Death of the Hero

A year ago I was here at Covent Garden watching Strauss’ Salome for the first time. A few minutes from the end I realised I had no idea how the opera finishes. After doing this job for twenty years you just assume you’ve seen everything somewhere before, and this is the story of John the Baptist after all – what surprises could it possibly hold? But then it struck me that I wasn’t familiar with Strauss’ (nor Oscar Wilde’s) version, and so the ending – I won’t spoil it for you in case you’re in the same boat as I was – came as a genuine shock.

You see, I hadn’t done my homework.

That’s what they tell us, the opera people, isn’t it? “Of course it’s accessible to everyone, you just need to do your homework beforehand.” Because naturally if the audience can’t follow what’s going on then it must be their fault.

Elsewhere in the dramatic arts, committed fans are increasingly obsessed with avoiding spoilers, in this age of inescapable social media. In other words, they are doing all they can to avoid “doing their homework”. By contrast, in the opera business we actively encourage our followers to seek out the spoilers, not for the first time swimming directly against the tide of the rest of modern existence.

Also around this time last year, a load of middle-aged men were up in arms at the revelation in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that Rey, the new trilogy’s protagonist, was nobody in particular at all – a girl from nowhere, as opposed to the heiress or even reincarnation of a major character from the previous trilogies, as the pre-release betting would have had us believe. (When they’re not going to great lengths to avoid spoilers, movie fans spend a lot of time speculating about what surprises forthcoming releases might contain, and then being disappointed when they turn out to be wrong.) In fairness, the trailer for The Force Awakens had told us this very thing: “Who are you?” a voice asks; “I’m no-one”, Rey answers.

In fact a lot of Star Wars’ most ardent fans found a lot more than that with which to take issue in The Last Jedi. What was the point, they asked, of long sections of the movie where our heroes set off an a quest which didn’t end up in a plucky triumph achieved by a combination of shooting things and the absence of detailed planning?

We’re not used to stories about failure, and they’re hard for us to understand.

A commentator recently described the effect of the Trump presidency on the US political system as being akin to releasing a horse in a hospital. The same analogy could be used to describe Siegfried’s impact on the Gibichung household in Götterdämmerung. He is, quite literally, a character from a different opera, and his very existence radically alters the balance of power in this time and place, just as can be said of the Ring itself during the events of Das Rheingold.

But Siegfried in the real world of politics, power and intrigue is a man way out of his depth. In Siegfried, Wagner sets up the eponymous hero as an essentially infallible protagonist, untroubled by setbacks or fear. He sweeps all before him. In the sequel he is as hapless and error-strewn as he was flawless before. “How is this man a hero”, many quite reasonably ask, “when he behaves so badly – bigamy, treachery, arrogance, rape, deceit?” His fall from grace is hard, fast and goes right down to the bottom.

If we approach Götterdämmerung with the open mind which Wagner requested of his audience, surely the answer is clear: his heroism evaporates almost instantaneously upon contact with the real world. Or to put it another way, the value of a monomythical hero, even one as all-conquering and indestructible as Siegfried, to us as real humans is precisely zero.

The Ring is a story of failures – Siegfried, Siegmund, Sieglinde, Mime, Alberich, Fasolt, Fafner, Fricka, Erda, Loge, the Woodbird, Sintolt and Wittig, even – and especially – Wotan himself: failures every single one. Siegfried dies alone in a forest, and his funeral march is not so much for him as for what we had hoped he might have been.

And Brünnhilde? Well, she succeeds in reclaiming the Ring, returning it to the Rhinemaidens, and wiping the slate clean. But she leaves us with little to go on as to what happens after that.

Keith Warner’s current production of Götterdämmerung ends with a figure standing on a giant metal ring, similar in style to the coils we have seen entwined around the set at various points over the course of the cycle, but now reforged into a clean, unsullied circle. Who is this figure? It looks like no-one we’ve met in any of the four operas.

The Ring is far more about questions than answers, and one big question overrides all others at the end, the question which all theatre as art should leave us with: what next?

Since everyone in the Ring, be they human or immortal, a god or a hero, has failed, who is going to come and save us, to solve all our problems and clean up our mess? Warner’s answer seems to be the same one we find in The Last Jedi: No-one.

And quite possibly Wagner’s too. Bear in mind that the Ring began in conception as a single opera about Siegfried’s death, and so everything before Götterdämmerung might well be viewed as the set-up for the pay-off – not so much about the death of a hero, but the death, the total demolition beyond any possible hope of a rematch, of the idea of the hero at all.

No-one’s coming to fix this for us, not at this stage of the game. Not at five minutes to midnight. Not at the end of the third act of Götterdämmerung. We asked for free will, to be masters of our own destiny, and we got it.

And the upshot of that is that either we learn that we’re going to have to solve our problems ourselves, or we’re done for.

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What Wotan Wants

“Weißt du, was Wotan will?” – Siegfried Act 3 Scene 1

Wagner wrote the vast majority of the text for the Ring between 1848 and 1852, and the music from 1853 to 1876. Around this time physicists (as we would now label them) were putting the finishing touches to the achievements of classical Newtonian physics – the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell’s Equations, kinetic theory and statistical mechanics, and so on – all of which could have persuaded a perfectly rational person to agree with Laplace’s sentiments of a few decades earlier, “that if at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the Universe, then we could calculate their behaviour at any other time, in the past or future” (to borrow Stephen Hawking’s paraphrased translation).

In other words, the events of the future are entirely determined by those of the past and the present, and if we could somehow know everything about the state of the Universe at this very instant, we could predict every event of the future with the utmost accuracy.

So much for the 1800s. The 20th Century arrived and with it Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and company, who stumbled upon a load of stuff which meant that the future couldn’t be predicted – or, more accurately, that everything about the present couldn’t possibly be known in unlimited detail, and therefore there would always inevitably be a degree of uncertainty about the future.

And so the Norns’ rope snapped forever.

Having said that, the more he thought about it, the more Einstein had grave doubts about the idea that the nature of the Universe was fundamentally non-deterministic: “It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.”

In his 1936 book An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski invites us to identify a “super-objective” for our characters, meaning the ultimate goal of the character’s actions over the course of the events of the story. This can then be broken down into a series of objectives in individual scenes, each of which usually brings the character closer to his super-objective.

Most singers portraying Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will find identifying his super-objective to be a reasonably straightforward task: after all, he pretty much lays it bare at the start of his monologue: “Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich, verlangte nach Macht mein Muth”. Assuming we take him at face value, a super-objective of Power seems pretty unarguable. (Although perhaps Control, as a more active and tangible idea, is potentially a more fertile choice for the actor in practice.)

