30 October, 2014

Thanks John And Charlie - For The Great Pleasure You Have Given.

A week or so ago Guardian journalist George Monbiot posed the question “What should we call the age in which we live”? Other ages have had names given to them – the stone age, iron age, Elizabethan age, the renaissance.......and so on. So what is our age? Monbiot elected for the age of loneliness  since we live in an increasingly individualistic society where many live their lives through the virtual world rather than with ”real” people. Of course, the digital age was favoured by many correspondents to the Guardian as was the internet age, whilst someone else suggested the obesity age! Having given this some thought my choice would be "the excess age" for it seems to me that we live in a world characterised by excess.

When you've had every other thrill why not try this -
if your life is so hollow and this is the
best you can think of to brighten it
Wherever we look in the western world we see excess: huge wealth alongside great poverty, an excess of violence and sex on our TV screens and from Hollywood, media reporting that makes headlines of great wealth, poverty, violence and the rest. In the past few weeks we have almost become used to the beheading of people flashing up on the internet, our children look to a future employment as one which is based upon celebrity status or wealth rather than public service or professional or personal satisfaction seeing this as the gateway to the materialistic and excessive life style they crave, and our city centre streets are crowded with youngsters enjoying drinking and party going as if there is no tomorrow. Increasingly people want to live on a high – in yesterday morning’s Guardian there was a picture of a young Chinese couple having their wedding photographs taken as they cling to the side of a mountain – an ordinary wedding pic clearly wasn’t enough for them! And also on the marriage theme, and in the UK especially, our young people marry but no longer do the men simply wear their best suit but hire “penguin suits” and wear cravats – a sort of fancy dress costume for the occasion. They do not wear this attire in “normal” life and will probably not wear it again until they re-marry! And the bride will pay a large fortune on a wedding dress – the whole occasion costing eye watering amounts of money and all as a show of tasteless excess.  No one, it seems to me today wants the ordinary and everyday. We all want to go that little bit further – be even more wealthy, drink as little more, indulge ourselves little more (can there be a more telling phrase about our society than "retail therapy"!), we want to see something a little more violent or gruesome  or explicit than the last thing we saw at the cinema, be a little bit larger than life, to have one even greater “thrill” – run a  marathon, surf in a dangerously rough sea or  drink an excessive amount as part of a “dare” (as in the   “necknominate” craze where youngsters drink excessive amounts – with often tragic results - on the feeble pretext of supporting a charity). The list is endless.  In short we are increasingly binging on excess and what is perceived as “excitement”. We can’t get enough of it – and like all drugs it has got a hold and like all drugs we want more and more of it and to be “thrilled” and on an ever increasing high to keep us satisfied. If you want any "proof" of that fact consider an item in this week's news:an item about the film industry. The industry is complaining that the long hot summer has hit box office takings and a spokesman for the industry added to this by suggesting that "films are not exciting enough" - in other words, the public want more and more high end thrills and excitement (however one defines excitement). The article went on to list the top ten box office successes this year amongst them The Lego Movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men, How to Train Your Dragon, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Amazing Spiderman and Transformers........ . They were all films (with only two exceptions) based upon high tech fantasy worlds populated with "unreal" people, creatures or aliens and through all of them ran some sort of undercurrent of excess and extreme excitement. It seems that a huge section of the public no longer wants tales of real people living real lives in real places - they want fantasy and excess.  There is little doubt, the public need more and more of the "fantasy excitement" drug to get them away from, the reality of their humdrum everyday lives and to keep them interested in a film or story -  the ordinary and the honest and the everyday reality is no longer enough.
Couldn't have put it better myself.  But hey, it'll
be good.....another high I can tick off 

I mention this by way of an introduction. It seems to me that nowhere are the excesses of modern life more visible and maybe influential than in the world of film, TV and books. We live in an age of mass entertainment and instant access to the media be it Hollywood’s latest blockbuster or a clip on YouTube – and wherever one looks the  boundaries are being pushed. Many may argue that this is a “good thing” – indeed it is difficult to argue against it, it is the nature of art that boundaries are pushed. But in doing so it also legitimises and makes what was once a “no no” seem acceptable. As the old song goes “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking now heaven knows anything goes” – so very true.   But what is also true is that too often violence, sex, foul language, high end “excitement” and modern technology is a substitute for a decent story line.

A few months ago Pat and I watched DVDs of the  1980’s BBC adaption of the John Le Carre “Smiley” spy stories – “Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People” . The complex story lines were developed with high quality and sustained dialogue – just as in the books – with no use of foul language, excessive violence, clever technology or unnecessary sex to “spice them up” and make them more attractive. Modern viewers, I believe, would find them “boring”. Spies were portrayed as rather boring "ordinary people" - civil servants doing a complicated and complex job but still "everyday". I can’t conceive that if the BBC re-did the series that it would be the same today: every spy would tote a gun, every fight would be a blood bath, scenes would “zip” from one to another, the first five minutes of each programme would be spent doing a re-cap on the last episode (clearly, if one judges how modern serials on TV are introduced with excessive flash backs to the previous episode one can only assume that most of the population suffer from amnesia – or are simply not very bright!), every kiss would develop into a turgid sexploit, the urbane George Smiley would punctuate every sentence with expletives and every “baddy” would die spouting very visual blood, guts and gore. But Le Carre, as with any good writer, does not need this – the quality is in the story. The great tales of the world do not need it – their value is in the tale itself.

