There once was a blogger from Hull

One of the more distressing aspects of the worldwide web is the ability of Tom, Tamsin, Dick, Dora, Harry, and Hilary, hitherto leading lives of anonymous respectability, to set up websites and announce themselves to the gullible online community as ‘critics’. A critic is someone who evaluates – and criticises. Critics are supposed to pinprick pomposity, identify and assign the fourth-rate to its proper place, and try not to be that most craven of individuals, the PRP. Even if you are without hope as a writer, musician, actor and artist, the Public Relations Person will elevate you to empyrean heights. Even though no-one likes your work, and ‘real’ critics (employed by someone, some journal, as people who know what they are talking about and are willing to sort wheat from chaff) describe your work as the sub-standard crud it so obviously is, some blogger from Scunthorpe will come to your aid. Once non-entities establish a website, make it look professional (with the help of a designer), attract advertising, get the ever-increasing individuals drowning in their blandishments to post inordinately long encomia under ‘PRESS’ on their own websites, they have arrived. The adverts when charged for attract an income that can be used to travel the country in reviewing mode. The more sycophantic the reviews, the more publicity is generated among those not wishing their shortcomings to be publicised (though they are obvious to anyone with a basic intuition). No god-awful musician, for example, is going to retrieve for posterity and self-advertisement anything negative. Real critics are willing to say something is bad when they really think it is. It won’t win them friends among the sub-standard; but it will help to foster an atmosphere of honesty and may even lead to improvements. So many of these websites are so unrelievedly fawning in their praise that they are nothing more than what newspapers call ‘advertorials’: that’s to say, claptrap that flatters to deceive. The trouble is, self-deception has no defence against flattery. In any case, it is easier to flatter than to risk disapproval by saying something is flawed. You can always identify this sort of PRP journalism: it usually goes on – and on, and on. And it’s not journalism at all, but the prolix utterances of those who wish to hear the sound of their own voice without being disturbed.

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Oi! It’s yer actual Purcell, innit?

During a recital at the Three Choirs Festival, I became increasingly annoyed by members of the audience who insisted on rising every ten minutes to go to the bar. Worse still, they returned to the auditorium with their unfinished drinks, thus disturbing people who had to stand to allow them to get to their seats. Latecomers were also admitted after the recital had begun ( a string quartet playing Haydn and Ravel), some of them with steaming beef burgers, which they proceeded to munch noisily while chatting to their friends. One group, clearly having found itself at the wrong concert but deciding to stay anyway, stood at the back, conversing loudly. This itinerant bunch became such a pain that the leader of the quartet called a halt to the music, stood up and asked the group rhetorically if it behaved the same way at the cinema. At which point, the offending party left, mumbling barely concealed obscenities in the direction of the platform before the music resumed. After the recital, and making my way to an evening concert by the London Symphony Orchestra, I was shoved off the pavement by an inebriated trio of males all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘My Bach Ain’t Worse Than My Bite’.

Well, actually, no. I enjoyed making up that opening paragraph because, as a professional classical music reviewer and a jazz writer, I’m always amused and amazed at the difference in tone between a symphony concert and a jazz gig when each is part of a bigger event. Don’t get me wrong. I hate the stuffiness of much classical music presentation as much I dislike the often boorish behaviour of jazz audiences and their unwanted hangers-on. But, whereas in the first an almost fixed standard of decorum prevails, in the second only enough formality is entertained to keep the beast under control. And sometimes the beast goes haywire, from the seeming inability of musicians and organisers to start proceedings on time to the fringe loutishness of those who are there for the drink and the mischief-making, rather than the music. The only disruptive incident I have come across in thirty-five years of reviewing classical music was when a member of the audience stood up after the first movement of a piano concerto, clapped loudly and shouted over-elaborate compliments before being dragged from the hall by his female partner, presumably to be sectioned. There was muffled discussion among punters and orchestra before the conductor – an unfazed and world-weary Charles Dutoit, as I recall – started the piece again.

