Saturday 27 September 2014

Moving on, but with a glimpse backwards

I’ve learned a couple of lessons about art in the widest sense of the term. Stick with me if you’re still thinking about the independence referendum. This is also about now.  I’ve discovered that what once was popular most likely still has some merit if only we take the time and make the effort to find it. Moreover if I fail to find merit in something that people I respect think is great, it’s worth considering whether the fault may lie with me rather than that which I fail to value.

I read somewhere that in the 1910s and 1920s the most famous woman on the planet, some would say the most famous woman who had ever lived, was called Mary Pickford.  I had only vaguely heard of her and had never seen one of her films. I set out to discover what I was missing. There’s a modern tendency to see silent movies as primitive and ridiculous. They take a little practice. They have rules and conventions like any other art form. Actually you can only really understand them if you can somehow imagine yourself back into the 1910s and 1920s viewing from their point of view. There needs to be a sort of forgetting, a stripping away of what has come subsequently. If you’re lucky you glimpse Mary Pickford as she was, wildly popular even in the Soviet Union, who pretty much banned every other American movie star, but didn’t dare to ban Masha “the girl with the curls.”

When I first started listening to opera I didn’t get it. When I first watched ballet the dance movements seemed contrived. But I persevered, watched more listened to more, read more about what people thought these art forms were trying to achieve. In time I began to understand more. Many years ago a friend played me something by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). I hated it. Modern classical music I dismissed as noise without any sort of tune. I continued in this opinion for many years without ever properly giving any of it a chance. But the memory of listening to something liked by someone I respected, but which I hated, nagged at me. A few years ago I gave Messiaen another go. I still hated him, but it still nagged. I’d taken up exercise again and would listen to music while using a step, so I thought this was my chance to see if I could learn about what I didn’t understand. I knew it would be futile to just plough on with Messiaen. Instead I began at the beginning of modern classical music. I started listening to late Beethoven. I then moved on through the 19th century, tracing each development. When I understood what had changed, I tried to move on to the next stage. Something big changed with Wagner. Here was something new. Then Mahler showed still another way of doing things as did Debussy, who I still don’t really get. People like Bartok and Shostakovich pushed more boundaries.  After I began to like them, I could go back and reassess some of those who I had really hated like Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. Finally I returned to Messiaen and listened to everything I could find. Now I got it. Now I loved him more than any other composer, especially Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus.

There are so many great things to discover, forgotten novels from 1910, bestsellers from the 50s and 60s that you can pick up for a penny plus postage, that millions of people once read which now no-one reads. Do a search on IMDB for film’s rated 8.0 and above. Find one that you've never heard of no matter how old, no matter which language. For me the greatest film ever made was made in 1955 in Denmark. It has the power to change your life if you are open to it and don’t read anything about it before hand. It’s called Ordet [the word]. 

There are always going to be things you don’t get, but why not try? You enrich your life by doing it. Of course nothing worthwhile comes easily. In order to learn a language, for instance, you need to spend an hour a day every day for at least a year. Anyone can do it, but it needs commitment.

Many years ago I was feeling rather lonely in a far off land. I was looking for something to read from home and came across Ivanhoe.  Of course my parents had been fans of Scott naming me after one of his characters, but as children do, I had resisted what my parents loved. Scott to me was little more than a monument, a station, a football team and an author no-one read. But I knew that he was the world’s most popular author two hundred years ago. He was also the man who made the world fall in love with Scotland. 

I’d seen the 1952 film of Ivanhoe with Robert and Elizabeth Taylor, but the book was a bit harder to get into. In the first couple of chapters I found the sentences long. There were references to historical events I didn’t know, literature I had never read and there were words I didn’t know. But I persevered. I got into the story and found the novel easier to read. The story was excellent, a real page turner I just had to adapt myself to the style. I didn’t read another Scott novel for a few years, but when I did I was hooked. I picked The Bride of Lammermoor because it was short. It was also rather harder than Ivanhoe as being set in Scotland the dialogue is frequently in old Scots. I grew up speaking Doric, but I still had to turn to the glossary rather often. But again the story was a page turner and soon I began learning the vocabulary of a language we have lost. It took another couple of novels before I began to really get why Scott was so popular. There’s a barrier between our time and his time, just as there is between us and the audiences who watched silent movies. It takes a little effort to bring it down. Two hundred years ago, reading was the equivalent of television. They were as good at reading as we are at watching television. They read better than we do.

Now that I was hooked I set myself the task of reading the Waverley novels. There are around thirty. In this I was aided by the brilliant new “Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley novels”. Scott experts have for the first time gone back to the manuscripts and first editions in order to provide us with the best possible scholarly edition of Scott’s novels. It’s a stunning achievement. They are expensive however, though cheaper second hand.

In the course of reading the Waverley novels, I learned old Scots and I learned huge amounts of British, Scottish and European history. Most importantly I learned to see history from multiple points of view. Scott is a novelist and at times historically unreliable, but in my view if you want to grasp the essence of the UK civil war 1642-1745 you could do worse than read Woodstock, Old Mortality, Rob Roy and Waverley.

Scott depicts each side with sympathy and understanding and finds heroes and villains on both sides of history. His last novel Castle Dangerous set during the Scottish war of independence (1306) has both Scottish and English heroes and ends with reconciliation and honour on all sides. Frequently in the Waverley novels English or lowland Scottish heroes come into contact, often conflict, with Highland Scots. Scott shows that it is this meeting that produced the people that we are today. The genius of Waverley is in the subtitle, “tis sixty years since”. Sixty years later Scott is able to depict the Jacobites with sympathy. At the same time he points out the progress that has been made since then and the achievements of the Hanoverians.  George IV famously asked “Is Scott the author of Waverley?” The Hanoverian King now too could view “the 45” with sympathy as could the whole world. Bonnie Prince Charlie passed into legend, loved by all sides. Scott completed the healing of the wounds that had torn Scotland apart in a civil war. Never has he been more relevant. In Scott you find both the romantic Jacobite and the practical Hanoverian you find both sides of the Scottish character. He shows us what we are and reconciles us to ourselves. He’s “the 45” who in time could see the benefits of losing because loss gave birth to the Scottish Enlightenment, democracy rather than feudalism and the divine right of kings, prosperity, free markets and trade rather than poverty and order rather than revolutionary chaos. Would that it did not take sixty years this time.

Scott showed the benefits of a United Kingdom, but he retained the love of what we had lost. He is about an extraordinary journey taken by a woman who would not lie to save her sister who had sinned. I am that sister. So are you. Scotland needs to make that same journey to save ourselves from ourselves. In the end Scott is about the meeting of the Highland and the Lowland, the Jacobite and the Hanoverian, “the 45” and the “the 55”. We need to find forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to find the one Scotland that Scott gave us.

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.