People gathering normally

Last Thursday, late afternoon, this comforting scene was to be observed (and photoed) by me, on the other side of Victoria Street from me and a short walk from Buckingham Palace. Human beings, without muzzles on, enjoying each other’s company and drinking drinks:

Will normality ever fully return? I’ll believe what I see. But seeing that was definitely something.

An exercise lesson on Zoom

I can remember when e-mail became a necessity for me. I got a phone call from someone who asked: “What’s your email?” and I said “I don’t do email”. It was the way she then said “Oh” that made me realise that something had happened.

There hasn’t been a single moment like this for me with Zoom, but it has become made clear to me that making easy and regular use of Zoom has now become part of everyday life for all civilised people. Stage 4 lung cancer means you get cut some slack on these sorts of things, or you do by the people who are treating you. Nevertheless, I got, and get, the message.

And today I got an exercise lesson on Zoom from an exercise coach at the Royal Marsden. For some reason or other, the audio aspect wasn’t perfect, there being a slight delay, like the Royal Marsden was in India. But the job got done very satisfactorily nevertheless, and it’s hard to see how this could have been done by any other means than me being at the Marsden in person. Like all good teachers, he wasn’t content with showing me what he wanted me to do. He wanted also to see me doing it. Not only did Zoom enable him to show me what exercises he wanted me to do, he was also able to see that I was doing them the way I should be doing them.

All of which will be very old news to almost everyone reading this. I am well aware that when it comes to Zoom I am the ultimate late adopter, just as I was with email. Nevertheless, this posting is definite Zoom information for you, even if you’ve been using Zoom for the last two years minimum. And the information is that everyone is now using Zoom, the proof of this being that I am now using it.

Happy Easter!

I hope you are having one.

I definitely am, and I will tell you (a big part of) why. This, on YouTube, from Steve Baker MP, no less.

Just over two minutes long, so not a big chunk out of your life it you follow the above link and watch it all.

I’ll surely have more to say about this by way of thanks. But, busy day for me today, and I could hardly postpone at least noticing this here.

Ask, and you shall receive. This exploiting my impending death to achieve a dose of upward social mobility thing is really working out well.

Funerial thoughts

Strange day. I spent a lot of it planning my own funeral, which will, as is traditional, be an event at which I will be present but not paying any attention, if you get my meaning.

The thing is, it’s no good saying: Look, I don’t care, do whatever you like. If you say that, you are liable to cause endless arguments and at the very least uncertainties among your loved ones about “What he would have wanted”. So, you have to say what you want, even if you aren’t actually that bothered.

Plus, although I say I’m not bothered, I can imagine plenty of scenarios which even the thought of would bother me, so a period of introspection was called for. Just saying “Do whatever you want” would be very selfish, in a bad way. Saying exactly what I want is selfish in a good way.

Apparently David Bowie (the old blog seems to be back working again without any
Screen of the Red Death
) had a very private cremation, followed by a more public ceremony at which celebs took it in turns saying how great he was. But not being that great myself, I figure the people present at my funeral ceremony would appreciate knowing that this is the actual funeral. If they suspect that the real funeral, the one I was actually burnt at, was earlier, they might not want to be at the later pretend funeral. So, just the one event for me, and everyone will see me being fed into the incinerator room. It’s what I would have wanted.

And now, my Designated Best Friend is in my front room, chucking superfluous paper into supermarket bags:

Since that photo was photoed, three SIX more entire bags of totally obsolete bumph have accumulated.

In other funerial news, earlier today GodDaughter2, the one who has just finished learning how to sing, accepted the job of being in charge of my pathologically huge classical CD collection, when I am dead and burnt. So, if you love classical CDs, and even if you hardly now know me, leave a comment that this is a list you’d like to be on. Don’t wait for me to die before expressing such interest. Think of my beloved CDs not as inanimate objects but as a colossal pack of puppies each of which I am seeking a good home for. If I can die knowing that my CDs will be well cared for and listened to, rather than just thrown into about three skips, well, … that’s what I would have wanted and meanwhile do now want. GD2 herself leads too mobile a life just now to be wanting such responsibilities, and in any case CDs are, for her, absurdly twentieth century and completely superfluous to requirements. But if you, like me, feel differently, then like I say, get in touch, now.

A good day. Good not merely because it was pleasurable, but because I got some difficult and important things decided and done. And because other such things were done for me, by various loved ones. The least these people should be getting from me is a description of what I would have wanted, even if it is a bit of an effort to work out what that might be.

Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

Dragons on the road map

Guy Herbert:

It’s the sort of #roadmap that has “Here be dragons” written all over it, isn’t it?

Yes. My part of Twitter is all: The politicians are tyrannising over us. I wonder. What if they are just scared? Of course, the second does not rule out the first.

The Brian Micklethwait Archive goes public

Just over a month ago I learned that I will die rather sooner than I had been supposing, and I asked, by way of being cheered up, for people to say nice things, preferably in public, about my various writings and doings over the years.

The most impressive consequence of this rather vulgar entreaty has so far been the Brian Micklethwait Archive.

