A city set on a hill

Berlin bookended my formative years.  I first visited at the age of seven, though I have little memory of the long, hot trek through the flatlands of East Germany in my parents’ camper van.

800px-Berlin_schoeneberg_belziger_26.10.2012_11-53-22_ShiftNI returned seven years later, in 1982, with one year of schoolboy German and a deep fascination for the city and what it represented. I had read about the Berlin Airlift and the building of the Wall. I had stared at photos of Checkpoint Charlie. I had sat in the school library listening to a faded recording of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech from 19 years earlier; I stayed with a family friend just yards from the Rathaus Schöneberg where that speech was given, within earshot of the Freedom Bell as it rang every day at noon.

Berlin then seemed a self-conscious place, under scrutiny from West and East alike, almost brazen in showcasing western freedom in the heart of the grey, barren German Democratic Republic. A western S-Bahn line, forced by the arbitrary geography of the Wall to run through one East Berlin station, offered me a glimpse of the sinister bleakness of life on the other side – all weeds, discoloured concrete and heavily-built Grepos -before restoring me to the carefree relaxation of the free world. Continue reading

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“…that thing indoors each one dwells”

You had to be there, they said. And I was.

Last Sunday night I was at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to forty women–poets and performers–reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. It is not an experience I will forget in a hurry: intense, searing, overwhelming, cathartic, at times scandalously intimate, it offered a view of Ariel and its author that went far beyond any one reading or analysis.

Introducing the performance, Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes pointed out that in the years since her death, Plath has been analysed, dissected, re-interpreted, fictionalised, re-invented in any number of ways. (I paraphrase. I didn’t take notes.) This, said Hughes–this reading of the restored edition of Ariel (as distinct from the 1965 edition edited by Ted Hughes)–is the closest we can come to what Plath herself wanted to say.

It is not necessarily what we might expect to hear. The restored edition is a very different collection to the one I know. How interesting that in this ordering, despite the darkness and despair of the poems, the sequence opens with birth, with “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (‘Morning Song’), and ends with a faint message of hope: “What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” (‘Wintering’).

Listening on Sunday to these forty voices of Plath, though, I found myself wondering just what it is about poetry that speaks to us so powerfully and personally. At the risk of suggesting I know the answer, I’d like to put forward three ideas: introspection, ambiguity and individuality.

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Never assume you know why…

Last Sunday night my daughters were singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. Quite right too. Nothing unusual or alarming in that.

Except that the concert blew my mind.

Fair enough. The Fauré Requiem is a moving piece. But the piece still echoing in my head at 48 hours’ remove is the piece that opened the programme: Bach’s Partita no. 2 for solo violin, superbly executed by Adrian Adlam, its movements interspersed with a series of chorales performed from the back of the auditorium by a semi-chorus. The final movement, the chaconne, saw four of the semi-chorus weaving the chorales into the violin part, to extraordinary effect.

This interpretation of the Bach is based on the work of musical cryptologist Professor Helga Thoene. There is a recording available by the Hilliard Ensemble, and a review which discusses Prof. Thoene’s theories, not all of which are entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, the interpretation turns the Partita, which Bach wrote shortly after his first wife’s death, from a sublime piece of absolute music into a moving reflection on loss, grief and hope.

The programme note was quite clear: there’s no evidence that Bach intended it to be performed this way, but it offers an intriguing insight into how he might have heard it in its own mind.

I will certainly never hear the piece in the same way again.

Here’s the thing, though. Continue reading

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Lives less ordinary

When God Was a RabbitWhen God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you read a book that passes straight into your bloodstream, and you are hardly aware of how it happened.

When God was a Rabbit describes itself as the story of a brother and sister, “about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between…about love in all its forms”. That is a perfectly fair description as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say is anything of the quiet and kindly magic with which Sarah Winman defines her characters.

Elly, her brother Joe and her childhood friend Jenny Penny are all outsiders – not the angry and embittered kind, though, but the kind who know they are in some small way different, unique, set apart.
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The next ten words

Some time ago I posted an article called Precision Tools. It covered quite a complex sequence of ideas that had been taking shape in my thought for a few months. And yes, it’s longer than the average blog post, at just under 2,500 words.

One reader commented that he thought there was material in there for two or three posts. Perhaps it should be broken up into parts, he suggested, to allow each idea to be discussed properly. 

