The people next door

On October 31, 2014, in Politics, by Luke McKernan


No more healing rainbows

There is a quaint timber-framed building a couple of doors down from where I live in Rochester High Street. It was, until recently, the incongruous home of an alternative therapies centre entitled Rainbow Healing. It offered tarot card readings, Reiki workshops, holistic health solutions, and lots of candles. It was one of a number of eccentric shops in this eccentric town whose economic viability the passer-by might feel urged to question. Then, one day just a few weeks ago now, Rainbow Healing was gone. Now its windows were plastered with yellow and purple posters urging the town to vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip. And now all hell has broken loose.

It was a month ago that our local MP, Mark Reckless, resigned from the Conservative party and announced that he was going to join Ukip, an act which triggered a by-election in this constituency of Rochester and Strood. Since then Rochester has found itself at the centre of the nation’s news. We have had any number of TV crews prowling up and down, interviewing people in the street or seated at their pavement tables in the town’s many coffee shops. I had the rudest shock one Saturday morning when I opened my window and found Ukip’s Nigel Farage addressing a smallish crowd composed of 50% media and 50% late middle-aged men in shapeless clothes and with thinning hair who seem to form the core support of Mr Farage’s party. Every day on the news I see the shops and homes around where I live, and neighbours giving soundbites. The place looks so picturesque – the camera operators must love us (you can’t go wrong interviewing people with a castle in the background).

We have had MPs of every party visit the town – David Cameron apparently instructed his cabinet each to visit the town at least one during the electioneering period: Cameron himself, Michael Gove, Harriet Harman, Ed Milliband, Ian Duncan Smith and many more. One MP was quoted in the paper as saying that the trip was a rather more pleasant one than such tasks usually are, because Rochester has such nice restaurants and bookshops to browse. I haven’t yet run into a Tory minister skulking among the shelves of Baggins Book Bazaar, but I have become nervous of entering the place, for fear of running into George Osborne in the Modern History section.


Nigel Farage is in there somewhere, if you need to look

The town has become a political circus. The Conservative party has likewise taken over a shop (a former toy models enterprise) at the other end of the High Street, and has commandeered a second, close to Ukip’s, with its windows all covered in blue posters. The Labour party has no such shop, and appears to have rather given up the fight. Others are exploiting the interest in the town for all its worth, and it is a challenge dodging all those trying to thrust leaflets into your hands as you head out for the weekly shop. There have been people trying to get us to sign up to an anti-Ukip petition, and assorted non-political groups have set up stall in public places at the weekends. I saw an anti-Islamophobia gentleman standing not so far away from an earnest duo from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither of whom seemed to be attracting much attention. But Rochester is the place to be.

It’s the place to be because the by-election is seen as an indicator of trends for the general election next year. Rochester has become a political weather vane of late. For years the place returned a Conservative MP, election after election with leaden reliability. Then in 1997 came the Labour landslide and Rochester went red – and stayed red for the next two parliaments, despite our MP being the maverick Bob Marshall-Andrews, a man much favoured by the media for always having something contrary to say about the government (he became a regular on Have I got News for You). At the 2010 general election it was clear the area had become one of those places which politicians identify as being key battlegrounds, because we could swing one way or another. The prime minister Gordon Brown turned up, startling the locals by ambushing them in Morrison’s. David Milliband was seen chatting to people seated outside the café a day or two after the election, when we got the Conservatives back again with Mark Reckless. He turned out to be as rebellious as his predecessor, generally to be relied upon to vote against the government on most issues. And then of course he left the party, and now Rochester may be turning to Ukip, if the polls are true. We really don’t know what we like here.

I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of all this because Mark Reckless’s office is a couple of doors away from my back door (hence the commandeering of the shop at the front of his office). I never saw the man til lately, nor sought him out, but since the by-election was announced there has been a steady stream of Ukip functionaries passing by my back step, carrying boxes of leaflets, speaking urgently into mobile phones, their eyes aglow, sensing blood.

It’s fun being in the middle of the silly circus, I must admit. It’s also deeply depressing. Just look what’s happened to the neighbourhood. Rochester is a place of change, not on account of immigration (which has had minimal impact on the town) but through expansion of housing. We have been part of the grand Thames Gateway plan to expand the housing stock for those unable to find homes in London, with new build popping up all along the riverside, and the impact on the High Street at weekends and on the commuter trains plain to see. Rochester is a vibrant mix of the reassuringly old and the dynamically new. The town reflects a nation in transition. But that transition is economic, not racial. Change leads people to feel a sense of pressure. They look for simple solutions, and just at the moment rather too many see an answer in the pernicious bigotry of Ukip.

I hope this is a passing thing, as by-election upsets so often turn out to be. I hope Ukip shrinks back to its tiny core support of those ill-tempered old men in their nasty jackets who can’t quite believe their luck in finding a party that seems to be legitimising racism. I hope the other people next door are made of nobler stuff. I hope Rainbow Healing returns.

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The Genome project

On October 26, 2014, in Radio, Resources, Television, by Luke McKernan


I like a good list. I like a well-constructed and clear database that is, when all is said and done, the optimal expression of an extensive list. I’ve produced a lot of lists in my time, personally and professionally, and I’ve had a hand in producing a number of databases that have aimed to help people find things in a form that is useful to them, and I’ve worked a lot with databases good, bad and middling. And so it is that I’m delighted to see the publication of the BBC Genome Project, a database built out of listings data for the Radio Times 1923-2009. It’s a great list and a great database.

Back in 2006 I put together a funding bid to digitise the Radio Times 1923-1991. It was a serious proposal, put together in consultation with the Radio Times, and the product of a lot of thought and calculation. It didn’t receive the funding we sought, and reading the document now I can see that if it had been put into practice it would have been a disaster. It asked to do too much in too short a space a time for too little money, and its proposed solution for getting over the third party rights issues – an optimistic licensing scheme – was a guaranteed failure. However the bid was turned down not for any of these reasons but because the would-be funder was uncertain of the educational value of a digitised Radio Times with database (yes, that’s what they actually thought) and because they couldn’t see why the BBC or the Radio Times couldn’t pay for it themselves. Which was a reasonable thought, of course.

So we wind forward through time to 2014, and a Radio Times database has become a reality. It’s not a digitised Radio Times, however. A wise decision was made not to attempt to go down that route, on account of all the complexities of ownership and clearances that would be required, not the least of which is that the BBC no longer owns the Radio Times – it was acquired by Immediate Media in 2011.

Instead what they have produced is a plain database derived from the listings information for BBC radio and television programmes that have been broadcast since 1923. So no articles, advertisements, illustrations, letters or Roger Woddis poems, but what you do get is the core information about each programme as it was planned to be when the weekly magazine went to press. Of course programmes sometimes change from what was advertised, through overrunning, last-minute cancellations and the like, and the BBC is asking for people to contribute corrections to the Genome database – corrections of fact, and corrections of text, since the database has been created through a process of Optical Character Recognition (i.e. scanned from the pages themselves and then converted into text). The crowd will take over where the machines leave off.


Each record supplies date, time of broadcast, title of programme, synopsis, credits and channel. The Radio Times has covered non-BBC programmes since 1991, but Genome is restricted to BBC programmes. There are plenty enough of those – currently the database boasts records of 4,423,653 programmes, taken from 13,212 issues or 350,622 scanned pages.

The searching is admirably clear, with advanced searching options by date, time and medium, and browsing by medium, year or issue. Search results allow you to refine by channel and to sort results by relevance or oldest/newest first. Fascinatingly, when the database was announced and millions started making use of it, the thing many chose to look up was what was being broadcast on the day of their birth. I don’t the good folk at the BBC were expecting such an eventuality, and it does seem odd for people first to seek out programmes that they most definitely did not see. Just for the record, I can report that nothing was being broadcast at the time of my birth, because there weren’t early morning programmes on BBC television in those dim and distant days, but just as soon as broadcasting did start that day the first two programmes were two educational programmes on the history of cinema. So maybe there’s something in this birthday-searching lark after all.

Genome has been warmly welcomed and much used already. It follows on from an earlier BBC effort in the mid-2000s to make its in-house Infax database available online, free to all. It got taken down after a year or so because people complained about some personal information being released. The BBC is on safer grounds with Genome, because it is based on published information, though there has been some removing of sensitive information, not least people’s addresses or other contact details.

But among all the praise few have noted what is perhaps Genome’s most significant feature. The database provides a single web page, or URL, for every single programme listed. It’s not quite a record for each individual programme as produced, because repeats are given as separate records, but this is a huge step forward for the BBc in creating a definitive listing of its broadcast output with a unique address for each. It has such a system in place for current programmes, which can be found under /programmes on the BBC website. The aim of /programmes is “to ensure that every TV & Radio programme the BBC broadcasts has a permanent, findable web presence”, and the next stage in Genome development must surely be to make its records comply with /programmes to create, eventually, a single database encompassing all of the BBC’s output – the perfect list.

From such a list great things will come, since it can become the backbone for a web infrastructure that delivers (where possible and with rights and licenses permitting) the BBC’s broadcast archive, past and present. Genome isn’t just a great database – it’s laying the foundations for the BBC as an archive for the nation.


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I recently bought a poetry pamphlet dating from 1908, from the extraordinary treasure trove that is NeverSeen Books & Curios. It’s an eight-page booklet, published in Hull, number 15 in a series issued by George Gresswell, ‘The Engine-driver Poet’, more of whom below. There are five poems, two of them by Bingley Wilson, three by Gresswell, and two of the poems (one from each poet) are on the same subject: ‘The Barnsley Disaster’.

This refers to one of the great calamities of the early cinema period in Britain. Sixteen children died in the crush at a Saturday matinee animated picture show at Barnsley Public Hall, when overcrowding led children to be directed from the gallery to the ground floor. The disaster led to a huge outpouring of grief, locally and nationally, and to much agonising about the safety of film shows and public entertainments in general. George Gresswell’s poem, addressed to a local audience, is simply expressed but heartfelt. Here’s his poem, ‘The Children’s Disaster at Barnsley’:

In the Public Hall, at Barnsley.
The children went to view
The animated pictures,
As children love to do.

