Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I have gravely offended a friend. That is, of course, if I am permitted still to use the term “friend” in relation to him. I was “rude”, it seems. He has told me this often enough for me to accept that this must be his settled conviction. I don’t think I’ve been rude at all. Like all things, this particular fracas has to be seen in context. I will try to give a flavour of the context and then you may be the judge. The exchanges in question have all taken the form of email.

My (hitherto) friend is in the way of being a bit of a writer. Recently he wrote a piece on spec for the newspapers and he sent a copy to me. Candidly, I thought the piece was pretty awful and wholly misconceived but I didn’t tell him that. Having said how I was out of knowledge and sympathy with the subject of the piece – in other words, to give him to understand that I wasn’t really qualified to judge – I then concluded with a short paragraph beginning “If I may say so – and I know you bristle at criticism – I think that …” and then made a mild and entirely constructive suggestion as to how he could improve the piece. I ended with: “Still, you ’av a go, sir, you do ’av a go”.

I have no way of knowing if he took tut at this (as I thought) entirely light and friendly approach to giving him the benefit of my opinion based on thirty years of being a freelance journalist. Whether he incorporated my suggestion or managed to place the piece or was at all grateful for the help I offered he never vouchsafed.

Now this is a man about whom I have written before on this blog. At that time, I hadn’t heard from him in a long while. This was, it seemed to me, not entirely unconnected with the fact that I had lent him a tidy sum of money and the agreed date for its interest-free repayment was some time passed. He had moved house (several times, it seemed), he had changed his phone number and email address and people who knew him could not direct me to him. So I wrote about him and I named him.

Eventually the sum was repaid – not without extra outlay by me in the form of expenses incurred – and connection was renewed, though I still have no address or phone number for him. A couple of times, he has asked me to alter the reference earlier on this blog. The first time I ignored the request. The second time – quite recently – I addressed it. I will not now use his real name so let me hereafter refer to him as Colin. It’s the sort of name he deserves.

Before I repeat the burden of my demurral to his request for a blog rewrite, let me add some context. Colin has a page on Wikipedia. When I first looked at it, I thought it read rather ickily, as if written by himself or his agent. Wikipedia itself evidently thought so too because, subsequent to my first reading it, the site has appended two announcements at the top of the entry. One, decorated with a pair of scales, says: “A major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject. It may require cleanup to comply with Wikipedia’s content policies, particularly neutral point of view”. The other, led by a large exclamation point, says: “This biographical article needs additional citations for verification. Please help by adding reliable sources”.

In asking me to remove the material on my own blog, Colin calls what I wrote “suppositions and not at all true”. I responded thus: “I don't feel the slightest bit inclined to alter my posting for these five reasons:
1) You may not care for it but I don't believe anything in the piece is unjust, unfounded, malicious or mendacious.
2) The number of people who will have read it is vanishingly tiny. I have had about 7,500 visitors to the site, many of them returning, many of them staying only for a few seconds, a huge number of them just wanting to view the picture I ran last year of Tiger Woods' wife (which puts it all very much in perspective). Only two searches to the site have used your name as a searching criterion and both those searches, I would submit, were done by you (I don't get informed who visitors are but I do learn how they come, from whence and why). If anybody other than you reads that piece in the future (which is a very, very remote possibility), it won't be anyone who will use it as an excuse not to commission you, believe me.
3) Nobody who knows you will have read it. Even fewer people who know you will read it in the future. Put your moniker in Google and tell me whereabouts on the list is a link to that piece (I don't know myself because I haven't looked but I'm confident it won’t be in the first 5,000).
4) If you want to be concerned about something about you on the internet, attend to your Wikipedia entry. That seems to me a) vastly more likely to bring people who want to know about you, especially people in the biz who might do you some good and b) vastly more likely to make such people think you're a flake and not to be trusted.
5) I don't as a general principle approve of rewriting published documents other than in very exceptional circumstances. Anyway, it would be a chore and I have enough to do just now. You're lucky I squeezed you in at all”.

Reading that again ten days later, it seems to me to be forthright and comprehensive but neither unduly unfriendly nor uncalled for.

