Saturday, 17 October 2015


I'm happy to see the Economist (October 16th 2015) coming out firmly in favour of the UK staying in the EU, arguing strongly against the view it might be in the UK's economic benefit to leave the EU.

I am however still puzzled by the absence of the moral argument in the public debate. Whatever the narrow advantage or disadvantage to the UK of EU membership, surely the point is that it is moving  in the right direction to reduce the importance of nation states, in whose name we have managed to create so much strife and unhappiness in the past.

What's the EU for?

The politicians who created the thing that turned into the European Union weren’t inventing a Union from nothing; they were building on this historical and cultural commonality of all European people.  The motivation to create binding political ties across Europe came from the desire to avoid yet another generation of carnage and loss through warfare.  And it has worked, brilliantly.  The historically warring states of France, Germany and Britain have been at peace for 70 years.

French and German people understand this.  The European Union, and its euro currency, are not economic projects, they are a social political project to make sure that the next generation of children don’t have to kill each other in yet another futile war.

Greek, Spanish and Portuguese people understand this.  The majority of adults in these countries have lived under dictatorships. Greece and Portugal were military dictatorship until 1974, and Spain until 1975. The European Union is one of the mechanisms that now preserve these democracies.

Polish, Bulgarian, Czech people understand this.  The European Union created the counterpoint to the tyranny of communism.

What's up with the British?

British people don’t understand this.  The UK joined the EEC (forerunner to the EU) in 1973, and in a subsequent 1975 referendum 67% of the UK voters endorsed this choice.   At the time Britain was almost bankrupt, and had to be rescued by the IMF in 1976.  So economic issues loomed large, both in the minds of the voters, and in the arguments made by the politicians in favour of joining and then staying in the EEC.

The effect of this has been for the last 40 years to make the British think of the EU as a purely economic mechanism – the debate in the media is about “value for money”  - ie the cost to Britain versus the economic benefit to Britain of being in the EU.    The arguments for remaining in the EU are based on the jobs that would be lost by leaving; the arguments for leaving are based on the money that would be saved by not being part of the Union, on preventing immigration, and on some spurious notion of sovereignty.

These seem to me the wrong questions.  The right questions are things like:  “what will happen to France, Germany etc if Britain leaves the EU”; “how much is it worth spending to make sure my children don’t fight in world war III (answer is obviously “everything”); “how can Britain contribute to European and world peace and culture” etc.

The British have a proud history of acting selflessly to help others.  Now is not the time for us to delude ourselves that we can independently determine our future in a globalised world; it is the time to recognise that our membership of the EU is the opportunity to take an active part in helping human civilisation mature into something better. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Science Fiction

My youthful relation to science fiction was I now see rather the equivalent of the current generation’s obsessive use of the Internet.   As a teenager I used science fiction to escape the mundane.  With a torch under my duvet I would devour books in the middle of the night.  All those spaceships, aliens, fighting and so on.

Largely I moved on to highbrow contemporary fiction, poetry and non-fiction. I’d explain the sci-fi books to the quizzical by pointing out that one can enjoy beer as well as fine wine.

A few years ago, eventually slightly embarrassed by the glittery gold writing on the spines of so many books in our overflowing bookcases I put most of them into storage. More than 20 crates of first edition hardbacks, of well worn and now collapsing paperbacks, even the odd copy of Astounding Science Fiction 1960s magazines given to me by mother.

There was a shelf of books I did not – could not – store.  Books I knew I would read again. A more mature sort of book exploring the complexity of human reactions to alien ontologies. I’m looking at them now and realising almost all of them are by female authors.  I imagine about 90% of science fiction books are by men, like almost all those that now rest quietly in Ready Steady Store.

First among these, both chronologically and literarily, must be Ursula le Guin. Her books have an almost contemplative nature – small windows on lives in a vast universe. It was in her books I first encountered themes of androgeny, of polyamory, and the emotional regret of distance in time and space leavened only by her invention of the Ansible – allowing instantaneous communication across the universe, copied by so many other subsequent writiers.

