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This item is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

Letters from John Lucas, Paul McLoughlin, Margaret Snow, & David Kennedy
Culture and Democracy


Neil Powell is right to object that I unfairly accuse Larkin of being 'antediluvian' for calling 'pre-electric' music that was in fact recorded two years before, in Powell's words, 'the acoustic recording horn was replaced by the microphone' (PNR 162). But the point I wanted to make was that to call the musicians who blew into that horn 'antique Negroes' really is very odd, given that some were still alive when Larkin wrote his poem. This is a version of pastoral, I suggest, a way of looking back to a golden, unfallen world. I perhaps should have added that behind the phrase I hear John Crowe Ransom's 'Antique Harvesters', and that Crowe Ransom was a poet much admired by Movement poets. More than that: I recall a talk by Graham Hough on the old Third Programme in which Crowe Ransom was called 'the Marvell of the Deep South', and although I can't remember when the talk took place (the very early 1960s, perhaps) it will have been before the wreckers moved in. I share Powell's anger at the terrible damage done to the Third Programme (PNR 161) but I certainly don't accept Bernard Bergonzi's conclusion (Letters, PNR 162) that the blame for this can be attributed to 'two large words: democracy and capitalism'. Say all you want against capitalism, but leave democracy out of it. Behind Bergonzi's words I hear Yeats's rhetorical hauteur: 'And Guidobaldo, when he made/ That Grammer School of Courtesies/ Upon Urbino's windy hill,/Where wit and beauty learnt their trade,/Had sent no runners to and fro/That he might learn the shepherds' will.' Why shepherds? Why not dukes? Well, because ordinary folk weren't capable of appreciating anything of true cultural worth, whereas dukes were. Even if Yeats believed such rubbish (though he didn't, not always), there were voices around him ready to speak very differently, as he would have known from his familiarity with William Morris. Yeats also knew the Christian socialist Stuart Headlam who, with his fellow London councillor Annie Besant, managed to steer through a law requiring pianos to be installed in every London Board School, so that the poorest he and she might have a decent childhood to live.

When my own maternal grandfather, whom I never knew but who I think must, like so many other educationalists at that time, have been a Christian socialist, became head teacher at an elementary school at Shepherd's Bush just before the outbreak of the Great War, he not only made music education an integral part of the curriculum, he took successive generations of his kids - who were among London's poorest - to productions of Shakespeare. (He lists in the log-books now housed in the Metropolitan Archives As You Like It, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet.) He also made sure they visited art galleries, museums, and other places of cultural interest. And, a decent pianist himself, he made sure they listened to music and where possible learnt to play the piano and any other instrument he could get hold of. He and other teachers who did this were aligning themselves with the ethos that R.H. Tawney, that great democratic socialist, did so much to promulgate (especially in his essay of 1913, 'An Experiment in Democratic Education', concerning the setting up of the WEA) although I've no idea whether my grandfather had read Tawney.

He did, however, know, was indeed friendly with, Ernest Bevin, and would without doubt have approved of the speech of 'the Dockers' KC', when in 1921 Bevin, arguing for a decent wage for dock workers, concluded by telling the court that if it wasn't to be forthcoming, 'you must go to the Minister of Education and tell him to close our schools... Teach us nothing, let us learn nothing, because to create aspirations in our minds, to create the love of the beautiful and then at the same time deny us the wherewithal to obtain it, is a false policy and a wrong method to adopt.' Aspirations. Love of the beautiful. These words are spoken without embarrassment by a demo-cratic socialist, and the vision they try to enunciate was without doubt shared by those who, some twenty years later, were much involved in setting up and running the Third Programme, given that many of them were on the political left. Bergonzi claims that the listening figures for some programmes were 'so small that they could not be assessed', though I wonder how he can be sure of this. My guess is that the Third Programme did rather better than its detractors or even champions imagined could be the case. I was at school during the programme's hey-day and was encouraged - even required - by my teachers to listen to specific items, a practice that I assume was common among school teachers at the time. Nor was this confined to the middle class. Those working-class children who from the late nineteenth century onwards learnt to play the piano at school often had one in their front parlour at home on which to practice. It wasn't just the Lucy Honeychurches of Edwardian England whose piano stools were stuffed with transcriptions of Mozart, Gluck and Wagner. When Jonathan Rose came to research his Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (2001), he was startled to discover that although few working-class people went to concerts, there was widespread apprecia-tion of music: they joined choral societies, listened to music in vast numbers, in parks and church halls and then, as radio took hold, on the old Home Service and finally, no doubt, on the Third Programme. Switching to the Third Programme didn't after all require you to change into your best suit. Bergonzi should remember that many working men who fought in the Second World War had their democratic views strengthened and enhanced in the process. Hence the election victory of Labour in 1945. And it was that government which dreamt up the Festival of Britain. People deserved to be cheered up, Herbert Morrison said, and just how far he was from thinking in terms of populist candy floss a quick glance at the Festival's contents and the commission of new work will affirm. Art, Drama, Literature, Opera, Science, all accorded proper due.