At the end of his reply, which largely dealt with other matters, Colin wrote “I guess there is not much I can do to get you to remove those comments. But why does my Wikipedia entry suggest I’m a flake?”

I found this question pretty astonishing. It seemed to me to suggest that he needed a wake-up call. My reply went on to other matters but began with this paragraph: “The editorial comment that the monitors have placed on your Wikipedia entry acts as a caveat emptor. It strongly suggests that they think this is a self-promotional entry rather than an objective one. That's what anyone who doesn't know you will assume (people who already know you already know that that's exactly what it is). As a consequence they (the people who don't know you) are likely at the very least to think twice about you. If you reckon that does you less damage than a passing reference buried in an obscure blog, you're putting your vanity way before your commonsensical approach to the business; and you're a lot dumber than I took you for”.

Reading that again now – and, as is my practice, I read it over several times before sending it, very different from Colin who never looks over his emails and habitually sends stuff that is full of typos and often phrased so obscurely that I cannot glean his meaning – it seems to me to be the robust good sense of someone looking out for a friend. I didn’t think I needed my usual cautious approach – “if I may say so – and I know you bristle at criticism” (see above).

Back came Colin: “Well the Wikipedia page was actually built by someone I used to work with at the BBC, and done out of kindness, as he was aware of such things are [sic] Wikipedia long before I was. Look I know this won't do anything to rebuild our friendship, but I do have to quote my partner on reading the first paragraph of your email: "why the hell would you let anyone speak to you like that?" I have always had the utmost respect for you Stephen as you know, and as I have admitted before I have also found you brusque to the point of bloody rudeness on occasion. But I really can't put myself in the firing line for this sort of thing any more. I know you are as staunch a believer in good manners as I am, so I really must register my upset at the way I am being spoken to here. If you don't think you are being unnessarily [sic} rude then fair enough, but I have to be allowed to say how I feel. xx”

I found this perfectly outrageous. My first instinct was to write back thus: “Why would I give a tuppenny fuck what your fucking girlfriend says? Is she a fucking professor of moral philosophy? Has she read the whole fucking correspondence? Over the years, my partner has made many sarcastic and disobliging remarks about you, but I’ve never quoted a single one of them at you because a) I don’t need reinforcements; b) he is biased in my favour and therefore not what I would consider a reliable witness; c) he’s never met you and only knows from what selected morsels I share about you and hence he simply and literally doesn’t know what he is talking about”.

However, I didn’t write that. Instead, I wrote: “Before I buckle under the lash of your partner's rush to bitter judgment, let her consider these questions:
– Does she know that my email was in response to your query ‘why does my Wikipedia entry suggest I'm a flake?’?
– Has she seen the Wikipedia page in question?
– What is her own considered view of the impact of the two cautionary notes flagged up there by the site monitors on the expectations of anyone visiting that site in the hope of learning something about you?
– Can she find it within her to see that only someone with your best interests at heart would be trying to knock sense into your head about this matter?”

Incidentally, I nearly declined the invitation to refer to the woman in question as Colin’s “partner”. I have never met her and don’t know her name; indeed this was the first time he had referred to her. Colin is, if his own account is to be credited, a serial womaniser and very few of his relationships, as far as I know, have lasted past three months, but I depend for this intelligence wholly on what he has indicated to me over the years. This one, the professor of moral philosophy, may be The One for ought I know but, as I say, she was news to me. David and I, on the other hand, have been together for thirty years. I submit that my own use of the term “partner” is justified.

Colin began his next email thus: “I do appreciate that, and it was nothing to do with what you said, it's to do with the way you say things. There's just no need to be so brusque about everything. I sincerely appreciate you have my best interests at heart and your advice is always welcome, but so often it comes across as unnecessarily violent”.

