Wednesday, 29 June 2016
So: Wagner. Tristan and Isolde from the cheap seats at the Coliseum (£12 - Independence Day at my local Vue costs more). I've never done Wagner live before. Thought I ought to before I shuffle off. My skim reading of the learned programme notes told me that the impetus for Herr W's writing it was threefold: Schopenhauer's philosophy concerning the Will, the composer's love for his patron's wife (and I suppose concomitant dissatisfaction with his own marriage) and the need to make some money. Well, maybe, but i can't believe it was a crowd pleaser. It is five hours long, more or less. It has a terrific, erotic overture, but then you have to endure four hours of self pity, 'nobility', and explanation (there is precious little showing, it is all telling) before being turned inside out by the final 'Liebestod'. Is it worth it? Yes, probably, just. This finale is really quite breathtaking, a monumental tease, which comes to - it has to be said - an orgasmic resolution. I just about forgave Wagner the four hours of tedium in between. The set, which bore no obvious relation to the material, was by Anish Kapoor, doing his inside-out trompe d'oeil stuff. It was very funky and watching it was a pleasant distraction from the rather dull goings on in the opera. I am musically illiterate so I can not tell whether it was especially well played or sung. The good bits sounded great to me, and the audience loved it.
Monday, 20 June 2016
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence--depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse--our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XII
I wear two hearing aids, I have glaucoma and gout, and I write occasional book reviews for The Spectator. I’m 58 years old. Should I be a prisoner of rock and roll?
I first saw Bruce Springsteen in 1975, at Hammersmith Odeon, when he was hailed, to his annoyance, as ‘the future of rock and roll’. I was 17 years old. His stuff was written for me. “Baby, we were born to run”.
Forty years later, I find his stuff is still written for me, even though getting up is hard enough, let alone actually running.
Those who don’t get ‘The Boss’ (he got the moniker at a very early age not by way of music but because he was a demon Monopoly player) tend to stereotype a typical Springsteen fan as a once-youngish white male on the cusp of collars between blue and white, with perhaps an overdeveloped love of hubcaps or twin stroke engines (whatever they are), and certainly a deeply outmoded approach to women. It is true that – pace Sarfraz Manzoor - most Springsteen fans are white. Otherwise they are more diverse a group of people than you will find at any other gig.
Age does not seem to be a factor; class does not seem to be a factor; sex does not seem to be a factor; dress is not a factor; nationality is not a factor. The only unifying factor is the Boss himself.
This is going to sound mawkish, but one of Springsteen’s abilities is to ennoble the mawkish, so: Springsteen’s fans love him. It is not the love of the teeny bopper, not the love of the obsessive, it is the love of a figure, a sound, that has remained not simply constant, but constantly good through all our lives. Springsteen is a consoling force, an example of moral virtue in an age of relativism. One may agree or disagree with his politics, but it is impossible to deny his decency.
For some this is expressed by his liberal deeds, for others his lyrics affirm it, but for most it is the experience of a Springsteen concert that seals the deal. There are no fancy light shows, no following spots, no explosions, no dancing girls. There is a band, and there is the material the band plays, and that is it. What the audience is given is unfiltered. The songs, which on the whole are fairly musically unsophisticated, are, like hymns, easy to sing, and so the concert invariably becomes a shared event. We’re like a choir. Enjoyable, undoubtedly, as this is, it is not merely enjoyable; it is, as hymn singing is, an act of praise. Springtseen’s lyrics are often informed by Biblical imagery, by notions of faith and sinfulness, and he employs the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the Baptist preacher to spur his band and people on. He is a witness, we are witnesses.
All this might sound phoney, but the ironies are understood by band and audience alike, and in a godless world, at the very least an agnostic one, Springsteen offers rock and roll as a redemptive draught. We all know it is momentary. In Springsteenian terms that moment usually lasts upwards of four hours.
At the recent Wembley concert I found myself weeping. This has happened before. I struggle to explain it to myself. The loss of childhood is involved, and a sense of one’s mortality; there is a consciousness of the loss of innocence; and the presence of excellence is moving in itself. The songwriter has said that his best work is sparked by the friction between pessimism and optimism. This is perfectly exemplified in the early and ever popular ‘Thunder Road’, recorded as a rocker in which he and his girlfriend are ‘pulling out… to win’, but performed almost always solo on an acoustic guitar or piano, with accompanying melancholy harmonica. Springsteen too has a lost youth.
