#HeadSpace: new culture corner keeping you company during Lockdown

We’re very pleased to be launching #HeadSpace, a new cultural corner featuring books, music, television, streamed entertainment and other online content to explore during Lockdown 3.0. #HeadSpace will be a regular feature sharing cultural avenues  to keep you engaged, entertained and possibly even enlightened as the coming days unfold.

From Riveting Reads to Top TV, Lockdown Listening and Winning Watches, the feature will create a sort of cultural oasis, with hopefully  something here for everyone. We’ll be sharing one of each as the feature appears (with links), with the hope that there will be something to amuse, occupy, and keep you company during the coming months.

Look after yourselves, stay safe, and enjoy our regular selection of offerings; a sort of cultural Quality Street…! First one coming shortly…

Image: Darwin Vegher via Unsplash


A mirror to its own community: the latest Whitstable Pearl novel is a hymn to the decline of the printed word

The antagonism between the old and the new lies at the heart of Murder on the Downs, the latest (and strangely prophetic) chapter in the developing ‘Whitstable Pearl’ series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer. It permeates the book – in its people, in places, in ways of thinking. This tension is distilled into what is the real issue at the centre of the book – the clash between technology and the printed word. Pearl Nolan, restaurant-owner-cum-private-detective is constantly checking her smartphone, reading the latest features from the local newspaper, the Chronicle, online long before the published headlines hit The Street. Internet turnaround is leaner, faster, and more readily available than newspapers.

It’s also about the tension between the older generation and the young; whilst Pearl is efficiently navigating her smartphone to read the latest revelations about the case, or texting DCI McGuire (with whom she shares both the investigation as well as her heart), it’s her mother, Dolly, who resorts to picking up and reading an actual newspaper. Although the novel relies on the traditional murder and investigation as its narrative outline, the driving force is its head-on look at media power – the influence it wields, its ability to sway minds, and the lengths people will go to in order to create and control headlines.

The central theme of the book concerns the threat to a stretch of countryside by a proposed property development. Wassmer presents a nicely-balanced view from both sides of the argument – those who would protect history and those who advocate for necessary change, in this case the building of affordable homes for a younger generation increasingly forced out of Whitstable by its spiralling house prices. ‘Progress doesn’t have to be a dirty word,’ argues one of its advocates. But there’s a deep-seated desire to protect the area, which mobilises a group of protestors.

‘Throughout history, people have always fought for what they value. Rarely is it given – it has to be earned – and defended with determination, commitment and strength of purpose.’

Reading that clarion-call in the current climate of crumbling arts and the collapse of opera-houses, theatres and concert-halls under the impact of COVID-19 felt prophetic – it feels like a highly appropriate time to be reading the book. As Martha, one of the main characters, observes: ‘Do nothing and there’ll never be change. But everything we do – or we don’t do – makes a difference.’

Wassmer controls the pace and set-pieces of the drama well; the set-piece of the medieval pageant atop the downs has a nice cinematic feel, leading into the lighting of the beacon to symbolise the protest’s public beginning. There’s a Gothic denouement atop the Black Mill (a genuine former working mill that stands at the top of Borstal Hill – location and geographical accuracy remains a constant throughout the series, and is a major aspect of the appeal of the books both for local reader as well as aspiring literary visitors), complete with flashes of lightning and ominous thunder. And the Black Mill is again a significant emblem of the old-versus-new dynamic – standing in the mill, Pearl is afforded a view of the estuary, in whose waters stands the modern wind-farm, its red lights glowing in the darkness. There are also some gently comic touches; a moment of, if not coitus interruptus, then coitus notquitestartedus in a secluded meadow, and a nicely tart dig at a paper’s presumption of impartiality:

“We do try to give a balanced view on most issues.”
“You mean you like to sit on the fence to please both parties ?”

The mill; the silver Lexus (and it always IS a silver Lexus); the wind farm; the ancient woodland of Benacre Wood; the historic Crown on the Downs; like pieces in the chess game which is also a theme in the novel, these elements are, as much as the characters themselves, symbols of the town and its identity, the traditional and historic (such as the remnants of the historic Blean Woods) pitched against the silver Lexus, a metaphor for all the DFLs (Down From Londoners) who have no respect for the town’s way of life.

So, the book turns out to be (as one might expect from a writer) a hymn to the passing of newspapers and the decline of the printed word as the internet becomes increasingly widespread. “In the last fifteen years over two hundred local newspapers have disappeared in the country, and more than half the towns have no local newspaper at all” reflects Chris Latimer, whose family own the local Chronicle. “A good local paper holds a mirror to its own community.” A sentiment true not just of this book, but also of the unfolding series as a whole.

Maybe the smartphone is the real sinister figure casting a shadow across the whole the novel after all…

Murder on the Downs is published by Little, Brown UK.

Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ’embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

Arts funding cuts: An Important Message

Video artist David Shrigley’s message about the proposed dangers to UK arts organisations in the face of proposed funding cuts (via a recent article in The Guardian).

Visit the blogsite at http://savethearts-uk.blogspot.com/

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

A question of culture: in High School Musical

“The music in that show isn’t hip hop … or rock…or anything essential to culture.”

So says one basketball player to another in the otherwise yawn-inducing  High School Musical. At that piece of dialogue, my brain was finally roused from the torpor into which it had slumped, driven there by the film, and emerged into the light of reason with the promise of something actually interesting to contemplate. (Such moments in the film are rare indeed: then again, I may not be its target audience).

What culture does he mean ? Contemporary youth culture ? Urban culture ? His own culture ? Or, more likely, anything connected with the Culture of Cool ?

Even more interesting is the idea of what is ‘essential’ to culture: what’s ‘cultural necessity’ ? Is it something that allows culture to thrive, to develop, to progress, to evolve ? Or something that allows culture to protect, to venerate, and to preserve ? Or is it something that allows culture to communicate, to be handed down from one generation to another, or across national divides ?

It’s probably a mixture of all of the above: as teenagers (perhaps even most of us as adults) do, they define culture perhaps in terms of their own interests, of peer pressure and their own growing and developing experience and tastes and what’s seen as cool, or hip.

Culture is what we define it as: what we read, watch, write, paint, listen to, indeed create. It’s also how we view our own society, our fellow citizens; it’s how we define our beliefs and creeds, what is important to us socially, morally, educationally and intellectually. It’s the ways in which society entertains itself, deals with its dead, dresses itself and raises its children.

It’s the mirror in which we view ourselves, define our values and judge our own actions. I wonder what the music in that show Chad was talking about actually was

(Oh wait: this all took place in High School Musical: no, I don’t).

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’