I’ve always admired people who can write well about music, because it seems more difficult than any other form of criticism. Our language, rich as it is, seems ill equipped to fully convey its moods, textures, styles of composition and performance, and what it is all intended to mean. It can’t be done as succinctly as the playing of it, certainly. The best writers about music, like Alex Ross, can relate music on the page by conjuring an aural impression to the reader in words. They can hear the subtleties you can’t and explain them to you. They can adroitly judge the interpretive aptitude of an orchestra. Likewise, a good pop music writer will hear a hook or a bridge or a segue and describe it in creatively evocative language.
The stars of stage and screen go the way of all flesh like the rest of us, but for those with whom we feel a special connection, it can be difficult to avoid a sense of shock and a need to mourn when they’re gone. So it is with Patrick Macnee, who has just died at the age of 93. Reading about his life in the days since his death, one struggles to detach the character from the man. The character, of course, is John Steed, who he played in The Avengers.
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” So said John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the great economists and proponents of liberalism of the 20th century. Aside from seeing virtue in wealth, the converse is also deemed to apply – that poverty is a moral failing. Attitudes to the poor have been characterised by such contempt for several centuries, and they refuse to go away. Indeed, an entire intellectual edifice has long been constructed to explain poverty in terms of fecklessness and idleness. The leading advocates of this approach to poverty over the past few hundred years are of varied background, and include the economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus, the economist David Ricardo, the philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer, the social scientist William Graham Sumner, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, all the way up to many of today’s cohort of leading conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic.
There was a report in a 1963 edition of The Onion where Frank Sinatra was quoted as telling the Russkies to just “knock it off”. In other comments, Ol’ Blue Eyes described Premier Khrushchev as a “world-class knucklehead” and gave him 24 hours to “drop this commie bunk or it’s ring-a-ding-ding for you bozos”. Crude stuff, admittedly, but sometimes niceties have to be dropped. It is long past time that somebody of similar stature in this era said the exact same to the International Olympic Committee. Perhaps a Robert Downey, Jr., a Kanye West or a Russell Crowe could make such an intervention. Maybe if Sylvester Stallone could be persuaded this was a mission worthy of Rambo, he might oblige.
My last post concerned contemporary Britain’s position as a difficult partner within the European Union. But historically, while Britain might have considered herself apart, she was not so aloof. For several centuries, Britain was immersed in maintaining the European balance of power, and with it the shifting alliances that were made to prevent one nation achieving hegemony over Europe. One of the refreshing aspects of tomorrow’s 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo has been the acknowledgement of the international character of the army of the Seventh Coalition. The commemorations and recollections in print and on television – those that I have encountered – have been far more intellectually interesting and faithful to history than those of the World Wars of the 20th century, which are becoming more politicised as they become ever more dishonest. There were more German speakers than English speakers in the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-allied army alone, with troops from the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau. And of the 36% who were British, Irish soldiers were disproportionately represented. Wellington himself was of Anglo-Irish stock, and was born in Dublin.
Before the end of the last ice age, Britain was connected to continental Europe. The English Channel was dry land for most of the preceding Pleistocene period; an interesting fact considering its existence is usually regarded as a significant component in forming the essential character of the nation. The end of the last glacial period might count as prehistory, but in geological terms it is no time at all. Readers of Our Island Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall will know, however, that the concept of Britain, particularly England, begins with the Romans. Noting that what has happened since then makes it plain that geography is of tremendous importance in shaping politics and international relations. And yet, while a channel filled with water affects a nation’s idea of itself, all these other lands are still in proximity. The European mainland remains right there just over the other side, a mere 20.6 miles in the Strait of Dover.
There is a country that organises its professional sporting leagues with mechanisms that are specifically designed to create equitable circumstances for all the teams in a given league. Most of the revenues generated are redistributed among the teams equally, there is no promotion and relegation, and the worst performing teams in a given year have first option on the most promising young players turning professional. The country in question is obviously the United States, but where sport is concerned, you could almost call it the People’s Republic of the United States.
As we enter the second week of the French Open, this is the time for those of us who are unabashed disciples of Roger Federer to start feeling nervous. Our hero doesn’t glide towards the latter stages of Grand Slams with the certainty that he used to, the inevitability that seemed to accompany his triumphs a decade ago having been replaced by the always inevitable descent into vulnerable fallibility. Despite this inexorable decline, he remains World No. 2, and more importantly for his devotees, he is still the game’s most elegant practitioner.