Monday, October 05, 2015

Music For Grown-Ups

The other morning I found myself admiring The Cruel Sea, for the umpteenth time. So many British war films of the 1950s perpetuate the myths that were created to boost morale and have a crass, triumphalist tone. However, The Cruel Sea feels like a film for grown-ups.

One of the key elements that helps to define the film's tone is one that I suspect many people overlook: Alan Rawsthorne's marvellous score.

Take this scene for example, in which HMS Compass Rose is making its maiden voyage. In the hands of a lesser composer, the music would probably be very upbeat and bombastic, but Rawsthorne has written something far more interesting:


(For some reason, the clip doesn't play on some phones)

When a handful of dockyard workers cheer from the quay, instead of adding a patriotic flourish, Rawsthorne's music emphasises the pathos of the scene, with the young, inexperienced officer shyly half-saluting in reply, as the small, vulnerable corvette leaves the safety of its harbour. The atmosphere reminds me a little of a Ravillious painting, from his time as a War Artist.

The use of music is also particularly effective in the next clip, setting the scene, but also knowing when to quietly bow out so that the most harrowing moments take place in silence. The two sailors are the brother and husband-to-be of a widow called Mrs Bell:


And in the film's key scene, there is no music at all. Jack Hawkins doesn't need any help:


Of course, the brilliance of The Cruel Sea is a team effort and with names like Eric Ambler, Charles Frend, Michael Balcon, Jack Hawkins, Denholm Eliot, Virginia McKenna and Nicholas Montsarrat, it would be hard to produce a dud. But I think Alan Rawsthorne's score is definitely the icing on the cake, imbuing the narrative with a bleak, resigned stoicism.

These days, far too much film music is usually cliché-ridden and uninspiring, with an emotional palette that rarely progresses beyond happy, sad, in love, danger, funny and mysterious. Indeed, in music, 'filmic' is now a euphemism for overblown, melodramatic and sentimental and when I hear the soundtracks for films like Lord of the Rings, I feel a sense of despair.

I'm not sure exactly why the rot set in, but I'm pretty sure that it all went wrong after Star Wars, but that's a rant for another day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"French Suite, First Floor"

Perhaps it's the male menopause, if such a thing exists, but the other day I did something I thought I'd never do. I'd learned about it almost by accident and was told that I would find the house down a small dark alley where, if I knocked on the right door, I would be shown upstairs to a room where a woman called Marcia would entertain me.

It was my first clavichord recital.

The clandestine recital took place in a small medieval building. By day, it houses a workshop, where harpsichords and replicas of other early keyboard instruments are built.

I'd seen some of the instruments a couple of weeks earlier at an open day and was speechless with admiration at their perfection. Every detail, right down to the creation of the metal strings, reflected a painstaking process that required a rare marriage of artistic and technical acumen. When someone mentioned that they occasionally held recitals, I had to go.

The soloist was an elegant, refined woman called Marcia Hadjimarkos, who introduced the pieces she was playing and talked a little about the instrument. "I don't know how you feel about clapping, but perhaps you'd just like to wave your programmes in between pieces and clap at the end. If you feel like clapping." And we did exactly that, with a ripple of muted, embarrassed laughter.

If I'd started filming in the middle of the recital, things might have turned ugly, so here's a clip of Marcia Hadjimarcos playing the fortepiano, with an introduction in French.

It's an odd instrument, with a lid, or swell, that keeps opening and closing. At one point I expected Sooty to appear.

Unlike the fortepiano, the clavichord doesn't have any pedals and it was extraordinary to hear the soloist produce such a wide dynamic range. A vibrato effect was created by wobbling the finger on the key, while pianissimo was achieved by an extreme delicacy of touch.

In the interval, I was fortunate enough to meet the woman who built the clavichord and she kindly responded to my inane questions with patience and charm. I hope I didn't come across as a complete idiot.

As for the music, it took a little while to learn to listen properly, but once I was in the 'zone' (partly thanks to a glass of wine in the interval), I found the recital increasingly rewarding. Listening to Bach's French Suites, with their extraordinary, almost electronic timbre, was a revelation. By the time I heard the exquisite encore, I was a convert.

There's something quite magical about an intimate recital in a medieval building, listening to music as it would have been heard three centuries ago. The phrase 'early music' used to bring me out in a cold sweat, but now I can see what I've been missing. Better late than never.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Clichés of Instagram

It's good to have a hobby and as stamp collecting probably wouldn't provide the same frisson as it did when I was 13, I've become increasingly preoccupied with Instagram. Seeing a random selection of pictures from around the world is fascinating and I also enjoy uploading snapshots and receiving 'likes' from complete strangers.

It may seem a small pleasure, but it's very gratifying to know that someone has enjoyed looking at one of my photos for 1.3 seconds.

However, my love of Instagram is not unqualified and there are a few themes (or should that be memes?) that I'm thoroughly fed up with.

Here are a few of my main irritants:

1. The Cup of Coffee

Why would anyone want to see a photo of someone else's cup of coffee?

I've no idea, but there are thousands of pictures on Instagram that people have taken of their favourite beverage (very rarely tea, for some reason). I know that coffee comes in many varieties, but you wouldn't know that from looking at the endless shots of frothy hearts in white cups.

