Sunday, 30 June 2019

A Lustrum of Calendars



Towards the end of every year since 2010 I have produced a small number of copies of a simple, spiral-bound A4 calendar featuring my own artwork, for distribution as a Christmas / New Year gift for close friends, family, and my more esteemed co-workers. The numbers in those categories were never exactly large, and are inevitably declining these days, so the costs involved in this largesse have always been manageable. Nonetheless, the standard of art reproduction I choose is quite high (I use and recommend Vistaprint) so each calendar constitutes a nice little portfolio of some of the better work I have produced in the preceding year for its recipients to contemplate or ignore as they go about planning their daily lives. If nothing else, it's a nice way to be present in the domestic environment of some people I never get to see often enough.



It occurred to me that – calendars being essentially ephemeral objects – it might be worth putting together a book to record a few of them. The five-year run from 2014 to 2018 – the "lustrum" when I seemed to hit my calendrical stride most convincingly – seemed about right. It then also seemed like it would be an even more interesting idea to pair the calendar image for each month (on the right) with a photograph taken by me during that particular month of that actual year (on the left). A calendar picture is a curious kind of speculative gamble: you pick an image for, say, June in the coming year, without any idea at all of what those few weeks in the future will be like in the various lives and situations of those who (you hope) will be looking at and living with that picture for the duration of that month.

One copy, for example, always hangs in the toilet of a stained-glass workshop in the Dordogne (for purposes of better contemplation, alleges its recipient), while another is in a kitchen in the far north-east of Scotland, on the Beauly Firth just outside Inverness. By pairing the two pictures, perhaps the book could give some hint of how each month in each of those five consecutive years did turn out for me, even if only as captured in a single photograph. I thought it would also be curious to see how often there might or might not be a connection of some sort to be made between the two images, the one as prophesy and the other as actuality.




Unsurprisingly, this produced quite a big book of 134 pages, which in hard copy is inevitably also an expensive book. I've really only produced it for my own amusement, however, and don't seriously expect anyone else to buy a copy (do I say that every time I make a book? I might as well...). In fact, I've ended up making myself two versions. Initially, I used the "standard landscape" 10" x 8" format, but then Blurb launched another of their (worryingly frequent) "40% off" promotions, so I thought, "in for a penny...", and enlarged the whole thing into the grand, "large format landscape" version at 13" x 11". It will look good on the shelf... However, as usual, the Blurb PDF is ludicrously cheap, and I'd encourage you to take a look at the book preview below and, if you like it, to buy yourself a copy of that. Bear in mind that – again, as usual – I will actually make as much profit from those PDF sales as from any book sales.

If you do buy a PDF, it is especially important that you set your PDF viewer (typically Acrobat) so that you are seeing a two-page view with a separate cover page, ensuring that the correct pages face each other. In Acrobat the settings are:

Under the menu "View" / "Page Display" choose all of:
"Two Page View"
"Show Gaps Between Pages"
"Show Cover Page in Two Page View"

Here is the Blurb preview:
I can't believe it's the end of June already...

Friday, 28 June 2019

Vertigo

Shortly after coming back from Dorset last week I found myself going down with some debilitating virus, and ended up spending several days in bed. Since giving up work in 2014, losing a lot of weight, getting more daily exercise, and generally finding myself in a Good Place, I've become rather complacent about enjoying good health. I expect the annual over-60s' flu jabs [1] will have helped, too. So this bout of illness came as a bit of a surprise, and when I found it had "gone to my chest", as we say, I dragged myself off to see the doctor. Why? Because about a decade or so ago, I managed to catch pneumonia on a business trip to Munich, almost certainly just by sitting on a plane, breathing. I was walking around for weeks, feeling terrible, before deciding to get my GP to check me out. "My God," she said, listening to my chest, "You're really unwell... I mean, really unwell!" and put me on a massive course of antibiotics.

Doctors, I think, have to occupy a difficult area where science has to be carefully mediated for popular consumption, and not in a scripted, David Attenborough kind of way. Some are good at this, and some ... are not. My last serious medical adventure, as with so many older men, involved my prostate, and its determination to draw attention to itself by making me spend my latter life as essentially a perpetual quest for toilets or marginally acceptable toilet-substitutes (don't worry, I will try to stay this side of "too much information"). It amused me that my consultant, a learned surgeon at the, um, cutting edge of medical knowledge, would habitually refer to my "waterworks". I asked him at one stage, facetiously, whether "waterworks" was the technical term for "down there"? Fortunately, he saw the funny side, and we had an interesting conversation about the intersection in medical practice of communication, condescension, and infantilisation. I mean, I surely can't be the only one who wants to strangle any medic who refers to your "tummy" or "bottom", as if you were six? It's bad enough, at 65, becoming "Michael" to all and sundry, merely by virtue of having walked through the door of a medical institution.

