be revealed until they have intimated that they are happy to be included in the ongoing, intergenerational, multidisciplinary project that Kate and Sophie Seita are engaged in. Which reminds me that when first named in The Hearing Trumpet, the character Maude Somers is called Maude Wilkins. Perhaps Leonora Carrington didn't care much about surnames, which are conventionally taken from the father. Incidentally, Maude was an old woman who, after her death, is (rather startlingly) revealed to have been a man.

Here is the set-up for the tea party. In the foreground is the hearing trumpet. In the first paragraph of Leonora Carrington's novel, the first-person protagonist, Marian Leatherby, introduces us to it in the following way:
'The aesthetic presence of this object was not its only quality, the hearing trumpet magnified sound to such a degree that ordinary conversation became quite audible even to my ears.'

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Specially for the tea party, Kate has had prints made of some of Leonora Carrington's paintings. Only she couldn't resist adding to them first. See this one for example:

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Or this one:

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The addition to the above print is Kate's new hearing aid. Kate went partially deaf in one ear in 2021 and, what's more, has been bothered in that same ear by tinnitus. Or should I say TINNNNNNNNNNNNITUS. The hearing aid helps with both, but not as much as The Hearing Trumpet helps. A book whose existence was brought to her attention by the aforementioned co-creator, Sophie Seita. You will soon see what I mean.

Although the tea party is happening today, it's not happening yet. Right now it is breakfast time, and Kate is enjoying eating her usual concoction in her new studio space. The studio that will be available for other artists to use in 2023, if things go to plan.

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It's at this moment that the hearing trumpet chooses to speak. And the precise yet multi-layered voice coming from it is recognisably Sophie's:

"Do we always begin from the fingers outwards? Imagine where they point, what they cannot reach or hold or pierce? All descriptions ride this imaginary Mobius Strip."

Is it too early in the day to talk of Mobius strips? According to Kate, Mobius and muesli should never be mixed.

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I remind Kate that a Mobius strip is a long rectangle of material that forms one continuous surface by joining the ends after twisting one end through 180 degrees. Kate does not seem reassured.

The hearing trumpet adds:

"Your preference might be for an object that has purpose, is easy to carry. Something light, a whiff of a thing. But the object I'm asking you to picture is lumpy, ill-defined. It clings to the surface like fluff to plastic. Indistinguishable matter."

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"It's desperate to appear plummy, like cheeks which an annoying uncle squeezes until they hurt. The object wants to become one with the atmosphere, a little shivering molecule, bobbing along to the room's rhythm. It's hard to follow the contours of the material without it all getting mixed up with the sensation."

Kate wishes that youthful, energetic Sophie was here in Kilchattan Bay to help with the tea party, metaphors and all. But she has to be in London, in the company of her partner and her dog. Leaving Kate to be helped solely by
moi, Friar Jeremias Nacob of the Holy Order of the Coffin.

I try and assure Kate that she needn't worry, that Sophie is indeed here in spirit, bringing her vision to the table. And she seems to accept this.

Later, everything is set up for the party. A tea party inside a new studio with its freshly painted window frames. What could be more exciting?

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One of the guests gets the time wrong. But that is OK, this is a village, after all, and it takes but a few seconds for me to walk to her house and remind her. Soon all the guests are in their places, and the toast is, of course, 'The wise women of Kilchattan Bay'.

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Kate has changed into her 'The Driver's Seat' t-shirt. With Leonora Carrington and Muriel Spark on board, how can this party - by women, for women - fail?

Kate explains that when she moved to Kilchattan Bay last summer, she had just read
The Hearing Trumpet for the first time and it immediately struck her that the enlightened, highly independent older women of the village reminded her of the characters in the book, that group of loosely connected individuals that populated Lightsome Hall in its final days.

Actually, the tea party set-up reminds me of that part in The Hearing Trumpet when the two evil women (who put rat poison in the home-made fudge which did for poor Maude) have been driven out, leaving six wise, well-meaning friends intent on taking control of their own lives.

Let's not forget about the hearing trumpet, floating discreetly above the centre of the table (see it?). I suppose it's the equivalent of the oil painting of the winking nun in
The Hearing Trumpet. A second toast, then, to Dona Rosaldina Alvarez della Cueva.