I appreciate that people are sharing something that has made them happy and yes, it's lovely that the barista has done a little squiggly design in the froth to distract customers from the exorbitant price. But are the identikit coffees of global corporations sufficiently interesting to warrant photographing?

Probably not.

2. Feet

I'll come clean here and admit that I have whatever the opposite is of a foot fetish. If I had my way, everyone over the age of 12 would be banned from wearing sandals or flip flops and socks would be compulsory. But prejudices aside, what possesses so many people to think that it's a quirky, original idea to photograph their feet?

I never ceased to be amazed at the number of 'foot selfies' on Instagram and wish that there was a shoe button I could press to filter them out.

3. The 'Inspirational' Quote.

Uploading quotes onto Instagram is just wrong It's a site for sharing photographs, not moronoic platitudes that collapse under the most casual scrutiny. "It's a good day to have a good day"?

Let's just hang that one up on the wall of an oncology ward. They'll love it.

And to "Be who you are, not what the world wants you to be" is just self-centred nonsense. In the real world, who we are is a necessary compromise between our own desires and the needs of others. It's called civilisation.

Those are my top three. I'd also rather not see so many pictures of cats, Big Ben, poppies, white balloons, tattoos and Amsterdam, but I won't even try to justify those prejudices  (and of course, it's quite likely that someone is looking at my photos and tutting at their predictability and narrow range of themes, along with the paucity of uplifting thoughts and feet).

But even clichés can be good in the right hands. Look at what this photographer has done with a hackneyed, familiar scene:

The same photographer also managed to come up with a stunning photo of Big Ben:

I'd like to see what he could do with a cup of coffee.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


During the summer I became quite discontented with my house (sadly not the one above), which felt smaller and noisier than ever. Outside, builders shouted, drilled and listened to hideous power ballads. Inside, my wife, sons and cats occupied every room except the main bedroom.

At one point I started viewing property websites and looked longingly at houses with spacious kitchens and gardens larger than a bath mat. Many of them had a study and a shed - catnip for a middle aged man - plus the en suite bathroom that my wife has yearned for all these years.

To add to the temptation, the houses weren't selling for any more money than the value of our home. If we could buy one of these houses (and somehow lose our cats during the move), how much better life could be. I could have that book-lined study I'd always dreamed about.

But the bubble always burst when I clicked on the maps and realised that there is a simple rule to purchasing a property in this area: unless you're blessed with a large sum of money, you can either have a small house in a good location, or a large home in a less desirable one. Invariably, whenever I saw a house I liked, there was a catch.

Also, many of the larger houses I saw conformed to Patrick Hamilton's snobbish but amusing description in a book I'm reading at the moment, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse:

'The houses were squat, two-storied affairs. Their fronts had all been most oddly treated. It looked as if the builder had had some sort of infantile sea-mania for shingled beaches, and that, to indulge this passion, he had, having covered the external walls with thick glue, used some extraordinary machine with which to spray them densely with small pebbles.

In the front gardens of most of these houses there were, in addition to sundials, countless images of Gnomes, Dwarfs, Fairies, Goblins, and Peter Pans - the inhabitants of Sispara Road having, it seemed, a strong turn of mind for the whimiscal, the grotesque and the beautiful.'

So for the time being, I am staying put in the unpebbledashed, gnome-free streets of Lewes, resigned to living in a terraced Victorian shoebox, but grateful to live in a town that is full of delights, with solid, unpretentious housing.

In a vague attempt to improve my fitness and leave my cramped surroundings behind, I've been going on long walks around Lewes. I have a particularly good pair of shoes that were originally designed for postmen (if you look carefully, you can see 'Royal Mail' embossed on the side) and they enable me to stride around the town at a speed that burns off a few calories and gets the heart racing.

The other day I explored the ruins of the Priory of St Pancras, which was built roughly 940 years ago:

There's nothing like a good ruin to put things into perspective, whether it's a Norman priory in Sussex or a deserted office block in Detroit. Ruins are humbling, or should be.

Last night, the Priory of St Pancras looked particularly beautiful as volunteers had lit over a thousand candles, all strategically placed either on the ground or in the nooks of the stone walls. It was quite magical.

(My only reservation was over the decision to lay a double row of lights, as it looked like one of those makeshift landing strips that feature in war films. When, at one point, I heard the drone of a light aircraft, I was worried that its confused pilot was about to make a descent. But that aside, it was a magical evening.)

As the sun set, a choir started singing Carmina Burana and I felt incredibly grateful that I lived in a town that did things like this. If my pokey, Victorian terraced house was the price that I had to pay for living in Lewes, it was probably one worth paying.

Also, at a time when so many people around the world have been displaced from their homes, it seemed absurd to be complaining about something so self-indulgent and trivial.

But when the car exhausts and builders' hammers get too much, I can faintly hear the quiet call of the garden gnomes whispering "Shed, conservatory, en suite bathroom, study, parking space, large kitchen, guest bedroom..." and a part of me weakens.

P.S - In response to Joan's comment, I have a very short video clip of the choir, which I've added. I didn't bother trying to film anything in the dark, but I hope this captures something of the evening's magic. Oh, and did I add that it was all free?