Monday, February 08, 2016

National Savings

I am a product of the National Savings Bank. My parents both worked at its head office in Kew and after a whirlwind 13-year courtship, they decided to get engaged.

The other day I found some photos of the NSB, taken between the late 1940s and the early 60s, when my parents married and my mother accepted a 'dowry' in lieu of a pension. I told my mother about the pictures but she showed no interest in seeing them. However, she did tell me a few anecdotes.

I learned that the women were all expected to arrive at work wearing white gloves and that if a pair of shoes hadn't been polished properly, a reprimand would follow. In the early 60s, a young man, who had clearly fallen under the malign influence of the Beatles, arrived looking slightly scruffy and was given a stern talking to. The next day he turned up in a top hat and tails.

I also learned more about the notorious serial killer John Christie, who worked in the same department as my father. Apparently, Christie had asked my mother's friend Doris out on a date, but after some deliberation she decided to say no. After Christie's arrest and execution, Doris was haunted by the thought of what could have been.

Serial killers aside, it sounded like a very ordered, regimented world. I had to get my mother to explain the many acronyms she kept mentioning - CAs, COs, HCOs, EOs and HEOs and tried to estimate out how many Clerical Assistants and Clerical Officers there were under under Higher Clerical Officer, before I began to get a sense of how it all worked.

At lunchtime, everyone would file into the huge staff canteen and the CAs, COs, EOs and HCOs would all sit on separate tables, never fraternising with each other. If a newcomer accidentally sat at the wrong table, they would politely put straight and shown where they would be sitting tomorrow.

My mother was given special projects, as she had a particular aptitude for numbers. At one point she uncovered a serious case of internal fraud and reported it, but nobody dared to take action. Frustrated by the inertia of her employers, my mother wrote a 'humorous' poem about it for the staff journal. Every copy was seized and the offending poem was scored out, badly, before the journal was recirculated.

In the early days, the offices were dominated by women that my mother referred to as old biddies. They should have retired, but had kept going while the men were serving in the armed forces. My mother disliked their austere manner and drab clothes and was glad when the office began to fill with younger men.

But not all of the men were fit for work. Some had been irreparably damaged by the War and struggled to get through the working day. One man had been held a prisoner of war by the Japanese and regularly suffered from bouts of malaria, during which he sometimes thought that he was back in the jungle. Another sat alone in the corner, reeking of whisky, looking broken.

Life at the Bank was governed by strict rules and regulations, but it wasn't a completely sterile, joyless environment. It had its own library and organised trips up to town to see the latest ballets, concerts and plays (on one occasion, my father saw my ballet dancing mother-in-law on the stage, blissfully aware that their paths would cross 30 years later).

My parents were both very happy at the bank and regarded it as a huge improvement on the jobs they began they working lives with: an electrician and an assistant in a chemist's. My father even began to think of himself as middle class. My mother never did.

My father would have happily have stayed at the National Savings Bank until retirement, but the Government decided to start moving Civil Service jobs away from London and his job ended up in Glasgow. As none of us would have made very good Glaswegians, my father reluctantly moved to another department and ended up doing something far more enjoyable.

For a generation blighted by two world wars and the poverty of the 1930s, the Civil Service offered an alluring security. If you were working or lower middle class, with no capital or assets to speak of, the job security and attractive pension made it a good career choice.

But what's this? Miss Clutterbuck is outside without her white gloves on! The strumpet. I bet she didn't last long.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time, or The Wrong Trousers

The first decade of the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily creative period, during which the iconoclasm of the avant garde seemed in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Revolution (never mind the fact that Fred at the 37th Tractor Combine just wanted a nice painting of a dacha with roses around the door. Not some geometric nonsense). 

In music, a 19-year-old called Dmitri Shostakovich made a big impression with a new symphony. It was a graduation piece and while Shostakovich's teacher, Glazunov, approved of the nods to Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he was appalled by the modernism that had crept into his studious young pupil's music.What a racket!

But this was only the beginning. In his next symphony, Shostakovich completely threw off the shackles of the past and filled his score with dense, polytonal passages, factory sirens and a rousing choral finale praising the October Revolution. This was Soviet art; part of a milieu that included Eisenstein, Malevich and Mayakovsky.

But then Stalin happened and everything changed. Now the avant garde were accused of being bourgeois and anti-Soviet. What's the point of a painting if the proletariat can't understand what it means? What use is an opera if it can't be whistled by a factory worker? This decadent, degenerate nonsense had to stop.

Julian Barnes's new novel, The Noise of Time, was published on the 80th anniversary of a notorious newspaper article in Pravda called 'Muddle Instead of Music', written after Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The production was a huge success with the public, but that didn't cut any ice with the Great Leader, who was appalled by what he saw. 

To Stalin and his cronies, both the music and narrative were a disgrace to Soviet art. Where were the folk-inspired melodies extolling the virtues of the latest five-year plan? Why were the authorities portrayed as figures of fun?

'Muddle Instead of Music' named and shamed Shostakovich, accusing him of writing music that was "coarse, primitive and vulgar". The composer was, it claimed, guilty of writing an anti-Soviet opera that tickled "the tastes of the bourgeois." The article reached the following conclusion:

"The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

In a climate in which people were being routinely arrested and executed for the most spurious reasons, the final sentence sounded like a death warrant. Shostakovich, already a nervous man, was utterly terrified.

Shostakovich, looking slightly worried

The Noise of Time takes this incident as its starting point and goes on to examine Shostakovich's troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities and his attempts to appease his masters without completely compromising his integrity as an artist.

As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. Still, better Barnesy than Amis.

