Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


This evening I sit at my neighbour's house listening to a 1957 recording of Beethoven's 9th with the Philarmonia Chorus and Orchestra, on which my mother sings. The neighbour is a dedicated follower of Otto Klemperer and archivist of Philarmonia Chorus doings. My mother is someone who - with a certain insouciance, but no bravado - sang with the Philarmonia for the years from 1957, when they were new and not even credited on the recording we are listening to, until 1979 when new rulings about the need to read music ruled her out.

Sitting in the presence of the two of them is strange and exciting. For mum, the conductors and choir masters that my neighbour revered are flawed but entertaining people who came periodically into the life of the chorus and were judged on their ability to get a good sound out of the singers. Wilhlem Pitz, the mainstay of the early chorus and the one that rounded them into shape, gets her enduring respect.

No doubt the Philarmonia were the chorus of the period - amateur, chosen for the warmth and harmony of the voices, young and plentiful. I didn't come into the picture until the heyday, when everyone was tuned in and knew what they were doing and then I was only aware of the choir for its impact on my daily routine - my mother off to Spain or Portugal, my cousin bathing us instead, and then later, the trips to watch dress rehearsals on the South Bank and miming along with conductors' names I couldn't spell, like Guilini or Fruhbeck de Burgos (or Fruhstuck as he was informally known at ours). We followed on to the Roman amphitheatre in Orange, south of France, for the Verdi Requiem, in our caravan and watched over parapets, between the legs of guards, chewing almonds in the daytime between concerts, catching swallowtail butterflies and grasshoppers and letting them loose in the living areas and climbing back down Provencale scrubland with our father to see the sawing violins and heaving singers as the night closed in.

But this wasn't my story, sitting there, watching mum for 15 minutes solid and unblinking as the final movement of the 9th plays out and seeing thoughts cross her face. Not aware of being stared at, either by my neighbour or me, and this being extraordinary moments in which we were silent and her intensity sets the tone. That she sits in a reverie, part sizing up the music and part remembering. Mum is a mixture of turmoil and possession. Spending time in her younger days, but a time both shared and separate from our dad, who didn't sing, but did love music of this ilk.

The cup and ball patterns of the South Bank were my youth as much as the lino in the hallway.

My neighbour is the archivist, telling mum that she had sung on recordings and brandishing the CD for her to look at. He has pictures of Joan Sutherland and Otto Klemperer on his wall. He tells stories of writing to key players and having tea with them. He has the autographs of major artists. He is a collector, he avows. He is wowed that he has met my mother, the real thing, the artifact that knew them all.

My mother is duly different. She can hardly remember which concerts she sang in, or who presided from the podium (that's alright, as my neighbour can fill her in) and she is appropriately scathing about the people who 'didn't quite work with the choir' but totally unceremonious about her part. 'It was just what I did - but we were a good choir, better than the Huddersfield or the Bach choir at the time.' It is part of her stuff of life and when she wipes her eye, it is the over-active tear gland that has stimulated it, not history alone.

I sit and watch, in awe at a history that I cannot touch, reminded of my father's wealth of knowledge now gone. Reminded what rich stock I come from. People who could be bothered to do something mid-century and grand. A rich voice, an alto that could sit amongst the finest chorus in the land. I was dragged willy-nilly after, and pieces like the Verdi Requiem and the Carmena Burana are my blood. I conduct the Dies Irae again in my head. My mum sings on. My dad is dead. But somewhere we are back in times before my birth. And my neighbour watches and stokes the CD player and finds in another programme, another reference to my mum.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Confessions of an English Opium-eater ; And, Suspiria de Profundis By Thomas De Quincey

Confessions of an English Opium-eater ; And, Suspiria de Profundis By Thomas De Quincey: "Text not available"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Big Gap

...and now returning only to say that Mexicana airlines doesn't offer Vatican Packages, it has started to offer vacation packages. And I was even wearing my glasses.

More to come soon. Meanwhile here's a cool picture of water in Portugal:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Thinking Woman's David Tennant

It is a long time since I had anything to say about David Tennant. But now that has all changed...

The other day one of my oldest and dearest friends spontaneously commented that Peter Capaldi was the thinking woman's David Tennant. We were watching Capaldi's consummate performance as an AlistairCampbellalike in The Thick of It. And it is true that he is willowy, Scottish and has a big nose.

To which another friend, who has appeared in this blog before to comment on the DTP, retorted that David Tennant was the thinking woman's David Tennant. No surprises there then.

But who is the thinking woman's Alistair Campbell? After hearing of his passion for Princess Di (misplaced, of course, but so human) and the amount of crying he did in office, I realise that Ali has been badly misunderstood. He's actually a sweetie. Thank goodness that he wrote all those diaries so the truth could come out. Seems to me that he's had a bit of bad press. Anyway, if he's such a softee, then we thinking women need someone rougher, with more of an edge and a sharper line in repartee. Someone who can keep those pushy types out there in their place, I'd say. A Malcolm Tucker of a man...

