‘Every day in life is beautiful’

‘Music is in the first place of art. It brings us on an island with peace, beauty and love. Music is a dream!’

These are the words of Alice Herz Sommer, whose story is told in The Lady in No.6, and whose death was announced today. At the age of 110, she still played the piano every day, from memory, as she had throughout her life, including the two years she spent with her small son in Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the film, she says, ‘I knew that we will play; and I was thinking, when we can play, it can’t be so terrible. I felt that this is the only thing which helps me to have hope.’

Everything that need be said, Alice Herz Sommer says in the film. There’s more joy and truth in this short trailer than in whole libraries of reports about the value of the art, and the film itself is a treasure. It’s worth a few minutes of anybody’s time.

Alice Herz Sommer

Born Prague, 26 November 1903

Died London. 23 February 2014

‘Every day in life is beautiful, every day that we are here, that we can speak about everything. It’s beautiful.’

Alice Herz Sommer 2


Music matters

A quick post to highlight a radio programme called The Folklorist, about Izzy Young, who was central to the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a wonderful conversation between Young and the English musician, Seth Lakeman, enriched by  other voices and music from the archives. Apart from its own insights and delights, the programme demonstrates – if that were needed –  music’s resilience and its influence in the world. It should be available for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer.

Izzy Young and Seth Lakeman
Izzy Young and Seth Lakeman

The  black and white photo by Krister Kleréus  is borrowed from his 591 Photography Blog and shows  Young in his Stockholm Folklore Centre – listen to the programme to find out how that came about.

Local accents

The tension between city and countryside, capital and regions, centre and periphery is ancient and probably inevitable, because of the uneven distribution of everything in human affairs. Its current pressure points include the possible independence of Scotland, resources for flood defences and—in the arts—the allocation of public funds between London and the rest of the country.

I spent yesterday in the Fens, visiting churches to test out an idea for a new regular marvel, and at a fine concert in a  Norfolk village hall. The experience added to my sense that this binary opposition, easily reduced to a fight over resources, is just another dead end.

It was always unhelpful, because it caricatured society’s complex interdependency. But when movement and communication is easy (even in Fenland), it simply doesn’t reflect reality.

Village Hall

Last night’s concert was by an Irish singer, performing jazz arrangements of songs by Leonard Cohen. It was part of a tour that goes from Wick to St Austell, via Berlin and Ronnie Scott’s.  The audience was mostly local, but some had come from Norwich and Ipswich – a good hour’s drive. Many of the villagers have moved there from other places, including London. Others are temporary residents, notably American military personnel working at the nearby airfields that contribute much to the area’s employment.

Between them, they organise professional and amateur arts events, while the local pubs and club are on Norfolk’s vibrant music scene.  Village residents go to Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge,  London and elsewhere to gigs, exhibitions and other cultural events. And I expect that some of them will be sitting down with Barack Obama and millions of others to watch the second series of House of Cards when it goes live on Netflix.

None of this fits easily into a simple opposition of central vs. regional life. That’s not to say that change isn’t needed or that the existing distribution of resources is right. But, in terms of its identities, cultures and interactions, Britain today must be one of the most diverse and complex yet known to history. It is really not well served by the kind of simplistic thinking so brilliantly satirised nearly 25 years ago in On The Hour:


It’s your region – you know where it is and how to spell its name. It’s a region with a character all of its own.

Reporter:  Hello.

Man:  Hello sir.

Reporter:  My now, you have got a funny local accent. You don’t work with your hands for a living, by any chance, do you?

Man:  No sir.

Reporter:  I can tell actually, because even though you sound like a straw-sucking yokel, you do know who to call sir.

Man: Oh yes that’s right.

Reporter:  Can you talk us through your choice of clothes when you get up on the morning?

Man: Just get dressed.

Reporter:  Just get dressed like that.

Man: Oh yes that’s right.

Reporter:  Well, you do seem jolly unsophisticated. What about music—how do you listen to music?

Man: Just listen to it. Relax with it on, sit back and hum them or whistle.

Reporter:  D’you mean you don’t actually sit there and write it all down?

Man:  Oh no.

Reporter:  What a good old-fashioned serf you are. Thanks very much for taking the time to show us how backward everybody is around here. It really has been awfully funny.

Man: Thank you very much indeed.

On The Hour,  1/ 4 (first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, August 1991)

RMT2 – Citation

Why do writers quote other writers? The reasons are complex, and do not preclude such weaknesses as showing off—no one can write seriously without engaging in display. But the way that academics and artists quote is very different and helps distinguish their alternative intellectual projects.

Infinte library

The literature review and source traceability

The literature review has become the foundation of all work in social science and the humanities. It is like a structural survey, done before building work can begin, and is a perfectly sensible thing to do.

It is also the price of entry into a field of knowledge or discourse. An academic’s thought is legitimate to the extent they can demonstrate a full understanding of what has already been learned and thought. So, while the literature review is unimpeachable in theory, it can become in practice a way of strengthening established power. The academy and its libraries enable a student to do a literature review and its teachers guide the investigation and assess its performance. And the price can be high: as university fees rise, degrees become less about merit and more about resources.

Source traceability has become as important to academia as it is to food standards authorities, so students are taught the correct way to label every word they quote, whether it is from recognized authorities, ‘grey literature’ (as the academy terms what it has not certified), the media or the Internet. It’s a sound system and it allows errors to be corrected.

But whom you cite is also a way of defining your position within a field. In cultural studies, how you refer to certain French theorists is a signal—to those taught to read them—of your intellectual beliefs. Authorities can be conscripted as allies and protectors.

