Intimations of Mortality

The present is molten, the future is uncertain, and the past is all we have. I realised this when, thirty years ago, I began looking for my paternal grandfather’s grave (my other grandparents were cremated). He was buried in the same plot as his teenage son, who played the violin, wrote letters to the Radio Times and died decades earlier of rheumatic fever (his violin was buried with him). I failed to find this last resting-place, as the euphemism has it: the cemetery was abandoned and overgrown and church records lost. The dead had all gone forever, but the absence of a memorial to someone whose body had been interred seemed especially sad, perhaps because they were so often associated with lapidary commemorations at the very spot. As a non-Believer, I needed the comfort of a literary text that dealt with the importance of remembering the departed, especially the buried ones, and I found it in 1997. It was by Thomas Lynch and it was called The Undertaking.

Lynch, the American poet, created in his book an extended contemplation of life and death, of the living and the dead, that miraculously avoids the macabre by depriving it of its disturbing effects. Instead it offers the reader a way of facing the inevitable as well as the proposition that ‘where death means nothing, life is meaningless’. For, in addition to being a celebrated literary figure, Lynch is a funeral director, heading one of the biggest companies of undertakers in Michigan. He may be the only poet to have included the employees of a funeral parlour in the acknowledgements to a book – this one. That he is also their boss makes him doubly unusual. In having derived his main income from sources other than the creativity for which he is famous, Lynch belongs to a small clan. Among them is his fellow American Charles Ives, a composer who was also an insurance company magnate while serving up iconoclastic and often uproariously unclassifiable music when he had five minutes. These are not among artists disgruntled at having, say, to teach or clean hospital floors when – in their opinion, at least – talent dictates that they should be in continuous and unpaid flow; they are happy in their dual roles. The Undertaking is also one of a small number of modern masterpieces – Charles Sprawson’s 1992 meditation on swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, is another – that stand more or less alone beyond anything else their authors wrote.

Lynch’s first chapter opens with a sentence as matter-of-fact as it is startling: ‘Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.’ After just thirty pages, it’s clear that he intends mitigating taboo not with gallows humour with with warmth, witty recollection, an unswerving eye, and philosophising. This view was just what I was looking for. I soon felt that here was a man who if not exactly having the measure of death – that would be uncharacteristically supercilious of him – could place it in the context of how the dead were prepared for a dignified leave-taking that would surely include long-lasting remembrance. That was something denied my grandfather and the musical son he joined in eternal embrace. I was, of course, prepared for a description of processes normally shielded from the world by black velvet drapes. And it coincided with my familial disappointment.

Lynch and his brother were summoned to Florida to embalm their widower father, who had died while on holiday with a lady friend. He writes, ‘He’d gotten the death he wanted, caught in full stride, quick and cleanly after a day strolling the beach, picking sea shells for the grandchildren and maybe after a little bone bouncing with his condo-mate, though she never said and we never asked and can only hope.’ On the way, the brothers had their ‘tools of the trade’ – gloves, fluids, needles, odds and ends and a box marked Slaughter Surgical Supplies – examined by airline security staff in case they constituted some hitherto unknown bomb-making equipment. When laundry-owner Milo Hornsby died two hours after midnight, Mrs Hornsby phoned to report that he’d ‘expired’ and to ask if Lynch would ‘take care of it’. Of course he would, even though at that time of day, apart from the interrupted sleep, it would be bothersome. But he wouldn’t be doing it for Milo’s sake, for Milo was dead, ‘helpless and harmless’. As the author repeatedly asserts: the dead don’t care; and, as Lynch’s father had told him, when the time came he’d know what to do.

Part of Lynch’s ancestry is Irish. He first located his cousins Nora and Tommy in County Clare. When Tommy died in 1971, Nora cycled to the local Post Office to phone Lynch long-distance. She herself died just shy of her 90th birthday, ‘a tiny jaundiced corpse, made little and green by pancreatic cancer’. It’s the kind of observation the author makes without wishing to shock – my grandfather died with, if not from, prostate cancer – and maybe to make us concentrate on the vibrancy of living, and ultimately to make the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual. Nora left her Irish house to him; the first thing he did was install a flush toilet, a ‘civilising invention’ that removed us from unpleasant reminders of the body and its functions. I recalled that my grandparents had outside loos, one at the end of a long garden and with squares of toilet paper sliced from copies of the Daily Mirror and hung from a hook.