And the Festival did cheer people up, its achievements far outweighing its failures. And who then pulled down the ethereally beautiful Skylon (I am sure I have read that its metal was used to make countless ashtrays)? And who set the wrecker's ball-and-chain to work on the Dome of Discovery? Why, the incoming Tories. It is at least arguable that the cultural vandalism inaugurated at that moment, the sheer meanmindedness that was determined to erase all sense of the generous collective impulse out of which the Festival sprang, can be linked to what would eventually happen to the Third Programme, as it would lead to the Millennium Dome, that monument to utter vacuousness and true embodiment of all that is meant by New Labour (i.e. nothing). By all means blame this on populism. Blame it on capitalism and its turning of culture into a three C mantra of consumerism, clientele and customers. But don't blame the vision that sustains what is truly meant by democracy.


Diminished Third

Neil Powell's 'Third Best' (PNR 161) says much that I agree with and I share his disappointment at the route broadcasting and the modern world have taken. I, too, enthuse about the uncompromising stance of the Third Programme's controller John Morris in making 'no concession to popular taste'. The world of broadcasting and 'entertainment' (a strange concept at the best of times) is now based predominantly on the popular taste that Morris was anxious and able to ignore, and, of course, on the whims and imperatives of commercial concerns. I applaud Powell's reminder that 'if you aim for the highest intellectual standards your audience will rise to them', even if this appeal to something beyond the immediate grasp of the student/listener is not a favoured view in education or broad-casting (and hasn't been for many years). The result has been (and continues to be) debilitating for those with a respect for knowledge and the intellect (both of which are treated with near derision). Somehow, knowledge that or about is taken to have nothing to do with knowing how. I also found myself beguiled by memories of pre-electricity days in my own early childhood, and of the reel-to-reel tape recorder that I still have and seldom use (because it needs a new motor, like its owner).

But can Powell really be as surprised as his final question suggests? There is now no room for anything resembling the Third Programme because all of the dozens or hundreds of radio and TV stations he refers to (with the exception of the BBC) are subject to commercial accountability, a criterion that nearly always favours the lowest common denominator over the highest intellectual standards. Jazz FM has played little if any jazz since it discovered that jazz (or the station's way of presenting it) made too little money. Next came the familiar appropriation of language, what isn't jazz at all becoming 'smooth jazz'.

Instead, Powell should be surprised things are not worse than they are. There is much that is good (and intellectually good) on BBC Radios Three and Four, and certainly much that is signally better than anything on offer elsewhere. I tell my A-level and degree students to listen to Radio Four if they wish to hear thoughtful and well-constructed sentences. Too many have simply no experience of language spoken or written in this way. (I have recently been rereading some of Jonathan Swift's essays, including the wonderful 'Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England', and as ever I marvel at such English usage.) The problem surrounding the BBC's licence fee, of course, is that most people do not want what Powell wants and have long since been encouraged to say so, and to object to paying for it. (I realise the fee relates ostensibly to television only, but I wonder how long even the Radio Three Powell despairs of would survive without it.) In the commercial and educational post-modern world of relativity (a world that is still, it seems in thrall to the positivist behaviourism I understood to have been discredited long ago), the notion of better remains apparently contentious. I'm with the Stoppard character who says something to the effect that a cricket bat is better than an off cut because it just is, but how many of me are there? Not enough to argue for retention of the licence fee, that's for sure.

There is much else that I agree with, but there are times when Powell infuriates. He manages to make Test Matches and Wimbledon sound twee; his claim never to have heard what he disparagingly calls 'the yob-voiced exhortation to "Listen up" ... uttered by an actual human being' suggests he should get out more if he wants to write about the world; and his strictures about Radio Three's apparent 'dereliction of editorial responsibility' are a model of haughty exclusion (even if one agrees with his desire to preserve Morris's criteria, or what would now be called 'quality control' were it ever quality such control techniques were deployed to ensure...). As is always the case, the language he uses betrays his prejudices. Whatever else one's feelings are for jazz, one does not have a 'fondness' for it. How quaint that expression is! Powell has decided that jazz isn't highbrow enough for him. Then again, he went to boarding school, and I didn't.

