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The Screw May Twist: English National Opera and Gilbert and Sullivan

I have long felt that if the phrase “English National Opera” means anything, it means Gilbert and Sullivan. Their comic operas are as thoroughly English as anything ever written, and have even arguably had a hand in creating what we now think “Englishness” is – including an attitude of irony and mockery towards the idea of Englishness itself.

It surprises me that only now is the company called English National Opera (ENO) producing the most “operatic” of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Yeomen of the Guard. I have not seen their production, so I will not comment on it, though I may mention that as a general rule I prefer Gilbert’s works to be performed as written, unless a change is absolutely necessary (an example of a necessary change is the editing out of the N word from The Mikado, a change which occurred back in the 1940s).

The funding crisis which is engulfing ENO at present and which threatens its existence is scandalous. But it would not have surprised Gilbert too much. He viewed human nature with a critical eye and was clear-sighted and very unsentimental about the attitudes of power towards those below.

This is shown very clearly in The Yeomen of the Guard itself – though the natural human instinct to listen to the music of a song and not its words means that the point is easy to miss. “When our gallant Norman foes”, which is sung by Dame Carruthers, Housekeeper to the Tower of London sometime in the 16th Century, requires close reading. Here it is, along with some necessary dialogue which leads up to it:

PHOEBE…. this wicked Tower, like a cruel giant in a fairy-tale, must be fed with blood, and that blood must be the best and bravest in England, or it’s not good enough for the old Blunderbore.  Ugh!

DAME CARRUTHERS.  Silence, you silly girl; you know not what you say.  I was born in the old keep, and I’ve grown grey in it, and, please God, I shall die and be buried in it; and there’s not a stone in its walls that is not as dear to me as my right hand.

SONG WITH CHORUS – Dame Carruthers and Yeomen

When our gallant Norman foes
Made our merry land their own,
And the Saxons from the Conqueror were flying,
At his bidding it arose,
In its panoply of stone,
A sentinel unliving and undying.
Insensible, I trow,
As a sentinel should be,
Though a queen to save her head should come a-suing,
There’s a legend on its brow
That is eloquent to me,
And it tells of duty done and duty doing.

The screw may twist and the rack may turn,
And men may bleed and men may burn,
O’er London town and its golden hoard
I keep my silent watch and ward!

Within its wall of rock
The flower of the brave
Have perished with a constancy unshaken.
From the dungeon to the block,
From the scaffold to the grave,
Is a journey many gallant hearts have taken.
And the wicked flames may hiss
Round the heroes who have fought
For conscience and for home in all its beauty,
But the grim old fortalice
Takes little heed of aught
That comes not in the measure of its duty.

The screw may twist and the rack may turn,
And men may bleed and men may burn,
O’er London town and its golden hoard
I keep my silent watch and ward!

Dudley Hardy’s poster for an 1897 production of The Yeomen of the Guard.

It’s important to read the lyric in the right way. Dame Carruthers’ response sounds as if it ought to be a rebuttal of Phoebe’s condemnation of the Tower of London (and the power it symbolises) as a bloodthirsty giant devouring its people. But in fact Dame Carruthers is saying something quite different: she says, in essence, that yes, the Tower of London is a cruel beast that cares nothing of humanity. And she adds: that is what I love about it. Gilbert, even here, is being an ironist; and it is important to understand that irony is not always meant to be funny.

In Dame Carruthers’ song, the Tower of London symbolises the “duty” of patriotism to safeguard “London town and its golden hoard”: not the people of London, who may burn at the stake for the sake of “conscience” and “home” for all it cares, but the place itself, and especially the loot of gold that it has acquired by fair means or foul. The emphasis on wealth is important – though easily missed in performance, where an audience’s ears may easily mistake London’s “hoard” of gold for its “horde” of people.

The Yeomen of the Guard casts an unsentimental eye on the British past – not historically accurate in its details, but truthful, I think, in spirit. Power crushes the powerless, including the brave and the noble… and also the weak and the sensitive, as we see in the Jack Point subplot. The fetishising of the importance of the nation’s “golden hoard” over human life itself was something that Gilbert saw with a pitiless eye. ENO might take note of it during its nightly performances of the opera.


Jasper: A Short Story

(I wrote this story in 2017, when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. It was meant as a fierce and rather unsubtle satire on his actions while in that post. However, as none of the editors to whom I sent the story gave any sign of having noticed this, or indeed any sign at all, I don’t know if the satirical intent came across. Anyway, now, with Johnson about to depart from the post of Prime Minister, seems as good a time as any to make it public.)

While we were away, we left Jasper with Uncle Henry. Jasper is our Jack Russell. We flew back on Sunday night, slumped into bed, and slept for twelve hours. We didn’t feel up to going round and collecting him until the following afternoon.

