Ideas Above Your Station

Film, Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts


‘Remember when we were young and you still had an open mind?’ says a character in a film time has now erased from my atrophied brain. One of the challenges faced by an author is how to maintain an open mind as the passing years insist on proving that one’s instinctive fears were in all probability well-founded.

But if authors don’t keep their outlook fresh, who will? Yesterday I was stopped on the street by a pleasant-faced man handing out scraps of paper from a suitcase. We get a lot of this where I live, at the confluence of three vast stations. The shout-outs range from angry rants by Jesus-people (I’ve never understood why evangelists are so aggressive – isn’t the message about unconditional love and acceptance?) and marketeers handing out samples of energy drinks and moisturiser.

The gentleman with the suitcase was incredibly polite, and instead of tossing the paper into the bin I went onto its website to see which particular brand of madness he was trying to convince people was right. It turned out to be an advert for a three-day event held in North London extolling the teachings of Indian saints. Under their activities page they’re listed as setting up care homes, hospices and free medical treatment, providing disaster relief and medical advice, among other good works.

My inner-city cynicism may yet prove correct, but the more I searched the site and its links to world health organisations, the more it felt that just by bothering to type in a website address handed to me by a stranger, I might end up contributing something to charity. And what if I’m wrong? Is that really so disastrous?

What intrigues me more is where my attitude came from, but I think aspiration has a lot to do with it. I don’t mean in terms of success, but something less tangible. There was very little demographic targeting when I was a child, so, instead of being surrounded by the leisure pursuits of 8-10s, say, it was assumed by everyone that children could enjoy adult pastimes. I went to a very ordinary infants’ school and distinctly remember my first assembly, which was introduced by a recording of Mozart’s Rondo for Horn & Orchestra (although I didn’t know what it was called then). I was seven years old and it lodged in my brain.

The first proper books we were given were nautical adventures; ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, ‘Two Years Before The Mast’, ‘Coral Island’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. It wasn’t very long after this that we were introduced to Dickens, and ol’ Chuck and I began a lifelong affair. I realise now that the idea of being required to think and act above your station was the norm. My first classical concert, at age 10, was by Benjamin Britten. At around the same age my mother took me to see my first play, ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ by George Bernard Shaw, and we had a discussion about it afterwards.

I didn’t consider myself an especially bright kid. I was inattentive and prone to mucking around. A lot of the stuff that was thrown at me didn’t stick. To this day, I detest Anthony Trollope. But the idea of adopting an adult mantle was very appealing. The internet has given the next generation a potential head start by providing easy access to information. Unfortunately, literacy rates are falling. I get depressed when I hear adults earnestly discussing ‘South Park’ or ‘The Simpsons’, ironic checklists designed to make you feel that you know something, even if it’s only pop culture. Of course you can’t live on a diet of high culture, but there’s so much more to try and understand.

The successful commoditisation of museums and art galleries now means that you can no longer go along for half an hour to quietly reflect before a painting, say, because the place will be packed out. I went to the British Museum yesterday morning and you couldn’t move in there. The simplest way to seek out ideas above your station is still to open a book you’ve never tackled before.

This year, perhaps, I’ll finally get around to ‘Middlemarch’.



20 comments on “Ideas Above Your Station”

  1. Janet Wilson says:

    Yes! When all else fails, read a book! Despite what I’ve previously said here about my short attention span, I started out, being roughly the same generation as Admin, by reading a lot of Big Books, including Middlemarch, which I had to ‘do’ for A level English. Far less Eng.Lit had been filmed or televised then, so if you wanted to know what happened, you had to read the book. And having very little guidance before or beyond the school syllabus, my book reading followed a winding serendipitous path thro the straight lines of the local library. The only Dewey I knew was Mr Duck’s nephew! Surely young people shy away from what they’re encouraged to read? I read Dennis Wheatley because my teachers wld’ve disapproved, NOBEV cover to cover because it made me feel Superior to my family in an Adrienne Mole way- but without 5 centuries of English poetry sounding in my head, I’d be a different person. The later effects of early reading are impossible to predict.

