26 March 2007

Oxford Literary Festival

My experience of "minding" speakers at the Oxford Literary Festival last year encouraged me to volunteer again, but one of the sessions to which I was assigned clashed with parents' evening at school: another, I knew from experience of the format last year, hardly required a minder and I was not minded to trek into Oxford, incurring not insubstantial parking fees and bus fares, to do next to nothing. Anyway, it clashed with the International Intellectual Property Moot. To my great regret, the clashing event was Joanne Harris in a discussion about chocolate: I'd have enjoyed the event and would have liked to have met her.
In the end, I acted as minder to only one speaker, Terence Blacker, there to promote his biography of Willy Donaldson. My research showed that he writes a column for the Independent, a newspaper which somehow in my highly subjective judgement (on the basis of very little reading of it) exudes self-righteousness to a degree that puts me off it entirely. Between that, my point-blank refusal to buy, read or believe any Murdoch newspapers, and my sense that the Telegraph, having moved away from its natural constituency of little Englanders, Europhiles and flat-earthers, has now positioned itself as the newspaper of preference of the chattering-but-not-thinking classes, there's not a lot left. The Guardian has Doonesbury, of course, but the only newspaper that approaches my requirements is the Financial Times. Not all that long ago I sued to read it and The Guardian every day, but now on-line editions make it possible to pick and choose between writers whose work I want to read. I could even assemble my own daily paper. The office computer system firewall would almost certainly thwart me, somehow, perhaps not by design but no less effectively for that.
I'll also read Terence's column in The Author more avidly, for it had not registered with me that it was his work - happily, another minder gave me this useful information while I was hanging around the Green Room hoping to find my "mindee".
His talk was fascinating, partly because of his subject, who squandered three fortunes, the last one on drugs and women, numbered Carly Simon and Sarah Miles among his lovers, and promoted Beyond the Fringe, but also because Terence has written it so well. He read several extracts from the book, though he stumbled quite badly over them - I wonder whether he was nervous? He showed no sign of it that I detected - and included some hilarious anecdotes, but was almost upstaged by a gentleman in the audience who revealed at question time that he had responded to a personal advertisement placed in 1965 by Donaldson soliciting investments for a fund to promote West End shows. All he had to show for it was two lengthy letters from the man, which now he couldn't find (though Terence was sufficiently interested that I daresay he'll leave no stone unturned when he gets back home!).
It seems that there have been several revelations since the book was finished, people who had been impossible to trace suddenly appearing too late for their material to be included. This must be a huge problem for any biographer, although Terence had the advantage that most of the late-arriving information would not make it past the publishers' lawyers anyway.
For me, the most poignant aspect is that Donaldson's funeral brought together people from the several different worlds that he inhabited. I experienced something similar once, at the funeral of a friend who died far too young. The extent to which different parts of his life occupied completely separate compartments was greater even than Donaldson's; I had absolutely no idea that any other compartments existed, and he expended enough time and energy for two people in that part of his life which I knew about, which may be why he suffered a fatal heart attack in his early thirties, though alcohol and tobacco must have had at least as much to do with it. But - I hasten to add - none of the parts of his life was as disreputable as some of Donaldson's - depending, I suppose, on how you rate the Conservative party.

25 March 2007

International Intellectual Property Moot

I just had time to shower the sweat of the Reading Half Marathon away before rushing into Oxford to attend the final of the International Intellectual Property Moot at Worcester College. An invitation popped into my inbox at work a few days earlier, and it seemed like the sort of event at which one had to be seen. Apart from anything else, the judges for the final were Jacob and Mummery LLJ and Pumphrey J.

I'd read the facts for the moot (www.oiprc.ox.ac.uk), and knew that there were copyright and trade mark aspects to it: I also knew that the dispute was goverened by the rather idiosyncratic laws of Erewhon, a choice of jurisdiction presumably essential for diplomatic reasons given that the mooters had come from all corners of the world (and not just the common law world) to take part. the finalists, however, were very much in the common law tradition: Queensland University of Technology and George Mason University School of Law (Virginia, since you ask).

