Interpreting religious symbols

Alan Bennett’s 2011 diaries begin with typically drôle observations:

6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking around the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman would have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coat hanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.

And more comments on the behaviour of WAM musos:

 14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at eleven thirty, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It beings promptly at eleven thirty with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realizes that it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.

It’s that man again

More from Alan Bennett’s diaries. I’m filing this 2009 entry under heritage:

23 August. […] I’m glad I’m not a theatregoer living in Elsinore. All they must ever get are productions of Hamlet, while what they’re probably longing for is Move Over, Mrs Markham or Run For Your Wife.

His keen eye for footballers’ physiognomy is in evidence again (2010):

7 April. The open mouth of Frank Lampard, having scored a goal, is also the howl on the face of the damned man in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement.

This entry depends on a certain cultural knowledge that might challenge translators:

5th July. A child in Settle is said to have asked what the Mafia was and his grandfather said, “It’s like the Settle Rotary Club, only with guns.”

And he often shows his political involvement. When a speech in favour of the NHS from his early play Getting on is well received, he is encouraged to go on

25 July, Yorkshire. […] whereas nowadays the state is a dirty word, for my generation the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and want (and provincial boredom) and putting us on the road to a better life; the state saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too. “So when I hear politicians taking about pushing back the boundaries of the state I think”—only I’ve forgotten what it is I think so I just say: “I think… bollocks.” This, too, goes down well, though I’d normally end a performance on a more elegiac note.

Recording and editing

After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.

Typical exchange during rehearsal:

Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
Rowan: No.

For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.

It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:

27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation.  Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

***

Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

“Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”

More Ted Ibert


Always a keen ethnographer of religion, Alan Bennett documents the ritual paraphernalia of calendrical observancess in a diary entry for 2007:

17 May. Outside the bank I see the local vicar, his arms full of balloons and a Sooty teddy bear in the crook of his arm. “It’s Ascension Day,” he explains.

Pursuing the teddy bear theme, AB reflects on his own innocuous image:

20 December. […] I shall still be thought to be kindly, cosy, and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeon-hole marked “no threat”, and did I stab Judy Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.

 

Background and heritage

Further to Alan Bennett’s thoughts on faux nostalgia, his diaries often reveal the contrast between his own insecurity, inherited from his modest background, and the innate confidence of his Oxbridge peers. From an entry describing his appearance at the Tony awards:

11 June, New York. I am then bundled through a back door and across the street to Rockefeller Plaza where a whole floor has been given over to the press. I’m thrust blinking onto a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: “Do you think this award will kick-start your career?”

News of my lacklustre performance on this podium must have got round quickly because I’m then taken down a long corridor off which various TV and and radio shows have mikes and cameras and there is more humiliation. “Do you want him?” asks the PA at each doorway, the answer more often than not being “Nah”, so I only score about four brief interviews before I’m pushed through another door and find I’m suddenly back in the street in the rain and it’s more or less over.

Even his admiration for Neil McGregor is tinged with a sense of inferiority:

26 November. I go part of the way back in a cab with Neil and I ask him about his job, which he revels in and which is not simply confined to the British Museum. He’s practically a cultural ambassador or an UNESCO representative, just back from the Sudan where he’s one of a group surveying the antiquities likely to be submerged by a new dam, currently being constructed on the Nile. The problems though are not simply to do with cultural artefacts and he talks of the villagers the dam will displace, who, although they have been told what is to happen and for whom alternative accommodation has been provided, have nevertheless no idea of which this being uprooted will mean. The human and antiquarian problems in Sudan are mirrored in Iraq where the Director of Antiquities, a Syrian Christian, single-handedly defended his museums against the depredations consequent on the invasion and the war. Now in the aftermath he has to ransom his two sons who have been kidnapped and despairing of such circumstances has left Iraq for Damascus, ultimately hoping to get to America. As Neil pours this out, the words tumbling out of him as they do I feel both inadequate and ill-informed and it’s perhaps as well he doesn’t travel all the way but gets out at St Pancras to go to the Museum—looking, as he always looks, absurdly young but, I would have thought, one of the most remarkable men of his generation.

Faux nostalgia

In Alan Bennett’s parody The pith and its pitfalls (Writing Home, pp.383–6—”taking the pith”, of course) on the writer and his [sic] roots, he writes thoughtfully of the perennial English fashion for the nostalgia of childhood deprivation—whose Chinese parallel reminded me of The four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Can there be a slag-heap north of the Trent up which ardent young directors from Omnibus, Aquarius, or 2nd house have not flogged their disgruntled camera-crews in pursuit of that forward-retreating figure, the artist?
[…]
What I do recall of my childhood was that it was boring. I have no nostalgia for it. I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

There are fashions in childhood as in anything else. A nice, middle-class background was no longer in vogue by the time I started to write. No longer in Vogue, either. Early in 1960, when my colleagues and I were writing the revue that was to end up as Beyond the fringe, we were photographed for that magazine. We sped in a large Daimler to North Acton, where the photographer spent some time finding a setting appropriately stark and gritty for the enterprise on which we were to embark. We ended up gloomy and purposeful against a background of cooling-towers and derelict factories.

I have never done any of those filmed portraits I started off by parodying, though the urge is strong. It is always gratifying to be asked to explain yourself, if only because it makes you feel there is, perhaps, something to explain. I admit, too, that from time to time I catch myself slightly overstating my working-class origins, taking my background down the social scale a peg or two. It is a mild form of inverted snobbery, which Richard Hoggart might dignify by calling it “groping for the remnants of a tradition”. As the man says in the sketch, it is a question of belonging. You would like to think you belong somewhere distinctive, whether it is a place or a class, but you know you are kidding yourself. However, I see that opens up another vast area of humbug and self-indulgence, namely, the writer as rootless man, so I think I had better stop and go home—wherever that is.