Saturday, June 30, 2007

10CC and all that

It is time to return to that free CD and the pleasure of chopping carrots to it. Cooking to the sound of the big boys...

When I first knew and loved 10CC (and I did: I bought my own vinyl copy of both Original Soundtrack and their Greatest Hits, not to mention having How Dare You in...wait for it...the trendy form of a cassette tape!), I knew and loved them with the ears of an easily shocked adolescent. Precocious, yes, in my choice of listening pleasures. Unfeminine, true, in my appreciation of a good riff. And shortly about to fall for the distinctly uncouth and explicit likes of The Vibrators, the Stranglers and the Pistols. (As well as the more intriguing XTC, Magazine and Wire.)

But a teenager is going to miss the knowing sophistication of most of those lyrics. And probably many of the nods in the music too. So I thought it was very funny as I chopped my carrots, listening to all those songs I'd loved with a certain innocence in the 70s. Did I know then what the 10CC referred to? Most likely, but I'd have appreciated it at the childish level of smut and then gone off and been cool about it. I really didn't get the extent to which they were being smug and asking their audience to collude.

Take Wall St Shuffle:

Oh, Howard Hughes
Did your money make you better?
Are you waiting for the hour
When you can screw me?
'Cos you're big enough

I hadn't a clue about most of the stuff going on in there, either in terms of chords or concepts. Or the stunningly evocative I'm Mandy Fly Me (probably only evocative if you can remember the plane ads of the 70s with their inane air hostesses selling the dream of the skyhigh club.):

I've often heard the jingle
It's never struck a chord
With a smile as bright as sunshine
She called me through the poster
And welcomed me aboard
She led me, she fed me
She read me like a book
But I'm hiding in the small print
Won't you take another look
And take me away
Try me, Mandy, fly me away

Ah, yes, when flying was still glamorous. I can't do justice here to the musical complexities going on. But they weren't ordinary three-minute wonders. And thirty years later, they made a punching good accompaniment to my preparation of fish stew.

Just the other day, a friend and I were singing the lyrics to Girls Talk by Elvis Costello. That was another track I adored. "You may not be an oldfashioned girl but you're gonna get dated". And that was a three-minute wonder. So there was other sophistication in those days. But nothing quite as arch. If Costello was a clever young man, then 10CC were big smug boys.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Up in Smoke

I have come back from town reeking of cigarette smoke with an unusual satisfaction. As we went into the Market Porter tonight, I could be heard to say 'Well, this might be our last time in a smokey pub.' (I've a party to hold on Saturday night when I could be at the Morgan Arms' fag wake...)

I realise with some shock that I shall miss the stinging eyes and tired grey aroma once the ban is in place. Not much, but I shall feel the difference and remember the old days.

I find a well of nostalgia is already filling. The same nostalgia that I have for the smell of Wandsworth breweries in the smog which used to fill autumn afternoons when I was young. Or the large chimneys that bedecked the hills as we drove up the A1.

I was lacking something too when I found that Italy's restaurants had gone smoke-free. The food was better without it, but the Italians seemed diminished. It was with some relief that I discovered the French still gesticulating and flicking and remonstrating with the aid of their Gauloises and Camels.

For the most part, the absence of cigarette smoke inspires tremendous relief in me - not least, I won't go home and face that dreadful smell emanating from last night's clothes - but with the end of smoking, there is bound to be a loss of character. From the days of the bikesheds, to the smokers' corner at work, to the point where I ceased to be included in those networks because I'd quit the habit, cigarettes have always accompanied the best of the gossip.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

My Child and my Childhood

Last May I went to the theatre a lot and I did the same this May. What is it about May, I wonder?

High spot was yesterday's My Child at the Royal Court, which also finished last night. And I liked it because it was sharp, pacey and painful. The set enveloped us and I'd argue with the reviewer who found it stuck too far in the the internal worlds of the characters and low on references to the wider context. The tube-carriage-style space we inhabited (standing) captured the pace and technologisation of the world ('Mum, he doesn't know what an Xbox is') and the adverts around us captured the surface culture we are fed, that stresses looks and money ('I want a dad that's rich and strong.') Sympathy may not have been wholly with the out-of-work philosophy major father but his final questions about why it's not enough to be good and mean well had a certain resonance. Excellent casting - the family all had a likeness and a snappiness that partnered their vulnerability. The brittleness was palpable. One of the best things I've seen in a while.

And then I woke up this morning and realised it was Sunday and I hadn't missed the Mail on Sunday's offer of a free 10CC greatest hits CD. It was my one regret when I went to bed that I'd been singing the hits featured on the advert ever since I'd heard it in the week and then forgotten to buy the paper. So now I have that walk back to the newsagents and to adolescence to look forward to. Which is a whole other story. But it was a salutary reminder that adverts do shape our world. Harnessing sappy memories of way back to sell us ridiculous things... Can't imagine that I'll open that evil organ of middle England it came in, though.