“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, and the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

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Some utter nonsense

The first book I remember reading was a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol (which means “gibberish”) by Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s dad). When I was 5, I knew many of those poems by heart. Recently, in an idle hour, I wondered if I could translate one of them. This is the result. I am not very pleased with the ending (which seems to me rather anticlimactic in English) – but what the hell! – I’m not a professional translator, and this is the best I could do. Since I’ve now done it, and don’t know what to do with it, I thought I might as well stick it up here.

Our office head, a lovely chap,
Forever calm and gentle,
Who’d have thought he’d be the sort
To go completely mental?

There he dozed upon his chair
Contented as a child,
But then his nap broke with a snap –
He was raving! He was wild!

He gave a shout and rolled about,
His arms and legs went flying,
“Help, help!” he cried, “Come to my side,
“Come hold me up! I’m dying!”

“Doctor! Nurse!” some people called,
“Police! There’ll be a fight!”
Others there were more circumspect,
“Careful now! He’ll bite!”

Here and there and everywhere
Was bedlam, bash and crash,
As tumult spread, the office head
Cried: “Someone’s nicked me tache!”

Moustache stolen? What a thought!
Well, that’s not very clever!
They stood and stared: his facial hair
Seemed sprouting strong as ever.

They gathered round, and said to him,
“Look in the mirror, sir!
“Your tache has not been nicked or pinched –
“Such things do not occur.”

He raged like fire, like chips in frier,
“How dare you have the gall!
“How dare you lie! How dare deny!
“You’re traitors, villains all!

“This filthy rag upon my lip,
“This fetid, threadbare broom,
“You think I’d place this on my face?
“You think I’d give this room?

“I’ll soon teach you a thing or two –
“Come here and take a gander!
“If you opine this eyesore’s mine
“I’ll sue you all for slander!”

He moped and muttered, spat and spluttered,
And in his diary wrote:
“Never cut anyone any slack –
“They’ll all be at your throat!

“Those dunces, neds, those dung-filled heads,
“They can’t see! No-one knows!
“My tache is swiped in broad daylight
“From under my very nose!

“If I’d my way I’d dance all day
“While pulling at their taches,
“And scrape their heads with massive spades –
“Those birdbrained loons! Those asses!

“Moustaches can’t be bought or sold –
“Who mocks my tache maligns me!
“I am my tache! The rest is trash!
“What’s on my lip defines me!”

 

 

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves with?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as amongst the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lies beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.

“The Maltese Falcon” vs “The Big Sleep”

There are some right ignorant arseholes who think The Big Sleep is a better film than The Maltese Falcon.

OK, that first sentence was a consequence of an online conversation I had recently: a friend of mine (she knows who she is) dared me to open my blog post with that. Now that I have comfortably won the dare, let’s start again.

Take two.

It is inevitable that…

No, wait, I have forgotten something:

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

If you have neither read nor seen The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, then it is probably best you read no further.

I had to post that, otherwise my inbox will be full of angry communications. But now that’s done, let us start again.

Take three.

It is inevitable that The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep will be compared to each other. Both films were made in the 40s, within a few years of each other, and both were based on what are now regarded (quite rightly) as classic crime novels, but what were then works of fairly recent vintage. And both feature at the centre a tough and cynical private eye who tries to keep himself free of corruption in a world where corruption is ever-present. And, famously, in both films, this private eye was played by Humphrey Bogart. So comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable. And it seems to me – I may be wrong, of course, basing my conclusion as I am on merely anecdotal evidence – that the current consensus of opinion favours The Big Sleep over The Maltese Falcon; that some go so far as to see The Maltese Falcon as a sort of preparation for the masterpiece that was to come later. I vehemently disagree.

