The Barbarians are Winning.
The dominant theme of my life is running a race alone but being pipped at the post from off- field. It has happened again. I was on the point of posting this rather heated blog only to open the Spectator and find Rod Liddle’s article entitled ‘The War Against Intelligence’. He ends it with the words ‘the barbarians are winning’. It is about the deliberate erosion and subjugation of European ( aka ‘white’) culture in classical music. His is a discursive analysis about absurdity that first found reasons to suggest that Beethoven was black ( evidence in his negro cadences?- or as Liddle poses ‘kumbaya’ in the Moonlight sonata? Yeah right) but then (real evidence now wearing thin) banning Beethoven for not being black. (I seem to remember Shakespeare went through a period of being German.)
My piece is more narrative but describes exactly how this is being done, and how it affects someone I know. Politics very close to the bone. That takes me back.
In this ‘hyper-sensitive’ age of disapproval it is increasingly necessary to seek deep into opinions and from what they arise, before considering their merits. Owning an opinion is also to own its groundswell, which may be well-tilled earth, or shifting sand. I now watch viewpoints with the attention I might give to a breeze through a birch. It may conceal a luminous woodpecker or merely the displacement by a passing breath. When it comes to racial attitudes my views have been long marinated, and turned in the pickling of frequent spices.
Something happened this week to draw out this ‘opinionated piece’. I am increasingly keeping powder dry before venturing out. Mainly because I have little left, and want to use what is there to some purpose. The purpose may well be my own slaughter since I have no gladiator editor to ward off fury.
You will get a better perspoective if I take you on a small detour to lend height and breadth.
As many of my long term friends know I grew up in the hottest bed of racial conflict, not hot as Portland Oregon is hot, with fires and destruction, but South Africa, hot with repression and the danger of unexpressed and entrenched fear. Die ‘swart gevaar’ ( the black danger) was never openly evident to the privileged whites, but to justify repression it was kept well stoked in the general sense. In the particular of my fairly unique family it was derided (if ever it was referred to) and avoided. They, each of them, went slimly: Some mastered Zulu and worked in educating the aspiring, some worked in black hospitals ministering to mine-damaged lungs, one was locked up for 90 days at a time (twice)for being unwisely verbal. Mostly they were too busy to become conspicuous, but when white supremacy drew close my grandparents and then my mother took refuge in remote regions of black supremacy; Botswana, Lesotho and then Swaziland (Now Eswatini).
My ‘second mother’ was the daughter of a Zulu chief, who entered my life when I was six, and never left. From my family I learned how to refuse conformity, but from Milly Thoko Ndaba I learned how to love, and how to laugh and how to dismiss the small minded as beneath contempt. She usually laughed before offering any opinions or advice. Philosophy was her default, and for her a just and loving God was an intimate.
So that is my groundswell: a society built in fear, but a homestead refuge of refusal to be part of any of it. As a preparation for what now swirls about us, I was lucky. Privation was never resented but merely the price to be paid. Saying ‘no’ comes naturally. But ‘no’ has been the cause of much rejection, now from friends and even my daughters, for in the balmy ‘liberal tolerance’ of England they have never needed to be honed to discern that ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerance’ are covers for everything but. I had come close to forgetting that, too.
England is good at half obscured prejudice, nothing too sharp, or too explicit but otherwise it slides over the ‘regrettable’ or the jejune. Provided any opinion is padded with subordinate clauses, and covered with climbing qualifiers what is meant can be ignored. In fact what is meant will often be re-interpreted ‘I am sure that is not what she meant’ thereby exempting the listener from any need to question or confront. Because I do usually mean exactly what I say I have few friends, and that privation is still the price to be paid. Nothing new in that.
My first booster injection of the vaccine of remembered truth came from a literary editor who was reading my memoir, She seemed to be enjoying it until she read a description of my stepfather. My stepfather was a truly despicable man; he blighted my mother’s life and because she was all I had, he fair ruined mine. There was no trouble in describing his character, or his devilish cunning, or his imperious racism in dealing with beloved Milly, whose life he ruined equally out of petty jealousy and spite. Her spiritual honesty, and verbal clarity was a mirror in which his inferiority was inescapable, and he delighted in humiliating her. In South Africa a white hand always held the whip when it chose.
The problem in the memoir came when I mentioned he was Jewish, and with the nose to match. ‘His nose won every argument’ was what I had written. ‘You CANNOT say that. No publisher will touch it, and nor should they’ Her capitals screamed outrage. The fact that the book is filled with heroic Jews, acting for Mandela’s defence, cultured Jews standing alone against apartheid (Helen Suzman) generous Jews ministering to Milly’s need to wean a baby away from the ‘group areas act’ (that prohibited her child from remaining with us) cut no ice at all. One Jew with a nose undid all my fair and fulsome tributes. The scales of balance were tipped by a single vividly unpleasant Jew. He was not even ‘observant’ but he did like borscht and gefiltre fish.
