Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Doctor Gives a Heavy Stroke

'I myself am of opinion,' declares Samuel Johnson to the assembled company, 'that more influence has been ascribed to "The Beggar's Opera" than it in reality ever had; for I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation. At the same time I do not deny that it may have some influence, by making the character of a rogue familiar, and in some degree pleasing.' Then collecting himself, as it were, to give a heavy stroke: 'There is in it such a labefectation of all principles, as may be injurious to morality.'
 While he pronounced this response, we sat in a comical sort of restraint, smothering a laugh, which we were afraid might burst out...'
 A heavy stroke indeed, 'labefactation'. Johnson seems to have coined it for the occasion, taking the already obscure word 'labefaction' and making of it something still more crushingly impressive. The meaning is straightforward enough: a weakening or loosening, tending to downfall (from labare, to fall or totter, with facere, to make). There's a verb, equally obscure – to 'labefy'.
  Boswell himself believed there was real moral danger in The Beggar's Opera, with its highly attractive picture of the gaiety and heroism of an amoral rogue – but the young Scotsman was no doubt rather more prone to moral labefaction than the good Doctor.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Birthday Boy

Malcolm John Rebennack, better known as Dr John, achieves his 77th birthday today. In his time he's done the lot (including serving time in jail and managing to kick a heroin habit) and has been one of the big musical talents of his generation, as singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, producer, session man and New Orleans icon. As Dr John the Night Tripper, his flamboyant mix of New Orleans rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock was part of the soundtrack of my misspent youth – but rather than revisit the music of that phase, I'd sooner recall the Doc's triumphant appearance in The Last Waltz. What a voice – like Randy Newman crossed with Leon Russell and spiced with New Orleans magic. A handy pianist too...

Monday, 20 November 2017

'The one shall be taken...'


This unusual memorial tablet is in the church of St Andrew, Cubley, in Derbyshire. It lists not only those who died in the Great War ('The one shall be taken') but also those who survived ('and the other left'). By my calculation, the dead amount to nearly a quarter of those who fought.
 Cubley was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson's father, Michael. He was, according to Mrs Piozzi, 'a man of still larger size and greater strength than his son' – which is saying something. Samuel 'was reckoned very like him, but did not delight in talking much of his family – "One has (says he) so little pleasure in reciting the anecdotes of beggary!"' Here Johnson is presumably referring to the latter years of his father, when he was indeed poor, but for much of his life Michael Johnson had been a prosperous citizen of Lichfield, serving as Sheriff in the year of Samuel's birth, and later as chief magistrate, and earning widespread renown for his learning. His decline into poverty seems to have been caused by the growing expenses of a family and a falling-off of trade in his bookselling business – and exacerbated by his failure to keep any kind of accounts. 'My father had much vanity,' Johnson recalled, 'which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted.' Oh dear.
 Michael Johnson is memorialised in St Michael, Lichfield, with an epitaph in Latin composed by his illustrious son.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Monochrome and Lake


Yesterday I gravitated again to the National Gallery, this time to have a look at the Monochrome exhibition, which consists largely of pictures painted in black and white, shades of grey, or shades of another single colour. It's a fascinating study, illuminating just how effective monochrome can be in exploring the subtle play of light on complex forms – as in the striking Ingres odalisque above.
 There's some fine work on show – all the way from Van Eyck and other Flemish and Netherlandish painters to Gerhard Richter's haunting Gelda Matura and Her Fiance and some rather dreary abstract work. A tiny black and white Tempest by Peder Balke and a large fragment of a Giandomenico Tiepolo wall painting also caught my eye, as did a wonderful Durer study of a Woman in Netherlandish Dress Seen from Behind [below]. There was some remarkable trompe l'oeil work too – including a Chardin copy framed behind trompe l'oeil broken glass (it had me fooled) – but it's not the kind of exhibition that delivers deep aesthetic pleasures. At least it didn't for me.


 It ends with a mighty flourish, though – an entirely different form of monochrome, created by Olafur Eliasson: an interior lit entirely by intense monofrequency sodium lighting. The effect of this blaze of flat yellow-orange light after all that subdued black and white is dramatic. The sodium light wipes out whole swathes of colours, replacing them with new unearthly tints, a kind of after-image of colour where none was before. To walk back into the monochrome exhibition after an immersion in this sodium light is to experience, temporarily, a strange new world of colour in what is ostensibly black and white. And to exit from the sodium into the body of the gallery is to wander for a while dazed and blinking and in need of the familiar polychrome world.
 As it happened, I had some time to kill before the gallery closed, so I went up the grand staircase to see what was in Room One. It turned out to be a lovely little exhibition built around one of the National Gallery's most popular paintings – Lake Keitele by the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kalliela. The much-loved painting appears here in four subtly different versions, along with a range of other equally attractive lakescapes, one of them a brilliantly executed large pastel. There's also an interesting stained-glass work (one of Gallen-Kaleila's other lines) with the title 'Rouse Thyself, Finland!' Well, quite.
 Those fresh plein air blues of Lake Keitele were the perfect antidote to sodium and monochrome.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adventures in Stereo