But there's a broader problem here. Science  – in its broadest sense of "the systematic attempt to create and organize knowledge about the physical and natural world in the form of testable explanations and predictions, chiefly by means of observation and experiment" – is probably humanity's greatest achievement but is also one of our main problems. The trouble with "science" is that we have stumbled on a way of discovering knowledge about the nature of the universe, and our place in it, that is way beyond the capacity of most individuals to live with and absorb. We, as a species, were born and grew up in Plato's Cave, speculating about the shadows and reflections on the wall, and enjoying the profound and entertaining stories we made up about them. Then some incorrigible fidget found and opened a window, revealing that we were actually in a spaceship in an infinite void, with no up, down, sideways, or visible means of support. Aaaaargh!

In that instant, we outstripped our "natural" evolution. Evolution is a wonderful thing, but it takes time, lots and lots of time, to work its magic. I think most of us are still failing to adjust internally to some truly basic "knowledge", such as the fact that the sun does not go round the earth. Because, of course, to all practical, everyday purposes that is precisely what it does do, just as the world goes past your window as you sit idly contemplating it from your train compartment. I suppose it might seem different if you were perched precariously on the carriage roof. But have you ever stepped off a playground roundabout and felt the earth reeling? That's us, waiting for the centuries-long, science-induced dizzy spell to end. You can't just think it away.

This, I think, is why some people have such a problem with science, or perhaps more strictly scientism. The routine protestation that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Dawkins, is not so much a genuine debating posture as a defensive reflex to the vertigo induced by realising that, actually, the reverse is the case: that philosophy (i.e. science) has already revealed rather more about heaven and earth than most of us can handle. Entropy, heat death, the utter futility of everything sub specie aeternitatis... This stuff is pretty hard to come to terms with, especially if your worldview still trails clouds of glory from some imagined past or future realm of perfection and joy (see Wordsworth). Like kids on some glorious holiday, we don't want the world to end! We don't want to be engulfed by the death throes of our very own local star! Please stop going on about it!

It's rather like our various attitudes towards stage magic. Most of us get a childlike pleasure out of a convincing illusion, but are in no way persuaded that "magic" has been performed. It is simply entertaining to entertain the possibility of the impossible. It plugs in to some fundamental source of delight that, paradoxically, may even lie at the same root as the urge to discover real truths about the world. But, at the same time, to discover how the trick is done will not – again, for most of us – enhance that pleasure. The fun is in the fooling. However, there are two significant dissenting minorities.

First, there are those who have a latent wish that magic ought to exist, or even a conviction that it does exist, and this is something that an illusionist can play upon. Genially, usually, but at times cynically. I remember when Uri Geller first started his astounding spoon-bending act on TV shows back in the 1970s: there was a genuine sense abroad that here, at last, was evidence of paranormal powers. It was very much in tune with the spirit of the times: books about UFOs, crop circles, dowsing, divination, and the like had started to appear in ordinary High Street bookshops. I know, because I used to read them. Quite senior, rational people were prepared to let a little high-class irrationality into their lives, in the way they might also tolerate a joint being passed around at a dinner party. It was sophisticated to at least appear to be open-minded. But for others, rather less sophisticated, the cynical peddling of illusions as realities was a gateway into a maze of irrational beliefs and self-delusions that could never end well. In medical terms, we're talking about crystal healing, aromatherapy, and positive thinking as cures for cancer.

I do sometimes wonder about the prevalence of "magic" and "special powers" in the entertainment preferences of our younger generations. Entire genres of fiction, cinema, and gaming are based upon the assumption that mysterious powers exist, and that these can be channelled to awesome effect, whether by discipline (kung fu), by inheritance (Harry Potter), by mutation (the Marvel "universe"), or, in Star Wars, by the presence of midi-chlorians in the bloodstream (which has the added attraction of sounding almost rational). Are these just harmless metaphors for untapped human potential, or have advanced theoretical scientific notions such as "string theory" and "multiverses" met, mingled, and interbred – at some very fuzzy, permeable interface in the public mind – with equally implausible-sounding nonsense such as "chi" or homeopathy? In our fake-news, social-media world, where a few anti-vaccine idiots can put into reverse the fight against a disease like measles, telling the difference has never been more crucial, but is surely not made any easier by an exotic diet of movies in which human flight, telekinesis, and grotesque physical transformations are unremarkable "facts" of storytelling.

