21 October, 2013

Rise and Fall - The Race to the Bottom.

As I become older I am increasingly concerned when I think of my children and grandchildren and the world that they increasingly inhabit. I don’t mean the material world – despite the current wave of austerity and the rest it is my belief that the people will continue to enjoy an increasingly affluent life style and although problems such a global warming are clearly huge issues to be addressed I am of the view that mankind will deal with these and others successfully. No, my concerns are about what many might think are smaller, maybe unimportant, matters but which may have a far greater long term impact upon the quality of life in modern societies and indeed on the well being of that society.

A brief look at the rise and fall of civilisations will soon show that it is rare, if ever, that a great civilisations falls because of some cataclysmic event. Almost always, the rot has set in in a myriad of ways over many years and then some big event finishes it off. Ancient Rome is a prime example of this – Gibbons’ monumental work The decline and fall of the Roman Empire”  hints at this –  decline came first and this was  followed by the fall. It is the same with other civilisations – the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Venetians, Renaissance Florence, pre-Revolutionary France, the Persian Empire, the Turkish Empire, Romanov Russia........and so the list goes on. In each of these the pattern was largely the same – an increasing (and understandable) lack of respect for government, excess, the concentration of wealth and power in an increasingly concentrated elite, increasing disenchantment and disengagement of the ordinary man and woman with the nation and its aspirations, an often hedonistic society and government increasingly obsessed with the trivial and increasingly believing the mediocre to be worthy, governments who are increasingly out of touch with the populace............in short, the society simply begins to fall apart and becomes more disparate. It becomes increasingly involved with itself and individualism becomes the norm – everyone out for him or herself, everyone increasingly content with the trivial. In Ancient Rome Caligula allegedly promoted his horse to be a senator and Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” whilst in pre-Revolutionary France and Russia the aristocracy became so obsessed with their own extravagant life styles they never saw the discontent of the masses or the rotting away of the fabric of their once great civilizations.

It is my belief that western societies – and especially those in the UK and the USA are following the same pattern. It is a worrying thought - not that the UK or USA might fall down the league table of “top societies” (if there is such a thing) – so what if China or Germany  or Korea or 21st century Russia are judged the greatest society in the world for the next few generations, societies and civilizations come and go? But what is worrying is the impact of that decline upon the nature of our society and how it effects everyday life and the outlook and opportunities of the people. Not material life – but cultural, spiritual, intellectual and political. These are the things that define us as humans and when they deteriorate then the whole quality of life deteriorates also. I do not believe that any of these states are imminent but certainly my grandchildren are growing up into a world where worship of the unworthy and the trivial is quickly becoming a national pastime. They are learning that disengagement and disinterest in the ideals and aspirations of the individual and wider society are increasingly the default setting for whole swathes of the population. As they grow up I believe that disaffection, distrust and rejection of society’s leaders (be they political, spiritual or cultural) will become increasingly endemic and where, worryingly, our political leaders of all hues increasingly show a consistent inability and unwillingness to present a personal and professional profile that will inspire and guarantee respect for their efforts, commitment and policies.  My grandchildren will, I think, increasingly see the world from a “me” perspective – that I am the most important – for that is the message being hammered home daily from every celebrity and every social networking site. Increasingly, I fear that as we accept and laud the unworthy – lowest common denominator TV and films, unworthy cult icons, semi pornographic magazines and newspapers, low culture viewed as high culture (The Only way is Essex, Strictly Come Dancing, Russell Brand,  lads mags, Tracey Emin’s “art” and the rest) as good and acceptable -  then we will lose the ability to know what is of value or of true value.

Decades ago songwriter Cole Porter wrote his famous song “Anything Goes” – what would he write today?
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.

A look at our UK society and I suspect the USA too would soon confirm that indeed, anything goes. Should we be worried? I believe that we should – not for prudish reasons or matters of taste but because when anything goes and all things are judged to be of equal merit  then nothing is of value. I don’t blame others and suggest that my saintly virtue contrasts with the extravagance and blighted life choices of lesser people for we are all part of society and in the end society is made up of all the individuals in it. I think it was Mark Twain who once said that he never criticised society since society was just him multiplied – he was absolutely correct. Our society is what we as individuals are. We are all responsible for what society is.