When I arrived, a little late (despite the invitation insisting the audience be seated by 2.15 for a 2.30 start) and hobbling but at least showered, it was already in full swing. The standard was extremely high - the judges remarked on this, too, so it was not just my impression - but it was the Australians who were the better foils for Sir Robin's jokes - and those of his brother judges - and indeed who produced an authority that they insisted they had not intended to refer to, but felt it necessary given his line of questioning: a judgement of Jacob J, as he then was ...

I didn't note everything down in sufficient detail to blog it, but I expect the web site will carry some detail of the outcome in due course. The Australians won the competition, deservedly so in the opinion of most people I spoke to; I spoke to a few people I hadn't seen for years, and some I'd never seen before, and one I see quite often, and I came home. Oh, and by virtue of a superhuman effort (no reflection on the quality of the moot!) I refrained from falling asleep. Half-Marathons seem to have that effect - it must be age, because it only used to be whole Marathons that knocked me out.

Reading Half Marathon

Every year I vow not to take part again in this, the second-largest half marathon in the UK (some 14000 runners), and every year I am seduced by its proximity and the fact that it's just about an essential element in anyone's racing calendar. Not that I am racing just now - far from it.

I thought the IDK was going to stop me running it at all for a while - indeed, when I awoke at 5.30 this morning I quickly talked myself out of running it, then got up and checked the weather forecast which promised sunny intervals for Reading, so I checked the train times and realised I had to hurry. At the Madejski Stadium, home of Reading Football Club and the start and finish of the half-M, where I arrived as the instructions insisted I should at 8.30 (this for a 10.05 start) to hang around in the freezing cold (no sunny intervals!) with little to do except walk around, stretch, and postpone the removal of my outer garments until the last possible moment. Naturally, everyone else tried to do the same, with the result that the bag drop became gridlocked and the start was delayed.

I set off to jog to the start and the knee complained so much that I actually turned round to head back to the bag drop and thence the station, but coming the other way was a clubmate from Abingdon - I didn't recognise her, but it seemed like some sort of omen, so I joined up with her and ascertained that we had similar modest goals for the day (Liz aiming for about 1 hour 50, me aiming to complete the course, necessarily at a gentle pace).

About five miles into the race, our conversation reached the subject of jobs. "I'm a teacher", she told me. "Have you heard of Headington School?" I answered warily in the affirmative. "As a parent?" Again, I said yes. Then of course she wanted to know who my daughter is, and when I told her she told me Mel was wonderful. I confirmed that I hadn't met my new running mate the preceding Friday evening, parents' evening (that would have been just too embarassing a senior moment) and we spent the next hour or so helping each other to the finish (1 hour 58 something).

Liz kindly offered me a lift home, but when I phoned to announce that I was on my way it seemed that hostilities had broken out among the girls and had continued most of the morning. "Then tell Mel that I'm bringing one of her teachers to sort her out", I said to Hilary. In fact, it seems that Liz's admiration for Mel is reciprocated, so the encounter was entirely amicable.

19 March 2007


I started to reread Therapy by David Lodge this weekend. I read it first when it was published - well, when the paperback came out: probably about 1996, then lent it to a colleague who never returned it. Now, having procured a replacement and having lent it to another friend (who did return it), I need to reacquaint myself with it so I can discuss it sensibly with Grace in a few weeks' time in Chicago, for INTA.

When first I read it, the book spoke to me very clearly about mid-life crisis, and I well remember about the same time (at INTA in San Diego: my years are measured by INTA, and I have trouble accounting for the ones I missed - Boston, Amsterdam, San Diego 2005) being tempted to buy some article - a coffee cup, probably - bearing a slogan about life not merely passing one by, but doing so in a red convertible. I am not exactly pleased to find that the book is no less relevant to me today.

In fact, in many ways it has even greater relevance. Not only am I closer to the hero's (or should it be anti-hero's) age (though still several years short of it), but on Saturday I had two different sorts of therapy, having developed a knee problem similar to that suffered by Lawrence "Tubby" Passmore in the book, where it is referred to as Internal Derangement of the Knee, or IDK for short: I Don't Know. And, as if to back that up, Suzy the physiotherapist (on my third visit, in the course of which she tries acupuncture: I resisted the temptation to write "has a stab at": so, actually three types of therapy in one day) fears it might be a cartilage problem (so I should have it x-rayed), but Sharon (sports massage, my first visit for several years) reckons it is tendonitis, as Suzy originally thought. IDK.

