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Nine Lessons and Carols 6

A friend of mine wrote the following in response to the first post in this series. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I think this is beautiful, much better than what I’d planned to write today.

One Lesson, No Carols and Another Parish Hall

Eleven days before Christmas I’ve been at just such a venue – a parish hall in Huddersfield at an English class for refugees and asylum seekers. Even though the activity was different, people’s contributions made the atmosphere the same.

I love these halls, dotted around local villages or attached to churches, built on faith and nineteenth century goodwill. This one is connected to a church built by the great architect George Gilbert Scott, but it’s a bit run down now. It’s no longer at the centre of local people’s lives, but still open and welcoming enough with shabby furniture and a sparsely equipped kitchen that people turn to whatever use their events call for.

It was sleeting when we arrived. Some regular students came early, glad to get inside and help us by setting out the folding tables and chairs. Others drifted in alone or in small groups. We never know exactly who or how many will come, or how much English they already know. By 2.15 there were twenty men and two women from ten different countries. They had eight languages between them, and all but one of them were Muslim.

Our theme today was Christmas. We started tentatively. Did they know the date and the significance of the season? What have they noticed in shops and around the town? Have they seen Christmas celebrated in other countries? Would they like to hear the story of Jesus’s birth from The Bible?

I needn’t have worried; they are eager to know and understand their new country. We contrasted the Islamic prohibition of images of Mohammed with the ubiquitous representations of Jesus, and I used my children’s knitted figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus , shepherds and wise men to illustrate a simple re-telling of the Christmas story. These students were strong on camels and donkeys, but we had to unpick the confusing iconography of holly wreaths and Santa Claus. We decorated a Christmas tree and tried to explain about sprouts and mincemeat.

There was real goodwill and warmth here. They helped each other to understand, and explained to us some of the traditions and festivals of their own countries. By four o clock they’d learned a lot of new vocabulary and been introduced to Rudolph. Yves, a French speaker from the Congo, remembered a snatch of a Christmas carol he used to know. He hummed a couple of lines, and we recognised “Gloria in excelsis deo” well enough to sing it with him. At the end, they stacked the chairs and tables, shook our hands and went out again into the cold.

For next Thursday we’ve planned a Christmas party with food, music, games and gifts for them from a real Father Christmas. I hope they can all join us; it’s what these halls were built for.

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Nine Lessons and Carols 5

One of my favourite concert performances this year was that given by András Schiff at the BBC proms. He sat down at a piano and played through book one of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. That was it. One man on stage with a piano, no introduction, no explanations, he simply played one piece after the other.

Modesty aside, I’m a good piano player. I’m very good. I practice, I try out new things and I get better all the time. And the better I get, the more I’m aware of the gap between me and people like Schiff. Though I can play the pieces he played, I will never play them so well, nor so effortlessly. That’s not me being modest, that’s simple fact. Schiff has practised more than me, he has more talent than me. The more I play, the more I listen to someone like him, the more aware I am of it.

But knowing that is not a reason for me to ever stop playing or performing. I don’t play to be the best, though that doesn’t stop me trying to get better. I don’t expect the audience to hang on my every note, I know they’re only listening some of the time. Sometimes they’re not listening at all. Every performer has experienced this.

And so what? Not everyone can be the best, but everyone can enjoy what they’re doing, and everyone can seek to improve.

We also serve who only stand and wait.

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Nine Lessons and Carols 4

I’ve played the organ for quite a few church services this year. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed it. I’m still finding my way around the keyboards and pedals, I’m still working out the best stops to use. I don’t like the fact that the organ appears to be a purely technical instrument: it doesn’t allow expression in the way a piano does.

Worst of all, I don’t like the context in which I’m playing. I find playing for a congregation very difficult, and consequently I get nervous in the time running up to the service. I feel very exposed, there on my own with nowhere to hide. I’m not playing for myself, I’m there to cue in the congregation and to keep them on track as they’re singing. I’ve got to follow the service carefully and immediately play the appropriate piece at the appropriate time. Even keeping track of the number of verses in a song can be tricky. (Someone suggested that I say the number of the verse out loud as I begin playing it. That works)

My wife asks why do it if I don’t enjoy it. The answer is that I hope to enjoy it someday. I was nervous the first time I stood up to perform, the first time I sent a story off to a publisher, the first time I spoke to girl I liked (and pretty much all the subsequent times). As has become a theme in this series of posts, the things that give me the most pleasure tend to be the things I’ve invested in. There’s not much fun in things that come too easy.

