Saturday, 17 May 2008

It is a far

A little late in life, two decades from my century in fact, I have discovered the pleasures of listening to music. I have always enjoyed music as a background to reading, and occasionally to writing, but was constitutionally incapable of listening when unoccupied.

Oddly enough, my wife’s polymath uncle Sidney had the same block, as he once confided to me.

Uncle Sidney was fortunate: he had two supremely musical friends, Arnold Haskell, the man who invented the word Balletomane and founded the Royal Ballet School and Harry Edwards, a languages master at Clifton College with a wide knowledge of music.

My teacher has been David Mellor, a former Minister for Culture who now has a Sunday programme on Classic FM, “If you liked that, you will like this”, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of music. Listening to him is costing me a fortune. My CD collection grows apace.

If there is a hierarchy in art, the crown must go to music. Both in creation and execution it leaves the other arts far behind.

The fine poet, and singularly unpleasant man, R.S. Thomas once observed to me that contemporary poetry was clever but it wasn’t poetry. He said it was copy writing. It plays with words in much the same way as a car ad. The painter Sir Kyffin Williams described the painting tradition as being like building a house. Each generation added a room but developed it from the rooms that had already been built by earlier generations. Alas, he said, modern painters were wreckers, not builders. My own trade of writing has long since run out of things to say. By far the best and most imaginative writing today is the detective novel. Music alone dazzles with its imagination and logic.

It was not always thus. Music acted on me like Mogadon. Especially opera. I have fallen asleep in every major opera house in Europe: in Rome during the overture to a particularly enervating production of “La Vestale”, to the dismay of other members of the audience.

“Don’t worry,” my wife reassured them, “he will wake up the moment the bar opens for the interval.”

My first experience of opera was a Carl Rosa 1950s' production of “Aida”, a story of war between Egypt and Ethiopia and the only occasion in military history when the Egyptian army won a battle.

By the fifties Carl Rosa was in decline. More your Carl Sinka. The Egyptian army in the production was down to platoon strength; the tomb in which hero and heroine are immured collapsed under the weight of a soprano. The company's scenery made the cardboard walls of Prisoner Cell Block 'H', that jewel among programmes, granite-like in comparison.
In “The Flying Dutchman” the eponymous tenor was instantly grounded
when the flies fell on him. So pinched were the productions that in “La Boheme” it was the audience's imagination and not Mimi's tiny hand that was frozen.

It is not that I did not try. I went to Birmingham to see my third production of "Aida" - the second in Bielefeld was memorable mostly for a tomb the size, and indeed the thickness, of a golf umbrella. This third production was in the Sports Arena, which holds fourteen thousand people and is the size of a large village. Massive cast, including an army, which had it been available to the Egyptians in the Six Day War would have got them a result; and a River Nile in which I swear I saw trout.

I was converted.

I do not claim I will ever become as attached to opera as my late Uncle Tommy, a road digger in Edinburgh who discovered grand opera late in life when my father played him a recording of Bjorling singing "None Shall Sleep", at which he could give Pavarotti three blacks. Uncle Tommy blew his life savings, amassed over the previous week because he was sadly improvident, on a radiogram and all the arias he could cram into a carrier bag.

I do have one musical connection. When I met the great baritone Geraint Evans I asked him how he created his famous stage make ups. He said he based them on people he had met.
" If I had known you at the time I would have based Falsaff on you"
I think it was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

DANGEROUS CUTTING FROM A CHRISTMAS CRACKER: Edinburgh Evening News, 18 August 1978:

While they were waiting at a bus stop in Clermiston, Mr and Mrs Daniel Thirsty were threatened by Me Robert Clear. “He demanded that I give him my wife’s purse,” said Mr Thirsty. “Telling him the purse was in her basket, I bent down, put my hands up her skirt, detached her artificial leg and hit him over the head with it. It was not my intention to do anything more than frighten him off, but, unhappily for us all, he died.”

And for two more good reads try