Brusque, rude, violent … it comes hard to a congenital pacifist to be called violent, especially “unnecessarily violent” (I’m not sure I would know how to identify necessary violence). I felt a little sarcasm was called for. My next email began: “Isn't it a lovely day? The birds are singing. The fish rise to the food with a will. There's a slight breeze. The dogs are sleepy and not very keen to walk round the field. Of course, the nights start drawing in now. It'll soon be deepest February. Oh god, sorry, I've turned unnecessarily violent. Even brusque. What a heartless bastard”. I then complained about something he’d written to me on a different matter that was perfectly impenetrable in these terms: “It's said that a true gentleman is never unknowingly rude and when I am rude to you it's because I bloody well intend to be, but I'm not sure you realise how bloody rude it is to toss off an email without reading it through, correcting the mistakes and making sure that it is coherent. But then if I whinged about that, you'd think I was giving you a hard time” and I ended “So, what did your girlfriend have to say about your Wikipedia page?”

Colin replied: “I just don't see the need to write in that tone. I don't mean to sound like Derek Batey when I say this, but I simply can't imagine anyone reading an email like that and not finding it bewilderingly hostile”. By this time, I felt I was being lectured about how I should conduct myself and I resented it. Back I came: “Oh I say, do chuck it, Carruthers, old man. If I felt hostility towards you, I wouldn't write at all. But if you keep on with this dreary bleating, I shall indeed start to get hostile. And I don't particularly appreciate being told how to write. You need to be able to face robust knockabout to survive in this business. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. And I added: “I ask again: what did your girlfriend say about your Wikipedia entry?”

Uncharacteristically, I heard nothing for four days. I had been reading a novel set in New York, where Colin had, a year or so back, had a play mounted off-Broadway but was never able to go and see it. So I wrote again: “You're not actually sulking, are you? Oh puhleeze. If, as we all hope, you are eventually going to make it properly in New York, you will have to grow a thicker skin. Manhattanites are brutal and robust and take no prisoners. Sensitive types don't last five minutes.
I'll tell you a New York joke:
– How many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?
– OK, how many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?
– None of your fuckin' business.
You still don't tell me what your girlfriend says about your Wikipedia page. This is because she agrees with me. Am I right or am I right?”

Colin came back: “No of course I'm not sulking, I just have been busy the last few days. It's not as if I work for the BBC any more and get paid to send emails all day!
I actually have a thicker skin than you may thick [sic], but (and this is my final word on the subject) whether I do or not is no excuse for rudeness. This isn't the Eighties for fuck's sake.
And no, my girlfriend didn't agree with you about Wikipedia, she just said ‘I wouldn't let anyone speak to me like that’. But you don't think you were being rude so we'll have to agree to differ. Life’s too short”.

Perhaps I was being over-sensitive now, but I thought this was Colin eating his cake and having it too, so I replied (in full): “The next email you send me which contains either of the words ‘rude’ and ‘rudeness’ will be deleted unread. If you think I'm rude, you haven't lived”. And that’s where it stands at the time of writing.

Colin ended his most recent email to me with the following request: “Would you read something of mine if I send it to you?” It takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Well, it does mine. Perhaps it doesn’t yours. I’m always very reluctant to read friends’ stuff because what they want is an unequivocal cascade of praise and there’s not much point in your reading their stuff if nothing less will do.

Some years ago, a friend in the biz asked if I would look over the first few chapters of the autobiography she was writing. I said that there wouldn’t be any point in my doing so if she didn’t give me carte blanche to be entirely candid. No, no, that was exactly what she required. I read the material, largely enjoyed it and write her a six-page letter of notes. The most damning criticism I made was that she had written too generously about others and left herself and her own feelings out of the narrative too much.

I heard nothing from her. Three or four years went by and I never knew whether the book was published. Then I fell over it in a remainder shop and bought a copy. She hadn’t included me in the acknowledgments. Before I had read it, she invited me to a party at her house. I arrived before more than half a dozen others were there, none of them people I knew, and we stood about making aimless small talk. Then another guest arrived, the hostess brought her in and announced loudly enough to shut everyone up: “Now, Steve, I want you to meet this old friend of mine. You see, she really liked my book”.

Given the evident sensitivity of Colin, I’m not sure I can face the potential nuclear winter of making any comment at all about his latest piece of writing. As he wrote just two days ago, life’s too short.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I know precious little of football. I didn’t watch any of the World Cup matches. Had I been caught up in the tournament, I am sure I would have followed the South American teams, who seem to exhibit a flair for and relish in the game always singularly lacking in the English and apparently in some of the other European sides this time too.

