Archive for September, 2015

Another London classical music venue

September 27, 2015

In my list of free London classical music venues I failed to include the Regent Hall. Mostly because I’ve never been there before. I was aware of the fact that they put on free concerts every Friday lunchtime not a stone’s throw from the ‘shopper’s paradise’ of Oxford Circus. What luck that the rain drove me inside on the off chance of finding something good. I hit gold.

The venue is owned by the Salvation Army, indeed it bills itself as the only church on Oxford Street, and I was happy to give a donation. Although I’m no Christian evangelist I do wholeheartedly support their charitable work. I’ve guided a lot on the history of the Salvation Army, especially in the East End where two statues of General Booth on the Mile End Road are excellent visual cues for introducing the history of the East End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of the concert crowd looked like habitués of the Army’s excellent on-site café, and I can thoroughly recommend another café of theirs in the City of London next to the Millennium Bridge which offers the best value lunch in the Square Mile.

For a concert though the venue itself is decidedly odd. I assume it’s designed as a space of worship (as a lot of these lunchtime venues are); this is not necessarily in itself a drawback. However, more specifically it seems designed as a space for preaching, and this is. The piano (in this case`) was on a fairly raised platform from the punters which doesn’t really aid in the creation of the kind of intimate atmosphere that lends itself to chamber music. This also means that in order to go off and on again for encores/bows the performer must descend and ascend a fair number of stairs, which is all a bit of a faff.*

With the piano way up there and all kinds of bits and bobs to baffle the music the acoustic isn’t that great either but on this occasion the pianist, Simone Alessandro Tavoni, was outstanding enough to cut through all of the drawbacks and make you forget where you were and what you were looking at. Introduced as a very good-looking player (as if that matters?) he warmed up with a bit of Schumann and Liszt. But what I was waiting for was Prokoviev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83.

I can’t remember who performed this piece the first time I heard it but he was Russian and it was on the South Bank. I think it was Igor Levitt (no relation) and I was utterly transfixed by it. I remember the pianist being an absolute wringing mess at the end, through both musical intensity and sheer physical effort. Tavoni, while not being in quite that class, nevertheless delivered a driving, intense reading and quite rightly didn’t follow it with an encore.**

When I first heard the piece I became slightly obsessed with its history and background. I learnt how it was written by Prokofiev at a time of extreme crisis in the Soviet Union in 1943 in response to the threat of Nazi Germany from without and the menace of Stalinist repression within. This story then led me to discover more of Sviatoslav Richter (of whom I’d previously known nothing) and his extraordinary life as an artist in the twentieth century.***

So from one evening at a concert a whole new world and aspect of history was opened up to me. It was thrilling! And Tavoni brought that whole feeling back again. I hope (and believe) he will go on to bigger and better stages. He’s playing at the Royal College with fellow students in an early evening concert. I hope to find the time to get down to South Ken myself and discover more new music.

* I’m not really a fan of the encore at any time but more especially in the evening. I would like to think that I’m the kind of music lover who is so carried away by the genius of a performer that I could sit there all night listening to them. Unfortunately the rather more prosaic realities of train timetables and bladder limits are more often on my mind as the applause begins at the ‘end’ of a gig. In fact I like it when performers just do the shit they came to do and then get off. The best of performances leave you emotionally drained at the end of the programme and not really in the mood for a Bach/Chopin/Schubert/Debussy lollipop and more in the mood for a consolatory/celebratory whiskey.

And a horsepiss.

** A visceral evocation of the life and death struggle between Communism and Fascism amid the terror of the Stalinist police state isn’t something that lends itself to a digestif of a twinkly Chopin Mazurka or some such other miniature afterthought.

*** He premiered the Sonata in 1943 and you can hear him play it here. Works every time. The first time I heard the Prok PS7 I liked to chat to other people interested in music on a forum on Facebook and I wrote a post slightly gushing thing about the concert, asking other people where they’d first heard it. A troll came back with the withering, ‘Oh that old warhorse.’ There is a difference between sounding clever and being intelligent. The former looks within, the latter engages with the world.

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.

On a rugby conference

September 13, 2015
Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?

On two excellent exhibitions

September 6, 2015

A brief post after yet more Waterloo action this week following the photography at Somerset House I mentioned before. With an hour to spare after finishing in the library I thought I’d catch the Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy before it closes in a couple of weeks time. My wife not wanting to see it for some reason (and she’s the one with the membership card!) it was an opportune moment to see it while she was out of the country.

