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Dressing up, dressing down

For the apparel oft proclaims the man

It has long struck me that this is one of the very few pieces of sensible advice that that pompous windbag Polonius gives to his son. For, shallow and superficial though it may be, we do judge people by their appearance. But what Polonius does not seem to realise is that it is not just the question of what one wears. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it. Take me, for instance. I could be dressed up to the nines – the smartest suit, the most dignified silk tie, matching handkerchief peeping discreetly out of my breast pocket – and still look like a sack of potatoes. ’Twas ever thus. It was this innate inability to make the best of my clothes that nipped in the bud what may otherwise have been a promising career as a male fashion model.

Here, as evidence, is a picture taken from our holiday in Sicily some three years ago. There I was, not wearing the shorts and tee shirt that I believe are generally considered de rigeur on such holidays, but sporting instead a jacket, a shirt with collar and buttons, and a pair of trousers made of some material other than denim. And yet, far from looking smart, I look as dilapidated as the ruins behind me, and considerably less dignified.

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“Were you not hot and uncomfortable?” I am asked. Well, no. Although it was bright and sunny, this picture was taken in October, and the weather was mild. Also, it’s a very light jacket: I certainly found it, and find it still (much to the despair of my wife), very comfortable to wear. It’s what is termed “leisurewear”, or even “comfort wear”, that I find uncomfortable. I find jeans heavy and awkward, and the texture of denim unpleasantly rough and abrasive; and shirts without buttons are rarely flattering to a middle-age paunch. After all, even a sack of potatoes, I feel, is entitled at least to some remaining vestiges of vanity. And quite apart from the aesthetics of it all, there are the practicalities: I never know where to put the various things I have always to carry around with me – keys, wallet, phone, comb, a paperback to read while waiting for the bus – if I am not wearing a jacket. (A recent advert on television for some credit card featured, for reasons that now escape me, a nude man running down the street, and I could not help wondering – albeit momentarily – where exactly he kept his credit card.) The tie, in keeping with the tenor of our times, I have reluctantly forgone, but this does leave me not knowing what to wipe my glasses with.

Another advantage of wearing a jacket and a shirt with collar is that for those occasions where one does need to dress up, one need make no extra effort. Perhaps change one’s usual jacket for a nicer one, and put on a tie – but that’s about it. After all, why make that extra effort when you know you’re going to end up looking like that sack of potatoes no matter what you do? Nonetheless, when I go to the opera, say, I do wear a jacket and tie. Or a decent jacket, at least. I realise that this is very stuffy and elitist of me: when one goes to the opera, especially when one goes to the opera, one really should wear “comfort wear”, if only to demonstrate how unstuffy and un-elitist one is. One should wear “comfort wear” even if one happens, as I do, not to find it very comfortable. Those who do not go to the opera, and imagine the auditorium to be populated by ladies in tiaras and gentlemen in tuxedos, are likely to be somewhat surprised were they actually to go and see for themselves.

However, formal wear has not gone completely out of fashion. If, at work, I am to meet with customers, I am still expected to wear a smart jacket and tie. Or, preferrably, a suit. Everyone will dress smartly when going for a job interview, say; and prospective employers still tend to favour those applicants who have taken the trouble to dress formally rather than those sporting “leisurewear”. Irrational, I know, but, in our perceptions at least, apparel still proclaims the man. We will all wear our best clothes – and for men, that means jacket and tie – to a wedding, say, or to friends’ silver wedding anniversary at some swanky hotel: we would feel it disrespectful to go to such events in jeans and tee shirt. It is only when it comes to theatre and opera that we feel the need to exhibit how “unstuffy” we really are.

I can’t help thinking that this is because those of us who love opera have become overly sensitive to the allegations of “elitism” and “stuffiness” that are incessantly levelled at us. And that’s hardly any wonder. If we are constantly attacked and ridiculed simply for loving that which is dear to us, extreme sensitivity is only to be expected. The prices for classical music, we are told, are unaffordable. No matter how often you point out that a quick browse around the net indicates classical concerts to be no more expensive on average than rock concerts, and often considerably cheaper, these same allegation will resurface – over and bloody over again. Operas, admittedly, can be expensive, but then, so are West End musicals, which are never described as “elitist” or “stuffy”. And when I am told that opera is unaffordable by people who, almost in the next breath, tell me how much they paid for, say, a Beyoncé concert – some price I would never consider spending for a single night out, not even at Covent Garden – I cannot help feeling that it’s not the price that’s the point. When something one loves is constantly denigrated, and no evidence you adduce taken on board, one can’t help feeling a bit resentful about it all.

And if it’s not about prices, it’s about dress codes. Or alleged dress codes. Once again, no evidence one puts forward is ever taken on board. We who go to opera, and, what’s more, we who enjoy going to opera, are, we are told, dressed in tiaras and tuxedos, and anyone dressed in “leisurewear” stands out like that proverbial sore thumb, and is stared at. They may even, apparently, be asked to leave. No amount of evidence to the contrary can alter this current of opinion, and so, naturally, we all become more than somewhat sensitive to the whole issue. (Actually, if this is indeed the criterion of stuffiness, rock concerts must count as very stuffy, as anyone dressed in a jacket and tie at a rock concert will certainly stick out like that sore thumb, and will certainly be stared at.)

