David Green

David Green (Books) is the imprint under which I publish booklets of my own poems, when there are sufficient of them. Apart from that, the website has become what it is. I hope you find at least some of it worthwhile.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Couperin Lecons de Tenebres

Francois Couperin, Lecons de Tenebres, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth Watts, La Nuova Musica, David Bates (harmonia mundi)

The James Bowman and Michael Chance recording of these Trois Lecons de Tenebres is more or less the best disc I have among the several lined up in the front room so any further reading of them is up against quite some opposition.
It is an indication of a relative feeling of being 'comfortably off' that I heard the disc on the radio, thought I wouldn't like it, but still bought it out of curiosity. And then bought two previous versions to make further comparisons.
The text is that of the 'lamentations' attributed to Jeremiah on the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. but a note in one of the booklets advises that we no longer think that Jeremiah was the author. It is a great shame to be best known for something you didn't write.
The most striking difference between the Bowman/Chance counter-tenor performance and the two sopranos here is that the ladies are more operatic, dramatic and, at times, sensual, compared to the chaste and affirmative male duo. Both are capable of sublime moments, both of aspiration and melancholy, ornamentation and interplay. It is probably never going to be possible for me to prefer the ladies but only because I am so accustomed to the version I've had for years. There are moments and phrases taken differently that shed light and extend one's understanding of the piece. The masterpiece is the third lecon, to which the first two have built, and both deliver it entirely convincingly if not in the same way.
Significantly, Couperin himself wrote in his preface that,
although the vocal part is written in the treble clef, all other kinds of voices may sing them,
so we need not think that one recording is more authentic than any other on account of the vocal range of the singers, or their gender.
Francois might not even be the best-known Couperin, with Louis' keyboard music perhaps being familiar to more of the classical music audience now, but this is vocal music to compare with any in the canon, not just representatiive of an age and place that has Charpentier also among its impressive cast list.
The Lecons, at about 42 minutes, are not long enough to fill the full potential of a disc nowadays and so a comparison of the available recordings (and there are plenty more than the four I now have) involves which other pieces make up the programme. While the harmonia mundi 1970 of Alfred Deller, accompanied by tenor, Philip Todd, has nothing else and keeps it simple, that might be preferable to breaking up the set of Lecons, as this does, with two sonatas by Brossard before ending with his brief but elegant Stabat Mater. Bowman and Chance put the main attraction in between a warm up of two other Couperin pieces before adding the Magnificat. 
More adventurously, perhaps, Rene Jacobs and Concerto Vocale (again, harmonia mundi), add short items by Jeremiah Clarke and Henry Purcell, but I can't see why you want to break up the three lecons and staying with Couperin throughout seems the right thing to do rather than change mood, focus or even composer midstream. It doesn't last long enough as it is so one ought to have as much as one can have without distractions.
Deller is great, has the leading role to himself with tenor as viola or cello to his violin, and is worth having for that difference alone. Perhaps he would still be the outstanding choice for some and it doesn't sound out-dated by the more recent releases to me.
Rene Jacobs takes top billing ahead of fellow counter-tenor, Vincent Darras, on his recording from 1982. Here the theorbo is heard, plucked, higher in the mix than the others, where the viola da gamba and keyboard continuo are for the most part not meant to intrude much more than instruments in the recitative of opera. It is probably the least compelling of these four recordings although that would not cloud the issue if one hadn't heard the others. It does make more of my favourite phrase in the viola da gamba part than all but the Bowman/Chance, as the finale of the troisieme is lifted to a 'one more time' refrain.    
It would have come as an enormous shock if any of the alternatives had replaced my favourite, especially quite so quickly, but it's easy to see why one recording of a much-loved piece is inadequate for the serious collector. Beyond Spem in Alium and the Allegri Miserere, there are very few pieces I need to have more than one version of. One needs time to listen to them all, for a start. But Lucy Crowe and Elizabeth Watts have made a fine contribution to the catalogue with this new disc, differentiated as they are, but able to blend, combine or separate their parts to wonderful effect. If this had been the first recording I had heard, or the only one, it would be a big favourite but, as it is, it will be some time, if ever, before it rivals Bowman and Chance, but all such considerations are unnnecessary when one has them all to compare, contrast and enjoy, bringing out different possibilities in the same miusic each time. It's not the 'same' music any more than different productions of the same play are the same play. 
Two very minor faults with the new release are that once you've managed to remove the multi-lingual booklet from the case, it is almost impossible to get it back in and that, mysteriously to me, because I haven't been able to explain it yet, the text in the booklet is attributed to the Lecons of Charpentier. Either they have made an inexplicable error in editing and proof-reading or I've not appreciated why the text, which is presumably the same or very similar, is the one Charpentier used rather than Couperin's. It's not really relevant when listening to the music but it has caused me some wondering during time that I could have been wondering about something else.    

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Readers for South 54 Launch

The poets reading at the launch on October 18th, details below, apart from me, are

Richard Williams, Terry Quinn, Dorothy Barden, Denise Bennett, Patricia Griffin, Jenny Hamlett, Michael Henty, Carolyn King, Wendy Klein, Michael Loveday, Andrew Mayne, Diana McCormack, Ralph Mold, Maggie Sawkins, Sue Spiers, Mark Totterdell, Selwyn Veater, Karina Vidler, Dorothy Yamamoto.

That is an excellent line-up.

Hope to see you there. 

