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Aimez Vous Brahms?…or Bach?…or Beethoven?

Susan Tomes

I don’t do rock and pop.  If that sounds snobbish, it’s not meant to.  It’s just that I was thoroughly bitten by the classical music bug long before my teenage hormones started to kick in.  Mind you, up till I was 10, our gramophone could only play 78s.  My favourite slabs of shellac were the Grasshopper’s Dance, Ghost Riders in the Sky, and the last five minutes of the ‘1812’ Overture (we didn’t have the rest).  Then, one glorious day, a second-hand ‘radiogram’ was purchased and we could finally play LPs–which had, after all, been around for the last 18 years or so. My parents were not ‘early adopters’.

So, at last, I could listen to entire symphonies and concertos: Beethoven’s 5th, Dvorak’s New World, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I was in rapture.  Up till then I’d listened to pretty well anything that was going on the radio.  I loved Alan (Fluff) Freeman’s’ ‘Pick of the Pops’, and especially Jack Jackson’s wonderfully surreal ‘Radio Roundup’. Once we’d got our radiogram I even bought a Beatles single.  But, gradually, I became driven mad by the boring, incessant rhythmic repetitions of the drums in most pop singles.  It was a kind of torture.

Two further factors then conspired to push me further towards classical music.  The BBC Light Programme (which also included all my favourite comedies), the Home Service, and the Third Programme (a wonderful intellectual challenge to a precocious kid) were replaced in 1967 by Radios 1 to 4. And, not long afterwards, my father bought me my first open-reel tape recorder.  Now I could augment my pathetically small collection of LPs with anything I cared to record from the rich and varied output of the new Radio 3.

The result was that, from roughly 1967 to 1973, I stopped listening to pop and rock music altogether. Later, I would come to realise that I had missed out on probably the richest and most exciting period in the history of popular music, but at the time I didn’t care. Once at University, friends would introduce me to jazz/funk crossover, and prog rock, both of which I loved. But pop music remained, and has remained, almost entirely alien.  So, for me, one of the supposedly fundamental reasons why we care about music just doesn’t apply: nostalgia.  When I listen to my favourite piece of music, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the only nostalgic memory it conjures for me is my excitement at first getting to know the work itself, in performances by Boulez and Barbirolli, not anything else about my life at the time (which was probably very boring, anyway).

So I have always had a fierce interest in how and why music affects us so powerfully, and over the years I’ve read many books and articles on the subject. But only recently I’ve come to realise that most of these studies and explorations relate to the effect of music as a whole, and most of that is therefore irrelevant to me as someone, so to speak, deaf to popular music.  What fascinates and obsesses me is, what is so special and powerful about classical music?  This was brought home to me forcefully earlier this month, when we attended six concerts in three days at the superb Lammermuir Festival. The music-making was outstanding, but why was it affecting me so powerfully?

In the last few weeks I’ve read four books which have brought me about as close as, at this time, I think we can come to answering that question. They’re by, respectively, a composer, a performer, a music educator, and finally a listener who, like me, has minimal experience of actually playing music.

The first is ‘Experiencing Music’ by the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who is of the generation that links Carl Nielsen to Paul Ruders.  I’ve long thought him as one of the greatest composers of the 20thCentury, his cycles symphonies and string quartets easily the equal of those of his near-contemporary Shostakovich. I was very excited, therefore, to find out that some of his writings about music had been published in English, back in the early 1970s.  A few minutes on the wonderful Abe Books website, and a copy was on its way to me. Holmboe, just like his music, is wonderfully clear, unfussy and honest about what it’s like to be a composer, and his is the best account I’ve ever read of the mental processes involved in imagining and creating something like a symphony.

Next, the educator.  Back in the 60s and 70s, ‘Talking About Music’ was a staple of the BBC Radio airwaves, and a wonderful introduction, for me, to many aspects of classical music. It was presented by composer, pianist and conductor Antony Hopkins, who had one of the great radio voices, and a marvellously lucid way of explaining even music as challenging as that of Michael Tippett.  So I was delighted to come across a copy of his 1979 book ‘Understanding Music’, which is probably the best ever introduction to classical music for the music lover, but non-performer.  Even after more than 50 years of loving classical music, I learned a lot from it.

The ‘listener’ in this group of writers is none other than Armando Iannucci, whose ‘Hear me out—all my music’ was published just last year. I’ve been a huge fan of his since we saw his two-man show with David Schneider on the Fringe many years ago, and his ‘The Death of Stalin’ was my film of 2017. Iannucci is a few years younger than me, but nonetheless he went to some of the same SNO concerts as me in the 70s, and borrowed records from the same Glasgow Library. And we even love some of the same pieces—especially Mahler’s Sixth (as Berg said: ‘despite Beethoven’s Pastoral, the only Sixth’). Iannucci may not have brought me closer to understanding whyclassical music affects us both so strongly, but it was reassuring to find someone so ‘cool’ who shared so many of my feelings about the subject!