Over the past few weeks I have come across a number of items that have fuelled my thoughts about the sort of society that we are developing. It all began about three weeks ago. As secretary of a local football league for under 19 players I was made aware of an incident of verbal abuse between seventeen years old players. It was serious and the police had an involvement. As a result I wanted to know more before our league took any action against either of the players for their behaviour. Amongst my “evidence gathering” I trawled through the Twitter/Facebook conversations of the players concerned  - like many sports organisations our league has strict rules as to what can be put on social networking sites and what night bring the sport into disrepute. What I read over several days horrified me. I found nothing of interest about the football incident but the casual obscenity and wayward life style of these youngsters was to me quite shocking. I would have liked to have dismissed it by saying “Oh, that’s just teenagers” but it was far more than this and not just the two young men concerned – they conversed with other youngsters (boys and girls) who were equally unpleasant. I would have liked to have thought that these two young men knew no better, that they were somehow not the norm. I was wrong – both of the teenagers were at college, bright and intent on going to university – they were not fools or reprobates. They could have been my son or yours.

And, then, to leap forward, I read in the Guardian  a few mornings ago an article by one of the newspaper’s younger writers, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett  informing parents that they should not worry about  “sexting”. Coslslett tells us that “The hysteria regarding what teenagers get up to on the internet has been building for some time, of course, but it has now reached fever pitch”.  She goes on to suggest that it’s “all just a part of healthy adolescent exploration......” .

Mmmmmm? Well, believe it or not, I was once a teenager and I think that having spent a lifetime working with youngsters I know just a little about them. Yes, teenagers are increasingly obsessed with sex, yes, teenagers do like to be outlandish, offensive, boorish and reject the mores of the day – it’s all part of growing up. I would be worried if they didn’t. But the sort of stuff I was reading on twitter and facebook was well beyond that and clearly accepted as the norm. Cosslett mockingly mentions Michael Gove. No one criticises Gove more than I – the man is a fool and a dangerous fool.  But according to Cosslett he has at some point commented on this matter by saying: "Why don't you all send one another love poems instead?"  Now, whatever I might think about Gove this stance seems a perfectly reasonable one and one which might well not need to have been said just a few generations ago. A few years ago youngsters did indeed send poetry or kindly comments to their beloved. Romeo stood under Juliet’s balcony and whispered:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
 It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
 Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
 Who is already sick and pale with grief,
 That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Of course, that’s Shakespeare for you – all flowery words which might not be terribly appropriate on a wet Wednesday night in Manchester as two young lovers eat their fish and chips under a lamppost. It might all seem a long way away from a balmy love kissed night in Verona. But as sure as hell it certainly doesn’t seem, somehow, to have the same literary ring as one of the little endearments that I read on twitter from one of the footballers to his girlfriend the other night: “Yall luv my f*****g p***k up your fat a** tonite doll” (sic). To which his beloved twittered back:  “cant wate (sic) to f**k u”.

Times have changed and not for the better  - is this what my grandchildren are going to know and understand? We should be worried for the future.

They have changed at another area too. Earlier this week I was watching the news and the reports of the deal that had been done in Washington to temporarily end the budget impasse between the President and the Republican party.  A number of ordinary Americans were interviewed. Maybe they had been specially selected but everyone was scathing about the politicians and the problems that they had caused. One guy stood outside the Capitol and angrily pointed his finger and said “It’s all down to those clowns in there – no wonder nobody in this damned country has any respect for government anymore”. It was the same message from everyone – no one had any respect for those who are charged with leading us. And by coincidence the next item on the news was about the UK economy and unemployment. A business man was interviewed and he was clear: “Politicians have no idea”, he said “it’s crisis management all the time. They stagger from one crisis to another but never solve the problem”  The message from both these guys was the same – they had no faith in their leaders or their government. Earlier that same day the same thoughts had crossed my mind when I had the misfortune to catch a few minutes of Prime Minister's Question Time from the House of Commons. This is supposed to be democracy at work when the Prime Minister is held to account by the Commons - it is nothing of the sort. It is  rabble of unruly adults behaving as immature children - sycophantic questions asked by the Prime Minister's supporters and equally inane and abysmal utterances from the opposition MPs. If it occurred in a classroom the teacher in charge would be fired upon the spot so unruly is it. And we are supposed to look up to these people? "Clowns", the word used by the American guy, is far too mild. Maybe in the days when the Commons was a private debating chamber and Joe Public did not see what went on it was less important but today the world sees - and is disappointed.

