Talking heads

Talking heads

What a treat to watch new versions of Alan Bennett’s disturbing Talking heads monologues on BBC iPlayer, following the first two series from 1988 and 1998.

No wonder that the project has again attracted such outstanding actors for these mesmerisingly painful vignettes of Middle England. Apart from Martin Freeman and Lucian Msamati, the roles are female; and women (who know best) say that AB has a gift for writing about their world. Their monologues are played by Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Rochenda Sandall, Tamsin Greig, and Jodie Comer, with new items from Sarah Lancashire (An ordinary woman) and Monica Dolan (The shrine).

Following her wonderful scene in FleabagKristin Scott Thomas appears in The hand of god. With by far the youngest role, Jodie Comer (hot on the heels of Killing Eve) delivers Her big chance (originally played by Julie Walters), and she too is brilliant as ever.

Amidst the mass adulation, Rachel Cooke takes a contrary, virtually heretical view, suggesting that for Bennett it is forever 1978 (or perhaps 1958), the characters set in aspic—even the world of the two new scripts “as if vicars loitered on every corner”. Even more grumpy is James Delingpole in the Spectator.

Among a plethora of posts under the Bennett tag, I relish his appearance on Family guy.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!

LB

Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce (1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.

With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book

  • Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
    (Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)

The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:

Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]

The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]

The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.

LB club

As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in

the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.

He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe

insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!

The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.

Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):

Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!

Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:

He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.

A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!

In another passage, Goldman comments:

The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.

Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.

The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.

LB arrest

But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:

What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!

Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):

London
Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural ExchangeYAY!

Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.

(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)

Here’s an intriguing prequel to the misguided vinegar advertisement, and indeed Always look on the bright side of life:

The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”

Goldman goes on:

Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.

Not all of this was so wide of the mark.

As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,

If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.

As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in The Spectator:

Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.

He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.

I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.

Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.

The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.

* * *

All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).

* The title’s punctuation reminds me of Mahler’s fondness for exclamation marks!!!

Nearly famous

KOKO

Alan Bennett is always alert to the tenuity of his celebrity.  In Vera and Doris I cited his wonderful story about nearly meeting Stravinsky, and in this post he endures a series of galling interviews. Here’s a vignette from Keeping on keeping on (Diaries, 2011):

21 May, Yorkshire. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.
“Aren’t you famous?”
“Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.”
“It’s Alan something.”
“Yes.”
“From Scarborough?”
“No.”
“So which Alan are you?”
“I’m another Alan.”
“Are you just a lookalike?”
“Well, you could say so.”
He pats my arm consolingly. “Be happy with that.”

He himself considers that true celebrity came only with his appearance on Family guy.

This question at a lecture he gave may also strike a chord:

“Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

The hypocrisy of the English

AB

For Allan Bennett, as for Kate Fox, one of the defining characteristics of the English is our hypocrisy (YAY!). Recording a programme The best of British for BBC Radio 4, he muses with a political passion that is seldom far below the surface (Keeping on keeping on, Diaries, 2015):

26 February. […] I think, why not Swaledale or medieval churches or even, with all its shortcomings, the National Trust. But what I think we are best at in England… I do not say Britain… what I think we are best at, better than all the rest, is hypocrisy.

Take London. We extol its beauty and its dignity while at the same time we are happy to sell it off to the highest bidder… or the highest builder.

We glory in Shakespeare yet we close our public libraries.

A substantial minority of our children receive a better education than the rest because of the social situation of their parents. Then we wonder why things at the top do not change or society improve. But we know why. It’s because we are hypocrites.

Our policemen are wonderful provided you’re white and middle-class and don’t take to the streets. And dying in custody is what happens in South America. It doesn’t happen here.

And it gets into the language. We think irony very English and are very proud of it but in literary terms it’s how we have it both ways, a refined hypocrisy. And in language these days words which start off as good and meaningful… terms like environment and energy-saving… rapidly lose any credence because converted into political or PR slogans, ending up the clichéd stuff of an estate agent’s brochure… a manual for hypocrisy. […]

And before you scamper for the Basildon Bond or rather skitter for the Twitter I would say that I don’t exempt myself from these strictures. How should I? I am English. I am a hypocrite.