I think what worries me most about The Big Sleep is that Marlowe seems to be having far too much fun. Raymond Chandler’s novel is dark and sleazy, and in it, Marlowe is disgusted by the wickedness and corruption that he sees all around him. Of course, a film adaptation is under no obligation to be true to the book it is based on, either to the letter or to the spirit; and it could further be argued that it wasn’t possible for director Howard Hawks to portray such sleaze in a Hollywood film of the mid 1940s. However, Hawks was a sufficiently good director to have implied that sleaze, had he so wanted. But he clearly didn’t want to. Instead of the sleaze, we have glamour – quite impossible glamour. Of course we expect the leading lady to be glamorous (and it’s hard to imagine anyone more glamorous than Lauren Bacall); and it is important, for the story to work, that her younger sister, Carmen, must also be good-looking. But, mixed up as she is in a rotten world of all sorts of shady goings-on – gangsterism, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, drug-dealing, you-name-it – it is important that she should also project a sense of corruption, of sleaze, of humanity blighted and decayed to such an extent that her beauty is but a grotesque parody of the purity it promises. And the very beautiful Martha Vickers, frankly, doesn’t convey any of that. What’s more, I don’t think she was meant to.

In the novel, Mrs Regan (Mrs Routledge in the film) is also involved in the corruption: here, to make her a suitable romantic interest for Marlowe, she is cleared of any such entanglement. Fair enough, I suppose – if you insist on incorporating a romantic story into all this, that’s what you need to do. But it’s that decision to incorporate a romantic story into all this that I find questionable.

And on top of all that, just about every woman Marlowe encounters (who is not on the side of the villains) is impossibly drop-dead gorgeous; and, even more impossibly, they throw themselves at Marlowe. Even the bookshop-keeper (played by Dorothy Malone) is gorgeous, and she closes her bookshop early within minutes of meeting Marlowe to do with him whatever it is that cameras in those days had discreetly to cut away from. Even a taxi-driver who is on screen for less than a minute (Joy Barlow, uncredited) is impossibly glamorous, and, within minutes of meeting Marlowe, she gives him her number and tells him to get in touch. Now, this sort of thing would be fine in a light-hearted comedy, and someone like Cary Grant, say, could have carried off such scenes with panache; but it seems to me to sit rather uncomfortably with the cynical tough-guy persona of Bogart’s Marlowe. One cannot be a cynical hardened tough guy and a charming skirt-chasing Lothario all at the same time.

Worst of all, there is little sense of evil. Or even of corruption. The chief villain here is Eddie Mars, and he is so under-characterised that, despite having seen this film countless times over several decades, I can barely remember what he looks like. The evil, in other words, barely has a presence in this film. Bogart does from time to time register disgust with what is around him, but everything seems so pretty, so beautiful, so glamorous; and Marlowe is having such fun in this glamorous world – what with such beautiful women throwing themselves at him, why shouldn’t he? –  that one can’t help wondering: what precisely is he disgusted by?

bigsleep

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

There is one sequence – and a very impressive sequence at that – where the darkness comes very much to the fore: this is the sequence involving Elisha Cook Jr. The scene in the deserted office at night-time really is rather frightening. But this scene merely serves to highlight what is missing in the rest of the film: what is very conspicuously missing is a sense of evil as a palpable presence. There is too much romance, too much glamour; and Marlowe seems to be having too good a time. And even after going through all those glamorous ladies, he still gets the girl he really loves. Which is nice.

Of course, Hawks was under no compulsion to be true to the novel. He clearly wanted the glamour, and the fun, and so he put them there. And there’s no denying that it is indeed very glamorous, and great fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. But the nature of the material seems to me to demand a far greater darkness, a far greater sense of corruption; it demanded that the evil be perceived as a real presence. And, apart from a single brief sequence, that simply doesn’t happen.

In The Maltese Falcon, the evil is more clearly present, even though it can manifest itself in forms that are charming (Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman), endearing (Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo), or beautiful (Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, or whatever her real name is). And Spade himself is not entirely immune from it all: he had, after all, been having an affair with his partner’s wife.