Monday, 26 September 2016

South in Portsmouth

I'm not expecting a new outbreak of Beatlemania, not even The Osmonds or the Bay City Rollers but get there if you can for the reading by poets featured in the shortly forthcoming issue of South poetry magazine,

http://www.southpoetry.org/readings 

To my knowledge, which is as yet incomplete, poets reading will include the wonderful Maggie Sawkins; the estimable Denise Bennett; my tip for imminent recognition, Diana McCormack; my partner-in-selection of the poems in the magazine, Mr. Richard Williams, and, most woefully, myself.


Tuesday 18th October. The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth, 7 pm for 7.30. You'll be allowed out by 10 pm.

It will be any good. It was me that was involved in deciding which poems got in. I can think of no higher recommendation.

A Survey of Contemporary Poetry

I'm not going to attempt such a thing. Good grief, no. I was led to thinking how difficult it would be to undertake, being so close to it, being a small part of a small part of it and not all of it being visible to any individual.
One might begin with the famous names from the big publishing houses, the 'mainstream' poets who we imagine might represent our age in a hundred years' time- Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy, Sean O'Brien, we might think, although posterity sometimes sees things differently. And then there'd be the local groups and activity in London. Oxford and the provinces, as well as the dedicated schools of avant garde manifesto-makers beleaguered in their stolid doctrines, plus the magazines, competitions and, perhaps most important of all, the individual readers and writers doing their own thing to their own satisfaction without troubling anybody else with it.
I wouldn't know where to start but one of my own windows onto this disparate galaxy of far-flung stars and solar sysytems is Clarissa Aykroyd's The Stone and the Star, here, http://thestoneandthestar.blogspot.co.uk/  
and in particular her Blog List from which you can scan the latest posts by those she follows, which I'm gratified to be included in.
Today I followed up Anthony Wilson and his thoughts on his 'Go-to' poets. His list comprises Norman MacCaig, Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Tomas Transtromer as well as quoting Auden on Marianne Moore and it is so immaculate that I thought that any other poet he mentions must be worthwhile by association. I had never heard of Marie Howe but I was immediately off in search of her books. There is not apparently a Selected as yet and so I'll start with the most recent and let you know how it goes.
--
Otherwise, a new influx of books is due after a session of indulgent clicking away, irresponsibly just ahead of when I'm asked what I want for my birthday and I have to say I've just ordered a pile of records so I don't know.
I've begun George Gissing's The Nether World in preference to the breeze block that is Ben Pimlott's biography of Harold Wiilson. I can't believe I'll be ploughing through that line by line but it will be one to dip into although sadly the index leads us to not much on Jeremy Thorpe.
These follow the short anthology of memoirs about Joyce in The Joyce We Knew by Ulick O'Connor, which confirms at first hand much of what we thought we knew about the aloof, half-blind genius with a fine tenor voice, and the New Grove North European Baroque Masters for its brief biography and catalogue of works of Buxtehude.
Also on their way, alongside a selection of versions of Couperin's Lecons de Tenebres to compare with the latest new recording, are Elizabeth Foyster's The Trials of the King of Hampshire, Barney Curley's old autobiography finally found cheap enough and George's Ghosts, a biography of Yeats by Brenda Maddox. The Ellman account of Yeats was so unsatisfactory that I thought he deserved another chance. Brenda's book on Nora Barnacle was excellent and so if she can't make Yeats interesting, I'll have to assume it his fault after all.
So, with the Saturday Nap due to take us up to Boxing Day with horse racing advice of the most dubious provenance and the assessments of the Year's Best in all the usual categories, it is worth noting- should you be interested- that I only went away for a couple of weeks and I'm back here like a rearguard action, trying to show that the blog (although I'm old-fashioned and call this a website) is not a thing of the past.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Today's Times Crossword Solution

There might be some who wonder why I sometimes post the Times crossword solution. It's because I still regard finishing it as an achievement. I was confident by halfway that I could do it this morning but I don't think I'd have done it, or not as quickly, without finding two answers with a wordfinder which is, of course, cheating.
A more difficult puzzle for the afternoon is going to be whether to order the new recording of Couperin's Lecons de Tenebres, as played on Record Review. I didn't like it compared to the classic James Bowman and Michael Chance recording but I'm sure we all know what the answer will be.

But the decisions have all been made regarding today's investments.

Cliffs of Dover Market Rasen 2.00, was the nap but it's been on the drift.
Fox Appeal, Market Rasen 3.10
Muckle Roe, 3.45
and the wild stab in the dark for the Cambridgeshire is Very Talented.


 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Byron's Women

Alexander Larman, Byron's Women (Head of Zeus)