It is in the nature of this Archive in my honour that if I had constructed it myself it would be an absurdity, which wouldn’t outlast me any more than this blog will. In contrast, the fact that Rob Fisher, a far younger man than me, has embarked upon this project is a source of profound gratitude and satisfaction to me. If I die soon, this will be a big reason for me nevertheless to die in a state of moderate contentment. Posthumous reputations, such as I now crave on a scale way beyond what I merely deserve, do not establish themselves. They have to be established. I want to be remembered as a writer, yet I do not have so much as one book to my name. This Archive that Rob is gathering up, by cherry picking from my many bits of writing over the years, will make a big difference to whatever continuing impact and influence I may have after I have died.

Rob is in charge of this Archive, not me. It needs to be something he is happy to go on polishing and adding to in the months and years to come, so it must be as he wishes it, rather than as I might have wished it. And I waited until he made it public before drawing attention to it, here, myself. Now I feel that I can without upsetting whatever announcements Rob had in mind to be doing.

Great Men don’t need to advertise themselves. Their achievements speak for themselves. Lesser men like me need to beat their own drums. And it makes all the difference when someone else joins in.

A couple more quota crowd scenes

I plan on spending my afternoon and evening today concentrating entirely on … something else, so here, it’s quota photo time, just to get it out of the way and out of my head.

Which happens to mean a couple more crowd scenes. To add to the collection.

First up, on the South Bank, and in particular on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall:

Photoed, I’m pretty sure, from a balcony near the top of the Royal Festival Hall. A bit wonky, but I like it as it is. Wouldn’t want to be cropping those cranes in the distance. Which are gone now, I assume. The only crane cluster left in London that I can think of off hand is the one in Battersea.

And here is another crowd scene, this time from way back in 2004:

Which, I think, makes it somewhat more interesting. (Photoed down from the Westminster Bridge approach, south end. I was near to the Lion statue.)

Following on from Alastair’s comments on this posting, about the stabilisation of casual fashion during the last two decades or so, I think we see in that photo the last casual fashion switch, which concerns the tucking-in of shirts. I still do this, under my always worn (because it’s full of vital stuff like wallet, handkerchiefs, purse, etc.) jacket. I still, always, tuck my shirt in, no matter how casual I’m being. But very few others were still doing this, even back in 2004. I’m looking in particular at the three guys in blue shirts, bottom left, one of whom is holding hands with the orange hair lady. One shirt tucked in, two not. Behind them, a guy in a white shirt, and a jacket, the way I still do, but that’s already rare. Note how two of the blue shirt guys at the front have small man bags instead of jackets.

I could go on, but like I say, I have other matters to attend to now.

When classical music doubled up as pugilism: Beethoven knocks out Steibelt

John Suchet first wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven in the form of a three volume fictionalised biography. I recently read the first two volumes, but then switched to reading Suchet’s shorter, unfictionalised biography of Beethoven, which sticks closer to the known facts and cuts back on the flights of fancy.

But you suspect that Suchet still gets somewhat carried away. Here is his description (pp. 106-110) of a famous-at-the-time piano contest between Beethoven and the noted Prussian virtuoso Daniel Steibelt, that took place in Vienna in 1800. Beethoven spent his life establishing himself as a composer, as distinct from relying on being a mere performer, and when his deafness struck he had no choice in the matter. He had to compose, and only to compose. But when he first arrived in Vienna, it was as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser, as well as composer, that Beethoven had first made his name.

Two regular themes at this blog are sport and classical music. In 1800, in Vienna, these two things were a lot closer than they are now:

It was customary at that time in Vienna for aristocrats to stage ‘improvisation contests’ in their salons. The way it would work was that their two virtuosos, with their supporters, would meet in a salon, and display their skills before an audience. This would involve playing their own compositions, possibly with an ensemble, and then setting tasks for each other. One would play a theme he had invented, which the other could not possibly have heard before, and improvise on it. The other would then go to the piano and try to emulate this. Then this second virtuoso would set a theme of his own invention, and the first player would have to copy that. Often it would involve imitation. If one pianist had a particular style, the other would imitate it. It was an evening’s entertainment in aristocratic Vienna.

Very soon after his arrival in Vienna, when aristocrats such as Lichnowsky realised what young Beethoven was capable of, they put him up against the local talent, and one by one he saw them off, at the same time steadily enhancing his reputation. Enter Daniel Steibelt, from Berlin, capital of Prussia, a renowned piano virtuoso with a fearsome reputation. Steibelt had stunned salon audiences in Berlin with his extraordinary virtuosity, enhanced by his trademark flourish, the tremolando. Now on a tour of European capitals, he had arrived in Vienna to conquer that city’s sophisticated musical cognoscenti. He brought with him something of a dashing reputation. He had been forced to join the Prussian army by his father, but had deserted to pursue a musical career.

It seems some of Beethoven’s friends went to hear Steibelt and were stunned at his virtuosity, to such an extent that they feared he might damage Beethoven’s reputation. This is probably why Beethoven, by now sick of these showcase events designed solely for the amusement of aristocrats, agreed to go along to the home of Count von Fries. He decided that he would play his recently published Trio for piano, clarinet and cello, which he had dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky’s mother-in-law. Steibelt brought along four musicians to perform his Piano Quintet.