When we arrived, Uncle Henry was out in the garden, shovelling the last of the soil into the hole. “Offal,” he said. “How was Florida?”

“Lovely,” I said. “I hope Jasper has been behaving himself.”

“Oh, he’s been no trouble,” said Uncle Henry.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Do come in and have a drink,” said Uncle Henry.

I looked round as we went in, but I couldn’t see Jasper. “Is he having a nap?” I asked.

“Tea, coffee? Something stronger?”

“Coffee, please. No milk or sugar.” Linda wanted tea. We sat down.

We talked about our holiday for a bit, and Uncle Henry admired our tans. He told us the latest news from the Rotary Club. At last, we got up to leave.

“Anyway,” I said, “we’d better disturb Jasper and let him know we’re back.”

“Pish and tush,” said Uncle Henry. “You can pop in and collect him any time you like.”

“I’d like to have him now,” Linda said. “We’ve missed him.”

Uncle Henry said: “Tell you what, sit yourselves back down and I’ll get you another drink. Whisky and splash?”

“Yes, but–”

“I insist.”

So we sat down again and he went over to the cabinet and measured out a generous portion for me.

“I’m driving,” said Linda. “Just water.”

Uncle Henry got Linda some water and handed us our drinks.

He said: “Jasper is… chin-chin… a lovely little dog. An absolute corker.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip.

“He’s just a bit under the weather, that’s all. Nothing to signify. He’ll be right as rain again in no time.”

Linda set down her water and looked at Uncle Henry. “Where is he? What have you done with him?”

Uncle Henry raised a hand. “There’s really no need to worry,” he said. “The vet’s just giving him the once-over right now. He’ll be back before you’ve noticed he’s gone.”

“But,” Linda said, “we have noticed he’s gone.”

“Ha ha,” said Uncle Henry.

Linda stood up. “Come on,” she said. “Yes, you too, Uncle Henry.”

“Me?” said Uncle Henry.

“You,” said Linda, “are taking us to the vets.”

We went in our car. The journey was a bit tense, but Uncle Henry kept things jolly. “Jasper’s a perky little beggar, isn’t he?” he said. “Many’s the time he’s nipped at my ankles. Bless his little cotton socks. Now I mind the time–”

“Shut up,” said Linda.

“My, my,” said Uncle Henry, giving me a glance.

Uncle Henry directed us there, and we parked up and went in to Reception. He strode up to the desk, bared his teeth, and said: “Ah, young lady, we’d like to see the vet, please.”

The receptionist looked at him without smiling. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked.

“No, we do not. You see–”

“What’s it about?”


“You what?”

“It’s about Jasper, our dog.”

“Jack Russell,” I said.

“Jack, as my nephew so rightly says, Russell. You will recall I brought the little fellow in earlier as he was feeling a wee bit on the peaky side and I was worried. You remember?”


“Well, well, you see a lot of people. Anyway, if we might just, you know, toddle on through and see how little Jasper is getting on, then–”

“We don’t have no Jack Russells here.”

“Oh, piffle, of course you do. I brought him in myself this morning. Now I’m sure if you will just take a look at that absolutely tip-top database of yours–”

She stood up without a word and walked away behind the scenes.

“Courtesy,” Uncle Henry said to me, “is dead.”

Five minutes later, she came back. “I told you,” she said. “We don’t have no Jack Russells. You must’ve been mistaken.”

“Madam,” said Uncle Henry, “I am never mistaken. Check again.”

“We haven’t got none,” she said.

Next, the vet came out. “What’s the problem?” she asked.

We explained what the problem was.

“I spoke to you about it this morning,” said Uncle Henry.

“No, you didn’t,” said the vet. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“But this is absurd,” said Uncle Henry. “I was here this morning. I saw you about Jasper, just as plain as I’m standing here.”

“No, you didn’t. I wasn’t even in this morning.”

Uncle Henry looked at them both with a magnificent disdain. “I have but one word for you, and that is tosh and balderdash. However, if you are going to maintain this unhelpful attitude there is clearly no point in our pursuing the discussion. Come.” He swept out of the surgery, Linda and I following in his wake. The vet and the receptionist stared after us.

Back in the car, Linda asked: “What have you done with him?”

“I told you,” said Uncle Henry. “Jasper is being looked after by the veterinarians. I can’t conceive why they are being so awkward about it.”

“This is ridiculous! Of course they don’t have him.”

“Yes, they do,” said Uncle Henry. “I brought him here myself.”

“They said they don’t, Henry. They said it just now.”

“Oh, don’t take any notice of that. They’ll come round.”