And so I come to the subject of this blog – the writings of John Harvey.
John Harvey - master of the police procedural novel
but more importantly master observer of people and places

John Harvey is a well established and award winning author of many years standing who writes on a number of things – jazz, poetry but above all crime. In particular he has written a series of books based in Nottingham, my home of almost fifty years, about one particular fictional  detective - Charlie Resnick. I came to John Harvey about  seven or eight years ago when an elderly friend  loaned  me a copy of one of his books. I was recovering from a stay in the Queens Medical Centre cardiac unit having been diagnosed with heart failure. From the moment that I received this book I was hooked and since then have devoured all Harvey’s work.  It has not only been a succession of jolly good reads but has so often sustained me when I have been “laid out” with my “dodgy ticker”!

I could praise many things about Harvey’s work – the story lines, the utterly believable characters, the attention to detail, the police procedural element – all of which are, in my view, top class. But for me it is the absolutely accurate and sympathetic  picture of Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and their people that take the prize.  He  does not write about glamour and high end excitement but rather about real life  and real people  and real places with all their aspirations, problems, hopes, fears, oddities, passions and failures. His tales are of people and places (mostly Nottingham) “warts and all.” 

The last Resnick novel - and what a
As one reads a Harvey novel one is transported by the everyday. The long suffering and ironic Notts County football fans, the Nottingham pub and club scene, the street life, the city centre hub and the “lively” night life, the Goose Fair site and its environs are all painted with such clarity, awareness and understanding that with each book that I read I find that I am there, a silent observer from the sidelines. I am  with the fans as they make their way down London Road after the game or I might be sitting in the Broadway cinema with Resnick – one of his haunts – indeed Pat and I sat in that cinema yesterday afternoon to watch a live screening from the National Theatre of the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripdes!. Maybe Resnick was the man sitting along the row from us  so real has this fictional character become for me! In one of the first books that I read Harvey wrote of a school in Sneinton  (a district of Nottingham) and as I read that description   I knew immediately which school it probably was – William Booth. My wife worked there in the school office. When Pat read it she “recognised” the mums that Harvey  described standing at the end of the school drive! In another tale he described the laundry in Lady Bay – I used to teach at Lady Bay school and a good friend was the manager of the laundry so I knew that his  description of the employee standing outside enjoying a cigarette was entirely accurate. I felt as if I was again there, witnessing that same event as I had done so many times when I looked out of my classroom window into the street leading down to the laundry! And in the last day or two I have read of Resnick sitting in a  Market Square coffee bar wistfully reflecting on the new style Nottingham Market Square – tasteless and utterly devoid of interest. One of the grandest civic squares in the midlands  has been destroyed and turned  into a concrete wasteland by modern designers and developers! Resnick’s comments about the new Squarecould have been my own – we  would have been two grumpy old men sitting on a bench together! And finally, as I lay in bed reading last night I read of another fictional detective in his tales, Catherine Njoroge, sitting in a coffee bar in Central Avenue, West Bridgford watching children file past the West Bridgford library – just as I had done so many times. When I taught at Lady Bay (over 40 years ago)  I often took the children for a library  visit or when I took the boys for their weekly game of football (our school didn’t have a playing field) to the adjoining park – I could have been that teacher that Harvey described walking with their class down the road!  All so very accurate and carefully observed. I could give so many other examples  of the manner in which Harvey has captured the people, the places and the very  heart and soul of Nottingham.
One of the many Resnick tales
I have enjoyed

No one – including, I suspect, John Harvey – would describe his writing or his tales as “great literature”. I’m sure that Harvey does not see himself as a modern day Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or John Steinbeck. But like all those great authors he shares their ability for the acute observation, for the feel of a person or place and for making the ordinary and everyday sound important. Dickens, Austen or Steinbeck did not write of the great earth shattering events they wrote of ordinary people in caught up the situations of their time and Harvey does the same. Dickens, Austen and Steinbeck (and others of their ilk) wrote of ordinary people of their circle and their society and in doing so not only left us great and memorable stories but stories and characters that reflected their age and in thus, a valuable perspective on that age and its people. Harvey, too, does that - anyone reading his Resnick novels in a hundred years time will know something of what it was like to live and work in a midland's town of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. To be fair - Harvey is not alone in this, another of my favourite authors is Graham Hurley who writes a similar series of crime fiction based in Portsmouth and the south west of England - all very ordinary and everyday - and accurate. Hurley is very good - he is not, however, John Harvey who is supreme.

For many modern day readers this might be “boring” – the ordinary and everyday to many is boring. In John Harvey’s work there is little or no high end excitement, excess, foul language is used only when appropriate, violence is part of the tales but it is included in an appropriate way – not simply to titillate. Harvey’s tales are equal to anything written by other popular crime writers of the day: Mark Billingham, Stewart MacBride or the hugely popular Ian Rankin. But whereas Rankin’s books (for example) are populated by violent and unpleasant characters – both police and criminal -  Harvey’s are populated by ordinary people of the sort I might meet in the street or sit next to in the cinema. Whereas Rankin’s famous detective John Rebus is a hard drinking thug Harvey’s Charlie Resnick is “Mr Everyman”. Whereas authors like Rankin, MacBride or Billingham often populate their books with arch villains, detailed violence and complex plots Harvey’s villains, victims and characters are the ordinary man and woman caught up in particular situations – in short, they are in the context of the everyday. For example in the book I have just finished which concerns the finding of the remains of a body thirty years after a murder eventually turns out to be the result of an opportunist situation which had occurred in the miners’ strike of that time. There was a murderer, a villain, but it was almost a “there but for the grace of God  go I” situation – we can all be heroes or indeed we can all be villains. And that is the essence (for me at least) of John Harvey – he tells of situations that might actually happen to anyone – the everyday incident that turns into a crime, the wayward youth who in the wrong set of circumstances spirals into a deadly situation or the colleague of Resnick who is killed not by some arch villain intent on police murder but by a drunken youth in a shop doorway - it is the everyday nature of life with all its misfortunes and opportunities for good or ill.

