Blasting & Blessing: a back to school edition

small maddit

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.



Filed under blasting & blessing, books, music, politics, Tory things

9 responses to “Blasting & Blessing: a back to school edition

  1. JL

    Have you ever read Sir Isaiah Berlin’s love letter, “The ‘Naïveté’ of Verdi”? If not, you really, really should (a .pdf is here.) I want to give all sorts of quotes, but I don’t want to ruin it.

    We’re now enjoying a stretch of what’s been some of the only sustained beautiful weather of the season here, so it’s hard to admit that it’s fading away. I’m going to persist in denial through at least this weekend, I think.

  2. The answer to your question, JL, is ‘no’ — but clearly I need to fix this, perhaps next time I’m at the London Library. (I need to go there anyway to read Franklin’s review in The New Criterion … very exciting!) Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

  3. JL

    I’m looking forward to seeing Franklin’s review as well–I don’t know if this weekend will be too soon to find it on the newstand, but I’ll have to try and see. The entire Berlin essay is at the link above (it’s not very long, just a few pages.) Reading it over now, for the first time in years, I find it as moving as ever, even if there are certain passages I see differently now and about which I’m not entirely sure. But then there’s things like this (can’t resist):

    “No matter how sophisticated his scores, there is no trace, right to the end, of self-consciousness, neurosis, decadence. For that, in Italian music, we must wait for Boito, Puccini and their followers. He was the last master to paint with positive, clear, primary colours, to give direct expression to the eternal, major human emotions: love and hate, jealousy and fear, indignation and passion; grief, fury, mockery, cruelty, irony, fanaticism, faith, the passions that all men know. After him, this is much more rare. From Debussy onwards, whether music is impressionist or expressionist, neo-classical or neo-romantic, diatonic or chromatic, dodecaphonic, aleatoric or concrete, or a syncretism of these, innocence is g0ne.”

    Great stuff.

  4. Great stuff indeed.

    I’ve now read the Verdi essay twice (sleepily last night, with extra added caffeine this morning), but should probably read it again, having been distracted first time round by the necessity of admiring Berlin’s language (‘the appalling elephantiasis of late German romanticism’ — no wonder you found it hard to avoid quoting!), the density and specificity of his writing — and then distracted a second time by trying to measure the extent to which I agree with his judgements, a question on which the jury’s still, for the moment, out.

    In any event, though, JL, thank you once again for pointing this essay out to me, and indeed finding me an online copy — although there’s also something to be said for lurking in a dark disregarded corner of the London Library, dodging unwanted conversations, enjoyably overwhelmed by that inimitable smell of old books, immersed not only in the prose and urgent questions of Berlin’s generation, but in that generation’s typography, paper-quality and something of its deeper rhythms, too — for all of which .pdfs do not invariably constitute an entirely perfect substitute, convenient though they are in so very many other ways.

  5. I’m glad for the interest, and looking forward to hearing what such erudite people think of my little review. Thanks.

  6. Franklin, whatever the actual review’s like — and the progress of US journals towards the UK is nothing if not stately, so it may be quite a while before I have the chance to read it — you’re already part of that small group of critics who have lived to see your name up in lights, or in any event that elegant font The New Criterion uses, beside Karen Wilkin’s name. That’s got to be a pretty exciting feeling, surely?

    P.S. I very much like your site redesign, although that epic discussion of American politics scares me slightly ….

  7. I’m downright gleeful about it all.

    Apparently I have to have an epic politics discussion at periodically to remind me to avoid them.

  8. JL

    I’m downright gleeful about it all.

    Seeing something in their font is a thrill. On another design note, I like your site’s new look as well.

    Returning to Berlin and Verdi, I certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone from visiting the London Library (especially if you promise to write about it.) I was just excited to find the essay online, remembering it as fondly as I did, and also recalling searching for it on the web a few years ago in vain. Reading it these days, I can see a couple of points that I don’t quite buy into that probably escaped my notice 15 years or so ago when I first read it. The paragraph in which Berlin speculates that Verdi’s universal power stems from his peasant background, for instance, or the analogy between the Russian attitude toward Verdi and that of German Romantics to the French philosophes. One sees what he’s getting at, but really, Voltaire as the naive?–Not all that convincing, when you think about it. But neither of these, nor some other quibbles, amounts to saying much more than the essay reflects a certain mindset and time. What remains delightful about it (along with all the great quotes: “Verdi never seeks to close
    a breach, to compensate for the imperfections of human life, or heal his own wounds or overcome his society’s inner cracks, its alienation from a common culture or from the ancient faith, by using magical means, by conjuring up an infernal, or a celestial vision as a means of escape or revenge or salvation” and so) lies in Berlin’s irresistible delight in Verdi and his music. It’s that transparent joy that makes the fastidiousness of his final sentence so amusingly apt, like he was just getting control over himself again after succumbing to the rapture of the music.