“It’s just their way. Now don’t you distress yourself over this absurd business one second longer. Leave it all to your Uncle Henry.”

“Henry. Jasper wasn’t there. He just wasn’t.”

Uncle Henry looked over at Linda for a while.  “Well,” he said, finally. “Well. I must say I am surprised to see you taking their word over that of your own flesh and blood. However, I am big enough to rise above the slings and arrows. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll wait till you’ve calmed down, and then we’ll sort it all out. Tomorrow.”

So we left it at that.

Linda drove us back to Uncle Henry’s place.

“You must stay for dinner,” said Uncle Henry. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Yes,” Linda said, “it is.”

As soon as we entered the house, Uncle Henry went into the kitchen and shut the door in our faces. “Don’t come in,” he called out to us. “I absolutely forbid you. This is my special treat. My pièce de résistance.” So we stayed in the living room, talking in undertones.

We heard from the kitchen the loud slams of the cleaver on the chopping-board and the rending of flesh. At intervals, the sounds would cease, and Henry would burst in, his apron smeared with blood, and top up our glasses with some choice wine.

At first, we chatted brightly and without cessation, Linda and I. Then, little by little, imperceptibly, pausing more, thinking more, at last we stopped talking, and the silence descended, and we sat, our glasses empty, awaiting the awful moment when Uncle Henry would appear at the door, and announce that dinner was served.

Wodehouse and the Statues

At the time of writing, the Guardian is reporting that Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak “will say” today: “What’s the point in stopping the bulldozers in the green belt if we allow leftwing agitators to take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values?”, going on to refer to “pulling down statues of historic figures” as an example of this.

By the time you read this, it is very likely that the tense will have changed and that he will actually have said the words which the Guardian has mysteriously been able to predict will emerge from his mouth.

They are of course an oblique reference to the watery end of the statue of Bristol’s statue of the eighteenth-century “philanthropist” and slave-trader Edward Colston, which was uprooted and dropped into Bristol Harbour in 2020.

Edward Colston dives into the drink. BBC

The statue of Churchill which stands outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster has also been the target of periodic attack, as when he memorably acquired a green Mohican hairdo and various blood-red splashes.

Punk Churchill. Time Out.

A statue of Margaret Thatcher has been splashed with paint and pelted with eggs. A sculpture made by horrible paedophile Eric Gill which lurks above the main entrance of BBC Broadcasting House has been attacked and seriously damaged.

A certain kind of pundit finds in all this meat for much outrage. For instance, Boris Johnson, erstwhile writer of opinion pieces and part-time Prime Minister, said in 2020: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… To tear [these statues] down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

Of course, an admirer of the works of P.G. Wodehouse such as Johnson will also have found in these events nothing new. Wodehouse’s works are full of attacks on statues. Off the top of my head, I can think of the short story “The Bishop’s Move” collected in Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), in which a Bishop and a Headmaster, invigorated by the energy tonic Buck-U-Uppo, decide to paint a statue pink; the novel Laughing Gas (1937), in which Hollywood child star Joey Cooley paints the nose on a statue of movie mogul T.P. Brinkmeyer red; and the novel Something Fishy (1957), in which Lord Uffenham takes revenge on a sculpture which he dislikes by painting a beard on it. There are probably many others.

But the earliest example in Wodehouse that I know of is also the most pointed and even political. In his school story The Gold Bat (1904), an Irish pupil at Wrykyn named O’Hara becomes incensed at the anti-Irish rhetoric of local mayor Sir Eustace Briggs.

“After breakfast Moriarty came to me with a paper, and showed me what they had been saying about the Irish. There was a letter from the man Briggs on the subject. ‘A very sensible and temperate letter from Sir Eustace Briggs’, they called it, but bedad! if that was a temperate letter, I should like to know what an intemperate one is. Well, we read it through, and Moriarty said to me, ‘Can we let this stay as it is?’ And I said, ‘No. We can’t.’ ‘Well,’ said Moriarty to me, ‘what are we to do about it? I should like to tar and feather the man,’ he said. ‘We can’t do that,’ I said, ‘but why not tar and feather his statue?’ “

The cover of a 1920s edition of Wodehouse’s The Gold Bat

In the event, they can’t find feathers, so they use leaves instead. A report in the Wrykyn Patriot a few days later calls the event a “hooligan outrage” and a “dastardly act”. But the narrator refuses to condemn the outrage, and the end of it all is that the culprits get away with it, with Wodehouse’s evident approval.

Which leads us to a rather interesting paradox. Those who would protect our statues do so in order to protect our culture and heritage. And yet, who symbolises English culture and heritage more than P.G. Wodehouse?

