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Featured on Radio - The Girl With the Flaxen Hair

On Words and Music episode 005

A large, cavernous room, parquet-floored with velvety forest-green walls.

Paintings in a gallery.

Historically important, majestic, large, sweeping and amazing they may be. But I barely see them.

I head only for the smallest gallery. A place I’ve dreamed of since I saw it for the first time at the age of 15. And there it is. The painting. And there she is: the subject of the painting that I’ve travelled halfway across the country to see again. I reach into my pocket to switch on my music player and search for the perfect track as I walk towards the painting. Track found, I start it playing, aware of each and every one of my footfalls, and am anxious that this time should be as special as each other time has.

And yes, Debussy’s music rises and falls. Piano-ed desires and dissonances, disharmony and harmony, death and life... It is going to be alright.

The painting: a girl, a hill, a cottage.

The gilded frame enhances only the colour of her copper-auburn curls but detracts from all the rest. As happens every visit, I long to rip this painting from the elaborate border and hang it simply. Canvas as is. The girl’s small, muddied bare feet are so incongruous against the curls, swirls and grandeur of this urban setting.

It is understated and simple, this painting, and barely as large as my cork noticeboard, yet to me is a visual masterpiece.

But it isn’t simply visual – in fact I feel I will explode with sensory overload. The music’s harmonies and cadences hurt and heal: hurt and heal. This painting’s rural scene will always require a heavenly musical soundtrack. This soundtrack.

Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair is my forever-accompaniment to time spent with this flaxen-haired girl and the piano rises and falls, defining arpeggios of such gentle dynamism. Depression, delusion, elation, ecstasy… Pastoral perfection. Blissful pianistic simplicity.

In the faded, painted background of this young girl’s portrait is an old cottage. Whitewashed and nestled in a sparsely green valley, there’s a comforting melancholy and permanence to it.

And she, the flaxen-haired girl, toes wrapping round the pebbles in her path, smiles crookedly and innocently across the centuries. Who was she? Who is she? I ask the unseen artist for the 100th time.

As I stare at her, I need, once again, to touch those curls and wrap myself into their glossy, dark-gold twists and turns, delving into their springed cocoons.

I sigh. Debussy concludes as the girl walks over the hill to pick blackberries, to fetch water, or recover lost sheep. I wish I knew. I wish I knew everything about her. And I realise, for the first time, as I turn the music off before it thrusts jarringly into the next track, that her face is round, her skin is pale and her eyes, grey-green. We could almost be sisters.


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