As art teaching and criticism has become more theorized, so the adoption of such associations has increased. There are artists today whose work resembles owl pellets, so full is it of the undigested remains of their intellectual prey.

Owl reader

Artists in dialogue with artists

This reflects a change in sources of artistic inspiration rather artistic practice, which has always been in dialogue with the creative work of others. As they grow, learn and mature, all artists fall under the spell of predecessors and peers—imitating, assimilating and abandoning a succession of influences. Consciously and unconsciously their work endorses, criticizes or rejects the artistic  practices that have shaped their own imagination. That is part of what is meant when it’s said that all art is about art.

One difference between this approach and the literature review is that there is nothing methodical about it and that, far from being the weakness that would be in academia, it is part of what makes each artist’s work individual. In following their own paths through other people’s imaginations, guided by instinct, feeling and non-rational reactions, artists create new relationships with reality. They may be very rigorous, even rigid, in how they work, but they are not detached. They do not place themselves above and outside what they see, as does the literature reviewer. They are not cartographers. Uninterested in objectivity, they use their subjectivity as a resource to free themselves from itself.

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593)

Other voices in Regular Marvels

The method explored in Regular Marvels involves frequent citation: direct, through reference and in textual echoes. It draws on a wide range of sources: Bread and Salt, for example, cites Adorno, Berger, Cavafy, Gérin-Lajoie, Hemon, Hardi, King, Padel, Russell and Stanshall among others. They include philosophers, critics, poets, campaigners, musicians, historians, social scientists and novelists (though not, I think, French theorists, on this occasion at least). Some I encountered decades ago, others only as I worked on the book. Some I know fairly well, but I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with others. I don’t agree, like or admire all of them.

But they are all among the writers I talk to as a reader and as a writer. They are reference points that define the shifting space within which my thought, for what it’s worth, ranges. They come and they go, growing or declining in importance, according to what I’m thinking about and how.

There’s nothing special or clever about this. The special and clever Pierre Bayard—professor of literature, psychoanalyst and French theorist—has some very interesting ideas about how we read. Among them, he classes books according to whether he has skimmed them, heard of them, forgotten them or never come across them. In doing so, he is courageous for a professor of literature but truthful about how our minds work.

The texts that make up Regular Marvels—printed books, PDFs and blog posts—are literary in nature and purpose. Since they are written by someone who has been reading and writing from an early age and whose university education (‘formation’ in French) was in literature, it is natural that they reflect a continuing conversation with other writers, of all kinds. Experience—my own and that of the people I meet through this work—is filtered through that imaginative landscape, formed over a lifetime by the words of others. And those words are themselves constantly changed by experience.

As a writer, an artist engaged for better or worse in a task of literary creation, I acknowledge and embrace the unending, restless dialogue between experience and art. I don’t try to control it, or even to understand it—simply to ride the current to somewhere that seems worth going towards.

Holland House Library

A Chorus of Solidarity

‘Pete Seeger’s great work was not just singing the songs, but getting everybody else to sing them—getting his audience, us, to sing.’

John Wiener, The Nation

Columbia Records (CBS) must have produced many odd records since 1888, but Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits is certainly one of them. The blacklisted singer had not been heard on radio or TV for more than a decade, so concerts and records were his main outlet.

Pete Seeger 1975 (LA Times AP/Richard Drew)

Greatest Hits is a ragbag of old songs (We Shall Overcome), new songs (Little Boxes) and his own songs (Where have all the flowers gone?), mostly recorded live. It came out in 1967, when Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper dominated the airwaves, so the music must have seemed positively old-fashioned, even naive: Seeger accompanies his high tenor on the banjo, a strummed guitar or sings a capella.

But it’s the live nature of the recordings that matters because they catch Seeger’s rapport with audiences and the  collective nature of his music. He stands there, not as an entertainer but as a facilitator. On his tongue, the chorus of a song is what its name suggests: an occasion for choral singing. So he tells the audience the words of the next line, in case they don’t know it—the song can wait while they catch up.

This is ancient stuff. Seeger’s audience is like the Chorus in classical Greek theatre: an enactment of community, expressing its collective values. It is solidarity sung.

It is also powerful stuff, as Seeger knows, To be part of the ‘mighty wind’ produced by thousands of vocal chords can be thrilling. Marching for civil rights in 1960s Alabama, in front of hostile crowds and troopers, took real courage: singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ together gave you control of the space and sucked freedom into your expanding lungs.  In the late 1980s, the Estonian people literally sang Soviet troops out of their country in the Singing Revolution.

‘I guess nobody who’s never actually faced one of those policemen can know exactly how much bravery it takes to be just this gay and cheerful in the face of all kinds of things.’

Pete Seeger, Carnegie Hall NY, 6 June 1963

There’s a welcome growth in choral singing  at the moment, in TV reality and in actual reality, but its character is  abstract and skill-based. It’s community art without politics, shanties without work. Pete Seeger held no auditions: he knew that what mattered was community among an audience with shared values.

Are there imaginative artists in popular music willing to reach across the profitable barrier between stage and stalls to  make their audience co-creators in a new  music? The ancient power of singing together is only sleeping.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)


Phil Ochs’ tribute to Woody Guthrie applies equally to Pete Seeger, whose integrity made no distinction between his art and his life.

Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore
But so few remember what he was fightin’ for
Oh, why sing the songs and forget about the aim?
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same

Phil Ochs Bound for Glory (1964)