What makes things memorable?

What makes things memorable? Why is it that when you cast your mind back you can recover a memory of a walk down a dark street but not the day that preceded it? Obviously, some things are inherently memorable – most people are going to remember getting married, giving birth, surviving a plane crash – but what about all those other memories that seem to settle for no reason at all? The sign for the public library (in English and Welsh) at the top of the street in which my Nan lived for instance. Or the smell of the school changing rooms at middle school – but not the ones at high school.

What for that matter makes things special? Again, for experiences such as the first time you find yourself in love there’s no mystery. But why do we – or I at any rate – sometimes get the same feeling on a walk i’ve done a dozen or more times before through a landscape which, while interesting, is hardly breathtaking?

Sometimes i suppose there’s no real answer. The feeling of specialness is as much about where you are mentally as physically. Other times though i can at least guess part of the reason and that’s the thrill of being surprised. It happened to me last week when i went to Cafe Oto to a gig dubbed ‘dj sniff meets Evan Parker, John Edwards & Mark Sanders’, the latter three being free jazz/improv musicians. I had no idea what i was letting myself in for; i’d bought the ticket on a whim. Evan Parker, the saxophonist, was someone i’d heard before but felt i hadn’t heard the best of and the dj (in lower case) sounded vaguely interesting.

Thank God for whims: the musicians were wonderful and the dj (a young Japanese man wearing a deerstalker-like hat) was a revelation. The gig was superb – more than that, it was special. This was one of those nights when you practically float home and the next morning wake up feeling overjoyed just to be alive. All the odder, you might think, given that the music was challenging to put it mildly: jagged and intense, raging and opaque.

The first set had each of the acoustic musicians taking it turns to improvise with dj sniff, a turntable musician (as he calls himself), who showed that it really is possible to make new music* from other people’s music – and from all sorts of sounds. At one point he seemed to be playing a dog bark and part of a scream, at others he took drum fills and created new drum fills out of them! The second set brought all four musicians together and was even wilder than the first. Saxophone, drums, double bass (plucked, bowed, slapped, scraped) and that impassive whirlwind at the turntable.

Still, what i remember isn’t necessarily what i want to remember. I’d like to be able to recall in detail the contours of the improvisations that i heard; instead my most vivid memory is trying to find the train station afterwards**. Oh, well…

* And i do mean ‘new music’. This was as far from a simple remix or even a mash up, as a symphony is from a medley of songs.
** Actually, it’s more specific than that: what I remember is the zig-zagging dark street I walked along when I left the cafe.

Why don’t people like Classical Music?

A month or two ago i read a history of the London Symphony Orchestra. A revelation, not least finding out how “Rock’n’Roll” some of its musicians have been – off-stage, if not on. It certainly made me want to hear more of their music and more Classical Music generally. It seems i’m one of a dwindling band however: one of the themes that dominates the latter part of the book is the idea that Classical Music is in crisis: its audiences are growing older while its repertoire remains dominated by music that was mostly written in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author also suggests that audiences are becoming less educated about the music they’re listening to.

Assuming this is true – and it sounds broadly correct to me – why should it be so? Classical Music is supposed to be one of the great achievements of Western culture so why should it struggle in this way?

Yesterday i read a blog which suggested that one of the genre’s biggest problems is its failure to engage with the popular music of the 20th Century. Earlier composers may have been happy to invoke the feel of folk music but most of their modern descendants seem to try to avoid acknowledging that Rock, Reggae, Electronica and so on exist.  Even more remarkable is the blind spot many demonstrate in relation to Jazz and to non-Western Music. Indeed composers and musicians often talk of “music” as though Classical Music was the only form in existence*.

This is a conceit which is almost guaranteed to irritate fans of other kinds of music. It also has another effect: in separating Classical Music so decisively from any other musical genre its would-be guardians actually make it harder for newcomers to connect with it. They don’t just keep its enemies at bay, they do the same to possible allies. If you don’t speak the language, know the references, accept the absolute aesthetic superiority of this musical form then you’re liable to be made to feel like an interloper: as though your opinions aren’t valid and your concert hall etiquette leaves something to be desired.

The blogger mentioned above also points out that the refusal to engage with popular music means that Classical Music lacks the sounds which make up most younger people’s sound worlds. How important is this? I think it doesn’t help matters – especially the lack of a strong rhythmic pulse. This is more of a problem in later music rather than earlier, which means ironically enough that many younger listeners find Bach more accessible than Beethoven – and definitely more accessible than Boulez.

Equally important i think is the way that Classical Music has identified itself (or allowed itself to be identified) so strongly with the old white/European/upper class cultural elite of the western world. It has fallen victim to a  rejection of that elite’s claims to hegemony. This has wider implications: whereas the refusal of a folk musician to embrace electronic sounds may be perceived as a mark of authenticity, the same attitude in Classical Music is seen as evidence that it’s out of touch, anachronistic, etc.