As a Welshman, I have seen a distinguished jazz festival almost collapse as a result of trouble in the streets caused by web-footed hicksters. I have also inherited an almost Rechabite attitude to drink and the trouble it causes. At Brecon one year, I emerged from a late-night concert by the Lionel Hampton Orchestra with my wife and had to run the gamut of a series of street episodes resembling something out of a Hogarth cartoon, except that it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny in part because trying to convert Mrs J to jazz (a long but ultimately rewarding exercise) involved effacing the idea of conjunction: that this is what you had to go through if you wanted to stay out late for live jazz; that this is how people who liked jazz behaved; that, indeed, jazz itself was synonymous with drunkenness and incivility. Matters improved and the festival was saved. But only just. Its new superintendents, the Hay Festival, clearly want to turn the summer shebang into a family affair. And who, with kids wanting to learn how to play jazz, could object? However, as I mentioned in this magazine when reporting on Brecon last year, the slightly sanitised atmosphere which has resulted must have been a jolt to fans who can hold their drink and never cause trouble. Could this be the penalty to be paid for a modicum of civilised behaviour? You can’t put a cordon around the event.

Brecon/Hay has also concentrated tented gigs in one area, the grounds of the resplendent Christ’s College, which is a move in more than one positive direction. There’s a bar on site, of course, but the extraneous noises (last year including a rock event at a nearby pub which seemed to the cynical more intentionally disruptive of the jazz on offer than fringe in style and situation) are kept to a minimum. Someone told me that trouble at a jazz festival was inevitable if you held it in a town with a plethora of drinking-holes. I disagreed. There are plenty of pubs in Gloucester but no performance of The Dream of Gerontius has ever been marred by a festoon of raucous bums in the precincts of the cathedral. And don’t tell me that lovers of classical music don’t drink; I can show you a few who’d have you under the table before you could say ’Old Speckled Hen’. Music festivals are, however, more discreet than jazz festivals, if no less joyous.

These musings present an interesting conundrum. It would be easy to say that jazz has grown up in surroundings more or less always disreputable. The language suggests it: dive, gin-house, speakeasy, whore-house; in fact, any place which ‘suits’ its slightly risqué persona, its wildness, its spontaneity, its informality and quicksilver lack of definition. The song lyrics, too, are earthy, sexy, raunchy: anyone who thinks a Mojo, working or not, is some kind of Lego toy, is definitely missing out. Then there is the curiosity of its being a minority interest with a universal reach. At how many gigs does the band almost outnumber the audience? That would never happen at a classical concert, though I’ve noticed audiences dwindling of late and little evidence that the silver-haired are being replaced by the young. Nor does jazz’s embracing of the ‘serious’ guarantee a bigger following: it is popularity, and maybe the dilution of jazz content, which achieves that. Though when Erroll Garner became a Sol B. Hurok attraction, did his wider appeal lessen his artistic worth? Or would any musician taken on board by a go-ahead promoter win new devotees beyond the knowledgeable jazz enclosure? Garner, Oscar Peterson, Brubeck, Nat Cole – all suspect because of their fame. We discount the protegés of Norman Granz and his ilk because these were promotions within the jazz fraternity, hopefully enrichng it. And we mistake growing popularity among doubters, the Benny Goodman phenomenon, for what is (usually) a temporary extension of boundaries. In the UK, the disseminated members of Loose Tubes know all about that, about everything descending to its former plateau.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with jazz in a concert-hall. Cigarette smoke, gone from club and bar, was never an attraction, nor were dodgy acoustics, cramped surroundings, chattering punters and expensive drinks. The concert hall, or the town hall, rids us of them. But the conundrum remains. Does jazz need the dignity bestowed by a classical music venue or festival organisers committed to a degree of regimentation? Does jazz’s inherent dignity, the dignity of a music that has cost so many lives, need emphasising? We jazz-lovers are a small élite. When we cry for greater exposure for our music we are urinating in the wind. We probably get as much as we warrant, though I’ll always join the clamour for more. Being an élite, of course, we never cause the trouble that sometimes gives jazz a bad name when it goes al fresco in summer. Perhaps, without forming an unsmiling redoubt, all we can do is studiously ignore it. And I’d drink to that.