So that’s one trait we can proudly boast over what the current Tory toffs cynically call “our European friends”—Jacob Tree-Frog‘s only European friends seem to be the AfD

 

 

Art: insider knowledge

comics

In my post on Visual culture I cited Alan Bennett’s remarks comparing Renaissance audiences’ “insider knowledge” of the religious themes shown in paintings of the time—knowledge to which very few of us now have access—with that of film viewers in his own childhood. This entry from his 2011 diaries (in Keeping on keeping on) suggests a similar case:

17 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that, at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had even seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being “as big as a pigeon’s egg”, something else which like the banana I had never seen.

While I’m here, in the very next entry he asks a sensible question:

18 April. Why does the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s No.1 Piano Concerto never return? What is that about? Everybody listening to it (at least for the first time) must always have expected it. But no.

Indeed, when the concerto is said to be popular, I suspect people mean that opening theme—which may make the rest of the piece quite tough going.

A career highlight for Alan Bennett

FG AB

Since both Family Guy and Alan Bennett take star turns on this blog, how wonderful to learn that they actually came together. I’ve already noted their mutual taste for Jesus jokes, but now I learn (Keeping on keeping on, Diaries, 2012):

25 April. At five a car comes to take me down to Silk Sound studios on Berwick Street to record a voiceover (in my own voice) for an episode of Family Guy, the story being that Brian, the dog, has written a play, premiering at Quahog, which “all the playwrights” (i.e. Yasmina Reza, David Mamet, and me) duly go and see—and rubbish. They had first of all asked if they could use me as a cartoon character[,] to which I graciously agreed (not saying that I felt it was the highlight of my career). It was then they asked if I would voice myself. Yasmina and David had apparently not been tempted but I went for this too. […]

His voice has long been a boon for impresssionists. Like the apocryphal story of Einstein winning second prize in an Einstein Lookalike Competition, I’m not sure AB [as he’s known in Love, Nina] makes the most convincing impersonator—but hey. (For an audition, see comment here.)

The episode (tenth in the 11th season) has been considered one of the most profound in the whole epic; the nuanced plot is far more cogent and condensed that of a Handel opera. Brian and Stewie are magnificent as ever—echoes here of Amadeus

It’s great to see AB finally getting the recognition he deserves (cf. “Do you think this award will kick-start your career?”). And I love to see stellar conjunctions of my heroes—like Bach and Li ManshanAOC and Greta Thunberg, or Kristin Scott Thomas and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

 

 

 

 

A personal lexicon

 

Here’s a little vocabulary to help those whom Myles calls “non-nationals” (like Euripides) negotiate some of my more elliptical allusions—arcane idées fixes in my idiosyncratic language, nay idiolect. Myles makes a suitable place to start, then:

To the divine Stella Gibbons I am indebted to

  • flapdoodle (usually in the context of heritage),

and to Monty Python the concept of

Tempted though I was to do these in the form of an index:

muse, Terpsichorean, delighting in all manifestations of 174,

I’m grouping them by themes.

  • S-S-Simon Rattle is a recurring theme of mine, referring to this story.

Several succinct allusions refer to Airplane:

As if that’s not enough, with the Li family Daoists I have come to share an even more arcane secret language of allusion, like “holding a meeting with Teacher Wang“, “Here’s 100 kuai!” and “Nin…”.

Such catch-words are hopefully more entertaining than some of those in vogue among anthropologists (see e.g Bourdieu’s habitus).

Alan Bennett points out the rich world of allusion in painting and film (see Visual culture, near the end):

The twentieth-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

So having gone to some lengths to try and understand the world-view of Chinese peasants, and liberated from the Lowest-Common-Denominator language of academia, I now feel emboldened to reflect my own, however arcane. For more, see here.

 

 

Love, Nina

Nina

Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.

In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.

Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.

I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.

She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:

PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.

Later at the library:

… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.

And

Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary:
R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
[…]
Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool.
Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.

 Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.

Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.

Later she comments,

It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.

