In his 1928 novel Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley leads one of the main characters through a discussion of biological development, pondering the mystery of how living creatures develop limbs and organs, rather than just proliferating aimlessly. It would be nearly forty years before the discovery of DNA, the unseen threads that govern our identity.
It is interesting to consider what remarkable discoveries will be made during the next forty years; what new techniques will be developed to probe the workings of the cell and its unknown constituents.
Huxley’s book also includes reference to current politics, such as the far-right Fascist movements. In the UK, nearly a century later, we have the same ongoing debate; anxiety about immigration and the loss of national identity has sparked the rise of the UK Independence Party and the British National Party. These agents offer a simple, clear-cut message to voters; all the nation’s problems are due to interference from the EU, and if we restricted immigration then there would be no shortage of housing or jobs.
The same point was being made at the start of the twentieth century; in 1902 the Daily Express and Daily Mail both mentioned ‘alien hordes’ who would arrive in Britain and cause the collapse of the Empire.
One of the episodes in Point Counter Point features the character of Spandrell meditating on the slow movement from Beethoven’s A-minor quartet. Younger readers, accustomed to flawless digital recordings, may never have seen or heard a 78 rpm disc (total playing time: about 215 seconds per side), and would not appreciate the feeble sound quality of this medium. Huxley captures the essence of the listening experience, likening the roaring background noise to Beethoven’s own deafness. As for me, I recall seeing the Brandis Quartet at the Wigmore Hall in 1985 performing this piece.
The idea that four strangers, sitting just a few yards in front of me, could generate so much…pleasure? No, that word doesn’t do justice to the transports of delight. Or indeed, joy; for Beethoven’s most famous work is his ninth symphony, a radical piece in every way. A mysterious opening giving way to a grandiose first movement, a stormy scherzo, and a long finale which includes – shock – a choir and four soloists who perform Schiller’s Ode to Joy.
A manuscript copy of the ninth was sold at auction in 2003, and fetched a respectable 2.1 million pounds. Compare this with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which covers four (rather than 500) pages and which is expected to sell at auction for about 2 million dollars. To be fair, the Dylan lyric was actually written by the man himself, unlike the symphony, which just had Beethoven’s notes in the margins. But it still makes me wonder about our priorities…
In ninety-three – or was it ninety-four? – I bought a double album of songs by Elton John and Others, called ‘Duets’. Carefully hand-picked performers joined Elton to create new versions of some old songs as well as newly crafted numbers. One of the collaborators was Canadian folk-singer and poet Leonard Cohen, who had been absent from the music scene for many years. The pair of them performed ‘Born to Lose’, a melancholy blues ballad which showed off Cohen’s deep vocal register.
The day after purchasing this record, I went to see the Magritte Exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery; I wandered round for two hours, confused and charmed by the blizzard of ideas captured in oil. Since there were no trains back to Tamworth, I went to the pub to kill time waiting for a bus, and one of the other drinkers struck up a conversation. I showed him the catalogue from the exhibition – not really my sort of thing, said he. It turned out he liked Van Gogh. And he played football. And he enjoyed listening to Leonard Cohen (which I wasn’t expecting, and my polite conversation quickly became something more sincere) and asked whether I had ever seen that singer. Sorry, I said; no I haven’t.
We chatted on, until I realised that my bus was due in ten minutes. ‘Gotta go’, I explained.
‘Hey, let me have your number – we can talk, maybe meet up sometime?’
I shrugged. Why not? I got the bus home and forgot all about this encounter, until my phone rang the next day. We found ourselves caught up in a three-month affair with lots of aggressive sex, the occasional joint and an argument or two. Eventually he told me that his wife was beginning to suspect, so it would have to be our last meeting. I went home in a thoroughly miserable mood, but when I looked in my rucksack I found a copy of ‘Beautiful Losers’ – he must have slipped it in while I was at the bar.
Years later, I tried reading ‘The Flame’, Cohen’s posthumous collection. I still don’t know what happened to my friend.
Here in a darkened corridor
With purple walls, a floating hand
Invites us to believe
The world we see around us is distorted
In ways we can’t perceive or understand
The world we see is compromised;
Pixels missing, voltages reversed
An evening walk conveys us past a patch
Of land where nothing grows; they
Say that it was cursed a hundred years ago
By a gipsy posing as a software engineer. We’ll
Never know if that was true
Or just another purple corridor of lies.