The famous line about Byron being 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', coined by Lady Caroline Lamb, who spoke from experience, has tended to have been regarded as a badge of honour for the celebrity poet. But in certain circles, times have changed and even the more likeable 'bad boys' are subject to more scrutiny in our ethically-aware times. This biography, seen through chapters on a number of prominent women in his life, is enough to make us sure there was nothing glamorous about it, it's nothing to be proud of and that's the least of it.
We are what we are and that isn't necessarily our fault. Byron's father, 'Mad Jack' was a prototype from which the disastrous finished article was developed and the account of his life as chancer, womaniser and prone to unquestioning extravagance is evidence enough that much of what we are is inescapably in the DNA. But there seems to be some irresistible magnetism about some that means that no limits can be put on their capacity to indulge themselves and it always has ruinous results for those who succumb to the charisma or charm. It is their misfortune that Lord Byron and his like can fall out of love, and become quite unpleasant about it, just as quickly as they can fall in love and provide such exquisite poetry as She Walks in Beauty.
There don't appear to have been many boundaries to the poet's preferences but the understated turn of phrase in that age of circumspect idioms offers some light relief to us who would not express such things as quaintly now,
Such was the frequency and enthusiasm of his activity with Caroline at first that he was obliged to obtain a doctor's prescription for what he unblushingly described as 'a debility occasioned by too  frequent connection'.
But the telling phrase there might be 'at first' because there is nothing as dull as the same and nothing more exciting than the next.
Some might have more sympathy with his announcement soon after that, which supports the point, 'I do not believe in the existence of what is called love'. And, if we are to spare him some pity, not much of which he really warrants, it could be added that in Lady Caroline, he got the sort of girlfriend he deserved, who turned out to be much more trouble than she could have been worth to him, to which we might say, good for her.
His relationship with his half-sister, while being scandalous enough, is paradoxically one of the more enduring and genuine but in marrying Annabella Milbanke, he is clever but honest enough to write that,
she is quite pretty enough to be loved by her husband, without being so glaringly beautiful as to attract too many rivals.
But at about the same time as she receives news of his marriage, his half-sister, Augusta, gives birth to a child 'believed to be Byron's'.
In Italy, his relationship with Countess Teresa Guiccioli is that of 'cavalier servante', a recognized role of male companion, the difference between it and gigolo not being entirely clear, but the Count doesn't seem to mind, is blissfully unknowing or realizes from the start he can't do anything about it.
There is some reference to the poetry in this account, as well as the friendship with the Shelleys, but it is not the purpose of the book to concentrate on the literary biography. It is in six parts and tells the stories of nine women, through which we see the unbearable image of George Gordon. It does enough, though, to direct the reader to some poems. Darkness, one can't help but notice, is as bleak and desolate a poem as Rochester's Upon Nothing. It should come as no surprise that one of Alexander Larman's previous books is on the subject of the Blazing Star, John Wilmot. Rochester's poem is more than a hundred years older than Byron's and more of a metaphysical celebration of the nothing that underscores all existence than the hyperactive, Gothic gloom of Darkness but the fact that these two memorable major works by the two foremost libertines of English poetry express such barren world views suggest that beneath the excess, the mania, the hedonism and the untameable spirit, there is a vast emptiness.
The final part, after Byron's demise, aged 36, is about the two daughters, Ada and Medora, one a mathematical genius who manages to squander her talent on a misguided faith in gambling systems and the other, somewhat overlooked, whose difficult life ends with some solace in France, well-liked and respected by the villagers among who she lived.
If the book leaves us with the impression that its theme is the overbearing libido out of control, it is also about money. It's not really about poetry. That just happens. There is another story about Newstead Abbey, the cattle grazing within its walls when inherited by Byron.
We have equivalent C20th stories in those of Ted Hughes or Dylan Thomas, but even they seem to pale into suburban, recognizable situations compared to the excesses of high Romanticism. It might be poets liike Byron who make poetry seem outrageous, outlandish and on which its reputation for bohemianism is based but for each of these headline-makers there are hundreds of others turning well-made verses.
Byron's poems are not fashionable now and it's hard to foresee a time when they might become so again. It's hard to say whether poetry should be grateful for the attention characters like him draw to it, which is used to create some mystique about the whole enterprise. it's really not like that at all.
             

Friday, 16 September 2016

What were the chances

This afternoon I was reading Alexander Larman's new book, Byron's Women (review to follow next week), in the later chapters about Teresa Guiccioli, Byron's last mistress. The At The Races channel was on mute as I waited for the day's investments to mature and I caught the result of the first from Listowel. 1st, Countess Guiccioli, 40/1.
I don't believe in coincidences. That way madness lies and all kinds of superstition and hokum. All apparent coincidences were mathematically inevitable. Yes, two people can have the same birthday. In fact 1 in roughly 365 people do have the same birthday as you so if you meet 365 people, it is highly likely that you will share the same day for presents, cards and cake. So, what were the chances of me reading the story of the countess while her equine namesake landed the odds in Ireland. Well, 40/1, I suppose.
Either that or multiply 40/1 by the number of chapters in all the books ever published and the 6/4 chance that I would be reading one of them at the time.
-
Whereas the odds against Dr. David Price playing Percy Fletcher's Festival Toccata at a lunchtime recital in Portsmouth cathedral, yesterday, seem to be a certainty. It appears to be his party piece, a bright, rousing finish to any set list and now the third time I've heard him do it.
After the essential J.S. Bach, I was reminded of Henry Purcell's lesser known brother, Daniel, whose Prelude and Air is a gentle and delicate thing, not sure whether it was in the same circumstances that I first heard of him. Spirit of Elgar by Arthur Wills conjured something of the feel of the great man's music and John Williams' Hymn to the Fallen had a stately grandeur.
Having got used to a Thursday routine for all of two weeks, I'll miss it with the dubious pleasures of the office set to come flooding back next week.

The BBC Music continues to amuse and entertain with its lazy, formulaic reviewing (not unlike my own but I don't charge for the privilege) but the new issue has a disc including composers as young as 16 among other contemporary and C20th items so one really ought to see what they are up to. There is no immediate sign of a wholesale return to baroque decorum.
But in a two sentence review among the Re-issues, such conciseness allowing the magazine to boast '110 Reviews' on its cover, Michael Tanner asks,
Why are Haydn's concertos so dull? 

Well, I am sorry. Perhaps that's how he liked them. Why are your reviews so trite?