Tevez scored for Argentina against Mexico in the World Cup yesterday

Paradoxically, I take a mild academic interest in results, always checking the progress of the teams from the county where I was born and brought up: Northampton Town, Kettering, Rushden and Diamonds. When the last named is referred to on television, it is always mispronounced. It’s not “Rush-ton”, it’s “Ruzh-den”. Northampton are known as The Cobblers, in recognition of the area’s traditional industry, now almost entirely departed. None of these teams troubles the headline writers very often. That George Best scored his double hat-trick in a cup match against Cobblers is more apt to be invoked than the little club’s famous defeat of Arsenal in a different cup year. Cobblers spent one season in the top flight – I remember a report on them for Sportsview in which a young Frank Bough motored up the M1 to interview the legendary manager Dave Bowen. They were relegated with a higher number of points than any previously downgraded team had ever won.

I may not know much about football, but I know a thing or two about capitalism. From what I see and hear, the many commentators now being wise after the event about the “problems” of the England side are obsessed with trivia. “Capello refuses to resign ahead of crisis meeting with FA chairman” declares a headline in The Guardian’s sports section; reporters are so self-important that they expect announcements at press conferences before any of the powers-that-be have been consulted, rather as they expect cabinet ministers to reveal the date of the next general election in media interviews. But the identity of the manager is not the key to raising England’s game or that of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Girls playing urban soccer in Peru

What has gone wrong, it seems to me, is that capitalism noticed that football was a killing waiting to be made. Rupert Murdoch saw that a man like himself with bottomless pockets could pretty much corner the market in televising routine as well as big occasion matches. By selling the advertising within and around the broadcasting of live games at a premium rate, he pumped up the price of football. The clubs themselves began to rent out everything visible to the cameras as platforms for advertising. So-called player power, whereby the players took on phalanxes of agents and media consultants and held out for grotesque transfer fees, quickly turned the Premier League into one where most of the players were multimillionaires.

Awash with broadcasting money, the big clubs became easy prey for speculators and asset-strippers who saw them as cash-cows to use as a hedge against debts. Foreign businesses, not constrained by British regulation, bought in heavily and landed all the big clubs with staggering levels of debt.

That this ludicrous situation has been allowed to come about is because the running of the game has been so ham-fisted. The Football Association, the Football League and the Football Conference have allowed the boards of the Premier League clubs and the agents of the international star players to ride roughshod over the best interests of the game as a whole, out of an unregulated desire to make quick and easy profit. The bankrollers of football, like capitalists everywhere, are not concerned about the long-term good of the field in which they operate, only about the short-term benefit of the share-holders.

The result is that the grassroots of the game have been pitifully starved of support. The bringing on of young local players was handled more professionally half a century ago by retired professionals and other sharp-nosed volunteer scouts than it is now. Nobody is suggesting a fantasy return to some Corinthian ideal, just something other than an asylum where the inmates have taken over.

The FA needs to put its foot down or, if necessary, to be given the new powers to put its foot down. There should be a swingeing levy on every transaction (broadcasting rights, advertising deals, transfer fees, wages, golden handshakes), the proceeds of which are invested directly into the game at schoolboy and girl level, developing the skills and attitudes of young players with coaching of the highest quality. The FA should place a cap on the number of players that a club may acquire from overseas, say five at any one time. The current Chelsea squad (as of a fortnight ago) was 52 strong; just ten of them are English-born. It’s 14 years since the club had a fulltime manager who was English and until that time every manager in the club’s history had been English or Scottish, with Danny Blanchflower’s brief tenure in the late 1970s as a single Northern Irish exception.