  2. snowy says:

    ♫ ♫ When you were young and your heart was an open book… ♫ ♫

    [I’ll just nip off and find me Tarot cards]

  3. Janet Wilson says:

    Ooh dear, just nearly wet miself laffing at ‘Now Show’. Q. to audience: ‘What do you remember from school?’ A., read out in Alan Bennett voice: ‘ One day I fell asleep in class. When I woke up, someone had Tippexd my glasses; I thought I was dead.’

  4. keith page says:

    Well, I’m working my way through the works of Joseph Conrad.I’m afraid to say , though, that for entertainment I prefer Capt W E Johns.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Now, that’s an excellent column. Thank you.
    And, yes absolutely, maintaining an open mind is extremely important and not just for authors. The more things you think appear the same, the more – on closer inspection – you find aren’t, not really. (I used to love to look through my Grandfather’s microscope. A drop of birdbath water was just a drop on a wet slide until you zoomed in and then it was a Lovecraftian universe.) Amazing. And seeing your own blood!
    All the little bits and pieces that Lago-up into things, places, people and Everything actually. Habitats within habitats, systems within systems. The music of the spheres; and now there’s even Nobel-winning Dark Matter, the starch of the solar system?
    And people. Their lives and living are so amazingly diverse and so interesting, it is a great loss if a person calcifies. Finding your instinctive fears were valid, well, that’s probably not so bad. At least that way you know where some of the hazards are in “the fog of life.” (from ‘Dodger’)
    I agree with you, when I was a kid you were expected to want to be an adult, and acting like an adult was not seen a bad thing, but encouraged and learning about adult interests and activities was mostly exciting. Doing income tax not so much.)
    And not all High Culture was always so high, for example much early classical music was simply current music and these rediscovered ancient instruments were then simply what was available to play on.
    And books.
    Books are gateways for their readers. The author draws you in, takes you along, and shows you what he/she has seen, heard, learned and imagined. This can be so real, so expanding, so valuable, or not so much. That some people don’t read, or not much, I find amazing.
    I read most of the books you list and not in the clipped and constrained ‘Readers Digest’ versions now available for young readers.(‘Treasure Island’ in 95, large print, pages with simplified vocabulary. About as tasty as a processed cheese slice eaten with its two separating squares of packaging still on.)
    Okay, enough from me already, but the coffee was particularly nourishing this morning as was this column.

  6. snowy says:

    This is a question that perhaps Dan might be able to answer for me.

    Shakespeare in his time was regarded as popular entertainment, akin to how we now view cinema.

    But I’ve never been able to guage how accessible were the works of Mozart etc. in their day. Shakespeare could get away with a dozen actors, a handful of musicians and a couple of cannons, [the latter not the best idea in retrospect].

    ‘The Magic Flute’ required a full orchestra, lavish sets, and talented singers. None of which would be cheap. Did this push them out of the reach of the masses, and they became the exclusive preserve of the monied classes?

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    Dan- try reading ‘Treasure Island’ as an adult- it’s weirder than you remember, and doesn’t so much end as stop. I feel it may have been R.L.S.’s revenge for a very bad night in a Bristol pub… Economics of 18thc. opera- c wot u mean- were pre 1789 aristos paying to be mocked by Mozart? And if not, whose bums were on seats?