But the best of all these books was the last, that by the performer. Susan Tomes is an Edinburgh pianist who has spent the bulk of her career playing chamber music with two very successful groups, Domus, and the Florestan Trio.  She’s written a number of books, but I’ve so far only read the most recent: ‘Sleeping in Temples’, and I’ve never read anything so wise, so humane and so insightful about the life and mental states of a classical musician. Really, anyone setting out on a career in classical music should read this book. It will be a vade mecum for them for years to come.

Ultimately, Tomes doesn’t answer the question of why classical music can affect us so powerfully, but she is very eloquent on its importance, and she comes up with two definitions that I find really helpful. First, she talks about the enormous value and importance of what she calls ‘long form’ music—music that takes half an hour or more to perform, and listen to–as opposed to a three minute pop song.  She believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the effort involved in appreciating ‘long form’ music is of vital importance in our wider life experiences. And then she proposes moving away from the traditional opposition between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ (or, as she writes, ‘heavy’) music, and instead proposes taking an analogy from Gaelic music, where the Piobaireachd is known as the ‘big music’ and everything else is the ‘small music’.

For Susan Tomes, classical music is the ‘big music’, and pop music is the ‘small music’, and for all the current global domination of the latter, she believes that, with movements like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow towns’, the ‘big music’ may be set for a resurgence. I hope she’s right.

So, do I have my own ideas about why classical music can be so powerful? Of course I do, though they have (as yet) little or no scientific basis. I believe that classical music—and other forms of complex, ‘long form’ music such as jazz, or Indian classical music—meshes with our brains at a deep, subconscious level. I believe that this happens even for those many music-lovers (like my late mother) who think they love classical music just for the big tunes and the emotional sweep, and can’t listen to anything more challenging than Shostakovich.  I believe that this effect works on us even when (as I’ve often been guilty of doing) listening to classical music while reading. For me, it’s the only drug I’m truly, irrevocably, addicted to.

 

© Robert Livingston October 2018

 

 

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Culture in Carlops

Allan Ramsay Hotel

I’ve spent a large part of my career driving the length and breadth of Scotland. That means I know an awful lot of Scotland’s towns and villages only by what I’ve glimpsed from the car while driving through them, on the way to my ultimate destination—which would have been Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Selkirk, Crieff, you name it.  That’s particularly true of places on the many roads radiating out of Edinburgh.  So, a few weeks ago, when we were looking for somewhere to stay the night before attending a friend’s birthday lunch in Balerno, I was rather pleased when Booking.com suggested the Allan Ramsay Hotel in Carlops. Carlops is a tiny village on the A702, which is the scenic route from Edinburgh to Dumfries, so I’d driven past the hotel many times, but never stopped there.

It was a risk of course: not all former 18thcentury coaching inns are havens of hospitality and good food; many are barely hanging on, or dependent chiefly on the patronage of a few hard-drinking locals. But the Allan Ramsay turned out to be a total delight.  The present landlords only took the place on about three years ago (which makes it doubly unfair that Tripadvisor still carries negative reviews from the previous regime, back in 2014!). And in that time they’ve worked wonders.  The bedroom was plain, but comfy: freshly decorated and scrupulously clean.  The public areas were welcoming and unfussy, and the dinner really outstanding—good enough that it should encourage Edinburghers to drive out from the city just for the evening; in fact, good enough to persuade us that we should return soon for a long weekend.

So many hotels and hostelries across the country have acquired recent names that promote a spurious connection with the past.  Our local used to have the good historical name of the ‘Bogroy’, but has for several years been known by the bogus moniker of ‘The Old North Inn’.  Years ago, on a pilgrimage to Lerici, where Shelley was living when he drowned, I was depressed to be confronted with the Hotel Byron, the Restaurant di Poeti, and much, much more of the same. But the Allan Ramsay Hotel has borne that name since it was built in 1792, and so may be a very early example—perhaps the first in Scotland—of cashing in on cultural tourism.

Now, we have to get something straight first.  This is not the Allan Ramsay we all know, the fabulous portraitist whose images of Hume and Rousseau have immortalised those literary giants.  This is his dad. Who, in his own way, is just as important a figure in Scottish history and culture. Here are just some of his achievements:

  • Champion of the Scots language
  • Collector of ancient Scots verse and song
  • Founder of the first circulating library in Britain
  • Founder of the first theatre in Edinburgh
  • Author of the first Scottish opera, The Gentle Shepherd

It’s probably no exaggeration to say, without Ramsay père, there would have been no Burns, no Scott, no Hogg, at least not as we know them. The new landlords of the eponymous hotel knew nothing of this when they took it on, but they decided to find out.  The result was an ongoing connection with Glasgow University, and a grant from the ‘Pub is the Hub’ scheme to properly document Ramsay, father and son, in the hotel itself, and to launch an annual Allan Ramsay festival, the third manifestation of which takes place this October.