Our leaders offer no inspiration or aspiration, they are increasingly not trusted. Each week I receive jokes from friends in various parts of the world – a high proportion of these are critical of politicians – these are typical:
A driver is stuck in a traffic jam on the  MI motorway outside London.  Nothing is moving. Suddenly, a policeman knocks on the car  window. The driver rolls down the window and asks, "What's going on Constable?"
"Terrorists have kidnapped the members of parliament and they're asking for a £100 million ransom! Otherwise, they are going to douse them all in petrol and set them on fire. We are going from car to car collecting donations."
"How much is everyone giving, on average?" the driver asks.
"Oh - roughly a gallon each."

It’s the same across the pond:

Hillary Clinton goes to her doctor for a check-up, only to find out that she's pregnant. She is furious. Here she is –- in the middle of dealing with this Libyan mess -- now this has happened to her! She calls home, gets Bill on the phone and immediately starts screaming:
"You bastard! How could you have let this happen? With all that's going on right now, you go and get me pregnant! How could you? I can't believe this ! I've just found out I'm five weeks pregnant and it's all your fault !............Well, what have you got to say?"
There is nothing but dead silence on the phone.
She screams again, "Did you hear me?"
Finally, she hears Bill's very, very quiet voice, in a barely audible whisper:
“Who’s speaking?”

The second joke highlights the fact that in the world in which we live the private life of politicians (and other celebrities) is now all too often in the public domain. We all know of Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities from the Monica Lewinski affair. Lampooning and satirising politicians and other celebrities has, of course, always been a national pastime - a look at the savage 18th century satires by Hogarth will prove this but there is a difference between then and now. In the transparent world in which we live everyone’s secrets are all too often up for grabs. In Hogarth’s day this was not the case and public figures not only were more easily hidden from view but also kept up a pretence of living a blameless life.

Today, that is much less the case – the media and the ease of communication of modern society means that it is impossible for a public figure to hide his or her secrets indefinitely. But sadly, it doesn’t end there – and this is the issue. Too often public figures today are quite happy to let their faults be there for all to see and not accept that this might be a possible negative on the way that they are perceived and respected. And even more worryingly society seems to care less and less about it – it has been legitimised!

Contrast these two examples. In 1963 the Profumo affair brought down the UK government and John Profumo, a government minister and central character in the affair immediately left politics. So humbled was he that he worked as a volunteer cleaning toilets for a charity in the East End of London, and continued to work there for the rest of his life. Eventually, he volunteered as the charity's fundraiser. These charitable activities helped to restore the fallen politician's reputation. He died over 40 years later having been awarded a CBE for his charity work and his reputation enhanced. Clearly, a man of honour. But now in 2013 the world is a very different place. Honour, doing the right thing and feeling that you have let yourself and others down by your private activities is very much a thing of the past. Clinton felt no shame, British MPs caught cheating on their expenses felt no shame, bankers have felt no shame in taking more than their share – the examples are legion as society rots. Chris Huhne the Liberal politician and  a man who could well have been our current deputy prime minister was, a few months ago, convicted of perverting the course of justice after vehemently lying to the police over several years. His wife too was convicted. They were both imprisoned for several months and are now free. And the result – he now writes articles in papers like the Guardian – as does his wife, Vicky Price, who is also a public figure in her own right.  And the world, as they say, moves on. Huhne has been offered a hugely desirable job in the USA – so the message is clear: cheat, lie, break the law – it’s the way to get on and be respected in the modern world. No-one raises an eyebrow. “I have paid the price”, Huhne tells us. Well, that’s all right then. But should we be surprised that the public hold their leaders in such low esteem – after all they are just like the rest of us!