But I'm in no position to pass comment on bad writing having spent five of the last 24 hours knocking out the first draft of chapter 1 of Time After Time. I don't know if it will ever graduate to a second draft but this time, I must see it through.
I have a plan (pictured), although not all of these ten envelopes, one for each chapter have yet been filled in with ideas. The advantage this time is that amateur club cycling, 1969 and pop music are vivid in my limited imagination and so perhaps I can eventually jab away and produce 10 x 5000 words = 50000 words which can be called a novel.
Never mind pretensions to anything literary, or even interesting. If boring is good enough for Haydn, it will do for me. But I can't help but reflect that 50 hours could be better spent reading several good books rather than writing a bad one. But it is an ambition although I'm not sure where the time and inclination will come from once I'm back in the regular routine of attending the office.
-
And, finally, last Saturday it was wet and so access to the top of St. Mary's Church Tower was not possible and so we were only allowed as far as the bells. That might have been a lucky escape because the steps that far took me to the limits of my fitness. It is an unfortunate corollary of physical dissolution that one is denied so many panoramic views. But the bells, I can confirm, are by John Taylor of Loughborough, the big name in foundries in this country. It is very daring to hang such dangerous instruments on carpentry above where people walk and disasters have happened but now I've seen them at close quarters, I can imagine them whenever I'm awake when Bells on Sunday is broadcast, which is a happy coincidence when it happens, although mathematically inevitable from time to time.

 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

A Warm One in London Town

Sarah Gabriel (soprano),  Alexandra Vaduva (piano), Lunchtime Concert, St. Martin in the Fields, Sept 13th;
Andrew Marvell grave, St. Giles in the Fields
Maggi Hambling- Touch, works on paper, British Museum, to 29th Jan, 2017.

Today might not have been the best day for a day out in London but what can you do. You book your time off to enjoy that first chill in the air, the cooler evenings and mark off another summeras gone and what happens, it's about the hottest day of the year. I perspire readily and the big city in that heat is not a remedy. Added to that, my advancing years seem to make me less inclined to attend to minor detail and so I was lucky to get to London on the wrong train unnoticed but had to undergo the trauma of the tube to come back via Victoria, for which my ticket was valid.
It's a shame Jeremy Corbyn was quite so vilified for his photo opportunity on a crowded train because he's absolutely right, as any who use Victoria must know. Cancellations due to shortage of staff can only be the profit-making company's fault whereas, yes, the overcrowding coming out of Victoria was only augmented at Clapham Junction until it gradually dispersed but Corbyn's mistake was to make it a photo opportunity, like the Eds being pictured with their meat pies.
And one can't help but notice the ongoing 'development' of London, being further packed with flats and office space, possibly in time for the city to be deserted by any number of global trading companies post-referendum. I'm not quite as bothered about the aesthetics of the projects but worry more pragmatically about how the utilities can cater for such lurches in the numbers they have to serve because they all need water, gas, electricity and waste water taking away.
But now I'm home again, it's not for me to worry about, only to remember to make sure I do it better next time.
I even got the programme wrong for the lunchtime concert, expecting Bartok and Brahms on piano but getting songs forbidden by the Third Reich, by some famous C19 Germans, then Alban Berg, Korngold and Poulenc. But I was glad of that, only a week after declaring an interest in C19th German lieder.
Sarah Gabriel could have come straight out of a fairy tale book with her flowing red hair and siren voice. Pieces by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schubert were exquisitely done and then followed by 7 early songs by Berg. While one appreciates the audience's willingness to show their appreciation between four discrete items, they do need a bit of a reprimand if they insist on it in every break of a longer set, or, especially in the Korngold, when they've been told they will be sung straight through. It's as if the audience want to impress with just how much they appreciated the performance at any opportunity.
Well, don't. Clap louder and longer at the end. Stamp your feet if you like, shout 'bravo' or provide a standing ovation but there really is no need to punctuate a concert so insistently your own craven offerings.
The Berg was a great, modernist contrast to the Romantics. Korngold, I'm afraid, struggles at the wrong end of my league table of composers but did himself no harm with his Songs of the Clown, from Shakespeare. But I'm with Sarah, who said that Poulenc is a favourite composer of hers and we could have done with more than just Les Chemins de l'amour, in all its glamourous, Parisian decadence. Anything banned by the Nazis is a recommendation in itself and I can see why they didn't like that. It looked suspiciously as if people might enjoy themselves.
Between St. Martin's and the British Museum is the last resting place of Andrew Marvell, subject of my undergraduate dissertation at Lancaster in 1981, in St. Giles.
His body was interred under the pews in the south aisle next to the pulpit. 
 but I don't think there's any sign of it now. All we have is the grandiose plaque on the wall, put up several decades after his demise by a grand nephew. We are less inclined to such fulsome tributes now and there is evidence to suggest that Marvell, however true much of this eulogy might be, might not have been the easiest of company. And if he didn't feel like it, why should he have been expected to be.
I thought of Prince Buster's Ghost Dance, for which see below, with Marvell so nearby,


If you see old Johnny Donne down there in boneyard,
Tell him from me, Hello.
The Toughest.