And to a large extent, Barnes has pulled it off, giving us a narrative that is not only rigorously faithful to the facts, but also to the man himself. If you want to have a sense of what it is like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime, you could do a lot worse than read The Noise of Time.

After the 'Muddle' episode, Shostakovich was now an enemy of of the people and had a packed suitcase ready for the moment the secret police arrived, but the arrest never happened and gradually, the composer realised that he had an opportunity to appease his persecutors. Operas were out - anything involving the written word was a bad idea - so he worked on a new symphony. The result, branded by one journalist "A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism", was a success with both the public and the authorities.

Julian Barnes makes a lot of the 5th Symphony's deliberately banal, crowd-pleasing ending, but fails to mention the tragic slow movement, which had much of the audience in floods of tears because they felt that the music articulated something that nobody dared to utter. This is important, because it shows that Shostakovich's response was more enigmatic and nuanced than the text implies.

In addition to the musical omissions, I also felt that The Noise of Time read more like an essay than a novel and its brevity sometimes made it feel like a Cliff Notes guide to Stalinism. But quibbles aside, I liked the book far more than I thought I would. It succeeds brilliantly at conveying the absurdity and obscenity of Stalinism, but also shows how the thaw under Khrushchev offered a different kind of existential threat.

The narrative was also punctuated with many memorable anecdotes, the most telling of which was the fact that Stalin's guards always kept a spare pair of trousers handy, as so many terrified film directors and artists soiled themselves in the presence of the Man of Steel. Shostakovich witnessed one of these incidents at a film premier, when Stalin's gruff response to a message he'd been handed was misconstrued by the director. Convinced that he was destined for the gulag or the firing squad, the poor man disgraced himself before passing out.

I finished the book full of admiration for Julian Barnes, but I still believe that the best account of the Stalinist period is probably the first movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1948 and kept in a drawer until two years after Stalin's death, this dark, brooding music is one of the bleakest things I have ever heard, but it is utterly brilliant:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gnomes and Dwarves

It has been an uneventful week. My mother was completely nonplussed by David Bowie's death, complaining that her Daily Mail had too many articles about him:

"There were 13 pages. 13! I can't think of anything he's done."

I mentioned The Laughing Gnome, which my mother remembered from Junior Choice, but the rest of Bowie's oeuvre has passed her by. In fairness, she was in her early 40s when David Bowie began to make a name for himself. What little interest in popular music my mother had, ended with Nina and Frederik.

(After retiring at the peak of his career, Frederik went on to briefly own Burke's peerage, before moving to the Philippines, where his yacht was used to transport cannabis. He died from gunshot wounds in 1994).

I may laugh at my mother's ignorance of popular culture, but the truth is that my parents were far more au fait with the charts than I am, as the day would always begin with Radio Two (I have a distinct memory of my father shaving over the kitchen sink, listening to Tony Orlando and Dawn singing Knock Three Times).

I can't remember the last time I knew what Number One was.

A few days later, Alan Rickman died. My mother had never heard of him, while another person thought he was the pop musician who appeared on Grumpy Old Men.

I despair.

After a rather odd Christmas, life has returned to normal. My days are shaped around taking and collecting my sons to their respective schools and while the driving can be a little tedious, at least it takes me through some beautiful countryside. I enjoy seeing how much the same landscape can change according to the weather and time of day.

To make the journey pass more quickly, my younger son and I have started listening to audio plays. We tried a very enjoyable 1950s NBC radio series called X Minus One (thank you to Val for the link) and are now working our way through the BBC adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I'd forgotten how annoying Gimli the Dwarf was, always droning on about his dull ancestors.

In between driving, posting book orders and being a housewife, I occasionally stop to take a snap of anything that catches my eye. Here are some things from the last few weeks:

I will soon have more photos of Lewes than Google Earth.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chaos Theory

This evening, my wife returned from her new publishing job and gave me a brief overview of the highlights of her working day. I half listened, until she mentioned that 200 envelopes had been returned to her workplace by the Post Office:

"They contained catalogues that we'd posted to bookshops. They were sent back because none of those shops exist any more."

I'd become used to the slow process of attrition that has seen the number of British bookshops halve in seven years, but the image of the 200 returned catalogues really hit home. I wondered what the booksellers who'd worked in those shops were doing now.

For their sake, I hope that none of them ended up in the bookshop I visited today: a sorry affair that has crossed the line from eccentricity to neglect, with piles of unsorted stock, shelves that appear on the verge of collapse and an all-pervading smell of body odour and stale tobacco.

In one section, an elderly man with a respiratory problem rummaged through a pile of Pan paperbacks, pausing only to glare at me and mark his territory with extended elbows. In another, a sparrow-faced woman in her 60s looked nervously at me, as if I was about to perform an indecent act. I tried moving to a different floor, but heard a man chanting "Mmm...umm...hmph...mee..." and made a swift exit.

This was bookishness in the worst sense of the word: dysfunctional, misanthropic and obsessive. I wondered what the staff thought of their clientele, before I realised that some of the customers were the booksellers. But experience has taught me that when I find myself repulsed by something, it is often a smokescreen for something I see in myself. Perhaps I still might become the wheezy old man who smells of stale cake and uses his elbows to deter others.

It seems perverse that this bookshop has survived while far better ones have gone to the wall, but I suspect that its overheads are fairly low and that the building is owned rather than leased. The stock itself is reasonably good and it seems a pity that so much of it is inaccessible. I saw a lot of dead stock obscuring the more sellable titles.

I can feel a quest coming on. If anyone can recommend a decent secondhand bookshop in the south of England (or beyond, as I want to travel around the UK this year), with a good selection of paperback novels, I'd really appreciate it.