In its way, Huhne is like the young footballer usingTtwitter – “This is me”, he is saying, “warts and all – I have no shame. Accept me as who I am. No matter what I have done or how I behave this is what you get  - so move on,  get over it” And in our society today, nobody minds, we "get over it", we all “move on”. As Cole Porter said “anything goes”.

But in “moving on” and “getting over it” our perception of those and those things that we should appreciate and value is just a little bit more tarnished – for it is implicit that when we “move on” and “get over it”  we are also accepting that these things are quite acceptable. We are normalising and legitimatising them. When a public figure, who should represent (in whatever field they operate) characteristics to which other lesser people – their audience, the electorate, whatever, can look up to, says in bold and brassy words  “we are just like you -  we too have skeletons in our cupboard, we are just ordinary guys” then they and their actions are legitimised. Indeed, politicians have learned that this is a good ploy in the modern world – give the impression that you are an ordinary guy – talk the talk, walk the walk. On the morning after England’s qualification for next year’s World Cup earlier this week both Ed (note, not Edward as christened because I’m everyman who might meet in the pub) Milliband and David (“call me Dave”) Cameron opened their speeches in Parliament by expressing their congratulations on the team’s success the night before. For both men this was a clearly planned public announcement – “Look at me," they were saying "I’m a bloke like you and your mates who stands in the pub or on the terraces with you cheering the lads on". But the downside to this tactic is that when they openly set themselves up as everyman  it’s no surprise that Joe Public does not greatly respect their views – why should he – they are after all just like him, no better. They have lost the right to expect my respect of their position, intellect, beliefs and authority – for they can be met every night in the local pub or at the game. My views are just as right and important as theirs - they don't have any knowledge, wisdom or perspective that I, an ordinary guy does not have. And if our political leaders do not have this knowledge, wisdom and perspective that we ordinary folk don't have, then what are they for, why should we respect their judgement? They are just noise in the background. The worry is, of course that as we become increasingly disaffected the opportunities for extremism creep in unnoticed - it is already happening in the UK as far right groups begin to get a foothold.

There are a myriad of ways in which our western societies are, in my view, demeaning themselves – and the frightening thing is that we do not notice, they simply creep up and become accepted as worthy and acceptable. They all had direct parallels in ancient Rome and other past civilizations that crumbled. A few days ago I received my latest copy of my weekend companion the New Statesman magazine – a serious left of centre political/social weekly. Occasionally the magazine has a guest editor for one week – which often provides a different look at the world and current events. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Dawkins, Jemima Khan, Melvin Bragg and others have filled this role. I now read that the “comedian” and serially offensive, infantile and lavatorial pseudo intellectual celebrity Russell Brand is to take on the task for one issue. We increasingly idolise and condone the trivial and the unworthy - and they do not come any more trivial and unworthy than Russell Brand.. Beatrice and Sydney Webb the founders of this illustrious magazine may well be turning on their grave.  But, hey! - it's a laugh so sit back and enjoy it and move on, chill out, get over it. When I look on social networking sites, not only do I see endless trivial comment passed off as interesting or important but an unending stream of photographs posted of people gazing into the camera as they take their self portrait – usually looking decidedly drunk. I understand that “selfie” photographs are the thing – again another example of the self indulgent and hedonistic society of the young and the not so young.

The other day Pat informed me that the “must have” Christmas present for a man this year is........wait for it.......a “facial hair styler” – whatever that is! She also told me that a significant proportion of men in the UK spend over £100 each month on beauty aids! Watch TV for a few minutes and it won’t be long before you see an advert for women’s make up – “because you’re worth it”  - again the message is loud and clear, indulge yourself, you are the most important person in the whole world, your needs and views are just as important – no more so – than  anyone else’s. Watch TV for a few more minutes or visit the cinema and you will discover that violence and fantasy are the common currency. Watch programmes for children and it is the same – and yet we wonder why our children are growing up displaying anti-social traits. As Rome declined the violence and savagery on offer at the amphitheatre increased – the crowd increasingly loved its diet of death - they had tasted blood and wanted more. Today we see this as TV and cinema becomes increasingly  violent – and we see it too in our obsession with  competitive sport of all kinds. It is the basic tribal instinct to defeat another – it is, as Orwell said, "War without the shooting".