But there is a second minority to whom an illusion is not an entertainment, but a provocation, an implied question in urgent search of an answer. To such post-religious puritans, any vestige of hocus-pocus needs to be exposed to the antiseptic of sunlight. For them, to adapt the wonderfully OTT words attributed to Denis Diderot, men will never be free until the last stage magician is strangled with the entrails of the last homeopath [2]. Which is an act a lot of us would pay to see, it's true. But, in a world where a constant stream of knowledge generated by the few so rapidly outstrips the visceral understanding of the many, such intellectual savagery shows too little sympathy for the useful self-preserving fantasies of small, frightened people in a big, scary world. Especially when they get sick. Some of those old stories and remedies we came up with back in Plato's Cave still make a lot of sense, and the urge to lay bare the workings of the universe can have a heroically cruel senselessness about it. Such hyper-rational folk may make good scientists, but make very bad doctors.  Another Wordsworthian moment: "We murder to dissect".

But I'm feeling much better today, I do not have pneumonia, and it's a beautiful sunny day outside, and I need to get out for a walk. So here's a poem which I've shared before, but which seems very appropriate.
The Motion of the Earth

A day with sky so wide,

So stripped of cloud, so scrubbed, so vacuumed free
Of dust, that you can see
The earth-line as a curve, can watch the blue
Wrap over the edge, looping round and under,
Making you wonder
Whether the dark has anywhere left to hide.
But the world is slipping away; the polished sky
Gives nothing to grip on; clicked from the knuckle
The marble rolls along the gutter of time -
Earth, star and galaxy
Shifting their place in space.
Noon, sunset, clouds, the equably varying weather,
The diffused light, the illusion of blue,
Conceal each hour a different constellation.
All things are new
Over the sun, but we,
Our eyes on our shoes, go staring
At the asphalt, the gravel, the grass at the roadside, the door-
step, the doodles of snails, the crochet of mortar and lime,
Seeking the seeming familiar, though every stride
Takes us a thousand miles from where we were before.

Norman Nicholson
Southampton Sports Centre, June 2017

1. Curious, how the off-putting and pejorative popular term "jab" has come to be accepted terminology for an injection, even within the medical world. I'm fully expecting one day to hear, "the quack will see you now".

2. Usually, "men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest". I confess, if I were forced to get a tattoo, I'd be very tempted by that.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Sea Change



Some of you may have looked at the first photograph in the previous post ("Lyme Bay from Black Ven") and thought: what the hell is that thing lying among the rocks on the beach? Which is precisely what I thought when I saw it. Not least because there is a sad tradition of holidaymakers along the south and east coasts of the British Isles getting blown to pieces each summer by mines laid out to sea during two world wars that have subsequently drifted ashore, and lain buried in mud and sand for decades until some fool decided to give one a kick. It is also not unknown for drums of noxious gases and fluids to be lost or dumped at sea in the Channel, only to wash up on the beach. So, I approached it with caution, not least because of the obvious antiquity of its riveted construction.

At that point, we had only just started a morning's fossil hunt on the beach at Black Ven, a part of the coast we hadn't really explored before. As anyone who has collected on those beaches will know, the best place for the casual collector to look for fossils is not on the unstable cliffs or hazardous mudflows, but in the shallow rockpools at low tide, where specimens collect that have washed out of the soft, blue clays, in particular beautifully glossy ammonites preserved in iron pyrites or "fool's gold", and – if you're very lucky indeed – the blackened teeth, ribs, and vertebrae of Jurassic marine reptiles. But, as my eyes tuned in to a close scrutiny of the chaos of sand, gravel, rock and weed, I began to notice an abundance of bits of metal.



In fact, it seemed there was metal everywhere on that part of the beach. From large rusting plates, drums, and cylinders down to quite small components: mainly the sort of functional knobs and cleats that appear all over a ship. It seemed pretty obvious that some old shipwreck was washing up onto the beach, along with the ammonites and ichthyosaur bones. Having already gathered quite enough fossils over the years [1], my attention shifted to these remains of a different sort and antiquity. The eroded shapes and rusted colours were pleasing to the eye: it was easy to see how they might be incorporated into photo-collages, so I began looking for interesting bits of corroded metal instead.