One of the best civic squares in the midlands - now destroyed
much to Resnick's (and my) disgust
Harvey’s police operate in the real world – they are utterly believable and the crimes they are faced with are utterly believable too. They make mistakes, they make bad decisions, they live the lives of you and me, they are not erstwhile Sherlock Holmes types making great conceptual leaps to solve the crime.  High tech and TV style  bravado and break throughs rarely  happen – it is all very pedestrian, There is no fast moving "CSI" type investigations, no "cold case" teams, no forensic scientists making amazing discoveries to identify the killer.  In Harvey, the policeman might fall over while giving chase, there is little or no flashing blue lights and high speed car chases, and Resnick spends much of his day interviewing the ordinary person – the stall holder in one of Nottingham’s markets or  the bar man in  “The Bell” or “Yates’ Wine Lodge” – two of Resnick’s favourite Nottingham pubs. And every place described by Harvey is totally accurate both in appearance and atmosphere. He has got into the heart, mind and soul of Nottingham and its people. Nottingham and the English East Midlands are not places of glamour or great wealth or great fashion. They are places of  the ordinary and the commonplace. They do not have the brilliance of Morse’s Oxford, the glamour of London or the hard drinking atmosphere of Rebus’ Glasgow. Nottingham and its environs are places of the normal, the ordinary and  the unexciting – places of stoic people getting on with their life, not winning any prizes or having any great expectations or  pretensions. And into this ordinary background Resnick fits completely – an ordinary man of the local ordinary  people and for the local ordinary people.
The new Market Square -  a bland and barren wasteland. A
blot on the city centre landscape.

If you crave high end excitement, a gun battle on every page, a bit of explicit sex plus dollops of foul language and casual violence to litter your story then don’t read John Harvey. But if you want a well crafted tale, populated with real people in real places which will leave you in the end feeling satisfied with the  outcome and, importantly, will have given you a snapshot of life in a big English city and the way its people behave, then you might just enjoy him.

And at night, after a day interviewing, following up leads and walking the streets of Nottingham  Resnick returns home to his cats and his empty house – and his jazz. I am not a great jazz enthusiast myself but the passion with which Harvey includes references to jazz and how Charlie Resnick turns to his old vinyls or CDs as a support in times of stress and as a  relaxing pleasure I can relate to. My passion is Bach – and I behave just as Charlie does with my old Bach vinyls and CDs – they are my support in difficult times and my pleasure when I am feeling good.  Sadly, Harvey tells us that his latest book, and the one that I have just finished, will be the final Resnick tale. I’ll miss old Charlie – he has, over the last few years, become a good friend. Had we ever met I could have been friends with him, he could have convinced me of the wonderful world of jazz – and I might just have converted him to Bach. But each time I visit the Broadway Cinema, or pass Notts County’s ground or drive past the Goose Fair site or walk past the Bell Pub or the Lincolnshire Poacher or I cross the Market Square or pass the Polish Club or walk through the Victoria Market I will think of Charlie Resnick and look out for him – he’s sure to be there somewhere! And whatever, I will have many fond memories of nights spent reading of his exploits, listening to his woes, agreeing with his grumbles and of course, watching him finally catch the villain.

Just a few of the Resnick takes
For me there  is no greater pleasure than a quiet night in with Resnick and with Bach playing in the background. I sit there, feet up and know all is well with the world and that the streets of Nottingham are safe in the care of Charlie Resnick and his friends! Thanks Charlie – and thanks John Harvey for all the pleasure.

22 October, 2014

"Reaching the heart of every noble thought, and in the most perfect way" (Pablo Casals speaking of the composer JS Bach)

JS Bach - the painting that hangs above my desk
Three or four years ago when I discovered blogging I mentioned that in a blog that one day I would blog about my love of JS Bach – the great composer and a man who has been very much a part of my life since childhood. As I mention in my blog profile life without Bach would be quite unthinkable for me. I love music of all kinds  and can find some pleasure in most whether it be classic or pop, ancient or modern, rock or roll! But head and shoulders above all stands the towering presence of Bach.  I have mentioned this on many occasions and in many blogs in the past few years but now I am drawn to write specifically about my love affair with the great man and his music.

But why now?

As I mentioned in my previous blog (Where are all those beautiful moments...) for the past three and a half months I have been suffering from a very painful bout of back, hip and leg pain – and my response, has all too often been to turn to Bach. Most nights I lie in bed and play his B Minor Mass on my I-pod before I get some sleep. Whenever the pain becomes too much and I need to give myself a bit of “space” and put my feet up, lie down or close my eyes it is a quiet piece of Bach that I listen to. Increasingly I find that whenever I put the stereo on for a little music it is Bach that drifts through the speakers – usually Glenn Gould playing the 48 Preludes and Fugues or Gould playing the wonderful Goldberg Variations (Video below of Glenn Gould playing the opening Aria from the variation). Bach’s music has not just been something to enjoy but is, at the moment, an important support for me – it speaks of calmness, serenity, certainty, peace, quiet pleasure and in doing so it quietly uplifts my spirits.