The Right Word

When the invasion was over, the Writer was among the first of those arrested. His barbed words had been a thorn in the Dictator’s flesh for many years.

In fact, he had not been productive for quite some time; but they didn’t know that. Invading armies are rarely up to date.

The cell door slammed behind him. The room was almost bare. On the floor there was a rough mattress with some bedding, and a chamber pot.

He examined the room in some detail. This in all probability was the last place he would know. The Dictator would certainly want him dead, after what he had written, all that time ago.

What was left to him? Hours? Maybe, in the chaos that follows an invasion, they would not think of killing him for a few days. Nothing was certain.

He thought it through quite calmly. If this was the end, he should at least leave something behind him, some message, a final word. The walls were rough, dark brick. After some searching he found in a corner a broken bit of stone. With care, he could scratch marks on the wall with the stone. Yes. When he was gone they would find written on the wall a word, the Writer’s final declaration. Perhaps it would give someone pause, at least for a second. Such things get out, too. Who knows, this word of his might become a rallying cry, a symbol of resistance. No one knew better than he the power of the right word.

He stood facing the wall, the stone in his hand, thinking.

LOVE, he thought.

But no. What cruelties had been committed in the name of love? That was not the word.

JUSTICE? No, no, that was worse. It was “Justice” that had brought him to this cell.

What was the real answer, then, in the face of inhumanity… no, not inhumanity, for conduct like theirs has always been human beings’ badge…. What was the word that would  stand in their way?

After some thought, and with care, he scratched in the wall the single word: KINDNESS.

He stood back and looked at it. It was not perfect, it was slightly to one side of what he meant, but yes, it was near enough.

He paced the cell, glancing at his word every few seconds. If one had to leave behind a last testament, did this really say what had to be said? Was there really no more? After all, he considered, a sentence needs a verb….

Next day, the warder was disturbed in his afternoon nap by the knocking at the cell door and the cheerful calling of the voice. He shambled over, grumbling, and opened the hatch in the door. “What?” he asked.

The Writer’s face was glowing with joy. The walls behind the Writer’s shoulder were covered from floor to ceiling with rough white marks. “What’s this?” he cried.

“Good morning, officer,” said the Writer. “I wonder if I could have another cell? I seem to have used this one up.”

The Last of Sherlock

We’ve been rewatching the four series of Sherlock – the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman broadcast between 2010 and 2017: what has been called a Sherlock for the 21st century.

A Sherlock for the 21st century

More accurately, it might be called a Sherlock for the Cameron years. Certainly, the first series has a sort of quaint nostalgic charm. It exudes such a wonderful confidence, a confidence born of the knowledge that London is just as successful, bustling and iconic as it ever was in Conan Doyle’s day. (It may be remembered that Dr Watson described London in A Study in Scarlet as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”; but, oddly enough, even these words seem to add to the charm.) This was the nascent Olympic city of London, of money, banks, the Eye, Black Cabs, of an unimaginative but steadfastly honest police force: a world long gone now, if it ever really existed.

The strength and failing of Sherlock was its creative adventurousness. It never quite became formulaic, because the formula changed each time; the writers took such great pleasure in wrongfooting the viewer in every episode. What is real and what is imagined? What is what it seems? (Ah, nothing, of course.) The distinction between what is imagined in the head and what is “actually” happening in the “real world” was often blurred. The dead are alive. What seems to be one character is really another. And so on and so forth. Because the point of the series is to treat all its crimes and adventures as games. (What is a game? Is a game “real”? Never mind all that – the game is on!)

But because each episode was an experiment, some of them don’t work. That’s what happens, of course, when creativity takes risks. The risk is of failure, and some do fail. But at its best, Sherlock is amazing.

From the recent viewing, I would rank as the best of them the episode in Series 3 called “The Sign of Three” – the one set at and around John Watson’s wedding. It was, to my mind, a perfect mixture of darkness and light, of mystery, misdirection and comedy. The depiction of John’s stag do must be the most deliriously funny sequence in any of the episodes.

John Watson and Sherlock Holmes smashed out of their skulls on about three pints each

But something went awry between the end of series 3 and the start of series 4. “The Abominable Bride”, the one-off Christmas episode in which the characters are transposed to Victorian times, had a weird hallucinogenic edge; this was not new to the series, of course, but was here exaggerated to a wearisome degree. This tone reappeared in series 4. We gained in melodrama what we lost in comedy; a poor exchange.

At its best, Sherlock combined a heightened atmosphere with a connection with reality (reality here often being symbolised by the Mrs Hudson of Una Stubbs.)