Perhaps it is this sensitivity surrounding these matters that explains the astonishing vitriol that has been aimed at a recent piece by Howard Jacobson, in which he laments the decline of formal wear at the opera. The piece itself struck me as comic in tone, often tongue-in-cheek, and, like most comedy, indulging in exaggeration and in hyperbole for comic effect. When Jacobson, at the end of the piece, references the sex-strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I must admit I laughed. Not, maybe, as uninhibitedly as I do when watching Marx Brothers films, but I definitely emitted a few audible chuckles. And yet the vitriol, from opera lovers, from performers, from music writers, is unrelenting, both in the below-the-line comments, and also, inevitably, in social media. It’s as if all the good work that has so laboriously been performed in trying to convince people that opera isn’t elitist and stuffy is here undone.

I suppose I am going against the grain here in not objecting to Jacobson’s article. People who think badly of opera and of opera-lovers on account of their alleged “stuffiness” aren’t going to change their minds: they haven’t so far. How much longer must we keep insisting to them that we really are normal people? Yes, of course people are entitled to wear whatever they damn well want. And of course it’s how you respond to the opera that matters, and not what you’re wearing. I doubt Jacobson himself would disagree with any of that. But his point, dressed up as it admittedly is in comic hyperbole, seems to me to be that not only is there nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark a special occasion, it may even, given we are social animals, and given further that a night out, whether at an opera or at a rock concert, is a social as well as an aesthetic event, be a Good Thing. Such a point I find entirely unexceptionable.

But of course, in my case, given that I look like a sack of potatoes no matter how I dress, it probably doesn’t really matter very much. So let me finish off by offering another picture from our Sicilian holiday of three years ago. Here I am in a Greek theatre in Syracuse, wearing my jacket and buttoned-up shirt in honour of Aeschylus, who is reputed to have performed here.

(And please – no gags about the Popular Front of Judaea: that one has been done to death!)

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“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

If I were to be given the ability to write prose like any writer of my choosing, past or present, I think I’d choose to write prose like Robert Louis Stevenson. There’d be no point picking someone like Dickens, say, whose prose is so idiosyncratic that anything written in that manner would seem merely like imitation. Stevenson’s prose is also very individual – as, indeed, is the prose of any major stylist – but it is not eccentric, as Dickens’ is. It is supple, rhythmical, and eloquent; and it is marvellously expressive. And it is all of these things without the slightest hint of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to itself. Take, for instance, this passage from the story “A Lodging For the Night”, describing snow falling at night on the streets of Paris:

The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake descended out of a black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable. To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder where it all came from.

There is nothing gaudy about this: it is far from purple prose. It flows naturally, its rhythms perfectly in place, creating successive waves and troughs, neither pulling the reader up short with quickfire staccato, nor tiring the reader with long unpunctuated phrases in which, by the time the end is reached, the beginning is all but forgotten. It is almost like the conversation of a highly articulate person, its rises and falls and its pauses imitating the natural patterns of speech. And each word seems so perfectly chosen, and so perfectly in place, that neither the choice of words nor the order in which they are put seems capable of improvement. And as an evocation of the scene, as a picture in words of snow falling from a night sky, can this really be improved upon? I could turn to any page at random in this collection, and I would find the same thing – prose that is eloquent, words that are perfectly chosen, phrasing that is immaculate; and, without drawing attention to itself, writing expresses perfectly whatever the author wants to express.

This collection of stories was first published in 1882, when Stevenson was in his early thirties, but the stories had all been appearing individually in literary magazines and journals for a few years before then. The title Stevenson chose for this collection is an interesting one: The Arabian Nights stood, and still stands, for pure storytelling – storytelling of tremendous exuberance and vitality, unencumbered with anything to furrow the thoughtful brow, innocent of insights or thoughts regarding the human condition, but holding the reader’s attention purely by the question: “What happens next?”

But curiously, Stevenson does not often seem very interested in the question “What happens next?” His interest seems to lie, rather, in creating intriguing situations; and it’s these situations that stay in the reader’s mind rather than how they are eventually resolved. Two of the entries in this collection are actually sequences of linked stories – “The Suicide Club” (what a title!) and “The Rajah’s Diamond”. These stories often end without resolution: it is almost as if, having presented us with intriguing situations, Stevenson doesn’t really care too much about “what happens next”, and is moving on quickly to introduce a new thread, with new situations that are every bit as intriguing as the previous ones. This new story will contain, somewhere along the line, some detail that resolves the previous story, but these details are dropped as if in passing: it is the situations that are important to Stevenson, and the rest merely mechanics of the plot, and, hence, of relatively little interest. The resolutions are dropped almost casually, if they were but trifles. And indeed, when these resolutions are eventually presented, we find ourselves already so wrapped up in the new story, that we don’t care too much about how the previous one had worked out. I don’t think I have ever encountered anything of this nature before.

It is all carried off with a tremendous panache. And what situations they are! A quiet, retiring man receives a letter from a mysterious woman, proposing they meet; he is stood up, but he returns to his room to find there a corpse. Or there’s the Suicide Club, a secret organization where men meet who are either suicidal, or are seeking excitement; there, cards are drawn, and the he who draws the ace of spades is to be killed, and he who draws the ace of clubs must do the killing. And so on. The stories may end without resolution (although that will be dropped in later) , but no matter: within a few paragraphs of the next story, we are hooked all over again.