We have created a society of unimaginable wealth but one where a “facial hair styler” is a “must have”  and that fact speaks volumes about the real society that we have created. Despite the received wisdom – with which I totally agree – that improved social mobility in our very divided society will assist in improving the opportunities and the lot of many I cannot at the same time help thinking that there is another issue. Our wealth and the relative “ease” that so many experience seems to have sapped the desire to improve. The young of today largely do have infinitely greater opportunities than I, and people of past generations, did. Their schools are better, they have access to a far wider learning platform (internet against my third hand set of Arthur Mee encyclopaedias bought at a junk sale), access to technology that was not even a dream in the years I was growing up .......and so on. Yes, kids today have lots of things that make it tough – but they also have lots of plus points and things that make it very easy. When I read stuff that kids have written and said – I don’t blame the schools – they have taught spelling, grammar, maths, English, history geography and the rest – but, unfortunately, it too often has not been thought worthwhile by the youngsters to take it on board. If it had been then my footballing "friend" might have taken Michael Gove's advice and texted a short love poem to his girlfriend - instead she got: “Yall luv my f*****g p***k up your fat a** tonite”.

I am minded of the young man I saw interviewed on TV  a year or so ago. He had not done as well in his A levels as he hoped and his university place was denied him. His solution? To go and work in Thailand at a beach bar for a year. This year abroad he told us (and he kept a straight face while doing so) would give him useful experiences to add to his CV and so make him more attractive to universities or employers. So, here is a young man who has been through one of the world’s best education systems and not done too well – his solution is not to work harder but to hop off to the beach in some far of land - and somehow, magically, this will give all that twelve or thirteen years in school and within his caring family did not give him.  Mmmmmm! Maybe he is right, but if he is then that is a damning indictment of our universities or prospective employers.It sounds to me much like the modern day equivalent of declining Rome or Florence or Egypt or Russia - when increasingly all sense of reliability and responsibility were lost - when violence, trivia and bizarre behaviour became the norm. It is a society where the trivial is seen as worthwhile, where the dishonourable and demeaning is seen as worthy and valuable, where I and my life style am more important than my fellow man, where foulness and obscenity is increasingly seen and sold as a virtue and where those who have some overall responsibility for our society – be it political, spiritual, social or commercial – increasingly are unable or unwilling to lead by example and to inspire. And because of that we have become cynical, mistrusting, disaffected, unwilling and perhaps unable to aspire to anything better. We are all to blame and we should all be very worried. We have lost all pride in ourselves and our society – our values are skewed and when that happens as the Romans, the Egyptians, the Venetians, Renaissance Florence and the rest discovered to their cost the only way is down. The race to the bottom is well under way!

10 October, 2013

Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock - Music in Time.

As Pat and lay in bed the other morning enjoying the first cup of tea of the day the radio played Mozart’s famous “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. No matter how many times I hear this piece and no matter who is playing it I cannot listen to it without hearing a clock ticking away loudly in the background!

You see, just about the time that Pat and I got married we spent an evening babysitting for Pat’s sister. We were trying to build up a music collection but money was tight and buying records was one expense too far.  So, we broke all the copyright rules and used a reel to reel tape recorder (remember those?) to tape the records. When the house was quiet and the babies asleep we set it all up. Of course, this was all pretty primitive stuff. We took the tape recorder microphone, laid it on a cushion right in front of the record player speaker and hoped that we would get a reasonable recording! It was an old 1950’s record player so this was not advanced technology! While we were recording we had to keep quiet and hope the babies didn’t wake up! A couple of hours later we had recorded all the LPs we wanted.
A sketch done during the  concert of
Beethoven conducting the Ninth in 1824

When we returned home and played the tape the results were, surprisingly,  not too bad – certainly we used them for a year or two until we could afford something better. But in pieces where there were quiet sections (of which the “Eine Kleine Nacht” has many!) dominating the whole music was the sound of the clock ticking away in the mantelpiece! We had just not noticed the clock! Over the next year or two as we played our tape I got used to always associating the “Eine Kleine Nacht” with a ticking clock – now, no matter when I hear it, my brain automatically superimposes a clock. It did so this morning as we lay in bed listening to the radio!