Five hundred little children
And perhaps another score,
With hearts brim-full of pleasure
They left their father’s door.

Yes, hearts so full of childish glee,
‘Tis always good to hear
The merry laugh of children
So innocent and clear.

Those little beams of sunshine,
Those flowers in the bud;
We cannot help but love them,
And would not if we could.

Those little mites at Barnsley,
No exception to the rule,
Had a holiday on Saturday -
They did not go to school.

Their mothers viewed, with mother’s pride
Their little boys and girls,
And washed and dressed them neat and trim
And put their hair in curls.

Gave each a penny and a kiss
And watched them from the door,
And some were six, and some were five,
And some were only four.

Arriving at the Hall, they found
The gallery crowded full;
And then those up above the stairs
Began to push or pull.

“Go back! go back!” a small voice said,
They turned back with a rush;
And sixteen little children
Were killed amid the crush.

Nine little girls have left the earth,
“Their spirits are in heaven;”
The little boys, like Wordsworth, still
Can say: “Nay, we are seven”

There is a silver lining, yes
They say to every cloud;
But oft it seems hard to find it
In a coffin, ‘neath a shroud.

But death is not the end of life,
Death dost but life begin.
Through Christ, those little children say:
“Oh, Death, where is they sting?”

When on the resurrection morn
The veil is rent in twain,
Among the angels we shall see
Those little ones again.


Postcard commemorating the Barnsley disaster, from

The Barnsley disaster took place 11 January 1908 at the town’s Public Hall, at a film show organised by touring entertainment company the World’s Animated Picture Company, managed by James Atroy. The company had had a residency at the Hall all that week, and had organised a children’s matinée for the Saturday, with seats specially priced at threepence, twopence or a penny. The Hall had a ground floor pit and stalls, a horseshoe-shaped balcony, and above that a gallery with barrier. The gallery had a separate entrance, and it was where the children with only a penny all went. Five hundred or more had squeezed into the gallery space – the Hall had space for 1,500 people overall, but it was common at this time for children to be packed in three to every two seats. With the gallery full and hundreds of children pressing to enter, an attendant directed them to turn back down the stairwell and to enter the ground floor space. This caused a stampede, with the children returning meeting the children trying to ascend. In the resultant crush sixteen children died, with ages between four and nine, and over forty more were injured.


Yorkshire Post, 13 January 1908, via

The disaster occurred through a mixture of the great excitement of the children at the thought of the show, too few attendants, and a fateful decision to by-pass the ticket office and to let children simply hand in their pennies at the door. The Yorkshire Post described the sad scene outside the Hall as the bodies were carried out:

Many pathetic scenes were witnessed both in the yard adjoining the hall and at the hospital. A large crowd quickly gathered round the gates of the institution, among them scores of anxious parents who only an hour ago or so previously had dressed up their little ones in their best clothes, and sent them in the highest glee to the Public Hall. Their sorrow on learning that the lives of their loved ones had been taken away in such a tragic and sudden manner was pathetic in the extreme; while almost as touching was the sight of parents weeping for joy when it became known that their children has escaped injury. Throughout the afternoon and evening numbers of relatives – in some cases whole families at a time – visited the mortuary to take a look at the pallid faces which a few hours before had been radiant with happiness.

This was not the first disaster to visit a film show. The earliest, and probably the most famous, was the Bazar de la Charité fire in Paris, which claimed the lives of 126 adults, while in Britain in September 1907 (just before the Barnsley event) two women and a young girl were burned to death and fifty injured after a film fire and the ensuing panic at a Gaumont film show in Newmarket. Despite the highly inflammable nitrate film stock used at that time, film fires were really quite rare, but the fear of fire led to panics that caused more deaths, while general overcrowding at venues could lead to calamities such as Barnsley. Such incidents helped provide the evidence needed for the Cinematograph Act of 1909 and the enforcement of a licensing scheme for cinemas to put an end to the ill-fitted and ill-protected venues then associated with film shows (ironically Barnsley Public Hall was a fully licensed entertainment venue with a good management reputation).

The lesson from the Barnsley disaster is not so much the hazards of early film shows as the delight the children felt at going to one. It the thought of what would be on the screen, a cheaply priced entertainment designed with children in mind that was so exciting, and so revolutionary. Cinema was largely built one the pennies and tuppenies of a child audience which was offered a mass entertainment that specifically wooed them and catered for them, particularly at matinée shows when they, and not their adult supervisors, were in command. However, it took a lot of pennies and tuppenies to make a profitable show, hence the need to cram in as many as possible, and hence the tragedy.

gresswellGeorge Gresswell (1856-1931), whose sad doggerel captures the emotion of the moment, is an interesting figure. He was a railway engine driver, father of ten, Lincolnshire-born but subsequently employed at Hull, who published his own poetry from his home at 3 Dorset Street, Hull in a series of booklets, numbering twenty-six in all. These were sold locally and reportedly very popular, with a figure of 25,000 copies said to have been sold by 1912, “without the aid of agents or shops” according to the Hull Daily Mail (23 July 1912). They were particularly designed for recitation, at a time when many a local show would bring together a variety of entertainments, including recitations, and when poetry recitations were a part of home entertainments (children of the generation before mine will remember being placed before a group of smiling relatives and being forced to read out some poem committed to memory as their party piece).

Gresswell’s poem addressed issues of railway management, religion and topical news stories, with titles such as ‘The Wreck of the Titanic’, ‘The West Hull Bye-Election’ and ‘A Railway Message from Mars’. “Mr Gresswell does not profess to be a grammarian, but he certainly can claim to be a mouthpiece of what the people are thinking and saying”, says the Hull Daily Mail, getting to the heart of things. They have a quality that connects them with calypso or some reggae lyrics, passing on the stories of the hour in a memorable and shareable form – as well as a connection with the earlier ballad tradition. There have always been such amateur poets, of whom the most notorious is another chronicler of topical disaster, William McGonagall; while perhaps the best – certainly the most successful – was W.H. Davies (he of “What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare”).

Such poets generally published their own work for a local audience, door-to-door, in the local papers, or from home, as Gresswell did, presumably with a core group of loyal subscribers. But so much of such writing has disappeared, unofficial and hence ephemeral. There does not appear to be a single example of Gresswell’s work at the British Library. Happily several volumes are held in the University of York library, and a collected volume of his poetry, An Anthology of Rhymes, was put together in 2006 by a descendant, John G. Gresswell – appropriately enough, a self-published work. He sounds to be a good subject for a local study some day.

Gresswell’s poetry booklets were priced at a penny. So were the seats to the gallery at the Barnsley Public Hall. Easy culture, priced for Everyman.

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Hymns to love and justice

On September 30, 2014, in Music, by Luke McKernan


Louis Janmot, ‘Le Vol de l’âme’ (image reversed as it is on the cover of the EMI Classics collection of the collected Magnard symphonies)

I don’t feel easy writing about classical music. It’s something that I greatly enjoy listening to, and something with which I am broadly familiar, but I lack the critical understanding of such fine matters as harmony, counterpoint, sonata form and so on. My understanding is impressionistic and probably sentimental. Give me a piece of writing, or a picture on a wall, or anything projected on a screen, and I know where I am. With classical music, I have the map, but no compass.

So it is that I’m a little apprehensive stating that my favourite composer is Albéric Magnard. Magnard should be no one’s favourite. He’s what they call a minor composer, generally consigned to a passing mention in histories of late 19th/early 20th century French music in the Romantic vein, described in terms of his similarities to other composers of greater reputation. But I have been working on a long piece of writing, and I have been playing through all of my recordings of his music, and find his music surging through my mind, so that I must set aside that long piece of writing and write on the music instead.

I like Magnard because I feel I know and understand him. He was the first composer where I grasped what he was doing through his music. It was 1983 and I was working on some essay, tapping away at my ricketty typewriter, and I had Radio 3 playing in the background because I was tiring of pop music. On came Magnard’s Symphonie no. 4, with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson, newly released by EMI. It was mournful, lyrical, questing and harmoniously constructed. It told a story in musical terms and it had – to me – such a force of personality behind it. I knew and understood, and have been a devotee of Magnard ever since.


Magnard with his daughter Ondine in 1904, from Gallica

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was the privileged son of the editor of Le Figaro who decided to forgo such privileges in his pursuit of a life as a composer, and his whole life seems to have been a battle between duty and independence. He enrolled at the Paris Consevatoire, studying under Vincent d’Indy, producing his Opus 1, Trois pièces pour piano in 1886. A flurry of symphonies, symphonic poems and chamber pieces followed through the 1880s/90s before his composing activities slowed down, partly because of his professorship at the Schola Cantorum but also on account of encroaching deafness, which helped make an austere and somewhat misanthropic man all the more withdrawn from the world.

He was indifferent to general acclaim, seeking only the approval of his fellow composers and the cognoscenti, an attitude was a mixture of pride, fear, and genuine seeking for an honest understanding of what he was trying to achieve. The mixture of austerity and reserve that characterised the man can be judged by the fact that just two photographs of him as an adult appear to have survived (both reproduced here). He retired from noisy Paris to Baron, near Senlis, and produced occasional works including the operas Guercour and Bérénice, a single string quartet, and in 1913 his fourth and final symphony. Most of his compositions were published at his own expense, and public performances seem to have been few. He produced only twenty-two opuses in his lifetime.


The ruins of Magnard’s Baron home, via Wikipedia

Magnard is best-known for his tragic end. At the outbreak of the First World War, with the German forces approaching the Senlis are, he sent his family away. On 3 September 1914, German soldiers entered his property. He shot one, perhaps two of them. Called upon to surrender or face the consequences, he refused to submit. The Germans thereupon set his house on fire. Magnard died in the inferno, which consumed most of his manuscripts, the works of his imagination dying alongside their creator.