Metropolitan street football in Brazil

But there is clearly a cultural problem too. In any poor country, you see small boys spending all the hours of daylight kicking a ball about in any open space, however confined. Across the main road that runs past our house, there is a housing estate with plenty of greensward. Though plenty of the households have children and many of the houses were hung with the flag of St George until yesterday evening, it’s pretty rare that you see much football played on the greens. Two or three times a summer, there might a dozen or so boys playing quite hard between two improvised goals. More often, two or three are mucking about with a ball and one goalmouth. But it’s a relatively rare event, certainly not as frequently as once a week. No doubt this generation of kids thinks of games as something you play on a screen, sat on your arse. The football they play is doubtless more likely to be Wii than WW.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Tony, my best friend at school and my earliest writing partner, left a year before I did to study English and drama at Birmingham University, a good move as it transpired. I stayed on an extra year to do scholarship entrance to Cambridge, in vain as it turned out, but that’s a tale for another day.

One weekend, Tony rolled up in his battered old jalopy, flourishing two tickets for a concert. Granted parental permission, I jumped into the passenger seat and we motored off to London down the M1, still something of a novelty in 1966 for country bumpkins like us.

My musical education had been somewhat piecemeal up to this point. My recent forebears had all been musical in their various ways. One grandfather was a silver bandmaster for forty years, the other a village choirmaster for forty years. My parents met in the local amateur operatic society, she in the dancing chorus, he a decent light tenor, well suited to playing the hero’s friend but not actor enough to lead a cast. He had a local triumph as Detlef in Romberg’s The Student Prince. My mother had studied piano to a pretty good standard – her plaster bust of Wagner I still have – and she obliged me to take lessons in my turn.

But we did not own a gramophone until I held out for a Dansette-type record player for my 13th birthday, putting pressure on my Dad by starting to buy singles in anticipation, even without the wherewithal yet to play them. As I grew more serious in the Vth and VIth forms, I started to read reviews of new classical releases and to supplement my pop stuff, soundtracks and show albums with haphazardly chosen grown-up music, everything from Bach to Pfitzner, from Mendelssohn to Mimaroglu.

Gustav Mahler

There was also a school record library, a motley of purchases, donations and swag. This collection exactly reflected the serendipitous nature of my own growing collection of LPs, save that some of them were so old that they were 10-inchers and even 78s. I borrowed indiscriminately and, having set up my reel-to-reel tape recorder to copy from my record player, I soon had half the school’s haul on audio tape.

The composer whose work we were to hear in London was not represented in the school collection. He was Gustav Mahler. Both Tony and I had liked what we had read about this late romantic but had still not heard a note of his work. Mahler had become fashionable over recent years, rediscovered thanks as much as anyone to the American conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, whose own music was greatly under Mahler’s influence. Bernstein had recorded several of Mahler’s massive symphonies in the States and Europe and now he was coming to London to record the 8th symphony after giving it in concert at the Albert Hall.

Lenny Bernstein was also a persuasive advocate. He was a gifted teacher and talker and, in an era when “mass communication” was the only way to go, he made for terrific television, whether talking or conducting. I had a recording by him of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony that had a bonus EP of a talk on the work by Lenny. Not many people could get away with a phrase like “Beethoven the gigantic one” and still not seem a fraud. In a Sunday Times review that I vividly recall of another Mahler concert, Desmond Shawe-Taylor remarked that “Bernstein concluded with a left and a right that had Mahler sprawling against the ropes”. That sounded just the kind of conducting that got me going.

Otto Böhler's famous silhouettes of Mahler in action

The 8th, a grand choral work, was known as “the Symphony of a Thousand” because of the massive forces involved. The Albert Hall gig was to be populated by the London Symphony Orchestra at full stretch, the London Symphony Chorus, the Leeds Festival Chorus, the Orpington Junior Singers, the Highgate School Boys’ Choir and eight soloists. We knew we were in for a show but we couldn’t guess quite what a show. From the electrifying crash of the opening, a thunderous octave leap on the giant Albert Hall organ, immediately followed by the roaring invocation of the massed voices – “Veni, veni, creator spiritus!” [“Come, creator, holy spirit!”] – we were, as comparably impressed teenagers would say now, blown away.

The whole first section of the work, lasting around 25 minutes, is a switchback ride of emotion, power, retreat and renewal, packed with exquisite melody and daring orchestration. The second part, a realisation of the climactic scene of Goethe’s play Faust, is more than twice as long and rather more measured and discursive before returning at the end to the tumult of the earliest bars. By that end, we were mentally, physically and psychologically shredded. It was the most enthralling experience, not least because of the dynamism of Bernstein’s conducting.