In the film, Spade plays along with the villains, and it is uncertain to what extent he is tempted by the evil. He is certainly tempted by Bridget O’Shaughnessy, even though he knows her to be evil. But although his role is morally dubious for most of the film, there are times when his disgust does burst out. When Gutman asks him if he knows what the jewelled falcon is worth, he bursts out that he knows how much it means to “you people” in terms of human lives; and yes, he is disgusted. And when the wife of his former partner – with whom he has been having an affair – reveals that she is quite indifferent to her husband’s death, Spade, despite not having cared for her husband, is nonetheless disgusted. The moral integrity he displays in the final scene does not quite come out of the blue.

And it is this final scene between Sam Spade and Bridget O’Shaughnessy that raises The Maltese Falcon, I think, to another level. Till that point, it was already in the top drawer (as far as thrillers are concerned, only Double Indemnity and The Third Man are, to my mind, in the same league): that final scene takes it a few notches higher. Here, it’s not about the falcon any more: perhaps it never was about the falcon. It’s now about something far more fundamental. Spade had been tempted – not by the money (Spade is no mercenary), but by Bridget O’Shaughnessy. By whatever her real name is. He had been tempted even though he had known she was pure evil. Unlike Marlowe, Spade is not totally immune to the temptation of evil, and he knows it. And in this scene, he confronts it. He tries to distance himself emotionally, listing in as detached a manner as possible all the reasons he has for handing her in to the police, and all the reasons he has for not doing so. But at the end of what he had intended to be a dispassionate speech, his passion flames out in one unforgettable line:

“I won’t do it because all of me wants to.”

The line is Hammett’s (as is virtually all of the sparkling dialogue in this film) but once we have heard Bogart deliver it, it is impossible to imagine it delivered any other way. Spade does what is right, but it is an immense struggle. Bridget O’Shaughnessy tries to play him, and, being the expert seductress that she is, she knows where his most vulnerable spot is: if he really loved her, she says, he won’t need any more reasons. But even this he resists.

maltese falcon

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon

This final scene has an emotional depth, an intensity, that may come as a surprise given the fireworks in the rest of the film, but which, one realises on subsequent viewings, had been simmering under the surface all along. And there is absolutely nothing at all like this in The Big Sleep. There, it is all just a bit of fun. There, the leading lady is exculpated from all nastiness and corruption so she could be worthy of the hero. Here, the leading lady is handed in to the police, and the hero, such as he is, is left free from corruption, but empty and desolate. He didn’t protect her and win her, though all of him wanted to.

The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Any other actor would have played that for laughs, and any other director would have encouraged him to do so. But Humphrey Bogart and John Huston knew better.

***

Reading back on what I have written, I have probably been a bit unfair to The Big Sleep. It certainly is hugely enjoyable, and is great fun, and there are those who say that is all that the “Golden Age of Hollywood” produced, and that we should look for no more. Perhaps. But as far as I can see, The Maltese Falcon gives us considerably more than that.

Reasons to be happy

I was feeling a bit down recently, so I started to think about everything that made me happy. And I came up with this no doubt incomplete list.