The company assembled, including no doubt Prince Lichnowsky and his family. Beethoven and his musicians played first. His Trio was perhaps a slightly odd choice, since the piano part does not call for a particularly high degree of virtuosity. The work is in three movements, is fairly straightforward, and the critics welcomed it as being more easily comprehensible than the earlier published Op. l Piano Trios. The final movement is a set of variations on a well-known theme from a comic opera which had recently played successfully in Vienna.

There was polite applause from the salon audience, including Steibelt, who had listened ‘with a certain condescension’, and made a show of complimenting Beethoven. He took his position, with his musicians, in front of the audience, confident his Quintet would put Beethoven’s Trio in the shade and win the day. To make sure, he added some impressive (no doubt prepared) improvisation, and drew gasps from the audience with his audacious tremolandos.

At the end there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who had put on the more impressive display. All eyes turned to Beethoven, who as was usual at these events had the ‘right of reply’. Beethoven remained stubbornly in his seat and refused to play again. Steibelt had carried the day.

A week later it was decided to repeat the event, to stage a ‘rematch’. Given that Beethoven had been reluctant to attend the earlier evening, we can only assume his blood was up. Steibelt’s condescending behaviour, not to mention his ridiculously showy playing, had got under Beethoven’s skin. He was out for revenge.

There must have been an air of tension and anticipation in Count Fries’s salon on this second evening. Beethoven’s unpredictable temperament was well known. Everybody knew he had been bested a week earlier, and they would have seen the flare in his eyes and the set of his jaw. This spelled trouble.

Steibelt went first this time. He performed another of his quintets, which again met with great approval. Then he once again improvised on the piano, in a way that put his previous performance in the shade. It was brilliant. But he made a mistake, a serious mistake. There were gasps from the audience as they realised he had chosen the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s own Trio, performed at the previous meeting, on which to improvise.

If the audience was shocked, Beethoven’s friends were appalled. That was nothing to how Beethoven felt. This time he needed no encouragement. He got out of his seat, stormed to the front, and as he passed the music stands snatched up the cello part of Steibelt’s Quintet. He sat roughly on the stool, all thoughts of salon etiquette gone, and made a show of putting the cello part on the piano stand upside-down.

He glared at the music, playing now to the audience, knowing he had everyone’s attention, aware that the decisive moment in the ‘Contest Beethoven v. Steibelt’ had come. With one finger he hammered out a series of notes from the first bar of Steibelt’s music. He made it sound exactly what it was: crude and unsophisticated. He then began to improvise. And boy, did he improvise. He imitated Steibelt’s playing, he unpicked it and put it back together again, he played some tremolandos, emphasising their absurdity. He played in a way no salon audience had heard before, and that Steibelt could not have believed was humanly possible.

It is easy to picture that powerful head, hair untamed, clothes inappropriate, fingers moving in a blur, no doubt singing, shouting, quite possibly hurling insults at the Prussian, who was probably sitting, back erect, powdered wig in place, clothes perfectly fitting, fingers curling tighter and tighter, as he realised he was not just being outplayed, he was being humiliated – in front of the most sophisticated musical gathering in the most sophisticated musical city in Europe.

Steibelt did not sit that way for long. With Beethoven still playing, he rose from his chair and strode out of the salon. He made it clear he never wanted to meet Beethoven again, and that if ever he was invited to perform again in Vienna, he would do so only if Beethoven was not present. In fact he took even more drastic action than that. He abandoned his tour and returned to Berlin to nurse his wounds. Some years later he went to St Petersburg and remained there for the rest of his life. He never returned to Vienna, and never met Beethoven again.

As for Beethoven, he was now – if there was any doubt before – the undisputed master of the keyboard in Vienna, if not Europe. Even Hummel, greatly admired, could not touch him. And following the drubbing of Steibelt, Beethoven was never again asked to take part in an improvisation contest. His position as Vienna’s supreme piano virtuoso was established once and for all.

Five more crowd scenes photoed in and from the Tate Modern Extension

As I have said here many time before, I love the Tate Modern Extension that they recently stuck behind the original power station. The Extension is the Thing you can see here, centre left, at the back:

It’s not that it is especially beautiful to look at, although liking the Thing itself so much, I have myself come to like how it looks. And I like the Thing itself because of all the fun things I can photo in it and from it.

For instance, I can photo crowd scenes in it and from it, or I could once upon a time. Like this crowd, photoed a bit nearer to it, after I’d gone under the bridge with the railway station on it (Blackfriars):

And here is part of that same crowd, photoed once I was up and in among that crowd myself:

So much for the crowd in the Tate Modern Extension. Now for four more crowd scenes, all photoed in one photo, from the Tate Modern Extension:

Three crowds in three boats there, and another crowd on a bridge, the Millennium Footbridge, another recent favourite addition to the London bridge collection.

Those were the days. May they soon return, which I will believe if and when I ever see it and no sooner.

The day when I photoed all of the above photos was in August 2016.