Magnard’s music is at one with the man. Commentators have variously compared his to other composers of his time, including Franck, d’Indy, Rousell and Bruckner, with the implication that he is a paler imitation, but he is best understood as an individual whose unique voice has only superficial similarities to the works of his contemporaries. The tension between public and private, between duty and independence, is the driving force behind all his greatest works. He is forever trying to work out an argument, harmoniously resolving debate through dialectic and narrative form.

magnardSome of his most characteristic work can be found in his symphonic poems. Chant funèbre (op. 9, 1895) was composed in memory of his father Francis, who died in 1894. The mournful, serene work is drawn from the love and frustration Magnard simultaneously felt towards his father. A steady, funereal tread forms a motif that that is gradually coloured by the strings to turn from grief and regret to affirmation. It is a beautiful expression of the rediscovery of love. The impassioned Hymne à la Justice (op. 14, 1902) came out of Magnard’s anger at the the injustice meted out to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused of communicating military secrets to the Germans. Magnard resigned his army commission over the affair, and it is heartening to know that this principled man was on the side of true justice (he was an earnest advocate of human rights, particularly women’s suffrage). It is a powerful piece of surging but controlled emotion, culminating in a triumphal resolution, as the music expresses how right overcomes might. The lyrical Hymne à Venus (op. 17, 1904) is dedicated to his wife Julie Creton. It does not have the narrative underpinning of Chant funèbre or Justice, but is tremulously rhapsodic, melodic yet questing for something the music cannot quite seem to find, until all is resolved its exultant finale.

Magnard’s symphonies are a marvellous achievement. For many years, because they lay unrecorded and seldom played, some peculiarly dismissive statements of their worth appeared in music encyclopedias – peculiar because the experience of listening to them is so very different, and so uplifting. The first is a remarkably assured work for an opus no. 4, composed in 1890 when he was just twenty-five. It already demonstrates the main features that would characterise the mature composer: the lush sonorities, the questing argument, the triumphal conclusion. The second (op. 6, 1893, revised 1899) is busy, inventive, lyrical and luxuriant, if a little untidy in the way in packs in so many musical ideas.


The grand opening to the third symphony, via

The third symphony (op. 11, 1896) is a wonder, from a spine-tinging, organ-like motif, through a complex interweaving of dance tunes, surging melodies, dirges, poignant lullabies and urgent rhythmic sections, all in search of something, finding resolution in the exhilarating return in the finale of the majestic opening motif now with dancing strings playing around it. It is among his most immediately approachable works and a good starting point for anyone interested in discovering Magnard for themselves.

The fourth symphony (op. 21, 1913) is Magnard’s masterpiece. It is a beautiful but troubled adventure across some idealised landscape. In the notes to one version on CD Philippe Mougeot writes:

Action or contemplation, the musical thought seems to spring up fully armed, clothed in its own sonorities … the cyclic elements, still present [i.e. from earlier works], but used less systematically, now colour the supplementary motifs: the overall impression is of a fullness and joy in the sound picture

while in another set of notes Jean Gallois says of the finale:

Rhythm, colour and creative imagination culminate here to blaze and swirl in a superb 3/2 metre, gradually weakened, broadened and sobered in expression, as if the resurgence of the cyclic theme raised two questions simultaneously: What’s the use? … Perhaps …

Doubt and unsure hope characterise Magnard’s art, forever in search of the ideal, trying to confirm in music what the man struggled to comprehend in actual life. The fourth symphony is its perfect expression.

The opera Guercoeur (op. 12, 1897-1900) features characters such as Truth, Goodness, Beauty and Suffering, and though it has passages of some beauty it mostly suggests to me that Magnard’s idealism was best expressed without the literalism of a libretto. It is a miracle that we are able to hear it, as two acts were destroyed in the fire that killed the composer, but the opera was reconstructed from memory by his friend Guy Ropartz (a piano transcription and one orchestrated act had been published beforehand). His later opera Bérénice (op. 19, 1905-1909), is reported to be the greater work, but I’ve not heard it and it is not available on disc (though, inevitably, the audio of a performance of the entire work has turned up on YouTube). The score for Yolande (op. 5, 1888-1891), an early one act opera, went up in the flames.

Finally his chamber music is contains some of his most satisfying and accomplished work: a contemplative Sonata for violin and piano (op. 13); a highly accomplished, complex string quartet, whose difficulties defeated the players on its 1904 premiere, but it is now reckoned among his greatest achievements (op. 16); a Quintet (op. 8) of such freshness and harmony, it turns any day you listen to it into summer.

And then not much more. Twenty-two works in all, most of which have been made available on CD over the past three decades since that Plasson recording of the fourth symphony triggered a mini-boom in Magnard’s music. Some of those CDs have been dropped from the catalogue, but it is not difficult to find a good proportion of his surviving work one way or another. But it has only been a mini-boom. I think he remains unknown to most classical music followers; shamefully, he has never once featured in the 119 years of the Proms.

Magnard is not a great composer. He is a minor artist, but of the kind that helps render such qualitative assessments redundant. As an artist, he is what he needed to be. I find it easier to think of him in filmic terms, as an auteur – someone whose consistent personal vision ran throughout his oeuvre. His work, particularly the orchestral pieces, reaches for the skies, but there is someone very human behind it all, whose questing character, hoping against hope that there is good to be found somewhere, can be read by anyone whatever their musical knowledge. The music is as approachable as its composer in real life was not. If you want to put a label on it, then it is late Romantic music of the kind that was swept away in 1913 by Stravinsky. But forget the musical tags and timelines, and just listen to what one man had to say, and how he was able to express it. It has a true voice.


  • Where to start with Magnard? The third symphony is the most inviting, though not available on a single disc, so you could seek out, as I did, Michael Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse’s recording of the fourth symphony with Chant funèbre
  • Once engrossed, you can move on to the Plasson 3-disc set with the four symphonies, Hymne à la Justice, Chant funèbre and Overture (op. 10). A marvellous set
  • The complete chamber works are available over four discs on this Timpani set (with sample sound files for every track on the Amazon page)
  • A sympathetic (if occasionally patronising) essay by Francis Pott for Hyperion on the four symphonies (with sound samples)
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Being there

On September 4, 2014, in Cinemas, Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan


The Two Gentlemen of Verona, production photo from

Until now, I’d not been to one of the live video broadcasts into cinemas of theatre productions which have spread so rapidly since the New York Metropolitan Opera introduced them in late 2006. In part this was me being slow off the mark, in part it was apprehension at what I was buying into. Simply, it didn’t feel like I would be buying into the real thing. I am no advocate of the liveness of theatre above life shown through a screen: there’s a snobbishness and sentimentality in that line of argument that I really dislike. But beyond the obvious convenience of seeing a stage production that one might probably not be able to see otherwise, I just wasn’t sure what I would be purchasing. In short, would I be getting value for money?

I overcame such caution last night when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, broadcast as part of its RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series into cinemas up and down the land, including for my benefit the Woodville Halls Theatre in Gravesend.

The play is one of the Shakespeare’s earliest – perhaps his first – and is generally considered a weak attempt at the romantic comedy style he would make his own with Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night et al. It is deeply beholden to the arid traditions of courtly romance and betrays the inexperience of the young writer through its several faults of technical construction. But the production has been showered with praise – amazingly, it is the first RSC full production of the play in forty-five years – and it’s a play that I had never seen performed. So it was that I turned up at the Woodville, intrigued and expectant. I wanted to see the production, and I needed to experience the phenomenon. I’ve started collecting examples of ‘streamed theatre‘ on my Picturegoing site, and I’ve been intrigued by how many bloggers who write about such shows review them as theatre, understanding themselves to be there, not seeing the screen as screen at all (unless technical glitches distract their attention). What would I see?

There were around forty of us, huddled for the most part in the centre of the auditorium. The live broadcast was preceded by a rotating slide show that introduced the production and cast, and advertised the RSC, serving therefore as a form of programme (I thought how useful such a projection could be before the show in an actual theatre, except that it would affect the sales of programmes). We were also given shots of the audience taking to their seats at Stratford-upon-Avon. They looked like us and we looked like them: a fair representation of grey-haired middle England. I thought what a shame there could not be a way for those in Stratford to see us, much as we were seeing them. They would gain a greater sense of the larger audience to which this production was now playing.

An enthusiastic woman called Suzy Klein sat down at a table on the stage and introduced the play to us, while the actors milled about in an approximation of a Verona café. Suzy said she hoped we would tweet about the experience. None of those seated at the Woodville looked like they had ever tweeted in their life, and in any case we had been told to turn off our mobile phones and of course we had all obeyed (if someone had brought in a tablet with them I didn’t see it). Interactivity was for others – we just wanted to see the show.

And so the show began. It is a terrific production which breathes new life into the play. It is bright, witty, passionate and engaging. A talented young cast make every line reasonable, sailing confidently over the play’s odder constructions (such as the rapid reconciliation with the selfish Proteus at the play’s conclusion) and clearly enjoying themselves. One ends up admiring Shakespeare’s early sense of dramatic construction. It’s a play and a production that you would happily recommend to anyone.

Trailer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I was particularly interested in how it was filmed. This was very pleasing. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieving between capturing the action as presented on a stage, and selecting shots calculated to satisfy the cinematic (or televisual) eye. At one end of the spectrum you get the camera parked in the stalls recording the literal actuality. At the other end you get those video production where close shots have been interpolated to turn the show into something designed with the camera first in mind and the theatre and its audience an unwanted distraction. The filmmaker needs to find a halfway house, true to both camera and stage.

