Caught by the River


Bill Drummond | 4th May 2011

by Bill Drummond.

11 April 2011

I am dreaming about sparrows. And these sparrows are nesting in the steering wheel of my Land Rover. But it does not look that much like a steering wheel. For a start it is about four feet in diameter and is not in my Land Rover. In fact it seems to be floating and not connected to anything. But I do know it is what I steer my Land Rover with. As for the nests, they are very small and are somehow built into the circumference of the steering wheel. I can see the baby chicks and the un-hatched eggs. My major concern is that if I grip the steering wheel as I have to, to steer the Land Rover, I will crush the baby chicks and break the un-hatched eggs.

The dream shifts. I am now digging up nettles that are growing in a clump around the back of a house that I used to live in. I have sunk the fork into the ground and I am attempting to turn the soil over so that I can remove all the roots of the nettles. But the roots are thick and white and intertwined and will not budge. And I know that even if I get as many of the roots out of the ground that I can, there will be some left and from them fresh nettle plants will grow and replace all the ones that I have removed.

Then I awake. I am lying in a bed. The bed is in a hotel. The hotel is in Jerusalem, not far from the west wall of the old city. This was my first night here. Never been here before, or for that matter, I have never been to the Middle East before.

From where I am lying in the bed I can see an olive tree growing outside of the open window. In the olive tree are a number of sparrows, chirruping and squabbling. I lie there and listen to the sparrows and try and hold onto the dream before it disappears. Obviously the sound of the sparrows had entered my sleeping mind and encouraged the dream.

For whatever reason birds have been a big part of my life ever since I can remember. Like the lives of fish, the lives of birds have formed an integral slice of my internal myth. But it is only in the past few years that sparrows have begun to take a central role in that internal myth.

When I moved to London five years ago there was this hawthorn tree that grew by the bus stop across the road from where I live. In this tree there always seemed to be a bunch of sparrows chirruping and squabbling. The hawthorn tree is still there, but a couple of years ago the sparrows upped and left. It is a well-documented fact that the sparrow population of London has plummeted over the past few decades. This once most ubiquitous of urban birds is leaving our capital city and there does not seem to be any one conclusive reason why. There are plenty of far more polluted cities than London supporting huge sparrow populations. All the more reason why my mind cannot help turning their disappearance into something symbolic.

I may have written in my book 17, about the sparrows in a tree outside of a cafe in Moscow back in 2005. And maybe I have written about the ones in a tree in the Grand Rue area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when I was there in late 2009.

But as I lie here in bed listening to the sparrows in the olive tree outside my hotel window in Jerusalem and the dream is still hanging in my head, I realise this is the first time that I have ever dreamt about sparrows. It may not be the last.

The above all happened a couple of weeks ago. I am now back in my flat in London writing it all up from the notes I made at the time. From the window next to where I am working I can see the hawthorn tree that no longer hosts a squabble of sparrows and by my side is the Bible that I was given at the age of eleven in 1964. All the kids were given one in our first year at Beanfield Secondary Modern School. Or they were when I was living in Corby. It is always the Bible that I use. It is well thumbed.

Throughout this Bible are drawings of scenes from the stories. All the usual ones and some of the ones that are not so usual. I remembered that there were some of these drawings that depicted sparrows. It was thinking about those drawings of sparrows that prompted me to pull the Bible from the shelf and flick through the pages until I came to one of the drawings. And I quote from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter Ten, Verse 29 – Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

After reading that, I put SPARROWS and BIBLE into Google to see what it would throw up. And there within less time than it takes you to read this sentence were all the quotes from the bible that mention sparrows. There are six in all. I read them to see if they throw any new light on my relationship with the bird. Nothing beyond what we already know, that being, the sparrow is always used in literature to symbolise the lowest and commonest of life forms. Wherever we are, so are sparrows, getting on with their lives. Maybe we sub-consciously identify with them. They like us live sociable urban lives, but always seem to be arguing with each other.

There was another train of thought going around my head other than sparrows. The day before I flew out to Israel one of my teenage daughters had torn into me challenging my whole rationale for going to this country that should not exist. Her argument was the usual one – I should not be going to work in a country that is not really a country but land stolen from people who were already living there. And we in the West had turned a blind eye to this theft, because we were so tied up in the post war guilt about the Holocaust and our part in two thousand years of antisemitism. By me accepting the Shekels I was being paid was like accepting blood money. Artists and musicians from the West going there are being used as propaganda tools. These artists and musicians supposedly normalise the position of the state of Israel. I should be actively boycotting the place, not going there to further my career.

I knew all my daughter’s arguments, probably better than she did. Somewhere in my head I knew I was no better than the band Queen going over to play Sun City in South Africa at the height of apartheid or the Kerry Packer cricketers.

I gave her some mealy-mouthed half-baked justification. But it did not wash with her. She wanted to know why she should respect her father when he does things like this. I reminded her that I had to earn a living and that every time she goes to Tesco’s some of that money goes to the Zionist cause via Dame Shirley Porter. Or at least I think it does. But my daughter knew that I knew I was clutching at straws.

