I’m not sure that I would, in my advanced years, be a good pupil when it comes to learning how to play a musical instrument. As a child it was something which was expected: music was a major part of the educational system, and anyone who did not take part was looked at as if they had no interest in learning anything, and would never make it to anything good or successful in life. We had a school choir, a school orchestra, rooms set to one side for practice, and a music master who commanded a small team of music teachers, all of them part-time and used outside of normal school hours to impart their wisdom. I suspect it would be very hard, today, to find a school which dedicates itself to any portion of the Liberal Arts and Humanities to the same level as I enjoyed. Music, Theatre, Philosophy and, to some extent, even languages have been relegated to an extra which a child could learn, if they wished to, but in their own time and, of course, at extra cost. Even the language we use, our own mother tongue, is skipped across as quickly as possible, to save time and expense, and merely get a child through the necessary examinations, and out into the world.
You might think this a rather cynical view, but in times of forced austerity the first things which suffer are the pleasures of the mind, to the betterment of those of a commercial nature. Our world is made up of those seeking technological advancement, rather than those seeking knowledge and wisdom. The latter exist, that is a fact, but tend to be pushed to one side, laughed at, written off as wasting their precious time on this small lump of polluted rock, hurtling through space and time.
Music was not my thing during my school years, but this was mainly due to the necessity of learning an instrument which did not interest me. We had a school orchestra, small but of good quality, and children were encouraged to learn that instrument which was needed to enhance the orchestra. If a violinist left the school, leaving an empty stool behind them, the next child taking up any form of music was given a violin to learn, until such time as it was clear they had no aptitude, or a better possibility, a different empty stool, appeared. The cello would have been my instrument of choice, a flute or clarinet was the sole offer of the music master. Given no time to make an informed choice, I settled on the flute, having been told it would be one or the other during one of our short breaks, outside the classroom, by a teacher hurrying on his way between teaching periods to smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of coffee, complain over the plebiscites given into his charge.
My first lesson, a week later, with a borrowed flute, took place is a dusty, rarely used room at the back of the school. There was a piano, a stool, a window as sole source of light, and a teacher whose accent was so thick and deep I had to consider every single word he uttered to make any sense of what he wanted me to do. Towards the end, though, he decided, impatiently, to demonstrate how a child should blow into the flute’s opening to create even a halfway acceptable sound by spitting. He did not merely expel air through his mouth, nor spit onto the dirty floorboards of the room: he spat into my face, and sealed the fate of my music-learning interests forever. From then onward I knew that my place was either in front of an instrument which played for me – a radio or gramophone player – at a concert in the audience, or in the library with my books. Being a young student, and of very limited means, that meant I spent much of my time either with a radio hidden under my pillow during the night, or lost in other worlds created by the master writers of the times, behind the library counter.
Music is, and will always be, a major part of my life regardless of the bad influences exerted during my early student days. One of my greatest pleasures was, and is, to travel into various metropolis and experience life concerts across a wide range of genres. I loved listening to the Labèque sisters live in concert as I did Pink Floyd, Yes or Camel. It was a challenge to find the best concert hall seats, at the cheapest price, as much as to find the time to travel into the city, and get back home again with the last train. Although, to be honest, I attended more concerts after I had moved out of the city, than when I was living there and had a better opportunity. What was direct on my own doorstep seemed to be of lesser interest, perhaps because it was so easy to attain, and of great import once it was at a distance.
I suspect this is one of the reasons, aside from a dislike of the big city, that I decided to move into a small town within easy travelling distance of the major metropolis. My home is in a form of triangle between Bremen, Hannover and Hamburg, which allows me the best of all possible worlds. Of course, now that I am here I see wonderful concerts, talks and exhibitions being advertised in Berlin, in Zürich, in München, which are considerably further afield. The choice, however, has been made. We have the great advantage, in this highly advanced, technological times, of being able to find whatever we need and desire somewhere on the internet, so distance is no longer such a burden. I can happily say that I have watched live performances of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, and only needed to step across the road to our cinema for this great pleasure, where each performance was transmitted to the big screen by a live stream.