But why Carlops?  Why this tiny village, with a history chiefly of weaving and mining, when Ramsay was actually born many miles away in Leadhills and spent most of his life in Edinburgh?  The answer lies in Ramsay’s most famous work,The Gentle ShepherdAmong Ramsay’s aristocratic friends and supporters were two local lairds, Alexander Pennecuik of Newhall and that redoubtable Enlightenment figure, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik.  Because Ramsay spent much time at those two estates, the setting of his poem/play is very specifically the area round Carlops.

Fine, but Ramsay died in 1758—why name a new hotel after him more than 30 years later? Because his fame did not die with him. A new edition of The Gentle Shepherd was published in 1788 with the famous illustrations by David Allan.  Another edition followed in 1808, which included a map of all the locations around Carlops mentioned in the poem. So close was the association between play and village that, in the early 1800s, the villagers of Carlops performed The Gentle Shepherd annually on Hansel Monday (the first Monday in January), and charabancs would bring folk out from the city to enjoy the performance.  Weather permitting, they could then follow various trails to the sites named in the poem, marked out with stone panels bearing the relevant lines.

So why has Ramsay fallen into obscurity?  Even in the middle of the 19thcentury he was still famous enough to merit a larger than life-size statue in Princes Street, looking across to his former home in what is now Ramsay Gardens (yes, that’s where it got its name). Judith and I knew about the painter son because we were both trained as art historians. I knew next to nothing about the father before our overnight stay in Carlops.

It confirms something I’ve long suspected: that Scotland (and perhaps this is true of all small countries) only has room in its collective memory for a very few iconic figures. So Burns, but not Fergusson, Scott but not Galt or (except for enthusiasts like me) Hogg. Mackintosh, but not Greek Thomson or Lorimer. This is not just a historic problem. Sir James MacMillan may deserve his international fame as a composer, but is he really that much better, or more significant, than his much less widely acclaimed near-contemporaries, Edward McGuire and Alasdair Nicolson, or indeed that marvellous composer who is celebrating her 90thbirthday this year, Thea Musgrave?

So three cheers for the Allan Ramsay Hotel, doing its bit to restore Ramsay the poet to his proper place in the Scottish pantheon.  It probably helps that two fine contemporary poets, Gerda Stevenson and Aonghas MacNeacail, live in Carlops, and, of course, the village’s location, as one of the entry points to the Pentland Hills Regional Park, makes it doubly attractive as a place to spend a short break. We’ll certainly be back.

 

 

Munich and the Power of Music

LMN Benefit Concert in the Herkulessaal, Munich
Photo: Judith Livingston

Munich is perhaps our favourite city. Friends are often surprised when we say this, as the city, for them, still has too many associations with its Nazi past.  But Munich today is a relaxed, friendly and hospitable city. Its centre is light, airy and spacious, yet compact enough that you can walk across it.  And it has one of the finest concentrations of galleries and museums of any city in Europe.  Yet, perhaps because of its dark past, Munich is not (yet) a tourist ‘must see’ like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or Rome, and so those galleries are rarely crowded or afflicted with coach parties. Indeed in some of the less highly promoted institutions, such as the splendid new Egyptian Museum, or the truly overwhelming Bavarian National Museum, it’s possible, in some rooms, to be the only visitor.

So, when Carol Main, Director of Live Music Now Scotland, asked for Board members to accompany her to an international gathering of LMN groups in Munich, I jumped at the chance.  I’ve had the privilege of being involved with Live Music Now for over twenty years. The organisation was founded forty years ago by Yehudi Menuhin, and the Scottish branch was set up in 1984, and Carol has been its Director from the outset.  Four years ago, it was devolved from the main UK organisation, but Carol still leads for the UK on international development and networks.  Two years ago, she organised a highly successful international networking event in London, and now the LMN Munich organisation had taken up the challenge to host a similar gathering.

In case you’re not familiar with Live Music Now, I should explain that its role is twofold: to help emerging musicians at the start of their careers, and to bring high quality performances to places and people that would rarely experience them: special schools, care homes, prisons and the like.  LMN in Germany and Austria also owes its beginnings to Menuhin, but these groups were set up on a rather different basis.  Where LMN in the UK is run by professional staff overseen by volunteer Boards, in the rest of Europe most Live Music Now groups are wholly voluntary. So, that meant that this international gathering brought together a large number of committed volunteers, not only from Munich, but also from other parts of Germany, from Vienna, from France and the Netherlands, and even from Chile.

It was an extraordinary weekend, both for me and for Judith (several delegates had brought their partners as vital supporters and networkers!).  Rarely if ever have we met so many people, from so many different countries and backgrounds, with whom we immediately felt such a profound empathy and sense of common purpose. But I shouldn’t suggest this was a solemn occasion—there was a great deal of laughter too (especially around the painful subject of Brexit). But the total commitment to the value of live music, and to enabling access to that value, was genuinely moving and inspiring.