None of it was going to stop me from wanting to come to Israel so that I can sort out what the finale of both The17’s City-to-City and Coast-to-Coast world tours will be. In my head both of these ongoing but sporadic tours have been wending and snaking their way around the world for one reason – to climax in Jerusalem. The real reason that I was over in Israel was not just to do the three performance lectures that I was booked into be doing, but to make contacts and set things up for the final part, the grand crescendo of The17’s two world tours. These, if it all works out, will be happening in late 2012.

As much as I try to put to one side the history of this small patch of earth over the past 60 years, or even 3,000 years, I know it is that history that is all part and parcel with the relationship I have had with the place for most of my life. But none of that relationship has actually been about the reality lived in a day-to-day relationship. It has been just something that has existed in my somewhat unfocussed imagination.

So while I was lying in my bed listening to the sparrows I tried to bring a rationale together. One that I could offer my daughter, on my return to London. For as long as I can remember Jerusalem has held a central place in my imagination. Bible stories were the first stories that I ever knew. There was no television in our house until I was nine. Neither were there many children’s books. Thus the bible stories had an almost free reign in my imagination. They were what informed me about the weaknesses of humankind. And our strengths. They gave me a basic moral code to live my life by. I instinctively understood at an early stage that it did not matter if Mary was really a virgin, or if the Red Sea did part or even if Jesus rose from the dead. One knew and got what these stories were about.

But central to many of these stories was this place called Jerusalem. It is where the Holy of Holies resided. It is where you went to turn tables. If there was anywhere on earth that symbolised the meeting of the vanities of man with whatever the eternal other is, it is Jerusalem. And as I got older, I became aware of how we in the Western Christendom viewed Jerusalem via our art and literature – The Celestial City, the New Jerusalem. The very opposite of those Dark Satanic Mills in whatever form they take, in your day and age.

As a wayward teenager, much of the music that I was into, be it folk, soul, blues, country, reggae or rock ’n’ roll referenced those bible stories I knew so well. The bible was still the common reference point across Western culture. Sometime around the dawning of the age of punk and disco it began to slip from view.

In the past I have often gone on about how both Belfast and Jerusalem seem to be built on fault lines of the human soul. No, I cannot really give a rational explanation to what that means other than saying that I like the vague poetry of the statement.

Did the Crusaders, 1,000 years before me, ever expect to get to the real bricks and mortar Jerusalem? And what did it mean to them once they got there? The journey always more important than the arrival etc.

The sparrows kept chirruping and it was time for me to get up. The next six hours were taken up with walking the ancient city walls of Jerusalem. I had been vaguely planning that the last performance of Score 328: SURROUND, in the City-to-City world tour would be performed around these walls. As I walked them, I could look down into the backyards of the various communities that were living below. There were real people living real lives. Washing was being hung out, stray cats on the prowl, kids playing, old men being old men. I was glad to see it was not all just a tourist destination under a bell jar, as so many of the places that I have visited have ended up becoming. But even with all this reality going on, nothing instinctively made me feel this was the place that I wanted to end the tour.

On my walk back to the hotel, I heard a loud thud from a few streets away, but thought nothing of it. In every busy city there are loads of bangs and crashes, it is part of the modern urban soundscape. But as I was about to enter the hotel reception I got a call on my mobile. It was Ilan Volkov and he wanted to know if I was ok. Ilan was my host, the man responsible for bringing The17 to Israel. There had been a bomb in the Central Bus Station on Jaffa (Yaffo) Road. As yet he had no idea how many people had been killed.

As I lay on my bed, back in the hotel room, texting friends and family to let them know that I was ok, I was listening to the distant but persistent screaming ambulance sirens, mixed with the close and equally persistent chirruping of the sparrows in the olive tree outside my window.

Then came a phone call from Marie Wennersten. She is a director for the drama department at Sveriges Radio (Swedish National Radio) and over the past few months she has been putting together a documentary about The17. As well as taking part in the first ever public performance by The17 back in 2006, Wennersten has interviewed me on several occasions – a couple of times face to face, but mainly over the phone from Sweden, often the morning after I have led a performance in some distant land. On this particular day, she wanted to record my thoughts about how the performances had gone so far in Israel.

But I was not interested in that. I could not help launching into telling her about my dream and how I was now lying here listening to the sirens and the sparrows. And how in my head they were about as powerful a soundtrack to life as anyone could ever experience. Far stronger than anything that I may have done on either of the previous two days with paying members of the Israeli public. It is only now in typing this that I am thinking that I should maybe construct a score out of it. It could read:


Whenever there has been a bombing
And you are in close proximity to the bombing

(But not so close that you are dying
Or involved in the rescue of others
Who may be dying)

Lie on your back
Close your eyes
And listen to the sound
Of the sirens
And the sound of the Sparrows
Chirruping in a nearby tree.