No Jew can be described other than in glowing terms. They are universally sacrosanct. Must be nice for circumstances at birth to absolve all sins in advance.
I ventured to seek other views on this from good literary friends. They all agreed with the editor. I would be laying myself open to distorted and selective quotations. Any book would die on the printing block! Decapitated by a single description of a singular nose.
A nose is a trope. Verboten. Ignore the distinctive, and concentrate on the generic? That makes all vanilla blancmange, and every editor warns of its banality. Until….
This was my recent re-induction into the gymnastic distortions now required. In South Africa it was limited to racial and language issues, here, in contemporary Britain it has swept up everything, from views on Greta Thunberg, or taking the knee, to the elimination of historic records, and reorganising the British Library to billboard the wrongs of colonialism. Now it includes even a writer’s discernment to describe what the eye of a child saw. Achtung; you will think approved thoughts, and use approved words. All the bien-pensants nod in unison and pass the asparagus.
This brings me back to the most recent additions that have capsized and overflowed the marinade with so much salt water, little savour remains. Because the baby still floats I will outline what is destined to destroy it utterly.
Before I do, I think it worth mentioning that when I was growing up in South Africa the bloodbath was believed both imminent and inevitable. Fear weaves powerful prognoses. What happened? Truth and Reconciliation involving a white supremacist Leader who surrendered power without a fight and an orderly election, and the unification of a divided country that has, mostly, done all it could to try and rebuild together. Far from perfect but no longer afraid of the ‘other’, just afraid of criminals who come in all shades. You could call it patriotism, or allegiance, or history for all have played their part. I would add common sense pragmatism, and knowing when to lay down arms. There are relevant parallels everywhere where such pragmatism could work wonders. But essentially I believe South Africa escaped because racism was never denied; it was on the surface inescapable and entrenched in law. Much easier to face and wash away what lies blatant on the surface.
The event that triggered this ‘opinionated piece’ has been reported to me by a friend, a dedicated violin teacher, whose pupils and their aspirations have filled her life. Their repertoires, their studies, recordings, University applications, concerts (and their sometimes difficult parents) are the whole and centre of her existence teaching at an esteemed Conservatoire. She has begun some of them at ages six or eight and most reward her by seeking music scholarships, degrees, performances which stretch her technically to master increasingly demanding works herself in limited time. Musical excellence is her only guide. For it she will select the repertoires that play to each pupil’s strengths; lucid articulate Bach for the discerning, feisty Tchaikovsky for the gutsy, and unaccompanied for the very brave. The violin reveals everything, from muscle tension to empathy, egotism to sensitivity. So any tension is deleterious, and gritted teeth the worst of all.
She has fostered her pupils progress by suggesting those that are committed and talented should apply for the Conservatoire’s Junior Saturday school to round out their musical experiences with chamber groups, orchestras and theory. In doing that she halves her income every time they succeed, being paid less than half her private teaching fee by the august institution who takes its profit from her dedication. ( And has been known to boast that prestige draws teachers that accept low wages! It never mentions how prestige pays the gas bill) This she has never resented or mentioned.
Over the past eighteen months her work has been largely on line and because back to back teaching over skype led to crippling headaches she managed by filling Sundays and evenings to disperse the effects of radiation. Delighted to return to a room and pupils face-to- face she arrived for this new year full of hope in renewal and eager to enjoy the company of her colleagues in the snatched moments over coffee. But a staff meeting first introduced a two new edicts.
Edict one: Parents would no longer be free to wander the corridors and drop in on concerts or rehearsals They could attend the coffee bar and only those concerts in which their offspring was performing. Those that paid the substantial fees, and were exhorted to foster daily practice were no longer welcomed as part of the institution. This was explained as required by ‘Child Protection’ because the general public were now invited to help offset the cost of recent building projects! How can Joe Bloggs with malign intent be distinguished from a parent if both are allowed access? So the potentially malign are welcomed at the expense of the dedicated? In this day of almost universal lanyards- including gay pride for an all girls school once a year-somehow this is not considered a solution.
Edict Two: Every pupil will be required to include BAME compositions in their repertoire and for concerts BAME music will be featured. For those unfamiliar with the acronym BAME stands for Black , Asian, Minority Ethnic. Have you ever heard a person describe him or herself as a ‘minority ethnic’? Would a collection of Sicilian Mafia qualify? The sophisticated Japanese, the immigrant Uighur, the Romany gypsy all will fit the required box. How they must rejoice to be indistinguishable from one another! I am not sure ‘women’ count any longer, there are now too many of us. What is ‘Asian’? Chinese, Japanese, Malayan, Indian? Or just foreign looking and dusky?