  • Toasted cheese suppers
  • Convivial conversation with friends over drinks
  • Curling up in my favourite armchair, whisky in hand, reading Sherlock Holmes stories
  • Branches swaying in the wind
  • Mozart’s piano concertos, Schubert’s chamber music, & Verdi’s “Falstaff”
  • A train journey through the countryside – just staring out of the window
  • Waking up early in the morning, and turning over to go back to sleep again
  • Snow
  • Pompous arses on television looking serious and spouting shite
  • Film noir
  • Seeing small children with happy faces come out of the Natural History Museum, and realising that not even the most sophisticated of gadgets will ever replace the plastic dinosaur
  • Books by bearded Russian writers. (And by Pushkin & Gogol, who unaccountably didn’t have beards. Although Pushkin’s sideburns were spectacular, I grant you.)
  • Autumn leaves
  • Smutty schoolboy jokes
  • Browsing in second-hand bookshops
  • Hammer horror films
  • People saying “thank you” to bus drivers
  • Those Proustian moments when your younger days return vividly to mind, and you remember what a prat you were
  • Watching University Challenge with daughter, & answering more questions than her
  • Laurel & Hardy
  • Winter light. (That is, the light you get in winter, not the Ingmar Bergman film with that title. I mean, I do like Bergman, but I can’t say his films make me very happy.)
  • The lady I saw a few weeks ago reading Paradise Lost on the commuter train
  • Sitting on a park bench watching clouds drift past & doing bugger all
  • Gothic cathedrals
  • The howling of wind outside on gusty nights
  • Shakespeare
  • Memories of the 1982 Brazil football team
  • Fermat’s theorem (not his last) that all prime numbers that can be expressed as 4N+1 (where N is integer) can also be expressed as a sum of two squares
  • Reading ghost stories in bed at night
  • Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter
  • My library
  • Spectacular thunderstorms
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Getting old, and not having to worry any more about keeping up with things
  • Repeats of Dad’s Army on television
  • Aimless rambles through the streets of London
  • Opera broadcasts in cinemas
  • Movie stars recommending you take coffee up the arse
  • Rabindrasangeet
  • Sitting by a blazing open fire in my local during winter months
  • National Gallery, London
  • A good biryani
  • That feeling of satisfaction you get when you put up what you think is a good blog post. (Somehow, I don’t think I’ll get that feeling with this one…)
  • Serious drama. ‘Cos you generally need a good, stiff whisky afterwards.
  • The Scottish Highlands
  • Looney Tunes cartoons
  • The unshakable belief that there will be garden furniture in heaven
  • Getting drunk and talking too much
  • Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
  • Gammon and Spinach

An evening at the Darbar

Most concerts last for a couple of hours or so. So when I walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank in London last night for a concert starting at 5:30, I was expecting to be back home in time for a bit of supper. Not so. After a marathon four-hour session (including, admittedly, a twenty minute break), I finally came out of the hall at 9:30, and by the time I got home (for getting home from Central London always takes time), it was nearly 11, and my empty stomach was making all sorts of comical noises. Well, at least I can’t complain about not getting my money’s worth at the concert.

The Darbar Festival is now well established in London, and, in an increasingly depressing world, it really is something to be cheerful about, something worth celebrating. It is a festival of Indian “classical” music, and features every year some of the very finest exponents of the genre. But the genre itself isn’t easy to describe: I have placed the quotation marks around “classical” quite deliberately. This term was obviously introduced to parallel the concept of Western classical music (which too is not an easily defined term, but let us not go into that now). However, the parallels between Indian and Western classical music are tenuous at best, and drawing parallels between the two is not, perhaps, very helpful. What is termed “Indian classical music” is perhaps best described as “traditional music”, but a traditional music distinct from what we understand as “folk music” (which, of course, is another imprecise term). This is music that was cultivated in darbars (courts) and in aristocratic salons. It acquired a brief popularity in the West in the 1960s, when many regarded it essentially as “music to get high to”, but even then it was pretty niche stuff. But in the subcontinent, and within the diaspora, it is, of course, another matter.

In the next paragraph, I shall summarise my understanding of this music. This explanation is likely to be pretty boring, so the reader may want to skip it.

There are two very distinct types, the Hindustani (from Northern India), and the Carnatic (from the South), the former incorporating, I understand, many elements from Persian music. Within these two main categories, there are many different schools of practice (gharanas), handed down across generations. The main form is the raga, (or raag, or however you wish to spell it); there are different kinds of raga, many associated with particular times of day or seasons of year, with each defined by specific ascending and descending scales, and also by characteristic melodic patterns. Within these parameters, the musician (instrumentalist or singer) has to improvise, following a structure (which may of course be varied) consisting of alap (an introduction, without a time signature); a jor (where there is a time signature, but where cross-rhythms of often extraordinary intricacy make it difficult for people like me to tap my feet to the music); a jhala, where the tempo increases to quite exhilarating effect; and finally, a number of composed (i.e. not improvised) sections called gats to round the thing off. A raga can last for anything from a few minutes up to about an hour, or longer. The upper bound appears to be around 80 minutes, but as my knowledge in these matters is derived mainly from CDs (which don’t last longer than 80 minutes), I am not certain on this point: I am sure performances could go on for longer.

