Howard Jacobson: If Sven had seen a Pinter play, he would know what to do with the England squad

You want to know why players who perform with such adroitness for their clubs fail to stay on their feet - rhythm!
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The Independent Online

A brief disquisition on rhythm this week. Occasioned by the wonderful Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern, by Harold Pinter's appearance onNewsnight Review in conversation with the Scottish Person (it's bad luck, in my business, to speak her name), and of course by England's progress in the World Cup. Rhythm explains the success or failure of them all.

In Kandinsky, more than in any other painter, I think, you see why abstraction is the logical conclusion of painting. For the "pure working of colour" to be felt - and these are Kandinsky's own words - a form of expression must be found that excludes the "fable" we are always so keen to read in a painting - its ostensible references to objective reality - in favour of the "inner meaning". And for Kandinsky the inner meaning is the music of colour. Rhythm. Anyone who finds that hard to grasp should hurry on down to Tate Modern and take in Kandinsky room by room, then pause - for eternity, if you have eternity to spare - before one of the great Compositions of 1913 or thereabouts, in which feeling, thought and colour become indistinguishable by virtue of the rhythm that unites them.

You could say that Western art - Christian Western art anyway - has always been abstract in the sense that the God in whose service art was made was never Himself paintably there. The artist can represent the symbols of belief, but not belief, or the reason for belief, itself. Remove even that abstraction and you have art with no subject or raison d'être but the spirituality of its own form. In a secular age the holy of holies becomes colour. And what unifies one colour with another is rhythm.

As is the case - to keep it brief - with the plays of Harold Pinter. Even as unmeaning is piled upon unmeaning, the rhythm of apparently ordinary speech, wrenched from its inconsequence, keeps us in the picture. Brutal, broken, and more often than not malign, but ultimately pleasing, as art must be pleasing, by virtue of the harmony with which Pinter invests it.

This is what strikes one about Pinter himself. Though to listen to him is often like being caught in the sights of a sniper - his delivery machine-gun abrupt, his thoughts flying about your ears like pellets - and though he sometimes seems to be in an argument, he does not intend to lose with language itself, the overall effect of his speaking is minimalist-symphonic. Never mind the politics, which on their own are simplistic; just give in to the music, which is not.

The Scottish Person knew to do just that. Well-briefed, skittish, neophytic, and now and then Hibernianly incomprehensible - try saying Hibernianly incomprehensible with an orange in your mouth if you want to know how hard pronouncing English words can be for her - she tended dutifully the fiery flame of Pinter's discourse. But Pinter wasn't put on earth to cosy up to television presenters. His conversation is with the unseen powers. Gripping to watch, for that very reason. And proof, were further proof needed, that what television does best of all is serious talk, though you wouldn't expect BBC executives, with their devotion to the tunelessness of demotic, to agree with that.

It is a pity no one has thought of sending Sven Goran Eriksson a tape of The Caretaker, even more of a pity there isn't time to fly him back to see the Kandinsky exhibition before England play their presumably final game today. Rhythm, Sven. You want to know why players who perform with such adroitness and athleticism for their clubs can't stay on their feet for you - rhythm! You don't have any, so they don't have any.

You're a man who loves fancy dining; you know what it's like when you find yourself in a restaurant that's badly managed. The individual dishes might be good but no course converses with another; the service doesn't flow; food comes at the wrong time; the wine doesn't come at all; waiters have no feel for what it is you want and when you want it. From first to last the evening is discordant. That the same holds true of an orchestra, I do not need to remind you, for you love music too, as I recall. No conductor with a sense of rhythm, no musicians with a sense of rhythm. Von Karajan on an off-day and there was no Berlin Philharmonic. You on an off-day and there's no England. The trouble is - you are always on an off-day.

You can tell Eriksson has no rhythm from the way he speaks. He has a staccato personality and presumably a staccato mind. He talks as though he is belching. For all I know he is belching. His is a job, after all, that would put stress on anybody's digestive system. But then what did we think we were doing employing a Swede as England manager in the first place?

I intend no disrespect to Swedes, a people I am otherwise disposed to admire, but rhythm is not their strong suit. I know there's Abba, but Abba is rhythm for the hard of hearing and credulous of tempo. It was Swedish gaucherie in the matter of rhythm that led them into the trap of supposing that sex could be uninhibited. This is the 1960s I'm talking about, when Sweden was invented.

And when I speak of rhythm in this context I do not mean whatever Swedes call jiggy-jiggy, or rhythm in the birth-control sense, I mean aesthetic rhythm - that coalescence of the material and non-material that Kandinsky aimed for and achieved. As in painting, so in sex - that which seems to come naturally is in fact the result of labour. Only a people with no instinct for rhythm would suppose that if you are easy and open about sex you will enjoy it.

What hell it was going out with Swedes in those days. My first Swedish girlfriend laughed before, during and after. My second Swedish girlfriend wept in exactly the same places. I accept that in both instances this could have had something to do with me. I was a dissonant boy myself. But none of my friends reported differently. Sex with Swedes was a washout. You banged into them, you fell over them, you interrupted each other's conversation, and in the end you interrupted everything else. No rhythm, you see. You might as well have been in bed with Sven Goran Eriksson.

Next time we appoint a national coach, might I suggest an abstract painter. Or Harold Pinter, if he has nothing else to do.

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