Serendipity & surgery

Coming across the unexpected often slots into a wider set of meaningful considerations. While visiting my local hospital for an X-ray – I’d been spluttering for ages after a severe chest infection – I noticed in the Reception area a bookshelf with an accompanying ‘honesty box’. The books were for sale and the money for them intended to support the activities of hospital volunteers. On offer was the usual medley of titles in paperback (for 50p) and hardcover (£1). I was used to these modest ways of raising cash, and I knew such displays were worth examining in detail. This time, out of around 150 volumes, I considered only two: a collection of stories by Sheena Mackay, and Thoreau’s A Writer’s Journal, both hardbacks. Having just moved into an apartment, which involved jettisoning a lot of accumulated ‘stuff’, I’d decided that for every book that came in henceforth I would take one to the Oxfam shop, or some other charity. The Mackay book was slim, as blurb-writers have it, and the Thoreau of average size, so I took those knowing there was at least one book of a width equivalent to those two that I could get rid of (actually Instead of A Book, a collection of letters written by Diana Athill to the American poet Edward Field; OK in itself but a taster for Athill’s acclaimed volumes of autobiography).

The two hospital books were coincidentally published by Heinemann, and were first editions, not that such a status as ever had any bearing on my wanting to read a book; I’ve never been a collector, more an ‘accumulator’. The Thoreau, first published in 1961 and edited by Laurence Stapleton, was related to a series of biographies, also from Heinemann, edited by Carl Bode under the heading The Young Rebel In American Literature and including one on Thoreau written by him. (The others, by divers hands, were about Whitman, Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, H L Mencken, Steinbeck, and Faulkner.) As often happens with first editions picked up by chance, vandals employed by public libraries – Leicestershire County in this case – had retained the dustcover but emasculated it in the interest of protection from wear. Wrapping in cellophane meant cutting the front fold and pasting it on the inside back cover. Thus, apart from the library stamps, does the first edition value plummet to nought. I had to tear carefully the amputated portion and glue it back, a difficult job since there was little front edge to play with and the dustcover fold was along the line of the reinstatment. Anyway, it’s done. The wrapper design, a masterpiece of emblazoned typography (no contextual pictures) is by Donald Green. I wonder who he is or was. The vandalism wasn’t local: stripping the sticker from the bottom of the spine has resulted in removal of two of Green’s letters, so that the title viewed in front of the shelf is A Writer’s Journ. I should have steamed it off. Given the location of its late appearance as commodity, the book, having undergone rescue and surgery, is now fit to offer succour once more in the world of the fit. I hope my X-ray picture has no blemish.

Pretty pass ahead

Things have come to a pretty pass when I have to ask myself what ‘a pretty pass’ means; or, rather, what its derivation is. I know there’s nothing pretty about a pretty pass. Not remembering or not knowing is not a condition of the memory slippage that comes with age. I’ve never known why a particular kind of pass should be pretty, so there’s been no loss of knowledge. And I take it that ‘pass’ means that to which something has come, as in ‘passage’ and the ‘passage’ of time. We’ve arrived at this place and it’s not pretty, as the shipwrecked say in Twelfth Night.

There are so many words and phrases in the English language that it’s a wonder how even more capacious and retentive brains than mine can accommodate them. I used to know what ‘chiliastic’ meant but now I’d have to look it up. That’s true memory loss, easily remedied by the knowledge of it; you know when you’ve failed to remember something so you remind yourself. I didn’t know what ‘a pretty pass’ meant even when I used it for the first time and with confidence. Meaning isn’t always about explication; it’s mostly about intuition. In some odd way, an expression explains itself through context, sometimes inaccurately but mostly with enough sense for you to understand. One thing’s for sure: not many come these days to a pretty pass; they do, but they wouldn’t describe it that way. They’d just say ‘Oh my god’, or, in the textually vernacular, ‘OMG!’ That’s to say, they wouldn’t have the words. That’s because they don’t read, and if they do, it’s not likely to be anything that might disturb a brain cell. All that said, for a long time I used the adjective ‘hair-brained’ and spelled it that way; until I thought about it, sought its provenance and discovered that it was spelled ‘hare-brained.’ Made more sense, as these things normally do.

