Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Stately Garotte

The Ravilious (and the Samuel Palmer)
on our staircase

I was in London on Saturday to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where I met up with my partner (who'd stayed in London overnight, having seen Richard II at the Globe Theatre), and our son and his SO, on their way to a comedy event somewhere else in south London that evening, which she was to review for a blog she edits.  It's a fine exhibition: if you're an admirer of Ravilious' work, which I have been for many years, it's a real treat to see so many of the original watercolours and lithographs, and get a close look at that distinctive cross-hatched, dry-brush style, and his characteristic line, teetering on the brink of faux-naive mannerism, but never quite toppling over into cartoonishness (though I really don't enjoy his aeroplane propellers).  They're a lot bigger than I had supposed, too; I had somehow imagined him as something of a miniaturist, probably the result of seeing so much of his work in reproduction in books.

Now, although I do make the odd cultural excursion to an exhibition or the theatre  -- maybe half a dozen times in a typical year -- I've never quite got into the habit.  Until I was well over thirty, I associated visits to museums, galleries and theatres with school trips -- a lively coach to central London, full of over-excited schoolkids comparing packed lunches and pulling faces at passing motorists.  It just wasn't something you did at home, as part of normal domestic life.  As a student I would sometimes haunt the Ashmolean museum, but that was because it was nearby and I found the atmosphere congenial, especially after staying up all night in pursuit of the lost chord, truth and beauty, terror and magnificence, or whatever it was we thought we were up to.  I remember it actually felt quite transgressive, enjoyably strange, to be visiting a museum alone and for no reason at all (and with no packed lunch).  There was nothing "normal" about it.

Why do I mention this?  Because on the rail trip back to Southampton we found ourselves in a carriage from Hell.  No, not drunken Saints supporters, or even the thirty voluble Italian girls from some language summer-school I had to endure on the way up, but three ultra-posh private-school teachers, a couple and a single man, who happened to notice each other as they settled into the seats across the aisle from ours, and chatted long and loud over the headrests all the way from Waterloo to (inevitably) Winchester.

As it became evident they were never going to shut up, it became really annoying.  The main problem was the single man, who clearly loved the sound of his own voice, which had that sing-song, eeyore-ish Yorkshire accent used by the likes of Alan Bennett or Russell Harty, and which was very loud.  Neither of the couple -- both possessed of that icy clarity of diction that normally expects to command attention -- could start a sentence without him completing it for them, and going off on another tangential monologue.  I began to wonder how many other passengers were thinking how gratifying it would be to garotte him -- very slowly -- with an earphone cable dropped between the seat headrests.

The common ground between them, it quickly emerged, was choral music.  They had clearly once been in the same choir, quite probably at Cambridge, and had multiple links, professional and familial, within that curious world where, it seems, everyone is known to everyone else.   Over the course of a journey of more than an hour they did not exhaust their gossip about mutual acquaintances, each others' children, ex-pupils and their musical and academic achievements (suspiciously linked, involving choral scholarships at Cambridge), not to mention cathedrals, musical administrators and choir conductors ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, yes, yes...  Although..."), and private schools and teaching colleagues ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, quite, quite... Although...").  It was infuriating, but also enlightening.  It is curious to learn how such high-grade networks of connection, influence, and patronage can hide in plain sight from the rest of us.

Lead water-butt outside Dulwich Picture Gallery

Of course, we're all guilty of gossip on the train.  Somehow, the ambient white noise of the train combines with the semi-privacy of the seating arrangements to give the illusion that you cannot be overheard.  But you can.  I learned my lesson many years ago, travelling up to London for some trades union event with a colleague who was an ex-Wren (women's branch of the Royal Navy).  We fell to gossiping, and she revealed that her brother, still in the Navy, was in effect a real-life James Bond, based at a highly-secret establishment, H.M.S. [redacted] in [redacted].  I was suitably impressed -- she was a very level-headed person, and not given to fantasy -- and encouraged her to share as much detail as she could.  Which she did.  A few weeks later, she was both amused and mortified to receive a communication concerning her recent indiscreet disclosures, and reminding her of the consequences of loose talk.  It didn't actually say "remember, we know where you live", but the threat was clear, and delivered, ah, with the icy clarity that expects to command attention.

However, to get back to the train.  It was clear that these three were not your run-of-the-mill consumers of culture: these were prime specimens of that unseen stratum of society that makes culture happen.  Choirs and orchestras don't form spontaneously, and top performers don't emerge fully formed out of nowhere.  Just as Premier League football depends on large numbers of dedicated but invisible support staff, and a long tail of less prestigious leagues and school and amateur teams, so the less commercial musical and artistic life of the country depends on the efforts of people like these.  But, listening to them talk -- oblivious to their seething captive audience -- it's clearly not just a case of selfless, unpaid dedication to the promotion of Bach, Britten, and Eric Whitacre, with the prospect of an MBE at the end.  It is yet another of the many ways the upper-middle classes can exercise their "soft power", carefully positioning their children, their own careers and those of their favoured friends by cultivating connections and networks, maximising the payoff from an investment in piano lessons, choir practice, and school fees.  It suddenly occurred to me that, when you step back and look at it, the entire edifice of classical music -- with its unchallengable position within the wider culture, and profound links to the traditional seats of power -- might be viewed as resting on a conspiratorial network of exclusive unpaid internships and patronage.

I'm sure there are people within that network who genuinely regret the lack of wider "access" to proper music education, which is pretty much non-existent in state schools.  But classical music is, effectively, becoming a closed shop for the privately-educated, as the price of entry, in terms of commitment, effort and expense, is set so high, relative to any likely material rewards; "cultural capital" pays no bills.  It is also surrounded by an offputting, semi-ecclesiastical force-field of solemnity and decorousness, optimally designed to keep the uninitiated out.  I mean, who knew that eating your crisps during the slow movement was frowned upon?  Where does it say that in the programme?

At primary school, my daughter was offered cello lessons -- take it or leave it, a spare cello was all they had left in the cupboard -- on a once-a-week basis from an uninspiring peripatetic teacher.  After a few weeks she chose to leave it.  I didn't blame her: there was no school orchestra to join, after all, and at seven she had no real idea of what a cello was, or where it fitted into the musical scene.  Having had no background of joyless piano lessons myself, I couldn't see the point of forcing her to endure the pain of learning such a recalcitrant, niche (and expensive!) instrument.  I did play her a couple of Bach's cello suites on CD, but they somehow didn't hit the same spot as whatever was hot in the charts that year (Bob the Builder, possibly).  So I allowed a door to shut which a "tiger parent", I suppose, might have forced open.  But thankfully my kids seem to have done alright, without me clearing a path for them and insisting that they follow it...  As if I knew how.

Hey, fancy guitar!

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

The sub-editor within me feels obliged to say that Russell Harty was born in Blackburn, Lancashire. Apart from that, everything you say is true.