Apart from these linked stories, there are four others, of varying character. In “A Lodging for the Night”, Stevenson recreates medieval Paris on a winter’s night, and presents to us the great poet François Villon, who was also a cut-throat brigand. That one could be both intrigued Stevenson, and what emerges is masterly both in terms of evoking time and place, and of evoking also a character of endless fascination. We are in medieval France again for “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door”, where, once again we are presented with an intriguing situation: it eventually resolves itself into a rather charming love story, but I can’t help feeling that it’s the intriguing nature of the set-up that most attracted Stevenson’s imagination. “Providence and the Guitar” is a rather whimsical tale pitting the improvident artistic temperament against more stolid and more dependable – but also more boring – approaches to life; there is, once again, much charm here, and also a vein of the comic that I don’t always find in Stevenson’s writing.

But the masterpiece of this collection is, I think, “The Pavilion on the Links”. It was a great favourite of Conan Doyle’s (another great storyteller, who was born only a mile or so from Stevenson’s birthplace). And no wonder! Adventure stories really don’t come any better than this! The prose, as ever, is tremendously accomplished, but what impresses most is the pacing, and the creation of tension. It is set on a remote stretch of the Scottish coast, and the heroes (as they turn out to be) find themselves protecting a man from bloodthirsty killers besieging them. We have had elements of this in Treasure Island, of course: there, the besiegers had been pirates; here, they are Carbonari. The basic situation later found its way into Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Marvellous though both those films are, they are not, I think, superior to this story, which, though much shorter, I found every bit as thrilling as Treasure Island. No wonder Conan Doyle thought so highly of this!

New Arabian Nights was Stevenson’s first collection of short stores. He wrote more, of course, but I have only read a small handful of them so far, and can’t imagine why I have left it so long to read the others. In the meantime, if adventure stories are your thing – and even if they aren’t, and you simply enjoy fine writing – this collection can be recommended with the warmest enthusiasm. What a writer Stevenson was!

A Frenchman in a Bengali bar

There’s something about this video on Youtube, a mere two minutes or so probably filmed on someone’s phone, that fills me with joy:

Now, normally, I wouldn’t dream of posting a private video on this blog without permission, but since this has been on Youtube, a public forum, for many years now, I guess I am quite safe sharing this. And if the makers of this video, or any of the participants in it, should object, I will most certainly take it down.

Since videos do come and go on YouTube, let me describe what is captured here. The scene is, presumably, a bar somewhere in Bengal. The people here all appear to be local, except for one person, who is clearly a Westerner (the notes accompanying this video tell us he is French). And, to the delight of everyone in the bar, this Westerner starts singing a Rabindrasangeet (a song by Rabindranath Tagore). His Bengali pronunciation is very good: it is not an easy language for Westerners to master, containing as it does various sounds not used in European languages. And although I doubt his singing will have music companies rushing to his door with recording contracts, it is nonetheless rather impressive. This man has obviously absorbed Bengali culture, learnt the language, learnt the songs. He has adopted all of this as his own.

And the reaction of the others is interesting. No-one seems at all put out by this Frenchman “appropriating” their culture: quite the contrary – they seem delighted. A cheer goes up when he starts singing; the ladies at the next table start singing along with him; and there are approving cheers and enthusiastic applause when he finishes. There is something joyous in all this.

This is what those puritan killjoys who moan about “cultural appropriation” seem unable to appreciate: sharing each other’s cultures, adopting aspects of other cultures as one’s own, is a joyous thing. “Appropriation”? No-one has any exclusive proprietorial rights over any culture; so how is it possible to “appropriate” what doesn’t belong to anyone?

Feasts of various kinds are laid out all around us, and they are rich feasts. We only have to look. So let us leave those killjoys who disapprove of this kind of thing festering in their narrow and resentful little cultural ghettoes, while the rest of us get on with the business of sharing and partaking of each other’s cultures, and adopting as our own whatever appeals to us. For this sharing is indeed joyous.

“The Painter of Signs” by R. K. Narayan

*** SPOILER ALERT: I suppose it’s fair to warn readers who care about such things that this post may contain a couple of mild spoilers for those who haven’t read it. But I don’t think there’s anything here that would spoil the experience of a first reading. ***

 

It is difficult to write about Narayan without using adjectives such as “elegant”, “charming”, “delightful”. For, indeed, he is all of these things. There are readers who prize him precisely because he is so effortlessly enchanting – although, of course, it must take tremendous effort to appear so effortless. But it seems to me that, quite often, there are darker themes lurking in there. Narayan never short-changes these darker themes, but so gentle is the narrative voice, and so formidable the charm, the reader can easily be tempted to overlook them. Or, at best, see them as but minor flies in an otherwise emollient ointment.

The Painter of Signs is a case in point. Looking around the net, many, I see, read this as a bittersweet love story, a quirky and whimsical romance. Maybe it’s my own vision that is too gloomy, but I really cannot see it in such terms. Yes, it has all the trademark charm of Narayan, and all the gentle and compassionate humour one expects from him, but I found it nonetheless troubling. “Bittersweet”? Not much sweetness here as far as I can see. And if it is indeed a love story, it’s a damn strange one.