So far, so good. But over the course of Die Walküre, Wotan’s shattering realisation is that this all-consuming pursuit of power has come at the most appalling personal cost, and by the end he is a broken man, trudging away from Brünnhilde’s fiery mountain top on a long self-flagellating quest for…

Well, for what? That is the question once Wotan has become The Wanderer.

Mime: “Wer ist’s, der im wilden Walde mich sucht?”

Alberich: “Wer naht dort schimmernd im Schatten?”

Erda: “Wer scheucht den Schlummer mir?”

Wotan spends half his time in this opera being asked who he is, which is always a significant question in Wagner’s works. Even more significantly, he seems distinctly undecided as to the correct answer, to the extent that Wagner has even given him a nom de voix in the dramatis personae – and this for a character who has up till now shown a marked predilection for name-dropping himself at the slightest opportunity. There’s a clear implication that he is undergoing a severe crisis of identity.

The entire Ring cycle is much more concerned with setting us questions than giving us answers – a quality which leads to frustration among its detractors, and often scorn of Wagner’s abilities as a dramatist, but which surely goes a long way to explaining the enduring nature of its appeal. In the same spirit, I’ll attempt to highlight some – hopefully to some extent enlightening – questions which face the singer as he approaches this third instalment as Wotan.

Early in Das Rheingold, her husband assures Fricka that “Wandel und Wechsel liebt wer lebt; das Spiel drum kann ich nicht sparen!” Yet by Act 2 of Siegfried, his tune has changed: “Zu schauen kam ich, nicht zu schaffen” he tells Alberich, having seemingly learned the lesson of the confrontation with his wife during Die Walküre – that his involvement, however indirect, with the affairs of men can only end in their ruin.

And yet. If he’s truly not getting involved, why does he show up at Mime’s home – what’s his Stanislavskian objective – and why now? What is he hoping to achieve? And what is this business of the riddles all about?

Stanislavski talks of drama as starting with The Magic If. But at times it’s just as useful an exercise to ask, “what if not?” In our example, what happens if Wotan doesn’t turn up at Mime’s right now? It’s pretty clear from Act 1 Scene 1 that Mime and Siegfried’s relationship is near breaking point, and that the boy intends clearing out the moment the dwarf has managed to forge a half-decent sword for him. It’s equally clear that this task is beyond Mime, and likely that this fact will occur to Siegfried at any moment – in which case I think we can speculate with a fair degree of confidence that Siegfried would then dispatch or dispense with Mime, or both. Which would presumably mean no Nothung and no slaying of Fafner.

The implication of this is that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to ensure that Nothung is reforged and that Siegfried is united with it. And so it’s clear that Wotan wants Siegfried to slay Fafner and claim the Ring. Is it?

Let’s move forward with that in mind. Wotan’s next move is to head for Neidhöle itself – a place he has been conspicuously shunning since Fafner set up his distinctly unwelcoming shop there. Why? And why now?

He finds Alberich has beaten him to it, which seems to come as a surprise, and his conversation with Mime’s brother leads a winding dance, and ends with Wotan leaving having done nothing other than provoke Fafner, seemingly purely as a wind-up, and tell Alberich to be more like him and chill out.

So again – what if not? What if Alberich hadn’t been there? Was Wotan really planning just to be a spectator at Siegfried vs Fafner? To step in if needed? Or to make sure Siegfried didn’t fall victim afterwards to Mime’s skullduggery? But if that was his plan, what occurs during his conversation with Alberich to make him change it?

Perhaps there’s a clue in the name by which he greets his old adversary: “Schwarz-Alberich” – suggesting there’s a direct thread in his mind to the man he has just recently recognised as “Licht-Alberich”: himself. Is his decision to leave them to it, rather than stay and thus lead himself into the temptation to interfere, an effort to avoid taking further steps down the path to this dark spot in which Alberich finds himself? Bear in mind that at this point they’re still the only two people to have had the Ring and lost it, united in their uniquely shared knowledge of the curse’s burden. Wotan decides to step back: “Wen ich liebe, laß ich für sich gewähren: er steh oder fall, sein Herr ist er” and even “Alles ist nach seiner Art: an ihr wirst du nichts ändern.” He has truly, it seems, learned his lesson.

And yet.

Without Wotan’s interference, freely, of his own volition, and wielding a weapon forged only by his own ingenuity and need, Siegfried conquers Fafner, gains the Ring, and avoids Mime’s traps. Which is what Wotan wanted, right? So the next time we see him, he is at peace and triumphant, right?

If that is our hypothesis – and it is an entirely reasonable one – the opening of Act 3 will come as a shock to our system. Its thematic material is familiar, and yet it is quite unlike anything we’ve heard up to now in the Ring. And it is a world away from depicting a man in contented repose, facing a blissful retirement with benign resignation.

Wotan is summoning Erda for what will be their third and final encounter. His objective this time is clear – he has a question to ask her: “Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?”

But what wheel? Rolling towards where? At this point in the story, surely he can only mean one thing: the wheel is Siegfried and he is rolling, seemingly unstoppably, towards Brünnhilde. Perhaps Wotan is merely enquiring casually as to whether he truly is unstoppable, just making sure it’ll all turn out okay. But the turmoil of the music suggests otherwise – that he really does want to know if there’s a way of preventing all this, of turning the tide and restoring the old order rather than let it be swept away.

His turmoil continues into the next scene, where again his behaviour displays no logical consistency – does he really change his entire universal gameplan merely as a result of Siegfried pissing him off a bit? Or is the issue with our unreasonable expectation that people should only ever act in accordance with their own stated goals, never against their own interests? “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

Let’s go back to those riddles in Act 1. Why not just turn up and tell Mime that he needs to let Siegfried forge the sword? Well, surely because that would be direct intervention – the consequences of which were demonstrated so brutally in Walküre. So Wotan needs to find a way to intervene which would stand up as having nothing to do with his will. And so he arrives at Mime’s home, not directly, but having first spent many years wandering the entire world (“Die Welt durchzog ich, wanderete viel” – Act 3 Sc 1) – this is almost the very last place he visits. And as a bedraggled, saddle-sore wanderer, he is sure to be offered, however reluctantly, the hospitality which custom dictates is afforded to weary travellers.

(We’ve seen this before, remember – when Hunding, also reluctantly, offers the same to Siegmund. Hunding is the champion of Fricka of course, and this sort of moral obligation is very much her realm rather than that of Wotan’s contractual law, all of which would no doubt stand Wotan in good stead if challenged once again by his wife or those loyal to her.)