The closer I looked, the more curious the nature of the deposit became. Things like ceramic spark plugs and heavy-duty door hinges and locks started to turn up, and even what looked like old bicycle components; cotter pins and Bowden-cable pulls and cogged gear-wheels. I was strongly reminded of my father in the late 1950s, naming the parts of a car engine or bicycle brake for me, as we visited a local breaker's yard in search of some elusive component or other. It was as if the rusting memory of an engineer had been spilled across the beach. It slowly became obvious that the source was not out to sea but higher up on the cliffs.




The cliffs at Lyme Regis and Charmouth are so productive as fossil sites because of the regular and occasionally catastrophic slumping that occurs when a hard layer of rock suddenly slides out over an underlying, waterlogged soft layer of clay. A few years ago we witnessed a relatively small cliff-fall – luckily from a safe distance – and it's an awe-inspiring sight. The famous landslip of 1839, resulting in the "Great Chasm" and the Undercliff between Lyme and Seaton, completely reconfigured miles of coastline, and there is a disturbing pattern of slips marching from Charmouth through Black Ven towards Lyme Regis. It turns out that a major slip in 2008 had exposed a local landfill site, dumping its contents – much of it dating back to Victorian times – across the beach, and blocking it for some years. What we are finding now is what the sea has taken away, played with for a bit, then returned in a slightly transfigured condition.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.
Ariel's song, from The Tempest
It's sad to think that, in the future, most of what will be offered as playthings to the tides will not be Victorian ironwork, but plastic, and more plastic.


1. I was fortunate enough to find a glossy black plesiosaur tooth on an earlier visit to Lyme this year.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

On The Beach


Lyme Bay from Black Ven

We're back from a long weekend with our "children" (there must be – or ought to be – a better word for mature, independent young people in their mid-twenties) down by the sea in Lyme Regis. It never ceases to amaze me that this is something they still want to do: I can think of few things that would have been less attractive or likely, around 1980, than spending more than a few consecutive hours in the company of my parents. Times, parenting, and, um, childrening have changed quite a lot since then.

The weather forecast was not looking good, but on Saturday we had a day of perfect early summer sunshine by the sea, while the rest of the country was suffering heavy rain, strong winds, and perpetual grey skies. So much so, that Lyme featured on the national news, as an anomalous bright spot in the broader meteorological pattern. We made the best of it, and had what can only be described as a Perfect Day (I'm glad I spent it with them).

To top things off, after returning from a fine evening meal out, we headed along the seafront promenade to catch the last forty minutes or so of Guitars on the Beach, a slightly bizarre local festival situated on the flat sands beside the Cobb which, during the day, encourages people to bring their guitars and play along with a succession of local cover bands. Later, it becomes an intimate beach festival with an audience of a few hundred – by then in an advanced state of blissed-out intoxication – flailing about and roaring along to a rich diet of crowd-pleasing anthems, "Summer of '69", "Sex On Fire", that sort of thing. It was great!

Which made me reconsider the joy of cover bands. Now, I've always enjoyed a good cover version. It often seems to be the case that an artist of equal stature can often uncover nuances in a song that its creator or original interpreter had overlooked. I hadn't known the Kings of Leon's "Sex On Fire" before Saturday (luckily I had my daughter's encyclopaedic knowledge of pop at my elbow) but was intrigued by its incendiary effect on a crowd, so started looking for it on YouTube, where I found this version by Sugarland, for example. Even better, no? In the end, I suppose, every first-rate performer is, in effect, doing fresh covers of their own material when performing live, the extreme case being Bob Dylan.  Otherwise they'd die of boredom. But I have to say I'd always lazily regarded self-declared covers-only bands as a second-rate thing.

But, if you want to have a really good time and you can't afford Bruce Springsteen – at a party, say, or a wedding, or kicking up the sand late at night on a beach – what you want is a really good covers band. Nothing lifts the spirits quite like a familiar, favourite song, professionally well-performed live, bringing out all the musical hooks that made it a hit in the first place. There's a time and a place to listen to some earnest young musicians setting out with their own original-but-derivative compositions, but a special occasion – one where you want multiple generations to cast off their inhibitions in a joyous, communal way, where Cliff Richard can rub shoulders with Bob Marley and The Jam  – is not it. Besides, most good musicians are surely performers at heart, not composers, and there is something magical about the symmetry of pleasure shared between performer and audience – we're all fans here! – when the originating spirit is successfully invoked in absentia.