But back to Marie Wennersten trying to interview me. It was a while before she could get a word in edgeways. I needed to pour all of this stuff out. But when she did it went something like this:
“Bill, you know what this dream means?”
“You told me a few months back, how The17 is to end at the stroke of midnight on the 28 April 2013, because at midnight you turn 60. And that is the date you have decided will signify the beginning of a new chapter in your life.”
“And then the last time I interviewed you told me how in the film that the German director is making about The17, your plan for the closing shots of the film is to be on the morning of the 29 April 2013, your 60th birthday.”
“Yeah, but what has this got to do with my dream?”
“Just listen and I will tell you. You said it would be film of you driving your Land Rover into a wild and open space somewhere in Scotland.”
“You park up, climb out, take a jerrycan from the back of the Land Rover. Then you douse the inside of the Land Rover with gasoline from the jerrycan. Then leaving the drivers door open you walk away with a Molotov cocktail in your hand. After a few yards you light it and throw it into the open door – the closing shots of the film being the Land Rover burning. Thus you destroying the place where The17 began and symbolically destroying any way back for you into The17.”
“Yeah, I know. But like I said, what has this got to do with the dream?”
“Well you think you can control things in your life. What you do. When you do them. But at a deeper level, you know you cannot. Even the sparrows have more control over your life than you do. That is what the dream is telling you.”
“The sparrows?”
“Yes, the sparrows and all that they represent.”
“And what’s that.”
“The force of nature. Bill, you think you can grasp the steering wheel, decide which direction you are going in. When you can stop and start. But whatever you think, we are never even fractionally in control, be it volcanoes, earthquakes or falling in love.”

Look, I do not know if that is exactly how the conversation went. But it was something like that. And anyway she has it all on tape and maybe it will one day be used on her documentary about The17.

Later that evening (in Jerusalem and not after the Land Rover gets torched) I was giving a performance / lecture at the gallery Yaffo 23. The name of the gallery is in fact also its address. It being only a couple of hundred yards up the road from the Central Bus Station where the bomb went off, I assumed that the performance might be cancelled. It wasn’t.

Where I was to give my talk was on the top floor of the building. I was there an hour or so, before I was supposed to start, thus before any of those who might be turning up, were turning up. I spent this hour sitting on a balcony looking out across the rooftops of Jerusalem while the light drained from the day. The sounds of the city seemed muffled and distant even without the squabbling of sparrows or the occasional scream of a swift as it tore across the darkening sky. It was then that I knew exactly how I wanted the final performance of Score 328: SURROUND to be performed. The 100 local members of The17 that will be needed for this planned final performance, will each position themselves on rooftops across Jerusalem. The first will be on the balcony of Yaffo 23. The other 99 will form a sweeping ark across the rooftops. Well not exactly an ark as they will form a complete circumference that will end back up at this balcony. The Way-Ho cry will make its way five times around the rooftops of the city. It seems like a far more inspiring way of doing it than around the city walls.

By the time that I came back in from the balcony, the place was packed. The lecture I gave repeated nothing from what I had said in the previous two talks in Israel. I improvised the lot, starting with telling them about the dream and the sounds of the sirens and the sparrows and the interpretation of the dream and how I want to do the final performance of Score 328: SURROUND across the rooftops of Jerusalem starting from the balcony right here. Almost all of those there, signed up for taking part in the final performance of Score 328: SURROUND.

I finished off by leading them in the performance of a number of scores. Beginning with the new one that had come together the previous week in Cork International Airport – Score 384: ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES. This was followed by the now standard crowd pleasers – Score 13: CELEBRATE and Score 327: DIVIDE & COMBINE. I ended with one that I have been ending with at each opportunity since I wrote it last October in Austria; it is Score 361: AT THE CONCERT. Basically this involves me getting someone from the front row with a watch that has got a second hand, and getting him or her up in front of the brand new members of The17. He or she instructs the choir to close their eyes and after counting them in, in German – eins, zwei, drei, vier – all of them start clapping and they listen intensely to the sound of the clapping. After 17 seconds, the person calls out SCHLUSS or just STOP. And that is it, the evening is over.

But it wasn’t, after the lecture I was taken for a meal in a Japanese restaurant. There were people from the gallery and the British Council and of course Ilan Volkov and his colleagues. They were in a mood for talking and drinking and general merrymaking. I was a spent force and in need of my bed. I made my excuses and started the long walk back down late night and empty streets in the vague direction of my hotel. I got lost. Wondered if there might be another bombing and how I could explain my obvious involvement with it all to my family. It took over an hour to find my way back to the hotel. There was not another bomb. But I later learnt that there were reprisals in the Gaza Strip.

Early the next morning I was woken by the sparrows in the olive tree. Then some church bells started to peel. And then some others. And then some more. Until I could hear at least a dozen churches ringing out across the city. When they finally all stopped, there was silence. Even the sparrows had been silenced. It was some minutes before the sparrows in the olive tree started to chirrup again.

Over the last couple of weeks, between then and now, I have filled in my census form and been working in Boston, MA (not Lincs) and New York. On my first morning in Boston I went for an dawn walk, I passed a tree full of sparrows celebrating life and all of those things we have no control over. In New York I did other stuff that will be written up about elsewhere. And once back home I had to face a cross-examination from my younger children as to why I had ticked the box next to Christian, while filling in my census. Tomorrow morning I will walk the first of my 40 Sparrow Walks. And to know what that is click on the link below.

More later.