This the RSC Live production did very well. There was judicious use of crane shots, gently swooping over the action; lateral camera movements which took in the audience’s heads so we were always reminded that we were in a theatre, sharp cutting between protagonists as they debated with one another, showing much careful planning of camera positions; and the occasional misalignment of actors in the frame to prove that this was live and that actors do not always stand where the film producer hopes that they will stand. I was especially impressed by some of the smooth transitions from scene to scene, particularly the cut between Acts 3 and 4, from Julia exiting with Sylvia’s picture to Eglamour dressed as a monk, both filmed from above. There were close shots, but not close-ups – we were never taken imaginatively out of the space that is the theatre. The filming optimised the experience.

I wasn’t so sure of the sound. Partly, one is at the mercy of the digital projection facilities of the participating cinema, but to my eye the words were ever so slightly out of synch with the visuals (so one saw someone closing their mouth to end a speech a split second after we heard the final word being spoken). More troubling, at least initially, was the sound mixing. There was a curious lack of perspective, as though audio and visually had been recorded separately and laid together for the broadcast. It’s hard to describe, but I felt that the spoken words didn’t belong to the stage, that there weren’t projected out but instead sounded as though they were confined with a small space. Of course, this may be an outcome of the radio miking in theatres which is designed for clarity and intimacy, but I found it odd at first. As the production went on, either the sound effect settled down or I became used to it, because eventually I ceased to be bothered by it.

There was an interval, with ten minutes of quiet in which we saw footage of people at Stratford vacating their seats, followed with ten minutes of promotional stuff (including a mock silent film trailer for Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won – which they have decided is the alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing). Suzy told us how great the music was and how she thought buying the soundtrack CD would be a great idea, and encouraged us all to tweet once more. We ignored her.

There have been reports of these ‘live theatre’ events of the cinema audience clapping alongside the theatre audience at the end of the show. Not in Gravesend they didn’t. We sat there in silence, then filed out during the credits. All seemed to have liked it, though, to judge from the exit chatter, with promises made to the staff that we would be coming back for other such shows.


The Woodville

I will certainly be coming back, because I enjoyed it immensely. One can look at it as extension of presence in the theatre, or as something changed radically by being on a screen, with gradations of change in between those poles, according to the viewer. Has any Baudrillardian theorised as yet on broadcast theatre as simulacra or simulation of live experience? It is subject ripe for applying Baudrillard’s idea of the precession of simulacra, where the copy takes over the meaning of its referent, ultimately destroying the meaning of the original. But different folks will see different things. When I first got there, an attendant asked me what I had come to see. I said I was going to the cinema. He said there was no cinema that evening, instead they had ‘a show’. It was either, and both.

One thing bothered me, however. Just how ‘live’ was it? Of course the production was broadcast live and every action that we saw was occurring at precisely the same moment as it was in Stratford-upon-Avon. But it didn’t feel live to me, or rather the liveness didn’t matter. I expected to feel a particular frisson at being there, however remotely, and of course the liveness is a major part of what is being sold to us as an attraction. But the frisson didn’t happen. Had it been a show from the day before I don’t see how the experience would have been truly different. Had it been from six months ago then perhaps the feeling might change, as initiatives like RSC Live and NT Live advertise repeat screenings as ‘encores’, with (I assume) marginally lower prices. But the difference between live and close to live seems a fine one.

There’s an interesting parallel with football, where live games may be shown on a Saturday afternoon on Sky, and then the highlights on Match of the Day in the evening, and in both cases there is the feeling of being there. If you repeat either broadcasts later in the week, or still later than that, then the liveness has gone, as actuality turns into history.

Also, football is a business where primary revenues have moved from the turnstile to the screen, and that is what is now happening to theatre. The RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September was seen by around 1,000 people in the theatre. Broadcast to some 275 cinemas in the UK, it will have been seen by a remote audience of at least 11,000 (if the Gravesend turnout is anything to go by) and probably nearer 20,000, and that’s not counting worldwide screenings (they reached Argentina, Australia, Russia, Spain and the USA) encore screenings and any subsequent DVD sales. The National Theatre’s more established NT Live reaches 600 venues, had found a worldwide audience of 1,275,000 by the time of its 2013-13 annual report, and for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time it got a UK audience of 42,000 and worldwide audience of 72,000, while the 43,000 for The Last of the Haussmans got the screening into the UK’s weekly box office cinema chart (at no. 8).

This is going to have a huge effect on the economics of theatre. Productions will be selected and made with the camera in mind, star actors will be attracted for what may be shorter runs, because the residual revenues will be greater. The liveness of theatre will be an essential part of what is being sold to us, and in that the audience attending the theatre will play their part, just as the football crowd lets us know that the game is real. But the power will lie with the few who came to the Woodville, not the many who filled the theatre at Stratford. We were the ones who were really there.


  • Details of the production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are on the RSC site. The director was Simon Godwin; the cast included Mark Arends (Proteus), Pearl Chanda (Julia), Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Michael Marcus (Valentine)
  • Information on Verona and other RSC broadcasts (live and encore) is on the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon site
  • Peter Kirwan has a review of the 3 September screening at his excellent Bardathon blog – he reviews it as theatre, with some reference to presentation (the introduction, camera placement) and a complaint about sound distortion (a fault of his local screening at the Nottingham Broadway).
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Colour music

On August 21, 2014, in Colour, Music, by Luke McKernan


Chromatic scale for music and colour, from Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour

A recent post by John Wyver on his very fine Illuminations blog covered the history of Mobilux, a system for projecting abstract images onto a screen which was used for some television broadcasts in 1950s. It’s a fascinating insight into the ways in which television was viewed, and used as a vehicle for experimentation, in its early days. But what particularly caught my eye was the comments of its inventor, John Hoppe, who said that Mobilux was inspired by earlier inventions:

I developed the instruments I now use on television from instruments used in the original lumia process. The first one was an instrument using candles, which was built in 1751. As far back as 1895 there was an instrument which mixed light from an organ keyboard. In 1925 there was a flurry of interest in lumia, and there were many performances of it. It was very pretty but it was used without music and died down.

Well I’ve done a little investigation into Lumia, and the related art of ‘colour music’, in the past, so here’s my historical gloss on the Wyver blog post, with particular emphasis on the colour organ, a device for playing colour music.

Colour music, or the art of combining musical effects with colours with correlations of harmonic and emotional effect, has a long history. First imagined by Aristotle, and speculated upon by the 16th-century artist Archimboldo, its first practical exponent may have been Louis-Bertrand Castel, a Jesuit priest and mathematician, who in the 1720s began work on his ‘clavecin oculaire’, or ‘harpsichord for the eyes’. This sought to relate the seven colours of the spectrum to a musical scale – though Castel chose to work from an irregular scale of thirteen notes that had been devised by Castel’s fellow Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher (supposed progenitor of the magic lantern). Castel’s invention featured lanterns, candles or colour boxes, but a working model seems never to have been demonstrated. The idea was picked up by various theorists, notably Erasmus Darwin, who in 1789 proposed the creation of a visual music through accompanying musical performance with light from oil lamps projected through coloured glass.

Yale University documentary on a performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus with a modern colour organ (Luce, introduced at 5:33 and in performance from 9:38), programmed to play Scriabin’s colours

In the mid to late nineteenth century a number of colour organs and related instruments were constructed. The American artist Bainbridge Bishop in 1877 constructed a projector to be fixed to the top of an organ, which would project coloured light onto a small screen; and artist Alexander Wallace Rimington patented his Colour Organ in 1893. Rimington became the best known theorist and exponent of the art of colour music, which he demonstrated at several concerts throughout 1895. The concept of combining colour with music in pursuit of a pure synthesis of light and sound was taken up in the twentieth century by such composers as Schoenberg (Die Glückliche Hand, 1909-1913) and notably Scriabin, whose Prometheus, the Poem of Fire (1911) calls for the use of a colour organ, with the colours projected on a large screen above the orchestra; while from the other direction artists introduced sound into their work, notably Kandinsky in his 1914 (but not performed until the 1960s) abstract music drama, The Yellow Sound.

Loie Fuller in hand-coloured 1897 Lumière film Danse Serpentine

Silent excerpt from a c.1969 Lumigraph film with the instrument played by Elfriede Fischinger, the filmmaker’s widow

The American dancer Loie Fuller, with her serpentine dances of the 1890s that featured her flowing dress lit up with projected lights to create colour effects was another pioneer of the idealistic combination of colour projection and music. Film animators such as Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann each took further the wish to combine colour, movement and sound in the search of abstract form and synthesis – Fischinger in particular would go further by developing his own version of the colour organ, the Lumigraph, in the 1940s. Such experiments have continued, reaching their most popular outcome in the light performances that accompany rock concerts, their most ubiquitous form in the use of colour visualations in computer and phone media players, and perhaps an aesthetic peak in the ‘star gate’ sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia composition Opus 147 “Multidimensional” (1957)

The colour organ itself enjoyed its greatest period of popularity in the 1920s, with the American colour organist Mary Hallock Greenewalt (who first experimented with the form in 1906); the Danish-American Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux employed a keyboard with sliding keys that controlled light projections (it was Wilfred who named his colour projections ‘Lumia’, which he preferred to have exhibited silently as moving art forms – as they appear in Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life, for example); and Adrian Klein, creator of the Klein Colour Projector, whose remarkable book Colour-Music (1926) is an exhaustive study of colour music, its theory and potential. Klein also wrote major books on colour cinematography, and as Adrian Cornwell-Clyne managed the important Dufaycolor film process in Britain.


Wallace Rimington with the Colour Organ

Alexander Wallace Rimington (1854-1918) was Professor of Fine Arts at Queen’s College, London and a water-colourist, whose studies of Turner led him to pursue his own ideas of a new language of art. He wrote a talk for the debut performance of his Colour Organ at the St James’s Hall, London, 6 June 1895. It was subsequently published as a paper, entitled A New Art: Colour-Music, and is reproduced in Klein’s book along with newspaper notices and the patent drawings (Klein was another artist who turned his eye to music). His Colour Organ was a somewhat unwieldy instrument, with a battery of arc lamps positioned in parallel high above a conventional organ console. The colours were projected onto a large screen. The organ was accompanied by piano and orchestra (the latter conducted by Louis N. Parker, later famous as a producer of pageants), and the programme featured music by Wagner, Dvorak, Chopin and Gounod. Other concerts then followed, which enjoyed a mixed reception, partly owing to poor stage management. A performance at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 30 November 1895 saw confusion from an audience which had imagined that by some marvellous new scientific discovery it was the sounds themselves that were producing the colours. Rimington was uncomfortable with public performance, and gave no more demonstrations after 1895. He wrote a book, Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Colour in 1911, and in 1914 was invited by Sir Henry Wood to supervise the colour organ for a performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus at the Queen’s Hall, but the War intervened.