Further fine observation:

MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
fresh lychees
spinach
Persil
olives
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.

Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987–88:

I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.

Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Later:

AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.

AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.

The TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora):

You can even brush up on your Italian with the subtitles.

As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book.

* * *

I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:

He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).

[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].

Or p.136:

Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.

Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].

 

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 the diaries of Alan Bennett. 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:

5 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

bear

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 MacGregor 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.

Language and football

Some gems from Alan Bennett’s 2005 diaries, in his recent collection Keeping on keeping on:

1 May. Martha, Charlotte and James’s youngest, has been slow to read but now aged eight is making great strides, particularly enjoying spelling. She is being given additional tuition by the father of a friend, a retired teacher who is also employed by Manchester United; the foreign half of the squad he is teaching to speak English, the English half he is teaching to read and write.

8 December. I buy a bottle of organic wine at Fresh and Wild and looking at the label see that it says “Suitable for Vegetarians and Vagrants”. Momentarily I think, “Well, that’s thoughtful, someone admitting that winos deserve consideration like everyone else”, before realizing, of course, that it says not “vagrants” but “vegans”.

16 December. Roy Keane has the face of a mercenary. Meet him before the walls of fifteenth-century Florence and one’s heart would sink.

On physiognomy

It’s been a while since we heard from Alan Bennett.

His 1988 diaries describe a visit to Russia in the company of writers like (sic) Timothy Mo and Sue Townsend, arranged by the Great Britain-USSR Society (yet more “international cultural exchange”):

 I am disturbed to find Melvyn Bragg working in the hotel as a doorman. He pretends not to recognise me.

To Massenet’s Werther at the Bolshoi. It is an indifferent production, the scenery and sets almost Music Hall, but the house is packed and Nina and Galina, our guides, say that this is the first time for years they have managed to get a ticket, which makes us all feel worse for not enjoying it. Someone who is enjoying it is Melvyn Bragg, this time in the back row of the chorus.

Another visit to the Bolshoi, this time for an evening of ballet excerpts. […] By now I am unsurprised to find Melvyn is in the ballet as well as the opera, and he even takes a curtain call, accompanied, as ballet calls are the world over, by a deadly hail of tulips.

This is brilliantly observed, working perfectly for our images both of Bragg and of the various scenarios in which he appears.

Talking of lookalikes, à la Private eye, my friend Hugh observes that Li Manshan is a dead ringer for Andy Capp.

LMS as Andy Capp

Might they perhaps be related? I think we should be told.

 

To go: a parallel text

Further to Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie (NB n.3 there) and indeed my helpful exegeses of the alarming Teach yourself Japanese, here’s a parallel text, hopefully of use to travellers in either direction:

US: Hey man—can I get a Diavola to go?

British: A very good day to you, my dear chap. Now would you be so obliging as to provide me with with one of your fine pizzas, engagingly (and with a certain mischief, perhaps?) known as Diavola—enclosed, moreover, in some kind of disposable container, if you would be so kind; for such are the exigencies of modern life that I regrettably find myself unable to relish said comestible at your own fine place of purveyance, but, rather, will be reluctantly compelled to consume it in less salubrious and elegant surroundings while otherwise occupied.

I acknowledge my debt to the cheeseshop sketch. And, come to think of it, to the great Gerard Hoffnung’s 1958 Advice for tourists, still irresistible after all these years:

As with the Alan Bennett Sermon (and indeed as with live performance generally), the pleasure is augmented by the audience response, and the vignette it now affords us into that particular milieu of late-1950s’ English society.

In Hoffnung’s wiki entry I like the succinct description of his brief sojourn at the Hornsey College of Art:

He was expelled for his lack of gravity in the life class.

Foreign observers can educate themselves further on being English here and here. And indeed here.

Temperament and savoir-faire

Whenever I surprise myself by somehow getting my head around some arcane (to me) computer technique—like a screenshot, or a widget (What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland), I recall Alan Bennett’s 1984 diary entry:

1 October, London. I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs—mending a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car—because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too.