As it happens, the son of one of my old college friends is one half of a successful, high-end covers operation, Truly Medley Deeply; you can see from their videos (they seem to have pioneered the use of drone cameras in a party setting) the sort of frenzy they can whip up. Music can be a deeply serious business – see my previous post about Angela Hewitt – but it can also be sheer fun, fun, fun. And what is more serious than fun?
On the beach
You can dance to a rock 'n' roll
On the beach
Hear the Bossa Nova, played with soul
On the beach
You can dance, twist and shout
On the beach
Everybody hear me, come on out
On the beach 
Come on, everybody, stomp your feet
On the beach 
You can dance with anyone you meet
'Cause your troubles are out of reach
On the beach 

Guitars on the Beach

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Impossible

On Tuesday night we went to see Angela Hewitt playing Bach's English Suites at the university's Turner Sims concert hall. That may mean little or nothing to you, but if you know your classical performers you'll realise what a privilege that was. I think she's been my favourite pianist since coming across her recording of Bach's Italian Suite  in Southampton Central Library (the 1985 performance that won her the Toronto International Bach Piano Competition and launched her career), back in the days when cassette tapes were the currency. There was something about the liveliness and aptness of her interpretation that was totally compelling. I copied the tape (ssshh) and played it over and over.

I could say some things about her performance on Tuesday, which was spellbinding – her complete concentration, her repertoire of facial expressions, her use of an iPad in place of sheet music (is that normal these days? How the hell do the pages get turned? Or maybe she was watching Killing Eve at the same time?) – but I'm incredibly ignorant, where music is concerned. To adapt the immortal words of Sir Thomas Beecham, I may not know much about music, but I love the noise it makes. So, given I'd been reminded of a couple of ancient posts I wrote a decade ago, I thought I might polish them up a bit and mash them together instead. Here we go:
"Playing a musical instrument is easy: all one has to do is press the right key at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
Johann Sebastian Bach
Yeah, right. The Monty Python team once worked up that little tongue-in-cheek quote into a sketch which parodied Blue Peter (a venerable British children's TV programme, featuring low-budget and improving DIY activities, often presented breezily and somewhat reductively):
"How to play the flute..."
(presenter picks up flute)
"Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here."
(presenter throws flute aside)
I don't think one immediately associates JSB with humour but, like that other joker, Beethoven, a profound sense of amusement is definitely at work in his music. What, you don't find Beethoven funny? Listen, for example, to Stephen Kovacevich's acclaimed interpretation of the Diabelli Variations, and try not to think of Chico Marx (The Fiorello Variations, maybe? "Hey, whatsa matter for you?")

The crux of the Python joke, of course, is that playing the flute may look easy, but that it is actually about as far from easy as it can get. But, at the same time – in essence, and without going into tedious detail – that is about all there is to it: "You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here." Sorted! There's also an undercurrent mocking the breezy "can do" spirit that imbues the upbringing of the British aspirational classes: "You can be anything you want to be, darling". Oh, really?

But, let's be clear. In fact, some things are not just hard: they are impossible. Playing the piano, for example. You may not have realised this, but a pianist is expected to play totally different, really complicated things with each hand. No, really! At the same time? That's impossible!

So where does Bach get off, mocking our inability to play, never mind compose, the Goldberg Variations? Both of which are clearly several degrees of impossibility beyond impossible. Yes, yes, very funny, Johann. You can do it, and we can't: how amusing. But this does raise an important question: if even beginning to approach the high creative and interpretive peaks of our culture is so laughably out of reach for most of us, does this affect, in a negative way, our attitude towards them? Are we being made to look like inferior beings to the extent that we will, understandably, come to resent the elitism of the whole enterprise? Or, is its out-of-reachness the whole point? As Robert Browning has his glove-puppet Andrea del Sarto say:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
Well, what indeed? I suppose there's a kind of "trickle down" theory of culture in there but then we know how little of the economic stuff actually trickles down as advertised.

So, looked at one way, the music of Bach is a perpetual rebuke to the majority of the population: you're ignorant, you don't care enough about the right things, you have never tried to excel at anything, you don't perceive the beauty I place before you, you can't even read music, you ignorant, sinful, complacent, bourgeois PIGS! [sound of harpsichord lid slamming down]. To which the people respond with a yawn, and answer: "Oh, get over yourself..."