It went on :Pupils will not only play bame music but be told why it is important. They will analyse it and it will be incumbent to enthuse about it. Jews Harp, sorry Marranzano, ( too universal) Irish fiddle, Negro spirituals? Or…? Compulsory Sitar, Tambura, Tabla or Guzheng, Pipa and collection of gongs? Marimba? Penny whistle? Skin drums? Ankle rattles? Why not go whole-hog?
From violin teacher to social ideolog at a stroke.
According to the official statistics, the BAME population forms 6.3% of the British population. Their representation at the Conservatoire is 38% but more must be done. The roughly ten black classical composers that have gained recognition, with the exception of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, are all American, and almost all their compositions are orchestral concertos and symphonies. Orchestral works are not amenable to instrumental solo development .There is a viola sonata by Julia Perry. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has not commissioned a cello concerto from a bame composer as far as I know. He chooses Dvorak, Elgar and Saint Saens himself.
If these ‘bame’ works need exposure then why are they not featured by the professional orchestras? Usually there is a reason, and in this day when orchestras are in want of new scores I doubt that names like Florence Price, Undine Smith-Moore and Julia Perry would occasion racial prejudice. Perhaps their works have little appeal, or perhaps they do not challenge orchestral development or merit what is always minimal rehearsal time? But now students of classical instruments must make good that historical neglect in the tight time available to full time academic studies where musicians sacrifice sport, weekends, and hours of practice each day? To play Woke works? By artificial emphasis they must foster the political priorities now decreed? Priorities that have nothing to do with music?
Training a classical musician takes more hours than a brain surgeon. For it they sacrifice many of the ordinary pleasures of childhood, and their parents a great deal of money. No profession is as ‘giving’ to the general good as music, and no discipline requires as much selflessness in obedience to the composer, or the ensemble. Yet with a few exceptions they are very poorly paid. ( About the same as a safety inspector with a clip board) The competition is fierce and often ruthless. You would imagine that a music conservatoire, aware of all of this, would be the one place they might expect support and sympathy and a very compassionate level playing field. But now the climate demands the complicity to take the knee and abase objectivity to appeasement, to sacrifice the long traditions of Western music for the ephemeral social ‘do-gooding’ of tokenism.
It does not stop with the music. Anyone listening to the BBC ‘Young Musician Competition’ can predict the winner in every class. No considered judgement is required. If there is a bame participant he/she will win, regardless of the brilliance of their white English competitors. So it will be with the choice of orchestral leaders, and performers in the Colleges of Music. What is being diminished is the Western tradition of classical music along with the other indices in literature, art, publishing, comedy, drama. It will be left to the Asian diaspora to keep the flames of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart lit. Oxford University has already banned Beethoven and dissolved an orchestra. Why is this acceptable? Who has ordained this erosion and compliance?
Setting aside the political priorities what does it do to the bame musician? The belief that artificially elevating their skin colour, or minority status to the conspicuous is assisting their development is the opposite of what they seek. Instead it elevates the institution’s pc credentials at the expense of those who contribute to its prestige. What each individual wants is to know is that when they are selected as soloist or Leader they have deserved it, judged on performance alone; that the playing field is truly level. And what does it do to the dedicated white musician who knows he has little chance no matter how gifted or dedicated? He or she will never succeed? Take it on the chin for the ‘greater good’? Utopias are always spurious ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ arguments. Both end without any legs at all.
How does a teacher continue to encourage pupils who know their dedication will be amputated before they get real chances?
It seems to me so obvious that this deliberate distortion is destructive to all sides. Why then does it prevail? How has this indoctrination taken such universal roots? Is Claus Schwab’s New World Order already underway? The Order in which what shines must be roughened up, what is indifferent must be elevated so that none will have prizes? That’s how it looks to me, and I am grateful for the company of Rod Liddle on the naughty bench.
What I do not understand is this universal conformity. Are these ‘directors of the arts’ simply placemen, or are they so obedient they no longer think? Or perhaps closet racists over-compensating?
What I know from my own roots is that this is true evil masquerading as kindness. It is patronising condescension and creates entirely un-necessary resentment in all sides of the one profession where collaboration is paramount. Perhaps that is its purpose? To undermine the high art and hasten its demise. That of course would fit the intentions of uniformity which have already succeeded throughout education. The problem with classical musicians is they tend to individuality and a unique contribution. Long hours of lonely practice does that in the company of genius that still calls and dictates. Which is perhaps why they have lasted as long as they have, but this may be their final subjugation. And our universal loss.