The whole event, however, had a much deeper and more haunting resonance.  Our meeting was held in the Hochscule für Musik and Theater—entirely appropriate as the institution has very close links with LMN Munich.  But the Hochschule is housed in a building that was constructed to be the Nazi headquarters in Munich. It is actually known as the ‘Führerbau’ and the room in which we were meeting had not only been Hitler’s own office, but was the location of the signing of the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement. For many this event was the unforgivable peak of ‘appeasement,’ though some see it as a desperate attempt by Chamberlain and Daladier to buy time for Britain and France to prepare for a war that they saw as inevitable. To add to the historic weight of the occasion, our meeting encompassed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—marking the 1918 Armistice, just twenty years before that fateful gathering of the European Powers.

The signing of the Munich Agreement, September 1938
Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R69173,_Münchener_Abkommen,_Staatschefs

The Hochshule’s Chancellor Dr Alexander Krause gave us an enthralling presentation on the history of the building, and led us on a tour of the cellars where, below 2.5 meters of concrete, 3,500 looted artworks had been kept safe from the Allied bombing which destroyed so much of Munich. He spoke about the controversy around the survival, continued use, and planned restoration of the Führerbau, and of his and his colleagues’ belief that a school of music was by far the best means of ‘exorcising’ the building’s past.

If we’d needed any demonstration of the power of music to support that argument, we had it that weekend.  The day before our meeting, an evening reception had included an informal recital by two of LMN Munich’s most gifted alumni, of violin sonatas by Beethoven and Saint-Saens. It was a privilege to sit only a few feet away from such powerful music-making.  Then, on the Sunday, we were guests of honour at a Benefit Concert for LMN Munich in the imposing marble splendour of the Herkulessaal.  The great conductor Mariss Jansons led the Hochschule’s student orchestra in accompanying two of the school’s starriest graduates in violin concertos by Bruch (yes, that one) and Glazunov.  The extraordinary level of music-making literally brought tears to our eyes. The future of classical music is safe in the hands of these amazing young people.

The ‘relevance’ of classical music today is often questioned.  It can be dismissed as an elitist artform, too closely linked to its historical context as an expression of courtly or bourgeois taste, or (especially opera) too expensive and too exclusive to engage with ‘ordinary’ people. Hearing those two remarkable concerts, in which young people devoted themselves, heart and soul, to bringing life to music from the 19th century, was a humbling experience. Played with such commitment and insight, even ‘old warhorses’ as familiar as Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, or the Bruch Concerto, can reach places that very few artforms, or any other form of human expression, come close to. I think all of us, regardless of our nationality, came away from this weekend in Munich with a renewed purpose to continue Live Music Now’s invaluable work, and to continue to foster strong international links through the power of music.

© Robert Livingston

 

 

It’s Culture, Jim, but…

muppet_christmas_carol

I may just be a grumpy old man, but it does seem to me that many aspects of popular culture are becoming more, well, disappointing. Or perhaps it’s just that our expectations are constantly being ramped up by the media, in which case my problem may be more with the reviewers than with what they’re reviewing.

I’ll try to make my case through two genres: Detective Fiction, and Star Trek films. I’ve been a lover of Detective Fiction for over 40 years, and I use the term ‘detective’ advisedly, to separate this sub-genre from the much wider (and currently more critically acceptable) genre of ‘crime’ fiction. For me, Detective Fiction is about the solving of puzzles (crimes) within a dramatic framework, while Crime Fiction is more concerned with psychological dissection. The locus classicus would be Ruth Rendell’s splitting of her authorial personality in two, with the procedural Inspector Wexford novels under her own name, while her series of psychological studies, which are much more about why a crime was committed than how, were initially published under the pen name of Barbara Vine.

In the last month I’ve read two new examples of Detective Fiction which, for wider reasons, have been very high profile. First was the third novel in the Cormoran Strike series, ‘Career of Evil’, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith but written, of course, by the incredibly prolific J K Rowling.  Rather to my surprise, I had really enjoyed the first two Galbraith novels.  There was something pleasingly old fashioned about them, and the writing seemed much more accomplished than in the Harry Potter series, where I’ve always found the prose rather leaden. So I approached this third outing with real anticipation, and was seriously underwhelmed.  It was far, far too long and repetitive (admittedly a common Rowling failing), but in trying to take us into the mind of a serial killer, obsessed with dismembering young women, it was following a wearily well-trodden path (in books, movies and TV dramas), and a distasteful one at that.  Worst of all, for much of its length, it was simply dull.

By now the whole literary/reading world is familiar with the Rowling/Galbraith phenomenon.  My next read has, however, has excited much more media interest and anticipation than did the third volume of a well-established series, because ‘The Monogram Murders’ is the first new novel ever to be formally approved by Agatha Christie’s estate, and therefore the first ‘proper’ Hercule Poirot story since Christie’s death.  Now, I was looking forward to this for two reasons: first, I’d greatly enjoyed the two similarly ‘authorised’ Sherlock Holmes novels by Anthony Horowitz, and second, the author chosen to resurrect Poirot was Sophie Hannah, a critically acclaimed (and also prolific) writer of Crime Fiction, whom I’d once seen talking very interestingly about her work at the Nairn Book and Arts Festival.