Notable other occupants are Nicola Griffith, whose books have quite a strong Sapphic context;  and Karen Lord (I particularly admire her “The Best of All Possible Worlds”).  Dan Simmons’ The Hyperion Cantos put images in my mind 20 years ago that I still can’t escape – if you have read it you will probably know what I mean. The Shrike.

Finally, this ramble has been prompted by putting into the bookcase the third of a trilogy just finished – Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy by Ann Leckie.  In one sense a classic space opera with fighting, aliens, AI etc.  But in another an extraordinary internally focused trilogy, involving a lot of sitting round drinking tea, love, misunderstood feelings.  The aliens she imagines are really other, largely only hinted at, truly incomprehensible.  I would love to read more about them and perhaps she will write that in the future.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Concert highlights for 2014

My ticket stubs tell me that I went to 62 performances during 2014, of which 9 were in Berlin and most of the rest in London.  Strangely in 2013 I also went to 62 performances (7 in Berlin, 8 in Manchester and most of the rest in London).
Almost everything I went to pleased me greatly.  Those that really stick in my memory as special were:
  • Johánn Johánnsson playing his score “The Miners’ Hymns” to accompany Bill Morrison’s film about the lives of miners in County Durham during the twentieth century – the film is an extraordinary and ultimately rather depressing piece of social history, beautifully complemented by the music  (09.03 Barbican)
  • Harmonic Series, at which the cellist Olly Coates introduced me to Éliane Radigue’s “L’ile re-sonante”.    I had not come across Radigue before, and now I am addicted - iTunes tells me I have since listened to this piece 39 times.  It’s 55 minutes long, so that’s about 3 days worth of my life.  And that’s not to mention the 12 times I have listened to her 3 hour long "Trilogie de la Mort" this year (17.03 Southbank)
  • The London Sinfonietta as part of its “Blue Touch Paper” programme played a new sextet by Gavin Higgins – “Uncle Dima”.   An angry polemical piece raging against Russian suppression of gay rights.  I find it extraordinary that the pop music of our times is so politically passive, but take great comfort that our contemporary composers are not. (21.05 ICA)
  • Opera Erratica’s “Triptych”.  I loved it, a sort of mini opera created by a cooperative.   Highly modern, dense with meaning, and very pretty girls wearing not much.   It suggests one way forward for opera as something less expensive, elitist and hierarchical.  I’ve since seen further performances by the same company which I have also enjoyed greatly, including ""The Little Match Girl Passion" followed by a Christmas Carol Karaoke in Hackney Wick (03.06 Print Room, Notting Hill)
  • Mica Levi playing her score along with the film “Under the Skin”.  I have followed her work closely, seeing her play both pop concerts as Micachu, and as a collaborator with the London Sinfonietta.  She’s a refreshing and rare reminder that pop music does not have to be merely dull repetition (18.06 Southbank)
  • Alice Coote and Christian Blackshaw performing Schumann Lieder.   From the first note I was transported to another world; I already knew that Blackshaw is amongst my favourite pianists, and found Alice Coote’s voice an equal delight.  (22.06 Wigmore Hall)
  • Matthew Barney’s “River of Fundament” with music by Jonathan Bepler.  Visually beautiful, unforgettably intense.  Somewhere between a film, art, opera and surreal pornography.  And six hours long.  I’d really like to see it again. (26.06 Colliseum, London)
  • Norma Nahoun and Julien Quentin performing a concert of music by the English composer Charlotte Bray in this wonderful piano repair workshop come concert space. The concert included "Yellow Leaves" which I had commissioned (12.09 Piano Salon Christophori, Berlin)
  • Hauschka playing through his new album “Abandoned City” on prepared piano and electronics in this wonderful Berlin venue.  (19.09 Volksbühne, Berlin)
  • Britten Sinfonia playing live work by Thomas Adès live for dances by four choreographers (Wayne Macgregor, Karole Armitage, Alexander Whitley, and Crystal Pite). A perfect marriage of musicians, composer, and dance. The standout moment however was Adès playing the piano while Claire Booth sang so captivatingly that I was almost unaware of the dancers on the stage (01.11 Sadler’s Wells)
  • Cédric Tiberghien, playing Bartók  piano pieces to a chamber music size audience (about 20 of us).  Cédric talked through the whole development of Bartók’s composing in an insightful, informal, and informative manner.  And he plays beautifully.  (04.11 Queensgate Terrace)