As I sit here in my office writing this his face gazes down on me from the large print that hangs over my desk – a memento of a trip to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where he worked and for many years produced some of his greatest work until his death in 1750. Bach’s life and work is well documented, a click of the mouse on Wikipedia will give all the information required, so apart from any necessary facts I will omit his life story and stick to my love affair with his works. When I say my love affair I do not use the phrase lightly, like anyone or anything that we love he has been my main stay and reference point for much of my life. He is more often than not who I turn to in times of stress or upset – as I am doing now - and indeed of great joy or celebration. When my father died, when I was lying “wired up” in the cardiac unit at the local hospital, when Pat and I had spent many weekends travelling up and down motorways to visit her ailing mother it was always Bach that was the calming influence and who restored my balance. I love other great composers – Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Vivaldi, Purcell.......they all have their place, but in the end it is JSB to whom I always return.
And I am not alone in this love of the man and his music. The briefest of reviews will show that millions of others – and especially the great musicians and of the world - feel much as I do:
  •  “What I have to say to Bach's work of life: Listen, play, love, adore it - and just shut up.” (Albert Einstein: Scientist)
  •    “When the angels play for God they play Bach, but for one another they play Mozart. (Isaiah Berlin: Philosopher)
  • “His name shouldn't be Bach but Ocean.” [“Bach” means brook in German] (Beethoven: Composer)
  • “We are all dilettantes compared to him!” (Schumann: Composer)
  •  “Now there is music from which a man can learn something”. (Mozart: Composer)
  •  “And if we look at the works of JS Bach on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.” (Debussy: Composer)
  •     “Bach is a terminal point.....Everything leads to him.”(Albert Schweitzer:Musician and Theologian)
  • “...the most stupendous miracle in all music!” (Wagner:Composer)
  •    “Study Bach. There you will find everything: life, love and God”. (Brahms: Composer)
  • “Bach is the supreme genius of music... This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way”. (Pablo Casals:Musician)
  • When eminent biologist and author Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send from Earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft, he answered, "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." After a pause, he added, "But that would be boasting." In fact, the comment made by Thomas became real: on the Voyager spacecraft there was included a recording of Glenn Gould playing the 48 Preludes and Fugues  – if any alien civilisation finds the spacecraft and plays the music they will be listening to what has been chosen to represent one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The 48, as they are known to Bach lovers, are still hurtling through space and are, I understand, now the furthest man made thing from earth.
  •    “Mozart died too late rather than too soon. Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of a bag of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer........but if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would be Bach. I can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that — its humanity”. (Glenn Gould: Musician and arguably the greatest ever exponent of Bach’s keyboard music - see video below of Gould playing  one of "The 48" - the music that above all others has shaped western music until today)

 I don’t know how I came to Bach. My family were not especially musical and although I learned the piano as a child I never reached the standard where the complexities of Bach were part of my repertoire. As I have mentioned in blogs before (e.g. “A Night in With Klever Kaff”: May 2011) I had a passing interest in classical music simply because of unplanned events and coincidences in my childhood and youth but nothing specific that drew me to Bach rather than to other composers. Two things do, however, do stand out. When I went to secondary school there was a school choir which I was a member of for a few months (a girl that I was keen on was a member of the choir and I was seeking to impress her!). Sadly, after a few months the teacher heard my voice so my choral singing career and my amorous intentions towards Anne ended sharply but during that brief excursion into choral singing I can remember that one of the pieces that we sang for a concert was Bach’s magnificent Jesu Joy of man’s Desiring from his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, (video below). And at about the same time I can remember hearing on the radio the great pianist Myra Hess playing the same piece. There is no doubt that these two imprinted on my mind and although I didn’t understand the music or have any great affection at that time for classical music I somehow knew that this was something special – it immediately became part of me. I can remember visiting a second hand sheet music stall on the town’s market and flicking though the cardboard boxes of music – until I at last came up with the piano music for the piece. Over the next few years whenever I sat at the piano it was Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring  that I practised - or rather murdered! Poor Bach, if he sat listening in heaven, he must have wept at what I did to his wonderful work. But after a fashion I mastered it. I soon gave up playing the piano as rock and roll became important in my teenage life – but years later – and still, I think, today – if I sit at a piano that is the piece that I will stumble though. My fingers automatically finding the keys. I can literally play it blindfold and I still get a buzz from it!

But Bach’s music is not only for the solemn or the quiet times. Although my current mood is, to say the least, depressed and Bach’s music is giving quiet comfort and solace to me it also brings glorious joy and uplift. Many years ago I stood at the front of our school hall leading assembly – although “leading” is the wrong word since we were all listening to the weekly school assembly broadcast by the BBC to all schools. The assembly always started each week with a different piece of music and on that particular week as soon as the music began I recognised it immediately and my fingers began to keep time with the tune. It was the third movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 5 – my favourite out of the six Brandenburgs (video below). This glorious piece is music of joy and celebration, uplifting in the extreme, and at the end of the piece the radio presenter, Geoffrey Wheeler, a man who for very many years was the voice and face of BBC religious broadcasts said to the children “Could you imagine, children, anything more happy full of praise than that – what  a joyful piece of music to start the day”. 