And thoughts of mortality were also on hand in the exhibition of her drawings in the British Museum, from her father eventually using the oils she gave him when he retired, aged 60, to when he died, aged 96, pictures of her mother dead and three studies of a tired Stephen Fry who fell asleep while sitting for her.
After some wave drawings that are not as absorbing as the coloured oils because one can't trace the hints of different shades in them, were some of Beryl reclining but I hadn't realized we had moved on from waves until I looked at the second one, so fluid is Maggi's art. It is possible to enjoy a poem without knowing what it's about and, similarly here, it doesn't always matter what the subject is.
The only colour in the exhibition is the red-pink of Edge, ink and acrylic, 2015, echoing Japanese and Chinese calligraphy on an environmental theme and if it came more affordable than the great Broken Moon, which I now look up only to be referred back to my own website, it could become a substitute target when I'm rich enough
Otherwise we are left with other memories of close friends, like Lett Haines, Henrietta Moraes and Tory looking down, 1985, of the partner Maggi has lived with since 1987. I mean, you paint their picture or write poems for them and they seem to stay with you for a while. It can't have always been easy for Tory but it also must have been the most glorious fun.
On an entirely parsimonious and ill-befitting note, the book costs £35 in the British Museum but can be found via those dealers who sell through Amazon for a few quid less. Not everybody will have quite the same compulsion to add such a thing to their collection. Perhaps if I had fewer such compulsions, I'd be less careful about paying what is asked at the drop of my new, more flamboyant hat.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape)

Having seen a couple of reviews, and heard McEwan interviewed, of this book before it arrived, I had severe reservations about it. Surely this time he's gone too far. Others have cast doubt on his cleverness, the 'meta-fiction' and some unlikelinesses in his stories in the past but I've always been an admirer but maybe this time, a re-make of Hamlet, told by an unborn embryo, was an indulgence a bit beyond any suspension of disbelief.
But it was immediately not the case and it is all down to the quality of the prose.
The foetus can only work out was is happening from what he can hear and feel and is a prisoner of what his mother does and he goes where she goes. He has developed as very sophisticated palette and taste in fine wine due to her serial consumption and has a full, if bleak, understanding of world current affairs from her listening to the World Service.
The intertextual references to the source material - his mother and her lover are planning to murder his father, who is the lover's brother- are more than enough and McEwan wears his learning conspicuously but even that can be enjoyable.
Among the many ills prevailing in the world, the United States is,
helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs

and the brief manifesto of poetics (the father is a poet and publisher of poetry) is exemplary,
if it doesn't come at once, it shouldn't come. There's a special grace in facility.

and,
"Form isn't a cage. It's an old friend you can only pretend to leave."

But from this highbrow range of reference, the final pages conjure a tense climax worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
It is an unlikely masterpiece, short enough to read in a day. Perhaps Graham Swift's Mothering Sunday is a more convincing thing, not having taken quite such liberties, but consummate professional that he is, McEwan achieves his ambitious intention with no problems at all. As if it should ever have been in doubt.
 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Now That's What I Call Dancing


When one's cup runneth over

it is always a good idea to remember that it doesn't always seem like that. Perhaps the two ends of this spectrum aren't that far apart but are only what 'seems'.
Hamlet might say,
'Seems,' madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems.'
but he is either wrong, dissembling or trying to convince himself.

Does anybody ever know what really 'is' or are we all prisoners of what it 'seems' like to us.

Yesterday, among a welter burden of books arriving here, all ordered to turn up while I was here but I was out so some of my very kindly neighbours took them in for me, was the nearly three-inch thick biography of Harold Wilson. Having enjoyed so much two books on the skullduggery of Jeremy Thorpe, flamboyant bon vivant, I thought that for 1p plus £2.80 p&p, I'd see if the fascination could be extended into the life of another wily operator from 1970's politics.
But the book, the Ben Pimlott in hardback, represents something a weightlifter might be expected to pick up and hold above their head in the qualifying rounds of the local championships. It's not possible to tell from the label how much it cost the dealer to post but, once you've factored in the jiffy bag, it must have been more businesslike for them to throw it away than charge me £2.81 for it. And yet it seemed to them they were doing some business.
I can't imagine I'm going to read all of that, with Byron's Women ahead of it on the waiting list. But such is business, such is commerce. Something was seen to happen. It kept people in work and the world was kept busy. Which makes me wonder why my work keeps awarding me shopping vouchers for perceived 'successes'. I am honestly no good at the job but, like some character in a film blessed with serendipity, I recently keep finding myself in the right place at the right time.
It's not always easy to spend £20 on something you really need because you'd have bought it already but I did once buy some cat repellant to keep them from doing what I didn't want them to do on the frront of my house, a pair of trousers that said Jasper Conran on the label (imagine that), I got the book about Barney Curley's betting coup and this summer made maroon the colour to follow, augmenting a pair of soft shoes with shorts and t-shirt to not quite match. But I don't think I ever did quite as well as this week when finding exactly the sort of new hat I had in mind in TK Maxx and could afford an English-German dictionary into the bargain. What a pretty picture they make.

It would seem like I'm doing a marvellous job but, really, I'm not.
And it seems like I have no alternative but to read any new novel by Ian McEwan. You just have to, don't you. But, having ordered it, I saw a few reviews and thought, No, I'm not having that. But what seems in this case becomes what is. Not reading a new McEwan novel now would be like not buying the Sex Pistols' album in 1977, or not buying the next instalment of Danny Baker's memoirs.
I thought I'd have finished it by now, it is only a day's worth of reading if you don't watch Doncaster races, but I'll finish it tomorrow and maybe review it soon.
And it seems that I can actually read one novel while, somewhere else in my busy head, I can be planning another.
Heaven knows how many times I've struck out with ill-advised intent on producing a novel. About five or six times, at least. There were Private Dancer, Midtagspause and a few that never had titles, none of them interesting enough to sustain my interest in writing them never mind expecting anybody else to read them.
But maybe this time, with a plan in place, writing about something I know something about, let's see if we can nail it this time, with Time After Time, no literary masterpiece but a story about amateur cycling in those dark days of 1969 when the public weren't very much aware that such a sport even happened. I don't care if it's rubbish and I certainly don't expect anybody to read it but I'd just love it if I could print off 50 thousand words and say, there it is, I wrote a novel.
It seems as if I have an idea I'm excited about enough to see it through. But I don't know if it is.       