What I do know is that after a good mauling from Sharon I feel a great deal better, although I do fall fast asleep in the afternoon. I also know that I am ploughing through Lodge at a tremendous rate, delighted to rediscover all that stuff about Kierkegaard, envious of Tubby's London flat - I rather wish I hadn't given mine up, though it was a simple matter of economics - and more determined than ever to get writing myself.

There are several more reasons why the book resonates so exactly, several of which require a fictional disguise if they are ever to be written down, but one of which is obvious and needs no hiding. Since my first reading of the book, Hilary had to endure chemotherapy - twice - and radiotherapy. (She was taken ill, incidentally, immediately after INTA in San Antonio.) I'm keen - anxious, even - to find out how the latter part of the book affects me now.

16 March 2007

Where Corals Lie

By coincidence, when I start the car at the station car park this evening what should come on the radio but Janet Baker singing Where Corals Lie, from a recording of Sea Pictures from the 1960s: and the contrast with the version I heard two days earlier is enormous. As I get older, I appreciate chamber music more, orchestral music less - or so it seems.

Cheltenham Festival

The train manager apologised for the lack of newspapers for first class passengers this week, which he ascribed to delivery problems caused by the Cheltenham Festival (the horse-racing one, not the arts).

At Paddington, on account of the same event, barriers have been erected to control the flow of queuing passengers for the Cheltenham trains. A supremely pointless sign demands "If you have a seat reservation please have it".

14 March 2007


To Hatchlands as the guest of RCV to enjoy a recital of Elgar songs and piano music on the composer's own instrument, played by David Owen Norris and sung by Amanda Pitt. The main purpose of this visit is to talk about providing funding from what I have started calling The Nameless Music Charity, and Elgar's sesquicentenary is surely a perfect excuse for doling some out.

There is something extra-special about an afternoon spent at a large country house, picnicking in the grounds before taking a seat in the music room for a recital, rather than being caged in the Goldfish Bowl where no sunlight penetrates and the air conditioning often produces a tropical micro-climate. The music is superb, and superbly performed, at least to my increasingly unpractised ear. Elgar's old square Broadwood piano, dating from 1844, doesn't exactly fill the room with sound - a slightly newer Steinway grand, also used, does better at that - but it's great to hear Sea Pictures in the key in which he originally wrote it (it was transcribed to accommodate Clara Butt, for whom it was written), on the instrument on which they were composed, and in an environment in which no nuance is lost. I heard the orchestral arrangement at the Proms a few years ago, and that was enjoyable enough, but this is a different experience altogether - Amanda Pitt has a fantastic range and a lovely tone, and the quiet passages in some of the songs come across in a way that would not be possible in a bigger auditorium.

Two thoughts: first, though I don't like to admit it, I enjoyed this much more than the Stanford songs on Saturday, which somehow lacked the depth and melodic inventiveness of the Elgar - so much vocal writing seems to declaim a poem, or worse still some banal set of words specially dreamt up to make a song, often (the worst case) by the composer; and second, there is so much music in the world. David played five improvisations by Elgar, which had been recorded (he suggested that the composer had turned up at the Queen's Hall with a bucket of hot wax), then presumably transcribed. Nice pieces they were too, but do we need them? Do we need but a small fraction of the music that's available? Do we need an original version of Sea Pictures? The answer is probably not, in each case, but the world is a better place for having them. I am just regretting that I will never become familiar with even a tiny part of all the music on offer.

Elgar's career spanned the switch from sheet music to recordings, of course, and much of what he wrote would have been aimed at amateur pianists at home and in urban salons and the music rooms of great country houses. Perhaps instead of bemoaning the impossible wealth of music I cannot experience I should concentrate on learning to play some of it. In other words, time for a third start at learning the piano!

