To The Memory Of A Great Man

Book Reviews: Beethoven – his life and times, by AteĊŸ Orga; and Eroica – The First Great Romantic Symphony, by James Hamilton-Paterson
Generally, I try to spread out books on a similar subject, but these two were both relatively short and it seemed to be a good idea to pair them.

Orga’s book was a chance discovery by my father in a charity shop. It’s a pretty conventional survey of Beethoven’s life, with plenty of background for the period and source quotes. He chooses to start with Beethoven’s death and funeral; by 1827 Beethoven was what we would now describe as a “national treasure”, even though his later music wasn’t widely liked or understood. Orga then backtracks to Bonn for the beginning of the story. Beethoven came from quite a musical family, though not a well-off one. Having discovered his son’s talent at the fortepiano and violin early on, Beethoven’s father attempted to turn him into another Mozart, leading to some confusion at times about Beethoven’s age, as his father would shave a couple of years off to make him seem a more marketable child prodigy. However, Beethoven’s father was something of a wayward alcoholic and declined during Beethoven’s later childhood, perhaps especially after the death of Beethoven’s mother. Beethoven was sponsored by the Elector of Cologne to study in Vienna, where he received tuition, somewhat ungraciously, from Haydn and others. It’s an over-simplification to say the rest is history. Overall, I felt this was a competent if sometimes stilted work that hasn’t really fared kindly at the hand of time; dating from the late 1970s, the illustrations, of which there are many, are all black-and-white.

James Hamilton-Paterson’s book came from the work book sale and is bang up-to-date, generously in full colour, apparently inspired by a BBC Music Magazine poll of conductors that identified the Eroica as the greatest symphony of all time. Although from the title one would expect the book to have a narrow focus, it covers a surprising amount of the same ground on Beethoven’s early years. However there is depth, particularly in identifying the ancestry of Beethoven’s Prometheus theme which is used for variations in the final movement of the Eroica symphony. This book doesn’t shy away from technical aspects: there’s a decent yet accessible discussion of key relationships and sonata form, and there are several fragments of musical score throughout the book, which I think are of benefit to the music reader but would not detract from the text for someone without that ability. The book also sensibly discusses the relationship of Napoleon to the symphony, and offers some alternative interpretations for the eventual dedication “to the memory of a great man”. The Eroica‘s legacy is also discussed – for Beethoven, for his contemporaries and successors, right through to the present day. Informative, concise, and occasionally laconic (though clearly not from the hand of Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerald Samper), I would certainly recommend this book.

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The Al Gore Show

For the third Tuesday in a row, I headed off to Reading Film Theatre, this time for An Inconvenient Sequel. I’m not sure if I’ve seen the first film; certainly, if not, I have seen fragments of it. As a campaigning film, I find it interesting to compare it to Michael Moore’s films: for the most part, Gore is calmer, though it seems to me he’s more effective when he occasionally gets angry. Moore, on the other hand, can get a bit whiny. The end results are that – sometimes – Gore has contacts, pulls strings, and achieves results; Moore – well, I won’t say he has achieved nothing, but the impotence of working outside the establishment can be circular.

If I have a negative point to make about the film, it’s that quite a bit of it is about Al Gore, Al Gore, and Al Gore. I’ve nothing against the guy, but filming so many of your conferences and training sessions, and then doing a voice-over telling the audience about your conferences and training sessions, can detract from the main message sometimes, as though what you’re actually selling, is, the art of selling, as if it were a pyramid scheme. There is also a certain irony about flying around the world broadcasting a message that we need to do something about climate change. But for the most part, Gore has a real story to tell, including the science, the economics, dramatic footage of various extreme weather incidents, and possible agendas some people, companies, and governments might have against the curtailment of fossil fuel emissions. Strangely, he doesn’t draw any parallel between the behaviour of energy companies and regimes, and earlier behaviour of tobacco product manufacturers. The denial, then the spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt, seem similar to me.

There are bright spots – the rising viability and capacity of solar power, in particular; also the achievement of the Paris agreement. Gore provides examples of bipartisanship in the US, but the film ends with the note of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement, with a message, I suppose particularly for US audiences, to “use your vote”. I rather doubt the film itself is going to sway anyone in our increasingly polarised political world, though maybe it will inspire and strengthen some campaigners. Sadly, I suspect only a sustained stream of events will change some minds, and by that point so much damage will have been done. It would be nice to be wrong about that.

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Book Review: The Apple Orchard – The Story Of Our Most English Fruit, by Pete Brown
I picked this up almost a year ago in the work book sale. The apple tree here (most likely a Bramley) fruits heavily every other year, and last year was an “off” year. This year is an “on” year, and for several weeks I’ve been harvesting windfalls; shortly it will be time to pick them off the tree itself.

Brown bases the approach for his monograph on the annual cycle, beginning with apple blossom and the festival of Beltane, and moving on through the cycle of fruit ripening, harvesting, produce, and ending with dormancy. Apparently Brown has written previously on beer and cider, and it is this aspect of apples that recurs throughout the book (Brown tells us he is allergic to apples themselves), so many of the growers with whom Brown engages in discussion are in Herefordshire and Somerset. Like the book on tea I recently read, the subject of terroir crops up, the intangible combination of plant genetics, soil structure, and climate. Along the way there are Biblical discursions on the subject of the Forbidden Fruit, widely supposed to be an apple, though in some cultures figs and pomegranates are also under suspicion. It turns out no-one ever thought to write down the description of Eden in very much detail. There are passing references to apples in science and literature too, from Isaac Newton to William Tell and Snow White. Brown also quietly acknowledges the misapprehension present in the book’s subtitle, as apples are believed to have originated in Central Asia. There’s also useful discussion on the technical aspects of growing, such as grafting (summer) and pruning (winter). A sadly familiar tale emerges on the subject of food research within the UK, as growers are squeezed by commercial reality and opt for global varieties because “that’s what the consumer wants”. I’m always a bit suspicious about that as an excuse, because the consumer can in fact only buy what’s available on the shelves. There’s a reluctant acknowledgement that new varieties such as Gala and Jazz may be better dessert apples, whilst still retaining outrage over the destruction of heritage orchards. At least Britain leads the way in the sphere of culinary apples, with the Bramley being the only widely grown named variety, and meriting a whole chapter to itself in the book. After harvesting, of course, Brown investigates the processes and rituals of producing cider in particular, while also expressing concern at the number of chill units required for apple trees and whether a mild winter is sufficient.