Here are some of Rimington’s thoughts from 1895:

Very briefly, my aim has been to deal with Colour in a new way, and to place its production under as easy and complete control as the production of sound in Music.

Until now colour to a large extent in nature, and altogether in art, has been presented to us without mobility and almost invariably associated with form. Colour combined with form has constituted the whole colour art of the world. In painting colour has been used only as one of the elements in a picture, although perhaps the greatest source of beauty. We have not yet had pictures in which there is neither form nor subject, but only pure colour. Even the most advanced impressionism has not carried us thus far. In decorative art colour has, broadly speaking, held the same position. Moreover, to obtain particular tints of colour it has been necessary to mix them laboriously on the palette or in the dye-house. Art hitherto has not been able to compete in any sort of way with Nature in the mobility of her multitudinous and ever-varying combinations of colour. There has, in fact, been no pure colour art dealing with colour alone, and trusting solely to all the subtle and marvellous changes and combinations of which colour is capable as the means of its expression.

The object of the present invention is to lay the first stone towards the building up of such an art in the future. The chief problem, then, that the new art sets itself is to introduce mobility into colour, and with this changefulness, the three great influences of Time, Rhythm, and Combination, slow or rapid and varied. Colour thus is freed from the trammels of form, and dealt with for the sake of its own loveliness.

Rimington’s talk on the Colour Organ, from which the above extract comes, expounds his thinking behind the invention, which was to find a means of marrying the arts of sound and light to a mutual aesthetic and emotional effect. In simple terms, Rimington took the colour spectrum and equated it with the musical octave, taking colours at particular points along the spectrum where their frequencies corresponded in ratio to the diatonic and chromatic scales, then putting these selected colours under the control of those specific notes on the keyboard. When depressed, the key then triggered the corresponding colour, by means of prisms, diaphragms, colour filters and fourteen arc lamps, the keyboard becoming, in Rimington’s words, ‘a large palette from which we can paint with instantaneous effect upon the screen.’ Some of the organ stops created further lighting effects, a pedal controlled luminosity, and three levers at the side of the organ controlled the degrees of strength for each of the primary colours. Rimington was therefore able to achieve a great variety of effect than might be assumed from a simple note-for-colour correlation. Nevertheless, the colours were inaccurate and relatively crudely produced. A review in The Times (28 June 1895) was sceptical both of the effect and the reasoning:

[I]t must have appeared doubtful to many whether there is any parallelism between the kinds of emotion produced by a piece of music rendered into sound in the ordinary way, and by its translation into colour as given by Mr Rimington. The tints with which the screen was filled were often very beautiful, if rather suggestive at times of ‘crushed strawberry’ and colours of that style, but they seemed unsatisfying, and did not convey the same impression to the mind as the music. There is perhaps force in the suggestion that our eyes are not yet sufficiently practised to make us competent judges of colour as expressive of emotion; but it may be remarked that even were the physical analogy between sound and colour complete which it is far from being it does not follow that the emotional effects are analogous. Mr Rimington, indeed, claims that his new art is not dependent upon the demonstration of the analogy; but, seeing that his instrument is constructed on the assumption that it does hold good, the point may not improperly be taken into account in considering the results obtained.

But if Rimington’s instrument was limited in its effectiveness, and if his theory of colour music was flawed and rather fell apart in performance, his passionate idealism demands respect. His rhapsodic description of pure colour, ‘freed from the trammels of form’, far in advance of most of the visual arts at this time (including his own art), soars above the mechanical realities and the mismanaged exhibitions which characterised the Colour Organ’s brief public turn in 1895. While the experimenters of the twentieth century who experimented with colour music seem of their time in engaging with abstract art – Scriabin, Wilfred, Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute and others – Rimington the Victorian is the one who made the further leap imaginatively from the art that he knew to the art of his dreams.

But how did a Victorian art professor come to construct such an organ? His is the only name on the patent. What help did he receive? Who actually built it? And whatever became of it? The Colour Organ was located in Rimington’s home at 26 Kensington Park Gardens until 1914, certainly, but then what? I have searched where I can and have found no trace, online at least. Does anyone know what happened to it, if it survives? It would be grand to hear and see it played again.

Note: This post is an adaptation and expansion of an introduction I wrote to Wallace Rimington’s 1895 paper A New Art: Colour Music, for Living Pictures: The Journal of the Popular and Projected Image before 1914 (vol. 2 no. 2, 2003, a special issue on colour).


Tagged with:

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War centenary?

On August 6, 2014, in War, Work, by Luke McKernan


Top half of Savile Lumley’s poster for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?’

Deep indeed is our need of round numbers. We count the past in intervals of ten, fifty or a hundred years, making sure that we are standing in the right place and composed of the right thoughts when the time comes round to commemorate the historically momentous. Anniversaries and centenaries seem always to be upon us, driven partly by a media that like always to have something celebrate (and round numbers make for an easy story), partly by a wish by some impress upon us the lessons of the past, and partly because the passing of the years means that there is ever more of the past queuing up to be remembered.

Centenaries range from the pointless (all that fuss two years ago over the Titanic centenary) to the truly significant. The centenary of the First World War is undoubtedly among the latter, and if one hundred years is a meaningless concept beyond illustrating to deeply the decimal system is embedded in our consciousness, then it is significant for being a date just beyond the point where the last First World War combatant had died (Claude Choules, who died aged 110 in 2011). The war we must all remember is now something no one living can remember. We commemorate the loss of the connection.

But how to commemorate? The centenary of Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4th was marked by services, unveilings, parades, and encouragement for everyone to switch off lights in the evening until 11pm. There were television programmes that are documenting these events, interspersed with interviews asking people what their thoughts are on the significance of what was taking place. But then what? We have been commemorating the centenary of the war all year, and we will continue to commemorate it for another four years. How will we maintain consistency? How will we find the stamina? How to get it right? What will we learn from it all?

Here are some of the means to commemorate the war’s centenary that are open to us.

There is nothing quite like purchasing a weighty history book for doing our bit. It seems the right thing to have at such a time, and certainly the shelves in the bookshops up and down the land are groaning with histories new and republished to provide us with that definitive idea of what happened. Amazon list 69,646 books for sale under ‘First World War’ – around 8,000 are said to be currently in print. I’m slowly reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which is an intricate read but is setting the pace for being the key book of centenary so far, and lined up on the shelves I have Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, and Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War looks essential. Novels? Well I might try and finish Parade’s End. It’s defeated me so far. A tip for a book to add to your shelves? Try David Jones’ In Parenthesis, the great prose-poem of the infantryman’s experience and its mythic significance (subject of a future blog post, I think).

The BBC owns this war. It has 2,500 hours of programming planned across television and radio, as well as web platforms, with a mission to increase our understanding of the war and to seek out its stories. It is a war composed almost entirely of the experiences of individuals, reflecting the sense that such total war has to be seen from the personal perspective rather than the strategic overview. A war with no overall meaning can only be understand by how it affected people just like us. So it is that we are getting a lot of readings from diaries and actors looking sorrowfully at the camera. It’s a somewhat bludgeoning effect, all the more so with something like the BBC3 series Our World War, using head-cams and thermal imaging to impress upon a generation that doesn’t know what its bloody reality was like. It’s the video game approach – the further we move away from the past the more we need some violent stimulus to jolt our sensibilities, or so the argument seems to be.

When was the last time a popular film about the First World War filled the cinemas? Gallipoli (1981)? [Update: War Horse, of course, as someone's now reminded me] I don’t know of any major productions in the pipeline, and maybe there won’t be until 2017 the centenary of America’s entry into the war. But there will be plenty of screening of films from the war period itself, and those made in the few decades afterwards. It should be everyone’s national duty to see The Battle of the Somme (1916) (could some TV commissioner be brave and screen the film in its entirety on 1 July 2016?), and the IWM’s Collections site has 1,816 actuality films of the war to view (memo to self – another blog post). But the feature films made in the 1920s and 30s by those who lived through the war but took time to distil the memories into cinema should also be sought out. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade, I Was a Spy, What Price Glory?, Wings, Journey’s End, A Farewell to Arms, La Grande Illusion: they say more about the memory of war than poor TV drama, too young to know, will ever be able to achieve.

The Imperial War Museums (note the awful plural they’ve given themselves) has opened its/their much touted First World War Galleries, having closed for a period to prepare itself/themselves for the centenary. For many this will be the shrine to visit, and I’ll get there somewhere along the line. The museum has to compete with the expectations of the televisual, video game age, marrying physical exhibits to digital narratives that again try to impress on us war’s virtual reality. Also in tune with TV (and indeed every other medium it seems) is the focus on the individual experience, making the past real because it happened to people just like us. Culture 24 has a listing of what museums across the UK are doing to mark the centenary.

I’ve never been to a First World War battlefield. It would be a rightful thing to do, and those I know who have visited them have been deeply moved. I suspect they may be a bit crowded for the next few years, and I’m ambivalent about tour guides. Perhaps things will be quieter in 2019. The key site is that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the first place for finding out about the war dead.

Every museum, library, archive, gallery or whatever is going to have its First World War exhibition. There will be no end to them, probably no counting them all. So many objects yearning to make us remember. At the British Library we have Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour (running to October this year). For something off the beaten track, I might try Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One at the Brunei Gallery, or the Cartoon Museum’s Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art. The IWM-supported is the place to find what’s going on.