Mrs Hudson keeps Sherlock in line

Series 4, broadcast in 2017, shows a world in the process of deliquescing. A prominent celebrity is a serial killer in plain sight. John’s wife dies violently, almost destroying his relationship with Sherlock. All is in decay. The settings of the last episode, “The Final Problem”, include a burned-out house, an asylum, and various collapsing fake sets, mostly murky in appearance and lighting. 221B Baker Street, the solid rock upon which the series is founded, is blown apart. This is a post-Brexit world, and the solidity of Series 1 is long gone.

We often lose our footing in the real world too; “The Final Problem” is a James-Bondish confection mostly set in an unreal remote castle/asylum, and, significantly, Mrs Hudson is largely absent. We go into grim depths, in which life is expendable and almost meaningless. One character blows his own head off because John and Mycroft refuse to do it, during one of the villain’s tests. (This breaks a fundamental Hitchcock rule, that suspense consists in the danger of a bomb exploding, and not in the bomb actually doing so.) Layers of lies are applied and then stripped back, leaving the viewer sore and weary. I kept thinking of the wise words of the immortal Ted Bovis: “Where’s your reality?” Without reality, all this sound and fury means nothing.

I gather there is still talk of a further series of Sherlock. I doubt it will happen. There are practical problems, and too much of the set-up has been tested to destruction. (I would have loved to see an episode showing John and Sherlock during lockdown, but obviously that’s not going to happen now.)

But all the same, at its best, what fun it was!

Is the game on?

Leo Baxendale and the Badtime Bedtime Books

I first got to know the name Leo Baxendale in 1976 when I was a small boy, and our parents bought for me and my brother (I think technically for my brother alone, but you know how it is) a cartoon book called Willy the Kid. It was anarchic, rude, mischievous, and very funny. A second book came out the following year, with a promise of being an annual for the foreseeable future, but after that it seemed to disappear. (In fact, there was a third book, but it hardly got any distribution at all and I only learned about it a couple of years ago. I have a copy; it’s meagre fare after the first two.)

Baxendale – a stalwart of The Beano, Wham and other comics from the 1950s onward, creator of the Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx and others – had taken a conscious decision in the 1970s to develop a new, more “crazy” style. He explained in his autobiography A Very Funny Business (1978):

“It seemed to me that the world had changed out of all recognition during my time in comics, and that I had changed with it. My own 22 years in comics had coincided exactly with the growth and dominance of television. From my experience, children of comic-reading age watch telly right through the evening. With their standards of humour set by Monty Python, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers and Porridge, children must find today’s comics pretty slow stuff…. I was equally convinced that the times had changed, that I had changed, children had changed, and that the humour in comics should change. I was sure that my ideas were right, but I knew that I had to check. I intended to use the Bad Time Bed Time Book as a test bed.”

These Badtime Bedtime Books were inserts in a new comic called Monster Fun, founded in 1975. The BBBs were funny-scary stories intended to be read by children in bed under the covers:

I am pretty sure we must have read Monster Fun from the beginning, though I don’t remember much about it, except for a rubber skeleton which came with one of the early issues. Recently buying copies of some of the BBBs, they came to me as if completely new. Their freewheeling silliness is wonderful, and they have an undercurrent of subversion which is irresistible:

It would be easy enough to trace the influence of Monty Python, Porridge and the others in these little books. They mock authority, and even overturn the rules of comics, with complete disregard… as in the moment in “Jack and the Beans in tomato sauce Stalk” when a character tells a cow: “You can’t jump over the moon! It’s 250,976 miles seven feet two inches away!” and suddenly:

Upon which we are given an immediate and convincing explanation of exactly how the fact was checked:

There’s lots of stuff I’d like to say about the BBBs, too much, I think, for one blog. Sometimes they really do have the feel of Monty Python for kids, in comic form. They can be genuinely scary on occasion (some have a creepy atmosphere which also gets into the Willy the Kid books). I like the recurring header showing a small boy in bed while terrible things happen around him, and this one genuinely reflects how I feel many mornings:

You can read lots more about the BBBs here.

Being funny is not the same as being happy

Well, it isn’t, is it? It seems so obvious that it isn’t worth saying; the “tears of a clown” thing is a very old cliché indeed. And yet it’s something that still causes a lot of misunderstanding.

Take, for instance, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1946. The last movement is fast, bright, manic music, exciting and, yes, funny too; but is it “happy”? The writers of sleeve notes seem to think so: two which I have to hand refer to its “festive mood” leading to a “jubilant close”, and to how “Prokofiev seems to look into a bright and positive future.” And yet, surely, its laughter is harsh and mocking; what “bright and positive future” is to be found here?