Cornell first caught my attention when reading Phaidon’s book on Surrealism while I was training to be a guide, part of which involved getting under the skin of a selection of works in Tate Modern. I’d never heard of him but as I remember (and memory is fickle isn’t it? I’ve just been reading a thesis using oral history sources where that point was brought home to me once more) there was an illustration of one of his pharmacy cabinets where I thought, ‘That’s Damien Hirst’. And of course Cornell was there first, Hirst as is his wont appropriated his idea and turned it to a more sinister end.

After that I forgot about Cornell. A brief search didn’t turn up anywhere that I could see more of his work in the flesh rather than on the page and he went to the back of my head as ‘the cabinet guy’ who I could reference when doing a bit of one-upmanship about the origins of vitrines, taxonomies, stuff of that sort (which a lot of contemporary art seems to ‘play’ with).

So to see not just an individual work but 5 or 6 rooms of his pieces was too good an opportunity to turn down given that I’m unlikely to go to the States any time soon (which reminds me of how grateful I am to the clout that London’s museums and galleries have in being able to assemble agglomerations of the best of what the rest of the world has to offer and put it in one building for a three month stretch). And he’s unlikely to make a return journey for a generation.

One reason for this may be that the works are so delicate. Collages and clippings of paper, boxes and cases of fragile intricacy that make you wonder at the imagination of a man who built fabulous stories that traverse the world without leaving his home state. All of it is superbly impractical, of an illusory reality. Objects allude to games with no rules, journeys without destination, biographies without substance. Often you come across something that transports you to your own past. Such as this parrot.

Cornell parrot

Cornell parrot

I once had a parrot. Go there and see what you once possessed or imagined amid the marché de puces of Cornell’s objects.

But after that descend the stairs (or take the lift) to Daniel Maclise’s cartoon for the fresco of the Battle of Waterloo that was made in preparation for a site in the Palace of Westminster. You can see the finished article on a tour of Parliament, opposite a similar piece describing the Battle of Trafalgar. But of course this is the bicentenary of Wellington’s and Blücher’s great victory so London is full of Wellingtonia for a year, or at least even more that it is normally. Prior to this exhibition I knew nothing of Maclise, his cartoon or the fresco. Walking in public buildings such as the PoW it’s easy to be blind to the individual artworks, often monumental, that contribute to the grandeur of the whole. This exhibition is welcome in that it forces you to focus on just one of those pieces and reflect on what it is saying.

For myself I was surprised at the lack of triumphalism in the work. This is no celebration of a great victory won, or at least it’s not a revelling in the event. True, Wellington and Blücher form the central figures with a band trumpeting their meeting to one side. But this picture portraying a moment of world history from fifty years ago would surely have come across to contemporaries as a portrait of something far closer to their own lives.

There is national pride in the painting but more strongly resonant is a sense of pity for the fallen. Not maudlin pity but that classical pity and stoic acceptance that the price of victory is paid in the blood of the common man. Each fallen French soldier resembled a portrait of Napoleon in my mind, as if to comment on the fact that so much of the slaughter was a consequence of the actions of one man. The lack of blood only adds to the austere nature of the sorrow. It was drafted only a few years after the end of the Crimean War. Isn’t it a portrait of that futile conflict?

Looking at the cartoon I was reminded of seeing captured French eagles at an exhibition of Napoleonic prints that was on at the British Museum over the summer. The eagles (there were two of them) feature in Maclise’s cartoon and are in the collection of Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (the seat of the Dukes to this day and open to the public – recommended). I’ve been to Apsley House many times but in amongst the brilliant collection I never noticed the eagles. In a sea of pencil and ink in the drawings gallery of the BM they stood out as physical objects in the world and formed a powerful link with the events of that day in Belgium.

I was reminded of this history coming alive when looking at the small collection of prints by French artists alongside the cartoon at the RA. One, by C. de Last. shows the Affaire d’Astorga en Gallice in which a French soldier, while holding a captured English soldier aloft, is stopped in his tracks by a bullet amidst hand to hand fighting. The pose of two struggling men, through accident or design I don’t know, exactly replicates the pose of a struggling Lapith and Centaur to be found in the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum. And it reminded me of how little has changed in three millennia of warfare even to the present day. It should be the historian’s job, and the artist of war, to remind us that nothing that we see nowadays is uniquely horrific; neither is it insurmountable. Hirst and his chums the Chapmans play at dealing with death. Maclise treats it with respect.

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