There is also this acute awareness of being not merely distracted or entertained or informed, as, say, by Eddie Izzard or Elvis Costello or Ian McEwan, but rather as living in a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’. Bruce Springsteen indeed has a ‘renovating virtue’.
In a way this is of course laughable, because apparently pretentious, but if spots of time do exist then why shouldn’t the Boss be a cause of them? Perhaps it is just me. I do have others, of course – spots of time, that is - and there is no guarantee that next time round he’ll have another such effect. The truth is that my sobs (ok, it is sometimes more than a mere weep) are for the huge ineffable sadness of things, and the paradox is that being at a Springsteen concert also makes me very very happy.
Sunday, 19 June 2016
Saturday, 18 June 2016
Here is a letter from my father, Captain H. P. Wheldon, to his brother Tomos Wheldon, who was working at the Department of Agriculture in Sierra Leone.
Sunday 25 June 1944
I missed your birthday – no matter. Take this rather belated note in lieu! I hope S.L.  is still going on nicely. I always feel the breath of awful heat when I mention S.L. – I hope very much that it doesn’t get you down. Here in Normandy we live like Lords. The country is England – Berkshire, say, with well spaced, well built townships, now under the iron of course. What sadness there is derives much more from the glimpses of a ruined countryside, than from personal losses. The mind seems to evade immediate grief, but it is difficult to remain unmoved in an ancient village, now broken down into its parts of stone & rubble & dust. The waste is everywhere, broken furniture, the motley of trinkets, household goods, burnt linen & clothes, remains of crockery. They kept tame hares here for their skins, kept them in hutches. The mire & the fury of the early days released these creatures, and now they are everywhere, silent and soft, nibbling at the wanton remains, passing noiselessly through the ruins, somehow hateful. June roses flare brilliantly behind the broken pillars, outside the fields, still peaceful. We eat magnificently, live the idle lives which a battlefield as I now realise demands, doing nothing, waiting, in case. Better than Bulford, much.
Monday, 13 June 2016
Harold Laski was a professor at the LSE for 30 years from 1920, and is generally regarded as the Labour Party's most significant intellectual of the period. He taught my Mum. Tributes were paid on his death in the Clare Market Review, including one by Ralph Milliband. But the one that 'stood the test of time' was thought to be that by 'JMC'. Here it is.
Sunday, 12 June 2016
Dated 4 July 1955, most of a letter from Stuart Anderson, Chief Clerk of the Cabinet Office, to my Mum, then Miss Jacqueline Clarke, offering her a job. What is interesting is of course a) mention of the Equal Pay Award (January 1955), and b) the question of membership of the Communist Party. Unfortunately the 'enclosed memorandum' has gone astray. Mum had actually been a member of the Labour League of Youth, a Trotskyist front organisation, before joining the Labour Party. I don't think this is what made her decline the job offer. What did I do not know, but they were 'circumstances beyond her control'. Possibly a proposal of marriage (which, in strictly mercenary terms, would allow her to write rather than have to earn). She was 31 years old at this date.
Friday, 10 June 2016
Generous review of my book by Piers Plowright in the utterly splendid Camden New Journal.
It starts like this:
It starts like this:
“This biography of one of the great figures of BBC TV by his son Wynn, is a somewhat haphazard delight. It breaks all the rules: not objective, almost as much autobiography (Wynn’s) as biography (Huw’s), and with as many digressions as Tristram Shandy. But, like its subject, it crackles with life.”
Monday, 6 June 2016
This letter to his parents was composed by my father on 5 June, the day before D Day. He was award the Military Cross for exploits two days later.
I have just finished packing. I wonder whether any major crisis will ever find me ready? The soap I meant to get, the bootlaces I put off buying, the holster which should have been repaired… yesterday’s procrastinations are at last bearing fruit! Wheldon goes to war pitifully ragged.