Apart from going for a walk of course. Everyone should walk more.

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Nine Lessons and Carols 3

I got a Christmas card from a friend this morning with a picture of a steam train on the front.

No surprises there, my friend loves steam trains. Since retirement he’s worked as a volunteer on a heritage railway line, mainly restoring old carriages. It keeps him happy, but face it. It’s not the sort of thing most people would choose to do with their spare time. It’s not a cool thing to do.

It occurs to me that few, if any, of my friends are cool. So far this week I’ve had cards from brass band players, Sunday School teachers, a cub scout leader and possibly the uncoolest of the uncool: a Science Fiction writer. I’ve had cards from the sort of people who are generally figures of fun, an easy laugh in a standup routine.

There’s a name for the hobbies and pastimes described above: guilty pleasures. According to Wikipedia "a guilty pleasure is something, such as a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard, or is seen as unusual or weird."

The term is a recent one. The concept, however, has been around for a long time.

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Screwtape the devil says "you should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the best people, the right food, and important books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions."

I don’t believe in devils. People are perfectly capable of acting against their own interests without the intervention of supernatural entities. Why else would anybody feel guilty about listening to a piece of music they enjoy? Or indeed working with steam trains.

If you think about it, it takes a certain strength of character to not care about doing things that most people think are ridiculous.

It’s worth it. In my experience, these sort of people tend to be a lot happier.

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Nine Lessons and Carols 2

Here’s one of my favourite lyrics, one that you’ll hear at this time of year

"There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy,
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie"

Bonus points for naming that tune before reading on.

I like these lines for two reasons.

Firstly, I admire the economy of the writing. It only takes one line for the imagination to conjure up a room full of people. Taken in context with the rest of the lyrics, ("Sleigh Ride" if you didn’t name that tune) I have an image of people in colourful jumpers, their faces filled with excitement and happiness having come in from the cold. They’re chatting brightly, delighted to be amongst friends. All that from one line. That’s good writing.

Secondly, and more to the point of this blog entry, (and following on from yesterday’s entry), the lyrics illustrate that happiness is increased when you’ve invested in it.

Like most people who grew up in England, I have no experience of eating pumpkin pie at Christmas. I do, however, appreciate how much better a cup of coffee tastes after you’ve been out in the cold. I imagine that coffee tastes even better after an exhilarating sleigh ride. (Not that I’ve never taken a sleigh ride, but I know coffee tastes better when drunk after building a snowman with my kids.)

Advertisers know this. That’s why they like to show their clothes, perfumes, food and drinks being worn, eaten and drunk in parties or at family dinner tables. They’re not selling whisky or watches, they’re selling the promise of friendship. It’s all a lie, of course.

You can’t buy friendship with gifts at Christmas or any time. You want friendship, you have to invest in the people you know.

This is so obvious it hardly seems worth writing down.

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Nine Lessons and Carols

Tonight I played as part of a nine piece band at an event in a Methodist Church. I’m not sure what to call the evening, it wasn’t exactly a service, it wasn’t exactly a singalong, but that was part of its charm.

It followed the format of a typical Carol Service – a song and then a reading, but very few of the readings came from the bible. Nearly all were light hearted poems or excerpts from books or little passages written by the congregation themselves.

This was my favourite gig this Christmas. It was about half way through the evening before I figured out why. Quite simply, every one there was enjoying themselves. The performers, the audience, everyone had just come along to enjoy the evening.