As a footnote, the 2014 events included:
24  classical concerts (ie written before about 1960)
25 contemporary classical music concerts
11 contemporary dance performances
2  plays
The concerts were:
22 Chamber recitals
14 Ensemble performances
7 Orchestral concerts
6 Operas
The most visited London venues were:
16 at the Southbank (22 in 2013)
8 at the Wigmore Hall (11 in 2013)
6 at Sadler’s Wells (5 in 2013)
3 at the Barbican (1 in 2013)
2 at King’s Place (none in 2013)

Monday, 10 November 2014

Night Train to Paris

I took the night sleeper from Berlin to Paris.  It's being discontinued at the end of 2014 and I wanted to experience its romance. It reminded me of journeys from my past.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Gentlemen Like Us, with Pinar & Viola

Some time ago, and as part of the research work for a planned composer/artist collaboration (on which more news in a month or two),  I asked the Amsterdam based post-digital artists Pinar & Viola to create a design for a pocket square.   After some deliberation, which included their relocating to Paris, the girls came up with the desire to create a "wearable spell" and produced a wonderful design - a digital painting suffused with symbols and meaning:

Detail from the design for the spell
We did some research about how to produce handmade silk pocket handkerchiefs - including some very helpful advice from Nicholas at "Le Noeud Papillon" of Sydney, Australia - and in the end had them manufactured in California by Donnalee, a delightful hippy, or that's how I imagine her anyway.

The finished article
Last week we had a very special incantation ceremony in London at which 5 of the 7 recipients of this very special limited edition were able to join us in Gothic surroundings.

Viola casting a spell on CA, me and TF

Pinar wrote out the spells, and Viola read them to the members of the "Gentlemen Like Us" club, and then gave us each a unique, named pocket square.   And now we can't be parted from these pocket squares, which are more than just a piece of silk, they are a talisman to protect us from the world.

TF in his office, wearing his charm

AP returning from night out in town, with protection.

Me, with a private witch in my pocket
masquerading as wearable art
MT - under the spell!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Stolpersteine in Frankenthal

Laura and I went to Frankenthal (Pfalz) on 18th August 2014 for a ceremony at which the artist Gunter Demnig placed commemorative Stolpersteine for my grandfather (Dr F.A. Mann) and great-grandfather (Dr. R. Mann) outside Westliche Ringstraße 9, the house in which they used to live.

Westliche Ringstraße 9
The Mayor of Frankethal, Herr Theo Wieder, made a very good speech in which he emphasised the importance of learning from the past.  We have enjoyed a long period of peace in Europe, but events in the world around us show how fragile this is -  we must understand through knowledge of history the necessity as individuals to make moral choices.   Laura said to me later that her history lessons at her (British) school  are just about facts - and how much better it would be for it to be about ethical responsibility too.
Oberbürgermeister Wieder
After laying Stolpersteine at two other houses of former Jewish residents of Frankenthal (the Rahlson family - died in concentration camps; and the Schottland family - fled to USA) Gunther Demnig then moved on to the Mann family house. 

Gunter Demnig installing Stolpersteine for Mann family
There was a short further speech about the history of the Mann family (many generations of bankers, lawyers and judges) given by Herr Herbert Baum, of the Association for the memorial of Jews in Frankenthal (website here) He seemed to know more about the history of my family than I did!  The audience included the Frankenthal Town Archivist, Herr Gerhard Nestler (leaning on umbrella).
Herbert Baum giving a speech
Here are the Stolpersteine installed in the pavement:


And finally, a photo of me and Laura with the amazing Gunther Demnig.  Over the last 20 years he has installed 48,000 Stolpersteine across the countries in Europe from which minorities were persecuted by the Nazis.  He's created something that is both an extraordinary work or art, and a powerful piece of social and political action.  His website is here. and more info about his work is here

Gunter, me and Laura at Westliche Ringstraße

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Music with people singing

I haven’t always liked music with people singing – particularly lieder and opera.   I did always think that in my later years I would be nudged towards opera, in the same way that perhaps my reading will nudge me towards Trollope and Proust when I am more grown-up.