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Below is another of the Leonora Carrington prints. It is difficult (or impossible or inadvisable)) to suggest who is who. But that doesn't matter. The painted people are enjoying eating at table and have invited birds along to the meal. Humans, birds and mammals are deeply connected. Feed the swan, feed the Alsatian, feed the planet. Fruit and veg are all that is needed. (There is no need to farm fish.) Save the dolphin, save the deer, save the planet.

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Quarter of an hour later I come back to the studio and pour the tea. I have no idea what they have been talking about. My name is bandied about as they thank me for the gift of darjeeling, the champagne of teas.

My mistake, it's actually Jeremy the seagull that's under discussion. Apparently, the Co-op bread with which the sandwiches have been made, nice though it is, might not be good enough for Jeremy.

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It's most disconcerting, says guest one, to be sitting in the dining room of guest two, and to hear this brusque tapping on the window. That's Jeremy demanding to be fed high class bread!

Jeremy the seagull can even read English. Guest two saw him perched on the fence reading her poster announcing the details of this year's Open Studios. Some of the guests talk to Jeremy, another claims not to be fluent in Seagull-ese. When buying a wholemeal loaf from the post-office, guest one always has in mind that half of it will be for Jeremy.

"Does Jeremy eat cake?" asks Kate, cutting into theirs.

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"Of course Jeremy eats cake. Have you ever known a male seagull that wouldn't scoff cake?"

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The tea party goes on for an hour and a half. I return to the studio twice, each time offering fresh tea.

When the party has dispersed Kate checks her phone. She has promised to update Sophie with how it all went.



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But there is no need, because Sophie has heard everything. Kate wants to know what Sophie made of the good-natured banter. The winks and the raised eyebrows. The significant silences and the tart rejoinders. Above all, the commitment to community which was manifest from beginning to end. The woman all love their lives; their island lives on Bute. Over to 32-year-old Sophie, sometimes known as Theory:

"I 'have' a feeling. It's totally conditional on the context. On this almost dancerly pose. Seemingly unconnected shapes bubble up and I brush them into a little pile for analysis. I tumble. I do not know the right way for body and object and floor and fabric to interact."

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"I make out another figure. It is arresting. The arms of the fabric are stretched out like a windswept scarecrow or partner. I would like to speak to the figure; draw geometric circles, like cloudy speech bubbles. It smacks me in the face; I'm there for it. I will it to happen. I'm wide awake."

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TWO: TEN DAYS LATER



August. High summer. Kate has been joined by another wise woman of Kilchattan Bay. Though Maz lives most of the time in Portsmouth. Or does she? Earlier this year she travelled to Chile, twice, in order to sail to the Antarctic, once.

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Maz is in her mid-seventies. She retired from her first career in order to deliver babies for ten years. But being a midwife has not made her sentimental about newborns. Kate and she agree that there is nothing more annoying than a 'baby on board' car-sticker.

It is idyllic here. Adults and children are making use of the warm water to play in the sea. This is Scotland, how can the water be this warm? Well, there are a few wetsuits around, but there is plenty bare flesh too. Kate and Maz are going to swim by the pier once they have finished their coffee. The coffee comes direct from Kate's flat and studio which are about fifty yards away. Did I say 'idyllic' about this location, as a canoe capsizes and a man drowns in front of our eyes?

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No, it's OK, he's up again. He was practising the ancient male skill of 'capsizing but not drowning'.

We watch a family divided between two paddle boards. Mother and child on one, father kneeling on the other. The parents have been struggling to master the technique of paddle boarding while, simultaneously, keeping the child interested. Thanks to the hearing trumpet (in this case it looks like a thistle) we can hear every word.

"Let's try kayaking now," says the bored child, exactly fifteen minutes into their one hour session.

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Maz tells us what she thinks is likely to happen next. The mother's exasperation with her child reaches boiling point. And with one skilled movement of the paddle: WHACK. (Woops!) "BABY OFF BOARD."

We laugh. Perhaps we shouldn't. But it's funny. It's an intergenerational joke and it strikes both Kate and Maz, fuelled by coffee and sunblock, who have brought up children to the best of their ability and to the absolute limit of their patience and - very occasionally - beyond that limit, as funny.

