Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Anglo Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson

This particular reviewer rarely writes a negative review. If it didn’t communicate with me, theres no need to assume that it will not communicate to you. A positive review has to concentrate on what was communicated, whereas a negative review must live in what was not felt, and that list is infinitely long, so where to start? “I liked it” or indeed “I didn’t like it” say nothing about the work in question, only about the reviewer, and this unknown person, often hiding behind an alias, should never be at the centre of the review.

So when it comes to Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson, why should I begin with “I didn’t like it”? Well at least it gets the opinion out of the way, because in the case of this particular book, it needs to be said. Anglo Saxon Attitudes felt like the longest book I have ever read. It wasn’t, but it did feel that way for most of its duration. But the reason for my opinion is complex and, I suggested earlier, has more to do with me than the work.

Details of the book’s plot are available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the important element is the fraudulent planting of a pagan erotic sculpture into the grave of a Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon bishop that was excavated decades ago. The apparent authenticity of the find had to be catalogued, described, interpreted. For half a century this practical joke at least influenced thinking, at least amongst interested academics, on the cultural and religious origins of the race that now inhabits the country we now call England. Hence the book’s title, rooted both in the historical relics of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom “England” would have been an unknown label, and for the modern British for whom both the concept of “Anglo-Saxon” and “England” are both reconstructed myths.

Amid the need to keep alive the myth of national identity and culture, a certain person who was involved in the original discovery finds he hast to continue to perpetuate the lie. He has personal and professional reasons. He also might even believe it was true. To some extent he has built his career on the existence of the find and, equally, he built half of his life by shacking up with the girlfriend of the person who played the original practical joke on his father by planting the object in the tomb and then claiming its authenticity. Decades have come and gone. Lives have been lived. Relationships have been severed, remade and broken by death and estrangement. Gerald, who knows the truth about several things, has lived with the deception, but dismissed it as possibly false, gives given the character of the person who admitted carrying it out. Gerald now has decided it is time to come clean and tell the story.

But to whom should he tell it? And how? Reputations are at stake. Water under the bridge wont flow back the other way. People have moved on. Or have they? Anglo Saxon Attitudes thus inhabits a society with what could be described as a rarefied atmosphere. These people are of a certain social class, attend gentlemen’s clubs, regularly drift into French, for some reason, when English is just not good enough. A single paragraph of the thoughts might refer explicitly but opaquely to five or six of the book’s characters, any of whom might have been encountered during the fifty-year span of these memories. For anyone living outside donnish society of the public school, Oxbridge or academe, these people are barely recognizable as English, as archaeological, perhaps, as something dug up from long, long ago. And yet they are the mouthpieces via which the concepts of contemporary identity and culture are lengthily examined.

A strand that figures vividly in every character’s mind, if not explicitly in the English culture being examined, is sex. The erotic nature of the apparently pagan idol in the Anglo-Saxon tomb places a large ellipsis after every mention of the word sex in the book. We have characters who are openly homosexual in a society that has laws against the practice. We encounter respectable men who put themselves around a bit, and women who express their desires via euphemism. And also some who do not. And theres a lot more besides. Perhaps too much. Perhaps… For this reader…

Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a complex and ambitious novel. For this reviewer it falls short of all its implied goals because it concentrates too heavily on a narrow, unrepresentative section of the nation, was consistently patronizing to working class attitudes and featured characters who spent most of the time living myths. Perhaps that was the point… Perhaps… Why not read it and see what you think?

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Cassado and Chopin in Alfas del Pi, Stravinsky and Elgar in Alicante


Just over a year ago, it would not have been anything special to declare that it had been possible to attend four quality concerts in this area over three days. And then there was covid. Here is Spain, we had a strict initial lockdown, but since then schools have stayed open and some cultural spaces have kept running in spite of restrictions on numbers. Before saying anything else, it is necessary to remind oneself that the new norm has involved social distancing, fifty per cent capacity for venues, compulsory hand sanitiser, masks, the recording of contact details and a temperature test on entry. This has severely restricted audience’s willingness to attend and has persuaded many, perhaps a majority of venues to cease activity altogether. In addition, performers’ travel has been as restricted as the population in general, despite there being the possibility of exemption permits for work. The combination of restrictions on travel, availability of travel and reluctant venues has severely curtailed cultural activity, however, and there have been many perennial supporters of live events who have expressed the opinion that such gatherings should not be happening during a pandemic. Opinion is on one side, while the law places the limits. Also, many more elderly regular attendees have decided that now is the time to lock up and stay in. Individuals have made their own choices.