Impertinence

This 1983 diary entry by Alan Bennett (Writing home, p.127) bears both on professional tact and the insecurity of the freelance artist:

3 March, Yorkshire. I take a version of a script down to Settle to be photocopied. The man in charge of the machine watches the sheets come through. “Glancing at this,” he says, “I see you dabble in playwriting.” While this about sums it up, I find myself resenting him for noticing what goes through his machine at all. Photocopying is a job in which one is required to see and not see, the delicacy demanded not different from that in medicine. It’s as if a nurse were to say: “I see, watching you undress, that your legs are nothing to write home about.”

And did those feet in ancient time?

Still thinking about Alan Bennett’s feet and early religious culture:

In the wonderful song Jerusalem, rather like those questions they ask you at the airport check-in desk, you think all the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes (sic, see below) just in case.

Great that it’s tipped for our new national anthem, to replace the meretricious God save the Queen (although the version here is fine)—but we have to take care not to “leave it unattended at any time” in case it gets hijacked by “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”.

Mind you (and talking of keeping on your toes), if I had an anthem like this (Wow! Italian opera at its most intoxicating! 1831-ish, see here)

even I would score a goal like this:

(1970—“ancient time”?] That’s right up there with Ronnie’s 147.

Indeed, Latin American nations (notably Uruguay and Ecuador) are among the star exhibits in Tom Service’s entertaining programme “How Do You Make a National Anthem?” in The listening service.

I was in Washington DC with the amazing Hua family shawm band in 2002 when Brazil won the World Cup. We all crowded into the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer them on, suitably lubricated with A Pint of Plain—It’s Your Only Man.

And then there’s our fantasy football team/Daoist ritual band

“which will bring us back to”

Li Manshan!

[Been at the Bombay Sapphire again, Dr Jones?—Ed.]

History, or not

Alan Bennett (for it is he) reflects on his transition from earnest young Oxford historian to star of Beyond the fringe:

I wasn’t getting any better at [teaching], though the celebrity of the revue to some degree compensated my pupils for the shortcomings of the tuition. This period came to an end in 1962, when the show went to Broadway, thus putting an end to my dwindling hopes of being a historian. The rest, one might say, pompously, is history. Except that in my case the opposite was true. What it had been was history. What it was to be was not history at all.

Vera and Doris

Vera

Vera de Bosset.

Further to Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York”), here’s Alan Bennett again (Writing home, p.30):

During the [1963] run of Beyond the fringe in New York, Dudley Moore and I took refuge from a storm in the Hotel Pierre, where we were spotted by an assistant manager. Saying that there had been a spate of thefts from rooms recently, he asked us to leave. A small argument ensued, in the course of which an old man and his wife stumped past, whereupon the assistant manager left off abusing us in order to bow. It was Stravinsky. We were then thrown out. I have never set foot in the Pierre since, fearing I might still be taken for a petty thief. Dudley Moore, I imagine, goes in there with impunity; the assistant manager may even bow to him now while throwing someone else out. Me still, possibly.

And then (2010):

I tell John Bird the story of Dudley Moore and me seeing Stravinsky and his wife Vera in the Hotel Pierre in New York in 1963, saying how the name Vera has always seemed to me to humanise Stravinsky. “Not so much as Stockhausen,” says John. “His wife’s name was Doris.”

Gender
Now, I’m not so humourless that I can’t see how Vera and Doris (“wives”) are funnier than Igor and Karlheinz (“Great Composers”). Noting that the English have been making light of Storm Doris this week, this brings me to hurricanes.

In the USA, for many years hurricanes bore only female names. The male meteorological community found female names

appropriate for such unpredictable and dangerous phenomena.

Pah! In the 1970s the growing numbers of female meteorologists began to object, and since 1978 onwards male and female names have alternated (Yay!). Nor are they expected to suggest menace, like characters in a horror movie. Fleur or Katrina might be femme fatales, but Tammy and Bob are homely, and Nigel nerdy.

