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This year (2018)

Previous years: 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005

Bettina Hoffmann:
     Die Viola da Gamba
Graham Swift:
     Last Orders
Ian McEwan:

     The Children Act


Ian McEwan:

     Black Dogs
Hideo Yokoyama:
     Six Four

A Few Books from the Beginning of the Year:

     To begin with, a Christmas present was Bettina Hoffmann's book on the viol - or viola da gamba. I didn't really appreciate it as much as a previous book I had read on the same subject, namely "Die Gambe", by Annette Otterstedt. That earlier book had more technical information about the instrument, and interesting, very personal observations of the author. But the present book was a history of the viol, finding as many historical quotations as possible which boundlessly praise the qualities of the instrument. While this may flatter the ambitions of amateur musicians, it had less substance than Ottersetdt's book. Of course I am extremely interested in this subject since now, in retirement, my main ambition is to learn to play the viol. For this purpose I am practicing for at least three hours most days.

    Last year I very much enjoyed reading "Mothering Sunday", by Graham Swift. Therefore I was looking forward to reading more by the same author. "Last Orders" won the Booker Prize in 1996, so I thought it must be good. However, as experience has often shown, the Booker Prize is often not a particularly good recommendation. I was only able to wade through the first 50 or so pages before giving up. The book is filled with working class London dialogue, often awkward to read, involving a group of men who have been drinking together at a pub for years. One of the men has died and they are setting off to do something with the ashes. I suppose the professors of literature, sitting on the Booker Prize Panel with their posh, upper class accents, thought that they might redeem themselves by voting for this book. I found it to be boring, seemingly going nowhere, telling a totally uninteresting story.
    Then I tried "Waterland" and did read it through to the end. The story takes place in the Fens, which is a lowland region on the eastern coast of England. The author philosophizes about the quality of mud, water, eels, flatness. He seems to associate these things with human depravity, madness. The story of the book is a complicated affair, describing the rise and fall of a brewery family. In the end it all boils down to an unpleasant little business involving the memories of the narrator of his adolescent sexual explorations in the mud, resulting in the pregnancy of his future wife, a horrible abortion and the consequences of the resulting sterility. An unpleasant story.

    Happily, I then realized that there are still a number of books by Ian McEwan which I have not read yet. "The Children Act" is about a very highly placed, established woman judge in the English judicial system at the "Inner Temple", or something, of the "Inns of Court" in London. She has her apartment there which she shares with her husband, a professor at a London university. They have no children. Career has come first, and now it is too late. Frustration about the failure of this basic biological urge to reproduce causes the husband to think of an affair with a younger woman. His wife, the judge, filled with anger, tells him that the consequence will be his banishment from the family. But this isn't really the main story. It is concerned with the Jehovah's Witnesses and a young man who needs a blood transfusion to save his life, yet he is a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, still a minor, and thus, following the recommendation of the hospital, could be forced by the courts to accept a transfusion against his wishes. As with all these books of McEwan, it was hard to put down. There develops a fatal relationship between the young man and his judge.
    I've given pints of blood to the Red Cross at least 30 times over the years. But now I'm too old, and anyway, after all my eye operations a few years ago they think that my blood might have become impure so they no longer want it. Blood seems to me to be something which is hardly worthy of complicated religious pronouncements.
    "Nutshell" was a strange book, telling the story of the murder of a man by his brother and his pregnant wife through the experiences of the unborn baby. It took a while to get used to the idea of an unborn baby philosophizing about all sorts of things, and in particular objecting to the fact that the brother of his father was continuously inserting his member into the birth canal of his mother. But gradually it became an amusing story of human frailties.