Those who skipped the last paragraph may rejoin here.

If all this makes me appear some kind of expert, this is because I am quite adept these days at bullshitting. However, it is one thing bullshitting over a few drinks in a pub amongst friends who know even less than I do; it is quite another thing bullshitting on a forum such as this where one is liable to be found out. What I have written above takes me to the very limit of my understanding. And even there, I may have said a few things that will no doubt have connoisseurs smiling patronisingly, and shaking their heads. I don’t deny it: I am certainly more enthusiastic than knowledgeable. But however poor my understanding, this is music I love, and, increasingly, I find this music very important to me.

There was a large audience last night. I am bad at estimating numbers, but Queen Elizabeth Hall is a fairly large hall, and it was almost full. I was, however, a bit saddened to note the relative paucity of Westerners in the audience: most of the audience consisted of people like me from the Indian diaspora (or, at least, the diaspora from the subcontinent). But then again, I am saddened also by the paucity of Indian faces at western classical concerts. When we are privileged to enjoy the best that the whole world has to offer, almost literally on our doorsteps, it does seem a shame to segregate ourselves in this manner.  But then again, this may be turned on to me also: how many jazz concerts do I attend? How many folk concerts? Do I rush out to buy tickets when the South Bank Centre or the Barbican Centre puts on concerts, say, of Andalusian flamenco music, or of Balinese gamelan music?

I may plead in mitigation that I can’t cover everything. And also, it is unlikely that I would be able to take in too much of anything without diving into it deeply. But in truth, a little learning is not necessarily a dangerous thing: as long as one is aware that there is more to the Pierian Spring than one tastes, tasting a few bits here and there may not be a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary. If one were to follow Pope’s famous dictum to the letter, one would end up not knowing anything at all about most things.

But as ever, I digress. I am no expert on Indian “classical” music (as I guess I have to call it for want of a better term), and it is true also that my musical tastes are centred around music of a very different kind (the piano concertos of Mozart, chamber music of Schubert, the operas of Verdi, and the like). Nonetheless, this music does not appear strange or exotic at all to my generally western-tuned ears. Not for a moment did I find my attention wandering during last night’s marathon session.

The concert itself was described as a “double bill”. The first half featured sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee (no relation, as far as I know), with tabla player Sukhvinder Singh. The main part of their concert was an extended performance of Raga Patdeep, which is … Oh, look it up! I’d only be getting my own information from Wikipedia anyway! It was real virtuoso stuff, with both musicians by the end playing music of the utmost rhythmic intricacy at exhilarating breakneck tempi. I felt breathless just listening to it, but the musicians themselves seemed quite unruffled by it all. They followed this up with the considerably gentler and more romantic Raga Manj Khamaj. There was a point where some of the melodic phrases Purbayan Chatterjee was playing reminded me of a Tagore song (Bhenge mor gharer chabi niye jabi ke amare), and, while I was wondering if I was imagining it, he put us out of all doubt by playing a few phrases quite explicitly from that song, incorporating these phrases seamlessly into the flow of the music. Well, why not? He is Bengali, after all! (As I was coming out of the hall for the interval, a gentleman in front of me was singing that song under his breath: I doubt there was any Bengali in the audience who didn’t get the reference.)

The second part featured the very distinguished singer Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, a lady with the most extraordinary range, both in terms of octaves covered and in terms of expression. Her session alone lasted some two hours – two hours of her singing almost continually, without breaks. And, as far as my admittedly inexpert ears could determine, her voice was as fresh at the end as it had been at the start. It was extraordinary.

(I was going to write a paragraph of purple prose describing her singing, but frankly, why bother when you can go straight to YouTube?)

