main: May 2009 Archives
Halfway through a Lebrecht Interview for the upcoming BBC Radio 3 series, Hilary Hahn took control and demanded: 'But what about you? I want to know what you think musicians should be doing in this situation. You're supposed to be the expert. Where's it all going?'
It was an astute interjection, cleverly deflecting my line of questioning from areas where the hard-headed violinist did not want to go and putting the pressure on the interviewer to come up with an instant panacea. Did I pass the test? You'll have to hear the programme, which goes out some time in July or August. But I liked Hilary all the more for her initiative and the moment loosened her up for the rest of the conversation as much as it did me.
She insisted afterwards that we had photos taken making funny faces to belie my description of her as the most serious violinist of her generation. In the course of time, you'll see the pictures on the BBC website. Tomorrow night, Hilary will be playing Jennifer Hidgon's concerto in Liverpool with Vasily Petrenko and recording it for Deutsche Grammophon the following day.
At the Jewish Quarterly's Wingate Book award, which I judged in 2008, last night's winner was a rank outsider. Against a field which included Jackie Wullschlager's outstanding biography of Marc Chagall and Zoe Heller's straight-to-Hollywood novel, The Believers, the prize went to the late Fred Wander for a Holocaust memoir, The Seventh Well.
It was the second award bash I attended in three nights and it set me thinking again about the value of small awards against the eye-grabbing razzamatazz of the Booker, the Costa and their like. The RSL Ondaatje prize set us thinking about the importance of a sense of place in a work of literature. The JQ Wingate goes to a book that 'stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern among a wider reading public'.
It is a rather loose definition, and one that set us debating fiercely last year before giving the prize to the Israeli micro-novelist Etgar Keret, a genuine original. Where small awards score for me against the big guys is in their focus on aspects of writing rather than a one-size-fits-all criterion of excellence - most commonly resulting in a compromise.
If Julie Burchill, Will Skidelsky and Francesca Segal, the Wingate judges, think that Wander is of greater Jewish concern than Chagall, that's a big statement. It puts Fred among my must-reads for the month. More prizes, please, say I.
Three years ago I was asked to judge an unusual literary prize, one which became more unusual as the judging progressed. The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize is a £10,000 annual award for 'a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place'.
My colleagues and I had little trouble separating the distinguished works from the run of the mill, but when it came down to determining 'the spirit of a place' we found ourselves in an uncharted landscape of infinite possibilities.
Every worthwhile work of literature is set somewhere. If you cannot get a sense of the place, the author has failed and should not be on any longlist. But the spirit of a place.... that's something ethereal, immaterial, beyond the remit of lit crit.
We settled, from a strong shortlist, for James Meek's novel The People's Act of Love, a story of Russian castrates in a Siberian wasteland that was so original in tone and place that the reader is forced into spiritual contemplation.
Last night, at a festive dinner at the Travellers' Club, the RSL judges gave the 2009 award to Adam Nicolson for Sissinghurst, in which the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson restores their Bloomsbury-idyll garden in Kent.
The temperate beauty of the place and the prose could not be further removed from James Meek's spartan narrative but, as the result was announced, I felt the prize and its definition deepening into maturity. The room was full of professional writers, and every single one of us came away with an enhanced sense of the importance of place in what we do. This is no longer an unusual award. It is one that cuts to the quick of what writing books is about.
At the innocent dawn of television in the 1950s, a contest was devised to spotlight national differences in popular music, No-one took it very seriously, except as a way of showing how live broadcasts could be exchanged by landline, and the content provided gentle amusement around the continent as Bavarians popped up slapping leather-clad bottoms, Switzerland supplied an obligatory yodeller and Norway collected a statutory zero, nul points.
Over time, competitive instinct took over the Eurovisison Song Contest and all entries merged into an English-as-second-language lesson with more or less the same rhythm and tunes. Eastern Europe joined the party after the communist wall came down and the membership extended into the heart of Azerbaijan, which my atlas puts in the middle of Asia.
As television lost the line between virtual and reality, small countries started taking the result seriously and politically, as if it were a judgement of national competence. The delusion spread this year to the United Kingdom, where the BBC devoted countless peak-time hours to choosing a singer who might stand a chance of winning with a specially-written song by Andrew Lloyd Webber, agony uncle of BBC talent shows. He called the ditty 'It's My Time,' inviting hubris.
By the grace of a continent's culture and intelligence, Norway won last night's show in Moscow by the biggest-ever margin and Lloyd Webber came nowhere - all right, fifth, but as good as nowhere. The Norwegian winner, Alexander Rybak, was good looking, played the violin and wrote his own song about fairies in a genre of English drawn from the lower reaches of the 1950s pop charts 'Every day we started fightin', every night we fell in love, no-one else could make me sadder, but no-one else could lift me high above.' And who said the story of life on earth is one of perpetual evolution? (Watch it on Youtube here.)
Still, there are interesting social and demographic points to be learned from the contest. Regional bloc voting is so predictable as to be transparent. Bosnia-Herzegovina will always award top marks to Croatia, and vice-versa. Armenia will never vote for Turkey. Ethnic Russians in former satellites of the Soviet Union salute the Putin motherland with 12 points.
But much of Europe is now multionational and the voting reveals the size of migrant worker communities in many states. A huge vote for the Moldavian entry from Portugal suggests that large numbers of people from the poorest state in the Balkans have found work in the poorest EU member in western Europe. Switzerland's vote for Portugal is likewise an indication of the homesickness of a migrant underclass. A large vote in Britain for the Turkish song could probably be traced to one postal district of London where Turks and Cypriots have settled.
There is a doctorate in here somewhere for a graduate demographer and a lesson for politicians about true patterns of migration, legal and otherwise. The Eurovision voting patterns, subjected to close analysis, could reveal the human map of Europe.
As for Andrew Lloyd Webber, who said on the eve of the contest 'I don't look at it as a footnote in my career,' - well, he probably does now.