  8. Vivienne says:

    I do mean to re-read Coral Island. My first play was The Hostage by Brendan Behan – aged 9: my grandma just used to go to anything at Wyndham’s for 2/6d. I was riveted, although not absolutely sure what it was about.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Surely the topmost seats were cheap and SRO is still sometimes but musicians weren’t paid all that much, very little compared with today – and I mean proper comparison as Admin demonstrated earlier – and the people who built scenery or made costumes, well they were just giving it away.
    We had a book in the school library about Marian Anderson so the grade 1/2s heard her singing opera, they heard some folksongs, and all the music was matched with a picture book. There was a great little abstract book intended to be read to a playing of “Caravan” so they got that, too. Some of it they liked, some they didn’t, but they heard it all with open minds. Their performance piece was Doh, a Deer, which I think is just fine for kids beginning to learn about the sounds we call music.
    Somehow we didn’t do novels and I think it was partly due to the cost of maintaining class sets.
    We did a lot of poetry and some short stories and I remember a book of essays but I didn’t do much till after I was in my mid twenties. “A Day in the Life of…”, “War and Peace”, I still can’t get into Moby Dick or Two Years Before the Mast but I’ve just started “Cold Mountain” which is The Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina during the American Civil War and which I can recommend for lovely writing. The ones I feel sorry for are the people who read a lot in their professional field but very little recreationally.

  10. Ken Murray says:

    The last time I was in London I visited the Science and Natural History museums, and was shocked to see how much they had changed from my childhood visits. There appeared to be a fraction of the exhibits and what was there, was an uninspiring collection of motheaten set pieces. The worst being the Natural History Museaum, which had a faded, obviosly disintigrating panda that looked like an overstuffed roadkill badger! I think a small card next to it explained that they were no longer replacing the animal exhibits in order to aid conservation. Even if that was the aim, it fails as any kind of inspirational motivation?

    Sadly this seems to be the way of the future. Our own national museum here in Wellington recently announced that they would be ‘relocating’ most of its world cass science, art and natural history collections offsite. These it appears were deemed not compatible with their new rational as an entertainment hub and frankly not a money spinner. Yet that completely misses the point of museums, that they exist to educate, inspire and entertain in equal measure. Dismantle this trilogy and they cease to exist.

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Janet – Treasure Island was RLS’s First novel, he was learning and experimenting, but I find it does have an end, if not a perfectly clean one. It was a adult book, he and many others at that time wrote adult books for children. I reread it a decade or so ago when I was on Stevenson rediscovery kick and it remains one of my top “children’s” novels: mysterious, exciting, amazingly visual and with terrific suspense and “historical” detail. I rather like the weird in stories and not everything for me needs to be tied up at the end. Life never tidies up and in the best Saturday serial tradition one story’s loose end can be a lifeline for the author looking to start another book. Much of this was lost in the slashed down edition I wrote about, so that what was left was deboned and flat. And don’t get me started on that well-known publisher’s version of “The Arabian Nights” (not Stevenson’s shorts book). You can’t successfully Readers Digest “The Arabian Nights” into five or six paragraphs per evening’s tale. 🙂

    Snowy – Shakespeare was, of course, a genius and employed a double threat in his writing. He wrote part of his plays for the groundling’s, the people in the pit (not A. A. Merritt’s novella), and part of his plays for the educated aristos in the fresher smelling seats above. (Wasn’t the first handheld an orange stuck with clove?) So, he appealed to most everyone, except perhaps Chris Marlowe.
    As to Mozart: Musicians in his day were hard-pressed to earn a living (so nothing’s changed, right)and they all hoped to get a position with a court, etc. However, public concerts, operas, and the rather new publishing of music were in definitely existence during his time. And from his mid-period in Vienna on, Mozart began doing all three; he continued to do so until he fell out of fashion and on hard times. His operas were hugely successful and made a lot of money, if not all for him. So, despite the fact a person had to have the cash to get a seat at a public concert or buy sheet music, Mozart’s music would have got out to all interested classes. Other musicians would have “covered’ his nifty airs, copied and played from his published works, and travelling musicians for hire would have spread the Mozart style around Europe. There has always been a great musical network in Europe that spread the top pops and the in vogue styles. That said, however, a bit of music going viral then was quite different from 4 minutes of music going viral today, e.g. “The Fox” which currently is making a pair of comics in Norway well known and rich. 🙂

  12. snowy says:

    Well that sort of confirms my hypothesis, his ‘greatest hits’ would diffuse out by being copied by publishers and journeyman players.

