Lots of arts, but unhappily not much life

Tainted by Experience:a life in the arts by John Drummond (Faber & Faber, £25)
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The Independent Culture

This is a boring book by an interesting man. Sir John Drummond, the great promoter of classical music, takes nearly 500 pages to tell the story of a life that, according to his account, has largely consisted of encounters with the famous and evenings in the concert hall.

This is a boring book by an interesting man. Sir John Drummond, the great promoter of classical music, takes nearly 500 pages to tell the story of a life that, according to his account, has largely consisted of encounters with the famous and evenings in the concert hall.

It is as if the author has rewritten his contacts book in narrative form. On one page alone, 36 names appear. Major celebrities are allowed a little more breathing space: Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde and (keeping unusual company) Patrice Lumumba have the privilege of a page between them. Cursed with total recall, the author cannot go to lunch or travel on business without cataloguing his companions. When writing of work colleagues, he adopts the style of a speaker at a retirement party who has to thank everyone. The continual dropping of names makes for tiresome reading, especially as Drummond seldom offers particularly striking insights into the personalities of those who cross his path.

The leaden pages turn more quickly when he comes to those he disapproves of or dislikes. They are mostly broadcasters and include David Frost (for "his usual sneering philistinism"), Desmond Wilcox ("hugely self-regarding") and Liz Forgan ("out of her depth" when running BBC Radio). The chief devil in Drummond's Inferno is the "chilly, Armani-suited" John Birt, found guilty of reform for reform's sake at the BBC, untrammelled Thatcherism and pointless bureaucratisation.

The tone is enlivened by a sprinkling of excellent anecdotes. John Betjeman is responsible for some of the best: memorably, he found Princess Margaret "very very very frightening, but beautiful and succulent like Belgian buns". Drummond likes the royals and quotes the Queen Mother on the most fascinating man of her youth, Lord Sefton. She said: "He used to ask one to dance and then sneer. It was captivating."

Those who have time to struggle through the thickets of proper nouns should persevere, for they will be introduced to a remarkable career. It began in radio and television production and progressed to what the adolescent Drummond identified as his "ideal jobs" - running the Edinburgh International Festival, the Third Programme and the Proms. Although he writes at too great length about forgotten disputes, Drummond evokes well the close, overheated world of classical music: so much artistry, so many ghastly people.

Whatever the task, he acquitted himself with distinction. Three fine qualities shine through these recollections - a passion for music, great energy and an unblinking candour. When the last two are brought together, they often produce a chemical reaction - an explosion of rage against some folly of humankind. In this book, as in life, Drummond is in a condition of almost permanent moral apoplexy.

A temperamental conservative, he distrusts change and gives the impression that he listens to others only to confirm what he knows. But he is as cutting with himself as everyone else; he recognises his proneness to "react too sharply" and now worries about the impermanence of success. Tainted by Experience traces the alarums and excursions of a busy life, but also hints at an undertone of melancholy and, perhaps, of a gregarious alone-ness.

This would have been a more attractive book if Drummond had written more about his friendships and less about all the people he knows. In fact, with such a packed diary, one wonders how much time he had for a private life. In any case, prying eyes are not invited across the domestic threshold.

John Drummond confesses that one of the benefits of retirement is that he "might have the chance to explore whether I was a person in my own right". This is the kind of enquiry that is perfectly suited to autobiography. Yet the book leaves the reader as much in the dark as its author appears to be about the wellsprings of his nature.

The reviewer is a former secretary-general of the Arts Council

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