Oct 052017
 

Danny in Wales on a steam train. 1983.

Earliest Memories in Wales

I spent much of my time as a little boy collecting things. I was curious about the colours and textures of seashells, stones and feathers which I gathered with my grandfather Gwyn Walters on the seaside towns near the mountainous hinterland of Ceredigion in Wales. I was also an avid birdwatcher, and became a member of the RSPB. I remember being particularly impressed by the Red Kite, which was almost extinct during my childhood, but thanks to the conservation work in the National Parks, the birds of prey became more of a common sight as I grew older. I frequently visited the Red Kite Feeding Centre at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian in Ponterwyd, which now upon reflecting, brings ambivalence to my nostalgia as it was also the last place my grandfather and I visited before he fell fatally ill.


My Grandfather

Gwyn was a literary scholar and one of the founding members of the Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group at the National Library of Wales, where, among other specialisms, he was instrumental in the research of Carmarthenshire Antiquary. My interest in writing began at the age of six when my grandfather had given me his Olivetti typewriter on which I composed my first collection of short stories. In 2016, I read these stories for the first time to an audience at Gwyn’s funeral.


Danny’s grandfather Gwyn at the National Library of Wales. 2001.

Gwyn’s Library

As a boy, one of my favourite books from Gwyn’s library was an old copy of John Earl’s Microcosmography or, A Piece of the World Discovered, in Essays and Characters. Perhaps Earl writes a picture of childhood more concisely than I can: “A child is a man in a small letter…He is nature’s fresh picture newly drawn in oil, which time, and much handling, dims and defaces. His soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with observations of the world, wherewith, at length, it becomes a blurred note-book….We laugh at his foolish sports, but his game is our earnest; and his drums, rattles, and hobby-horses, but the emblems and mocking of man’s business.” What impressed me most about this particular sketch, was that Earl’s ‘unscribbled white paper’ analogy preceded Locke’s doctrine of the tabula rasa, the doctrine that the mind is at birth a ‘blank slate’ upon which are written by life and experience all the characteristics and dispositions of the adult. It would seem, then, that the doctrines of the philosophers are often ‘in the air’ and are crystallised and formalised into a system only by them. The notion of ‘concepts in the air’ intrigued me, and eventually became a dominating theme in my own writing. I continually attempted to describe the experience of elusive ideas in the air – a phenomenology of impressions as it were. The form of Earl’s text has also influenced me. The 17th century book is a collection of character sketches, and the title Microcosmography refers to a description of the little world and the old idea that man is in himself a miniature embodiment of the universe. Earl’s characters are a picture, not a description, and the subject of his characters, such as A Discontented Man, A Contemplative Man, A Baker or A Shopkeeper, are always the type, the universal – abstracted from the rest of the character’s qualities. Short sketches of the world are how I view my own life. I see my childhood in Wales as abstractions, and each characteristic of my life, such as the seashell collector or the Red Kite spotter, illuminates the universal in the particular; I am assembled from hidden layers of ‘moments’. Such a view of life has encouraged me to write aphoristically about life in abstracted fragments and moments. Aphorisms speak from the heart and are written in blood. As Nietzsche put it: “He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, he wants to be learned by heart“. Yet unlike Earl, I see all things introverted – fleeting, and forever changing – and I take little interest in the stereotype. In fact, I pursue all things atypical, and it is in the unconventional world that I formulate the universal in the inner world.


Danny reading in Portugal at his partner’s family home. 2015.