I don’t know how many little churches and social clubs I’ve played at over the years. The tea and mince pies, the practically undrinkable Fair Trade Coffee, the homemade watercolours that hang on the walls, the fact that everyone keeps their coat on until it warms up, the two or three people who keep everything running… These are what the venues have in common. What distinguishes them is how seriously the patrons take them. You want to have a good night out, you have to invest in it. Some people think that means buying a ticket or a new outfit. Those people are wrong. Investing in an evening means participating. Singing along, making the tea, getting up on stage to read out a poem you’ve found on the internet or just standing at the door and collecting tickets. People always seem to have a better time at little venues.

At the end of the evening the organiser happened to mention how the same readings came up again and again at these services. Okay, I thought, there are nine days to Christmas. I’ll accept the challenge. I’ll see if I can write something each night for the next nine nights.

Keep watching this space…

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Death and The Maiden

My friend, Chris Beckett, suggested writing down what I thought about whilst listening to a piece of music…


I’m writing this listening to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in Dm, "Death and The Maiden"

The violence of the opening chords, the sense of impending doom that fills the first movement seems obvious to me, and a quick search on the internet suggests that others feel the same.

I often wonder where those emotions come from. Are they innate, part of the music itself, or are they associations gained through years of listening to music?

I believe the feelings generated by music are programmed into us at some basic level. It seems likely to me that we have a common operating system written into us by Western culture and conditioning and through this we interpret the music in the same way.

Extending the idea, if we were to play the music to someone from a different culture and then see that they feel the same emotions, could we deduce that the music is tapping into an operating system at a lower level?

Does it go even wider than that? I don’t think so. No one expects a dog to understand music. Like a book needs a reader, music needs a listener. I think that music and literature are both little parts of our intelligence that are extracted and replayed. Both need our intelligence to make them live.

But what if I’m wrong, that both are filled with some spirit that stands apart from us?

The second movement is playing now. I first heard this piece in my twenties, I think, and it didn’t move me then anywhere near as much as it does now. Has my ability to appreciate the music increased, does my life experience speak more to me, or is it a mixture of both?

It wouldn’t be true to say there was more sadness in my life at the moment, in fact I’d say I’m more content than I’ve ever been. I can, however, see the beginning of my decline in the distance. I’ve achieved nearly everything I set out to achieve in my life, and this too is an ending of sorts. Schubert died aged 31. Perhaps he saw more sadness than I did, or perhaps he crammed more emotion into that early part of his life. Or perhaps he was overly emotional, and I can tap into that better now I’m older.

I think Schubert was a genius, but I tend to think that an artistic genius is someone who was popular in a certain way at a certain time (perhaps that time was after their death, as is true for Schubert.) His music is very clever: the chromatic adeptness; the innovative use of the flattened submediant; the sudden modulations. I know all that intellectually, but that’s not why I’m listening. I’m sure the music wouldn’t have have been remembered if it didn’t have those melodies, that ability to touch emotions across 200 years.

Yesterday morning I walked to work listening to choral music. It made me think of autumn / winter; bare trees; cold stone buildings. Those feelings were not innate to the music. I know that the reverb sounds like empty churches, the voices remind me of carols sung by choirs when I was a child, they stir memories of Christmas, snow and frosty breath. Associations. A lot of music is like this: drums that beat military tattoos and trumpets that sound the charge.

I’m more interested in the emotions intrinsic to the music. I heard the seas rolling in the final movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade before I knew the story behind the music, but this too is an association of sorts: the rise and fall of the strings imitate the waves.

I’m listening to final movement of Death and the Maiden now and as an experiment I’ve tried imagining disparate pictures against the music – bees in a hive, people arguing, two lovers having a picnic, an icy pond, a fairy in a bottle, the US flag on the moon. Some of the pictures fit, some of them clearly don’t.

I think that much of music is association, but these associations are built on something intrinsic. I’ve read that children aren’t frightened of spiders, they have the capacity to be frightened by them, they learn this fear from those around them. This doesn’t work for everything: children don’t have this innate capacity to be frightened by bottles, for example.

The music has finished, and I’m left wondering where the intrinsic part of the music lies. In it, or in me?

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The Great Exam Misdirection

GCSE results are out today in England and Wales, they include the new tougher examinations in English and Maths. There is a new 9 to 1 grading system for these exams, chosen so that more detail can be given about the highest achieving candidates.