Oliver Hancock, Lunchtime Live

Oliver Hancock, Lunchtime Live, Portsmouth Cathedral, September 8th

A new season of Lunchtime Live got underway yesterday with Sub-Organist at Portsmouth Cathedral and School Organist of Portsmouth Grammar School, Oliver Hancock's wide-ranging programme. There's posh, a school with its own organist.
The Langlais piece with which he began didn't set off in a particularly inspiring mood. Apparently trying out a few different stops for a phrase at a time, I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gone quiet and a polite round of applause been met with Ravi Shankar's 'if you enjoyed the warm-up so much, I hope you enjoy the music even more'. But the piece stirred itself into a rousing finish in time to make itself worthwhile before we graduated to much more convincing items.
Mendelssohn was in no small part responsible for re-establishing interest in Bach's music and one could hear both his own lyrical Romanticism and Bach's monumental structures in the Sonata no. 2. Which quite properly led to some of the real thing, in Allein Gott in der sei Hoch, the inclusion of which did just enough to persuade me not to hold a one-man protest that there was no Buxtehude on the menu.
For me, Marcel Dupre need not have troubled himself in composing the contrasting Four Versets on Ave Maris Stella but dates of 1886-1971 do put him squarely in a period of organ music for which I don't appear to be part of the target audience. But Naji Halim (born 1955) and his Salve Regina came as a wonderful surprise and a blessing. A gentle meditation, pretty, one could say, using woodwind effects and lilting along quite gorgeously with no aberrant diversions into horror or distress, as so many of our contempoaries seem to think is required, it turned out to be an unexpected highlight and a new name for me, at least, to look out for.
Before the lollipop finale, the attrib. Bach Fugue on the Magnificat, was authentic enough to be given a BWV number and Tuba Tune by Norman Cocker was a great, cheery way to complete the variety of music on offer. I can imagine many people thinking that an hour of church organ music could be an austere experience but it honestly doesn't have to be and it wasn't here. The concerts are now free with a retiring collection and six out of the ten in the autumn series are organ recitals but most Thursdays from now until the end of November, it will be worth a visit if you are in the area. 

In Memoriam Prince Buster


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Hans Abrahamsen, let me tell you

Hans Abrahamsen, let me tell you, Barbara Hanningan Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Andris Nelsons (Winter & Winter).

By some distance, the highlight of the Proms I heard on the radio or saw on the telly this year was this piece, yet another work generated by Hamlet on a day when the arrival of Ian McEwan's Nutshell is imminent.
I hadn't been interested in the idea of a David Bowie Prom but was glad to admit how wrong I was when I heard the later stages on the radio as it happened and so made sure of seeing the recording on BBC4. Barenboim is, of course, doing his marvellous stuff still and there have been equally great things not only in the Albert Hall but in the Cadogan, too. But those are somehow to be taken for granted, however spoilt we may be, whereas a piece by a contemporary composer that quite shocks one into such spellbound submission is an entirely different thing.
I don't want to believe we live in an impoverished age of art where so many poets are effectively state-sponsored by the proliferation of creative writing professorships, visual art is abused as an offshoot of the financial markets and contemporary composers still seem to think that a shrill blast on the trumpet will shock us. Oh, come on. These fractured outbursts of brass and percussion are as commonplace as the same concerto that Vivaldi (quite gorgeously) is said to have written 500 times.
But I do want to believe that the period I've lived through has produced at least some music that can be put alongside the most memorable of other periods. In James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross and Veni, Veni, Emannuel, Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs or Tavener's Protecting Veil, just as the examples that first come to mind, I'm sure there are such things and hearing this piece and being immediately compelled to order the disc, I think there might be another to add to the list.
I thought at first it was not a new release but it says here © 2016 so it's going to be quite some debate about what was the best disc of the year this time. Hans Abrahamsen is Danish and his discography goes back to 1973 so he has not become an overnight sensation overnight.
The work is based on words spoken by Ophelia from a novella by Paul Griffiths but they are words chosen from the part to say as much about music as about a young girl driven mad or anything else Shakespeare had in mind,
a long music we have made
and will make again
over and over

It is compelling enough on disc with Barbara Hanningan lingering in those registers explored by The Queen of the Night, but rather than giving a pyrotechnic display of bravura, it is still, contemplative and other-worldly but nonetheless one of those occasions on which even though the recording is immaculate and captures the piece better than I thought it might, it can be no substitute for being there, or the remote second-best of hearing it on the radio, being stopped in one's tracks and then catching the performance on telly in all its intensity.
We seem to like our art to be the product of one artist as if it only really counts if Rembrandt or James Joyce did all the work themselves but you can't realize Shakespeare without actors or producers, it's no good staring at a score by Mozart or Bach wityhout hearing it played and the greatness of Tamla Motown was a factory effort and Diana Ross did not do I'm Still Waiting on her own. In let me tell you, it is Barbara Hannigan that we are appreciating first, the singing more than the song, but it's an Abrahamsen composition and other singers will sing it. One thing I did enjoy when all those responsible for a genuine team effort came on to take the applause at the end of the Prom was the author Paul Griffiths, looking not unlike Jeremy Corbyn after a long session pondering his chances of becoming Prime Minister. Not everybody is a natural on stage but it was great to see who he is because without his reworking of Shakespeare none of the rest would have followed.
Yes, it definitely says 2016 on the disc. I desperately need to find some good books of poetry that have appeared this year or the assessments of what has been best this year are going to be dominated by music.