This was a much bigger disappointment than the Galbraith.  For anyone at all familiar with Poirot’s character, there were wrong notes from the outset, but the premise was sufficiently intriguing to keep me reading.  But the last third of the book was a remarkably tedious slog through increasingly convoluted explanations of a literally incredible plot.  Some of Christie’s original Poirot novels, in their entirety, are shorter than the many pages it took Hannah to unravel this farrago.  Maybe that’s what happens when a ‘crime’ writer turns to classic ‘detective’fiction.

 What these two books have in common, apart from excessive length, is the generally favourable reception they’ve been given in the ‘serious’ press: Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, etc. In the mainstream media only the (also incredibly prolific) Simon Brett, writing in the Daily Express of all places, tells it as it is about this underwhelming Poirot resurrection. Instead, one has to look to blog and fandom sites to find really thoughtful and accurate analyses of the failings in these books.

Now we’re regularly treated to dire warnings and plangent laments about the ‘death’ of professional criticism, as cash-strapped newspapers shed their paid reviewers, and blogging allows anyone to have their say online.  But I’m becoming increasingly aware of a kind of trahison des clercs where it’s harder and harder, at least in the world of books, to find genuinely analytical and honest professional reviews, while the best bloggers, as in the example above, have a depth of knowledge, and the space to display it, that’s increasingly at a premium in the mainstream media.

So, what about Star Trek?  I’m not sure if I really count as a Trekkie—I’ve never yet attended a Trekkie convention, in costume or otherwise—but it has been part of my cultural mainstream since the very first episode aired on the BBC in the Dr Who teatime slot when I was 14 years old.  I’ve not followed every spin-off TV series (‘Enterprise’ was a step too far), but I have seen all the films, most of them more than once.   Now I know that the critical consensus is that, with a few exceptions (‘The Wrath of Khan’, ‘The Voyage Home’, ‘First Contact’) the movies featuring the original two Enterprise crews were fairly ropey, and I’m prepared to go along with that verdict, and just enjoy them as guilty and nostalgic pleasures.  But since JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009’s ‘Star Trek’ it’s achieved a blockbuster prominence that the early films never reached.  I still think that that first, daring, reinvention of the origins of the crew of the Enterprise was a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable slice of space opera.  I was much less impressed by its successor ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’, perhaps because I made the mistake of watching it in a very distracting 3D, but also because the last 15 minutes of the film were really ridiculous, totally unnecessary in terms of a satisfying story arc, and changed Spock’s character in ways that just didn’t seem right.

So I didn’t bother to catch the latest episode, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (no colon, this time) while it was in cinemas.  But it got such generally good reviews, with a broad consensus  that this was a ‘return to form’ and to those elements that made Star Trek so memorable—namely the interaction between the main characters—that I rented the DVD as our Christmas Day movie.  Well, the first two thirds delivered, looking dazzlingly beautiful and with some sharply written dialogue from Simon Pegg, but the last third was utterly preposterous and dumb to a degree that, it seems to me, dishonours Gene Roddenberry’s memory. Even if, over the years, the Star Trek universe has sometimes played fast and loose with scientific fact and theory, it’s nonetheless tended to retain a certain plausibility, or at least consistency, within its own terms of reference. But the vast space station ‘Yorktown’, a visual fantasy only made possible by state of the art digital imaging, would, if it was to have any possible reality in the Star Trek world, have required an application of technology and resources that would have been centuries ahead of the oddly retro/future world of the rest of the film (remember, we’re in the timeframe of the original, William Shatner, TV series, not even of ‘The Next Generation’ series, set 70 years later).  And the ‘action’ that then occurs within this impossible world is simply stupidly over the top to the point where I ceased to care about what happened, and just wanted the movie to end.

So, is popular culture really getting dumber as it gets more hyped? Did things used to be better, or did we at least have, in the past, a sharper critical awareness and a better sense of proportion? Evidence that this may be the case came, also on Christmas Day, in the unlikely form of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’.  Never a Muppet fan, I’d avoided this film ever since it came out in 1992, assuming it would be silly, sentimental, and tiresome.  I’m happy to admit I was entirely wrong: it is a modest masterpiece, telling Dickens’s original story with great fidelity and visual flair, with a nicely understated performance from Michael Caine as Scrooge, and setting this all within the madcap world of the Muppets in a way that is very witty and oddly touching.  Who would have thought that presenting Tiny Tim as a small green frog would bring a tear to the eye?  Yes, maybe popular culture really was better then….