But looked at in another way, this music is an act of humble dedication and a hymn to the presence of divinity even in in the lives of those exact same ignorant, sinful, complacent, etc. There's not a lot of anger to be heard in Bach's music, after all, but an awful lot of humanity. Most of us have lost touch with the particulars of Bach's Lutheranism, or have never held any religious beliefs at all: culturally, he now resides in that curious territory, somewhere between nostalgia and envy, identified by Philip Larkin in his poem "Church Going":
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
But we still reach for Bach when we feel that "hunger to be more serious", and, however elevated the music, there is no sense that Bach is looking down on us, or is solipsistically exploring his own soul. Quite the contrary. This music was made for us. Perhaps that old concept of "sin" – which is something I think we mainly feel we've grown out of as a society – was nevertheless a useful one, as it meant the likes of Bach could not let himself off the hook of his own inherent human sinfulness, simply on the grounds of immensely superior talent. Yes, he might be rather better at playing on a keyboard than the local innkeeper, but was thereby in far greater danger of a sin of pride.

In the absence of such a humbling device, it has become much harder on this Ship of Fools to get the more talented members of the crew to behave nicely, and you end up with all that intimidating, self-important modernist huffing and puffing. "Don't like what you hear? I'm not surprised – this is SERIOUS music for SERIOUS people, you peasant!" Hmm, yes, but serious music for which very few feel a hunger. Twelve tone? Serialism? Who gives a crooked crotchet? We like tunes and harmonies, and always will.

Which brings me back to Bach and Angela Hewitt. As I was sitting there, completely engaged by one woman's artistry in interpreting one man's genius, it struck me: this astounding music [1] was composed somewhere around 1715, which has to make you wonder whether we're even really trying any more, and have reduced culture to the level of that Monty Python sketch. You say you're an artist? Fair enough, somebody has to do it, might as well be you. "No more heroes, No more Shakespearos..." [2]

Now, I have always loved the sound of a piano. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never had access to a piano or lessons as a child. Who knows, perhaps by now I could have been Keith Jarrett, effortlessly spinning improvisational magic before rapt audiences, or at the very least that bloke down the pub who can vamp his way through "Roll Out The Barrel" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'". You hum it, son, I'll play it.

I did have trumpet lessons, briefly, at school. It didn't work out, as there was a monumental clash of assumptions. The peripatetic tutor who visited the school was a dry old stick, who had never heard of, never mind listened to, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. He liked scales, proper embouchure, and sight reading. We played tunes which were supposed to be helpfully familiar, but which, in turn, I had never heard in my life. "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes", for God's sake! I was an eleven-year old whose exposure to music was limited to the BBC Home Service on the radio and my father's taste in jazz. Plus my mother's cousin happened to be married to Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, a trumpeter with the Edmundo Ros orchestra, a popular Latin-American dance-band combo in the 1950s and 60s. To me the trumpet was a hot instrument, but trumpet lessons were dull, dull, dull. I gave it up.

My mistake, really. It is one of the misperceptions that a generation of self-taught popular musicians has brought about, that true music-making is a spontaneous, expressive thing, a million miles from the academy and those baffling black dots and squiggles on paper. I am a moderately competent self-taught guitarist, and capable of making a thoroughly pleasing and convincing noise on pretty much any instrument you put in my hands (it's easy: you blow there and move your fingers up and down here). But I am no musician.

As consumers of music, we tend to be obsessed with music's expressive power, and admire those musicians whose improvisatory skill and individuality of voice go beyond the bounds of "mere" musicality. But, at heart, all music is about learning complex patterns which you can repeat, again and again, reliably and accurately. The basic key to music-making is sticking to the plan.

A musician is someone who has thoroughly learned to play the patterns on their instrument, can understand and remember (or read) the precise patterns they are asked to play for a particular piece of music, and is able to stick to the plan. The plan may be very rigid (a Beethoven sonata) or it may be quite loose ("twelve bars in we shift to A flat, Miles solos until he lifts a hand, then McLaughlin does that crazy guitar thing he's been working on") but the plan is what makes music out of merely pleasant noises.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a decent musician is a form of human computer. You feed them a program in the form of musical notation, and out comes music. Same every time. It's a marvel. One of the people who used to work in my office used to be a music teacher and could sight read. Put sheet music in front of him and away he went, "Pom pom-pom POM pom-pom POM!" It made me laugh out loud with envy and admiration every time.