The last movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Belgian Broadcasting Orchestra conducted by Leopold Hager

Prokofiev’s compatriot Dmitry Shostakovich has sometimes been misunderstood in the same way. The raucous humour of much of his music is hard for some to swallow; in Soviet Russia, amidst so much suffering and fear and oppression, how dare he be funny? But of course that is precisely the point. Shostakovich lived in daily (and nightly) fear of the knock on the door which might take him away for ever, simply because, try as he might, his music came out its own way, which was not always the way the authorities wanted it. He was a shy, nervous man, hating the limelight; but there was a tough core too which meant that in certain circumstances he would never back down. Humour was to him a defence, something that allowed him to tell a measure of the truth, to keep a certain integrity. (Because the point of a joke is that it is a truth and also at the same time a lie; it is slippery and it is unprovable.)

His Ninth Symphony (1945) is a case in point – written in the shadow of authorities expecting from him an official celebration of victory in war, something grand and heroic on the lines of Beethoven’s massive Ninth. What he gave them instead was short (only about 25 minutes long), a chamber symphony full of perky tunes and musical jokes: a pulling-away of the chair from official expectation. True, the last movement could be read as a kind of triumphal march, but if so it is one which gets comically faster and faster like a film played at the wrong speed until the entire procession is running manically and falling over its feet.

Last movement of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

Shostakovich was able at the time to pretend the symphony was merely an expression of the Soviet citizen’s joy at victory in war – a useful result of the ambiguity of humour. But there were those who were not convinced, and it did not save him from severe official criticism a couple of years later.

I’ve a feeling that some, even now, consider this symphony a mistake, or at any rate something which has to be explained away: Oh, he wasn’t really being funny, that’s a cover, it’s actually a tragic symphony in disguise – because they feel, at some level, that being funny is not a proper response in a tragic situation.

But humour and comedy (they’re not quite the same thing, but that’s a discussion for another time) are, or can be, defences in an unhappy situation. Sometimes they can be the only remaining weapon. When Shostakovich, in his 13th Symphony, set a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko entitled “Humour”, he was attesting to its power against oppression:

Tsars, Kings, Emperors,
sovereigns of all the earth,
have commanded many a parade,
but they could not command humour.

It is the voice of an ordinary person looking round and saying: “But none of this makes the slightest bit of sense!” It is the voice of discontent. Comedy is not the voice of someone saying how good things are, but, often, the precise opposite. Fawlty Towers for instance may be very funny, but it is certainly not happy.

As usual, there are things I want to say in this blog which, looking at it now, I see won’t quite fit. For instance, I wanted to go on to discuss the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and how certain scholars take it as read that the operas are an expression of support for the status quo – simply because they completely misunderstand the operas’ consistently ironic humour. But that’s for another time.

Maybe a good concluding thought would go something like this. Some comedy is genuinely happy – Wodehouse, for instance. It leaves the reader in a good mood as if in truth God were in his heaven and all right with the world. Perhaps Wodehouse himself really was that rarest of things, a genuinely happy person. But much more commonly comedy, expressing the world’s absurdity, comes from an unhappy, or at least discontented, place. And it may be useful to point out one last thing: comedy may make you laugh. But, if the truth behind the laugh also hits home, it won’t necessarily make you happy.

Reading Isn’t Believing

Last year, during lockdown, I wrote a short novel. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a publisher for it. I’m still trying.

Writing (I mean the creative sort) has been my main ambition and motivation for most of my life. I have written plays that have been performed in my home town without disaster. However, the problem with plays is that when they’ve been performed they just disappear. You can’t publish the scripts; who would read them? They remain only as a memory, and probably a dim one.

So I’ve been trying my hand at something more permanent: stories meant to be printed. They haven’t been printed yet, but they will be. There are a lot of mugs out there, and one of them is bound to come across my stuff sooner or later and fall into my trap.

The novel, of course, is my chef d’oeuvre, not to mention my pièce de résistance and so on and so forth. I’ve put into it everything I know, a depressingly feeble crop but, such as it is, my own.

The process of revising it and trying to sell it to a sceptical publishing world has made me think, perhaps more closely than ever before, about my writing and what it means. After all, if I am to persuade the industry that my handful of shrivelled words is worth the purchase, it’s important to be able to articulate why it is that I write as I do.

For me, writing is a way of speaking. I don’t speak well with my mouth. In moments of stress the words clog, and in addition I pause before speaking, which some people take as a signal to speak instead of me. Writing is to me freedom.

I think people waste words. I prefer to write sparingly, which makes for a short book. Another thing that makes for a short book is the stupidity of my mind; I can only hold a fairly simple story in my head, without all the twists and surprises and sub-sub-plots that make for a proper narrative. These, then, are the main reasons my novel is a short one.