Notwithstanding my reservations, in the last 6 weeks I have been to the complete gamut of singing possibilities:

  • The orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia, conducted by Sir Antiono Pappano, singing Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall.  Completely wonderful, proper Italian choir singing big music.
  • Thebans” by Julian Anderson, a new opera at the ENO.  I could see it was a proper opera, but I found it a bit plodding narratively, and felt it could have been written at any point in the last 50 years.  So didn’t exactly excite me.
  • Opera Erratica’s “Triptych” at the Print Room.  I loved it, a sort of mini opera created by a cooperative.   Highly modern, dense with meaning, and very pretty girls wearing not much.   Much more engaging than “Thebans” and points one way forward for opera as something less expensive, elitist and hierarchical.
  • Alice Coote and Christian Blackshaw at the Wigmore Hall performing Schumann Lieder.   From the first note I was transported to another world; I already knew that Blackshaw is amongst my favourite pianists, and found Alice Coote’s voice an equal delight.  Still surprised this concert wasn’t reviewed anywhere, I think it’s the best of the 50 I have been to so far this year.   But the music establishment is a bit anti-Blackshaw because he won’t play their celebrity games and is seen as a bit “difficult”.
  • Luca Francesconi'sQuartett” at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House.  Utterly amazing, absorbed in the 80 minutes of this modernist mini-opera. As above, reviewers ignored/found it difficult which reduced audience numbers. But I loved it.
  • River of Fundament” by Matthew Barney, with music by Jonathan Bepler, at the Colliseum.  Visually beautiful, unforgettably intense.  Somewhere between a film, art, opera and surreal pornography.  And six hours long.  Two weeks after seeing it I know I would go again like a shot if the opportunity offered itself, mostly to hear the music again.  Bepler has written things for voices to do that I haven’t heard before, and would like to hear more of.
  • Lyrische Symphonie” by Alexander Zemlinksy, at the Staadbad in Mitte/Wedding, Berlin.   Seven connected movements, scored for an orchestra of 200 with baritone and soprano soloists.  The staging I heard was with a reduced orchestra of 23, but still worked really well. It’s music I ‘d like to hear again.
  • Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” at Garsington, with Claire Booth in the title role.   Claire was great, fully engaged in the role of the Vixen.  Garsington is also a fantastic setting, it reminds me of Glyndebourne when I first went there (as a teenager) in the 1970s, before it got all corporate.

July 2014

Thursday, 25 July 2013

New Movement Collective - NEST

I have been helping to support the New Movement Collective (NMC), run amongst others by my friend Gosia Dzierzorn of the Rambert Dance Company.

NMC's latest piece (NEST) is a dance and immersive multi-media performance being put on at the Welsh Chapel in Shaftesbury Avenue, former site of the Limelight club at which I occasionally passed some time when younger.  So it was with a strange sense of impending nostalgia for racier times that we went to see the show a couple of nights ago.  It's based on the story of the Odyssey, which the children impressively and confidently narrated the bones of to me in the taxi on the way over.

The piece was extraordinarily good, and rather than trying to describe it I will rely on the very praising reviews here:  Guardian  Independent   Standard   BalletBag

My favourite bit of all was the dancer Clemmie Sveass as Penelope (Odysseus's wife) weaving and unweaving the shroud.  (Penelope, whilst being pursued by suitors in Odysseus's absence used the delaying tactic of pretending to weave a burial shroud for his father Laertes, claiming that she would choose a suitor when finished.  But each night she undid part of the weaving).

Another fine element was a dance done by Gosia in front of a mirror - which I think was a metaphor for the Cyclops's eye.    I liked the piece so much I went back alone a couple of days later.

Anyway, altogether I am immensely proud to have been able to support NMC.  It's the second time I have done so, and I am sure not the last.