Well, that all went quickly, didn’t it?
Yesterday was the first day of the Michaelmas quarter at my son’s school. Hence summer is, for all practical purposes, already receding into the realms of fast-fading memory, at least in this household — cue that much-loved season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, coupled with the novelty of being able to engage in all the more innocuous forms of daytime activity free from extensive cross-questioning, Lego everywhere underfoot and the need to keep up with a five-year old’s pace, persistence and volume. Once again I can make a cup of coffee whenever I like, or pursue a train of thought, or simply spend a few minutes staring into space, listening to soft unemphatic rhythms of cats padding up and down the stairs — or, indeed, should I feel that way inclined, turn my attention to whatever’s been happening in the slightly wider, non-domestic world during the weeks I’ve been away from it. It’s time, in other words, for a bit of autumnal Blasting & Blessing.
First, no matter how broad a swathe of unbecoming emotional frailty I’m exposing by admitting that I notice, let alone care about such things, well — bless this, and this too. However improbably, someone out there not only enjoys the distinctive cocktail of cats, archaeology, complaints about David Cameron, encomia to little-known long-dead war artists and all-purpose reactionary interjections that constitutes the Fugitive Ink project — weird enough, when one stops to consider it — but also took the time to vote accordingly. Warmest thanks, both all of you. The encouragement matters more than it probably should.
What next? I know, let’s take this opportunity to blast the expensively-acquired constitutional deformity that is regional devolution. Lacking any particularly strong view on the complicity or otherwise of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi in the Lockerbie bombing, I was largely unmoved by the decision to free him. Yet while I can well understand why most of my American friends expressed such shock at the concept of ‘compassionate release’, a certain ambient reluctance to keep convicted killers in prison here in Britain really should have come as no surprise. After all, if the United Kingdom could see its way to releasing 450 convicted terrorists, the majority of them presumably healthy and active, back into the communities in which they carried out their crimes — the UK government having been encouraged mightily in this enterprise, lest we forget, by successive US administrations, as part of some ongoing ‘peace process’ — then why on earth should anyone expect the UK to show reluctance in forwarding one sick man back to that longstanding arms supplier to the PIRA, the catchily-named Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya?
That, however bitter in tone, remains an incidental complaint. The real point, in contrast, is that there’s something deeply odd about a system where politicians within devolved regional assembly are able to make decisions with consequences for the foreign policy of the entire United Kingdom, safely insulated from the electoral will of the British people as a whole — just as there’s something jarring about Labour’s ‘nothing to do with us, mate’ reaction to Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s release. The quiet superiority of time-tested, long-standing constitutional arrangements relies, in no small part, on the grace with which they have learned to avoid embarrassments, scandals and confusions of this sort. Evolved wisdom, however, has, since 1998, been replaced by rationalisation. In revolutionising the traditional relationships between the UK’s constituent parts, the Labour government promised us, amongst all sorts of blandishments and threats, access to some sort of enhanced democratic accountability. Well, it certainly doesn’t look that way in London right at the moment. And no, the fact that the Scots don’t seem too impressed either doesn’t make me any happier about this wholly unedifying little parable of constitutional dysfunctionality. Shall we start countin the minutes until all of this becomes an argument for full-fledged Scottish independence?
On, anyway, to a cheerier topic — albeit one laced liberally with violence, moral equivocation and death, since even in posts headed up with a picture of a cat, Fugitive Ink really doesn’t do ‘lighthearted’ quite the way other blogs do.
Bless other people’s taste in music, especially when it doesn’t — at least initially — coincide with my own. At the beginning of the summer, a friend who, for some reason, reacted to my ignorance of nineteenth century Italian opera with pity and didactic zeal rather than e.g. the contempt that ignorance doubtless deserved, loaned me, first, a DVD of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in their 2005 production of Verdi’s La Travia, and then a CD of Donizetti’s Poliuto, with Maria Callas and Franco Corelli heading up the 1960 La Scala performance.
Each, in its own way, was a sort of revelation. Of course, for someone who usually subsists on a steady diet of J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas, the music seems light, inconsequential and (in the case of La Traviata) blighted here and there with patches of toxic over-familiarity. The stories are, in general, silly. There’s a heavy weight of disbelief to keep suspended, in a way that sometimes feels like hard work. But then the minute one lets one’s guard down, what a lot of genuine delight one finds here! Having harboured ungenerous suspicions regarding my friend’s admiration for the glossily curvaceous Ms Netrebko, these were dispelled by the growing realisation that there’s something to be said for an operatic soprano who can act and indeed charm as well as sing — although for what it’s worth, her expressive range turns out to be such that singing, acting and charm swiftly become indistinguishable. Villazon clowns and sighs with equal persuasiveness, while Thomas Hampson’s Germont Sr. is transformed from grumpy old kill-joy into a truly sympathetic figure, making much more psychological sense of this potentially overheated and stale confection than is often the case. Even the odd, modernised and minimalist staging ultimately fails to detract from the vibrancy, pace and conviction of the performance. Having opened the DVD case as a thorough-going Verdi sceptic, hoping to get quite a lot of ironing done while ‘watching’ a noisy array of amiable nonsense, I lived through those final scenes absolutely on the edge of my seat, ironing long forgotten, carried away by the power of drama about which I was no longer able to feel superior or cynical.