Claire Rutter and Stephan Gadd

Claire Rutter & Stephen Gadd, Winchester Cathedral, September 6th

On the evidence of my lunchtime concert attendance in Portsmouth, Chichester and Winchester Cathedrals, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, it's probably fair to say that Winchester is the classiest. It does cost to get into the cathedral but the ticket lasts for a year so I was glad to find the ticket from last September was still in date. But it would still have been worth it without such minor parsimonious considerations.
Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs are an unlikely favourite of mine, being so late Romantic. So late that it was 1948 when they were written and then published together opus posthumous so that Strauss didn't even know they would become such a set. You have to wonder where a programme that begins with such a sumptuous farewell of sunsets and dying embers will lead but first of all is Claire Rutter's passionate, powerful to tender, operatic account of this monumental leavetaking, which for me is not only that of Richard Strauss but one plaintive last shudder from Romanticism itself although I realize that any number of other artists will have been identified as 'the last Romantic'.
It is glorious, and Claire makes good use of the large acoustic in Winchester but one is constantly aware of accompanist, Paul Turner, making the piano play the part of the whole orchestra here in pieces which are as much about the orchestration as the singing. I doubt if it's possible to capture exactly what the orchestra does in Im Abendrot but it would still be underestimating Paul's contribution to call him simply 'the accompanist'.
There would have been nowhere else in the world I'd rather have been during that performance on a Tuesday lunchtime, which is a feeling I sometimes get on special occasions. It is magnificent music and more than justified the trip to be there for it.
But where the programme next took us was to a darker place, the Vier ernste Gesange (Four Serious Songs) by Brahms. I'm not sure if 'serious' would be the best translation in our post-ironic age. Everything was serious for late Romantics and I doubt if they needed to point it out. But my German is never going to be sufficient to say if ernste should be 'profound' or even 'fatalistic', given that we can already hear 'earnest' in English. The baritone, Stephen Gadd, for anybody who didn't know (like me) is Mr. Claire Rutter and he filled the cathedral similarly with his voice except from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Four songs written, like those of Strauss, in the year before he died, don't have the same sensual resignation or acceptance. The first is funereal, the third (O Tod, wie bitter dist du) in particular is angrier.
Not surprisingly, the German for 'swansong' is 'schwanengesang' and I'm not sure if I prefer it but Brahms is less enamoured of the soaring potential of these fragments that we might shore against our ruin which gave Stephen every reason to, as he said, 'put on his serious face' and give a resonant performance of these songs that sounded more structured, as in repeated verse forms, than the Strauss did.
And then the couple ended with two duets by Robert Schumann, the Tanzlied in particular offering some respite from thoughts of mortality with lively interplay and some pronounced enunciation from Claire. It makes it tempting to explore the repertoire of C19th German lieder further but when one also has Ska, Northern Soul, the Complete Works of Buxtehude, the symphonies of James MacMillan and so many other areas on some vague 'to do' list, I don't know when it's going to happen.
But Claire and Stephen came back to do Bess, You Is My Woman Now as a contrasting encore, by now having taken me so convincingly out of my comfort zone that I readily enjoyed one of my less favourite composers.
Winchester excelled itself today with young ladies genteel enough to have come from the pages of Jane Austen always on hand in museums, the Great Hall and their gift shops to make sure you made the most of what is there. Jane herself is there, some way from the mortuary chests of  Canute, William Rufus and Ethelwulf. Apparently those graves are being investigated to see if their evidence establishes that the site was used as the last resting place of the English kings of the period. And, what do you think the answer to that is likely to be. No?
I asked the guide about the painting at the altar in front of the high altar in front of the tremedous detail of the C15th screen. He said, 'the tapestry?' I said, 'no, the painting. The wave on a background of dark red.'
He said it was a tapestry. I hadn't got close enough. But I was redeemed, as one would hope to be in such a place, by asking if it was by Maggi Hambling.
Well spotted, he said.
Well, she does paint a lot of waves. It's just that I've not seen one before in that colour.
The attendance in Winchester looked less than they get in Chichester which might be to do with the entrance charge but if one lived in the area, the year's ticket would be as nothing if you could make a few of these concerts. There is a performance of Pictures At An Exhibition forthcoming.
Get there if you can.

Friday, 2 September 2016

South 54 Poetry Reading

The reading by contributors to the autumn edition of South magazine will be on Tuesday 18th October in the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth, 7 pm for 7.30, with a view to being finished by 10 pm.

Always a fine event, although I must admit I haven't been to one for quite some time, Portsmouth is ready to deliver a particularly fine one not only on account of its venue but because my new friend, Richard Williams, and I selected the poems for it, so I can promise you that there will be plenty of poems and poets worth hearing. And I'm looking forward to seeing what they look like.

One of them will be me, as per the protocol by which the contributors want to see who was responsible. It's a rare thing, a public appearance by me, I'm glad it's only five minutes and such appearances are only likely to get rarer, so get there if you can. It could be a daunting thought that I will be standing where Tasmin Little stood a few years ago for her recital of Bach, Bartok and such rarified things but the world doesn't always progress onwards and upwards, it sometimes goes sideways, to say the least.