This is the sort of thing the novelist Howard Jacobson might have written about in his Saturday column for The Independent, before it went digital (which sounds better than ‘when it scrapped its newsprint version and offended a lot of its readers’.) He was so funny at this year’s Hay Festival in conversation with Amol Rajan, his old editor at the Indie, that I bought Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It, a collection of his Indie columns up to 2011. At the same time, in an interview with Rupert Dastur on The Short Story website, I was mentioning that critics who take exception to short-story collections on the grounds of their relentless variety deserve to suffer from the mental equivalent of the gripes. I felt a bit like that after reading Jacobsen the columnist, though with not the same negative effects: reading those slightly curmudgeonly looks at life in one batch almost turned me into a curmudgeon myself – I whose attitude to whatever it is is likely to be variable. I’ve always had a place for F R Leavis, though, Jacobsen’s teacher at Cambridge. (I never thought Downing College housed students, only Leavis and his Liberal Humanist friends.) Jacobsen’s conservatism, never triumphing over his wisdom, did find its echo. Inter-textuality, or not seeing the ‘work’ for the trees, was once, for Jacobsen, called philistinism; now, it was dignified as ‘theory’. I’m inclined to agree with that.

Hay-ho, hey-ho

There’s a character in Frederic Raphael’s TV play The Glittering Prizes, who after studying English at Cambridge then writing, declares herself to be physically sick at the sight of the written word. A milder version of the complaint is likely to be picked up at the Hay Festival, the annual cavalcade of book promotion and opinion. The expression ‘booked out’, meaning to be enervated by the printed (and spoken) word, might reasonably be employed. This year there was a Writers At Work tent, in which young hopefuls waited to introduce the curious to their scribblings. Someone has ‘trolled’ them on Twitter, and they’re not amused. The idea of being ensconced in a marquee for the benefit of onlookers seems fit to be lampooned, though trollers are a despicable breed, except when they’re poking UKIP and Jim Davison with a pointed stick. Words everywhere, then, like pollen on the wind. If you are a writer who hasn’t made it to Hay, either because you forge million-selling brick-size tomes, or thin poetry ‘pamphlets’ with a readership of thirteen, the experience of all that wordery and éclat can be daunting. Envy is a not uncommon feeling. The political atmosphere is almost invariably centre-Left, as witness appearances this year by Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Sheen. Bernie trotted out most of what he’d covered on the stump this year, Sheen gave the Aneurin Bevan lecture and was a performance in the best sense, the son of Port Talbot getting worked up before an audience of like minds and therefore low on potential converts to what he was saying, an experience that can border on the patronising. Was there anyone present who didn’t believe in the NHS or think that it needed to be mended with more public money? One was tempted to quote that Labour-supporting consultant who blamed the NHS’s ills on the self-inflicted sickness of so many of its patients. But one might have been beaten to death on the floor of the Tata tent – Tata, the Indian multinational, owner of Port Talbot steelworks, and paradigm of global capitalism, just in case one thought everything was of a piece here. Howard Jacobson, talking among other curmudgeonly things about his Trump novel, Pussy, was a hoot; and A C Grayling, the lion-maned philosopher, was in good, pro-Europe form on the nature and evolution of war, gracious enough to agree with a questioner that AI-powered drones with missiles aboard might use their wit to decide that war was wrong and to send themselves back to base. But in an iteration of Raphael’s word-weary character, a Cambridge University-educated friend of mine (English), with ambitions to write, grew to dislike bookshops and anywhere with squillions of books for sale on the grounds that enough books had been written already and there was no point in adding to them. So he writes for his own pleasure (or pain) without any intention of approaching an agent or a publisher. I think it’s the ultimate test of why one writes. Forget the need to ‘communicate’; it’s all about self-aggrandisement. Isn’t it? He thought even writing for one’s own pain (or pleasure) was self-aggrandisement. Almost before the Tata tent said Ta-ta to the Festival site along with all the other tarps, half of next year’s festival had been put together, give or take the odd signature or two. More words. More books. More self-aggrandisement. More pain. More pleasure.

At Hay with the authors

There’s a character in Frederic Raphael’s TV play The Glittering Prizes, who after studying English at Cambridge then writing, declares herself to be physically sick at the sight of the written word. A milder version of the complaint is likely to be picked up at the Hay Festival, the annual cavalcade of book promotion and opinion. The expression ‘booked out’, meaning to be enervated by the printed (and spoken) word, might reasonably be employed. This year there was a Writers At Work tent, in which young hopefuls waited to introduce the curious to their scribblings. Someone has ‘trolled’ them on Twitter, and they’re not amused. The idea of being ensconced in a marquee for the benefit of onlookers seems fit to be lampooned, though trollers are a despicable breed, except when they’re poking UKIP and Jim Davison with a pointed stick.