By coincidence I had spent the previous evening downloading some tracks for my i-pod and as I lay in bed listening to the ticking clock in my brain I reflected upon how times have changed. Last night I was able to visit i-tunes or Amazon or some other web site and within seconds have virtually any piece of music in the world in my possession. In less than a minute or so I had downloaded two LPs (notice how I show my age – I refuse to call them “albums”!) and they were playing in my office. This morning I spent a couple of minutes on the computer transferring the LPs onto the SD card that sits in my car audio system so I can listen to them as I drive along anywhere in the country – or indeed in the world!  And I did all this without even leaving my office.

I suppose that young people take all this in their stride – for them it has always been thus. Maybe they can’t imagine a world other than where instant communication, instant access to goods and services  and immediate gratification is the norm. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as the scientist Susan Greenfield's apocalyptic warning that: "We could be raising a hedonistic generation who live only in the thrill of the computer-generated moment and are in distinct danger of detaching themselves from what the rest of us would consider the real world" I nonetheless wonder if western society is reaching a point where we are all maybe becoming a bit out of touch with the realities of life. I’m not too sure that when I live in a world where virtually all that I need can be supplied by the push of a button or the click of my computer mouse that I can possibly empathise fully with the child who has to walk miles to his school under the blazing African sun or the Indian family living in the slums of some Mumbai shanty town or woman walking miles to the nearest well for life giving water for her family. I might feel sorry for them – but empathy is more than just feeling sorry. As western society increasingly moves away from a struggle to survive to one where, for most of us, our perceived “problems” are little more than small glitches in the routine of our often luxurious (compared with many millions throughout the world) lives I cannot believe that we can really have any concept of what life might be like for much of the world or indeed for ourselves if and when the computer ceases to work!

Peter, Paul & Mary singing "If I had  a hammer" at the march
on Washington in August 1963
But, to move musically on. In a recent TV series about the development of music through the ages the composer and TV presenter Howard Goodall made a very simple but at the same time pertinent observation. It was so obvious that when I heard it I wondered why it had never occurred to me before! I have thought about it often since. Goodall commented that until the invention of radio and the gramophone the musical experience of people was very limited and very different. That is pretty obvious but he went on to say that even for the very rich, who perhaps had access to attending concerts or to private musical evenings they might only hear a piece of music four of five times in their lifetime. Imagine, sitting in the audience at the premier of Beethoven’s 9th in 1824 and hearing a piece so different and which clearly changed the musical landscape but after the concert, when you have rushed home to tell your friends of the wonderful event........that’s it! You can’t rush out a buy a copy to play at home, you can’t switch the radio on and catch a recording of the concert. You have only heard it once so you will hardly be able to hum any of its tunes! All that you know is that you have heard the most glorious work – and that you might not hear it again for several years  - until, if you are lucky, another concert happens to occur near you and the orchestra is playing that piece.

Queen's"Bohemian Rhapsody" -
the iconic image - would the song have
become the classic it did without
Indeed, a few months ago that happened to Pat and I. The Halle Orchestra performed the Ninth here in Nottingham. It was a glorious event ending in a long standing ovation. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It had not been performed in Nottingham for ten years – the last time was just a few days before our first grand-daughter was born and Pat was singing in the choir for the concert that night. We forever associate the Ninth with our grand-daughter’s birth. But of course, that wasn’t the last time we heard it – in the ten intervening  years we have listened to it on TV, radio, stereo, car radio, i-pod and a thousand other technological ways. We know every note and Pat, as a singer, every word. But of course, to those in the first audience in 1824 all of that would not have been an option - ten years might have passed before they heard it again!.