We might conclude therefore that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to help Mime without exerting his own will – in other words, to somehow set things up so that Mime asks for his help, in circumstances under which Wotan is morally obliged to give it. The scene would last a couple of minutes at most, were it not for Mime’s compulsive biting of the hand with which Wotan is attempting to feed him.

(If those objectives and obstacles are clearly established in the performers’ minds then there’s a chance of bringing out the genuine situational comedy in the scene, as well as  making sense of the fact that it lasts a lot longer than it might at first seem to need to.)

Back to the mountain. Why does Wotan feel the need to meet Siegfried in person at all? It would appear that the Woodbird is doing a perfectly good job of leading him in the right direction, and only abandons him because of Wotan’s unsociable ravens. Left alone, surely the wheel would just keep on rolling right to its inevitable destination?

“Wer sagt’ es dir, den Fels zu suchen? Wer, nach der Frau dich zu sehnen?”

“Wer reizte dich, den starken Wurm zu besteh’n?”

“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

“Doch, wer schuf die starken Stücken, daraus das Schwert du dir geschweißt?”

This time it’s Wotan’s turn to ask, who? And the final answer is, of course, himself. However…

Siegfried: “Was weiß ich davon?” 

The grandson genuinely doesn’t recognise his (paternal and maternal) grandfather. The first part of the test is complete – he truly is the free agent that Siegmund could, tragically, never be.

From now on, though, the conversation gets testier. Perhaps Wotan sinks deeper into the realisation of how different this version is from his beloved Siegmund. Perhaps he rapidly foresees how dismally Siegfried will fare the instant he encounters a world of human politics and intrigue such as the hall of the Gibichungs.

But consider also the information he manages to impart to Siegfried as the encounter becomes more confrontational.

“heut nicht wecke mir Neid: er vernichtete dich und mich!”

“Den Weg, den es zeigte, sollst du nicht ziehn!”

“Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!”

“wer sie erweckte, wer sie gewänne, machtlos macht’ er mir ewig.”

And so on, followed by a detailed description of what the final stages of the path will look like and the obstacles he will encounter. Sure, he’s telling Siegfried what not to do, rather than telling him to do it – but what better way is there of getting a recalcitrant youth to do what you want? Consciously or otherwise, Wotan has hit upon an inspired piece of reverse psychology.

More than that, he could stand up in court and testify that he has done everything but help Siegfried: in Act 1 he has aided Mime’s scheming, in Act 2 (however ineffectively) he has lent a hand to Alberich, as well as warning Fafner and giving him details of the approaching threat, and in Act 3 he has asked the all-knowing Erda how to stop Siegfried himself, having first exhausted every other source of knowledge in the world, and then confronted him in person and done all in his power to halt his progress, up to and including physical violence. “Wie schüf’ ich den Freien, den nie ich schirmte, der im eig’nen Trotze der trauteste mir?” At this second attempt he has cracked it.

The character’s super-objective my well be unclear, his Stanislavskian through-line hardly a straight one – it is contorted, twisting, and at many points hard to follow at all. It is the path of a man keen to cover his tracks, to set up the probability of a freely-willed outcome, rather than insisting on absolute control over fate and destiny.

It is the behaviour, in other words, of a god who plays dice.

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Why Siegmund?

Last night I watched a complete performance of Die Walküre live for the first time in my life.

This might seem weird to a lot of people with no experience of how an opera singer’s life works. I’ve performed the whole opera more than once, scenes from it many times, and have been covering the role of Wotan during the current run of the Ring cycle at Covent Garden. I’ve also watched its constituent parts, often at some of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. If you put together all those bits, you could probably build at least two dozen complete performances, certainly of Acts 2 and 3. And I’ve listened to or watched it on recordings well over a hundred times. But the fact remains, last night was the first time for me head-to-toe in the flesh.

Viewing it in this new context, it struck me that someone sitting through the Ring for the first time might well find it odd that the first instalment, which is tightly wound around the question of the Ring, its creation, ownership and power, is abruptly followed by a kitchen-sink drama about Wotan’s various families in which the Ring seems to play little or no part at all.

What’s crucial I suppose is what happens between Rheingold and Walküre (and overlapping from the last part of the former into the first part of the latter) – much of which we can glean from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s exchanges during Acts 1 and 2, and Wotan’s monologue in Act 2. As a useful exercise to me as a trainee Wotan, and on the off-chance that you might find it interesting, here’s a stab at joining Wagner’s dots.

To recap: during Das Rheingold, Wotan’s lifelong quest for power is intensified to a dangerous extent by the decision to employ the giants to build a castle – as yet unnamed – for the gods, along with Alberich’s recent creation of the Ring. The necessity to pay the builders leads Wotan to commit theft, in violation of his own personal moral code, although not the code of contractual law from which he draws most of his current power. That theft leads to his possession of the Ring, and his being afflicted by its curse – the nature of which is mutable, but at the very least involves an unshakeable obsession with retaining or reclaiming it.

Wotan’s refusal to cede the Ring to the giants as part of the payment for the castle leads the gods to the brink of civil war. At which point Erda intervenes – an extraordinary, almost certainly unprecedented act for her, emphasising how extreme the danger is at this point. She tells Wotan two things: that the gods are not immortal, and that he should cede ownership of the Ring. (N.B. but not that the latter will avoid the former.)

The news of his own mortality is a shocking revelation to Wotan, as it would be to anyone. (Rosencrantz: “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory.”) It – and its consequent valedictory from Erda, “sinn’ in Sorg’ und Furcht!” – is the turning point in his life, his character arc. Does he feel those things in that instant, to their full effect? I suspect not – it’s the murder of Fasolt by Fafner, and the realisation that he was moments away from a similar act of familicide himself – that twists the knife of fear which Erda has placed in his heart. (“Urwissend stachest du einst der Sorge Stachel in Wotans wagendes Herz” – Siegfried Act 3 Sc 1)

Either way, he is now gripped by fear (“Sorg und furcht fesseln den Sinn”) from this point on through the rest of the cycle – right up until “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” at the end of Götterdämmerung – and it is the most fundamental driving factor in all his subsequent actions, despite his best efforts.

“Abdendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” (Rheingold Sc 4) is therefore a soliloquy on how fundamentally Wotan has changed from the start of Scene 2 (“Von Morgen”) to this point at the end of the opera (“bis Abend”) – a change from a state which has remained essentially the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Deep down he realises that the construction of this place was a terrible mistake, and the price was not worth paying. He senses the forces of darkness closing in on him – whether these are real or perceived, internal or external, is very much open to question – and he is seized by his habitual politician’s logic. (Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”)

Enter the sword motif. (“So grüss’ ich die Burg” – Das Rheingold Sc 4) The obvious implication is that in this moment the idea of Siegmund occurs to him – perhaps it does, but subsequent events seem to imply that the detailed version is some way off. More likely is that at this point it’s a more general idea of war, strife and conflict as a means to defend the gods and reclaim the Ring. (“die solltet zu Sturm und Streit ihr nun stacheln, ihre Kraft reizen zu rauhem Krieg” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2) This leads Wotan to name the castle: Walhall. (Keith Warner points out that this is deliberately not a straight translation of “Valhalla” – the implication being that this castle will not be a luxurious palace, but a fortress, a military stronghold.)