A Life in Dreams

An introverted, atypical view of life does not, however, limit me to thinking exclusively of my own life and experiences. In fact, I find the stories of other people’s abstracted moments to grasp tighter onto that elusive ‘impression in the air’ which I persistently seek. For example, my partner’s life before we met is predominantly constructed in my mind by the surreal stories she tells me when recalling her nighty dreams. The recurrent theme is water. One such dream follows as such: “I was on a boat with my cousin. She gifted me a pair of earrings. As I reached out to receive them, I dropped them in the river by accident. I put my hand in the water. It was shallow. I searched for the earrings, and to my surprise, I retrieved a vintage ring. It was my mother’s wedding ring”. Another dream: “I was in a car with my father, but my mother wasn’t there. He drove towards the ocean. I begged him to stop as the car began to submerge. Water was rising above my feet. He told me not to worry, but the car filled up, and we began to drown.” And another: “I returned home to visit my family, but the house was slanted on its side. The rooms were empty and nobody was home. I crawled through the doors which lay on their side, and walked on the walls of the building. I peered through a window in the attic. I could see the beach. The tide was coming towards me and the ocean flooded the house. I desperately tried to save all the family photos from destruction.” I know now, of course, that these dreams are an expression of her psychological trauma: her mother had committed suicide shortly before we met. I imagine that water represents death. When her mother was a child, she was nearly drowned in a swimming pool, and as an adult, she never swam without fear. I imagine that the dream with water filling the house was an abstracted representation of my partner’s entire family history and childhood disappearing through the tragic death – washed away. I imagine that her father who drove her into the ocean was a metaphor for his unawareness to her mother’s acute depression – telling her not to worry, despite the deadly water rising in the car. I imagine the scene on the boat as a wish fulfilment dream, where searching in the water of death could revive a lost part of her mother in the discovery of the wedding ring. I often wonder how to explain to my son (when he is old enough) what happened to his grandmother, as my knowledge of this incident of loss is purely visceral and submerged in water; I can only interpret elusive impressions collected from secondary dreams, which are like haunting aphorisms ‘in the air’.


Danny’s father Detlef Hahn as a young man. Late 1960’s.

My Father

The subjects of dreams have their origins, and so do the subjects of my writing. Apart from my grandfather’s influence on me, my parents, who are both violinists, also profoundly inspire me. My father, Detlef Hahn, studied with Aldo Ferraresi and Zino Francescatti, and after his Wigmore Hall debut in London 1981, he joined the Guildhall School of Music string faculty as a professor, then later became professor at the State Academy, Oslo, and the Royal College of Music, London. His recordings on CD in the early 1990’s, (including the complete works for violin and piano by Szymanowski and Korngold), influenced me deeply. Accustomed to the cold, pure, thin air of high altitudes, I continued my mountainous childhood from Wales to the Swiss Alps where my father’s family lived. My fondest memories are of great Alpine walks with my father, where I learned from him the art of discussion. Our observations of life together were permeated by his life long interest in philosophy. As a place of pilgrimage, we travelled to Sils Maria in the Engadine Valley to visit the Nietzsche-Haus.


Filmmaking

Another significant event in my life was in 1995, when my father was invited to perform a series of concerts in Australia. We stayed for several weeks in Bundanon with our friends Jamie Boyd and the famous painter Arthur Boyd. I remember eating breakfast surrounded by Arthur’s paintings while I checked for poisonous spiders behind the canvases. It was during this time that I used, for the first time, my VHS video camera which I received as a 13th birthday present. It was in Bundanon that I made my first film The Lost Brother with my sister as an actor. My equipment was limited, yet I believe this was a valuable lesson in filmmaking, as I was forced to be inventive: I composed the images through in-camera-editing, where I repeatedly rewound and forwarded the tape in order to insert new footage, and I also played music from my cassette Walkman headphones which was stuck with sticky-tape to the camera’s inbuilt microphone. This live editing and music overlaying allowed me to get an immediate effect – watching the complete film process evolve straight from my hands.


Danny in a bookshop in London. 2014.

Reading

Memories, however, are not always attributed to major occasions in life. I often assemble a picture of life from times of tranquillity and inactivity. Sometimes, a prominent moment is only a pause or gap in between the events of life: I remember a moment when I forgot myself – sandwiched between commitments and responsibilities – as I finished reading Proust for the first time in the Alpine town of Scuol. I remember the atmosphere of Switzerland imprinting its quality on the pages of my book, as the soft smell of pine needles moistened by Alpine dew, the flap of several bird wings dispersing like an ocean spray as a distant train from a small mountain station startled them, and the subtle jingle of goat-bells surrounded me and my search of lost time.


Unearthing Hidden Layers

In conclusion, it is clear to me where the subjects of interest in my writing come from: painting, literature, music, philosophy and film have all played an integral part in my life. But where had my preoccupation for all things hidden come from? Was it crystallised in a memory of a hidden spider behind a painting? Where did the attraction for elusive impressions come from? Was it in dreams? What was it that drew me to impressions in the air? Was it the invisible beauty of my father’s music? Why had I concerned myself in nearly all my writing with hidden layers? Was it in the discovery of layering sound and images in filmmaking? Where had my devotion to keeping something scarce alive come from? Was it through my binoculars, in search of the endangered Red Kite? Where had my desire to unearth the submerged come from? Perhaps it began at the beginning, where I searched for submerged periwinkle shells in the rock pools of Aberystwyth with my Grandpa.

© Danny Hahn. Copyright. 2016

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