 © Robert Livingston December 2016

Botticelli and the Critics

Botticelli: Annunciation (Glasgow Art Gallery)

Botticelli: Annunciation (Glasgow Art Gallery)

The first painting I fell in love with ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, was Botticelli’s little ‘Annunciation’ in Kelvingrove Art Gallery in my home city of Glasgow.  So our latest cultural jaunt to London had to include a visit to Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A. It’s an exhibition that has divided opinion. Some reviewers have given it five stars, while Boyd Tonkin in The Independent described it as ‘the grossest heap of kitsch and dross ever to litter [the V&A’s] halls’!

It’s certainly different and unexpected.  Being greeted at the entrance by Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr No, while Sean Connery looks on from the bushes like a satyr, was an arresting opening.  The first gallery then explores the appropriation of Botticelli’s most iconic images throughout the 20th century, from Surrealist and Pop artists to Dolce and Gabbano, while the second gallery examines the impact of his ‘rediscovery’ on artists in the 19th century, including some fascinating copies by names famous and unknown, and even two outright forgeries.  Only in the third room do you reach the real Botticelli—or do you?  Because only one signed painting by Botticelli survives: the Mystic Nativity usually in the National Gallery. A key theme of this section is the process by which, over the last two centuries, individual paintings have been attributed, reattributed, and even de-attributed, or at best demoted to ‘workshop of Botticelli’ status.

We found the whole exhibition enthralling and thought-provoking, and as I was interested in exploring the controvery which the exhibition has stirred up, I’ve looked at no less than 12 different reviews online, all from reputable publications with paid reviewers, rather than from individual bloggers like myself.  What I found revealed, I think, something significant about the state of criticism today, and it isn’t pleasant.

The single biggest exhibit in Botticelli Reimagined is a huge video installation, The Path, by the great American artist Bill Viola.  Now, such is the complexity involved in setting up Viola’s large works that any chance to see one of them is an event, even in the crowded London art scene.  And The Path is one of his most engrossing and moving works, easily the best thing in the whole exhibition, apart from the handful of indisputably authentic Botticellis. So I was interested to see what my clutch of critics had to say about this masterwork.  Nothing. Nada. Not a Word.  The one honourable exception was Time Out which devoted just 10 words to it, but at least described it as ‘mesmerising’, which it is.

I can think of three explanations for this mysterious omission:  1. They missed it.  Such a large video installation does, after all, require a room to itself (though that room is right at the start of the exhibition). 2. They don’t rate Bill Viola.  Such unanimity on his lack of importance, however, seems highly unlikely. 3. It didn’t fit the shared paradigm. This, sadly, seems to me the most likely explanation. Both those critics who loved the exhibition, and those who hated it, based the bulk of their reviews on the same crude idea of a progression from the valueless clutter and kitsch of the present day to the calm and purity of the 15th century Renaissance.  The profound, meditative calm of Viola’s video completely disrupts that false paradigm.  Support for this explanation comes from the similar omission of other works in the contemporary section which are also thoughtful and quiet in tone, and demand time to experience, such as that by Michael Joaquin Gray .

I think there’s a more profound failure underlying this omission of any reference to the Bill Viola work: a failure to grasp why this exhibition is not at the Royal Academy or the National Gallery, as might have been expected, but at the V&A, ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’ (my italics).  This is not an exhibition about art history but about cultural history, and of the twelve critics I surveyed only one, Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian, got that right and, guess what, she’s a cultural historian.

Botticelli Reimagined explores the idea of ‘Botticelli’ as a cultural ‘meme’ (as Richard Dawkins would put it), which lay dormant for three centuries after the death of the artist with that name, only to resurface and begin an extraordinary journey through both high and low culture, having effects (like any cultural meme) that have been both beneficial and adverse. Even in his lifetime ‘Botticelli’ was, as Hughes puts it, ‘a brand’, where the hand of the artist himself may have done no more than draw an initial cartoon as the basis for a stream of devotional images produced by his workshop assistants.  If that sounds like anyone today, it’s Jeff Koons or the late Andy Warhol, both, of course, included in the exhibition.

The cumulative failure of these critics to address the true complexity of Botticelli Reimagined in favour of simplistic soundbites seems to me a real trahison des clercs. It’s not a good time for professional critics.  Shrinking newspapers are shedding staff while the Internet enables pretty well anyone to publish their views on pretty well anything. The question is often asked: do we really need paid critics?  My whole background would have inclined me to shout ‘Yes!’ but now I’m not so sure.

My favourite podcast is Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live.  Mark Kermode recently published an entire book, Hatchet Job, trying to defend the role of the professional film critic.  It’s a good read but it smacks of desperation.  After all, even Kermode himself often has to admit that reviews which listeners have emailed to his programme are more articulate and insightful than his own contributions. Some of those contributing listeners are not yet in their teens.