However, in the US people may prepare differently for storms depending whether they bear a male or female name. Hurricanes with female names cause significantly more deaths—apparently (by contrast with that idea of “female menace”) because people perceive them as less threatening, leading to less preparedness and thus causing more damage. You can’t win…

BTW, please can we stop making out that countries and ships are feminine?! Otherwise we’re lucky in English not to have to worry our pretty little heads about gendering nouns

The “case for the defence” shoots itself in the foot most messily in a breathtakingly Neanderthal essay “Why We Call a Ship a She” from “Rear Admiral” Francis D. Foley—apparently the Benny Hill of the US Navy. This is just a sample:

There can be a great deal of bustle about her as well as a gang of men on deck, particularly if she is slim-waisted, well-stacked, and has an inviting superstructure.

And FFS, it dates from 1998! If it came from 1698 I might reluctantly, um, consider it within the cultural context of the day; but this is indeed the cultural context that afflicts the USA at the moment. Too bad Foley is no longer with us—he would be a shoo-in for the post of Gender Equality Adviser in the new US administration. But amazingly there are plenty more where he came from, eager to fall on their flaccid pork swords before the Amazon hordes of the “liberal media”…

“No sensa humor, these wimmin…” Never mind Bridget Christie—even Foley’s junior contemporary Stella Gibbons would have given him a piece of her dainty mind.

This is a battle that is important to pursue, like “actress”, “chairman”, and “ballerina”—however much the “PC gone mad” cabal may splutter.

Doh a deer, a female deer—but that’s not important right now”, indeed.

I rest my case.

Resting case

Resting my case. After Li band tour, Paris.

For more on sexist language, see here, and here.

WWJD

Talking heads

Further to Alan Bennett’s reflections, bearing on the trope of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”—a snowclone, I now learn), this is from his Talking heads monologue A chip in the sugar:

She said, “He knows what I mean. Where did you get those shoes?” He said, “They’re training shoes.” She said, “Training for what? Are you not fully qualified?” He said, “If Jesus were alive today, Mrs Whittaker, I think you’d find these were the type of shoes he would be wearing.”

Embarrassment, pah!

Tying in disturbingly with my posts on Alan Bennett (here and here) and Watching the English:

Never mind all the compelling reasons why the UK might balk at hosting an evil racist misogynist bigot bent on destroying all moral values and sowing global discord. Instead, it may be this one—stated in the petition against the visit—that will quaintly hold sway:

because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.

And we can’t have that now can we? As to “putting the Queen in a very difficult position”, let’s not go there…

Court jester Boris, as usual, opens his mouth and puts his foot in it with the argument: we’ve had Mugabe, we’ve had Ceausescu, why not Go for Gold? There’s a fantasy dinner party from hell…

Going too far

I’ve been trying to keep my addiction to Alan Bennett under control, but this, from 1992, has a certain topical feel:

A young man sets himself on fire during the Two Minutes’ Silence and, as he lies on the ground burning, shouts, “Think about the people today.” Closer in feeling and in genuine agony to what is being commemorated than anyone else on the parade, he is bundled away to be treated for 60 per cent burns at Roehampton, and nothing more will be heard of him. If Jan Palach had put a match to himself in Whitehall and not Wenceslas Square, the same would have happened. It’s not called “martyrdom” in England, just “going too far”. Still, “it is thought that the Royal Party were unaware of the incident,” and that’s the important thing.

Imagining early religious culture

feet

A passage from Alan Bennett’s 1981 diaries again reminds us of the perils of imagining early ritual/musical culture with our modern ears (see Bach, under WAM)—or feet:

I wear a pair of flip-flop sandals, the sort with a sole and one strap across—the biblical type, I suppose. When I was a boy and read of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, I thought of their feet as like my own in 1943, sweating in grey Utility socks and encased in heavy black shoes with stuck-on rubber soles. Consequently I regarded Jesus’s gesture as far more self-sacrificing, more heroic, than it actually was. After twelve pairs of such feet, I thought, the Crucifixion would have been a pushover.

For a sequel, see here.

The seasoned traveller

From Alan Bennett’s 1987 diaries, on a trip to Egypt:

Every day in the late afternoon the hotel fills with tourists, and after breakfast empties again as they depart for Luxor and the boat up the Nile. Many are English.