Lenny gives it his all

Afterwards, we slept in Tony’s car parked in the Kensington side-street where, the previous year, Winston Churchill’s life had drawn to its close. Next morning, we breakfasted in the café of a nearby hotel. We were served by a very chirpy waitress with whom, by curious coincidence, I enjoyed an affair a decade later (oh yes, I cruised both sides of the street in those days. I always cherish Gore Vidal’s famous answer to the question “was your first sexual experience homosexual or heterosexual?” – “I was too polite to ask”).

Naturally, when the double album of Bernstein’s version of Mahler’s 8th was released the following year, I rushed out to buy it. I still have it but it is so worn down by constant playing as to be unbearable. My CD replacement is a rather embarrassing item from a series called ‘The Royal Edition’, all works conducted by Lenny but decked out with watercolours by the Prince of Wales who, you can bet, has not listened to the Mahler as often as I have. But the piece has had an important function in my life. If ever I felt sad or defeated or confused or in any other way negative, all I needed to do was to lie on the floor and play Part I of the 8th, very loudly and preferably in darkness. After that, everything seemed possible.

Over the years I got to know and love all of Mahler’s music. Though the individual pieces are all large-scale, it’s as assimilable a body of work as Jane Austen’s, as opposed to the sprawling canon, across several genres of, say, Haydn or Bernard Shaw. Mahler was, after all, only ever a part-time composer, making his living as a conductor, primarily of opera. He was born in July 1860 so, next month, we mark his 150th anniversary. Next May will be the centenary of his death; he lived only four years longer than Schumann whom we think of conventionally as having “died young”.

The musical prodigy at 5 or 6

It is evident that Mahler was, with Keats, “half in love with easeful death”. Mortal terror stalks his music. Seven of his eleven siblings died in childhood, including his closest brother. One of his two beloved daughters also died in childhood, giving a retrospective poignancy to his most agonised song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (I am listening to it as I write in the rapturous rendition by Kathleen Ferrier with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter). Soon after Maria’s death, Mahler learned that his own heart was defective and that his prospects were not good. He was working on the 8th symphony at this time. Always superstitious, Mahler deferred writing a further symphony because of the notion that nine was the most a composer could complete – Beethoven, Spohr, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner had all died without completing a tenth. Instead he wrote Das Lied von der Erde, which has an unmistakeably symphonic structure. After that, he dared to write a huge and magnificent 9th symphony before, inevitably, leaving an unfinished 10th (it has been superbly realised in performable form by Deryck Cooke and, subsequently, in several other versions).

Mahler in his late 20s

That Mahler was driven and a mass of contradictions is both clear and not to be wondered at. A Bohemian Jew, he converted to Catholicism in order to carve himself a highly influential role in the life of a city devoted to music, Vienna. The extent of anti-Semitism in late 19th century Vienna can only be imagined. Like the cliché of an opera conductor – perhaps he inspired the cliché – Mahler was autocratic, perfectionist and relentless. He made many enemies. His tenure at the Vienna Opera, like all his conducting posts, was wracked by quarrels, resentments, resignations and outrageous ferocities both suffered and inflicted. He would flee to a succession of summer retreats to compose, but his symphonies and song cycles received mixed responses. His greatest triumph, the last of his lifetime, was the world premiere of the 8th in Munich on September 12th 1910. The composer was denied the savour of its reception, however, for he discovered on the eve of its performance that his adored wife Alma was faithless with the architect Walter Gropius. Despite this blow, Mahler dedicated the symphony to Alma.