Publishers don’t like short novels (which they sniffily call “novellas”). But I do, and they’re the only kind of novel that I’ll ever be able to write. So, while knowing that I am making things difficult for myself, I have no option but to carry on in my quest for a publisher prepared to look at my short novel and perhaps to like it.

Another problem, I think, is that writers writing in the style I favour (the fantastical and the satiric) tend to be what is known as “dark”: that is, enamoured of death and suffering in what sometimes seems a genuinely horrible way. Unfortunately, I can only write of characters when I sympathise with them, and in consequence I can’t bear to make them suffer too much. So in my book I’ve given them a happy ending – a terrible anachronism. What publisher would look at such a thing?

There’s something else as well. I seem to have an approach to writing which really belongs in the past.

I preface my novel with a note, which states: “Everything in this book is wrong.” This is not as flippant as it sounds. It was actually the talisman which enabled me to write the book at all. What it means is: don’t tell me the events in this book couldn’t happen, because I know they couldn’t. It’s a tissue of the impossible from start to finish. I know nothing of the world (I once tweeted: “I don’t write stories about real life, because I’ve never been there”) and if I tried to write about it I know I would get it wrong.

What is more, while my opinions are all of the most wishy-washy liberal sort, I am sure the reader would disagree with at least some of them. Sometimes they irritate even me.

But to me, reading is not a process of absorbing correct things. Every writer I admire gets it wrong somewhere. G K Chesterton, for example, is capable of going from the most sublime wisdom and poetry to the cheapest racism and antisemitism in the space of a phrase. W S Gilbert sometimes has an edge of hard intolerance. Even the great Wodehouse has his bad moments. But that doesn’t mean I have to boycott them. I read them and I take from them what is good, and I leave the rest on the side of my plate.

All I ask is that readers treat my words in the same way.

But I don’t know if that is the right way to read today. It seems sometimes as if one is expected to throw out the good parts along with the bad, and to read only the things that one has been assured are 100% correct. This means that one’s reading can therefore, with safety, be absolutely uncritical.

I can’t guarantee that my book is of that sort; I just can’t. Of course I try my best; but creativity being what it is, how can I be sure that the demons that lurk haven’t also had their say? In fact, I’m pretty sure that they have, sometimes, in the spaces between the words. That is perhaps my biggest worry about my book. And that is really why I needed to tell the reader right from the start that everything I had written was wrong. It was the only way to signal, clearly and unambiguously, the right way of reading me.

As I said right at the beginning: reading isn’t believing.

The Modernity of “Melincourt”

“How can I seriously call myself an enemy to slavery, while I indulge in in the luxuries that slavery acquires? How can the consumer of sugar pretend to throw on the grower of it the exclusive burden of their participated criminality?… If every individual in this kingdom, who is truly and conscientiously an enemy to the slave-trade, would subject himself to so very trivial a privation as abstinence from colonial produce, I consider that a mortal blow would be immediately struck at the roots of that iniquitous system.”

The speaker is a certain Mr Sylvan Forester, and the speech comes from an almost unknown satirical novel published in 1817 entitled Melincourt; or, Sir Oran Haut-ton and written by Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), better known for other novels such as Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey and Gryll Grange. (For context, Melincourt was published in the same year as Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion.)

Thomas Love Peacock in 1857

The debate which Mr Sylvan Forester has with his guest Sir Telegraph Paxarett (Peacock never held back when naming his characters) on the question of whether one should take sugar with one’s tea is conducted seriously on both sides and sounds startlingly modern today; especially in these times when debates around the slave trade continue to rage.

Melincourt, like so many of Peacock’s works, is a discussion-novel. There is much dialogue, set out on the page like a play, touching on various current and forward-looking topics. The reader looking for tight plotting and exciting action will be largely disappointed, though there are some episodes crazy enough in their events to satisfy anyone. I’m writing about it here because I seriously believe this book deserves to be easily available to us right now in a major new edition from, say, Oxford or Penguin. Its humour and wit are for all ages, while its discussion of certain issues, covering such matters as feminism, ethical living, political corruption, could have been made for today. That it appears to be completely out of print and forgotten is, to me, quite inexplicable.

The tale concerns a certain Anthelia Melincourt, who, “at the age of twenty-one, was mistress of herself and of ten thousand a year, and of a very ancient and venerable castle in one of the wildest valleys of Westmoreland.” “Her mother died in giving her birth. Her father, Sir Henry Melincourt, a man of great acquirements, … devoted himself in solitude to the cultivation of his daughter’s understanding; for he was one of those who maintained the heretical notion that women are, or at least may be, rational beings; though, from the great pains usually taken in what is called education to make them otherwise, there are unfortunately very few examples to warrant the truth of the theory.” Anthelia grows up to be intelligent and independent-minded: “the spirit of mountain liberty diffused itself through the whole tenor of her feelings.”