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Hotel Salvation

Last night I went to see Hotel Salvation at Reading Film Theatre. Daya, the old man of the family, announces he believes it is his time to die and wants to do so in Varanasi; his middle-aged son Rajiv feels obliged to accompany him on this quasi-pilgrimage, although it means setting aside his high-pressured middle-class job for a set of religious reasons he seems quite ambivalent about. To me, all the cultural aspects of the film were foreign and exotic, so it’s quite possible I missed things, but it seemed that the main focus was on familial relationships – and especially conflicts – across the generations, friendships in old age, and the dissonance of development in modern India. Obviously, from the theme it’s clear there aren’t going to be many comical moments, though Navnindra Behl gives a spirited performance as the uplifting character Vimla, the elders taking marijuana-laced milk drinks are like something from Ab Fab, and the scene with Rajiv’s low-bandwidth video call back home from the Internet cafe is farcical (though hardly uncommon, even in the West, a few years ago). Rajiv’s office location looks quite similar to that depicted in The Lunchbox, a computer screen on the desk with files and files of paperwork on the shelves behind, which makes me think it’s quite generic. Varanasi is made to look picturesque and romantic in some respects, but it’s definitely shabby and third-world, and Rajiv is quite uncomfortable there. A thoughtful film.

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The film of the book

So, last night I went to see A Man Called Ove at Reading Film Theatre. Inevitably, there are some details that diverge from the book, which I read recently enough to remember, but in essence and spirit it is a faithful reproduction; I think I did the right thing in reading the book first. Ove’s neighbour Parvaneh is perhaps less annoying, or more convincing, than in the book; whether she really understands what is going through Ove’s head and whether her actions are motivated by it, remains enigmatic. I retain the reservations I have about some aspects of the story; on the other hand, it’s hardly darker than the Brothers Grimm, and comedy is usually at the expense of someone. I overheard a couple of people finding the ending ambiguous – that much at least, is clearer in the book. There are a few films I’m interested in this season, and this was a good start.

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Tomorrow Never Dies

Book Review: Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson
I hesitated over this one in the work book sale, as I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for it, but in the end decided to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. After all, it’s a charity event, and this season’s charity at work is Alzheimer’s UK, so it’s a good cause and no money goes to any member of the Johnson family.

In the introductory “Author’s Note” it is stated that “Kompromat is, to use an old-fashioned term, An Entertainment”. In other words, there is no pretence to higher literary ground. Spoilers

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More tea, vicar?

Book Review: Empire of Tea – The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, by Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger
It is, apparently, almost 10 years since I read Markman Ellis’ The Coffee House, which is what prompted me to add this book to my wish list. It’s taken some time for a paperback edition to emerge, and then the copy I received from an Amazon seller is labelled “for sale in the Indian subcontinent only”. Oh well.

After a short introduction and a section on early records of tea-drinking in China and Japan (which differ significantly from each other), the book traces the story of tea in relation to Europe from about the mid seventeenth century, when trade with China began to include quantities of this exotic leaf. It’s interesting that hot drinks were a novelty in Britain, and that tea, coffee and chocolate all arrived on our shores at approximately the same time.

Unlike coffee, the story of tea in Europe isn’t particularly political, being considered a domestic delicacy for the well-to-do. For some time, many European nations were involved in the trade, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Britain; only rather later did the British become dominant. Interestingly, for a long time, the trade in green tea was more important, with black tea being a minor share of the cargo. The unseen (but fairly blatant) hand of the market pushed European traders to seek more and more tea, which over time had the effect of reducing prices and increasing the availability of tea to the middle classes. Debate abounds on the virtues and vices of tea-drinking. Taxation of tea results in smuggling from other European countries, and “the destruction of the tea at Boston”. Eventually William Pitt the Younger abandoned the taxation of tea in favour of increasing window tax, arguing that the adjustment would not on average negatively impact on households correctly paying for tea. This had the effect of destroying the smugglers’ market from the continent, and produced British dominance in the tea trade in China. However, an increasing one-way trade was problematic for the British economy, so an attempt was made to balance the trade by supplying opium from India to the Chinese. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of this aspect of the trade were not happy.

The East India Company also sought to grow tea on land governed by the British, in India, but although indivudal plant specimens were sporadically smuggled out of China the programme was without success. Eventually it was discovered that tea was already growing in the Assam region, but was not used locally as a drink. As the price of tea fell, it became a universal staple in British households.

The book concludes with twentieth-century developments: the invention of the tea bag, which led to the use of “dust” grade tea, otherwise unsuitable; the rise of the “tea house” such as Lyons; fruit infusions and iced tea (which, in canned or bottled form, is apparently the most commonly consumed tea in America).

Like the coffee book, this is a thorough work, but it does feel incomplete. Although there is some discussion about adulteration of tea, there’s no mention of Earl Grey tea; likewise, there’s no mention of the Cutty Sark, perhaps one of the most famous remnants of the height of the tea trade. For a popular work by British authors these seem curious omissions, but they don’t detract from the book as it stands.

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