Alma Mahler

Mahler’s music resounds with the sounds and flavours of the world around him. The quality of gemütlichkeit, so beloved of the indulgent Viennese, thrives alongside the doom and despair. Band music of all kinds – from military marches through town band tunefulness and funeral dirges to oompah corniness – passes through the sound picture. The music of the Viennese café and salon, of street players and folk singers, of the church choir and the klezmorim rub shoulders with the particular writing for projected voice that Mahler studied so closely for his work in the opera house. Forerunning geniuses – Bruckner (his teacher), Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner – inform his taste and his decisions, as do his extensive readings in philosophy and theosophy. Had he lived, I have no doubt that jazz and the new forms pioneered within a very few years of his death by the likes of Stravinsky and, in Vienna itself, Schönberg would have contributed to his joyous eclecticism and perhaps indeed he would have made the obvious move into writing for the opera house, though it is hard to see any librettist surviving such a collaboration. More than any other ingredient, the summer sounds of nature that surrounded him while he wrote in the Austrian countryside fed into his aesthetic.

Contemporary caricature of Mahler's aesthetic

It’s a rich and dense fabric that he weaves. Mahler isn’t for everyone and certainly not for those who take a more ascetic view of art. At the time of the ‘60s revival, I remember Kingsley Amis remarking that he couldn’t bear Mahler’s stuff. Given Amis’s own politics, character and world view, I felt comfortably in the correct camp (and anyway, isn’t Lucky Jim one of the most overrated of novels?). Mahler appealed to me at that time because I had a young man’s passion for artists who created teeming worlds. I remember a Sunday newspaper headline over a piece about James Joyce’s writing: “Here comes everybody”. That was what I loved in Joyce and Günter Grass and Lawrence Sterne and Dickens and later in Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Lawrence Norfolk; and what Mahler’s crowded canvases also seemed to offer.

In the fifty years before that Bernstein-led revival, Mahler’s reputation had dwindled while the Baroque was rediscovered and the classical composers took their place at the centre of the repertoire. A few conductors kept his name known on the continent – Willem Mengelberg, Hermann Scherchen, Karel Ancerl, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Jascha Horenstein – and in Britain – Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli, than whom no two conductors could be more different in style and approach. But none did more to fan the flame than Bruno Walter who worked as Mahler’s assistant at the Vienna Opera and who was perhaps unique in refusing to hear a word said against the maestro. After Mahler’s death, Walter conducted the world premieres of both Das Lied von der Erde and the 9th symphony at Alma’s invitation and, a quarter of a century later, made the first recordings of both works. A later recording of Das Lied with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak is among the finest recordings of great music ever made. Walter, whose long life ended in 1962, once said that the two greatest musicians he had ever known were Mahler and Ferrier and that perhaps Ferrier – that hugely loved English contralto who died so tragically young – was the greatest of all.

Bruno Walter

In recent years, Mahler recording has become a vital industry. No conductor worth his or her salt foregoes the opportunity to record not just a favourite from among these symphonies that were once thought too demanding and exhausting to attempt, but the whole canon. Since Luchino Visconti drew on it so extensively for the soundtrack of his movie Death in Venice of 1971, the Adagietto of the 5th symphony has turned into Mahler’s “lollipop”, an extractable sweetmeat for busy people to swoon at momentarily. But the movement has from the get-go been teased out as a crowd pleaser. Sir Henry Wood introduced it into a Prom concert as long ago as 1909 and Lenny Bernstein extracted it for the memorial mass given in New York for Senator Robert Kennedy.

What Mahler himself and the scornful Viennese haute bourgeoisie would have made of it all is anyone’s guess. Secure in the Pantheon, his last laugh would at least have been heard by the famously scandalous Alma, who married and divorced Gropius and who outlived even Bruno Walter by two years. For his part, the erudite composer would have read his Hippocrates and so would have known that ars longa, vita brevis.

The maestro on the podium

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Perplexingly, thousands of people seem to be travelling around the country promoting syphilis …

Like many others, I greeted the end of another season of football last month with relief but now I discover that we are in for even more of the wretched stuff than ever from this weekend onwards and, if the team representing England manage to progress past the first rubber, for weeks thereafter. I read that England’s opening match is against the USA and, as a student of history, I happen to know that the same nation’s then team defeated England in the same cup sixty years ago. Then, as now, England and her apologists presented themselves in a miasma of hubris and richly deserved to be taken down several dozen pegs. Like all thoughtful people, I shall be fervently hoping for a repeat of that result. With luck, Master Rooney will be sent off for calling one of his opponents a despicable cad.