They are going to war.

But against whom? At this point it doesn’t matter – the aim is to train and test the mettle of humans, to select the strongest as the heroes who will defend Walhall against any potential invasion. The God of Justice, Honour and Integrity has become a God of War.

But he is still a god gripped by fear, and this draws him to seek out Erda (“wie sie zu enden, lehre mich Erda: zu ihr muss ich hinab!” – Das Rheingold Sc4).

(Is there something else too? ”Von der Liebe doch mocht’ ich nicht lassen, in der Macht verlangt’ ich nach Minne.” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2. Since it doesn’t link directly to his lines about Erda, perhaps this is more of a wider explanation for his extra-marital affairs, which would certainly seem to support the idea of his marriage to Fricka being primarily motivated by power, not love.)

It’s clear that he gleans a lot more from Erda during this second encounter, which occurs at some point between the events of Rheingold and Walküre, (e.g. “jetzt versteh’ ich den stummen Sinn des wilden Wortes der Wala” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2), and also that Erda gives birth to Brünnhilde as a result. 

And also the other Valkyries? Maybe or maybe not – since Wagner doesn’t provide any specific information on that one way or the other, we infer that he didn’t think it mattered, or wanted us to speculate endlessly about it, or possibly both. Either way, Brünnhilde is clearly exceptional amongst the Valkyries, perhaps because of her mother, perhaps because she’s the first-born, perhaps because Wotan is increasingly aware that the Valkyries and their hero-gathering are not the answer to his problems – and in fact may even be intensifying the danger, by providing Alberich with a ready-made army to control should he regain the Ring. (“der Helden Muth entwendet’ er mir, die Kühnen selber zwäng er zum Kampf, mit ihrer Kraft bekriegte er mich.” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2)

(Is this sudden – and as far as we know, entirely new – urge to beget offspring also a result of the revelation of his mortality? Hell of a coincidence if not.)

It seems that all roads keep leading back to the need for Wotan to regain the Ring. (One could argue that this is the curse exerting its influence, or possibly that the ‘curse’ itself is just a logical extension of the existence of an object that powerful.) But since Fafner gained the Ring directly from Wotan as payment for a fulfilled contract, Wotan can’t retake it from Fafner by force without destroying the basis of his own power by breaking a contract. (“Was mit den Trotz’gen einst du vertragen, dess’ Runen wahrt noch heut’ deines Speeres herrischer Schaft: nicht du darfst, was als Zoll du gezahlt, den Riesen wieder entreißen: du selbst zerspelltest deines Speeres Schaft; in deiner Hand der herrische Stab, der starke, zerstiebte wie Spreu’!” – Siegfried Act 2 Sc 1)

For me it’s an important parameter at several points in the cycle that Wotan could kill Fafner very easily. During Rheingold he doesn’t fear the giants in their normal form, nor Alberich as a Tarnhelm-induced dragon; he kills the fearsome Hunding with the merest flick of an eyelid – the spear makes him essentially physically invincible. And yet he won’t go near Fafner’s cave. (“ihn scheut’ der Mächt’ge, und meidet den Ort.” – Die Walküre, Act 3 Sc 1) Why? Because he fears the consequences of a confrontation with Fafner – that he might be tempted to reclaim the Ring by force, thus undermining the basis of his own power, and effectively bringing the gods’ reign to an end, in the same way that later, as Fricka points out, allowing Siegmund to liberate Sieglinde by killing Hunding would.

So Wotan needs someone to do the dirty work for him – and this agent needs to be very clearly not acting for him – in other words, not merely a blindly obedient extension of his will, in the way that e.g. Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries are, since that would effectively be the same as Wotan killing Fafner himself.

How does he set about creating this free agent? To begin with, he chooses a mortal woman as his mother. (We infer therefore that, even if the other Valkyries are not the offspring of Erda, their mothers must surely by goddesses of some sort.) He then loads Siegmund with the burden of every possible earthly misfortune, including the loss of both parents and his sister. And before abandoning him, he instils in him the practice of defying all society’s laws and norms – the laws and norms of the gods. (“Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht, nicht heilig ist ihm was andern hehr:” – Die Walküre Act 1 Sc 2; “gegen der Götter Rath reizte kühn ich ihn auf” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2)

Surely this man could not possibly be said to be acting as an extension of the will of the gods, when his behaviour is constantly in direct opposition to their long-established desires and intentions?

This is an argument which is, of course, easily demolished by Fricka. (“Du schufst ihm die Noth” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 1; “So leicht ja entfrug mir Fricka den Trug” – Act 2 Sc 2) Furthermore, it’s the mortal nature of Mrs Wälsung which seems to be what really provokes Fricka’s ire (“da zu niedrigster Schmach du dich neigtest, gemeiner Menschen ein Paar zu erzeugen” – Act 2 Sc 1) – even though it’s the moral outrage of incest which gives her the opportunity to intercede on the moral high ground.

In other words, Wotan’s Project Siegmund is undone by the combination of the (necessary) fact of him having a mortal mother, and the (unintended, and unnecessary to the project) existence of a twin sister. That is to say that if Mrs W had given birth to Siegmund alone, then Fricka would still be irate, but wouldn’t have had this opportunity to intervene.

And so what was conceived by Wotan, at and beyond the end of Das Rheingold, as an epic project to reclaim the Ring and safeguard the future of the gods, is undone by the specific human details of the project’s mechanics. The train of power derailed by love. And that’s why, at the beginning of Die Walküre, we’re suddenly in a very different world to that of Das Rheingold – zoomed in on the human consequences of the power games of those above.

(Footnote: why does it have to be Siegmund and not Sieglinde? If their mother had given birth to several girls one by one, would Wotan have kept going, Henry VIII-style, until he gained a son? Why Luke and not Leia? The irony being that of course the answer to Wotan’s urgent question of who is the free spirit who will return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens is under his nose all the time – just that she happens to be female.)

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And don’t bump into the furniture

“Ah, good old Cyril. He’s a delightful chap. Such a shame about his memory problems.”

As skewering of rivals go, it was the most effortlessly effective I’ve heard. A singer referring to a colleague of advancing years, getting right behind him, as one needs to do before stabbing someone in the back.