In my younger days I produced many paid and commissioned reviews for the Glasgow Evening Times, the Glasgow Herald (as it was then), Scotland on Sunday, and even BBC Scotland.  Now I use this blog to write unpaid reviews of art, film, books, music and theatre. Setting aside the advantages brought by 40 years experience of working in the arts, blogging lets me discuss subjects at greater length and in greater depth than was ever possible all those years ago in the mainstream media.  Sure, these blogs may only be read by a handful of people, as opposed to the thousands who read (or, more likely, skimmed) what I used to write for national media.  But perhaps that’s a healthier model—a dispersed series of critical conversations as opposed to a fiat delivered de haut en bas from the elevated status of a national newspaper.  We’ll always need people like, say, Mark Cousins,  to educate us in the deep history and breadth of an artform like film, but perhaps the role of paid daily or weekly ‘reviewers’ is truly being replaced by technology, and will one day seem as quaint as those ‘explainers’ who used to stand by the screen to tell the stories of silent films, and whose remit was swept away by the coming of sound.

© Robert Livingston May 2016

Also Hidden in Plain Sight

Perth Museum and Gallery

Perth Museum and Gallery

Last week Judith and I were in Perthshire for the wedding of Judith’s cousin at the remarkable Fingask Castle . The weather was perfect, the experience was magical.  And as we were staying over in the neighbourhood, we decided the next day to make a detour into Perth on our way home.

Living as I do in the Highlands, I find that Perth is often an ideal mid-point for meetings with Central Belt colleagues, either at the excellent Concert Hall, or in the very special surroundings of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s offices in the Fair Maid’s House. And as Perth Museum and Art Gallery is close to both those buildings, I usually try to drop in, especially as there’s almost always at least one interesting temporary exhibition to catch. So I suppose I’ve called at the Museum once or twice a year for many years now.

Well, this time there were no less than three fine exhibitions to enjoy.  First, a handsomely presented display about the archaeological finds at the very important site of Forteviot, mounted in collaboration with the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.  This really needed a visit all too itself, there was so much to take in. Then there was a selection of delectable paintings by the late William Littlejohn, this time in association with the Royal Scottish Academy, and nicely linked to a selection of prints from the Ukiyo school.  Finally, ‘Life in Miniature’ was a clever and intriguing mixed show from the Museum’s own collection. Plus, Judith hadn’t previously seen the superb permanent display of studio glass, telling the remarkable story of Monart .

Add to this the fact that the entire interior was looking fresh as paint (and maybe had indeed benefitted from some recent major redecoration), and we had a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable experience. All by ourselves. I think we saw one other visitor the entire time we were in (which was about an hour).  Now, sadly, that’s not been an unusual experience for me at Perth Museum and Gallery.  I’ve quite often been, at best, one of just two or three visitors.

We stopped on the way out to tell the receptionist how very much we’d enjoyed our visit, and asked about the lack of visitors.  Numbers had been dropping steadily, she told us sadly.  But don’t they have lots of school trips, we asked (the displays were very well suited to provide teachers with suitable teaching material)—no, apparently not.  The costs of transport, the difficulties of getting permissions.  School trips, too, were dropping off.

We then went on to the J D Fergusson Gallery, splendidly located in the former Perth Waterworks.  The interior was looking all of its 25 years (ie rather tired), and Fergusson is not a favourite of mine—I’d have exchanged all of his paintings for the one exquisite Cadell that was also on show.  Nonetheless, again, the displays were very well presented and the staff were friendly and welcoming, but we were the only visitors.

This is surely not sustainable. But I find it hard to pin down the cause.  In my travels I’ve seen many local museums—both Council-run and independent—that are so tedious, out of date and in dire need of TLC that I’m not surprised that their visitor numbers are alarmingly low.  But that’s not the case in Perth.  Handsome and imposing buildings, in good locations, housing impressive and enjoyable displays.  What’s not to like?  Why have they become, effectively, hidden in plain sight for the people of Perth, and indeed for those visiting the city?

I can’t help contrasting our Perth experience with what we see when we visit the refurbished McManus Museum and Gallery in Dundee, which is always busy whenever we drop in.  Is it just that the McManus, like Kelvingrove in Glasgow, has a long history of ‘belonging’ to the local population, a kind of loyalty which Perth, for whatever reason, has not achieved?  Like many Scottish Councils before them, Perth and Kinross have only just outhoused their Cultural Services—including the museums– to an independent trust, Culture Perth and Kinross .  When the Highland Council set up the similar High Life Highland some years ago, that shift rejuvenated Inverness Museum and Gallery, which has to overcome the handicap of being in a truly ugly and unsuitable 60s block, so unlike the elegant classical buildings in Perth. Perhaps the advent of Culture Perth and Kinross will achieve a similar sea change, and Perth Museum and Gallery will finally be brought out of hiding.

In Praise of Length

 

Clive James in 2012, photo Ruby Goes

Clive James in 2012, photo Ruby Goes

A recent TV interview with Clive James—dying, but still remarkably chipper—prompted me to get down to what I’d been planning to do for some time, and start re-reading his magnum opus, ‘Cultural Amnesia’. At just short of 900 pages, this could be a daunting prospect, but first time round, just after it was published in 2007, I devoured this inspiring, engrossing, infuriating book in just the three weeks of a standard library loan. Indeed, it’s partly because I raced through it so enthusiastically the first time round, that I wanted to go back for a more considered second encounter.

