Friday, 22 July 2011

Entertainment or propaganda? – from W1 to E98

I didn’t know until a day or so ago that Margaret Howell, the upmarket shirt shop in Wigmore Street, used to be the Bechstein piano emporium. Nor did I know that the Wigmore Hall, when it opened in 1901, was called the Bechstein Hall, and had been paid for by the neighbouring importer of German uprights and grands.
My third heretofore unknown fact was that in 1916, around the time Dame Nellie Melba was savaged by “patriots” for having a Bechstein to accompany her as she sang “Land of Hope and Glory”, the British government confiscated shop, hall and the contents of both on the pretext that they were enemy property.
I discovered these things while poking about the web after visiting the Wigmore Hall for the first time this week to see our friends’ daughter play violin in the superb Pro Corda Chamber Champions Concert.
It would have made more sense had I already known the previously unknowns when, listening in the first half to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, I began to get spooked by some troubling imagery.
Above, the painted figures gleamed in their golden canopy. Piano, violin and cello shone and flashed, and the young players in their evening dress looked elegant and charming and beautiful as they unwound the melancholy enchantment of the music.
But what I began thinking of was the same concert happening not in 2011, or even 1911, but in the 1920’s, and not in London, but in Berlin, and in a society slowly moving, stitch by stitch then step by step, but so slowly that the stitches were at first unseen, and the steps could at first be ignored or denied, towards a howling chaos of flags and boots and uniforms in which the players would be engulfed.
Why did two movements of 19th century music seem pregnant with 20th century horrors? And even more so when, during the second half, in another trio, Shostakovich’s No 2 in E Minor, a face seemed to raise itself from the contemplation of that same bloody chasm to stare out at us.
The Shostakovich was written in 1944, after the more-than-decimation of the Soviet Union in World War II (14 per cent of the population – 23.4 million – slain), and after the revelations of the holocaust; through the trio blows, or so it seemed to me, those “winds that were old when the Gods were young,” those winds that fan sparks into fire and spread snow over ashes; piano was drum and gun and bell, cello was crunch of feet and snapping of twigs and then a guitar and then cello again, while the violin plucked out fragments of Jewish song and wept or laughed – and the whole piece ended, or faded, rather (again, so it seemed to me), on a brief but ambiguous chord like a question mark.
A programme note reminded us that Shostakovich was often in big trouble with the Soviet authorities. He couldn’t do “socialist realism,” he couldn’t churn out stuff that “served the revolution,” the musical equivalent of the kind of kitsch I wrote about after seeing the University of Westminster’s exhibition of images from Mao’s China a few weeks back.
So there is nothing “heroic” or “triumphant” about this E Minor trio. There is nothing which is in the service of anything at all. It is art, and it is reportage, and it is an entertainment.
Let me rush to explain that by an entertainment I mean that which persuades us, for its duration, to put aside all other preoccupations and concentrate on what it’s doing. By that definition, King Lear is as much an entertainment as Morecambe and Wise, Mendelssohn (or Shostakovich) as Buddy Holly.
What an entertainment does not ever do is try to get our attention with the grappling hooks of a prior moral claim or a charitable purpose or a political manifesto. It does not say, you MUST watch or listen to or read this because if you don’t you’re an unfeeling or uncaring louse.
An entertainer (whether Dmitry Shostakovich or Buddy Holly) recognises a certain duty which T.S. Eliot (who wasn’t Ogden Nash) identified when discussing his own craft. He wrote: “We cannot afford to forget that the first - and not one of the least difficult - requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting.”
You may, perhaps, have realised by now that I’ve been heading all along from Wigmore Street to Fleet Street, or, more accurately, from Wigmore Street (W1) to Wapping (E98) by way of the continuing shenanigans at News International and in the House of Commons.
In journalism, I’m inclined to believe, the only choice is between entertainment or propaganda.
News International has been as guilty as other papers of crossing the line. One thinks of Rebekah Brooks’s asinine campaign for a “Sarah’s Law”. It is the business of journalists to report – disinterestedly – an outrage. It is the business of politicians to campaign and change laws.
Stitch by stitch and step by step we are now travelling through a period of hysteria towards... well, not flags, boots and uniforms, I hope, but certainly towards a new system of Press regulation. I’ll just quote Alastair Campbell again: “The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.”
Entertainment, eh? Irresponsible stuff. No, what journalism needs is a purpose, an agenda, a seriousness, a “passion”, a reverence for “culture” and a respect for “society”. But do we dare ask, who defines “culture”? or, what constitutes “society”? or could we suggest that what journalism “needs” might turn out, alas, to end with its conversion from entertainment to propaganda?

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