Words everywhere, then, like pollen on the wind. If you are a writer who hasn’t made it to Hay, either because you forge million-selling brick-size tomes, or thin poetry ‘pamphlets’ with a readership of thirteen, the experience of all that wordery and éclat can be daunting. Envy is a not uncommon feeling. The political atmosphere is almost invariably centre-Left, as witness appearances this year by Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Sheen. Bernie trotted out most of what he’d covered on the stump this year, Sheen gave the Aneurin Bevan lecture. Sheen’s was a performance in the best sense, the son of Port Talbot getting worked up before an audience of like minds and therefore low on potential converts to what he was saying, an activity that can border on the patronising. Was there anyone present who didn’t believe in the NHS or think that it needed to be mended with more public money? One was tempted to quote that Labour-supporting consultant who blamed the NHS’s ills on the self-inflicted sickness of so many of its patients. But one might have been beaten to death on the floor of the Tata tent – Tata, the Indian multinational, owner of Port Talbot steelworks, and paradigm of global capitalism, just in case one thought everything was of a piece here.

Howard Jacobson, talking among other curmudgeonly things about his Trump novel, Pussy, was a hoot; and A C Grayling, the lion-maned philosopher, was in good, pro-Europe form on the nature and evolution of war, gracious enough to applaud a questioner that AI-powered drones with missiles aboard might use their wit to decide that war was wrong and to send themselves back to base. Artemis Cooper spoke eloquently of Elizabeth Jane Howard, her latest biographical subject, and demonstrated how the author enabled her characters to wriggle out of situations with a series of men when real life similarities left her floundering. She flagged that well-known photo of EJH, Kingsley Amis and their son Martin, a triple whammy of intellect. Sadly, my only purchase all week was in that alley beside Addyman’s shop in the town, where there are shelves of books for £1 each. I bought Paul Auster’s Report From The Interior, an autobiography told for no accountable reason in the third person. I’m not sure about Auster. I think he might be an over-rated talent. We’ll see. As one does with all those Hay luminaries, I’ll give him an audience.

Small fry and slightly bigger fry

One of the subjects I touched upon at the Abergavenny Writing Festival last month was that writers at my level – what one might call industrious and eternally hopeful, to contrast with best-selling writers whose ambition has been realised – is numbers: numbers of books sold (small), numbers of readers (not so small but not big), and magazine circulations (modest). In my defence, I said that just because the Observer sold fewer copies than the Sun didn’t mean it was an inferior read. More pertinent, just because the London Magazine, even in its early 19th century guise, appealed to a few thousand subscribers at most, was no indication of its significance (or the quality of its published work) any more than Leavis’s Scrutiny was the poorer for being supported by a Downing College coterie that would fit with space to spare into the corner of a college quadrangle.

This led me on to eccentricity among magazine editors, whom I fictionalised in a piece for the Wales Arts Review called Who Would A Writer Be? There was a time when my submissions appeared to be having a deleterious effect on the magazines I was aiming for: one closed before it had published work it had accepted from me; another’s editor died before he could do the same; and a third, edited by a husband-and-wife team, went into abeyance following the break-up of their marriage, again after they’d agreed to publish my work. Small literary magazine (SLMs) are important, and one can understand the need for writers to support them, even if they’ve never done anything but reject. The problem is cost. Supporting ten quarterlies at £18 a year each – sometimes less, sometimes more – is not much, but there are hundreds of such magazines. Even the exclusively online ones will be wanting to charge, if only to be able to start paying contributors before their printed cousins do. Most SLMs will never be in a position to pay, and even if they were the sums would be miserable. I forgot to ask the audience a question: If you were a professional writer, would you prefer to be a bestselling non-literary one, or an earnest, impecunious one? I know my answer.

I also wanted to ask if anyone thought I was wasting my time in writing things that hardly anyone reads. If they did, I would have said that writing was a complex activity, in which publication was but an element. When you know you’re writing something that works, at least to your satisfaction, the prospect of publication is nowhere to be seen. It later comes into view, along with a lot of other factors. But at the moment, in the moment, the activity is self-fulfilling.