Of course, this doesn’t only refer to bits of classical music. The same might be true of any piece. It is only with the help of technology that we can listen regularly to the pop songs of the day. Imagine hearing Bob Dylan only once and then not again for another few years until he next came to your town. In 1964 I saw the Beatles in concert – the one and only time. Since then it is by record, tape and radio that I have learned their songs. Would I have remembered their songs if it was based purely on that one concert? Of course not! Would they have achieved the fame they did on a few disparate concerts? I think not. Easy accessibility and opportunities to repeatedly enjoy a piece of music has changed how we perceive, respond to and celebrate music. The technology of the past century, and especially of the past few years, as computers have impacted upon our lives is enormous – and nowhere more so that in the field of music. Today, pop stars achieve their fame not via concerts but by videos. I suppose it is perfectly possible to for a performer to achieve world fame and wealth without actually performing in front of anyone – their repertoire and image made famous by technology!

If I listen to Finzi it's this
sort of scene I see!
But, just as Beethoven changed the musical world when he conducted the first performance of his Ninth all those years ago, so too, today, there are still pieces of music that can and do change the world or, at least,  somehow define the age and its music. Indeed, the advent of modern technology assures that.  Personal favourites will of course play a part in this – what defines the age to one might not to another but a number  of pieces spring to my mind which I guess might bring back the emotions, excitement, culture, sights, sounds or even smells of the time. I was reminded of this a few nights ago when we watched a TV programme about the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech and the civil rights march on Washington on August 28th 1963. As we watched how the march was organised and the historical/political/social context of the event there suddenly flashed onto  the screen a few seconds of the folk group Peter Paul & Mary singing “If I had a hammer” in front of the vast crowd. I hadn’t thought of this song for years but in those few seconds the whole emotion, excitement and expectation of the time came back to me. My old record of the group singing this song has long since disappeared but a wave of nostalgia overcame me as my eyes watched Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey sing and my ears took in the words – and my brain, just as with the ticking clock,  bridged fifty years as if they had never happened. Such is the power of music – helped today with technology - to impact upon our lives. And it was those few seconds of old film that prompted my visit to i-tunes the other night – I now have Peter Paul and Mary back in my collection!

Eddie Cochran - "Summertime
Blues", "C'mon Everybody" and
the rest take me back to my
misspent teens
Everyone will have their own list but Sgt Pepper, Bohemian Rhapsody, Bridge Over troubled Water, American Pie, Imagine, Rock Around the Clock and others can claim just as much right to stand alongside the great classical works such as Beethoven’s Ninth, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass  or Mozart’s Requiem  in terms of their influence upon music and the times in which they were composed or performed. And artists and composers, too, can have that same impact. Mention Bach to me and my brain clicks into the world of the 17th century – men with swords at their side, ladies in crinolines; Beethoven - and I am half way to sitting in some grand concert hall surrounded by Jane Austen type characters and with Napoleon in the far distance; Vaughan Williams or Gerald Finzi and I am surrounded by rosy cheeked Thomas Hardy type maidens, apple orchards and Autumn dusks – overwhelmingly England. In the past few days I have been helping Pat to write her next choir concert programme. They are performing one of the world’s very great pieces – Mozart’s Requiem. As well as the glory of the music that has been buzzing around my head there has also been the eerie and mysterious story of its composition as Mozart lay dying – visits by strangers wearing masks, the composer’s awareness that this would be his epitaph, mysterious contracts and Mozart’s death with the piece unfinished. Music is, indeed, much more than just a few notes arranged in a certain order. It is inextricably linked with its time and with people and as such great music of any kind can, should and will evoke deep emotions and far off memories. It is not just great classical music with this propensity -  pop music, too, has the same role. I only have to hear the guitar intro to Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues  and  it’s 1958. I’m just into my teens and at the Whitsuntide Fair in Preston surrounded by fast moving fairground rides,  a world of girls with pony tails and bright red lipstick,  boys with brylcreamed hair and slim jim ties (yes, I had both!), rock and roll and teenage love - the world of Grease come alive!  A few bars of  the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and I can smell my college room and still see the pictures on the wall and the books on the shelf; I’m listening to my old Dansette record player while outside Bob Davison is playing cards in the common room and singing the Animals' We gotta get out of this place at the top of his voice! And Simon and Garfunkel still resonate across the years - Bridge over Troubled Water  cannot be played without me suddenly being back in our first house and I standing on the ladder hanging bright orange wallpaper in our hall. We played and played that record as we decorated in that Spring of 1970! I could go on – all personal choices and inextricably linked with my life. Everyone’s list will be different but music has the power to associate us with important parts of our lives, transport us to times past and to connect with the essential us.