My recent letters have been very colourless, I fear – I could not help it, hated doing it, the partial deception. We have been in a closed camp for some time, sealed off entirely from everybody, and the tentacles of security have reached into everything. Free at last, at least to tell you that the last few weeks have been very very happy ones, working away at our operation orders (the whole thing has been very like working for an exam) – sunbathing and taking things easily.
We are off very shortly, and the sounds of whistling and shouting, odd songs, the gang round the goal posts, reach into this tent. Everyone is amazingly happy. We have studied the whole thing so deeply that the natural apprehensions are submerged in a general feeling of elation based on this great preparation and on the knowledge that the job is well within our capacity. The Staffs have indeed done their jobs well. Our job is one which, if done to any extent whatsoever, will relieve pressure on other large groups of chaps. This too is heartening. The possibilities of service are there to be seen and there is no feeling of futility. We have much to be thankful for. I personally would not like to miss it, and I am going much more firmly based – spiritual values apart – than ever I hoped.
There is nothing else I can say. You know what my feelings are about most things – and you will realise that nothing is being thrown away in this venture. No matter what happens I personally feel that a service (again, on the purely tactical, not to mention any higher plain) will have been rendered. This makes everything worthwhile.
So please don’t worry – this, like the note I scribbled to mother is ludicrously inadequate; but the depths can’t be plumbed in a phrase or a letter.
All my love and affection
Coupons herewith! These will buy socks, etc. I don’t fancy they will be much good in France.
Thursday, 2 June 2016
I have received a very kind email about my book from the distinguished director, Tony Palmer, from which he has given me permission to quote.
I was very greatly moved by your biography of your father.Like so many others I owe so much to him - not so much my career ("you may be a scholar, but I'm not sure you are a gentleman," he once said to me), but as a shining beacon as to what broadcasting and television is, or should be, and can be, about.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Palmer
Wednesday, 1 June 2016
Just came upon this, from 1699
NOTE: ‘Trepanning’ here means not sawing off the top of his victims’ skulls, but rather, ‘ensnaring’.
John Smith, of London, labourer, was indicted for a misdemeanour for kidnapping and trepanning one Joseph Portall a Jew, on board of ship, and causing him to be conveyed to Maryland, in parts beyond the seas into slavery. and he was likewise indicted for spiriting and trepanning of Samuel Cooper a Christian youth, of the age of 16 years, who he also sent into slavery. The evidence for the king, on the first indictment, proved very fully, that the said Portall, who came from Ceuta in Africa, to see his friends in England, and had been here but two days, was enticed off from the exchange to an office by St. Mary-hill, and there bound to serve Smith the prisoner, and that from that time he was sent on board, and seen in England no more; and the evidence for the king to the second indictment, was Cooper’s parents, who had sent their child on a Sunday morning to church, and never saw him more, nor heard of him till they found at the said office that he also was bound to smith the prisoner, and sent away with the Jew: it was also affirmed that the said john smith had lately bound several hundreds of young people at the said office, who are all sent for slaves as aforesaid. the prisoner had council learned in the law, allowed him for his defence; as for the facts charged in the two indictments, they owned them both, and pretended to justify the action by a patent for binding all manner of persons that were willing to serve in the plantations; which patent was produced and read in court, where it did appear the intent and meaning of the said patent and office was to prevent any unfair practices of this nature, and to hinder any person being sent away contrary to his own freewill and the consent of his parents or friends, which consent the prisoner could not prove; one of the prisoner's friends who appeared in his behalf, did affirm that he had spoke to Samuel Cooper in Irish before he was bound, who declared himself willing to go, but on examination of that matter it appeared that cooper had always lived with his parents about London, and had never been in Ireland, or ever could speak Irish; which witness was ordered by the court to be secured, then the prisoner pretended he was only a servant, and had 10 s. per. week allowed him for what he did, and would have shifted the fact from himself; he called no body to his reputation, but on the other hand several bad things were fixed on him, particularly that after he was committed, he said he valued not what they could do to him, for 'twas but to look through a pair of nutcracks. he was so enraged against one Mr Jacob Kysor who had caused him to be apprehended and prosecuted, that he wisht he had his heart broiled on coals, for he would eat it, and drink his blood after it: after the evidence was summed up, the jury, brought smith in guilty of both the indictments.