“Palm trees are nothing to us,” one said today—“We’re from Torquay.”

Appeasement

Milne

A 1983 entry from Alan Bennett’s diaries:

Recording The House at Pooh Corner for Radio 4. One story ends,

“Tigger is all right, really” said Piglet lazily. “Of course he is,” said Christopher Robin. “Everybody is really,” said Pooh.

The true voice of England in the thirties.

Cf. AB’s comment on Jan Palach.

And an entry from 1986:

Read Winnie the Pooh to an audience of children at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Many have never been in a theatre before. I battle against the crying of babies and the shouts of toddlers and ened up screaming and shouting myself hoarse. It is Winnie the Pooh as read by Dr Goebbels.

For A.A. Milne himself reading from Winnie the Pooh, click here. For international perspectives, click here; and for another evocative early recording, here.

Ecstasy and drudge

Alan Bennett (him again) recalls his early music education attending concerts at Leeds Town Hall—making an ethnographic point that is as valid for Daoist ritual as for WAM (Untold Stories p.412):

So it is not just music that I learn, sitting on those harsh benches, Saturday by Saturday. Music in the concert hall is also a moral education, and watching the musicians at close quarters, I realize that it is not just ecstasy and inspiration but that there is drudge to it too. Sometimes, the players would be on the same tram coming home, and I see that they are just like everybody else—shabby, in dirty raincoats and sometimes with tab ends in their mouths, ordinary people who, half an hour ago, were artists and agents of the sublime.

Season’s greetings

Xmas

Along the lines of

Meretricious and a Happy New Year,

here’s a seasonal entry from Alan Bennett’s 2001 diaries:

15 December. Words only used at Christmas: Tidings. Abiding. Swaddling. Lo! Abhors.

Indeed, as a boy chorister it always felt embarrassing having to sing “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb”—despite having only the vaguest idea what any of these words might possibly mean (and once you do understand the line, it becomes problematical—it has attracted much comment, notably this). But that’s ritual for you, eh…

AB goes on:

A card from Victor Lewis-Smith with a sanctimonious  picture of Jesus and printed underneath:

Jesus loves everyone—except you, you cunt.

This makes me laugh helplessly.

What makes this entry so funny, apart from the content of the card itself, is both that AB was delighted to receive it and that he saw fit to tell the tale. For a related exhortation from Fascinating Aida, see here.

Conversely, the way AB is portrayed in Love, Nina is hilarious precisely because his persona there is so boring.

Some readers can be so literal… This article by the glorious Philomena Cunk prompted quite a few BTL comments from readers unaware that it’s a spoof, or that she’s a fictional creation (“Like, hello?”)—thus inadvertently making the comments hilarious too.

Schubert

From Alan Bennett’s 1996 diaries, on his early musical upbringing:

“I also bought a record of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, doubly unfinished in this case as I only got one record out of a set of three, so it wasn’t until years later that I found out how it officially didn’t finish.”

Generally I don’t rate drôle ads much, but this is apposite:

Cf. Creative tribulations, and for another unfinished work, Modulation: Schubert and Coltrane.

Sermon

Reading of the long sermon that separated Parts One and Two of the Matthew Passion in Bach’s Leipzig performances, people of my generation will find it hard not to reference Alan Bennett’s classic skit:

Which just goes to show how very different our world is from that of Leipzig audiences in the 1720s…

The language, with the clergyman gamely reaching out to his flock with expressions like “Stuff this for a lark”, was so quaint as to amuse even the 1950s’ audience, then my generation in the 1970s, and still now (cf. Reception history).

In his 2014 sermon at King’s College Cambridge, AB reflects:

Like all parodies it was born out of affection and familiarity and the Anglican services that were in my bones, and there is symmetry here as the first sermon I preached on a professional stage was in Cambridge fifty odd years ago across the road at the Arts Theatre in the revue Beyond the Fringe. It was on the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man”. That sermon apart I have never formally preached since until this morning and here I am again in Cambridge.

And with his defence of education for all, it’s a highly political sermon.

For Confucius and other boring prophets, see here.