You see, there’s no comeback is there? You could cast aspersions on a rival’s singing, but people can hear for themselves and reach their own conclusions. You could belittle his acting ability, but again they can judge that too, it’s highly subjective anyway, and frankly even if true has hardly been a career-ender for a lot of singers. But as soon as there’s a question mark over the memory… well, even the slightest slips become signs of an irreversible decline.

It’s not that memorisation is the most important skill in a singer’s armoury, but its absence is a pretty-much-insurmountable obstacle to a career in opera. It is infinitely more important than the ability to sight-sing, and significantly more important than the ability to read music (or words for that matter). Those things can be got around, as can wooden acting or movement issues, assuming that the end product is worth it. But a bad memory is probably a deal-breaker, especially in this era where a prompter, while not unheard of, is highly unusual and taken to be a sign of a serious malfunction somewhere along the line.

And yet, along with many other vital professional skills,  the process of memorisation is barely touched upon at music colleges. It was referred to once when I was training, in a class where the professor suggested I try singing without copy. I said I hadn’t memorised the piece (and in fact was preparing to sing it with score in concert). She said have a go – you might surprise yourself. So I did, and I didn’t. The idea of knowing something by heart without being aware of it struck me as very odd at the time (as now) – I’m pretty sure I’ve never learned anything by accident.

I’m not really here to talk about memorisation though. It’s just that it’s on my mind, to the near-exclusion of everything else, because this is Ring rehearsal week 0 – which is to say, 7 days to go, 77,000* words still to be memorised.

I’m not going to bang on about word-learning, since it’s the most mind-numbing, soul-destroying process ever. One day I might attempt to write something which will help young singers to grasp some useful skills when it comes to approaching the process of committing a role to memory, which is to assume that Wagner doesn’t finish me off in the meantime.

For now, let’s take a look at how The Master might have helped us a little bit here and there, even though he caused the problem in the first place. Here’s Wotan giving his daughters the sharp end of his tongue in Act 3 of Die Walküre:


“Erzog ich euch kühn, zum Kampfe zu zieh’n, schuf ich die Herzen euch hart und scharf, dass ihr Wilden nun weint und greint, wenn mein Grimm eine Treulose straft?”

And here he is in Act 3 of Siegfried making small talk with his eponymous grandson:


“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

Now, you’ve no doubt already spotted the memorisation problem here – is it hart und scharf this time, or scharf und hart? And why couldn’t he do us a favour and stick to some sort of consistent order?

Let’s look closer and get into Wagner’s head – and more importantly his ear – a little bit. Wagner the poet gets a lot of stick, not least for his E J Thribb-like alliteration, but there’s often reason to his rhymes, and at the very least aides-memoire for his long-suffering singers.

You’ll no doubt be way ahead of me here – in the first extract it’s “hart und scharf” because it follows “Herzen”, and the second is “scharf und hart” since it matches with “Schwert”. Hooray for us and no excuse for not getting it right from now on.

But let’s not stop there. Look again at that first sentence – here it is with some of the consonants capitalised for your consideration:

“er-Z-o-G- ich euch -K-ühn, -Z-um -K-ampfe -Z-u -Z-ieh’n, -SCH-u-F- ich die -H-e-R–Z-en euch -H-a-R–T- und -SCH-a-R–F-, dass ihr -W-ilde-N- -N-u-N- -W-ei-N-T u-N-D- -GR-ei-N-T, we-NN- -M-ei-N- -GR-i-MM- eine -TR-eulose s-TR-af-T-?”

Alright I got a bit carried away there, but you get the idea – this isn’t just straightforward alliteration, but a quasi-structured pattern of consonants. (Bear in mind too that in theatrical German e.g. the G in “erzog” sounds like a K, Z sounds as TS, etc.) It doesn’t quite conform to any particular set of rules – the author saw himself, after all, as von Stolzing not Beckmesser – but the consonant groupings are no coincidence.

Any reader who ever took classes in Welsh literature will recognise the similarity to what we call cynghanedd – literally “harmony” or “chiming” – a major part of which involves patterns of corresponding consonants, usually according to fiendish rules, the complexity of which is crucial to producing the uniquely flowing sound of Welsh poetry**, as well as giving us an excuse to indulge in our national pastime of arguing amongst ourselves.

In fact, anyone seeking an insight into how a meeting of a guild of Meistersinger might have looked and sounded could do a lot worse than pop down to the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay this week and sit in on the Ymryson y Beirdd (“Contest of the Bards” – also sometimes called Talwrn y Beirdd) – the attention to detail, controversy and debate, not to mention the resulting outstanding works of literature, are surely not a million miles from the corresponding events in 16th-Century Nuremberg.

I’ll leave you to carry out the same exercise on the second excerpt. It’s no coincidence, either, that the highlighted consonants are by-and-large the most significant in that section, and are the ones that coaches and conductors will harangue their singers about emphasising.

And yet they’ll also want a classic legato line in the singing, assuming they have a good sense of Wagnerian style. That was Wagner’s own desire – exceptionally clear consonants combined with an authentic bel canto legato. And here’s why some singers speak of Wagner as Superman looks at Kryptonite. If a singer has been brought up with the idea that legato singing is just about vowels, and that consonants should be kept to a minimum, if not dispensed with altogether, then Wagner’s demands will test their technique to breaking point and beyond. Either the clarity of the text will be lacking, or the line of the legato will be broken in an attempt to make larger consonants, somehow independently of the actual singing (often resulting in the notorious “Bayreuth Bark”).

Coming back to the Eisteddfod, if you’ve grown up singing in Welsh you have a head start here. In terms of how the language itself functions – the relationship between vowels and consonants – Welsh is probably closer to German than most other European languages, and more than that, the approach to the importance of language, words and poetry in song in traditional Welsh singing corresponds very strongly to Wagner’s attitude.

Plus we start them young. When I adjudicate at local Eisteddfods I often begin the day with the 4-6 year old category, and while the musical standard of the singing can be slightly idiosyncratic at times, I can’t remember a single instance where words – in terms of diction and meaning – weren’t crystal clear.

Here’s Bryn Terfel singing Gwynfyd*** by Meirion Williams, with that very same clarity of diction and meaning. This was recorded when he was a mere 27 years old – but bear in mind by that time he’d been doing it this way for a quarter of a century. And the skills, as he has demonstrated, are unquestionably transferrable to Wagner.

Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 00.01.57.png


I had a great ending lined up which would tie all of this together most elegantly, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.


* rough guess + poetic license

** for examples of cynghanedd in English language poetry see some of the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also more loosely Dylan Thomas.