The principal character, Raman, is depicted in third person, but we are rarely outside his head: the world is shown as he sees it, and his vision is limited. He is very characteristic of the figures who populate Narayan’s novels: as Naipaul put it, Narayan’s novels are full of “small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means”. Raman is the “painter of signs” of the title – a title that invites us to search for a metaphorical interpretation, but then, rather teasingly, refuses to make any such interpretation obvious. For a painter of signs is literally what he is. He paints signs for small businesses in the fictional town of Malgudi. But he is an artist. Or, at least, a craftsman who believes in the importance of his work, and takes it seriously. In the early pages, we follow Raman dealing with various eccentric customers, and the gentle wit and subtle humour of the writing reassure us that we are indeed in an enchanted and enchanting fictional world.

But the sense of security is a false one. Raman is a bachelor, living with an aged aunt, and he is – should we choose to look beneath the surface charm – clearly sexually frustrated.

Then, Raman meets with, and, although he doesn’t quite realise it himself, falls in love with, a newcomer to town, Daisy – an unusual Western name for an Indian. She is independent, and is working on a government scheme promoting birth control. (This novel was published in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, and birth control was then very high on the agenda.) And, to go with her un-Indian name, she is also very independent: disciplined, strong-willed, business-like, and unattached. In a strongly patriarchal society, a young woman, on her own, looking after herself unaided and unintimidated, was something of a rarity.

She employs Raman to paint various signs for her campaign, and soon, he finds himself accompanying her on tours around various remote villages, as she speaks to massed assemblies of strangers on the intimate details of birth control with unembarrassed and business-like frankness. There is much comic potential in all this, of course, but Narayan is careful not to overdo it: his humour, as ever, is subtle, and subtlety frequently demands understatement. And anyway, Narayan has more important matters in mind.

For Raman is clearly attracted to her, although it is unclear whether this is love – as those who insist on seeing this as a “bittersweet love story” will have it – or a manifestation of his unfulfilled sexual desire. But when he fantasises about her, as he frequently does, he – rather pathetically given his somewhat feeble personality – imagines Daisy as someone dependent on him. For this, after all, is what he has unwittingly absorbed in the society in which he has grown up: woman is weak, and man, being the stronger, protects woman; and hence, woman is dependent on man; and hence, so should Daisy be dependent on him. The very notion of the strong-willed and determined Daisy being dependent upon a milksop like Raman is, of course, absurd, but Raman does not see the absurdity of it. Until, one night, the fantasy of Daisy being dependent upon him slips over into a fantasy of Daisy being dominated by him, and he tries to rape her. She, alert to the situation, gives him the slip; and even if she hadn’t, it seems unlikely that Raman would have had the strength to get the better of her. But that’s hardly the point: the intention was there. Whatever idea we may have had till now of this being a “bittersweet love story” is here shattered.

Raman almost immediately regrets his attempt. When he meets Daisy again, he is shamefaced. But so wrapped up is he in his own self, so unaware is he of Daisy as an autonomous being, that, quite without irony, he thanks her for saving him from himself: it hardly occurs to him that saving him must surely have been the last thing on Daisy’s mind.

We find out later about Daisy’s past. She had, even as a child, rebelled against the stifling patriarchy of her family background, and, rather than be married off, had run away. She had been taken up by a Christian mission, and had adopted the Western name Daisy – after a flower that does not even grow in India. Just as Raman never really gets to know her as a person, neither does he, or we, the readers, get to know her real name. She is determined to be independent, and yet, if we read between the lines, she is also lonely. And for some time, she sees in Raman a possible solution – as someone who, despite the weaknesses of his character, could provide, if nothing else, companionship. Raman, of course, leaps at the chance offered: by this stage, he is obsessed with her. His aged aunt, a devout lady, is horrified: not only would he (most likely) be breaking caste by such a marriage, he would also be breaking religion – for surely a woman with an un-Indian name like Daisy must be a Christian! Rather than tolerate this, she asks to go on pilgrimage to the source of the sacred Ganges, expecting, given her advanced years, never to return. Raman raises no objection: far from it – he offers his own money to help her. And in any case, it’s barely “marriage” that he and Daisy are planning: Raman has found some ancient Hindu form of marriage that does not require a ceremony – what we would nowadays simply describe as a couple “shacking up together”. But it has the imprimatur of the Hindu religion itself, and that’s good enough for Raman.

Of course, it is hardly to be expected that things eventually work out. It’s all too complex. Lovers meet, lovers part … it is, I suppose, a “bittersweet love story” after all. There is certainly a tremendous sadness and sense of desolation about it all, especially towards the end. And there is, as ever with Narayan, compassion for his characters. Raman, after all, is no villain: the patriarchy that he has grown up with, and has unwittingly absorbed, has damaged him, and he cannot even recognise, let alone understand, the deep frustrations pent up within himself. And there’s Daisy, determined, intelligent, but doomed forever to be lonely. For all the humour, it’s a tremendously sad novel.

Bittersweet love story? Quirky and whimsical romance? Yes, I suppose it is, in its own way, all of these things. But that hardly seem adequate to describe so wise and so subtle, and, indeed, so disturbing a novel as this.

Look back in joy: Verdi’s “Falstaff”

Now that autumn is upon us, our thoughts turn inevitably to matters autumnal.

Now, that was a crap sentence, wasn’t it? I did consult the thesaurus for an alternative to “autumnal”, but nothing quite expressed what I wanted to express – autumnal, relating to autumn, approaching the end of the natural cycle, looking back upon the spring and summer of our lives and preparing for the chill on oncoming winter, and so on. Better inelegant than imprecise, I thought, so “autumnal” it remains.