We seem to have accepted that blog posts shouldn’t go much beyond 800 words, and that that they shouldn’t cover more than one main idea. Why? Do we not risk losing our ability to construct (or, as readers, to follow) a complex argument? Is this perhaps a symptom of a society that fails to nurture polymathy?

My correspondent told me that on another site, one devoted to SME business people, he’d been told that his posts were too complex. He’d been advised to run them through some special software to determine the reading age at which they were targeted, and to reduce that age to 15/16.

As a litmus test of how society is operating, I find that rather scary. Continue reading

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Another excellent reason to live to one hundred

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gloriously absurd and implausible, with a charmingly diffident hero who manages to bumble through the twentieth century, from one major world event to the next, leaving political turmoil and outbreaks of peace in his wake. Now he has climbed out of the window of his residential home to avoid his own hundredth birthday party, and bumbles instead into an adventure involving a suitcase, an international criminal gang, a redhead, a yellow bus, an elephant and an increasingly frantic state prosecutor.

It has the same delightful, dry, straight-faced narrative voice – lightly seasoned with irony but with not a shred of sarcasm – of the best children’s literature (A.A. Milne comes to mind). Everyone, or at least everyone who matters, is going to live happily ever after, says the narrator’s tone (a phrase which will never quite mean the same to me again!), but we’re all going to have some thumping good adventures along the way. And so we do.

To be read when you’re in need of a laugh or when you need to believe in a truth that is as strange as fiction. Or indeed at any other time. Superb.

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Expanding our vocabulary

First please listen to this. It’s an extract from Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, from his Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Listen in particular, if you will, to the section from about 2:07 to 3:07.

Not a happy man, Gesualdo. He had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his later life in increasing isolation and, it would appear, psychological turbulence. Even without knowing the details of his personal life, though–and they aren’t for the faint-hearted–you cannot listen to this piece without realising that this is a composer with something out of the ordinary to say.

And he has created a new vocabulary with which to say it.

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“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” – from the Harvard Business Review

An interesting take on the value of good grammar from Kyle Wiens in the Harvard Business Review.

“…Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts…”

Read the whole article at I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. – Kyle Wiens – Harvard Business Review.

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Clean forgotten

One of the many good memories I will carry with me into 2013 was hearing the author Salley Vickers speak in Winchester last November. Her debut novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel–which I talked about in my last post–remains a close and trusted friend, one of those few books I can always turn to when I need to walk a little taller or to remind myself who I am.

Not that it is a book about heroism or achievement or courage in adversity. It’s a book about the power of quietness–the quietness of Julia Garnet herself, and the quietness of the forces that start to work on her when she arrives in Venice. The power is shown the more clearly when Miss Garnet’s friend Vera Kessel visits from London, untouched by the few weeks’ transformation that Miss Garnet has experienced, and full of the cynicism of the lifelong communist and the certainties of ignorance.

20130111-145421.jpgQuietness and inner transformation are common themes throughout Salley Vickers’ novels. Her latest book, The Cleaner of Chartres, however, introduces a new element: the value of forgetting.

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The shock of the familiar

20121126-080828.jpgIt is always a revelation to come back to a piece of music one has known well after a period of absence. But seldom is that revelation so startling, so exhilarating, so cathartic as it was for me when first I heard Ian Bostridge’s recording of Britten’s three great orchestral song cycles, Les Illuminations Op. 18, Serenade Op. 31 and Nocturne Op. 60.

These three pieces were once intimate friends of mine. Twenty-six years ago I wrote my A-level extended essay on the Serenade and Nocturne. (My teachers, I suspect, thought me barking mad–why write an extended analytical essay for A-level when one could submit a Grade VIII practical result? To each his own. I never regretted it.)

I know all three works from the 1964 Britten/Pears recording; I’d originally learned the Serenade from a 1970s recording on LP by Ian Partridge and Nicholas Busch, paired with the Violin Concerto (another old and new friend of mine). My Britten/Pears CD disappeared some years ago and I’d somehow never replaced it.

I do remember a phrase from the sleeve note of the Partridge LP, though. It said something to the effect that “Britten can always make us hear a tonic triad or a C major scale as if we have never heard it before.” As a general observation that has always rung true. It is even more profoundly true, however, of Bostridge and Rattle’s interpretation of these three pieces. This is no re-interpretation; it is not a response to earlier recordings, whether by Britten or others; it is a joyous discovery of a great new unknown treasure.

All this has made me think about discovery and re-discovery in a new way. Continue reading

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