So, what was the UK's first million-selling stereo LP? The obvious answer is The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, or perhaps one of their earlier LPs. Obvious but wrong: the first million-selling LP in the UK was (drumroll) The World of Mantovani by Mantovani and His Orchestra, and it achieved that milestone in 1968, the year of Astral Weeks, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, White Light/White Heat, Music from Big Pink, etc, etc.
 Younger readers might not remember Mantovani (who was born on this day in 1905 – what, no Google Doodle?). Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was a Venetian, born into a musical family (his father was concert master at La Scala under Toscanini). He studied at Trinity College of Music and soon became a popular bandleader, but he really hit the big time when he began to concentrate on recording – specifically stereo recording – and developed the highly distinctive 'Mantovani sound'. This sound was created in collaboration with the gloriously named arranger and composer Ronald (Ronnie) Binge. Binge realised that a forty-piece orchestra could produce an echo-delay if each violin's note overlapped the other, and the resulting reverberations would create an almost cathedral-like acoustic. These 'Niagara Falls of fiddles' sounded even more impressive in stereo – hence the huge sales among early adopters more interested in the quality of sound than the musical content. And it is still an amazing sound (qua sound), of which there's plenty to be sampled on You Tube. Try Charmaine for starters (and perhaps finishers)...
 As for Ronnie Binge, he went on to write the much-loved soporific that now precedes the late-night Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 – Sailing By.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

It Punches Holes

Today's Google doodle, I notice, celebrates the 131st anniversary of the invention of the hole punch. Now, I'm  pretty keen on all things stationery-related, but this seems to me to be pushing it  a bit – and I speak as the man who recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Norwegian who very nearly invented the paperclip (a grateful Norway still provides more Nigeness readers than any other nation).
 There were a few other anniversaries Google could have marked today – Moby-Dick, Fanny Mendelssohn, Claude Monet, Astrid Lindgren, Aaron Copland  – but no, the hole punch it had to be. No contest.

Monday, 13 November 2017

A 21st-Century Howards End

The BBC's new dramatisation of E.M. Forster's Howards End began last night. At least, unlike some recent BBC efforts, it wasn't filmed in semi-darkness, and the dialogue was mostly audible (except once or twice when the music got the better of it). However, my heart sank from the moment the opening voice-over began, for the diction was unmistakably 21st-century, glottal stops and all. This was a far cry from the voice of Edwardian England – and diction matters; it reflects the mental processes behind what is uttered. Edwardians spoke in a particular way because they thought and felt in a particular way – and also because they were acutely conscious of diction as an indicator of social class, a matter of far more pressing importance then than it is now.
 Happily, not all the actors were speaking in full 21st-century style, and the dialogue avoided (I think) obvious anachronisms, presumably because the writers had Forster's words to work with. When things settled down (there was an awful lot of dashing about), there were some quite effective scenes, especially one between Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the bedridden Mrs Wilcox (Julia Ormond). One of the basic problems of TV (or film) dramatisation – the lack of interiority – was starkly apparent in the concert hall scene when Helena Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard), listening to Beethoven's Fifth, is overcome by a disturbing vision of the ultimate futility of life and has to dash away. We can only guess at what is going on in her head, having only her facial expressions to go on. There's some odd playing and casting too: the unfortunate Leonard Bast is so far coming across as merely gormless, and Matthew Macfadyen is too young (and essentially insubstantial) to play Henry Wilcox, despite the impressive beard.
 However, the main problem with this Howards End is one massive and all-pervasive anachronism, which is presumably there to make some kind of political point. However much we might regret or deplore the fact, Edwardian England was simply not the multiracial society that is presented here. The non-white population was negligibly small and, unless they were visiting the docks, the likes of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes would be unlikely to see more than the very occasional black face. And yet, in this dramatisation, they are surrounded by them: the Schlegels have a black housemaid and non-white guests at a tea party, there are black faces in very street scene, and Leonard Bast's problematic wife is also black. All of this passes without comment, exactly as if these Edwardians were living in the kind of multiracial society we're living in today. We of the 21st century have become to a large extent colour-blind – which is an excellent thing – but it is stupid and jarringly anachronistic to pretend that the Edwardian English were like us. They were not. 
 It's a shame that period dramas pay so much attention to ensuring that every little detail of dress and decor is authentic, while giving a free pass to whopping anachronisms born of wishful thinking.