We tend to see as special the works created by great artists in the autumnal phase of their careers. We note the valedictory quality, say, in the late works of Mozart, and the visionary quality of those of Beethoven, as if a full life to look back on had given them the fullest understanding of what that life meant, and a closeness to death mystical insights into what may lie beyond. In most cases, we are mistaken: Mozart died at only 35, after all, and Beethoven at 58, and it is doubtful whether either knew themselves to be in their autumnal phase. And this is not even to mention those great artists whose creativity had burnt out long before they had approached the autumns of their lives (Wordsworth is perhaps the most egregious example of this).

But sometimes, there are indeed cases where the artists know themselves to be in the autumn of their lives, and produce works to which, for want of a vocabulary adequate to the purpose, we apply such vague terms as “mystical” or “spiritual”; or they look back upon the life that they know they must shortly leave, and produce works that are a sort of summing up.

One such work is Verdi’s opera Falstaff, a piece that has recently been much on my mind and on my CD player. Premiered in 1893, it was, Verdi must have known, finally and most definitely his last work. True, he had announced his retirement before on several occasions, and had made more comebacks even than Frank Sinatra, but Verdi was in his eightieth year by the time of Falstaff’s premiere: no more encores – this was the final final curtain.

The story of how the aged Verdi came in touch with the brilliant young poet Arrigo Boito (and who was no mean composer himself); how Verdi’s initial caginess gave way to admiration, and, eventually, to love; and how the two collaborated on the two great crowning glories of Verdi’s career, the Shakespearean operas Otello and Falstaff; is too well-known for me to relate. (Although that didn’t stop me relating just that in an earlier post.) When they started work on Otello, the story that Verdi was coming out of retirement to compose a new opera, and one that based on an undisputedly great play by Verdi’s idol Shakespeare, was, in Italy, national news. The opera was a triumph – taking Shakespeare’s play as a starting point for something startlingly new, and matching, to my mind, the greatness of its inspiration.

Verdi was then 73. Surely, now, it was time to retire. But no Boito had other ideas. Verdi had, after all, never written a comic opera. His very first opera, yes, but that was decades ago, it had flopped, and, despite the celebrity status Verdi had attained since, it had never even been revived. No, that doesn’t count. Even Wagner had written a great comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: do we really want posterity to say that Wagner had composed a great comic work, and that Verdi hadn’t? Or, worse, couldn’t?

I personally think that it was only when Verdi saw the quality of the libretto Boito was producing that he fully committed himself to the project. The main plot was taken from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with (inevitably given this was opera rather than a straight drama) many of the plot complications ironed out; but it was enriched with passages derived from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and also with elements from Boito’s and Verdi’s own native Italian culture (for instance, the solo Fenton sings in the final scene, with the final line completed by Nanetta, is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet). Add to all that Boito’s own genius. Libretti are, traditionally, not meant to be anything much more than something for the composer to work on, but such was the delight Boito took in his own language, and such was his skill in making that language obey his call (a skill that I, a non-Italian speaker, can appreciate only second hand when I read analyses of it), that the libretto, even without the music, is utterly exquisite. Verdi knew that if the work was to be known as a Verdi-Boito collaboration rather than a masterpiece by Boito with some music by Verdi, he would, tired and aged as he was, have to be at his very best. It was a challenge he was glad to take up. Before he met with Boito, Verdi was constantly giving his librettists detailed instructions on how he wanted to libretto to go, even down to details as to what the rhythms should be, what words were to be used, and so on: and now, in his old age, he found himself working with libretti that were works of art in their own right.

Unlike Othello, the previous Shakespeare play Verdi and Boito had tackled, The Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t usually regarded amongst Shakespeare’s finest plays. Many even find it rather disappointing. Shakespeare had taken Falstaff, one of his greatest creations, from the Henry IV plays, and had stripped from him everything that had made him so memorable: here, he is nothing more than a comic buffoon. The plot, such as it is, is no more than a rumbustious situation comedy – at times, a farce. All this is true enough, but it seems to me that if we stop expecting it to be something it never set out to be, and accept it as the riotous farce it is, it is all very enjoyable. Boito added depth to the text partly by additions from other sources (mainly the Henry IV plays), and partly by his own linguistic exuberance. And Verdi, of course, set it to music. And what music!

And yet, Falstaff occupies a rather uneasy position within the Verdi canon. There are many otherwise dedicated Verdians who love Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, who find themselves transfixed by Simon Boccanegra or by Don Carlos, but who, often by their own admission, don’t quite “get” Falstaff. Some go as far as to say they dislike it. And, conversely, there are also those who generally disparage Verdi, but who hold up the two operas he created with Boito (along with, sometimes, the Requiem Mass) as works where, unlike the inferior stuff he had produced earlier, Verdi really did achieve great heights. (This latter group sometimes rubs it in by claiming that these late works of Verdi achieve heights that the earlier works hadn’t because Verdi had, by that stage, learnt from Wagner.) Needless to say, I don’t accept either position. But it is true to say, I think, that these last two operas do indeed stand apart somewhat from Verdi’s earlier work, and not merely by virtue of having superior libretti.

