A little Ovid to start the day. Dicique beatus/ Ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet, which appears to have something to do with that dickhead Nemo not paying his aunty's funeral bills, but actually means "Call no man happy until he's dead and buried".
Blame The South Bank Show for the morbidity. I'm assuming everyone watched the second part of Tony Palmer's biography of the composer Malcolm Arnold last week, not least as there's absolutely nothing else to do at the disgracefully late hour The South Bank Show now goes out, other than drink yourself to death, which was precisely what Malcolm Arnold tried to do. If you didn't catch it, speak to somebody who did. They won't be difficult to spot. They are the ones who look like the wedding guest when the Ancient Mariner has finished with him: sadder, wiser and with his eyes punched out.
I missed the week before when Arnold was cheerful and successful, writing the music for The Bridge on the River Kwai and the St Trinian's films, collaborating with Gerard Hoffnung, composing symphonies and concertos, receiving honours and awards, and generally on the crest of a wave. Which could be why I took the unconscious decision to miss it. Let's cut to the chase. Everyone gets to unhappiness eventually, so what are we messing around with their delusional period for. Dicique beatus... The difference with Malcolm Arnold being that he couldn't wait until he was dead and buried to be called happy, but set about killing and burying himself more times than even his closest friends and family were able to remember. A line from Conrad's Victory comes to mind. "One could not refuse him a measure of greatness, for he was unhappy in a way unknown to mediocre souls." But that describes a nihilistic Swedish philosopher, a man who believed the world was not worth touching, whereas Malcolm Arnold was a lover of life, an entertainer, a giver of pleasure - so why did it all turn to ashes for him?
Silly question. And one the newspapers are asking of Ronnie Barker's son, suspected of possessing child pornography and now on the run. The saddest story. How could it happen, we want to know, that someone brought up in a warm family, with a father beloved of the British people, a comic genius in some people's eyes ... But hold it there. Haven't we forgotten something? Haven't we forgotten the last time a loving home begot delinquency or a comic genius father sent his less than comic genius son running for the razor blades? That's the sad part - that we can cock it up by being a bad father and we can cock it up by being a good one. We do our best but the best itself can be a burden on the child. The human mind is a perverse organ, and unhappiness an ingenious and tenacious friend. Let the two once find each other and there's no knowing what mischief they will brew.
In Malcolm Arnold's case, as The South Bank Show presented it, there was no separating what was wilful in his unhappiness, an unaccountable caprice of his nature, from external events that would have made any mortal man despair. One word suffices to sum up the latter: neglect. Maybe the runaway son of a comic genius loved by everybody also felt neglected. I don't say that censoriously. It can't be easy having to measure up to genius every day. For Arnold the genius problem - and you could argue it too was a comic genius problem, since comedy is not welcomed in a classical composer - was his own. They didn't appreciate it. Or they didn't appreciate it enough.
There are those who take the sergeant major position on neglect. Pull yourself together, man. Others will marvel that Malcolm Arnold should have felt the slightest bit neglected when his work was well known, his name honoured, and his reputation immense. Both of these responses, though reasonable, miss the point. Arnold was - still is: how's that for persistence against the odds? - an artist. And artists pull themselves together only to the detriment of their art. Nor are they, in their own eyes, ever anything but neglected. It goes with the territory. You make art therefore are you invisible. Psychoanalyse it if you like. Say that the artist believes his art to be invisible because he himself was invisible before he made it, that being the reason he chose to be an artist. It makes no difference. You are never given your deserts, never adequately acknowledged for what you do, never appreciated by enough people or the right people in the right way. Deranged - and there are distressing scenes in Tony Palmer's film where the derangement is such that you would swear the devil had entered Malcolm Arnold's soul - but there it is. That's the rage that fires the engine.
Which said, there are artists who have legitimate complaints in the matter of neglect, and Malcolm Arnold, charmless and demented though they made him, is one of them. I wish the programme had subpoenaed weightier music critics to discuss this, but it is widely accepted that when atonality and foreignness became the orthodoxy at the BBC in the 1960s and beyond, with right-thinking concert halls puffing to keep up, Arnold was among the losers. He was not possessed of the requisite air of solemn self-importance, not avant-garde enough. He had been too various and tuneful, too English, had associated himself with films, jazz, brass bands and comedy. He had been possessed of too much vitality, and there's nothing an orthodoxy despises more than vitality.
Where they didn't actually deride him, they ignored him. There is a coldness in neglect which the bloodless champions of the correctitudes favour. It confirms the exclusiveness of their circle. It is the vengeance the emotionally dead take on the emotionally living.
So it was wonderful, despite the damage and the debris, to be reminded that they cannot always empty the world of everyone but themselves.Reuse content