So, no doubt you’re all wondering why I am writing all this in what is supposed to be a book blog. It is partly, I think, to communicate something of my enthusiasm for what I heard last night. And also, I think, to encourage anyone reading this within travelling distance of Central London to have a look at the subsequent concerts in this series. (There are a few concerts at the Barbican next month, and some performances of dance – dance being perhaps more central to the arts in India than it is in the West – in Sadler’s Wells in November; and in March next year, the festival returns to the South Bank.) I speak often in this blog of the importance of sharing each other’s cultures, and when so enterprising a project brings such riches to us virtually on our very doorsteps, it seems only reasonable to let more people know about it.

Just one word of warning though: be prepared for a marathon session. No doubt in the darbars and the aristocratic gatherings of old, the patrons of this music did not have to catch the train the next morning to commute to the office, and this could have gone on all night. But even cut down to four hours, it is considerably longer than the concerts I am more used to.

And, unless one wants the rumblings of one’s stomach to counterpoint the music, bring some sandwiches for the interval.

Confessions of a charlatan

It’s quite easy to pose as being well-read. I know: I am a past master at it. I go on long book-browsing sessions in bookshops; I come home each time with a handful of books that I shove in wherever I can on my shelves (these shelves already full to bursting with multitudes of books, with books to boot, and books in overplus); pepper my conversation with a few casual and learned references (as I did just now); and so on, and so forth … and people will think I am bookish. So bookish, indeed, am I now considered, that I can quite easily save myself the immense trouble of actually having to read the damn things.

No matter how honest you like to think you are with yourself, you end up believing about yourself what others believe about you. So I believed myself bookish. And thinking myself so, I decided to start a book blog. But nothing brings home to you your misconceptions about yourself more effectively than that. For, very soon, I had to disclaim this was a book blog at all. Oh, I wrote about books all right, but I started writing about a whole lot of other things too. Meanwhile, looking through other book blogs, it became patently obvious that I hadn’t read anywhere near widely enough to live up to the image I had so assiduously cultivated.

It can get quite embarrassing at times. For instance, on the few occasions I have agreed to take part in group reads with other book bloggers, I have fallen hopelessly behind, coming up with my own post about the book long, long after everyone else has already said everything worth saying. And when others make to me no doubt excellent recommendations for further reading, I politely assure them I will follow up these recommendations, while all the time asking myself “When? When?”

I think the problem is I am just a very slow reader. And not just a slow reader: I am also a slow thinker. I rarely “get” things right away. I read very slowly, often re-reading paragraphs I have just read to make sure I got them right the first time round; and often revisiting earlier sections of the book if it strikes me that some later section may cast new light on what I had read before. And after reading, I have to sit back for a while, silently, mulling it over. Frequently, I feel I need some time away from the book before I can move on, to think over to myself some difficult or complex passage. In short, it takes a long time for anything to sink in, to penetrate through my thick skull.

And now that I am, I suppose, a book blogger of sorts, I frankly find myself somewhat in awe of, and more than a bit intimidated by, those other book bloggers who can read through the most difficult of books in next to no time. How do they do it? And I have no doubt that they do actually take in what they are reading: the quality of their blog posts is sufficient evidence that they do. It beats me how they do it, though!

And then, when it comes to bedtime, and I know I should be ending my day with an improving few pages from some of Plato’s dialogues, or maybe some essay by Montaigne, my eyes wander furtively towards the collection of ghost stories and Sherlock Holmes stories that have for very many years now been near my bedside. Yes, yes, I know, Plato’s dialogues are among the very peaks of human thought – they bring us like no other literature closer to the truth of what it is to be human.

But then again … “The Bruce-Partington Plans” …

Oh well – at my age (I’ll be sixty in less than two years, and I’m not at all sure how that happened) it is pointless to desire this man’s art and that man’s scope. Why should an aged eagle stretch its wings? (See! I just did it again!) I know I’ll never be anywhere near as erudite and as well-read as some people seem to imagine me. But as long as I can find riches in what I have read; and as long as I can enjoy “The Bruce-Partington Plans” as much as I used to back when I was a lad; I think I can rest content. It’s not a race, after all.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It makes me feel a whole lot better.