    Sheet music in the days before copyright, would spread more widely, but does imply customers having enough wealth to afford a piano/harpsichord.

    So the grander pieces would only be available to those with a reasonable amount of disposable income. His popular airs would have their ‘day in the sun’ but then be supplanted in the endless search for novelty by new works by newer composers.

    And so the gap between the music of the classes grows the rich cosy in their drawing rooms, playing from their collections of sheet music. While the ‘lumpen proletariat’ are all down the bierkeller singing very rude songs about Heidi and the goatherd.

  13. snowy says:

    Oh, forgot to add the codicil. For an interesting take on the relationship between Shakespeare and Jonson keep an eye out for a film called ‘Anonymous’. Which mixes Shakepeare with the intrigue arround the succession of Elizabeth the First. A superb reconstruction of Tudor England in vast sets shot in a Germany.

    [Kit Marlowe does pop up, is annoying and then gets stabbed in short order.]

  14. Janet Wilson says:

    Ta Snowy- keep meaning to ask my mate Bob the Elizabethanist (as Mr Brown might style him) if he’s seen ‘Anonymous’. Love it in ‘Amadeus’ when they all singalonga the street performance. (Là ci darem la mano, I think? Years since I’ve watched it.) By the way, am impressed Helen’s read ‘War&Peace’- dunno as I’ve come across anyone else who has. Tho I’ve read ‘Little Dorrit’ AND seen the 6 hr film(s)! S’pose someone here’s read ‘ Ulysses’?

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I enjoyed War and Peace, but I have to struggle with Dickens, except Tale of Two Cities, which my mother and I read a couple of times while I was in high school. I should try him again, but not in the old set I have which I’d have to read with a magnifying glass. Janet, try Elizabeth Rex, Timothy Finley’s play about Elizabeth I. Talk about confusing self identification! [I don’t do James Joyce. Obfuscation for its own sake doesn’t appeal. I know he’s supposed to be a genius but he’s as confusing as…whatever.]

  16. snowy says:

    If Bob is a serious scholar he might well be a little sniffy because the film takes a few liberties with established history, [not glaringly obvious to a non-scholar, the story carries you along].

    Best just enjoyed as costume drama, like ‘The Three Musketeers’.

    [Oh dear, my spelling of ‘around’ in my last comment came out a bit ‘Brizzle’. Years of working with a ‘Gashead’ must have left an impression. 😉 ]

  17. Janet Wilson says:

    Bob not an academic, but did obtain a Fulbright scholarship when young, so I’ll tell him ‘Anonymous’ a ripping yarn.

  18. John Griffin says:

    I used to try to interest students in books about science, then books in general. Many of the kids I teach now ‘don’t read books’. That’s what they very directly tell me when I urge a purchase at KO price on Amazon or similar. I was recently given back a standard textbook that was totally virgin. The girl concerned said ‘I never got round to it’; she also blamed the teaching by me and a colleague for her U at A-level. Surprised she didn’t sue us for career damages – some do.

  19. Janet Wilson says:

    In Metro today, ‘Big Brother’s Bit On The Side’ presenter describes how she grew up in a Nigerian family of ten in Blackburn, most of whom ended up more successful than her, and started work as a cleaner. I think the lesson here is Nigerian parent’s burning ambition for their children, plus the children’s compliance. I worked with a Nigerian who, on finding I could understand a bit of tourist German, was amazed then slightly contemptuous that I hadn’t grabbed the ball and run with it- the implication being that any of her relatives would have seized any competitive advantage, however slight. (And she did have family in Germany.) This reminded me of Maya Angelou’s mention of black Americans comment on poor whites: ‘We black- what’s YOUR problem?’ Guess what I’m saying is, ambition, or lack of it, very much influenced by culture.

  20. Sheila Johnstone says:

    I had similar experiences of reaching in my early school years in Englandand in Canada. My father gave his recorded version of Handel,s Messiah to the elementary school before we moved. And Middlemarch is worth the effort…

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