Lynch doesn’t bleat about his inability to make the writing of poetry appear more important than the embalming of bodies. Even when he does write about it, the central focus is on two of his poet friends and the poems they wrote as hymns to the power of love, especially sexual love, which is about as far away from the ‘careless’ and insensate dead as could be imagined. At a time when even a well-known poet may count his admirers in hundreds rather than higher multiples, he is aware and unashamed of how his ‘dismal’ trade looms larger. Most people, he reminds us, are not enamoured of death, funerals, obsequies, and undertakers, though in being also a poet he can doubly number himself among the exceptions: the poet as one who as relief from solitude will take any opportunity to ‘dress up and hold forth in elegiac style’, especially if free drinks and a buffet including Swedish meatballs are part of the deal; and undertakers themselves, who serve the living by caring for the dead and staging their funerals. A man he works with, Wesley Rice, had stayed up all night re-constructing the bashed-in body of a girl murdered by a madman with a baseball bat. ‘What Wesley Rice did was a kindness,’ Lynch says. ‘And, to the extent that it is easier to grieve the loss that we see than the one we imagine or read about…it was what we undertakers call a good funeral.’

And I smile with regret at the forgetting that surrounds my grandfather’s memory when Lynch suggests how it might be remedied. On the way west by air to a poetry reading from his home in Milford, Michigan, he looked down from 33,000 feet and saw in the desert the greenswards of golf-course oases. He had the idea of the Golfatorium, where punters could drive, pitch and putt on fairways beneath which the dead, including their late relatives, were buried in their thousands and bunkers were a mixture of sand and human ashes. Then there was his notion of Cremorialisation, by which those ashes, instead of filling an urn (‘ten to twelve pounds on average’), were mixed with polymers and fashioned as objects related to the deceased: the hunter becoming a decoy duck, for example. Lynch believes there’s something of the Protestant work ethic about this: the idea that even in our literally lifeless extremity, when we have come to dust, we should be of use. It’s very American.

The townspeople in this story are seen through the author-undertaker’s eyes as people he will ultimately have dealings with but who share his temporal concerns. Two of them were instrumental in organising the rebuilding of the town bridge across the Huron, which formed part of his funeral processions to the old cemetery. For its opening, he wrote a poem, read at the ceremony by actor Mary Jackson, one of the two instigators; she’d had a long-running part in the TV series The Waltons. The poem ends:

A graveyard is an old agreement made

between the living and the living who have died

that says we keep their names and dates alive.

This bridge connects our daily lives to them

and makes them, once our neighbours, neighbours once again.

Lynch reminds his readers that the expectancy of death is a round 100 per cent, about which the dead have no opinion. This is droll. It’s worth mentioning, too, because there also seems to be something oddly American about it, that the deaths around Milford are sometimes bloodily violent and murderous.

My grandfather was a coal-miner, who daily ‘came to dust’ and once used the word ‘murderous’ to describe his time at the coal face. Some undertaker, too, would have had to perform re-constructions on his colleagues lying dead and crushed underground by rockfalls. After reading Lynch’s book, I was sure its author would wish my grandfather to have been remembered by something more concrete than fading testimonies. Pity he hadn’t been a golfer.

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997). Jonathan Cape.


I didn’t like that. Did you?

One of the problems with reviewing music today is its tendency to fawn and over-rate. One could be cynical and blame reviewers for simply wanting to take advantage of free tickets and guaranteed best seats in the house; but that would always have been the case. Low ratings require greater powers of analysis and perception than does unpredicated admiration. Criticism implies fault-finding and realistic assessment. But that also means wider background knowledge – and bravery. Critics whose impulse is always to over-praise will never be taken to their effusive task by those praised (though they might well be ridiculed in private by people who know better); but to disparage at length will almost certainly elicit a response from those criticised (though probably not from the better-informed, even when they disagree). After a while, critics find ways of describing a performance in realistic terms: by mitigating their eulogies with small misgivings. The problem today, despite the forensic analysis one encounters when performances or recordings are being evaluated, is the high standard of playing. Some say it’s never been better. A concert, therefore, will always reach an acceptable standard, and reviewers will wriggle out of confrontation by putting their views down to personal like or dislike. What function does reviewing perform? No practical one, except in circumstances where everyone recognises that something is going wrong; then there’s safety in a consensus of disapproval. Perhaps the best one can say of intelligent music criticism in newspapers (or on websites) is that it appears reularly and is thus a signal to readers of what the editor thinks is important. Music criticism is therefore a contribution to jounalism and the culture it represents, rather than to musicology.

