That remark falls loosely into the category of ‘if I had a pound for every time that was said to me I would be a millionaire!’ Apart from the sheer impossibility of living with your nose in a book (just imagine the number of things you would walk into!) you know exactly what the remark means. It seems to suggest that reading is a slightly subversive activity and that exposing yourself to the wide world of learning and experience contained in books is somehow a distraction from what people like to call the ‘real’ world. I am sure that I read somewhere that Thomas Merton the Trappist monk and writer wrote of his entry into the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky as a flight from the world that eventually saw him embracing the world through his writings, particularly his prodigious correspondence. I have looked at my reading in the same way- wherever I have gone in my reading, to distant planets, Middle Earth, Discworld or some historical period, the journey has always brought me back into the real world with some new insight or understanding. And the critics of reading are, in part, exactly right, this is a subversive activity because reading challenges you to look at the world (and worlds) in a different way.
This is even true of writers like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh who manage effortlessly to provide readable ‘light’ fiction that can also be read as an examination of the times they lived in. I once rashly criticised Agatha Christie in conversation with my wife who challenged me to at least read one of her books (‘The Secret of Chimneys’), I read it and was so hooked I had to stay up until I had finished it- the reader is always learning!! Reading brings me comfort, challenge and surprise, for example, when the film versions of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ came out I was convinced that I would never be able to read the books again without seeing Peter Jackson’s interpretation and Alan Lee’s designs but I read the trilogy again recently and was amazed at how fresh Tolkien’s original vision remained, and, ironically, how ‘comfortable’ Middle Earth remained. Truly the world teems with stories and thankfully we are light years away from that place where some stories were privileged over others in the way that history was always written by the winners.
Reading can be seen as a solo activity, although the growth of reading clubs illustrates the fact that reading with others can be an exciting prospect. It is also perhaps a long way down the list of practical things that can be done to make the world a better place, but it strikes me that if more of us were found with our noses in a book the world and its inhabitants might be better understood and tolerance might grow and flourish. As long, that is, as we remember to look where we are going!
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band- just a record, more and less.
Duke Ellington and the power of the small.
When items of popular culture achieve a significant age it always seems to me to be a good idea to look back to where I was when they first entered the cultural world. The Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is 50 years old this year- its journey from its initial release as a vinyl album on the 1st June 1967 into the dizzying world of music streaming and downloads is a fascinating one. No matter what my elders said, this is durable music and, presented in new remixes by Giles Martin sounds like it was made yesterday, to use that venerable cliche. I was thirteen years old when the album was released, fresh from miming to Beatles songs with a tennis racquet in front of a mirror, from the first record I ever owned (a copy of an ‘extended play’ 45RPM vinyl that featured ‘Twist and Shout’, three other songs and a cover image in which the Fab Four seemed to float above a landscape of broken bricks!), and from my misapprehension that ‘She Loves You’ was the first record they had made!
But ‘Pepper’ was cut from different cloth. The ‘group’ had moved from the mixture of punchy pop and cover versions of their earlier albums to inhabit a sound world of their own creation. For me ‘Pepper’ really begins with the last track on its predecessor ‘Revolver’; ‘’Tomorrow Never Knows’ still stops me in my tracks with its sheer power and audacity. ‘Pepper’ continues that creation of music that defines an era and most of what followed that era; the highlights are legion- from the world music of ‘Within You, Without You’ to the vaudevillian influences of the title track and its reprise. The durable pop with darker overtones of ‘Getting Better’ and ‘Fixing a Hole’, the jaunty ‘easy’ listening of ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, the piano solo on ‘Lovely Rita’ and the guitar solo on ‘Good Morning’ and the climax of ‘A Day in the Life’ where John Lennon’s introspection and Paul McCartney’s pop nouse are framed within nods towards a larger musical world. These 12 tracks were at the same time the height of The Beatles’ creativity and in some senses the beginning of the end as their cohesion as a group gradually disintegrated in the years that followed its release.
But why ‘just a record- more and less’? Well, for me this record was just a record- it could be (and was!) scratched and damaged as I carried it around to impress my friends and played it on a variety of indifferent equipment. The cover was prone to everything that happens to laminated cardboard and what various moves around the country could do. I kept my original copy along with its later version on compact disc and even now am thinking seriously about buying the latest remix by Giles Martin. So a record yes, but at the same time it is more than a record, speaking not only about technical advances in recording techniques but also about a journey through adolescence. At one time I would have almost defended The Beatles to the death, forgetting that they were as much a product of astute marketing and pop culture as the music they produced, and arguing that even what looked like later excesses should be accepted on their own terms (you can imagine how my parents appreciated that!). Yet later years and experiences have only increased my appreciation for what they did. Like all good music it is what it is (the considerable irony is that ‘disposable pop’ is often a more reliable guide to era that produces it than more ‘cultured’ approaches!), but it is also much more. The music on this album reaches beyond the narrow limitation of its form to create something that, at 50, is still miles ahead of a lot of what passes for pop music in this bewildered century. In my opinion of course!