Afterwards, I have a brief conversation with David (who I confirm is indeed wearing a stud in the top of one ear) and then am privileged to have a conducted tour of the Cobbe Collection, where RCV worked for several years doing guided tours. There's enough keyboard instrument history to overwhelm anyone: this instrument was found, during restoration, to bear the signature CPE Bach, and was almost certainly played by Mozart; on this one Chopin gave his last performance; that one belonged to Mahler (who like Elgar worked on an old and therefore presumably cheap instrument - our own upright therefore forms part of a distinguished pattern), and it has added lead weights on the lower hammers.

11 March 2007

Stanford Celebration Weekend

To Cambridge for the launch of the Stanford Society, which the (nameless) charity of which I am a trustee is helping, to an extent to which I have singularly failed to commit, to finance. But I have discussed paying for a song recital, and on the assumption that the trust will be meeting Stephen Varcoe’s fee I go along to hear it.

What I failed to take fully into account is that Cambridge is not a short distance down the road, as Oxford is: it’s a 100-mile cross-country journey that takes well over the two hours that I had originally set aside for it, twenty minutes of which I proceeded to lose by leaving later than planned. So I arrive after the lecture preceding the recital has begun: I hear the recital (concluding, reluctantly, that I’m never going to be a great fan of Stanford’s songs, though some of his pupils’ songs appeal) and head home again.

I rather wish I had been able to stay to hear the orchestral concert in the evening, and to attend evensong at King's College Chapel (church music being Stanford's greatest claim to fame). At least there will be more Stanford events to look forward to in future years - and next year's probably won't focus quite so much on the songs.

08 March 2007

Fair trade or foul play?

To the British Library, for an evening debate organised by ALCS, the collecting society that kindly sends me a modest cheque from time to time. (The chief executive, Owen Atkinson, whose Welsh origins are belied by his Geordie accent, tells me a cheque should be on its way as we spoke: he had pressed the big red button to start the process only that day.)

The panel, chaired by John Humphrys, contains if not the usual suspects then at least representatives of the groups from which the usual suspects would be drawn - a screenplay writer (Alan Plater, responsible for Lewis), a novelist and academic writer (Maureen Freely), a novelist and columnist (Joan Smith), a publisher (Anthony Cheetham), and James Lancaster, head of rights and business affairs from the BBC. Oh, and an MP, Ian Gibson.

Most of the contributions come from the floor, though not from me despite raising my hand at that early stage before large numbers gain the confidence to seek to have their say. The screen behind the panel displayed a quote from the Gowers Review (though in fact it transpired that it came from the NUJ's evidence to Gowers, and was coined by Mike Holderness, whom I was pleased to meet in real life after many years bumping into him on-line), bemoaning the lack of public legitimacy of intellectual property. The lack of what?

This was taken as a statement about how little the laws of copyright are generally understood, though when Mike got a chance to make a comment he explained it rather differently. But the point about lack of public understanding is important, and I wanted to be able to make a point about the failure of the media to get anything about intellectual property right – with John Humphrys in the chair, I was keen to say that the Today programme is as bad as anyone, and perhaps even that my email to the programme just a few weeks ago has gone unanswered. Ian Gibson even contrives to give me more ammunition by talking about copyright in the human genome. Well, it all turned out to be academic because I didn’t get called.

But the debate had moved on anyway, and the moment (if it ever existed) had passed. There was a lot of heat but little light, and some ill-informed comments from the floor and from the panel. People have extravagant ideas about what copyright law can do for them: if a newspaper publishes someone’s article, and then presents an agreement under which it takes all the rights, as speakers complained, that’s not the fault of the copyright law. It does, however, point up the fact that there is a lack of practical remedies, and later Mike Holderness mentions the NUJ’s suggestion, ignored by Gowers (who seems mainly to have been interested in making the world safe for hip-hop), that there should be a small claims jurisdiction in the county courts to hear copyright claims. He told me, over a glass of wine at the reception afterwards, that getting judges acquainted with the law of copyright is not as far-fetched as I imagine. It would certainly fill a need, and I wonder what we can do to support the campaign.

The most interesting suggestion (to my mind) is that of Anthony Cheetham, who expresses himself willing to publish a sort of copyright “Highway Code”, so I approach him afterwards and offer my services. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea – though the images of road signs given new meanings that I conjure up probably raise more copyright problems than they could ever solve.