First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict

Or if you can’t see the objects in their glass cases, why not experience them up close online, such as through Europeana 1914-1918 (another project the British Library is involved in), which is digitising objects from museums, libraries and families alike (they are organising family history roadshows where you can get your precious objects digitised) for sharing across the continent through the Europeana portal – itself an expression of the belief that there is a way to build a world beyond war. Linked with this is the BL’s own World War One site, with objects, articles and themes to explore. Or I must visit in full The Guardian‘s impressive First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict interactive documentary. or the BBC’s all-powerful World War One pages, aiming to be the portal through which a nation rediscovers the war’s significance.

Why not download a part of the war and take it away with you? There’s artist Jeremy Deller’s digital artwork for the Lights Out project for which you had to download the app then see four videos over 1-4 August, a brief digital candle of a life. Or for that personal experience, try out World War I Interactive, First World War: Western Front, Owen (i.e. Wilfred Owen), War Horse, and many more.

#ww1, #ww100, #ww1Aug14, #WW1Centenary, #LightsOut, #FirstWorldWar, #centenary, #WorldWar1centenary, #WorldWarOne, #WorldWarOneRemembered, #WWOne, #100years, #1418, #1418Centenary, #GreatWar, #GreatWarCentenary, #WeWillRememberThem, #lestweforget, #WarToEndAllWars

If we feel pity, we’ll likely turn to poetry. Try out a different poet or two. Read the Italian minimalist Giuseppe Ungaretti, or Isaac Rosenberg (see his poems, digitised documents, photographs etc all at the excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive). Here’s Rosenberg’s ‘Louse Hunting’:

Nudes – stark aglisten
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire,
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the vermin brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Dug in supreme flesh
To smutch the supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

Commemorative issues
It seems like every newspaper in the land has rediscovered its archives and produced a commemorative issue, often by reproducing what their title published back in August 1914. Some have faced a bit of a challenge because 1914 newspapers in general weren’t laid out as dynamically as we would expect of a newspaper today, though the Daily Mail‘s attempt to get round this by producing a mock-up of how a war issue would look like if they produced it today was roundly criticised. Ironically it’s likely to end up being the one genuinely collectible commemorative issue of the centenary.


Family history
There is much encouragement from schools, archives and newspaper archives for people to discover how the war affected their ancestors. It’s another element of that personalisation of the war being stressed through every medium. I find the idea behind Lives of the First World War project (‘Facebook for the Fallen’) a bit unsettling. It is inviting us to fill in details of the names of all those who contributed to the First World War to create a ‘permanent digital memorial’ – which may just be a contradiction in terms. It’s a mixture of free and subscription based, and I wonder just how many will feel compelled to add family details to the register, and what the thoughts of those fallen would have been. It is good, however, that people are finding connection through family history, which never fails to bring home the enormity as much as the banality of the past. My maternal grandfather was at Gallipoli, the Western Front and Egypt – quite a tour of duty. He didn’t speak much about it afterwards.

Projects and courses
A thousand school projects have been launched about the war, many focussed on family or local figures. But we can all continue to learn. The BBC has launched a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, would you believe – there are lots of them out there), teaming up with the Open University, University of Birmingham, University of Glasgow and University of Leeds to deliver four free courses: Trauma and Memory, Aviation comes of age, Paris 1919 – a new world order, and Changing faces of heroism.

I may take someone young to go and see War Horse.

Well I can do my creative bit by giving a talk of two of the First World War and film, which I’m supposed to know something about. A couple of talks are lined up – maybe others will follow. Plenty of archive film is being featured in all these TV programmes, trailers, websites and apps, but precious little of it is being given any sort of context. It is not just background, it has meaning – meaning that becomes clearer if you know its history. Much like any other aspect of the war, of course. Perhaps that’s my answer to Savile Lumley’s poster.


Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red via @HistoricalPics

I wore a poppy once. Not now. Better instead to go to the Tower of London and see the extraordinary outpouring, and open wound of blood-red ceramic poppies, 888,246 of them (eventually), one for every British and Commonwealth (they don’t say Empire) soldier who died. It’s an artwork by Paul Cummins, entitled Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red, and for many this will say it all. Ours is an age of extraordinary imagination.

Think of other wars
Of course we must think of the world today, and not hide from it. But we can recognise the past too.

Meet those who were there
We can still do so, through the ghostly magic of the audiovisual media. One of the best offerings from the BBC is the series of uncut interviews with those who lived through the war which were made for the 1964 series The Great War. There are thirteen of them on iPlayer, available indefinitely it seems. They are so clear, eloquent and truthful. We don’t need head-cams or thermal imaging – we just need to look into their eyes.

Is it all too much? It is for some. Simon Jenkins calls the outpouring of “Great War plays, Great War proms, Great War bake-ins, Great War gardens, even Great War Countryfile … a nightly pornography of violence”. We celebrate with abandon, yet learn little. I don’t know. We may be celebrating the centenary as much to fill the void as to commemorate the past, but no one is going to see every exhibition, read every book, or download every app. They will see what they want to see. And the lessons are clear enough for most – some elitists may shake their heads at the vulgarity and meaninglessness of it all, but the rest understand that remembrance is a lesson in itself.

What is distinctive about so many of these commemorative war events is their focus on the individual experience – their experience then, and our imaginative engagement with that experience now. It was a war fought by you or I, not by some remote army. In doing so it made war ridiculous and indefensible. It didn’t stop war, but it changed the understanding of war utterly, and that continues to have its effect on the world most of us expect to see and to live in. And because the war was fought by you or I, we became more important than the kings, politicians, ambassadors and generals whose machinations caused the war in the first place. We own the story, and every exhibition, book, programme and downloadable app is a reflection of that truth.


Guitar solos

On July 27, 2014, in Music, by Luke McKernan


Album cover for Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos

This is one of my favourite album covers. It’s so English, with its field, cricket sight screen, and unprepossessing musician retreating into the background. It’s also one of my favourite albums to listen to. Fred Frith‘s Guitar Solos was released in 1974. It was the first solo record by the guitarist and violinist with the avant garde rock group Henry Cow, and it heralded the career of one of the most innovative and inventive of guitarists. The extraordinary improvised guitar playing, with extra pickups, split fretboards, alligator clips holding down strings, and other means of prepared guitar, created sounds unlike any heard before, and earned the album a remarkably warm critical reception for a piece of experimental music. It was followed by Guitar Solos 2 in 1976, where Frith was joined by Derek Bailey, Hans Reichel and G.F. Fitzgerald, and Guitar Solos 3 in 1979, with several guitarists including Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser.

What was revolutionary about Guitar Solos was that it inverted all previous ideas about how a guitar might sound, and where its position lay in rock and pop music. Guitar solos were never solo – they were contained within the structure of a song. Even if that piece of music was an instrumental, the guitar element was but one part of a combination of instruments working together to a conventional purpose. Frith’s album sets the guitar free from the constrictions of song, from the need to fill a passage between one verse and the next. It is music that says, ‘stop accepting, start listening’.

That said, the guitar solo as commonly understood is a revered and well-established part of the structure of popular music, or at least in the form in which it could be commonly found from the 1905s to the 1980s. Fred Frith himself wrote a renowned series of articles on the art of the guitar solo for New Musical Express in the 1970s. There are numerous lists to be found on line which are boosted as being the top 50 or 100 guitar solos. Most of these I find to be musical abominations (Jimmy Page? Bah!), which mistake bombast for musicianship and excess for excellence. I had been planning to write a blog post on guitar solos that counteracted such opinions for some while, then was prompted to do so by the news this week of an article by David Robert Grimes, of the University of Oxford, in the open access scientific journal Plos One, entitled ‘String Theory – The Physics of String-Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques‘.

Grimes’ article, which has excited some interest in the silly-season press, is a serious work of acousto-physics which argues that electric guitars can sound as expressive and distinct as the human voice. Grimes explores string-bending, vibrato, micro-tonality, fretting force, whammy-bar effects, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, tremolo arms and pick-ups, with reference to the works notables not normally found in physics papers, including Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen.

The key idea is that the electric guitar, and the means that have developed to play it in rock music, uses much the same patterns as the human voice. Grimes writes:

Coupled with the huge array of amplification, effects and distortion options, the electric guitar can yield a vocal-like quality in lead playing, allusions to which are often made in popular culture; in Dire Strait’s [sic] 1979 debut single “Sultans of swing”, songwriter Mark Knopfler refers to a jazz guitarist as being “strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”. Eric Clapton’s thick guitar tone and use of vibrato is referred to by guitarists as the “woman tone”, which he famously contributed to the Beatles’s classic “While my guitar gently weeps”. These are but some examples – An accomplished guitarist’s tone and vibrato can be so intrinsic to that player that their idiosyncratic sound is as distinctive as a vocalist’s to a trained ear.

The implication is that this human quality is the secret of its appeal. There seems a lot to this line of thinking. It is not so much the musicality of the guitar that is distinctive as its vocality. It mimics not simply how we sing, but how we talk and thereby express ourselves. The electric guitar, perhaps more than any other instrument, expresses the various-ness and free-ranging quality of human expression, whether strained by convention (as in the burst of a solo squeezed into the three-minute song) or liberated to uninhibited eloquence (as demonstrated in Frith’s masterpiece).

There are limitations to this theory. If the guitar solo is so intrinsic to the sympathetic understanding of popular music, then why has it largely disappeared as a device since the 1980s? Musical fashion has moved on, and to throw in a conventional guitar solo into a piece of music now seems anachronistic, even absurd. The guitar solo was a part of the inheritance of rock’n’roll, and lasted for the period that the generation that created it and the generation that were inspired by them lasted.