How odd then (or perhaps it isn't) that I should be discussing Powell's piece with John Lucas only to discover a few days later that the Shoestring Press anthology of jazz-related poems, Paging Doctor Jazz, has been reviewed by Powell in PNR 162. I don't care in the least that the first poem he refers to is mine, or that, in his desire to condemn me for an insufferability I admit to in the poem, he rather crassly misses the point altogether. It is a small poem that attempts only to recognise something extraordinary, that great jazz musicians are instantly recognisable. He goes on to grant the anthology the kind of grudging praise one might expect of someone who has decided he doesn't like jazz after all. Neil Powell can write engagingly, perceptively and informatively, but he can also be wearyingly precious. One would never guess that he has a poem of his own in the anthology.

It is very easy to slip into the kind of superiority that Neil Powell seems unable always to avoid. This is a matter of humility How much better, for example, was Grevel Lindop's marvellous piece about school trips abroad in PNR 153. A generation or more of working-class kids, including the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies, gained much if not all of their musical education through listening to the Third Programme. Perhaps Powell is trying to tell me that had I listened to it more when I'd had the chance' I should by now have jettisoned jazz.


Neil Powell replies:

I'm glad that Paul McLoughlin liked several aspects of my piece 'Third Best', and that's the main thing. But I do need to deal as briefly as I can with some of the other points he raises.

1. No, 'surprise' wasn't quite what my final question implied; I stopped being sur-prised about this years ago, as an exchange of letters on the subject in the TLS in 1993 showed. I simply wanted to underline the absurdity of the situation: a vastly increased choice of radio channels ought logically to have freed the BBC from any populist worries about its 'ratings'; instead, precisely the opposite has happened.

2. I'm always happy to infuriate and don't mind being infuriated in return. But there's nothing twee about Test Matches and Wimbledon: it's just silly of me not to have learnt to enjoy them sooner. I really have never heard one human being say to another, 'Listen up': 'Listen' will surely do. I do indeed think that 'editorial responsibility' may sometimes be the same thing as 'haughty exclusion', and all the better for it. And I don't understand why I can't have a 'fondness' for jazz: it was the music I first loved, and that's just what I feel - very warmly - for it.

3. I'm afraid McLoughlin has misunderstood what I said about his own poem in Paging Doctor Jazz. I was agreeing with him, for heaven's sake! I wrote that he 'recognises the danger' of seeming 'insuf-ferable', as we jazz buffs often do to other people, and ended the review with a further instance of our shared insufferability. All the greatest musicians, jazz or not, are recognisable after a note or two: non-jazz examples who at once spring to mind include singers such as Janet Baker and Ian Bostridge, pianists such as Alfred Brendel and Clifford Curzon. I hadn't, of course, seen McLoughlin's letter when I wrote my piece on the instantly recognisable Charlie Parker for PNR 163, but I hope it reassured him that I do like jazz. And, as for 'grudging praise', I was being wryly self-deprecat-ing precisely because I had a poem in Paging Doctor Jazz; I'm sure its editor and publisher understood that this was a friendly way of squeezing a mention of the book into PNR.

4. Finally, the generation of 'working-class kids' who owed their musical education, and so much else, to the Third Programme certainly includes this one.

Ground Water


John Lyon's rather negative review of five young poets (PNR 162) ought not to pass without comment.

I hope that everyone will take the trouble to seek out these books for themselves. Ground Water by Matthew Hollis, for example, seems to me full of the sensitivity, imagination and generosity of spirit so conspicuously absent in your reviewer's remarks.


Stepping Out


Readers who turned aside from Iain Bamforth's article (PNR 163) concerned about the future of walking can look forward to a volume of essays I am editing for Stride which is due out in 2006. The volume is provisionally entitled Occasions of Poetry and will feature peripatetic prose from poets Peter Riley, Stephen Vincent, Jane Routh, Penelope Shuttle and Lawrence Upton; and critical discussions of poetry and walking from Alex Davis, Jeremy Noel-Tod and Malcolm Phillips.


This item is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

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