A little titillation goes a long way

Having had two stories* published in Rowan Pelling’s The Erotic Review – now a website since Pelling has moved on and started The Amorist magazine – I’ve been fascinated by the interface between eroticism and pornography. The Erotic Review and, I would assume, The Amorist, bar pornography from their pages, thus making a firm if not clear distinction between the two. I’m not sure what this consists in, apart from eroticism’s, and specifically erotic literature’s, having established a rubicon, a line in the sand. The trouble with lines in the sand is that the merest breeze will eventually efface them. But let’s consider the rubicon, the point beyond which any decision is irrevocable; in this case any decision to go for something that leaves eroticism behind in opting for a blatantly improper and indelicate alternative. Perhaps the difference between them is so slim that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; perhaps pornography is something that calls a spade a spade while eroticism calls a spade an ergonomic device for driving into the belly of Gaia. (Erotic terms often have to be looked up; pornographic ones are self-explanatory.)

Neither the erotic nor the pornographic has its own mutually exclusive agenda. One might say that erotic literature excites the imagination to gird basic impulses with a sense of eternal deferral, whereas the pornographic rampages through the flower-beds to reach what is lusted after. Flirting, peculiarly associated with women, is an example of the erotic; so is any other kind of suggestiveness, especially denoted by clothes in the process of being taken off. Time lapse is the thing. No erotic story ends with its finishing-line breasted, if one might be forgiven the phrase: right to the end, all is left to the imagination, and its protracted exercise is a literary matter. It was one of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ writers who distinguished between middle-class and working-class attitudes to sex. The former, he averred, was often hung up about it and even when it was not it required varying amounts of inventive foreplay; the latter simply disrobed and got on with it unceremonially, often against a wall. (middle-class coupling against a wall would be regarded as some form of slumming.) The humour of this, admittedly superior, view of the matter lay in the nature of coitus itself: the same experience, give or take an appreciation of the nether anatomy and an ability to invent scenarios. The implication of such a view resides in its capacity to distinguish between sex as mystery, even spiritual, and sex as ordinary, mostly manual: big deal or no big deal. This is why Freud’s case histories based on the repression of sexual instincts are literary. They are tales of physical and moral anguish. Cutting to the quick has no tale to tell.

I was once encouraged to read the stories of Anaïs Nin to decide if they were pornographic or erotic. There was one which involved a woman, the narrator, in a heaving crowd at some open-air event. She felt something odd happening directly behind her and realised it was a male, whom she couldn’t see because of the crush, in a state of priapic excitement and unavoidably pressing against her rump. It ended with the two improbably negotiating congress by means of unzipping, skirt-raising and sundry re-arrangement of clothing, without anyone around them noticing. That there was something comical, let alone improbable, about this ending seemed to be a factor in most pornography. Laughter is often a posit-coital reaction, maybe at how ridiculous the sex act is. Pornography is about the risible endgame; eroticism is about the equally hilarious seriousness of what leads up to it without the goal itself  being mentioned.

Kenneth Clark distinguished between nudity and nakedness in art. Nudity, as practised by people who like taking their clothes off without any prospect of sexual activity or encounter, often like to ‘share’ their nakedness with others, especially easy today with a worldwide audience in cyberspace. It’s called exhibitionism, the act of displaying your unclothed body for others to see. That automatically leads to voyeurism: without an image to trigger it, sexual arousal would not take place. That the gratification for the naked person might come from the neutral (non-sexual) responses of other clothes-shedders is hard to believe; at the very least they would not be shocked as a sexual response; that’s to say, they would not stop dis-robing just because some viewers were sexually excited by the result (or, in the case of the erotic, by the act). Nudity, eroticism, pornography: is this not a chain succession? The so-called ‘nude person’ is often into both the erotic and the morbidly pornographic as interchangeable states.

It would be interesting to discover if these activities are related – i.e., if those displaying their nudity, burlesque, eroticism, and pornography for public viewing (exhibitionism, without the word’s pejorative overtones) are equally comfortable with all four roles as variations on the same broad theme. I suspect they might be, even if they are coy and more circumspect about the last. One can say this without being at all judgemental.

Has anyone dealt with these matters from a gender angle? Except for nudity, the roles are each associated with a division of heterosexual status: the female strikes the pose, as it were, and the male gazes. Popularly, pornography is never seen in the opposite terms, though no doubt they exist. This observation applies to still images of individuals. But it is not the stereotype. A good example is seen in the way popular newspapers display photographs of semi-clad women, never (or never for the same reason) of men. These newspapers as entities are not supposed to be run by a particular group of people for any particular group of readers. So, the implication of a daily ‘page 3’ picture of women is that it is aimed primarily at male readers by a male-dominated editorial team in which the female element is complicit. No such newspaper has ever published pictures on a daily basis of half-naked men; if they did, the attraction would be assumed to be for male readers, or a gay readership. (No doubt the female picture might attract gay females, and the male picture heterosexual women, but that’s not the perceived intention.) Pornography is seen as something women engage in for the gratification of men, but that’s only because the male view of almost everything has always been paramount.