*** I don’t think there’s any strict cynghanedd in the text – although I’m happy to be corrected on that – but the flavour of it is certainly there.


Posted in acting, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wagner, Wales, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

University Challenge Strategy Guide Part One

This guide was largely inspired by two experiences – firstly my own as captain of the Royal Academy of Music’s University Challenge team in 1999, and then from following the (much more successful) campaign of my friends at Newcastle University in the 2017-18 series.

It is aimed primarily at teams preparing for their appearances on the show. Institutions with a history of sending teams to UC will often have an experienced coach, official or otherwise, overseeing their strategy. Less traditional UC colleges might not have the benefit of that support, so this is an attempt to level the playing field a little bit.

I also hope that UC viewers reading this will gain an insight into what it feels like to be in the firing line, and therefore more enjoyment from watching the show.

I’ll be endeavouring to update and expand the guide, so any comments, disputes, queries or requests are more than welcome.


Everyone’s a novice

The biggest thing I can tell you about playing UC for real is that it’s absolutely nothing like it is sitting and watching at home. That might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem to get this from the comfort of their armchairs, where you can tick off how many answers you reckon you would have got at your leisure. Since UC reappearances are not allowed, at the start of each series every competitor is a complete novice. Some will have had the advantage of better preparation than others, but nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of facing Paxman under studio lights with the cameras rolling.

It’s tempting for TV audiences to judge the Round One teams against the finalists from the previous series, but remember they were novices too when they started out. Watching a team improve their strategy and develop as players is one of the joys of following the series throughout its run.

It’s not what you think

The number one thing that hits you when you kick off for real is that at the front line UC is not a general knowledge contest. It’s a buzzer speed test. You could know the answer to every single question on the show, but if you’re slower than the opposition, you will score precisely 0. This is perhaps why older teams don’t tend to fare as well as you might expect, given their (one would assume) greater breadth and depth of general knowledge – the kids are, in general, going to be quicker on the draw.

So players need to be prepared to be confident and proactive in their use of the buzzer. Here’s the thing – the rules state that if you buzz you need to answer straight away, which seems to imply that you shouldn’t buzz until the moment you know, or think you know, the answer. But one of the unique features of UC is that in actual fact you have the time it takes Roger “The Voice of University Challenge” Tilling to enunciate your college and your name, plus the length of the buzzer sound itself of course. (Let’s call this the Tilling Interval.) Altogether that could be two seconds or more. So the optimum time to buzz is two seconds before the answer pops into your brain – in other words, your brain has the time to go “I know the answer to this, it’s……” and then it comes out of your mouth.

(I suppose this means it’s an advantage to have a long college name and/or player surname. While that probably shouldn’t be a high priority during team selection, if you do have various versions of your surname – perhaps an optional hyphen, patronymic or tussenvoegsel – then you may want to opt for the longer version.)


Tilling Interval Dream Team

Of course relying on the Tilling Interval for your final recall of an answer is a high-risk strategy, and it depends not so much on you knowing things, but knowing what sort of things you know, and how well you’re able to recall them under pressure. I’ll come back to this point in the notes on preparation in Part Two.

The downside of the aggressive buzzer approach is that you will more than likely incur a few 5-point penalties for incorrect interruptions. Overall, a confident team will probably decide that’s worth it – after all, a starter + bonuses should gain you 15-20 points, so over the course of a match it’s worth taking a few -5 hits. You can’t score a goal if you don’t have the ball, and you can’t score your bonuses if you don’t get the starter. The crucial point is that your buzzer strategy needs to be a team decision – the risk is collective, and only works if it’s shared (although it doesn’t necessarily need to be shared equally – see Part Two).

It also depends on the team being clear about who is primarily responsible for which subject area, but again that’s something to which I’ll return in Part Two.

Alternatively you may decide that you’ll employ a more aggressive buzzer strategy if you go substantially behind (let’s say three starters – 60 points or so) at any stage, especially to a team who may have more firepower than you – again, that’s something you should discuss collectively.

One more thing – if you buzz in early (before your opponents), and then realise your answer is incorrect, you’re actually better off not giving it – otherwise you’ve eliminated one possible answer when it gets handed over to the opposition. Even more importantly, unless your brain is lightning fast it’s better not to change your answer or hesitate – the worst case scenario is to buzz in early, delay before giving the answer and then blurt out the correct answer but too late for the points to be awarded to you – you’ve just effectively handed 15 points plus bonuses to the opposition. If in doubt, stick to your original thought, unless during the Tilling Interval you’ve realised it’s wrong, in which case say nothing.

You can see two good examples of an incorrect starter potentially giving the opposition a hand from Royal Academy Jones here at 1’40” and 4’28”:

YouTube – RAM vs Salford 1999

One of the crucial factors about UC is that it’s a game of emotions and psychological pressure, and an aggressive buzzer strategy, even if only partially successful in itself, puts pressure on the opposition, and can in turn lure them into a more aggressive buzzer strategy than they’d like to adopt. So if you’re up against strong opponents, or if you go significantly behind, it’s worth being brave. You might as well go down fighting.

By the same token if you find yourself ahead in the game, and the opposition switches to more aggressive buzzing, then you have two options – fight fire with fire, and step up your own buzzing, or stay calm and focus on picking up on their incorrect early buzzes. Both involve an element of calculated risk, but for my money the latter strategy is probably smarter, especially if you combine it with good clock control.

Technical issues

Here’s something to bear in mind while you’re filming – the primary aim of the producers is, ultimately, to produce good television, not, as you might think or hope, to produce a fair or balanced contest. That’s not to say they don’t want to, but it means that if you feel you’re being hard done by, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, before and during the recording. After is too late.

Before the show, as a technical check you’ll be asked to test your buzzer. Don’t assume it will be in full working order – that set has been around a while now, and maximising your buzzer speed wasn’t a budget priority in the first place. Plus you might be filming straight after a perspiringly vigorous buzzer-presser. So check it, double-check it, and if you’re not happy, speak up.

You should also check your screen visibility – bizarrely in this day and age, you’ll have to share a screen between two of you, and under lights your view of it might not be at all clear. Check it carefully, especially if you have any mobility issues.

Once filming starts, if any of these things turns out to be an issue, don’t be afraid to stop the filming, and do it at the earliest opportunity. The same goes for any issues with the accuracy of the questions and answers – mistakes do happen, and they can’t be fixed once the contest is over. You’ll feel awkward, and don’t expect anyone to be grateful for your intervention (after all, you’re lengthening their working day) – but don’t be afraid to fight your corner.

This is when it can help to have friendly faces in the audience. While you can’t talk to them at any stage of the filming process, it can bolster your confidence to have them there if and when an issue arises.

