The 17: Damascus In London

A few years ago I was brought to the attention of ex-KLF Bill Drummond’s new project- The17.
This was to be a choir, which differered everytime it performed. It would not be recorded for prosterity, and the audience would be The17 themselves. They would be drawn from all corners of society, and perform in different environments, they would perform a set score for that event. Score 1 sets the scene for all performances.

I purchased the book- a lovely garish reddy pink hardback and had a read. Starting with Bills account of buying his first 7” single- The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields’ the saving up, the obtaining, the getting-it-out-of-its-sleeve, the dropping the needle into the groove- all of those things that resonate with fellow vinyl junkies. His love of music is obvious, and indeed the obsessive nature of this love can drive one to some pretty bizarre actions- like creating a No Music Day- which happened for on the 21st November 2005 thru 2009. More here

Whilst reading the book, I wondered whether I would ever be involved with any performance of The17- it would certainly be a unique experience, and I liked the reasoning behind the ideas- when Beethoven performed his Masterpieces- they were of course not recorded, and only heard by those immediately present- they weren’t beamed via Radio or TV or Internet- it was all about The Moment., and in these heady days of speed- Moments are few and far between. As Ferris Bueller once said :

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Words as meaningful now as they were when said back in 1986.

So, it was last Friday evening that an e-mail popped up from Drummonds Penkiln-burn inviting people to attend a The17 event. The performance was to have been performed last March in Syria as part of a Tri-Nation event including Lebanon and Scotland- those two events happened, whereas the Syrian leg- to be perfomed in Damascus had to be postponed due to the unsettling events in Syria.
The organisers of the Tri-Nation Festival, Reel Festivals decided that the event should go ahead but reloacated to London under the banner Damascus In London.
The17 for this particular score numbers 100- these would be primarily drawn from Syrian refugees living in London, but there would probably be spare spaces, and this is what the e-mail was asking for.
As it was Mother’s Day- I put my own personal safety at risk and applied to be one of The17. Calling my mate Gav in to the fold, reasoning that it would be different and that ‘different is good’, we were accepted, tickets to The Big City purchased and off we went.

The arranged meeting place was in the Middle East section of the London School Of Economics, fitting, we arrived, finding a small group of people littered around an empty office-style room’ There were a few groups friends, some folk on their own, and a mixture of all ages.

Shortly after arriving, a Tall, commanding presence entered the room, poster rolls under his arm and a look of purpose in his eyes- Bill Drummond.

The three posters were put up-

Bill then started proceedings by giving us all the information concerning the day, the backdrop of The17, the Arab Spring, and what we were doing- this monologue by Drummond had already made my day, to be in the presence of The Big Man and to hear him speak- he is pationate about what he does, he is realistic in thinking other people might not get it, he is very funny in an uncontrived way- in short he is an Honest, Genuine, Likable man- one of life’s Good Guys.

He told us that we would be paced 50 Metres apart, within site of the last and next person, when all folk were in place, the first person would let out a full throated “Way, oh!” to the person clockwise from them, who would then repeat the call until it had completed the 5km circle. Whilst the group were traversing the 5km, dropping off folk one by one, as you were left, you would be alone and would have to stay in your spot- you couldn’t leave, as you were being watched by those either side of you. You would be thinking of why you were there, what your motives were, there would be no set start time, as it started when the last person was dropped off- back at the start. When it was your turn to holler, you would need to do it there and then- if there was a baby asleep in a buggy when it was your turn- you had to do it. All these thoughts would pass through your mind. Most importantly, you would have time to think and have a moment with yourself and your mind.

After his piece, a representative of the Syrian Community then invited all to an event on London Bridge, where poetry would be read and there would be a moment for all to consider the plight in Syria and remember all the Mother’s suffering loss, or who are imprisoned in their own country,and Doves would be released at the end. I’m afraid to say that hunger and the lure of a Pint over-rode my politcal tendencies- I guess I’m more Art than Politics- the result of living in a comfortable society I suppose…

We all put on our ‘Damascus in London’ T-shirts (the ‘in’ left out to leave the stars remaining, as Bill said “people like stars on their T-Shirts”) and gathered outside to have our photo taken- at this point the main organiser, Dan, said that those who wanted to hide their faces could- this was when it occurred to me that there was a serious political side to the event- would the ‘Free Syria’ message on the back of the T-Shirt be read by passers by, whilst we waited our moment, and would we be questioned on our motives, are we already being watched by ‘the powers’ as potential pro-Palestinian troublemakers? As Gav pointed out, the fact that we were White Englishmen meant we were pretty safe!

Off we went. On the way I asked Bill how long it usually took to complete the ‘dropping off’ stage, he said it varied from place to place- in Germany, no one would cross a road unless the lights allowed you, so it took hours…
Bill and (Big) Ben

Starting near Waterloo Bridge, Bill paced out 50 and volunteers started to take their places. Gav was number 3 and I was 4- we would have a long wait, but as Gav reasoned, being near the beginning we would have more chance of witnessing the completion of the event.
In fact, the fears I had of standing in a busy, bustling City street, being jostled to and fro whilst trying to maintain eyesite of my two comerades was pretty shortlived- standing as I was by the Victoria Embankment over-looking the Grey Thames- OXO building opposite.

The people passing were mostly Sunday walkers and Joggers, a few groups of lads and Familys- obviously on their way to or from Mothers Day meals. A few tourists taking photos of a Red Telephone box that was next to me was an eye opener of how these once commonplace unisex toilets and advertising kiosks for “Personal services”, that you could make calls from, had become so iconic.

I made friends with one paving slab- which rocked slightly, thus turning into a dry ‘surf bored’ (sic) and enemies with another- it’s raised ‘lip’ tripping me almost every time I stepped back to allow a Jogger through. A ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ style exchange between myself and Gav alleviated some of the slower moments of The Wait.

The road behind me was fairly noisy though- Buses, motorbikes, boy racers etc. and I couldn’t help think that maybe I wouldn’t hear the Call? Would the whole thing fall down because of me and an unfortunate convergence of Bus, lorry, helicopter and steam ship horn? Would I have to holler in the ears of this group of lads?

After a wait of an hour and a quarter- I heard a distant ‘Way, ho!’- I looked towards Gav as he turned and repeated the call, I then turned to my left, hand placed in the universal sign for Hollering, full throated my own ‘Way, Ho!’, saw it was received and then passed, and turned towards Gav where we then strolled to the start point.
We spied the waiting Bill, and as we approached, a distant ‘Way, ho’ had started it’s final journey across the river, and we could clearly hear it travelling over Waterloo Bridge and finally resting back at Bill, where he completed procedings with a final ‘Way, Ho!’

He looked very pleased, and the pleasure of whatever it was we had been part of being completed, was felt by all. We had a brief chat- he was surprised that we had travelled from the Sussex Coast to be part of this, although he had performed this piece in various cities- he still didn’t really know what it meant. He did however say that this moment would live in the memories of The17 alone, and that one day we would tell our Grandkids- I wonder what they would make of it all?

Our Leaflets of the event were signed by Bill and we all went our seperate ways.

I had been one of The17.


About Guarin

A lover of diverse music
This entry was posted in Music, People, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The 17: Damascus In London

  1. Excellent write up – you and yor mate were just one and two after myself!

    • Guarin says:

      Yes we were! It was a great thing to be involved with- made complete by the look of joy on Bill’s face at the end, you can’t hide stuff like that- The Man was pleased.

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