Watching a concert on a big screen, or even a smaller one in the comfort of your own front room, is not the same as sitting in the audience, enjoying the all-encompassing ambience of a live performance attended personally. Admittedly, it can be very frustrating at times: the view is not that of a camera which can traverse the entire stage and highlight the best details; the gathered audience is not always the most understanding, or enjoyable to sit amongst. I attended a concert with Katia and Marielle Labèque in London, many years ago, where the couple in front of me complained – loudly – that they had not come t a concert, and paid so much for the tickets, just to hear rubbish like Debussy. Had they remained for the second half of the concert, they’d have found music played which was much more to their liking. Likewise I went to see a wonderful Chinese film which, as an integral part of the storyline, had a fairly explicit sex scene; a shock for those of my age group sitting in front of me who, I can only assume, did not know the background to the story, nor the style of cinema being offered, and chatted as a means of ignoring the embarrassing action before them. I dread to think how they might have reacted to a French film, such as Blue is the Warmest Colour, which is considerably more explicit.
Even this small city, surprisingly enough, has a high level of cultural life, if a person is prepared to go out and look for it. I often hear people complain that here, in the countryside, there is nothing to do, and they will die of boredom. It depends, of course, on what they are looking for, how high their personal demands are, or even whether they are prepared to accept that some people do go out of their way to arrange wonderful cultural events. Those who complain tend to be the same people who do not organise anything themselves, and sit at home in front of the television, take their annual holidays at a package tourist resort, all inclusive. But we have regular Blues and Soul evenings, a concert hall – converted church – which hosts classical concerts, and even regular live music concerts, often open air, with music for the younger generations. It might not be the Billboard Top Ten, more cover bands than anything else, but it is there. And rather better, I might add, than paying an exceptionally high price for a ticket to see some modern band, where you get to sit at the back of the hall and can hardly see anything but the light show, because the tickets for the best places are almost the same as the average monthly wage packet.
My personal interests, though, remain in the written word – literature, history and philosophy – area of the Humanities, and in photography. Not that I am a photographer of any sort, but more a collector of images other people tend to discard as of no interest whatsoever. Many years ago, when I first moved to this city, I became interested in its history, and collected a wide range of postcards and ephemera connected to it – from pawnshop receipts dated 1815 through to products which had been made by local businesses – until the prices expected, or demanded, for a simple postcard shot through the roof. Then I turned to studio photography in Germany – expanding to Europe and the USA through default – from before 1920, when most people could not afford to take photographs, when cameras were the size of a small suitcase. Small, credit card sized images, stuck onto a piece of card, embossed or printed with the name of the studio or photographer and, sometimes but rarely, the names and dates of the models themselves. These are family photographs, where people would dress in their Sunday best to pose for a memento which, bearing in mind the times in Europe and elsewhere, could be sent around the world to their extended family.
The sad thing here is that few if any had names written onto the cards. An entire family history could be lost, simply because no one wrote down who was being photographed, or when. Today people look at these old albums, know that they must have some connection to their ancestors, but cannot discover – or have no interest in undertaking the work to discover – who they are, and then simply throw them out. Famous names can be bought in the internet, on one of the many auction platforms, and sometimes there are bulk offerings at flea markets, but the greater mass have probably found their way into the paper recycling bins, and been lost forever. It is an interest which I share with very few other people here, fortunately, and one which most people simply cannot understand: why collect photographs of long-dead people whose names you do not know, and who you have no connection to? Which, to me, is like asking why we still read Plato, why some people read Austin or even Murakami.
The suggestion that you make, to write my thoughts down in a book, has been made by other people in the past too, when they have read my letters or one of the essays and articles that I write for publication now and then. It is an interesting idea, but one which I have always avoided. When I write my letters, put my thoughts down in my daily journal, I have an idea in mind and work my way through it. My letters are written, as with my journal entries, as they come to mind, without editing, without later correction. I do not go back, despite the ease of doing so, and reconsider what I have put down on paper, do not correct sentences, or write them in a better form. I sit and write, correct my spelling, fold the letter into an envelope and send it off. Any publisher of books would demand that what I offer them is carefully worked through, that each sentence is absolutely correct, that certain styles and forms are kept to. The spontaneity of a letter written to someone off-the-cuff vanishes through editorial revision. The only thing I would offer a publisher, when the time comes, is a posthumous collection of my letters and diaries, and for that I intend waiting many more years yet.