Perturbato sum

Another minor windfall (and not all of them come from horse racing) has made me think about buying a few dictionaries of foreign languages, like German, Italian and perhaps Russian, to look nice on the shelves next to French, Latin and Japanese. But before that, I found an Oxford Latin Grammar for virtually nothing and it looked like a lot of fun.
One can't leave many subjects alone for 40 years without them changing but you might have thought Latin would be one of them. But, oh dear, no. I was only slightly put out that the first conjugation verb used as an example is paro, to prepare. I wondered what was wrong with amo, amas, amat, that served so well for so long, but it was when I saw the perfect tense, paraui, that I began to get suspicious. Surely it's paravi, pronounced pah-rah-wee. But not for James Morwood, once of Wadham College, it isn't.
I looked in vain throughout the book and its indices and found no v's at all, they were all u's, even to the extent of the incongruous uoluisse, the perfect infinitive of the verb to wish. 
The reason is- and some of you will be ahead of me here- that Morwood was,
delighted to have compiled the first Latin Grammar in English to have banished the letter 'v' from the Latin alphabet. It was never there.
We will have to skirt round the non-sequitur of banishing things that were never there in order to concentrate on the idea that it is not only words and sense that are translated from one language to another but sound also. There are variant spellings of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich in the English alphabet and the use of a 'v' in English transliterations of Latin is useful and gave us such words as verify, village and verbal.
One can take his point, as we do with the lack of a 'j' in Latin because an 'i' does just the same thing but it makes for an unsettling return to these well-trodden paths of conjugations, declensions and idioms when it could have been such a happy occasion. I hope this 'u' business didn't catch on.
Otherwise, the book is well-organized, a whole language explained as clearly as possible in such a short space although there will be those who can't see why Kennedy's Primer ever needed updating. But the idea that Latin worked like a sleek, clockwork machine is undermined by a number of things that I'd either forgotten or were too advanced for 'O' level in 1976.
Of course, every language will mutate its most commonly used verbs into irregularity and idioms like the ablative absolute or gerunds and gerundives were deliberately introduced by the Romans to make life miserable for C20th English schoolchildren but 'mixed conjugation' verbs, 'deponent' verbs or 'quin and quominus'. I don't remember those. My Latin was always a fragile and insubstantial thing that I'm careful to flaunt only if confident that I'm in company that knows less of it than me. I had hoped to be offering an hour on Latin for Beginners as part of a Learning Day this autumn but the day has been withdrawn. I thought I could talk for an hour without getting out of my depth but it's one opportunity to show off on the basis that 'in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king' that I've been robbed of.
--
Meanwhile, after a poor excuse for a double issue, the TLS was worth its price this week, returning from an undeserved hoilday. A few pages on Hamlet were avidly taken up here, including the idea that there are scholars who have devoted their lives to it. I extended the vanity that we all surely suffer from on occasions by imagining a future professor spending a life on The Cathedrals of Liverpool or The Perfect Murder.
However, the question of How Old is Hamlet raises the question not only whether Hamlet knew but whether Shakespeare knew either.
I've never had much reason to doubt that Hamlet, like princes nowadays, hasn't got anything in particular to do and so has remained a student rather than fly helicopters or take all his clothes off at a party. There is reason to believe from the text that he's 30 but I've had him at about 27 or 25. He's certainly an odd number. It fits with his dilletante behaviour that he would linger over his studies or, more likely, not really devote himself to them very diligently. I can tell you from personal experience what that is like.
But Rhodri Lewis points out that students went to university much younger in Shakespeare's time than they would now which suggests he might still be in his teens.
I don't buy that and neither do I accept that his conversation with the gravedigger shows that Hamlet doesn't know how old he is either.
Returned from his trip to England, and having dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet comes across the gravedigger and engages him in conversation to find out what is being said about him. His memories of Yorick, the late court jester, are poignant but provide ample evidence that he remembers the time and place of his childhood.
Neither can I see that the advanced stage of his relationship with Ophelia supports any view of Hamlet as an adolescent. We may no longer be prepared to accept dear old Johnny Gielgud enunciating the part like a patrician uncle but you couldn't give the part to a 17 year old either.
It is more plausible that Hamlet's transition to maturity has been delayed by his circumstances and contemplative character so that he retains aspects of the personality of a teenager- teenagers not having been invented in 1600-  well into his twenties.
It was a question worth asking but it hasn't done much to change my mind. It is out of the question that Shakespeare didn't know. He knew everything and once we doubt that then we will have surely deconstructed ourselves to a standstill.
--
But the reward for using one's time off sparingly throughout the rest of the year is that one arrives at God's own season, September, in a position to take two weeks off. And I'm glad it started to rain to mark the occasion.
My own planning is as awry as that of any shambling management team in that I've chosen to go to London when there is a lunchtime concert in Chichester on the same day. One alternative to the fantasy project of attending every racecourse in the UK in a calendar year would be to find every cathedral that holds weekday lunchtime concerts and go to them. But the postman is used to pushing books through the front door and I won't be short of something to do while I wait for Idaho to convert the penalty kick of the St. Leger and Minding to prove herself outside of strictly age and gender races next Saturday which will all be going forward to Postponed in the Arc, all of which seems such a tempting treble that I feel like I've collected already, which is exactly how the bookmakers like to draw the mug punter in.

I hope George Gissing's The Nether World doesn't labour the point quite to the extent that New Grub Street does. There are 600 pages of story that could have been done in 250 and Radio 4 are just doing in two hours. I can see why George Orwell liked it because it could have been where Keep the Aspidistra Flying came from and I imagine that Patrick Hamilton would have been an admirer, too, for its compulsive inevitabilty. Emile Zola wrote similar books more than once or twice.

All these things are reason to be perturbed. We would be nothing without a healthy dose of anxiety- some dissatisfaction- because it would be very dull if we backed four winners every time we went to the races or every pop record we listened to was better than the last.
I am perturbed but I'm grateful for it. It is not yet time to rest, perturbed spirit.