Wheeler was right – I defy anyone not to listen to Brandenburg 5 and not feel better, be uplifted and just a little joyful for the remainder of the day. It’s the same with a number of the great cello concertos – listen to the Bourree from Cello Suite Number 4  and no-one could not be amused and have a little smile on their face at the musical picture that it paints. Or listen to Credo and the following Patrem omnipotentem from the B Minor Mass – a Mass is supposed to be a solemn work but when JSB composed them those two light, vibrant bursts of choral music must have had the angels in heaven jiving in the aisles! In the 1960s French composer and jazz enthusiast Jacques Loussier set a lot of Bach’s music to the jazz repertoire. His Jacques Loussier Trio were famous for bringing Bach into the modern world and I have absolutely no doubt that Bach would have approved. I have often reflected when listening to something like the Art of the Fugue  or some of Bach’s partitas and  2 and 3 part inventions  that his music in many ways pre-dated modern jazz. If Bach were alive today I have no doubt that jazz would be very much part of his composing
Bach’s music takes me to the extremes of human emotions. From hearing it as a child to this day it never ceases to move me and I know now what I knew then almost sixty years ago that it is something very special. It can make me smile and feel so much better, it makes me believe that there must be a God and a heaven. It is the nearest that I can come to what has been called the “music of the spheres” – the universe and all its workings. It can overpower and overawe me when for example I listen to the open chorus (Come ye daughters, help me lament) of the St Matthew Passion the hairs on my neck bristle. And at the end of the Passion the final chorus We sit down in tears never fails to drain the emotions completely. Bach’s music makes me feel very small in this great universe but it also has the power to make me feel that I could conquer the world should I so wish; the aria from the Goldberg Variations, surely,  one of the most beautiful and serene pieces of music ever written can make me feel incredibly humble and a tiny speck in the cosmos. But listen to (for example) the third movement of the Keyboard Concerto number 2 (especially when played by Glenn Gould) and anything and everything seems possible! Bach’s music speaks at many different levels and in many different ways: all the world’s great composers are capable of writing a good tune – who could undervalue the glory of Beethoven’s Piano  Concerto no 5, his Late Quartets or the majesty of the Ninth Symphony; who could question the claims of Mozart’s exquisite melodies for example in the Piano Concerto number 23 or the beautiful arias from the Mozart operas or the sheer raw power and conviction  of the Requiem. But Bach adds another dimension. His work has all that of the very greatest composers of the world but it has much, much more. The detail, the technical brilliance, the interweaving of threads, the counterpoint, the mathematical precision – it makes Bach difficult to perform but above all other works rewarding to hear (and I’m sure to play).
The Jacques Loussier Trio

It has often been suggested  that listening to music can aid learning and brain development and indeed there is some evidence to support this belief. I have read, for example, that listening to Mozart is a helpful way of developing the creative aspects of the brain. As a teacher I can understand that - I certainly find that listening to a piece of Mozart can conjure up mental pictures and dream like  scenes. Bach is different – listen to Bach and the complexities of the music the carefully woven, almost mathematical patterns make the experience one which, I believe, aids the development of pattern, mathematics and making connections. Try following the various “tunes” in one of Bach’s pieces – for example  his preludes and fugues – and it forces you to concentrate upon sequence and pattern which are the very bed rock of mathematics.  If you don't believe this try following the rhythms, sequences and patterns in the video below of Gould playing one of the fugues in Bach's "The Art of the Fugue" - some of the most complex and detailed music ever written. Such is its complexity that it bridges the gap between pure maths and art, it gets to the root of what we are as humans creative, spiritual and at the same time scientific and mathematical. It is the reason why Bach's music is so wonderful, it is not simply a good tune. There is considerable research to suggest that listening to Bach increases one’s ability to recognise pattern and form – the subliminal patterns and rhythms wiring into your brain. When I was in the classroom it was not unusual for the children to listen to Mozart while they wrote a story or painted a picture – but in maths and science it was Bach that they enjoyed as it played quietly in the background I make no excuses for that – and anyway, I enjoyed it!

It is, as I said above, the music of the spheres. It is the very soul of man and the creation and yet it came from such a humble man. Bach was no celebrity – he achieved little fame in his time and was little more than a lowly paid servant for most of his life. When he took the post as choir master at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig he wasn’t even first choice for the job. He had frequent arguments with the church and town council because of his salary and poor terms of employment. But all the time he was quietly, on an everyday basis producing the music of eternity. He humbly and famously said “It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself”. This from probably the greatest exponent of keyboard instruments – organ, harpsichord and claviar (piano) that the world has ever known. Bach’s Well Tempered Claviar  (or as it is also called The 48 Preludes and Fugues) is the very basis of all western music to this day. French composer Gounod posited 'If all the music written since Bach's time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundations which Bach laid'. He was right such is Bach’s influence.  Until Bach’s  time, keyboard instruments were tuned in such a way that they sounded perfect in one key but awful in any other key.  Over the years a new system, in which all 12 keys are feasible, but are off by a slight margin (but which most listeners could not detect) was developed and called the "well-tempered" system. Bach perfected this. He tuned his own harpsichords and clavichords and this allowed him to play in all keys and to modulate into distant keys almost without the listeners noticing it. To celebrate this he wrote “The 48”  or “The well tempered claviar” as they are called – two books of preludes and fugues based upon every possible key. Each set contains twenty-four pairs of preludes and fugues encompassing every possible variation in the chromatic scale. The first pair is in C major, the second in C minor, the third in C-sharp major, the fourth in C-sharp minor, and so on. The rising chromatic pattern continues until every key has been represented, finishing with a B-minor fugue. These two books contain the essence of all western music since – hence Gounod’s comments. Arguably they are the most significant works ever written since not only do they provide glorious music but have influenced what we accept as the “sound” of western music of all kinds – classical, pop, jazz, rock and roll etc. - since Bach’s time. They define western music. And finally, Bach also said “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well” – that was  measure of the man – hard work and industry. His output was phenomenal both in quantity and quality. As a Lutheran in Saxony hard work and industry would have been second nature to his very being but added to this was a third thing – the glory of God. And Bach also said “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul”. Well, he certainly did that - watch and listen to the video below of the glorious Patrem Omnipotentem from the B Minor Mass, if that doesn't glorify God and refresh the soul then nothing can help you -  you are a lost cause!
And so when I lie in bed feeling low with my aching back and listen to Dona Nobis Pacem or the Credo or the Patrem Omnipotentum from  the B Minor Mass or any other of his great and mighty works he is certainly refreshing my soul – reaching parts of my being that no other music ever could. I can’t but not agree with author Douglas Adams who commented that 'I don't think a greater genius has walked the earth. Of the 3 great composers Mozart tells us what it's like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it's like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it's like to be the universe.'  So very true.

19 October, 2014

"Where are all those beautiful moments......"