And then there’s the fact that Classical Music is harmonically complex and often extremely abstract. Its works – concertos, sonatas, symphonies and so on – are structured in very distinct (and to an outsider very perplexing) ways. Worse still the titles of these works provide little sense of what they are about or what they might offer us: 5th Symphony, Opus 28. Any added musical information (“Andante”, “Allegro”) is usually  in Italian! Audiences are increasingly unwilling to make the effort to do the work needed to be able to penetrate this mystery. As many people have said we live in an age of instant gratification. Mind you, we also live in an age of information overload and ever-increasing work pressures: tired, stressed people aren’t in the best place for studying music. And the same pressure on the school system means that there are often fewer chances to learn an instrument or learn about music generally than there were in previous decades.

Still… still… still… i listen to a Bach cantata or Beethoven piano concerto or even one of Rautavaara’s works and i can’t believe that people wouldn’t enjoy them if they gave them a go.

* Although this is changing slowly (too slowly?)

The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

More trouble in the land of penguins

Interesting that a furore has erupted over the Falkland Islands again. Apart from bringing back memories of the war in the 80s it set my mind thinking about territory and territorial claims. Who has the right to make territorial claims and why? When do the rights of those who live in a territory give way to those of others? Where does the principle of self-determination begin and end?

The current settlement dates to 1833 and is now into its sixth generation in some families. Can these people still be described as colonialists – and if so why is that not also true of the Argentines themselves? Most of the current population of Argentina descend from immigrants who arrived in the country in the late Nineteenth Century (or later) after the Falkland Islands settlement was established. The lands that many of them settled in the south of Argentina were already inhabited by indigenous peoples who were absorbed into the new state regardless of their own identities.

By contrast, there was no indigenous population on the Falklands. Certainly, there had been other settlements on the islands – the first being that of the French in 1764 – but these were all attempts at colonisation. There was no particular moral or historical claim behind them.

If the Falkland Islanders choose to identify themselves as such then why should that not be respected? Why should the islands’ real name by asserted to be Las Malvinas? If the islanders choose to speak English and choose a status as an overseas dependency of Britain (or whatever the term is) then why should that choice be disputed? Is it because they are too few of them: how many inhabitants does a place need to have a right to have a right to self-determination? Because the islands are close to Argentina: is 300 miles close? Because they are not a nation? What is the special quality of the nation state – a relatively recently developed political structure – that allows it to ride roughshod over the rights of actual people?

Here as in many other cases nationalism seems to me a covert imperialism. Where empires claim that a territory belongs to it, nations claim that a territory forms a part of it. But in both cases these claims may be made irrespective of the actual feelings of the people who inhabit it. Some South American countries assert that the failure to surrender the Falkland Islands to Argentina is imperialism. On the contrary, the settling of the islands might have been an act of imperialism, but then the same is true of the original settlement of Argentina. The settlement as it exists now though – almost 180 years later – is a society, small as it is, in its own right.

The unloved children of Pride & Prejudice

One of the many things I’ve done this month to ward off the winter blues is re-read Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I first read it when I was about 12. At that age the book was all about the ElizabethDarcy love story and the comedy of the ridiculous, as exemplified by the wonderful Mr Collins. Five years later, when the book was a set text for English A-Level, it was the formal beauty of Jane Austen‘s writing which arrested me: those graceful chains of semi-colons, the delicate narrative thread. And so it’s gone on: each time i notice something new or find myself rethinking my earlier impressions.

Reading the book this Christmas, what struck me was the terrible sadness of two characters, Mr Collins and Mary. Take away the comedy of Mr Collins and what you see is a man who has fundamentally been broken, destroyed as a person before that person ever really had a chance to form, by a lonely childhood under an oppressive father. I find it interesting that his childhood has parallels with that of Darcy: the latter attributes his lack of social skills and inability to connect with strangers outside his circle to being an only son, for many years an only child. Both men appear to have lost their mothers very early on in life and to have grown up dominated by their fathers. Both seem older than their years – probably because these dominating fathers were also old men? But where Darcy is more fortunate is that however much his father disciplined him he also built up his sense of worth. Mr Collins by contrast was clearly brought up to feel that he was nothing. All his pomposity, all his desire for and yet fear of status, all his servility is linked to this inner emptiness.

Then there’s Mary, the middle and deeply unwanted child of the Bennets. Jane was the first child and beautiful too; Elizabeth was her father’s darling and pretty in a less orthodox way; but by the time Mary was born impatience for the much-needed son was setting in and on top of that Mary was plain and serious. Kitty and Lydia who followed her, if not great beauties, were pretty enough and more importantly frivolous enough to win their mother’s affections at least. Not that would make much difference to Mary. She, i always feel, is a daddy’s girl. She craves the kind of relationship with her father that Elizabeth has, but he completely rejects and despises her. Like Mr Collins her personality is crippled by the lack of love she receives. This is to me the great irony: that the pedant that Mr Bennet holds in such contempt is in great part his own creation.

Imagine what Mary might have been like if someone had showed an interest in her as a young child. If her father had actually listened to her she might have learnt how to talk to people – rather than at them. If she had not grown up feeling the failure of her plainness so keenly she might have had a chance to develop a personality that would have made her lack of looks less important – as, for example, did Elizabeth, who while not plain as such is clearly not a beauty in the way that Jane is. Likewise with Mr Collins – to be sure he might never have been as handsome or charismatic as Darcy, but what about Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam? In another world, with a different upbringing might not Mr Collins have been more like him?

There again, would i really want Mr Collins to be other than he is? Fiction is cruel!