As for Poliuto, the surprise in this recording was the force with which it managed to convey the absolute charisma of two highly individualistic, uneven, in some sense flawed but certainly unforgettable performers. Too much of my experience of Callas, in particular, has consisted of what are basically three-minute songs, decontexualised both in terms of narrative and musical development, half-heard on Radio 3 while in the middle of doing something more important. Working through Poliuto again and again, however — because I’ve listened to it a lot this summer, listening to opera being one of the few forms of mental stimulation compatible with playing the make-believe games imposed upon me by a lively and loud young child — has taught me something not only about the basis of Callas’ star-power (her fame and popularity such cruelly mixed blessings, as indeed they may already be proving for Netrebko) but also about what makes opera beautiful, compelling and important — not formal perfection alone, certainly, because it’s the flaws and personal oddities, the gambles that might not come off but in fact do, that bring the whole conventionalised and otherwise sterile project alive, that ultimately make it matter. Altogether, anyway, that’s a fair amount of distance to have travelled, in the course of a rather house-bound and limiting London summer.
From the sublime, we move in one quick paragraph break to the realms of the ridiculous. Blast the notion that the Conservative party is, or ever has been, ‘progressive’. Leave aside for the moment — well, for as long as you like, because I’ve no intention of addressing it here — the extent to which such a claim might conceivably be justified historically, let alone the intellectual sloppiness that fails to distinguish between, for instance, driving confidently towards an intended destination and clutching frantically at the handbreak in order to avoid a catastrophic crash. No, what annoys me here is the culpably lazy, oh-why-not-what-harm-can-it-do willingness to mount the teleological treadmill that the language of ‘progress’ implies — that, coupled with the Conservative Party’s disconcerting willingness to speak of ‘progress’ while adopting stances that are anything but, by the standards of people who like that sort of thing, ‘progressive’.
Where’s the ‘progress’, for instance, in placing punitive taxes on the more demotic forms of alcoholic drink, rather than getting to grips with the closing-time criminality which is the real problem? Where’s the ‘progress’ in this — whether construed as a populist take on old-fashioned wage-and-price controls, or indeed a re-telling of this, minus the metric competence and marginally scary delivery? Where’s the ‘progress’ in the party leadership’s much-proclaimed ‘love’ for a socialist healthcare system, the malformed relic of a concept of social planning and provision in which virtually no one has really believed since perhaps some point in the mid 1950s, presumably ‘loveable’ for nothing other than the thoroughly blood-and-soil logic that, full of flaws and failings though it no doubt is, it is nonetheless our own?
Let us pass swiftly on from this. Bless this for appearing, at long last, better late than never — I’m looking forward to it, especially after reading a very positive review by the reliably sensible David Sexton in the London Evening Standard. (Strangely, the review isn’t available on line, hence no link.) And while we’re at it, blast — mildly — the fact that this isn’t due out for a whole year, because while I doubt that it can match the perfect pitch of shaggy-dog-story indirection present in Barcelona, it’s still bound to be worth reading.
Finally — and this is very much one to file away under ‘guilty pleasures that turn out to be less guilty than initially anticipated’ — bless Rory Stewart’s memoir of his winter walk through central Afghanistan, The Places In Between. Expecting to be mildly appalled, if perhaps entertained, by a well-connected yet resourcefully self-promoting Old Etonian’s reminiscences of what he did on his winter holidays — in case you’re wondering, I’d read this, wasn’t sure what I thought about it, so went off searching for context — I ended up absolutely captivated by the elegance, sanity and occasional eccentricity of this remarkable book, in which formal greetings, names and titles are set out with almost hypnotic regularity in more or less every chapter, while a curt but damning assessment of Western intervention in Afghanistan is consigned to a footnote at the bottom of page 272.
Loose ends are rarely tidied up here, complexities are left unsimplified. Perhaps this is why it rings true. In any event, so mesmerisingly persuasive is The Places In Between, indeed, that one ends up embracing as entirely correct even those features that at first felt a lot like editorial mistakes — the lack of detailed maps, for instance, or the absence of photographs, whether of crop-eared yellow-eyed mastiffs, the decrepit mass of a tumbledown caravanserai or the Minaret of Jam. The purpose of the walk itself is never really squarely addressed, let alone explained, but somehow this omission ends up lending the picaresque simplicity of the story a surprising degree of depth. Romanticism and realism turn out to be closely conjoined in this book. Some, I suppose, would shrug and say that this comes with the Orientalist territory. Alternatively, it might reflect some sort of wider truth regarding the nature of cross-cultural collision.
In any event, there’s a lot to learn here. Stewart’s treatment of Afghan religion — its thoroughly complicated history, resulting diversity and current all-pervasive significance — is particularly impressive, although probably unpalatable for those who like their accounts of Islam simple, nuance-free and negative. Above all else, though, The Places In Between is the sort of book that makes one wish to do something. My first response was to wish that I had an intelligent ten-year old godson to whom I could post a copy, suspecting as I did that this potent blend of adventure, clear-eyed observation and unabashed moral alertness is slightly wasted on the middle-aged, much-encumbered and all-too-often sedentary.
Later on, however, I suddenly developed an urge to walk somewhere. True, central London in early autumn lacks the magnificent strangeness, the obvious danger and daunting solitude, the physical and psychological challenges posed by Stewart’s journey through Afghanistan in midwinter — but our large grey metropolis not without its own small surprises, not without the possibility of glimpsing some flash of exoticism under the carapace of the familiar or tripping over the odd incidental insight. For most of the world, spring is the season of voyage, exploration and discovery. But for those of us who find ourselves now bound by the unanswerable logic of school term-time and holidays, it’s autumn that brings, along with that first chill in the air, a sort of rebirth, the encouraging freshness of yet another way of living.