The guitar solo came out of rock’n’roll’s country, blues and especially jazz roots. The ensembles of the 30s and 40s playing short songs or numbers in which individual instrumentalists took their brief turn to solo their variation on the melody evolved into the drum-bass-guitar combos that proved best for delivering the propelling beat of rock’n’roll. The archetypal rock’n’roll combo was that which accompanied Elvis Presley, with Scotty Moore playing lead guitar and Presley himself supplying rhythm guitar. Moore cemented the role of the lead guitarist, leading on melody lines, fills and full solos, the complementary voice to that of the singer.

The guitar solo gained prominence when rock music escaped from Tin Pan Alley, bands played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. It was an expression of assertiveness and individuality. Assertiveness can soon lead to vanity, and the excesses of the rock guitar solo from the late 60s through to the 70s, were a product of a medium that now believed in the adulation it received through ever larger live shows. Virtuosity devoid of taste is a poor substitute for genuine musicianship. The best guitar solos were grounded in that subtle evocation of the many shades of the human voice; the worst merely screamed.

Then music moved on from its rock’n’roll inheritance, and the guitar solo became anachronistic (admittedly such news has taken a while to filter through to numerous American soft metal bands). In part it was a generational thing; in part it was the rise of electronica, beats, and a more manufactured sound. In doing so the music may have lost some of its voice.


Enough of such musings. Here are my top ten guitar solos. Not the top ten, please note, which is a stupid game. They are just ten solos that I particularly admire, for how well they work within the confines of the song they grace, yet how they have a substance that lifts them beyond the confines of the song. And yes they all have that human voice quality, one way or another. So, in reverse order….

10. Tarheel Slim, ‘Number 9 Train’, guitarist: Tarheel Slim (1959)

American guitarist Tarheel Slim (Allen Bunn) had a varied career playing gospel, blues and rhythm’n’blues throughout the 1950s, briefly making his make as a solo artist with this blistering rock’n’roll number in which his solo boldly plays just the two notes repeatedly but wholly logicially in the context of the propulsive nature of the song, before breaking free across the fretboard.

9. Bonzo Dog Band, ‘Canyons of Your Mind’, guitarist: Neil Innes (1968)

Perhaps it’s a bit much to include a parody of the rock guitar solo among a listing of my idea of the best of them, but Neil Innes’s painfully funny deconstruction of the pretensions of the form is also a good deal better than most of the examples that it spoofs. It is off-key, mis-played, irregular and tuneless, but it also perfectly complements the absurdity of the song and in its way displays such invention and variety within a short space of time. Everything that can go wrong with a guitar solo is here.

8. Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, guitarist: Jimi Hendrix (1968)

Of course you have to have Jimi Hendrix, and though this is an obvious choice, for sheer musical imagination and ingenuity of technique, this version of the Bob Dylan song has few peers. The solo perfectly expresses the mysterious adventure that the lyrics describe.

7. B.B. King, ‘The Thrill Has Gone’, guitarist: B.B. King (1969)

Grimes’s thesis could be proven with reference to the work of B.B. King alone, a guitarist whose strong bending, vibrato and unique tone make the electric guitar sing in a form no other instrument can equal. This number is an obvious choice, with the imaginative coup of strings in the background accentuating the melancholic musings of King’s guitar.

6. Kevin Ayers, ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’, guitarist: Steve Hillage (1973)

The late Kevin Ayers had a keen eye for musical talent, and attracted a number of brilliant guitarists who tended to shun the mainstream to accompany his whimsically radical songs, evidenced by two of his numbers appearing on this list. Steve Hillage’s exhilarating guitar breaks on ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ counterpoint Ayers’ miserabilist theme, perfectly illustrating the song’s fatalistic optimism.

5. The Coasters, ‘I’m a Hog for You Baby’, guitarist: Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker (1958)

This is perhaps the boldest, most imaginative guitar solo of them all – Mickey Baker’s one repeated note at the heart of this typically sassy Lieber and Stoller composition. How did he come up with the idea? How could the song be accompanied in any other way? Acknowledgments also to Dr Feelgood’s version of the song with Wilko Johnson applying variations on the repeated note theme, shown in this sensational YouTube clip.

4. Slapp Happy/Henry Cow, ‘Strayed’, guitarist: Fred Frith (1975)

Here’s Frith himself, showing how to work a guitar solo within the confines of a relatively conventional song. The unlikely combination of the wry pop of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow’s austere experimentation yielded this chirpy number with an echo-ey, sharp, earthy, almost parodic solo from Frith that, brief as it is, manages to sound both familiar and yet not quite like any other guitar solo you ever heard.

3. Bob Dylan, ‘Tombstone Blues’, guitarist: Mike Bloomfield (1965)

Strictly speaking this is several guitar solos, and each so brief that there ought to be no space for the expression of an idea that the solo is meant to represent. But Mike Bloomfield squeezes in so much concentrated ingenuity into this up-tempo number, providing both relief and commentary on the rapid outpouring of surreal, insistent imagery. The inspiration for a thousand guitar solos that were to follow.

2. The Only Ones, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, guitarist: John Perry (1978)

This is the most conventional of the ten choices, and in a way it epitomises what the standard guitar solo can be. The Only Ones’ new wave pop number with its mixture of romanticism and space fantasy soars into the heavens with John Perry’s inter-galactic solo. The ultimate guitar solo statement, and perhaps the end of a musical era – it’s the most recent solo on this list.

1. Kevin Ayers, ‘Whatevershebringswesing’, guitarist: Mike Oldfield (1971)

I’m not a fan of Mike Oldfield, at least not Mike Oldfield solo. But when he played with others and was a teenager (he was just eighteen when this recording was made) then his original genius is clear. Another example of Kevin Ayers’ sharp eye for talent, Oldfield provides the solo (and the bass too, I think) for this languid number which doesn’t initially appear that it is going to be anything exceptional, but then the guitar bursts into song. It is not flashy, there are no pyrotechnics for their own sake – it simply finds all the right notes, bends them where it needs to, and shows such invention and good taste. Modest, wistful, earthbound yet soaring, rather English in tone, as idiosyncratic as the human voice itself.

(with apologies to Lou Reed, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Bill Frisell, Duane Allman, Richard Thompson, Ollie Halsall and all those others who didn’t quite make the cut)


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Joyce, film and metaphor

On July 19, 2014, in Film, Literature, by Luke McKernan


Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

I recently watched the Richard Linklater trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which trace the romance over nineteen years between Céline (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke). They are much loved films and have been much discussed, and all I need to say about what I thought of them in general is that the first was very good, the second looked a bit rushed, and the third was better than the second.

But one aspect of the trilogy intrigued me, and that was the connection to the works of James Joyce. The first film, Before Sunrise (1994), takes place on June 16th (the date is specifically referenced in the film), which is the day on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set (‘Bloomsday’). Before Sunrise takes place on a single day and involves the traversing of a city, substituting Vienna for Dublin. Joyce chose the date 16 June 1904 as the setting for Ulysses as it was the first day that he stepped out with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and the accidental meeting of Céline and Jesse (who tells her that his real name is James), and the romance that then follows, consciously echoes this. And, just to add to the associations, while at university James Joyce translated a play by the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann – its title, Vor Sonnenaufgang, or Before Sunrise.

It does look like Linklater read James Joyce’s biography around the time that he first conceived of the film: the young man touring Europe on his way to becoming an author, with the guiding point of his imaginative and personal life being that crucial day when he met up with Céline/Nora. The film, as with the novel, is about a life in a day. And this idea continues with its successors.


Ethan Hawke answering questions in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004), the sequel which takes place nine years later, opens with Jesse giving a presentation on a novel he has written (based on his meeting with Céline, who comes to the reading, thus triggering the romance once again). It’s at Shakespeare & Company, a celebrated bookshop on the Left Bank in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Company, which was run by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, was located at the 6th arrondissement; the present shop is in the 5th arrondissement, and was named in honour of Beach’s shop. James Joyce visited the original shop regularly, and it was Shakespeare and Company that published Ulysses in 1922.

So the Joycean connection is continued, but it is the third film, Before Midnight (2013), that is the most intriguingly if obscurely Joycean in theme. Jesse and Céline are now a couple with two children, and are holidaying in Greece. Greece is the home of the Homeric myths, of course, but the specific Joycean reference occurs when Céline recalls a black-and-white film from her teenage years which had a powerful impact on her, particularly a scene in which a couple visit Pompeii and see the bodies mummified by the volcanic explosion. She doesn’t name the film, but it is Viaggio in Italia (1954), or Voyage to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s film about a couple’s sterile marriage, the couple being played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders.

Céline and Jesse are similarly becalmed, and that might be all there is to the subtle referencing of Rossellini’s film. But Voyage to Italy is also loosely based on James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, the tale of a seemingly happy marriage troubled by lingering thoughts about the past. It’s not a scene-for-scene remake; rather it is a loose homage, with a specific echo when Bergman’s character recalls a boy who may have died for love of her, just as Gretta Conroy does in Joyce’s story. It is a reference point for those who want to think more deeply about the film, though just in case you have missed the point there are the names of Sanders and Bergman’s characters: Mr and Mrs Joyce.


Before Midnight, at the point where Julie Delpy’s character recalls seeing Voyage to Italy

How much further can we play this game? Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt, is partly an homage to Voyage to Italy, being as it is the story of an estranged husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot) in Italy. Much of the drama concerns the production of a film of Homer’s Odyssey aka Ulysses.

Literary films are too often produced, and subsequently critiqued, as facsimiles of what appears on the printed page, the plain conversion of a narrative from book to screen, with all of your favourite scenes and characters intact, or so you hope. This is a very narrow way of looking at literary adaptation. What is far more interesting is the oblique reference, the quoting of particular scenes, the echoing of themes, the suggestion of a connection to enrich appreciation. I have had a lot to do with Shakespeare on film in my time, and one thing I’ve been keen to promote is how a Shakespeare film can be just as much one with sly references to the plays as the plain transference of stage text to screen. It is just the case with other writers.

