From navigating lockdown as a composer, to hopeful daydreams becoming reality, this essay gives a personal insight to the beginning of Georgia’s time on the New Voices programme.
My shared student flat was formally and officially cursed from the first government briefing.
Graduating into the pandemic was a stagnant time, made worse by this home that had never quite felt like a home. Sat at the kitchen worktop on a red wobbly stool, it was here that I’d first heard of COVID-19, learnt to bake bread (then later uncovered my gluten sensitivity), and tearfully submitted my final degree work. Without a job lined up, the lockdowns made moving anywhere without a car ill-advised, or at least beyond my unemployed means. For the sake of all our sanity, I’d ruled out moving back home with either of my parents. I resolved to another year in Birmingham, unsure where I’d be in the near future. Somewhere around this time, I was encouraged to apply for Sound and Music’s New Voices. Truthfully, I had little desire to engage in another scheme, especially when I had so little sense of direction. Fairly certain I’d be leaving music altogether, I planned to retrain on a Graduate Medicine course, long tempted to feel more useful. As I circulated online open days, I registered for Universal Credit and watched Nigella daily to sooth my inadequacies, the world unhinging all the while. Despite much advertised demand from the government, I was unable to find work in healthcare. My composition degree was perhaps a perfect example of being both tragically under and overqualified for any position.
Eventually I found work at a local supermarket, one where I had previously shopped as a customer. Many of the young people joining alongside me were involved in the creative industries. Like me, they were trying to make ends meet – both financially and temporally whilst our beloved world had closed. Of course, art was happening – but these mythical contracts seemed to be radiating above me in the ether, connecting one established artist to another via Zoom. At the supermarket, I believed that most of my colleagues thought it was delusional when I said that I was a composer, perhaps never having met one before. The new peculiar girl with the new peculiar hobby – “she says she writes music”. Over time, I began to think it was delusional myself.
There was one colleague, a retired teacher, who was passionately interested in music. When our breaks would align, we’d have chance to discuss his younger visits to Ronnie Scott’s, Britten’s opera, Schubert’s songs, exhibitions we’d attended before lockdown. A quick shard of relief before it was time for the shop floor again. When I was nominated for an Ivor Composer Award, I booked time off to go home early for the pandemic ceremony broadcast on Radio 3. How surreal it was to sit in my pyjamas, and hear my name read out on the airwaves. Tom McKinney’s voice alongside a small fragment of my music. I left the washing-up for the next day and went to bed, cycling in for my 6am shift in the scolding December rain. When surprising news arrived that I’d be part of New Voices 2020, it felt numb and misplaced. Not quite in the sense that I was experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’, but more that I was not in the right headspace to make the most of the opportunity.
Later that month at work, I was given the ‘special job’ of manning the Christmas turkey chiller; a shipping container that lived in the car park, brought out once a year to house the festive orders of Birmingham’s elite. The target temperature was 1.5 degrees centigrade, and I wore my Musicians’ Union earplugs to protect from the loud overhead fans. I spent eight consecutive days in the chiller with four hundred turkeys. It didn’t help that I was a vegetarian. The birds were housed in large white boxes of five or six. At the beginning of the week, these containers were stacked too high to sit on, so I’d lean against the cardboard instead, avoiding the metal walls that conducted cold into my coat. I stood awaiting walkie talkie instructions – “Desk to Chiller! Dr Smithson has arrived. Over.” Ah yes, the Medium Norfolk Bronze and Salmon Roulade – right away, sir. These alerts could interrupt and pick up pace at any moment, which made reading a book to distract myself difficult, especially for a dyslexic like me. On the order sheet, I’d occasionally recognise names: local musicians and conductors, my friends’ old teachers from conservatoire, former lecturers. I never acknowledged our connections. Stuffed full of thermal layers, like a turkey myself, it was hardly the moment for networking. Daydreaming with the turkeys was all that was left.
In busier periods, my chiller colleague had taken a flippant approach to the orders – “they get a turkey, it doesn’t matter which turkey”. Past initial efforts to challenge this, I decided that little good would come from pushing the matter further. He was everybody’s favourite Jack the Lad: good-looking, cheeky, and beloved by the women who worked there. In the canteen, he’d sometimes wink at them as he left the room, or flirt his way to extra bacon at breakfast. When we worked together in the chiller, he would often saunter back from too long a break – a hot chocolate in hand, laden with squirty cream and marshmallows. Of course, courtesy of the canteen staff. It felt only natural that he skived off work a day early to drive down south for a family Christmas – breaking Tier 4 lockdown rules as he went. On the day he didn’t come to work, Christmas Eve, retail carnage broke loose at the collection desk. A convoluted system enforced by management had resulted in the mix up (and mis-giving) of several types of turkey. This had been made worse by Jack the Lad’s slapdash approach to packing orders earlier in the week. Scapegoated, I was asked by my manager to take responsibility. It was now my job to explain to angry customers what had happened to their Christmas.
On 24th December 2020, I made a woman cry when I had to tell her we did not have the venison she ordered. When I called out her name to deliver the news, she started quivering – “Not the venison. Please don’t tell me it’s the venison. Anything but the venison.”Despite the whole world breaking apart before our eyes, her Christmas was the only concern – a festive greeting didn’t ever pass her lips. There was further insult to injury (or perhaps karma) when the bakery lost her Christmas Cake, and she accidentally ordered three times the vegetables she’d intended to. With our local area in Tier 3, who exactly would be eating all this food remained a mystery to me. The next morning on Christmas Day, I woke up in panicked sweats in the flat, late to sing Eucharist with the local church choir. I’d been locked into a nightmare that I was trapped, surrounded by sky high boxes of turkeys, unable to leave my bed.
From the ashes of my very un-merry Christmas, I had begun carving out my New Voices project, but still not having shaken my post-degree burnout. It was hard to imagine how I would be a composer in the future, but Sound and Music continued to be supportive. Adjusting meetings around my shift patterns, pausing grants until I’d figured out how to declare it alongside Universal Credit. Our online training days were small slices of heaven, shining light into my corner of that dingy little flat. It was enriching both in the tools shared by Sound and Music, and the incredible work of my cohort. We were encouraged to dive deep to find the projects we most wanted to realise, but until then had rested. Through this, my initial safe proposal to write (yet more) chamber music was set aside in place of something more daring. I began work on songs kept in ‘the vault’ that I’d never conjured the courage to share. Slowly, I found joy in making again.
The changing shifts and unreasonable targets at work did little to help my self-esteem or creative life. Keen for the structure of learning, I applied for a master’s degree somewhere I’d always dreamed of being. One Tuesday night, whilst working in the delivery room, I surreptitiously refreshed my phone inside a paper bag. In case of managerial discovery, I continued packing the order: a bottle of white wine, tenderstem broccoli, fresh pasta, cream. Scrolling for updates, my heart ached for something to change. Over someone else’s dinner, phone in hand, the screen glowed with news I had a place at Cambridge. I texted my parents, then told my friend on ‘Fruit and Veg’. One hundred miles away, my Dad went to his local supermarket and bought a bottle of their best champagne.
The following May, I handed in my uniform and left the job, a few days before my twenty-fourth birthday. I walked freely down the high street, ready to say goodbye to my city of five years. My wages had barely covered my rent, so any savings I’d had were in tatters. The bursary from New Voices had helped considerably, and I’d have struggled that year without it. Had it not been for Sound and Music, I may have given up that winter. Contemplating the possible loss now seems unfathomable. The music, the friends, the learning, the growth, the love, the home – potentials I could barely imagine three years ago. They look something like the daydreams I had with the turkeys.