Monday, 22 March 2010

A Lump of Sugar in Hot Tea

On my morning drive into work I've taken to listening to Radio 3 (the BBC's notoriously highbrow classical station), largely because it more usually complements my driving mood than the combative self-satisfaction of Humphrys and Naughtie on Radio 4's Today Programme* or the relentlessly upbeat Radio 2. It also helps fill the enormous gaps in my musical education.

Today, as I negotiated a particularly tricky roundabout, I found myself half-listening to a half-familiar string quartet which gradually hijacked my undivided attention, as only the very greatest music by the very greatest composers can. A classic car park moment was unfolding.

As the music developed I found myself thinking about the way the past relentlessly melts and shape-shifts into the present on its way to the future, and some words of John Ruskin came into my mind that I had read in a Guardian review at the weekend -- "The rate at which Venice is going is about that of a lump of sugar in hot tea"**.

I found myself reflecting that the impulse behind conservation is only a noble one if it stays within bounds. To preserve everything is as idiotic as to preserve nothing is reckless. I saw elaborate snow crystals, melting. I saw Cnut on the Solent shore, wrecking his boots and the varnish on a portable throne with salt water, just to make a point which no-one ever quite understands. I resolved to sell all my possessions, and live a life of uncluttered simplicity.

I had been listening to the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, generally reckoned one of the great achievements of the human spirit. Beethoven wrote a heading for this movement: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode***).

I don't know what the Supreme Being made of it, but I was transfixed; once more, I was slightly late for the office, but wearing a mysterious A Minor smile.

* I actually finally sent an email of complaint to the BBC which, in essence, said I was fed up with Humphrys and Naughtie treating their guests and interviewees as mere stooges on the John and Jim show. They seem to feel free to complete or cut across any guest speaker's thought if they think they can anticipate where it is going. They haven't yet actually said, "Yadda yadda yadda, Secretary of State, BOR-ING!" but it can't be long.

** Venice -- somewhere I have never visited -- is such an obvious metaphor for the magnificent vanity of human endeavours and their slow (and sometimes not so slow) reclamation by the agents of time that it's easy to forget it's a real place. A friend, the photographer David Gepp, made a wonderfully other-worldly series of images of that city ("Venezia Stenopaeica") using a pinhole camera, the making of which was featured in a BBC documentary, An Italian Dream. I understand the problem with Venice is the crowds. David simply made them vanish with his very, very long exposures: it's a neat trick.

*** I quote from an article by Masumi Per Rostad: "It is interesting—and unusual—that he employs use of the Lydian mode because of its nod to ancient church music. The mode itself is basically a major scale with a raised fourth. With a strange and somewhat futuristic sound, it has been used popularly as the mode for The Simpsons’ and The Jetsons’ cartoon theme songs."


sarangkot said...

When I collect my daughter from pre-school on Wednesday's I can only ever listen to the middle 15 minutes of a Radio 4 comedy. I don't what it's called, or what really happens, but always enjoy it hugely. In car radio is often serendipitous!

Mike C. said...

The great thing about Radio 3 is that they really want you to know what they've been playing, so they put up detailed playlists on the website. If all else fails,there's always "listen again"!


Kent Wiley said...

It's been some years since I had to abandon listening to the BBC World Newsreport or whatever it's called. It seemed to me the hosts were more interested in starting an argument with guests than listening to what they have to say. Any response to your missive to BBC?

Mike C. said...


I quote:

"John and James frequently press hard, their judgement of when it's appropriate to do so is normally very sure. They can be quicker to interrupt interviewees than some of their colleagues, but their intention is always to ensure that their contributions are kept as relevant and useful as possible.

Many interviewees and politicians in particular, are very adept at evading questions and following their own agenda when replying. It is part of a professional interviewer's role to ensure that they are reminded, when appropriate, of the original question or pressed on points that are of particular public interest.

I appreciate you sharing your concerns and I'd like to say I've registered your complaint audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that's circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.

All feedback we receive, whether positive or negative, is always appreciated.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact the BBC with your concerns."

Which can be interpreted as: "What is that funny little squeaking noise?"