Rod Stewart on stage at Sheffield
The "Time" LP
Two or three months ago Pat and went to a concert in Sheffield. We joined 10,000 others to enjoy Rod Stewart at the Sheffield Arena. Stewart was superb and by half way through we were waving and clapping with the rest of the audience as he sang his hits – Maggie May, Atlantic Crossing, First Cut is the Deepest and the rest - and at the same time reminding us all of our misspent youth! For a couple of hours we were no longer senior citizens with our aches and pains but youngsters again reliving our past! The Concert was called “Time” – to link in with the star’s latest LP of the same name. We hadn’t heard the music from the LP before but throughout the night he sang most of the songs from the record. We were smitten – not simply because the music was wonderful but because the theme of the LP in recording events, people and times in Stewart’s own life was novel.

First thing next morning a visit to i-tunes gave us a copy of the record and since then it has been played on every conceivable type of technology – CD player, car audio, SD card, Pat has it on her phone and whenever I drive her car as I switch the ignition on immediately Stewart’s voice drifts out of the speakers! One of the songs (my favourite) is Brighton Beach  a song Stewart wrote this to record an affair he had with a girl in the mid sixties. The words tell of the doomed affair but they also speak of the times:

................Oh what a time it was
What a time to be alive
Remember Janice and Jimmy
Kennedy and King
How we cried
I sang to you the songs of Lamb and Jack
You were Greta Garbo and I was Kerouac
And we played so hard and we loved so hard
Seemed we never ever slept
There were crazy days, there were wonderful days
And I loved you with all of my heart
Seems like only yesterday
Under the stars on Brighton beach............

Yes, the years fell away (and the popcorn
disappeared) as we listened to Rod!
And this is what music does, it speaks to us – either directly of past times as Stewart’s song does or indirectly as it links us with our pasts. Whether it be songs we learned at school, songs we danced to on our first date, music we came to love because it became part of a great event in our life or works that we have come to love and cherish simply because of their quality or musical history it imprints itself upon our brain and our inner being. It becomes part of us and what we are.  Brighton Beach is about the 1960s – Kennedy, Luther King, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix – it reminds me of those times and takes me back. Hearing the name Kerouac reminded me that back then just before I went to college I had begun reading Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road, a book that influenced a generation - the Beat Generation - through the writing, the  poetry and music of Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and especially Neal Cassady. The book is described by Dylan as "changing my life like it changed everybody elses". He was not wrong it is one of the roots of the sixties musical and social revolution, of flower power, of Woodstock and of Timothy Leary's famous quote "Turn on, tune in drop out". In short one of the foundation stones of the modern world that we all now take for granted. My friend Dave Nightingale had loaned it to me but before I could finish it I  had to leave Preston to come to college here in Nottingham so I returned the book to Dave unfinished. I hadn't thought of it since but Kerouac's name leapt out to me as I heard Stewart’s song and all the memories from across the years came flooding back. I now have a copy and will do battle with it again!

But if the song reminded me of my past so, too, did the concert. I cannot now listen to Brighton Beach or indeed any other of the songs from the Time LP without once again be sitting with 10,000 others in that Sheffield Arena and when, for a few hours, I was no longer a 68 year old with a dodgy heart but a youngster ready to dance and sing with the rest! I don’t think that I could disagree with Bono – U2 front man, musician and activist – who famously noted that “Music can change the world because it can change people.”  I would totally agree – even  when there is a clock ticking in the background!