And now, on the day that bars and restaurants can open until ten o’clock in the evening and when cultural venues can admit seventy-five per cent of their capacity, it was under the previous, more severe restrictions that saw concerts on Friday evening, Saturday lunchtime and evening and Sunday lunchtime in Alfas del Pi and Alicante.

On Friday in Alfas del Pi, Antonio Garcia Egea and Fernando Espi joined as Duo Arbos to play a works from the repertoire of violin and guitar. This was the kind of programme one does not encounter often. It started conventionally with Spanish Dance no5 by Granados, but Carlo Domeniconi’s Sonatina Mexicana has probably not figured often on concert programmes in the last year. It has probably never been followed by Ravi Shankar’s El Alba Encantada, and the microtones of Indian music have probably never before led into Paganini’s Cantabile! Astor Piazzolla’s Historia del Tango, Bourdel 1900 and Café 1930 followed by Libertango was conventional in comparison, as perhaps was Pablo Sarasate’s Playera Romanza Andaluza, despite the understated but stratospheric virtuosity of the ending of the violin part. We finished the evening with Fernandon Espi’s own Impromptu and we were particularly grateful in these times to be taken by the performers on such a varied journey.

On Saturday lunchtime the orchestra at ADDA (Auditori de la Diputacion de Alicante) marked fifty years since the death of Igor Stravinsky with a breath-taking performance of Petroushka. Yes, it’s a work that the majority of the audience had hear many, many times, but it remains a work that is fresh with every new exposure and particularly so in this reading by Josep Vicent, whose reading of this music is faultless. The colours were always vivid, the scenes clear and beautifully depicted in this work that paints with sound. We also heard a superb reading of the Elgar Cello Concerto by Damian Martinez and then had encores of the Valse Triste of Sibelius and, and true to the form of current concerts, a short piece of Piazzolla, Oblivion, with the leader’s violin as soloist.

Then on Saturday evening, back in Alfas del Pi Duo Fortecello, the cello and piano of Anna Mikulska and Philippe Argenty, gave the first of their two concerts. This one featured works by Chopin, Nocturne opus 9, Cello sonata and Polonaise Brillante coupled with Piazzolla (yet again!) in the form of the Triptyque "la Trilogie de l'Ange" and finally the Danse Macabre of Saint-Saens. We only just made the curfew…

Then on Sunday, Duo Fortecello presented their second programme in Albir. While their first programme was the epitome of the conventional, the second was as opposite as it is possible to be. They opened with Joaquin Nin’s Seguida Española and followed with what proved to be a rare gem. Gaspar Cassado wrote a famous sonata for cello and piano based on old Spanish tunes, but this Sonata en la menor, though from the same year, 1925, is quite different in character. Exactly how many times this work has been performed in Spain cannot be assessed, but it is certainly not many times. And it may have been performed elsewhere even less. The work itself is superb and deserves to be much more widely heard, especially when it is compared to other works that form the basis of the repertoire for cello and piano. Any music lover will find great reward in searching out this work and hearing it performed. It has to be said that the fourth movement, Paso Doble, does not live up to the quality of the first three, but the criticism is minor. How many composers, after all, were capable of writing finales that lived up to their preceding movements?

Anna and Philippe continued with a Flamenco solo for cello by Rogelio Huguet y Tagell and then Andaluza by Granados. Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas is music of genius and Gaspar Cassado’s Requiebros, though derivative, is a superb way to finish any concert. And so the duo had given a musical tour of Spain, visiting most regions and sampling its musical soul. Superb. And what a relief from current preoccupations!