Back in 1995 I co-programmed a season of James Joyce films at the National Film Theatre with Phil Crossley. We put our programme together in Joycean spirit. We included obvious titles like Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake, John Huston’s The Dead, and television plays based on Joyce’s work, including the little-known BBC play, Bloomsday (1964), based on Ulysses. We had a special programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta cinema in Dublin, which Joyce briefly managed at the end of 1909. But we also showed Voyage to Italy and Le Mépris, and then had much fun including Groundhog Day, whose theme of a man caught in an eternal daily round might be seen to have Joycean echoes, but chiefly we chose it because Groundhog Day is February 2nd, which was Joyce’s birthday.

I wish we had been bolder. I wanted us to include The Producers (1968), simply because Gene Wilder’s character is called Leo Bloom, the same as Joyce’s hero. That didn’t seem to be connection enough, but later someone pointed out to me that Wilder’s co-star, Zero Mostel had achieved great success in 1957 playing Leopold Bloom in the play Ulysses in Nighttown. We really should have included it in the programme.

Others have played at this game. In the collection edited by John McCourt, Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce and Cinema (2010), to which I made a contribution or two on the Volta cinema, American writer Jesse Myers argues for the Joycean-ness of The Producers, American Beauty and The Departed, as well as pointing out metaphorical references to Joyce in The Third Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Annie Hall and several more.

Metaphor matters more than adaptation. The film that tries to reproduce a novel merely creates a surface impression, and a body of critical work unpicking differences between screen and source text which is, if not futile, then certainly wildly overdone. It is the signposting of references to literary works in films (and vice versa) that delights the imagination that much more, and breaks down the barriers between one artistic form and another. It is the knowing transference of ideas, keeping them eternal.

Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is more subtly and rewardingly Joycean than any literal transcription of his work to the screen. Whether Linklater knew of Rossellini’s referencing of ‘The Dead’ in Voyage to Italy I don’t know, but I suspect so. There had to be a place for Joyce somewhere, to complete the odyssey.

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Brief lives

On July 13, 2014, in People, Shakespeare, by Luke McKernan


George Pearson (left, from and Albert Smith

I have begun writing the lives of two people. I have been given 1,000 words in which to encapsulate the achievements, character and significance of two filmmakers, George Pearson and Albert E. Smith. It’s a commission from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for which I have written several such short biographies already, on Arthur Pearson (newspaper publisher), filmmakers G.B. Samuelson, Walter Haggar, Charles Urban, Percy Smith, and film archivist Ernest Lindgren. Some are hack work; some I’m quite pleased with (the piece on Lindgren probably hits the mark best).

I picked Pearson and Smith from the list of candidates awaiting authors because I know something of both, know where the main sources are, and admire them both. George Pearson was a British film director at his height in the 1920s, whose work has a distinctive and special charm, an expression of the character that comes through in his delightful autobiography Flashback. Smith was born not far from me (his family came from Faversham), and went from being a magician to an early film mogul with the Vitagraph Company of America. He was a savvy operator who produced a singularly misleading memoir, Two Reels and a Crank, which I shall be using only with the greatest caution. I’ve also written a short account of his life before now.

So I start out by exploring the basics: the published memoirs; the surviving papers; the family history sources with census records, birth, marriage and death certificates; the wills and probate records; the online newspaper archives; and, yes, even checking their names on web searches to see what clues might emerge. Then will follow visits to archives and libraries to check film trade papers, personal papers, histories, biographies, and maybe some film viewing too. I will build up chronologies, filmographies and family trees. As required by the ODNB, I will identify film, sound and pictorial records of the two men, where these can be found.

Having amassed all this information, I must boil it down into 1,000 words. There is a scale of word-length according to the perceived importance of these figures, and neither merits the extended entries of a major artist, politician or other public notable. I deal in minor figures.

But how can a life be encapsulated in so short a space? What is one capturing? The art of the dictionary of biography, the encyclopedia entry or obituary is to mix the essential with the memorable. One must record the expected highlights, suggest something of the character, thrown in an anecdote or two, and create a summary judgement. That summary judgement, which is so important, is generally your final paragraph (though it may be followed by standard stuff such as death and family details, depending on the conventions of the publication for which you are writing). It is the estimation of a life in three or four lines. It says that we leave behind our works and other achievements, but who we really were can be – and may be should be – rounded up in a few, hopefully well-chosen words from a stranger.

That ‘stranger’ element is key. The biography long or small written by someone who knew their subject has a different quality, one which almost says I know better of this person than you the reader ever will. The professional biographer who does not know their subject personally, most often because the subject is an historical one, has a different quality too. They have spent enough time with the subject to become a close acquaintance of sorts, exuding an authority bred of supposed intimacy and professional know-how. We who write brief lives are of a different kind.

John_AubreyBrief Lives is the name given to a collection of short biographies collected by the British antiquarian John Aubrey (left) at the end of the seventeenth century. Some finished, some a collection of notes awaiting completion, they were never published in his lifetime, and only edited and made public in the nineteenth century in various expurgated forms. He started out on his task at the behest of Oxford scholar Anthony Wood, who was producing a volumes of lives of those who had studied at the university. Aubrey therefore gathered evidence that the ill-tempered and ungrateful Wood could then turn into a finished product, but having handed over his rough texts to Wood, he then carried on with collecting lives on his own account.

Aubrey loved truth and he loved anecdote. He applied his antiquarian passion to the collecting of evidence, in the spirit of the scientific empiricism of the seventeenth century that that gradually overturning the myth, magic and received wisdom of past ages. He sought out eye-witness testimony, and applied his own knowledge of a subject wherever possible. He did not greatly discriminate between the observed and the reported, and that has meant that his Lives have been criticised for their occasional credulousness, but it is what they tell us of a life that is so important. Aubrey captured people as they had been remembered, or as they might be remembered.

This is some of his life of the lawyer Walter Rumsey (1584-1660):

He was an ingeniose man, and had a philosophicall head; he was most curious for graffing, inoculating, and planting, and ponds. If he had any old dead plumbe-tree, or apple-tree, he lett them stand, and planted vines at the bottome, and lett them climbe up, and they would beare very well.

He was one of my councell in my law-suites in Breconshire about the entaile. He had a kindnesse for me and invited me to his house, and told me a great many fine things, both naturall and antiquarian.

He was very facetious, and a good musitian, playd on the organ and lute. He could compose.

He was much troubled with flegme, and being so one winter at the court at Ludlowe (where he was one of the councesellours), sitting by the fire, spitting and spawling, he tooke a fine tender sprig, and tied a ragge at the end, and conceited he might putt it downe his throate, and fetch-up the flegme, and he did so. Afterwards he made this instrument of whale-bone. I have oftentimes seen him use it. I could never make it goe downe my throat but for those that can ’tis a most incomparable engine. If troubled with the wind it cures you immediately.

Here is a life – or part of a life – revealed through those small details which made the person memorable. The entry on Rumsey notes his legal achievements, but is drawn chiefly to the curiosities of his character. We are told enough of Rumsey’s career to understand why he merits appearing in this collection, but then he is drawn to the life as lived. We can see Rumsey fussing about in his garden, receiving guests cheerfully, and worrying continually about his health. In Aubrey’s pages, he is fussing, conversing and worrying still, into eternity.

Aubrey’s notes on William Shakespeare are valuable because they record impressions people had of him, or had heard reported of him, that would otherwise have been lost and which contribute significantly to the portrait we have of the man. It is thanks to Aubrey that he know that Shakespeare was believed to understand Latin “pretty well”, that he had been “in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey”, and that “he was want to goe to his native countrey [i.e. Stratford] once a yeare”. Maybe true, maybe not. He records what we know to be certain false reports, such as the intelligence that Shakespeare was the son of a butcher, but what is important is that he noted what he found, not what he expected to find. Earlier biographers moralised, fitting their subjects into a framework from which lessons should be drawn. Aubrey discovers.

What I like most about Aubrey, however, is his title: Brief Lives (his actual title for the collection was Schediasmata: Brief Lives – ‘schediasmata’ means ‘rough notes’). These are not lives which can only be championed in weighty volumes. These are not only the lives of the great. They champion brevity. They understand what is memorable, and through that make those people live again. It is a poetic process: the concentrated understanding of what is true.

I have contributed to brief lives beyond writing for the ODNB. Apart from encyclopedia entries and the like, in 1996 I co-edited, with Stephen Herbert, a volume called Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which lives on as an website. The book contained “300 biographies of those who, behind and in front of the camera, played a significant part in creating the phenomenon of moving pictures”. The website has allowed us to add more names, and we continue to do so. The aim of the the book was to be a reference work of value to those studying the first years of cinema, but it also sought to expand the understanding of what cinema was by looking beyond inventors and filmmakers to the subjects of those films (dramatic and actuality), to those who commented on them, exploited them or who were significantly affected by them. It also placed character on a par with technology, and my view of the book was that it was more of a novel than a reference work as such, with a worldwide cast of interconnected characters each of whom had been affected by the phenomenon of motion pictures and found their different lives irrevocably changed by the process.

I knew none of those about whom we wrote personally, and only one or two had been known at the end of the lives to other contributors. We wrote what we could find from the surviving documentary evidence, and leavened this with such traces of character was we could find reported. We composed brief lives.

‘Brief lives’ means not simply lives in brief, but lives of less consequence or scant evidence for which we may only have scraps to suggest to us what someone once was. Aubrey writes of John Spiedell only that “he taught mathematiques in London, and published a booke in quarto named Spiedel’s Geometrical Extractions (London, j 63-), which made young men have a love to geometrie”, and of William Sutton, “came to Ch. Ch. Oxon at eleaven. He wrote much, but printed nothing but a little 8vo against the Papists.” Such things are all that we may leave behind us. Yet it is good to have left something.

Now I must sum up the words to unpick how a schoolmaster made the bold leap to become a film director with a distinctive vision, and how a two-bit magician touring America saw in the invention of motion picture something that would make his fortune. I must get the facts right, but also find the poetry, and the poetry will be in the brevity.