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

     The review in the New York Times which I've linked to here really tells it all. June and Bernard Tremaine fall in love with one another while working in some sort of secret agency an London during the Second World War. They had both joined the communist party of England during the 1930s, perhaps for the friendship of other young people, all going out together on bicycle trips and what have you. They marry after the war and take a trip to Italy and France with the idea of helping people who had become destitute. After a month or two of this, they escape to a lonely region in the south of France to go hiking in the hot summer sun.
    At one point, June walks ahead, leaving Bernard behind, examining the doings of some caterpillars. Suddenly June sees two huge black dogs along the path. They attack her, but she shields herself with her rucksack and stabs one of them with a pocket knife, thus driving them away. This experience changes their lives. The dogs represent evil. They were trained for evil by the occupying Nazi Gestapo. Returning along the path, June and Bernard meet a tranquil French shepherd who lets them sleep in an old barn. On an impulse June buys the barn, and over the years it becomes the center of her life. She rejects communism and embraces mystical spirituality. Bernard returns to England. His overly rational communism turns him into a successful left-wing politician, often in the news, having an opinion about everything. June and Bernard hate, and yet still distantly love one another, living far apart in different countries. All of this is narrated many years later by their son-in-law who speaks to one and then the other, trying to understand their story.
    I thought it strange that June settled in that isolated, lonely farmhouse near to her experience of evil. But who can understand the mysteries of the spirit? Bernard has rationalized away the failure of communism, yet the middle chapter of the book takes place in the Berlin of 1989 when the Wall fell down. Bernard is excited and rings the narrator in the middle of the night to get him to come with him to enjoy the End of Communism party in Berlin. They hectically arrange a flight from London. In Berlin, Bernard is attacked by a group of skinheads.
    If the book is about good and evil then I suppose Bernard has now also learned that there are forms of evil which are not political. I remember that some Germans here did go to Berlin back then on that night in 1989, finding it to be a great emotional experience. But I thought the situation was potentially very dangerous, and the many Russian soldiers stationed in East Germany could easily have been ordered to go on the rampage, violently suppressing the whole business. Thankfully that didn't happen.

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

     This is a police novel written by a Japanese. It shares with those Scandinavian police stories and TV programs the idea that we are more interested in the police themselves, their personal lives, loves, ambitions, rather than the criminals, or the victims of all the crimes.
    But if we are to believe the story of this book, then it must be the case that those Japanese policemen are very different from the more familiar Scandinavian ones. The hero is named Mikami. (This made me think of Murakami, the novelist who writes those fascinating Japanese surreal novels.) There are lots of other policemen, women, and other characters whose names start with M, and so I lost track of things every now and then. At the end of the book we realize that all this M..., and in particular Ma... business has a certain reason. Anyway, Mikami used to be a detective, actively hunting criminals, but six or eight months ago he was unhappily transferred from the "Criminal Investigations" side of things into "Administrative Affairs". His job is to deal with the press. Newspapers, TV.
    His office is next to the room of the Press Club, and the big thing is that a pregnant woman has had an accident in her car, killing a pedestrian. The press wants to know her name. Yet Mikami has instructions to protect the woman by withholding the name. This conflict seems to go on for hundreds of pages. The reporters in the Press Club become more and more aggressive. And then everybody else in Administrative Affairs treats Mikami dreadfully as well.
    Do all those Japanese who, as in this story, outwardly pretend to be so nice and polite suddenly become horrible in when they know that they are safely concealed from public censure?
    The GREAT SECRET, which at all costs must remain hidden, but which after countless trials and tribulations Mikami uncovers, is that during a kidnapping 14 years ago, the police tried to record the kidnapper's voice on tape, but for some obscure technical reason, the tape recorder failed to start at the critical moment. The police considered this to be such a great scandal that everyone who knew about the problem was silenced.
    One of the policemen was hounded out of the force, and then another policeman spent the next 14 years spying on the disgraced one. And another was driven to insanity, spending the 14 years locked up in his bedroom.
    This - or perhaps many other things - (or the Japanese mentality in general) led to a total conflict between Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations. Rather than investigating crime, they seemed to spend all their time investigating one another. Finally Mikami learns the ULTIMATE SECRET, namely that the central police department in Tokyo is planing to replace the local chief of police with a candidate of their own. This is considered to be a catastrophe of such earth-shaking dimensions that it is almost sufficient to unite Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations.
    Well, all of this seems to me to be very strange. How are we to understand all these crazy Japanese? Surely things at the local police station would improve if Tokyo sent somebody to clear up the whole mess. And somehow the Scandinavian version of "The Police" agrees more with what I would imagine to be a sensible state of affairs. But thankfully I have almost never had reason to interact with the police. Nevertheless it seems to me that at least the police here are civilized and can be counted upon to see to it that society functions with as little fuss as possible.