Play your half of the game

Here’s another area in which the playing the game on TV is – or should be – different from playing it at home. In your living room you’ll attempt to answer all the starters and both team’s bonuses. In the studio, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained in paying any attention to your opponents’ bonus questions – and potentially you’ll cause yourself emotional turmoil of some sort. Your aim in the time they take to deal with their bonus round should be to regroup, slow your heart rates and focus on nailing the next starter question. While you can’t really natter away, some simple sign language and eye contact team discussion can take place – e.g. do we switch to a more aggressive buzzer strategy, reassuring any flagging team mates, and so on.

Conversely, when you’ve got the bonuses, be very aware of what you do during the third bonus. Even if you’re trailing and trying to move the game on, don’t get so tied up in this final bonus that you disadvantage yourselves for the next starter. Use the time you have, even if you know the answer straight away, and make sure you’re all focused (the non-captains especially) when the next starter kicks in – if your opponents are game-smart, they will be.

Successfully executing this strategy should put a lot of pressure on the opposition – it makes it much harder for them to build momentum, in terms of scoreboard position and emotionally.

Teams with official coaches will often have a stat-taker in the audience, analysing the match as it unfolds so that the team can focus on their own game. One of the things they should be looking at is percentage of starter questions won after an opposition bonus round. I’d suggest aiming for something over 70%.

Eat the clock

Here’s where we dip a toe in the darker arts. The rules of UC are something of an unwritten constitution, as you might expect from an old-fashioned British quiz show. Teams are not allowed an unlimited amount of time to answer their bonus questions, but how much time that actually is seems to be, as far as I know, entirely at the discretion of Paxman. (His application of this rule is perceived to be flexible – quite what it depends upon is anyone’s guess, and the subject of a much lengthier discussion than this.)

If you’re trailing on the scoreboard, or if things are pretty close, you’ll most likely be wanting to get on with things as swiftly as possible. So you won’t want to waste time on getting bonuses wrong – achieving this depends again on you as individuals, and as a team, knowing what you know and how likely you are to be able to retrieve it swiftly. That’s an aspect of the team play that will develop over the course of the series, and is a large part of the art of UC captaincy (see Part Two). However, take another look at what I said about Bonus Q3 above – don’t hurry yourself into losing the next starter for the sake of trying to catch up.

If you manage to get yourselves substantially ahead on the scoreboard – let’s say three starters, i.e. 60 points or so – then it’s in your interests to slow the game down, and as the rules of the game stand there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t. So if you know the answer straight away, or if you immediately realise that none of you will know it, don’t be afraid to confer anyway. You may need good acting and improvisation skills – if you just sit there chatting inanely about the cricket or Leon Trotsky then Paxman is likely to tighten the time constraints. This is where some team practice time can be usefully spent – especially in trying to keep a straight face. As a rule of thumb, if you’re 60 ahead and you’re not hearing Paxman’s trademark “Come on!” at least once per bonus round, then you’re not using up enough of your time.

And whatever else you do, if you’re leading and the opposition have incorrectly buzzed early on a starter, take the whole of the starter question before you buzz. There’s absolutely no reason to buzz early under those circumstances.

Let’s look at two great examples of clock-eating from Newcastle from the latter stages of their match against Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. Firstly their poetry bonus round at around 24’45” onwards:

YouTube – Newcastle v Fitzwilliam 2017

There’s some great work from Nielsen on Q2, controlling the pace as Chair 2 should, and Reynard’s meanderings on Q3 are lovely too. An important point here is that I can’t even tell whether they’re consciously slowing the game down or not – their deliberations appear entirely legitimate, and well within the unwritten rules of the game.

Now let’s look at their Maths bonus round at around 26’31” onwards. I’m especially interested in Noble’s headline-grabbing answer to Q2, which at the time seemed like a lightning piece of mental arithmetic. The alternative explanation – that he knew the answer and killed a bit of time by conferring – is, to the student of UC strategy, even more impressive. Note that I don’t know which explanation is correct, and I’m happy to let Newcastle Noble keep that to himself. What you should consider is this: why is a Maths teacher asking two medical students for their input on a question about Pascal’s Triangle? Either way, it’s a noteworthy piece of UC-ing, and great television.

Overall this match is an excellent case study of Newcastle at their peak – aggressive buzzing gives them a three-starter lead by 11 minutes in, and their game control – regulating the pace of their bonuses, plus an impeccable 100% post-opposition-bonus starter rate – means that from that point Fitzwilliam were never able to get back into the contest.

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Orally Fixated

Last month the New Yorker published a short story called Cat Person, which went viral as part of the ongoing discussion of relations between the sexes. It’s a good read – you can access it here if you’re one of the six people who haven’t read it, or one of the two people who don’t have an opinion on it.

If you’re like me* then on first reading you’ll have struggled to get past the end of the first paragraph, which mentions Red Vines – which we immediately infer from context to be a kind of confectionery.

Here’s the thing. I really like sweets. To the extent of having them organised into a clear hierarchy at all times. (For example: Celebrations go Malteasers – Galaxy – Galaxy Caramel – Snickers – Mars – Bounty – Milky Way.) Maybe this comes from having two brothers, which necessitated swift decision-making when a tub of chocolates was being passed round at home.

I dutifully read the rest of the story, but the only issues my mind was willing to grapple with on this first pass were related to the revelation of the existence of Red Vines. What are they? What do they look like? What do they taste like? How much do they weigh? (Since the context is that of a cinema sweet shop, that latter point comes into play at the pick & mix stand.) From the name, I guessed that they might be like strawberry laces but thicker – it seemed like a strange choice of snack for a grown man, but that was fairly clearly an inference that the author intended the reader should draw.

Luckily, as with all my innermost thoughts, the first thing I did was to post this question on Twitter, and only a day or two later a friend duly presented me with a box of Red Vines. Consequently I am able to inform you that they do look like thicker versions of strawberry laces, but the taste is considerably different – as a taste-texture combination they are something like a Ralgex-flavoured condom.

Clearly, therefore, the type of snack chosen by some sort of psychopath. Bingo! I felt ready to proceed onto the second and subsequent paragraphs of the story.