The main strand of the story concerns Anthelia’s choice of a husband, though there are many diversions on the way. The most extraordinary of these is surely the introduction of Sir Oran Haut-ton, an orangutan from Angola who has been brought to England and now lives with Mr Sylvan Forester, clothed and treated in all respects as a human being. He plays the flute and the French horn, has great emotional sensitivity and courage, and at various points in the story intervenes to save the day. The effect is curiously joyous; as if Terry Pratchett’s Librarian had travelled through a glitch in space-time into a Jane Austen novel.

(Peacock is at pains to justify his portrayal of Sir Oran by means of footnotes which provide extensive quotations from works detailing the lives and habits of orangutans; it is perhaps important to say that, as far as I can see, Peacock does not intend any kind of racist analogy.)

Sir Oran Haut-Ton: an illustration by F.H. Townsend from an 1896 edition of the novel

Perhaps the most pointed episode in the novel concerns the election in the borough of Onevote, consisting of a delapidated farm in the middle of a heath, occupied by a solitary voter. (There stands, not far off, “the large and populous city of Novote…. The city contained fifty thousand inhabitants, and had no representative in the Honourable House, the deficiency being virtually supplied by the two members for Onevote”.) In this election, two unopposed candidates are proposed: a Mr Simon Sarcastic, and Sir Oran Haut-ton. The whole process is a boozy farce, accompanied by cheering crowds, mocking speeches, and much beer-drinking. “Mr Christopher Corporate held up both his hands, with his tankard in one, and his pipe in the other; and neither poll nor scrutiny being demanded, the two candidates were pronounced duly elected as representatives of the ancient and honourable borough of Onevote.”

The toasting of Mr Christopher Corporate (illustration by F.H. Townsend)

Much later, in 1856, Peacock later wrote a new Preface to the book, noting some of the things that had changed (“Beards disfigure the face, and tobacco poisons the air, in a degree not then imagined”) and, too, some of the things that had not: “The boroughs of Onevote and Threevotes have been extinguished: but there remain boroughs of Fewvotes, in which Sir Oran Haut-ton might still find a free and enlightened constituency.”

All What Jazz: The Shostakovich Jazz Suite that Never Was

It’s just one of those extremely trivial things that nevertheless irritate me beyond all measure.

As is well known, the great Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote two Jazz Suites: the first in 1934 and the second in 1938. They became well known after Decca released a “Jazz Album” of this music in 1993, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra being conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and especially when Stanley Kubrick used “Waltz 2” from the apparent Jazz Suite No.2 in his 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.

Shostakovich at work

I’m not here to discuss the First Jazz Suite, a great little sequence of music which I love very much. It is the Second Jazz Suite which is my concern, because what was recorded on the Chailly Jazz Album was not in fact the Second Jazz Suite at all but something quite different.

According to the musicologist Gerard McBurney, the score of the original Second Jazz Suite was lost in the 1940s. What turns up on the Chailly album is a confection more properly called the Suite for Variety Orchestra.

This suite of eight movements seems to be largely derived from Shostakovich’s film music from the 1940s and 1950s including The Adventures of Korzinkina (1940), The Gadfly (1955) and The First Echelon (1956). It is from this last film that the famous Waltz derives:

Shostakovich, waltz №2, original performance – YouTube

As such, it is clear that it is impossible for this Suite to be the one composed by Shostakovich in 1938.

This compilation of his later music was possibly made by another hand, perhaps his pupil Lev Atovmyan, a man who in his time was entrusted by Shostakovich to the task of compiling suites of music from his films and other confections, in the process sanding off the angles and often inventing his own development sections to make them suitable for concert performance. To my ear, at any rate, the Suite for Variety Orchestra has something of an Atovmyanian sound to it.

When excerpts from the Suite for Variety Orchestra are broadcast, it is still often announced as the Second Jazz Suite (quite wrongly), leading almost inevitably to a humorous grumble from the presenter that the style hasn’t anything much to do with jazz. This is of course a totally unfair criticism of Shostakovich as he never called it jazz in the first place.

The piano score of the original Jazz Suite No.2 was rediscovered by musicologist Manashir Yakubov in the late 1990s, revealing a suite of three movements: Scherzo, Berceuse and Serenade. These were orchestrated by Gerard McBurney and the result was premiered at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2000:

Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 – Dmitri Shostakovich – YouTube

Oddly, this very appealing piece seems to have dropped out of sight and there is only one commercial recording that I am aware of, here.

As I fully realise, none of the above is of any importance whatsoever.