There are many areas of the arts in which length can be a serious drawback, especially in literature: crime novels, thrillers and SF were all much better when the novels were, on average, half the length they are now (see my earlier blog on Michael Gilbert). And that’s not just true of literature: blockbuster movies, ‘event’ exhibitions, prestige TV series, even, some might argue, operas, can all suffer from the inverse ratio that, the longer (or bigger) they are, the less effective their impact (often due to sheer exhaustion). Initiatives like ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’ have shown how much time-poor audiences can be attracted by something short and pithy.

But I make an exception for certain kinds of books that focus on history and culture. Here’s a list of some of those I’ve had no trouble in getting to the end of, in the last 10 years or so:

Norman Davies: ‘The Isles’ (1220 pages) and ‘Europe’ (1364 pages)
Orlando Figes: ‘A People’s Tragedy’ (922 pages; the story of the Russian revolution)
Christopher Clark: ‘The Iron Kingdom’ (777 pages; the history of Prussia)
A N Wilson: ‘The Victorians’ (738 pages)
Diarmid MacCulloch: ‘A History of Christianity’ (1216 pages, and one of my favourite books of all time)
Tony Judt: ‘Postwar’ (960 pages, a history of Europe since 1945)
Simon Schama: ‘Landscape and Memory’ (652 pages, and one that definitely repaid a second read)
Peter Watson: ‘The German Genius’ (964 pages)
Kenneth Roy: ‘The Invisible Spirit’ (542 pages; a history of Scotland, 1945-75)
Amanda Foreman: ‘A World on Fire’ (1040 pages, Britain and the American Civil War)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: ‘Civilisations’ (636 pages)

Sorry, that can’t avoid looking a bit like boasting, but I’ve drawn up the list to make what I think is an important point. What all these books have in common–apart from the fact that they’re well written, of course—is that they are each a truly immersive experience. By the time I had finished each of these books, my mind was in quite a different place, and I would never be able to think in the same way again about, say, the history of the British Isles, Prussian ‘militarism’, or ‘Victorian values’.

Short books can of course also have a similar impact. Richard Holloway’s ‘Godless Morality’ is a slim 164 pages, but I don’t think anyone with an open mind could get to the last page without having that mind altered in significant ways. But that’s a work of ethics and philosophy. When we’re talking about history, or cultural history, there is something about the accumulation of significant details, about being drawn into a complex web of themes, narratives, personalities and events, about living intensely with the subject, for the weeks (or even months) that it takes to navigate through such long books, that is essential to the process of true learning, the kind of learning that changes minds.

Of course, no-one is going to retain all the detail contained in any of these books, not even after a second, third or fourth reading. But what I find is, that the knowledge that that detail exists, that these complex webs of connections have been mapped, that the author’s conclusions—should they choose to come to any—have been arrived at only after years of living with and sifting through this mass of material, is essential to the process of absorption and understanding.

In the age of the sound bite (or byte), of the shared item on Facebook, of 15 minute TED talks, this is not, perhaps, a popular view. But maybe it’s a necessary one. I didn’t know, when I started any of the books listed above, how reading them was going to change my view of their subjects, or of the wider world. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t pick them up with the intention of reinforcing already entrenched views. In many cases, these books surprised me (as a convinced atheist, perhaps most of all ‘A History of Christianity’) and often encouraged me to read further, or to enter into debates less dogmatically. Take Norman Davies ‘The Isles’, for example. His policy of referring to the British Isles, and their constituent nations and regions, only by the names by which they were known during the particular period he is writing about (eg Britannia, Alba, even made-up names for prehistoric eras) is such a forceful demonstration of the contingent nature of history that I’ve never thought the same way about nation states since. As Davies’ other great book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, forcefully demonstrates, nation-building has never been a teleological process.

It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who first famously said that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Perhaps if British and UK politicians had had the chance to read William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’ (608 pages) they would have thought twice about once again becoming ensnared in the troubled history of Afghanistan but, sadly, that book was published too late to make that possible. But even if it had been around to influence the policymakers, back in 2001, would any of them have thought to read it? John Major’s favourite bedtime reading is apparently Trollope, and if that includes the devastating critique of society in ‘The Way We Live Now’, then that’s no bad thing, but I don’t see many of our present leaders, or their advisors, as serious readers.

But, just maybe, instead of investing the 80 hours it takes to watch the five seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, we put a similar time into a bit of serious reading, we might be better placed to challenge the policy-makers in terms they’d find hard to ignore. Which brings us back to Clive James, who pondered the book that became ‘Cultural Amnesia’ over a forty year period, as a defence of Humanism, and a celebration of diversity of thought. If he can spare forty years to write it, perhaps we can spare as many hours to read it.