Nottingham's Broadway Cinema
Last night (Saturday) Pat and I went to a live screening of the New York Met’s production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It was truly wonderful. We love the Mozart’s light, funny and moving operas – Figaro, Cosi Fan Tuti, Don Giovani, The Magic Flute - and to be a small part of something being performed in New York at one of the great opera houses of the world was really something – even though we were several thousand miles away! For me it was potentially a bit of a trial since for the past three and a half months I have been suffering from almost continual back, hip and leg pain – sciatica or something similar. Despite many visits to physiotherapists and doctors it has not responded significantly to treatment. I am advised to take pain killers by my doctor, which is good advice but because of my heart condition I am somewhat limited as to what and how many I can take. Fortunately, it has not stopped me doing most things but is a constant nagging debilitating pain and means that virtually every night I get little sleep. I am awaiting the results of an MRI scan – hopefully that will give some pointers, although I am not hopeful. All in all, I have become very “down” with the whole situation and so a trip into Nottingham and the opera whilst being a great attraction was also daunting. The prospect of sitting for almost 4 hours in a theatre, maybe living off pain killers and navigating Nottingham’s crowded city centre on Saturday evening was something I was not looking forward to – and made me fear the worst. However, I need not have worried. Although my back grumbled a bit it was a wonderful evening and when we at last left the Broadway Cinema and, clinging to each other, made our way through Nottingham’s heaving streets filled with very loud and mostly drunken young revellers we were both quite overcome by what we had seen and heard.
The New York Met

As we sat in the darkened cinema watching Mozart’s magic opera unfold and listening to the wonderful music that we knew so well I found that on several occasions a tear ran down my cheek. As I sat listening and watching the exquisite performance and sublime voice of soprano  Amanda Majeski who played the role of the Countess I was quite overcome. When, in Act 3 she sang one of the opera’s (and indeed all opera’s) most famous and moving arias Dove sono i bei momenti  (Where are all those beautiful moments) there was absolutely no doubt that the atmosphere in the Broadway where we sat and, I think too, at the New York Met was electric – an atmosphere that palpably intensified as we all watched and listened, spellbound. As her aria came to a close Pat turned to me and whispered “Wow” there was a rapturous, spontaneous and sustained applause both in our little cinema in Nottingham and in the mighty New York Met. She had clearly touched a nerve. It really was one of those moments when you wanted to stand up and cheer and shout for more. And as I sat there in the semi darkness, quite overcome by this thing of great beauty which over the centuries since Mozart composed it has been heard and loved by millions, I thought on the one hand how small I was sitting there with my painful back but also how lucky to be able to experience this thing that the young Mozart left us all. He was only 36 when he died and yet he left such a treasure trove of great music, and in my mind’s eye I pictured him sat in his little room in Austria and composing, perhaps by lighted candle, putting some of the world’s greatest music to the libretto provided by his colleague Lorenzo da Ponte. This timeless and glorious stuff, the melodies and notes pouring from his prodigious mind and onto the manuscript paper in front of him still touches the nerves and the emotions of people centuries later. The world’s very greatest musicians and singers have over the years performed it and we have loved it over and over again. I don’t expect that Mozart ever dreamed that three centuries later his music would still be acclaimed as wonderful, that it would become a major thread in western civilization and I certainly know that he would have been amazed to discover that his great music, this wonderful aria  could, with the help of modern technology, be watched and heard in a great opera house in New York but also by millions across the planet at the same time. I’m sure that Mozart would have loved that!  And yes, it made me feel very humble and small, and my painful back seemed of very little significance in the great scheme of these things.
The Countess, Amanda Majeski, sadly weeps for her
philandering husband, the Count

As I watched and listened to Amanda Majeski sing and thought about the words of her song I thought of how Mozart, a man of a very different time and place still has the capacity to reach out to the very essence of humanity and our innermost feelings. I don’t think there was a single person in the Met in New York or across the  world who could not relate to the feelings of the Countess as she stands and sadly looks back and sings of her lost love – her philandering husband, the Count who in true Mozartian style is chasing all the other young women in the tale (see clip below - not sung by Amanda Majeski, but still beautiful). For those few moments whilst the Countess sings we all watched and listened both entranced and hugely sympathetic to her feelings and sense of loss as she dreams of her past and of winning back her wayward husband’s affections. As we sat there I thought to myself that we were hearing the same sounds and words that people heard almost three centuries ago when his opera was first performed; we were experiencing and feelings, the same emotions that those opera goers of the mid 18th century had experienced and felt and they were just as meaningful and relevant to us as they were to them. Such is the power of great music- it connects us to our past and to past humanity.  Of course, this is Mozart so it all ends happily, order is restored, everyone finds their true love – just as it should be - like all good stories, everyone lived happily ever after! But until we reach that point at the end of the opera (and even though we all knew it would happily and with lots of fun and laughs on the way!) I’m sure that many like me had our emotions shredded. Again, such is the power of great music.