Whatever else the South African World Cup will be, it will certainly be a festival of cliché. Which dumb and exhausted phrase will win the ultimate prize, I wonder? Look out for “a rasping shot”, always an impenetrable favourite among commentators. But I would put folding money on “44 years of hurt” as combining the proper level of hyperbole with the appropriate overlay of surrealism. This phrase refers to the fact that England last won the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil in suitably controversial circumstances in 1966 and has not come notably close to winning since. It isn’t so much “hurt” that is the problem; by any criterion, it’s a combination of incompetence and inflated expectation.

Matt in last weekend's Telegraph

The fact is that Britain doesn’t invest remotely sufficient resources in the game at grass roots level to have any prospect of bringing on world-beating native players a decade from now. Half a dozen of the premier league teams are potentially richer than any comparable businesses in the world because of the wealth drawn from television rights, yet they are impoverished by asset-stripping foreign owners and grotesquely inflated rates of pay offered to players, the majority of whom do not qualify to play for this country.

That England’s prospects are objectively so poor doesn’t deter anyone, especially those seeking to cash in, from talking up the notion that England “can” win. (It always seems to me a fake argument; of course England “can” win because they are playing. Aberbaijan can’t, because they’re not). Last time, at the outset of the competition, Radio Times ran a mock-up of the England players, topped by David Beckham, flourishing the trophy. At least the editor (so far, at any rate) has had the basic sense not to repeat this absurdity.

Whenever “Ingerland” (as the fans evidently chant it) plays in one of these international tourneys, thousands of men with unusually small willies buy pairs of massively expensive flags of St George (no doubt stitched for next to nothing by starving peasants in the Far East) and attach them to their otherwise unremarkable motor vehicles, from which said flags flap in the breeze like wounded birds.

On a previous occasion when Ingerland were playing in one of these continuously hyped events, a friend and his son came to lunch and then asked to be permitted to watch “the match” on our television that afternoon. The son (a grown-up) was wearing an Ingerland shirt, though he lives in South Africa and is indeed half South African (his father is wholly South African but of East European Jewish origin). We reluctantly concurred on condition that we were not required to enter the television room for the duration.

Rooney: "cad"

Ingerland were playing Portugal. I didn’t have the heart to point out to the son that he was in fact wearing the favour of the patron saint of Portugal. St George has enjoyed this status in Portugal rather longer than he has in Ingerland. “Säo Jorge” was a Portuguese battle cry as early as the first half of the 14th century. George’s origins are disputed: some sources say he was born in what is now Turkey, others Israel or Palestine or that he may have been Lebanese. At any rate, it seems unlikely that he ever came to Wembley or was what I understand is termed a “Man U” fan.

The flying of George’s flag – a very simple thin, red cross horizontally laid on a white ground – indicates that the team is unquestioningly supported by the owner of the car (or indeed of the house for, as at Yule, otherwise ugly and depressing houses are now festooned with flags and bunting). What none of these unthinking buffoons considers is that, Portugal aside, there are many other communities and causes to which George is patron and therefore to which, unwittingly, they are attaching their reputations. In Brazil – like Portugal, a potential rival for Ingerland in the imminent tourney – George is quite as hallowed a saint as Sebastian. George is also the patron saint of Georgia, of Slovenia, of Moscow, of Beirut, of North Ossetia, of Milan and several other Italian cities, of Aragon, of Kerala, of Gozo and of Malta. There are St George’s Day celebrations in Canada, Belgium, Palestine, Serbia, Bulgaria and Catalonia.

The Jules Rimet trophy: but the players would rather have the cash

The Boy Scouts have George as their patron saint. He also gives his blessing to farmers and agricultural workers, shepherds and sheep and butchers; to horses and horsemen, cavalry and saddle-makers; to soldiers, knights, archers and armourers; and to leprosy, plague and skin diseases. Oh … and to herpes and syphilis. Clap for George!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

I've just signed this petition at

"We call for an immediate, independent investigation into the flotilla assault, full accountability for those responsible, and the lifting of the Gaza blockade."

Please join me in signing here: