Saturday, 27 September 2014

If this isn't nice, what is?



Thank Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex for the great writer's most valuable piece of wisdom, which I'm proud to say has been taken up by our nearest and dearest young generation (more anon). That it had a huge impact on America's sharpest and funniest literary polemicist is obvious from the places where he quotes it (or rather, to be precise, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'), not least often in a series of graduation speeches probably not meant to be anthologised. But it achieves its best definition in the nearest KV got to an autobiography, or rather a little book of wit and wisdom, A Man Without a Country (subtitled A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America, misleadingly since its timespan is far greater. I only wish he'd lived to pen his thoughts about Barack Obama's America - that might have given just a little glimmer of hope).


The context begins with a negative before accentuating the positive.

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, 'You're a man now'. So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

Just before the great happiness of our Garrick birthday dinner for four of the godchildren - two reaching 21 this year, two 18 - along with their parents, a close friend and my mother (to celebrate her whizzing back to health after hip and heart ops), I picked up a copy of the graduation speech book compiled after Vonnegut's death.


I didn't use anything from it in my own speech, which was mainly to praise the two sets of estranged parents for each and every one passing on so many intimations of their own rich hinterlands, their culture and essential decency, to the fine young four who are now very much their own people. But Evi, Maddie and Alexander have all enjoyed the Vonnegut books I bought them; every teenager/twentysomething should read him. I think Kurt would have been pleased with Evi playing up to - which means half taking the piss out of - the taboid photographer at the Oxford May Ball in this pic which we saw to our surprise in London's free morning rag: at first I didn't think 'Eva Hale' was my very sensible goddaughter. How we all laughed.


Having shared Slaughterhouse Five with Alexander, I was delighted that he's been finding my personal favourite among the ones I've read, Breakfast of Champions, even better - if, of course, not quite as significant for Vonnegut's personal history.

The big payoff came when Alexander and father Christopher came to join me at the East Neuk Festival's all-day Schubertiade. Plans for lunch boxes to be delivered to Crail had failed, and we were more than happy to wait for some of the best fish and chips in Scotland. Which we took back to the house where cicerona Debra Boraston was staying with festival CEO Svend Brown and his partner Roy McEwan. In the garden by the sea, we ate our f&c to the strains of the Belcea Quartet warming up inside for their afternoon recital. And Alexander said exactly what I was thinking, as if on cue: 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is'. Featured, clockwise, David Kettle, the Waltons, Debra, me, Alexander (Christopher must be taking the photo).


And from the other angle, shot taken with Ken's camera and duly posted by him on social media.


'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is' could also have been applied to the previous evening's post-concert time by the sea, just down the valley from Cambo House where I was lucky to be staying, with Alexander's ma Julie and her partner Andy. The sun was setting at the end of the concert (one of two photos taken with my crappy mobile, as the pocket Olympus had just given up the ghost)


but it still wasn't entirely dark at nearly 11pm.


Another moment of happiness was on the last day, where I took my bathing trunks and borrowed a towel at a lunchtime party hosted by the very charming, easy festival chairman and his wife at Elie. The garden gate has steps beyond it down to this most glorious of beaches - photo taken with Debra's iPhone - and there, once I'd cleared the jellyfish zone, I had a blissful North Sea swim looking over to North Berwick and East Lothian, and up to a flotilla of eider ducks who didn't paddle away.


Despite all the mounting world horrors, these happy times to treasure have been so many, this year so far at least, and they bring me back not only to Vonnegut but also to my own favourite poem, Auden's 'A Summer Night' and this stanza especially, which no doubt I've quoted before:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

17 comments:

Susan Scheid said...

I'll be back, but for now, can't resist saying, in response to this delightful post, if this isn't nice, what is?

David said...

And if I'm not Nice, who is? Feeling very full of wonder to have discovered so much about Captain George Nice, my paternal grandfather, who (I found out the other week through my late aunt's preservation of all his memorabilia) was awarded the Croix de Guerre at the end of WW1. I saw a photo of him for the first time in my life (that tells you how secretive my father was) and I saw my first pix of Dad as a child and a teenager. There will be a lot to write about on that post which needs to honour both of them.

And now I must try and re-enter the heaven of Aino(la)'s garden over your way: my system has been breaking down every time I attempt to run the gamut.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm glad you were finally able to run the gamut and arrive at Ainola again! (More on that over there.) But as for here, we were walking in Innisfree today, and found ourselves quoting you quoting Uncle Alex! Then I came back to find John Adams had posted a wonderful performance of Hallelujah Junction in Central Park and had to quote Uncle Alex again (on Facebook). The Edu-Mate and I both thought that even in the phrasing, Uncle Alex showed himself to be a delightful, humane fellow--much like his nephew. You know, I missed out on Vonnegut when he was in vogue, don't know why, and I think all I've read of his is Slaughterhouse Five. Must make a mental note to make up for that. What fine godchildren you have, and what fun you've had with them, and clearly they with you! The photos of the seaside are lovely--even the one taken on the "crappy phone."

David said...

Glad you're using that lovely pic of you in Finnish woodland - is it at Ainola?

The wonderful thing about the phrase is that one can just see Uncle Alex expressing his pleasure - the intonation seems to be conjured with the words.

Must check out the Adams performance - where is to be found, presumably on YouTube? I can always be led to Facebook but I don't often drink therefrom.

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, my! I had meant to salute Captain George, too! But why would your father be so secretive about this, I wonder? Yes, that is me at Ainola. Thought it was a good time for a change of profile (even though I'm a little hard to see). The Adams is here: http://youtu.be/DANULf8iJYo (sorry I can't make it a link, but hopefully you can cut and paste).

David said...

Dad was secretive about everything, or rather didn't speak about his past - it was only after he died that my mother found out he had an elder brother, also called George, who died of TB in his late teens or early twenties. This must have been why my father, Cyril, became 'George' like their father.

Anyway, it would have helped to know when I had my BCG jab - my maternal grandfather spent a year in a sanatorium, and I had a terrible reaction to it.

Thanks for the link. I still have trouble convincing lots of musical folk who should know better (including one of my TAD colleagues) that Adams is NOT a minimalist, and probably never was even if the early pieces had traits. The Germans, it seems, have special trouble taking him seriously - they'd rather spend time pretending they aren't bored by Rihm and co.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Wow, what a bit of family history! As for Adams, I do wonder whether HJ is a strong argument for Adams as other than minimalist. Whatever its genre, it's an extraordinary piece, which the performance by these two young women makes abundantly clear. While the boundaries of minimalism are unclear to me, HJ seems to me to be more within that vein than more recent pieces. (I don't find minimalism a pejorative, in any event. Think of Steve Reich!) The bottom line is that Adams is not a minimalist today, by any means, and folks who refer to him that way in reviews of current pieces, which I see all too often, are resorting to lazy writing without listening to what is there.) To me, what's so astonishing about his work is the way he keeps breaking through his own boundaries into something new. He mastered minimalism with some brilliant pieces in that vein, then moved on to explore new ground. It takes a very fertile imagination—not to mention a lot of compositional skill—to manage that. The Germans, or should I say Darmstadt?, seem to have trouble taking anyone seriously except themselves, I sometimes think. T'was ever thus. Cecil Gray, in his book on Sibelius, is withering on this point.

svendb said...

Thanks for evoking those wonderful memories of East Neuk Festival this year, David. It was a hoot for us, too, to look out of our living room window to see the assembled press cohorts camped out in the back garden with Debra Boraston. Festivals do this to people!

Am intrigued by the ambivalence towards 'minimal' as a label, though. Personally, I think it is a boon in a new music world that is often crowded and often confusing for new audiences. In Glasgow we use it shamelessly to get people in the room for Glass and Reich and then stretch them to Andriessen, Xenakis, Feldman, Lang, Wolfe, Gordon, Stockhausen and well beyond. And yes, works by all those composers could be described as minimal. At its best it is a useful hook, a well defined starting point to persuade audiences to attend concerts of music they don't already know. Yet even its key composers can be scratchy: I have done public interviews with both Glass and Reich in recent years, and both referred to their 'minimal' works, but strictly as part of a past phase in their music, i.e. in the 70s. I also several times interviewed Adams and even though his music rarely does more than touch base with the kind of minimalism Reich&Glass represented, he was not at all fancy about accepting the label for what it was worth - any more than he kicked against being called a 'postmodernist' composer. I guess labels are ultimately reductive, but ultimately useful. Early Middle and Late Beethoven would all agree.

David said...

Agreed, Sue - while I look on 'Minimalism' per se as a vital stage in musical history which cleared the path for divergence, in the early days it was a question of how fast each composer got to a modulation. I used to put the opening of Glass's Violin Concerto and of Adams's Nixon in China side by side to show the typical JA take-off.

Good to hear from you, Svend, and helpful to get the programmer's insight. Glass has never moved beyond, has he, while Reich and Adams just evolved. Even Nyman took me by surprise in his Trombone Concerto. But interesting that advertising a concert with the 'minimalist' label is as good a 'hook' as, say, getting people to listen to Turandot and beyond with Pavarotti singing 'Nessun dorma'.

It's clear to me that once you've got a younger audience in - as the LPO has definitively done after The Rest is Noise - the best programmes are a mix of the familiar great (which will be thrillingly new to a percentage of the audience) and something new. Jurowski usually gets this right, I've just been impressed by the approach of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and also just properly looked at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra 2014-15 programme with envy. Even the LPO this season doesn't have so attractive a season, for me at least, in terms of artists and repertoire. Looking forward to Leonskaja in November

svendb said...