There was, too, another thought as I sat there and looked around me at the other entranced faces in the audience. The production was directed by Richard Eyre and as the audience in the Broadway was very much of my generation – senior citizens(!) I guess many others were thinking that in a tiny, tiny way that we had a connection with the evening’s entertainment from far off New York. In the 1960s and early 70s when I first came to live in Nottingham the place to go was Nottingham Playhouse – newly opened and at that time the foremost provincial theatre in the land. It was the place where some of present day’s greatest actors and actresses got their careers started: Dame Judy Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, the late John Neville and many others. And in those far off days the artistic director was a very young Richard Eyre starting off his career in the theatre too. So I would guess, others too were, like myself, thinking back to those days in the early 70s when a trip to Nottingham Playhouse was very much an “in thing” to do and we would see a production put on by young Richard Eyre. And now a much older Richard Eyre appeared before us again but this time producing a wonderful, opera not from a little provincial theatre like Nottingham Playhouse but from one of the great artistic venues of the world. Yes, I and I suspect others in the Nottingham audience, felt a little connection across the years.  Again, very humbling.
The four main characters in the opera: the Countess,
Suzanna (soon to marry Figaro), Figaro and the Count

Any one of the great arias  (see clip at the bottom of this blog for one of the other great arias) sung last night by different members of the cast was a show stopper but it is Dove sono i bei momenti  that will stay in my mind, mostly because of the sublime singing and exquisite voice of Amanda Majeski. But,I must confess too, that its words spoke to me personally as I sat with my grumbling back, feeling a bit “down” and sorry for myself. Just as the Countess wistfully looked back to the times when she and her husband had moments of “sweetness and pleasure” and she longs for them to return so, too, I was thinking back a few weeks to when I didn’t have a painful back condition and sleepless nights. I was feeling melancholy and put upon! But, what a lift when the aria came to a close – and the applause erupted – suddenly everything seemed a lot better. That is the power of great music it reminds us of our humanity, our frailness, our strengths our hopes and fears. It can bring great sorrow or overwhelming joy, it can uplift or make one consider the very nature of our existence. It can inspire the best in us, make us brave or help us to empathise with our fellow man and woman. Music such as that by Mozart can reach into our very souls - last night it reached into mine - and, I suspect, that of  many other people in New York and across the world in little local cinemas like the Broadway in Nottingham..

Where are all those beautiful moments
Of sweetness and pleasure?
Where have all those vows gone
Of a deceiving tongue?
Then why, if for me everything has changed
To tears and grief,
The memory of that happiness
Hasn't faded away from my soul?
Ah! If only my constancy
In yearning lovingly for him,
Could bring me the hope
To change his ungrateful heart!

When Pat and I had navigated our way back to the car park through Nottingham's loud thronging streets and returned home we started our plans to book tickets for the next live screening from the Met: Bizet’s Carmen in a few weeks, just before Christmas Wagner’s Meistersingers and in the spring Pagliacci to name but three! What a treat to look forward to!

02 October, 2014

"A house built on piles driven into black slime........"

In  a blog a week or two ago I commented that it is in the nature of things that most (all?) parents hope that the world will be a better place for their children than it was for them – that their children will have better opportunities to succeed, that their children will achieve more than they or that their children will simply have a better, more fulfilling, healthier or happier life. In many respects, I suppose, this might be viewed a relatively modern idea – after all, certainly up to Victorian times class divisions and the basic inequalities of life almost ensured that most children would often live very similar lives to that of their parents with little changing through the generations. Having said that, however, I guess that even the most primitive of societies would hope that the hunting would continue to be good and that the berries continued to grow so that their children might survive and thrive without too much difficulty.
It's a tax give away.....oh, and the bit I didn't say was
that I'm also  giving away the future

With this in mind I reflected on a point that I have oft made and relates to the unwritten “trust” and “obligations” that exist from one generation to the next.  Each generation instigates and builds – not just for itself but for those coming after it – it is what is expected and required of us as humans.  We pay our taxes and trust our leaders to maintain and build upon what we have already invested in and to improve things for the future - in trust and for the benefit of people perhaps yet to be born who still are to enjoy and benefit from what we have done on their behalf as well as our own.  Others before me did it for me and so I must do it for those who follow. We build hospitals, roads and railways so that others as well as ourselves can enjoy their benefits both today and in the future – that’s the deal. I think it is called “society”!  Between the generations this unwritten “contract” is extended – not only do we as adults hope that the world will be better for our children and grandchildren we have an obligation to put into place measures and to ensure that it will be better – it is their inheritance and is what, I believe, being an adult member of society is all about. It is common to all societies  - no matter how primitive or advanced. 
The Tory press loved it - but read the article and it's not the fact that
30 million receive a tax cut that they applaud but rather that the tax cut will benefit
the "middle class" most - in other words "He that hath should have some more"

I thought about this an hour or so ago (Wednesday Oct 1st) as I read the headlines about our Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative party made earlier today. It was all so depressingly familiar and predictable – and I don’t blame the PM for that he is merely saying what the electorate want to hear and what he knows will get him and his party re-elected at the next General Election. David Cameron said many things in his speech but the bit that grabbed the headlines, as it always would (and, reported the paper, “was rapturously applauded by the delegates”) was: “So let me tell you this today: I want to take action that’s long overdue and bring back some fairness to tax. With a Conservative government, we will raise the threshold at which people pay the 40p rate. It’s currently £41,900. In the next parliament we will raise it to £50,000........I can tell you now that a future Conservative government will raise the tax-free personal allowance from £10,500 to £12,500. That will take 1 million more of the lowest paid workers out of income tax – and will give a tax cut to 30 million more........So with us, if you work 30 hours a week on minimum wage, you will pay no income tax at all. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Lower taxes for our hardworking people. That’s what I call a Britain that everyone is proud to call home.”

