Wednesday 29 November 2023

At the Liszt Academy

During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, like everyone else I missed a great many things. Most of them were of the unremarkable day-to-day variety, small rituals and interchanges that I'd completely taken for granted until they were taken away. 

Something I'd never taken for granted though, but definitely missed, was going to concerts, especially those at the Liszt Academy, not far from where I live in Budapest. 

Of course the music at a concert is the most important element, but when the concert hall itself is lovely it enhances listeners' experience of the music. This link will give you an idea of just how sumptuous the Liszt Academy building and its concert hall are. The separate elements are not all necessarily beautiful in isolation, but together they create a dazzling splendour, conveying a sense of confidence and optimism, a verve that has since been lost.

That loss is unsurprising when you realise that the concert hall was first opened in 1907. The people who commissioned its riot of decorative details had no idea that in less than a decade war would break out and their ordered world would be shattered. Their innocence is for me most poignantly expressed in the design of the stained-glass ceiling panels that proclaim the virtues of song and poetry, rhythm and beauty. The people who created these do not appear to have suffered from our contemporary inhibitions; no one seems to have suggested they restrain themselves, toning their enthusiasm down a bit in order to try to seem cool.

I think that when human beings gather to listen to music, we are at our most civilised. At the Liszt Academy last week, my mind was still full of the news that a wave of primitive violence had been unleashed on civilians in Israel, the murderers exhibiting the kind of demonic joy I associate with Charles Manson's acolytes. Then out came the orchestra, a group of people who devote their lives to the discipline of musicianship. Following them came the conductor, a great favourite with the Budapest audience, now approaching 90 years old. The music began and as we listened it seemed to me that everyone in that room was striking a blow for civilisation. We must never let the barbarians win.


Thursday 26 October 2023

Reading - The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

In the early 1980s I saw a television adaptation of Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown.  I came away thinking that it was a poignant love story but nothing more. It had an exotic setting and was entertaining as a romance.

Now I have read the novel from which the television series was adapted. Not for the first time I am struck by how badly novels are served by film adaptation. The original novel from which the Jewel in the Crown television production was taken is among the most intelligent and complex novels I have ever read. There is a love story of sorts within it, but rather than being the point of the book it is just the thread upon which everything else depends.

By "everything else", what I mean is an exceptionally wise and perceptive portrait of what being involved with British rule in India did to mostly well-intentioned people - and, of course, what it did to Indians themselves. The novel is told from a number of points of view and that I think makes its title absolutely perfect - we are looking at the Raj as if it were a gem stone and seeing it from the many different angles the stonecutter has created on its surface.

A gem stone is the wrong analogy, however, as Scott does not present British rule as benign and excellent. Nor does he condemn it. What he does is create numerous vivid characters and take the reader into each one's way of seeing the world. He shows us how, while most of those involved were not intending to do harm, many were pretty unimaginative and mainly interested in the benefits they received from being in India as servants of Britain. Even those who had reservations about the system, such as Miss Crane and Deputy Commissioner White, were not able to either change anything, nor to fully understand it - or, in Miss Crane's case not until very late in the day. 

After reading the book, I wanted to find out about Paul Scott, because I was in awe of his wisdom and skill. I was saddened to discover that he died unrecognised and that his writing was a struggle that seems to have cost him his happiness and health. I urge anyone looking for a superb novel to give The Jewel in the Crown a try. I feel we owe Scott that. He may no longer be alive but I hope he will continue to be read and appreciated. I hope this both because his work is superb but also because I would like to know that his efforts were not in vain.

Wednesday 13 September 2023

Charles Causley


This charming Tweet, (or whatever the things formerly known as Tweets are now called), reminded me of what may be Charles Causley's most famous poem - the one about a dancing bear. 

In 1985, to my astonishment, I saw a dancing bear. It was in Belgrade, in an underpass near the BIP - (Beogradsko Industriuja Pivo) - factory (was there ever a more enticingly named beer?) and the rehabilitation hospital where men from whatever socialist conflict Yugoslavia was then supporting in Africa lay on loungers contemplating their lost limbs and the perpetual snarls of traffic on the spaghetti junction beside which the institution was positioned.

Years later I encountered Causley's poem for the first time. He captured perfectly the expression in the eyes of the bear I saw, sadly. It was one of the most melancholy things I've ever witnessed:

My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.

They watched as for the Queen it died
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly!’ ‘Somersault!’

And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.

They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.

Charles Causley

Thursday 7 September 2023

More Play for Today

Phil and I watched three plays set in 1970s Northern Ireland and, while neither of us totally enjoyed every minute, we were both ultimately glad we had seen the plays. As Phil says: 

The trilogy "takes us inside a world that would usually be closed to us and explores the complex relationships within a dysfunctional family, allowing us to see below the surface and understand something of the world the members of the family inhabit."

Monday 21 August 2023

Words and Phrases - an Occasional Series

Recently I've noticed the phrase "whisper it" creeping into articles and features. Here is an example:

I've been wondering why it makes me squirm. I think it is because it encourages the reader to believe they are in cozy collusion with the writer. It has a giggly, girlie feel that I don't want to be part of - and I don't trust. There is also the falsity of suggesting we all keep something a secret that is actually being highlighted in a widely-read publication.

Then there is "spree" used in the context of murder. Spree is usually associated with shopping and it makes me very uncomfortable to see it used in association with wicked activities. I am not saying shopping is virtuous but it is frivolous. Killing people is not:

Saturday 19 August 2023

More Paper Recycling

I am not posting something from the Financial Times this time - possibly this one is from the Telegraph, although I didn't make a note so can't be sure. Anyway it is an enchanting little poem by a pre-World War I phenomenon:

Perhaps I find this poem moving because the opening pages of my first novel contain moth references, suggesting I have moth inclinations. Or, more likely, it is because the question the poem asks is such an interesting one.

Thursday 17 August 2023


I bought a copy of the Financial Times. As it is difficult to access it on-line, I am posting the articles I read in it that strike me as worth sharing.

This one touches on the extraordinary trivialisation of news reporting in Britain. The BBC is so tabloid it is breathtaking. As the writer of the article says:

"The Sahel, that luckless area stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, is nearer to Europe than America is. Maybe its slow impalement by the pincers of jihadism & secular banditry will turn out to be of no external consequence but it seems a subject deserving more than indifference."