  9. JL, I’ve been puzzling over my responses to the Berlin piece, hoping that the passage of time would render them, if not more profound, at least more tidy. No such luck, alas. Here, though, is a representative selection, probably requiring more friendly indulgence than anything else:

    – A few of the critical judgements in the essay — selecting teams for the naïve vs. sentimentalisch fixture, as it were — are surely just that little bit arbitrary? For instance, it came as a surprise, to put it no more strongly, to see Shakespeare represented as being somehow less self-conscious than Virgil — if so, what are all those plays-within-a-play about, all the material about court politics, the central role in so many places for language itself? — although, who knows, perhaps Schiller is more at fault here than Berlin, and in any event Berlin takes the characteristic precaution of arming himself with let-out clauses at various points, which — given the headlong pace of that stunning, unanswerable prose, we probably ought to have the grace to let him deploy whenever appropriate.

    – It’s also tempting, though, to dismiss as arbitrary the claim that for the ‘sentimental’ creators, unlike the naïve ones, it’s necessary to understand the background of their work in order to understand and, by implication, appreciate it fully. The difference here is, surely, one of degree rather than kind? By way of example, Rubens is, early on, held up as an example of naïve achievement — but while it’s possible to admire his work in all sorts of immediate, visceral and unschooled ways, can it really be ‘understood fully’ [Berlin’s phrase] without reference to, among about two dozen points you and I could both reel off with a minimum of effort or engagement, classical sculpture, contemporary European international relations and the rapidly-evolving rules of post-Tridentine religious iconography? And by the same token, having absolutely loved Boris Gudunov as a small child (admittedly, in the 1954 film version) I know that it was possible to load onto the music, as well as the narrative, such a heavy freight of juvenile revenge-fantasy as to leave no room whatsoever for the knowledge of ‘relevant social movements’, of which I was, aged 10 or so, immaculate in my innocence — whereas ‘primary human passions’, as Berlins puts it, were all too familiar.

    Personally, I take it that ‘great art’ [whatever that means] works at some level if one brings virtually nothing to it, but works better the more one knows about it. To think otherwise is to risk using some aesthetic of ‘directness’ as an excuse for the sort of proud self-advertising stupidity with which Berlin, all too clearly, would have had no patience whatsover.

    – Here’s an easy one. I’m less confident than Berlin that naïve genius is no longer possible, whether in visual art, literature or music. There still are things that happen, out there in the world, that are not entirely blighted by nostalgia, irony or distancing self-awareness. It may, however, require the passage of quite a lot of time before this can been discerned by a critical confraternity increasingly incapable of imagining, let alone appreciating any expression of creative activity uninformed by the qualities listed above.

    – My final quibble is the one I’m finding it most difficult to articulate properly. Berlin was, at least on the evidence of his letters, a self-doubting egotist, permanently measuring himself up against the great minds of the past and the present, then comparing himself unfavourably with both, largely in the hope that someone might prove him wrong. In reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Berlin wasn’t trying, in some indirect way, to position his own writing, his own achievement. He wasn’t, obviously enough, naïve — but he’s quick to set himself up in opposition to Verdi’s enemies. In part, clearly, this is because he adores Verdi’s music — but he can’t have been unconscious that his taste said something about him, and so I wondered what, exactly, he meant by setting out what, in fact, it may have said. It’s almost as if he’s calling on those very qualities that he most admires in Verdi to rescue him from a recurrent personal nightmare of self-consciousness, detachment and disconnection, but can’t, or maybe doesn’t really want to extricate himself from the logic of his own argument ….

    Oh dear, I am not putting this very well, am I?

    Admittedly, if I knew more about Verdi, and hence was better able to spot the gaps and evasions in Berlin’s claims about him, I’d be better able to figure it all out. As it is, however, I’m as glad that you pointed out to me Berlin’s essay as I am glad that my Netrebko-admiring pal loaned me La Traviata. If there remains an enormous amount in this world with which I am not qualified to deal, to paraphrase Berlin — and, trust me, this is indeed the case — then at least the default is in no way chargeable to the enterprise and persistence of my considerably more learned friends!