To try to understand why Falstaff often fails to capture the hearts and minds of so many fans of Verdi, I think back to when I first heard this opera – nearly forty years ago now – and, largely innocent of musical sophistication, found myself confused. Where are the tunes? I wondered. No sooner does any semblance of a tune get started, it disappears. Where is the continuity? In the second act, the two young lovers, Fenton and Nanetta, sing a gorgeous love song, but, goddammit Giuseppe, why don’t we get to hear this properly? Why overlay this lovely romantic song with a whole lot of other tuneless voices going about their allegedly comic business?

Something such as Aida, say, with its spectacles and its glorious array of tunes, I could hear through and enjoy, but this took some time. It was some time before I realised that the fast, mercurial nature of the piece – each little wisp of a tune giving way to the next one before it is allowed time to settle – is the essence of the whole thing. It is almost as if Verdi had so many musical ideas teeming inside his head, he had to get them all out in this single work which, whatever ideas Boito may have for even further collaboration, would be, finally and definitely, his last. And as for that gorgeous romantic tune of the young lovers getting overlaid with the allegedly comic business, it is that overlaying itself that is funny. All that used to frustrate me now makes me smile. And laugh.

And that orchestra! In Luisa Miller or Il Trovatore – great works both: don’t listen to what the anti-Verdi camp tells you! – the orchestra was there primarily to support the singers. Here, the orchestral writing is far more sophisticated: the colour of the orchestral sound is constantly changing, from moment to moment, commenting on the action, counterpointing the singers with their own little scraps of melody that disappear almost as soon as they’re heard, forever giving way to new musical ideas; and it laughs and chatters away, constantly delighting the ear with its vitality and energy and wit, and its seemingly infinite variety and invention.

In case you haven’t got the idea yet, I love this opera. It is very dear to me. Every time I hear it, or every time that music plays in my inner ear, I find a smile spreading across my face. For, from this opera, all darkness is banished. It is reasonable to wonder, I think, to what extent a comic work can afford to banish the darkness in our lives, and claim still to depict our lives truthfully. I think the answer is that no single work of art, no matter how profound or how wide its scope, could hope to address all aspects of our existence, and that it is perfectly legitimate, therefore, to focus on the joys of living rather than on the sorrows. It is not, after all, that Verdi has not known the sorrows: his own life had certainly not been free from grief and personal tragedy. In his past works, he has expressed, sometimes with a searing intensity, the pain of loss, of parting, of loneliness. Indeed, the anguish expressed in his previous opera, Otello, is so searing that often it is difficult to listen to. Verdi knew about all that. But that kind of thing is not his focus here.

There is, though, one point where the music comes close to the tragic. Ford wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, and is given a monologue that comes dangerously close to Otello territory. Of course, the jealousy is unfounded, but the jealousy in Otello, too was unfounded. Verdi could easily have presented this scene ironically, but he doesn’t: he allows us to feel Ford’s torment. The only reason it doesn’t unbalance the work is that this passage is placed in the context of comedy, and we know, therefore, that there cannot be to this drama an Otello-like ending. But Ford’s torment is real enough, and Verdi knows better than to mock it: he gives it its full weight. However, at the end of Ford’s monologue, something wonderful happens: Falstaff, on his way (as he thinks) to an assignment with Ford’s wife, enters wearing his gladrags, and the orchestra, that had been as grave and as solemn as it had ever been in any of Verdi’s earlier operas, bursts all of sudden into the broadest of grins. The tragic potential is not dismissed: it is, instead, placed into a comic context – a context that reminds us just how damn silly we all are, really. As the ensemble at the very end of the work (composed in the form of that most academic of musical forms – a fugue) reminds us, “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – the whole world’s a joke! Best not take ourselves too seriously.

For me, Falstaff ranks with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the greatest of all comic operas. Or even, perhaps, insofar as the concept of “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context, the greatest of all operas. Some might suggest Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia, say; or Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. I’m not really much in sympathy with either, but far be it from me to rain – as the toned-down version has it – on anyone’s parade. Let’s just say they’re not really my thing, and leave it there. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is also a strong contender, but, for all its glories, it does have its longueurs. For me, when it comes to comic opera, it’s Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Verdi’s Falstaff that rule supreme.

Mozart’s opera takes us to a feudal estate, where the Count, though not a bad man, has been corrupted by the power he wields; and he uses that power tyrannically, subduing both his servants, and also his wife. Not, perhaps, the most obvious scenario for comedy, but there’s comic business a -plenty; and it all ends with a glimpse of Heaven. Not the Heaven promised us in the other world – comedy isn’t generally very interested in the other world – but in this one, proceeding as it does not from divine forgiveness, but from human.

In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs, middle-aged, a widower, and lonely, comes to the understanding that it Is not for him to stand in the way of youth, and that he must renounce his own desires to ease their way. It is not an easy understanding to come to terms with: indeed, it is painful; but in this wisdom, painful though it may be, lies joy.

Falstaff is the only one of these three composed in the autumnal years of the composer’s life, and yes, it is a sort of “summing up”: Verdi here is looking back on life. But he looks back with no hint of anger or of bitterness, no angst, nor even sorrow or regret: rather than look back on spring and summer through melancholy autumnal mists, he re-creates, with a quite miraculous immediacy, the youthful exuberance of spring, the joy of summer. The next world? Pah! No time for that sort of thing here. There’s enough to delight in in this world. And Verdi expresses his delight in this world, in this life, and his gratitude for having been allowed to be part of it, without the slightest hint of sanctimony or of false piety. Falstaff is the least autumnal of all autumnal works.