A similar discussion was played out last week when the A level results were announced. That’s because politicians love to talk about identifying the "very best" students.

Don’t be taken in, it’s a misdirection. Here’s why.

There are two ways that of grading exams: criterion referencing and norm referencing.

The driving test is a good example of a criterion referenced examination. To pass the driving test you have to show you can do certain things: reverse into a parking space, drive through traffic lights and so on. If you can satisfy all the criteria, you pass. No one complains that too many people are passing the driving test. If you’re good enough, you get your driving licence.

Many professional examinations are criterion referenced. Gas Safe registration is a good example. If an engineer has shown they have the necessary skill, they’re registered.

In norm referenced examinations, all the exams are marked and then put into order. The top 10% say are given the highest grade, the next 10% the next highest grade and so on. This way, so the argument goes, you can find the best students. This is deemed appropriate when there are limited resources. If there are only 10 places available for a university course, they should go to the 10 best students.

That seems fair.

Or is it?

Why not say "this number of students have the necessary skills, let’s make extra university places available for them"? That’s not as unreasonable as it sounds. Most British universities are opening up centres around the world.

One of my jobs is helping potential Oxbridge students apply to Oxford and Cambridge. I’m regularly told by the colleges they have five times the number of capable applicants as they have places, and I believe them. So why not make the universities bigger? The population is increasing, so why not build new colleges at the same rate to accommodate the increasing number of the most able?

Talking about identifying the very best through examinations is a distraction. It allows politicians to ignore the students who would have been able to secure a place at a top college or university 20 years ago but can’t today because the supply of places isn’t keeping up with demand.

It’s in the nature of elites to restrict the number of people who can enter their ranks. Educational elites are no different. Keeping the discussion focused on the very best is a distraction from the fact that there are proportionally less places available today.

Don’t fall for it.

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The Edit

I’ve spent the past week tweaking my latest novel following a rather excellent edit by my agent.

An excellent edit. What does that mean?

It’s not that he corrected the spelling or tidied up the word order, though he did that.

It’s not that he pointed out inconsistencies in the plot, though again these were flagged up.

It was an excellent edit because he showed how to make the story better. He highlighted the areas where characters acted inconsistently, where I’d withheld information unnecessarily, where I’d missed a trick on the story development.

Basically he pointed out where I could be a better writer.

Just to put the above in context, I’d already edited the novel myself several times, I’d had extensive feedback from my wife and two other well known and very experienced authors.

If I’m honest, when I hand my work across to others, I’m really hoping for unadulterated praise. I want them to say that they’ve just read a work of genius. Until that day arrives, I’m delighted to have such talented people offering me advice.

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One of Those Lovely European Moments

On holiday recently I found myself on a bus supposedly travelling from Verona to Lake Garda.

The heat was oppressive that day, the Veronese moved amongst the shadows, only we tourists spent time standing in the sun, gazing up at the architecture. The bus was hot and crowded, it smelled of sun tan cream and sweat. I was jammed into a space between someone’s rucksack and someone else’s shopping. My family were scattered around the bus, squeezed in where they could.

It was some time before it occurred to me that we weren’t moving, that we’d been standing at a bus stop for some time. I noticed the driver was speaking on his phone, he was becoming more and more agitated. He made one final angry remark and then hung up. Those of us towards the front of the bus waited to see what would happen next.

The driver turned and shouted something down the bus. Those who spoke Italian sighed or groaned or muttered angrily. Those of us who didn’t looked around in confusion. And then one of those lovely European moments that I’ve experienced only a few times before occurred: people helped each other to understand.

A woman translated the driver’s words into English. She let us know that the bus was too full, we all had to get off and wait for another bigger bus. There were still some confused faces, and then another woman translated the English into German. Someone corrected her. I heard someone haltingly translating into French for the benefit of the old couple opposite. Gradually, the message travelled the length of the bus.

I’ve seen this happen before, on camp sites in France and Germany, whilst walking around Mont Blanc, when I was Interrailing just after university: people helping each other out, helping each other to understand. I love being European, the differences and the commonalities.

I’m really, really sad that soon we’ll no longer be a part of this.