In fact, if I paid more attention to TV on the rare occasions when I’m actually watching it then I’d have had this Damascene moment a lot sooner. In the series Fringe there’s a quite brilliant piece of double character work by the Australian actor John Noble, portraying two versions of a scientist named Walter Bishop – the series is set in parallel universes (it’s science fiction, did I mention that?), and so each actor is required to play the same character whose circumstances have diverged at some earlier point. It’s a very scientific measure of acting ability, and Noble is stunning as both Walter Bishops. Anyway, the Walter Bishop in the show’s principal universe is clinically insane, and one of the ways in which this is delineated (by contrast with sane Walter in universe number 2) is his predilection for – you’ve guessed it – Red Vines.**

I have to admit that my experience reading Cat Person was not atypical of my life as a reader. I’ve read every single Maigret novel, and yet I couldn’t tell you a single detail about any of the plots except that he often goes into a bar for a marc, and they are always ordering beer and sandwiches from over the road when they’re in the middle of an long interrogation (come to think of it that probably just means anything over 10 minutes).

Thomas Hemsley always claimed that years spent singing, as well as the time and effort spent studying and thinking about singing, caused an overdevelopment in the part of the brain concerned with the mouth – teeth, lips and tongue included. This, he speculated, was at least one of the reasons behind the connection between singers and food. It’s a plausible theory – I can’t think of a singer who doesn’t have a passion for eating, drinking, cooking, or combinations thereof. It may also be why you’ll still see some singers smoking more often than you’d expect (which is obviously never), and why – based entirely on anecdotal evidence – singers are excellent kissers, although I’ll largely leave that to you to explore further if I may.

(By the way, Hemsley also used to claim that singers eating a lot was entirely acceptable since in a typical performance a singer would burn more calories than a coal miner during a day’s work. Now, I’m the last person to tell people how to do their jobs, but I might suggest that if a singer is expending more energy during two hours on stage than a collier on a 12-hour shift, then they might want to consider calming down a little.)

Come to think of it, characters in opera are often required to eat and/or drink during a scene – it doesn’t happen in every opera admittedly, but when you take into account that it’s the one thing we’re literally not able to do while carrying out our job, then it makes absolutely no sense for operas to take place during mealtimes at all. It seems that composers and librettists share their singers’ oral fixation.

Which brings us to Freud, who as you might expect had rather a lot to say on the subject of oral fixations. It should be no surprise to you either that Freud was inclined to think that all this was to do with experiences in very early childhood – you can read more about it here.

So which is it – if Freud is right, perhaps infants with an abnormal experience of breast feeding are more likely to go on to become professional singers? Or do we go with the Jones-Hemsley theory that it’s the experience of singing which leads to a more general oral fixation?

Not wanting to leave you hanging, I asked a friend who is a clinical psychologist for her verdict. Her thoughts on Freud: “Some good concepts, twisted by him being a misogynistic sex-obsessed man of his time.”

And what about Jones? “Well. You’re not a misogynist.”

So there you have it. Jones 1, Freud 0. I’m off to crack open a box of Red Vines to celebrate.



* NB you’re probably not. Be grateful.

** Since writing this I’ve learned that The Big Bang Theory also deals with this subject, Red Vines being Sheldon Cooper’s confectionery of choice. (It’s quite likely I’ve also seen this and immediately forgotten about it. I don’t watch TV very closely, you may have gathered.) Red Vines = sociopath must be a whole semester on the standard American Creative Writing course.

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Not racist but.

“I’m not racist, but…” The dining room table of a bed & breakfast in rural Leicestershire, mid-June 2016. A retired gentleman from Birmingham has just uttered the time-honoured phrase, invariably the prelude to a stream of muddled (in this instance, anti-Asian) invective which could only be categorised as anything but not racist….. “and that’s why I’m voting Leave on Thursday.”

Being of sound Welsh-Irish working-to-middle class upbringing, I responded as I had been raised to do – by ignoring the utterly nonsensical illogic of the monologue (not to mention the crass offensiveness of describing in detail how he was for no valid reason about to disrupt the lives of the mixed-EU couple across the table), making non-committal sounds of polite non-disagreement and attempting to change the subject as quickly as possible.

I thought nothing more of it until I awoke on the morning of June 24th to the head-banging mass stupidity of the referendum result. My first useful conclusion was to vow never again to meet the words “I’m not racist but” with silence.

I mean don’t get me wrong – I’m perfectly happy to listen to a racist diatribe, and then, with any luck and a fair tail-wind, to engage with it and attempt to unravel the false assumptions on which it’s based, whether successfully or not. But you don’t get to say “I’m not racist but…” and then express a series of racist opinions. That is literally what makes you a racist. You can say “I am racist and….” plus racist opinions, or “I’m not racist and….” plus non-racist opinions, but “I’m not racist but….” simply makes no sense.

When the writer A A Gill died late last year, opinion (especially at home in Wales, for perfectly valid reasons which Gill himself makes clear in his memoir Pour Me – A Life) was divided between whether he was a brilliant writer or a complete prick, as if the two are in some way mutually exclusive.

Gill on a lot of subjects I could always take or leave, but I could never quite tear my eyes away from his restaurant column. “One of the great misconceptions about dinner is that nice people make good food…. But it’s almost exactly the opposite. Great food is cooked by twisted, miserable, depressive, cruel, abused and abusive, needy, compromised and shamed people.” Perhaps that’s also true of writers, and from experience seems more plausible than not.

Gill’s memoir is self-indulgent, rambling, disagreeable, unattractive and at times incomprehensible. I thoroughly recommend it. He’s not someone you can ever imagine preceding a series of offensive, prejudiced outpourings with “I’m not a racist but” – he repeatedly leaves that for us to decide, from the content of what follows.

Three sections stand out for me. His feelings on religion I knew before, and they’ve always struck a chord. His thoughts on dyslexia were new to me – his own, how dyslexia is approached, and his broader thoughts on the British education system overall. There were many times during my career as a teacher where I felt I was being asked to turn daffodil bulbs into tulips, or vice versa, which is really not a valid objective no matter how good the gardener or how potentially fertile the bulb.

And then his thoughts on critics and criticism.

“The rule of criticising anything is – first you must love it, innately, the thing itself, the idea of it, the application of it. If you don’t wholeheartedly adore the medium, then why would you ever care if someone did it badly or well?”

“…. there is no such thing (as constructive criticism). Critics do deconstructive criticism.”

There’s food for thought there, for critics and artists alike. The two instances where I balk at critics’ writing is when I feel that whatever love they had for their chosen subject has diluted or disappeared completely, and when they attempt to offer solutions to shortcomings they (rightly or otherwise) identify. Singers constantly wish critics would do this, but the point is they don’t know how and it’s not their job.

Ultimately the aspect of Gill’s writing which keeps drawing me back to it is his humanity – as a restaurant reviewer, I never felt he was unbiased, objective, fair or constructive. What I did feel was that I had a clear vision of what it had been for him to experience that portion of his existence spent on that meal. I knew how it felt to be him at that moment. A shared experience with a fellow human.

After all, deep down, we’re all complete pricks.



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