A New Year resolution for September

It doesn’t have to be New Year to make a resolution, does it? After all, every day is the start of a new year, and there’s no particular reason why the particular date January 1st should be fetishised in this manner. At any rate, I have formed a New Year resolution that I mean to stick to.

But no – this is not where I should be starting. It is always difficult finding a suitable starting point for a post – a way in, as it were: pick the wrong starting point, and you find yourself reaching a dead end after only a few sentences; but pick the right one, and the whole thing flows like billy-o. And that’s the blooper I made above: I started at the wrong point, and ground to an abrupt halt after only a couple of sentences. And it isn’t even where I’d meant to start. I’d meant to start with finding in a second-hand bookshop a couple of childhood favourites, long out of print, and with the veritable flood of memories these books brought back.

These are the beauties:

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It is hard to describe the sheer joy I felt on finding these books. One was a bit water-damaged, but no matter: I do not expect second-hand books to be in pristine condition anyway, and, unless it is so filthy that one cannot bear even to touch it, a few signs of age and of wear rather add to the charm of the thing.

I was eleven when I first encountered these books. It was in the school library. We had moved to Bishopbriggs (just outside Glasgow) earlier in the year, and, after summer, I found myself a pupil in Bishopbriggs High School. And I made around that time two major literary discoveries: in the children’s section of Bishopbriggs public library, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in the school library, I discovered creepy ghost stories, through these two estimable anthologies edited by Alan C. Jenkins – Ghosts! and Thin Air. Till then, my favourite reading was mainly adventure stories and swashbucklers, but my new discoveries now drove out everything else out to the fringes.

Who knows how many hours I spent in my room reading and re-reading these books, while my parents happily thought I was reading some improving literature, or doing my homework like the model schoolboy they imagined me to be. Or how many hours I spent reading those ghost stories in bed last thing at night, and scaring myself silly. Then I would switch off the light, and lie awake in bed in the dark, terrified of every accidental creak of the floorboards, every ominous gurgle in the water pipes.

On the Sherlock Holmes front, having exhausted what Bishopbriggs Public Library had to offer, I requested from the library the other three Sherlock Holmes novels, and the other forty-four short stories – all of which I gobbled up faster than you could say “Have you done your homework yet?” And on the ghost story front, I went from strength to strength, greedily lapping up every anthology I could get my hands on. And thus, I came to know, amongst others, the great M. R. James, the undisputed master of the genre. Thin Air contained the M. R. James story “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”, while a book my parents had on their shelves – a Reader’s Digest anthology called Great British Short Stories – contained “The Mezzotint”. I am not sure now which one I read first, but these two stories were my introduction to a writer who has remained a firm favourite over the decades, and whose works are now a permanent fixture on my bedside table.

(That Reader’s Digest anthology contained some other fine ghost stories also – “Running Wolf” by Algernon Blackwood, “The Ghost” by Richard Hughes, the ubiquitous “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, and the deeply unsettling “August Heat” by W. F. Harvey.)

Now, as regular visitors to this blog may have noticed, the frequency of my postings has fallen dramatically since my illness late last year; and, even given this reduced number of posts, those that are book-related have really become quite sparse. This is because I am not reading anywhere near as much as I used to. (And even before, I was never the fastest of readers.) I usually read on the commuter train, and at bedtime, but nowadays, when I take the commuter train back home at the end of the day, I am usually too tired to read; and at bedtime, all I can think of is sleep. Not even the accidental creaking of the floorboards nor the ominous gargling of the water pipes can keep me awake. I recently finished re-reading Middlemarch: it’s a fairly long book, I know, but it is nonetheless frankly embarrassing to think how long it took me to get through it. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, and not that I didn’t want to read it a bit faster, but the flesh proved weaker than the spirit, unrealistically willing as ever, had anticipated.

But, since finding these two fondly remembered ghost story anthologies, I have again taken up reading in bed, last thing at night. Next to a magic time machine that could transport me back some forty-five years, this is really the next best thing. (Although I have to imagine these days the somewhat disapproving looks of my parents, who did not deem such stories sufficiently improving, or sufficiently wholesome, for young impressionable minds.) And these stories have resurrected once again the joy of reading. And, especially, the joy of reading creepy ghost stories.

And this is where I came in. I made a resolution: now that the nights are beginning visibly to draw in, I shall, between now and spring next year (say, the end of March or so), read a ghost story every night*. Quite apart from these two recently purchased volumes, I have a great many collections of ghost stories, so I don’t think there’s much danger of my running out. And every night, I am going to scare myself silly, just as I used to do all those years ago.

*Except those nights when I am too tired or too drunk.

… and one I’d missed

I missed this one in my previous post. Not because I had forgotten about it, but because that last post was long enough. And this one didn’t really fit in with the rest of the content. But if we are talking about quality dramatic writing and top-notch comic performances in sitcoms, it’s hard to ignore Till Death Us Do Part.

However, the BBC has been doing just that. DVDs were briefly available many years ago now of a couple of series, but they soon disappeared, and not a single episode has been available on DVD since. (Edit: this is wrong. See correction at foot of post.) Neither are there any repeats, either on any BBC channel, or on any satellite channel; and when the writer, the brilliant Johnny Speight, passed away, his passing was barely noticed.