Now while we can all applaud a measure that will ensure that those who earn least will pay least – the most basic of tax imperatives – this continual commitment of all politicians  to reducing taxation as a general principle is not only worrying but says much about us as a society. Whilst I might applaud lowering taxes for those who earn little the Prime Minister did not promise to squeeze those who can afford to pay much by raising hugely the upper tax bands – in fact his chancellor, George Osborne, was sending the message loud and clear to the rich and the great multinationals from all over the world “Come to Britain.......we are offering you taxes in Britain [that] will undercut the lowest rates in the developed world if the Conservatives win next year’s election”. All parties are agreed that they will not be elected on a tax raising manifesto. In other words we as a society are unwilling to put up the money to make things better not only for ourselves but for generations to come – and by “better” I mean the basics of life – health, education, general welfare. We might desire these things, we might even want schemes that give us these for the, least expenditure but in the end we don’t want it to personally cost us or to mean that we as individuals have to make sacrifices to create the world we want for ourselves and our children and grandchildren. We like the sound of “making things better” but in reality are not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.  As I say I don’t blame Cameron – he is merely telling us what most of us want to hear; he knows that we are inherently greedy and want to keep as much of our money as we can........it’s the “I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder” syndrome. Sadly the consequence of all this can be summed up in the Biblical quote "Selling your birthright for a mess of pottage" - because we are indeed sacrificing much of our future for the sake of something of very low but immediate value; a few pennies off tax today means the loss of future investment in society's needs both for the present and for our children. We should be ashamed. 

A week or two ago I blogged about the vast numbers of people anxious to give away £600 for a new toy – the new I-Phone. I read a few days after the I-Phone bonanza that Apple had benefited to the tune of several billion dollars from the new phone sales – well, good for Apple! But if everyone had put their £600 towards the health provision or education then great strides would have been made towards making our society better both for us and the future. I wonder would all those people willingly put their £600 up front towards the building new hospitals, schools, more nurses, better pay for teachers supporting the poor and the rest?  I guess the answer to that is for the most part a resounding no. In our crazy world a new toy is more important to us than a new hospital or school or provision for the needy, the infirm or the disadvantaged. Walk down my High Street (and any other in the country) and we are awash with trendy coffee bars  where we sit sipping our latte and enjoying a cup cake – and yet we all want tax breaks so that we contribute less for the important things of life and for the good of future generations. And freer to spend on ourselves and our foibles.  And this is the issue – it’s about choices – I might choose to spend my £600 on a new I-Phone or I might prefer to pay more tax to make life for me and everyone else better in the long run. As the old saying goes “You pays your money and you make your choice....! Every week I and, I guess, virtually every other member of society makes those sort of choices  and we are each, in our small way, breaking the contract with the next generation. We are each putting our own self interest before the general good of today and tomorrow – and politicians of all persuasion know this and feed off it.  It is what puts them into power. In short they know that the electorate are like turkeys – they won’t vote for Christmas.

RH Tawney
In this centenary year of the start of the Great War, when those dreadful four years that scarred a generation and the world for all time, have been remembered it is good to remember one man and something that he said after the war. RH Tawney came from a privileged background as a young man served in the Great War  as a Sergeant in the Manchester Regiment. He turned down a commission as an officer because  of his political beliefs. He served at the Battle of the Somme (1916), where he was wounded twice on the first day and had to lie in no man's land for 30 hours very close to death. Luckily for him and us a medical officer evacuated him and although he suffered ill health for the remainder of his life his words and his work as a political thinker and eminent historian left us much of the nation that we know and value today. The war led Tawney to grapple with the nature of original sin and he concluded that. “The goodness we have reached is a house built on piles driven into black slime and always slipping down into it unless we are building night and day”. It heightened his sense of urgency for meaningful social, economic and political change and after the War his thinking and writing set the tone for most post-war social thinking culminating in the great Labour manifesto of 1945 which brought in the Welfare State, the National Health Service and the rest of the “essentials” that we, generations later, take so readily for granted. Tawney was no sentimental fool – he was an idealist but also a political realist; he knew of mankind’s basic  greed and that people (including politicians) would always try to resist spending money unless there was something in it for them. Eighty years ago he angrily commented of the government in power: “..... every artifice has been employed to create the impression that public expenditure on education is recklessly extravagant......”  In other words politicians were unwilling to spend enough on an item such as education – it was not viewed as an essential but as an extravagance.  He knew and argued that this applied to every other aspect of government spending because spending meant taxation and people didn’t like being taxed.  But, following the dreadful years of unemployment and deprivation  between the Great War and the trials of the Second World War society had looked into the precipice and knew that it must look to other priorities. Tawney and his followers fulfilled their contract to the future in 1945 when Atlee’s great government came to power and created much of what we have and hold dear today. In short, Tawney knew that building for tomorrow and for future generations is a basic human responsibility and cannot and should not be seen as an “reckless extravagance” – it is our future. I am now almost seventy years old with a bad back and a failing heart and increasingly I am the recipient of what has been built and dependent upon younger people and that is why the generational contract is so important – it assures our tomorrow by building today. Tawney knew this and that if we failed to build on those pillars then we all slip back into the “slime”. Sadly, our politicians in their quest for votes and the whole of our society has increasingly forgotten this fact of life.

No one wants to pay more tax but as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously remarked “I like paying taxes. With it I buy civilisation”  - tax is one of the ways that we build for the future and begin to fulfil our contract with those who follow us. When David Cameron and other politicians home in on our basic desire to keep what is ours and not share it with others then they remind us of our inherent greed. Today, when the world is richer than it has ever been before (yes, even in these austere times) we have become lotus eaters, our underbelly soft from the good life and greedy for more of the lotus flower to fuel our whims and fancies. Greed becomes self fulfilling. We don’t want to look into the precipice, we are too self satisfied to worry about others or think about the future.  When I hear politicians today and see how unwilling our society has become to put their hands in their pockets and pay for the future; when I see how happy we all are to pay huge amounts to fund our own pleasures, foibles and entertainments yet are unwilling to pay a similar amount on creating a better future then I fear that we today are increasingly reneging on the basic human obligations as we strive to feather our own nests rather than provide for a better society for us and our children and grandchildren. We might criticise out politicians but perhaps we should look at ourselves for our leaders merely reflect us – we put them there – and they simply reflect our wishes in their policies.