Some years ago I was offered a used electric piano at a bargain price – a proper 88-key job – and snapped it up, ostensibly to give our kids the chance to figure out whether or not it might be something they'd like to learn. But my secret plan was, finally, to learn to play the piano. I would be Keith Jarrett, or more probably that guy down the pub.

What I discovered was quite disturbing. It was then that I truly realised: playing the piano is impossible. The idea of using one hand to play one set of notes and the other hand to play quite another set of notes is ludicrous. It can't be done; I know, I've tried. It doesn't help being left-handed, I'm sure, but even so... The sheer improbability of being able to split yourself into two independent halves, each performing different, complex finger-wiggling moves at the same time... It's self-evidently impossible.

This discovery led to some dark thoughts. Had some world-historical fraud been perpetuated on us, and how? Multi-track recording? Mirrors? Invisible accomplices? Surgery? Hypnotism? It seemed unlikely. Besides, I had seen (or thought I'd seen) people playing a piano. It appeared that, effortlessly, these magicians really did do one complicated thing with one hand, whilst doing something equally complicated with the other. The image of Russ Conway's habitual evil smile and wink to camera, as he tinkled away on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, haunted and mocked me. The bastard didn't even have a full complement of fingers!

No, I had to come to the humbling conclusion that – unlike, say, becoming Prime Minister – playing the piano required years of dedication, effort, and, yes, that proverbial practice, practice, practice; ideally reinforced by some degree of talent, and proper lessons given at a young age by either a saint or a sadist (opinions seem to differ). And, yes, that sometimes a dog is too old to learn new tricks.

If one wanted to derive some "thought for the day" moral out of all this, I think it would have to be something like: that the world shrinks catastrophically, from a cultural point of view, when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that such a lowest common denominator society would be one without the possibility of Bach or, indeed, Angela Hewitt. "Don't bother with that piano-playing thing, mate, I've tried it and it's impossible!" Perhaps that's where we already are, and why the gulf between a  rebarbative "high" culture and an analgesic entertainment industry is so vast. There may also be a useful lesson here, about not quickly passing negative judgements on the artistic productions of others, who may (whisper it) be more talented, more committed, more advanced in achievement than we are. A little humility goes a long way when confronted with the impossible.

And notice how strenuously I have avoided making my favourite dud joke, some variation on the old Ariel soap powder slogan ("Impossible? No, biological!"), despite the overwhelming temptation. Musicological? Oops.
"Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult."
Edward Steichen
 1. Hewitt's interpretation, which was thrilling, is not on the Web, but try these two versions of the gigue from English Suite no. 2: a nice but routine run-through from AndrĂ¡s Schiff, and a totally bonkers version from Glenn Gould. Amazing stuff.
2. The Stranglers, of course: "No More Heroes".


Monday, 10 June 2019

Prestidigitation

Frustratingly, I got two pictures shortlisted for this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but neither made it onto the wall. Philistines! It's doubly frustrating, as the final stage involves leaving your actual framed artwork in London, which then needs to be taken away when final decisions have been made. Not so bad for me – my work is portable, and the journey is only 1.5 hours each way – but the guy behind me in the queue had come all the way from Derby by train to collect an oil painting about the size of a dinner table.

To get back on the front foot, I decided to put together a portfolio book, partly to remind myself why I think any of this effort is worthwhile, but also as something I could use as a calling card. Call me a deluded idiot – join the queue – but I find I have the urge, at 65, and despite everything I have said and done heretofore about maintaining a low-profile, low-stress lifestyle, to put my work out there. Once, of course, I have figured out where "there" might be. Any World (That I'm Welcome To) and all that. It struck me that speculatively putting an attractive prospectus in the post would be a sight less expensive in both time and money than riding the rails or driving the highways with an actual portfolio of work.

I ended up producing a Blurb magazine which is, in effect, a sampler of my digital work since 2014. My intention was to make something that would both impress and intrigue the viewer – ideally some upscale gallerist with taste – to such an overwhelming degree that they would beg me to allow them to represent my work. Or, at any rate, give it some further consideration. I have called it Prestidigitation, and as a reader of this blog you may follow this link to give it a thorough preview and, should you feel so inclined buy a paper or PDF copy at cost price. I'd be very interested to hear your comments, positive or negative. Unless you're a member of the RA selection panel, in which case you can keep your ridiculous opinions to yourself.