Also interesting is the response to images of those performing the quartet of roles publicly. One supposes it to be an increasingly crude and inappropriate manifestation of sexual arousal, a conclusion that must force one to wonder where, in each display, titillation ends and something more crude begins. ‘Crude’, of course, is a loaded term.

* Celia, Oh Celia, and Images From the Floating World.

Did you see who scored that try?

Discovering that the chairman of the residents association where I live is one Phil Gardner took me back forty years to when I was a sports reporter. Phil was captain of Ebbw Vale rugby team, known to its slightly jittery opponents as ‘the Steelmen’. At seventy he still looks as though he could lead a veterans fifteen, or ensure that a team reduced to ten men still had a chance of winning.

My newspaper required its general reporting staff to take on sports duties. It was impossible to ‘cover’ the leading Welsh clubs in our circulation area with any conviction unless one person had responsibility for attending its (mostly) home games and writing a weekly bylined account of what was going on at the club and with the team. Those were pre-professional days, when players turned out for the love of the game plus undisclosed ‘expenses’, which varied depending on the club’s wealth. ‘Shamateurism’ the cynics called it, with no little justification. Apart from that, it was a different era with a different – perhaps rougher-edged and more leisurely – approach to the game, in which players with exceptional talent stood out. No sooner had I joined the paper than I was half-pressed into taking charge of, first, the Cross Keys club, then Abertillery. Though both in theory of equal status, Abertillery was deemed to be of higher rank, partly because it had once boasted two of the world’s best rugby players, Alun Pask and Haydn Morgan. Its former scrum-half, Allan Lewis, too, had played for the British Lions, and was credited with perfecting, if not inventing, the spin pass from the scrum, which allowed the backs to position themselves at a greater distance because the ball travelled further and faster and was easier to take on the run.

I didn’t have to be a sports reporter but like a lot of other newsroom tasks at that time, the job was expected of you. There was, of course, a small team of full-time sports scribes, who pushed pens at desks, wrote opinion columns and took charge of the best rugby and football teams as well as blanket coverage of other sports, such as swimming and cricket. In those days, rugby was an often scrappy game. The set-piece line-outs and scrummages were untidy, dangerous and notorious for infringements, some of them unseen by the referees, who were themselves of variable competence. Abertillery ‘trained’ on Wednesday nights at Abertillery Park on a baize-flat pitch at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. When the floodlights were switched off, the night was Bible-black, with a quarter-mile walk to the unlit car park. I was assigned to the club at the start of the season, just after the clocks went back, and turned up on my first Wednesday hoping to see the team maintaining its fitness and skills. After two laps of the pitch, a few press-ups and some desultory kicking and passing of the ball, the players had had enough. This was the pattern. The standard of play reflected the preparation. During matches, moments of brilliance never outnumbered incidents of clumsiness. Tries were often messily scrambled affairs often difficult to credit to a particular player. In bad weather, when the thirty players on the field were indistinguishable from one another, it was guesswork, the sought-for intelligence often relayed to the Press and committee box via the touchline and assorted runners. On Saturday afternoon, I was required to phone to my newspaper 100 words after twenty minutes, another 100 plus the score at half-time, another 100 midway through the second half and then the final score. When games began to be arranged for Wednesday nights (training was held on another night or not at all), I had orders from up to half a dozen national newspapers to send 100-word reports at the end of the game. In winter, this meant writing and sending on a black Bakelite phone by torchlight. Once, I was fired on by someone with an air rifle on the opposite side of the valley; as the saying went at the time, they could have had my eye out – then I would have made my own news. First thing next morning, I would have to have a report for my own paper ready for submission. This freelance work for ‘the London papers’ paid well: about £250 a month, which in the 1970s looked after the food bills and more. It also attracted the interest of the Inland Revenue, ever on the scent of the little man and his snivelling propensity for tax-avoidance. With a young family I had no opportunity or inclination to spend more time than was necessary at Abertillery Park. I did cover games between Abertillery and Ebbw Vale. Phil Gardner must have been playing in most of them. I don’t remember. Ebbw Vale also had its luminaries, including Clive Burgess and Paul Ringer, Gardner’s back-row colleagues. John Billot, of the Western Mail, nicknamed Burgess ‘Budgie’ and Gardner ‘Grey Wolf’; John Billot, who started at the Western Mail as an office-boy, and became deputy to J.B.G Thomas, its leading rugby writer, and one of the worst so-called ‘authorities’ on the game one could imagine. JBG couldn’t write; Billot could, amounting to almost a stylist. At the end of a wet and windy Wednesday, good sports journalism was all about writing well, accuracy being taken as read.

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.

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.