Great to hear you'll come for Leonskaja. Perhaps we can truly chew it all over then: I don't agree that Glass has not evolved: nor that a movement away from the pared down towards the more opulent ad complex is per se an admirable path. To be mildly provocative, one could say that Glass in his early works stretched our powers of listening and perception of shape and form in music through repetition and his more recent work is an ever more nuanced pursuit of the same goal; the difficulty is that the apparent limitations in his musical grammar and invention make him an easy target for critics. Another rocking two note figure could send some listeners over the edge - though it has to be said the Alberti bass had a long and venerable life without similar objections being raised.

David said...

Well, all I know is that he's the worst orchestrator among the contemporary big-leaguers. Several times I've tried to revise my opinions, only to have the mind slam shut with the horror. Maybe that's a positive reaction, but I'm reminded of the comment of a colleague of Prokofiev's about some pioneer or other: 'good for the history of music, but not for music'.

Susan Scheid said...

David: The comparison of the Glass and Adams had to be wonderfully instructive. Adams's capability for lift-off/take-off is marvelous. The programming perspective is indeed very interesting. If it gets people in the door . . . though I do wonder if, once in and hearing what's presented, most listeners, if they don't end up experiencing the piece as minimalism, just cross it off as not for them. As for Glass, boy, am I with you, David, on the orchestration! Now, I may get myself into trouble here, as my music-memory is not the best, but as I remember the first act of Satyagraha, in which he had the whole Met orchestra available to him, it seemed to me a good bit of the time the orchestra had little or nothing to do, and the "music" came from an electric keyboard, or some such thing. It's funny how angry that made me. Still does! In the last act, I will say, his simple ascending line sung at the close made sense and in the context of the piece I found it moving. But overall, I just find his music lugubrious and uninteresting. I know many people whose musical tastes I respect who love Glass, and I just can't understand it. I've had to give up trying. There's too much else that moves me so much more.

David said...

Of course I never stayed to hear the final pay-off of Satyagraha, Sue (I hasten to add I wasn't reviewing). Those four chords in 45 minutes drove me insane, much as I am able to go into trance states with the right repetitive music. The mind that opened to the possibility of the Plutonian Ode Symphony being any good has slammed shut now, which means I have difficulty finding anyone else on The Arts Desk willing to sit through his new opera The Trial. Kafka and Glass won't mix, you can be sure of that.

As for Adams, I've always treasured Simon Rattle's remark about the early scores (reproduced in perhaps my most treasured CD set, The John Adams Earbox, signed by the great man after our Barbican pre-performance interview): 'it [Adams' music] always seemed to be moving through space...I would imagine while listening to it that I was in a light aircraft flying rather fast, close to the ground'. The other 'thing' that Rattle cites as exciting him is the 'mixture of ecstasy and sadness' in Adams' best pieces.

newleafsite said...

David, sorry to make a comment which is wholly personal, but it's so interesting to me, what you share about your father being so quiet about his own and family history. I too had a father, also named George, who kept the world on a "need to know" basis, and he didn't think they needed to know much. As a child, I wondered whether it might be an English thing: Dad's parents both immigrated from England as adults. Whatever I learned about his or his family's past, I learned from my mother, who had picked up bits of information over the years. When I came along, Dad was 48 and had fallen into a habit of many years of communicating on a personal level mostly only with Mom; that was enough for him. There were no revelations after his passing, but it still seems surprising that some of the outstanding details of the past - which also included a sibling who died young, and an aunt or great-aunt who moved, permanently, into a sanatorium - were not interesting to him to discuss. Though I never thought my dad was harboring secrets, he just seemed completely disinclined to talk about personal matters. The only past he was fascinated by was the Civil War - the past of people who lived long ago, whom he could not have known. I so look forward to the intended post about your mysterious father! When friends now comment "You're so private!" I just say, You should have met my dad! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Something else we have in common, Elizabeth - my dad was 50 when I came along (his one and only child, something of a surprise after 8 years of marriage). Absolutely spot on about it not being so much secretive as just 'it isn't worth talking about'. Though I'm sure the saga of the three Georges MUST have been too painful to expand upon.

Another odd thing - my father was almost pathologically unmusical. The only piece of music to which he ever referred was a solo from German's Merrie England.

It has been a good thing about counselling/therapy for depression to have tried to piece him together as a real human being. The getting-to-know is ongoing, albeit speculative.

Anyway, the post, when I get the pix together, will be mostly about Captain George.

David Damant said...

What doubtful act ? My poor brain cannot work out the meaning of this stanza

David said...

Fairly obvious, I should have thought, David: Auden's 'vision of agape' on the lawns of the Downs School, Colwall, just below the Malvern Hills, June 1933, is circumscribed (but not invalidated, that's the poetic genius) by his awareness of events in the wider world. The privileged circle ('gentle') enjoys its bounty courtesy of 'some doubtful act' (I always think of the beautiful things and their 'doubtful' sources mused upon by Hyacinth in James's The Princess Casamassima). And of course there were rumbles in Poland even then. A year of dread, it must have been.