The reason for this isn’t hard to discern: the series was regarded, and still is by many, as “racist”. This is because at its centre there’s the now legendary monster Alf Garnett, a bigoted and deeply racist blowhard, who didn’t hold back in expounding his views. These views, peppered throughout with grossly insulting racist language, are pretty vile. There have been some half-hearted attempts to defend this by claiming that his son-in-law, Mike, provides a counterbalance by articulating a more liberal perspective, but this is to miss the point quite spectacularly: for all his liberalism, Mike is as ignorant, as unintelligent, and as badly informed, as his father-in-law.

Like Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, this series was first aired in the 1960s, and continued into the 1970s, and it was easily the most controversial. Rather quaintly, the initial controversy was due to the frequent use of the word “bloody”, which, in those days, some fifty and more years after Shaw’s Pygmalion, was considered “bad language”. The racism on display was approved of by great sections of the audience. Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, told a story where some people approached him in the street and congratulated him for poking fun at dark-skinned people (although, obviously, “dark-skinned people” was not the term they used). Warren Mitchell had replied that, actually, he had been poking fun at “idiots like you”.

This mistaking of the actor for the character he plays is surprisingly common. Even more common is to mistake what is being spoken by the character as the author’s voice. It somehow seems to escape notice that depiction of racism is not the same as endorsing it. But to claim, as some do, that the series is essentially a satire on racism, and, hence, a liberal plea for tolerance, seems to me also to be wide of the mark. For, like the best satires, this programme hits out savagely at everyone, in all directions. No-one is spared: nothing is sacred. We are presented with characters who are stupid, bigoted, ignorant, and yet utterly unaware of their stupidity, their bigotry, their ignorance; they are quite clearly unequal to the task of understanding the complex world in which they live, but are nonetheless aggressive and bullish in affirming their own beliefs, and contemptuously dismissive of those who believe otherwise. Allowing for the exaggeration without which satire cannot exist, we are invited to identify ourselves in all this: can we really claim that, at some level, we have no part in such folly? Watching this is not a comfortable experience, but then, neither is it meant to be. Satire that is comfortable is satire that has failed.

The characterisations aren’t perhaps as profound as those in Steptoe and Son, but Steptoe and Son was essentially drama, whereas this is satire. Alf Garnett is certainly a monster, but the sad fact is that even monsters are human – much like ourselves. Despite being a monster, he is also a rather pathetic human being, clinging on loyally to a conservatism that has let him down. His “liberal” son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, is an unemployed layabout, who, despite his fraught arguments with his father-in-law, understands as little of what he is talking about as his father-in-law does. Alf’s wife, Elsie (brilliantly played by Dandy Nichols), has learnt over the years generally to ignore her husband, and to get on quietly with her own business while her husband is blowing his top again over something or other. The daughter, Rita, is played by Una Stubbs, who, I guess, will mainly be remembered in future as Mrs Hudson in the hit series Sherlock. Despite being attached to her father, she can see the absurd figure her father cuts, and is generally more sympathetic to her mother. Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett is certainly the “star of the show”, as it were, but it’s an ensemble piece: these four characters, living together in a small house in a deprived working class area of London’s East End, cannot avoid each other, either physically or emotionally: in the context of the drama, they are all important, and they balance each other to perfection.

til-death-us-do-part

Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs, and Anthony Booth in “Till Death Us Do Part”, courtesy BBC

In the spectrum of comedy, I suppose this is far closer to the darker end than to the lighter, but I can’t really discern any element of the tragic here: occasionally, we see through Alf Garnett’s hateful bluster and observe the human being underneath, but on the whole, the element of pathos is kept well hidden. In one episode, for instance, Alf Garnett is genuinely perturbed by the possibility that he may be partly Jewish: even as we observe the insecurity of this pitiable figure, we find ourselves repelled by his blind bigotry. We laugh, but the laughter is far from comfortable.

The rather uncomfortable question does arise: is the BBC correct in keeping hidden this series, one of the jewels of its comic crown? It could certainly be argued that a series that is so easily and so widely misunderstood, and which provides so much ammunition to racists (and I can personally testify it does), really is best kept under wraps. But I can’t help feeling very uncomfortable about this state of affairs. There’s absolutely no chance of the BBC releasing a boxed set of these episodes, but many are available on YouTube now if you’d like to sample them. The scripts and the performances are, on the whole, top quality (though it wasn’t, to be fair, as consistently assured as was, say, Steptoe and Son), but do be prepared for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience. We like to think of ourselves as being more sophisticated than audiences of the past, and more capable of taking in material that is “edgy”, but I remain sceptical.

Till Death Us Do Part was remade as All in the Family for American television, but once again, I won’t comment on this since I haven’t seen it: I am told (although I cannot personally vouch for it) that the sheer unmitigated savagery of Johnny Speight’s scripts was considerably toned down: if this is true, it’s entirely understandable.

I have seen Warren Mitchell live on stage, playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the absence of boxed sets of Till Death Us Do Part, for anyone wanting to see this great actor at his finest, I’d warmly recommend his performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – another controversial work in which racial differences play a major part, and which is also often regarded (wrongly, in my view) as racist.
CORRECTION: Since I posted this about an hour ago, it has been pointed out to me that a boxed set of this  is indeed now available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Till-Death-Us-Part-DVD/dp/B01MSQSOP2.

It certainly wasn’t the last time I looked, but I really should have checked before writing this. My apologies.