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Kate has a granddaughter, Sophia. And then there is Sophie. She loves them both very much, and she wishes they were both here in Kilchattan Bay. But in the temporary absence of intergenerational friendship there is intragenerational friendship. In spades.

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Kate and Maz are as good as their word, and are soon in the water. Just them and the hearing trumpet.

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"What do you think?"

"It's Heaven."

"Watch out for angels disguised as jellyfish."

Look at the next photo. Swimmers, paddle boarders and kayakers. No speed boats. There is more chance of seeing a pod of dolphins than a speedboat. What month this year was it that we watched a pod of dolphins swim back and forth across the bay? They did so on and off for two days running. Plenty time to remember the line from the David Bowie song:

I, I wish I could swim.
Like dolphins. Like dolphins can swim.


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Back to the hearing trumpet. Kate is telling Maz that towards the end of the novel, when the six wise women of Lightsome Hall have sorted out their collective home, the climate changes overnight.

"What had been a warm and pleasant land became dark and cold. The key to what's happening is expressed in three riddles, of which you should hear the second. Trouble is I can't remember it. Over to you, hearing trumpet."

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"I never move as you whirl round and round
I sit and watch you with never a sound
If you tilt far enough caps become belt
New caps are made and old caps will melt
Though legless your whirling will then appear lame
I seem to move but I don't, what's my name?"

"Is the solution to the riddle given in the book?"

"Yes, it's the Pole Star. And the riddle turns out to be a prophecy. Earthquakes push the earth out of its normal axis. The poles melt."

"Global warming!"


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"Global freezing in some places, but, yes, global warming and flooding in others. As predicted by Leonora Carrington in a book that was first published in 1977. Which reminds me that there is something particular that I have to tell Sophie."

"Is she listening?"

"Of course, she is listening, Maz. Flood or no flood. She is co-creator of the various hearing trumpets that we're using. I had better turn round though. So this is what I wanted to tell you, Sophie."


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"I was in Street Level the other day, which is an exhibition space in Glasgow. The show was of Frank McElhinney's photographs of forced migration from Ireland to Scotland in the 19th Century. It's a great show and you should see it if you can, preferably on the way to Bute. Anyway, the woman invigilating on the day of my visit is an artist, Rachel McDermott, and her present work is inspired by none other than Leonora Carrington. In November she is going on a two-month residency to Mexico, because that's where Leonora lived from the 1940s to her death, decades later."

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"And that made me realise that The Hearing Trumpet is set in Mexico. Though the author never uses the word 'Mexico'. I suppose it's pretty obvious really, as it's clear that the action takes place in the Americas, though Marion Leatherby has lived most of her life in Britain and the more elite parts of Europe (Paris, Nice, Rome, Venice). All those Spanish names give the game away really. But the thing is, I feel sorry for Rachel. This climate catastrophe business means that Mexico has been frozen over."

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"All the warmth that used to be found in Mexico has floated off to the west coast of Scotland and settled over the Isle of Bute, the focal point of which is Kilchattan Bay. That's the good news. Alas, poor Rachel will freeze her tits off in Mexico. We have to find a way to help her. Not just her, of course, we must find a way of saving all the Mexicans. I'm sure that dolphins will be able to help. You see they need so little training. You tell them something once, via the hearing trumpet, and you can leave it at that in the knowledge that they are up to speed.

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"You see, Sophie, dolphins can swim. Even through icy waters where they have the ability to turn into blubbery seals. My friend Maz was talking to a dolphin-turned-whale in the Antarctic and she warned her about what was going to happen. Climate challenge. And the challenge is to ride the wave of change.

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"We can do it. We can do it… But we might need to help and be helped. For sure it's another intergenerational, interspecies project. Or a continuation of the same blooming, blossoming one that we've been engaged on for two years now."





Notes

Most hearing trumpet words in section one are Sophie Seita quotes from ‘Thinking the Body Outwards’, in
Flesh Arranges Itself Differently, exhibition catalogue (Glasgow: The Roberts Institute of Art/The Hunterian, 2022).