The arrogance of certainty

  1. David Silvester blaming floods on gay marriage.  Dubya saying god told him to invade Iraq.  Female Genital Mutilation.  Honour killings.  More settlement-building on the West Bank.  And on, and on.  They’re all so sure that they’re right.  All of them.  How can that be possible?

I know Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, CofEs, Shamanic practitioners, Wiccans, atheists and agnostics. Everyone believes something; often they believe the same thing in a different way.  I was born and brought up a non-Orthodox Jew –  I now have a spiritual practice which is not Judaism, but I would never deny my heritage.  I don’t have an issue with religion as such; everyone’s entitled to believe what they want, and who are people like Richard Dawkins to say that people of faith are deluded and misguided?

So, what’s this about then?  Silvester and Dubya are easy targets, anyone of a liberal bent will re-post UKIP weather maps and retweet the UKIP shipping forecast.  (Minor digression: I am amazed at the speed with which those things appeared – how did they think of them so quickly?  Brilliant.)

I can’t possibly be implying that the new-agey, liberal, spiritual, holistic, just-want-to-save-the-planet people are guilty of the arrogance of certainty, surely?  That would go against everything I believe, wouldn’t it?  How about this, then: “Cancer is a result of negative thoughts.”  Or: “Is depression a call to spiritual awakening?”  Or: “the tsunami was because of the negative vibrations of the people living there.”  Or: “You can cure any illness with the power of your belief.”  I’ve heard all of these, at different times.  I’ve heard people who hold themselves up as spiritually enlightened say things that put David Silvester in the shade.  I’ve heard judgements and statements so utterly lacking in compassion that I am left speechless with disbelief.

If someone had said to me last year, “have you considered that your early stage/or not breast cancer might be due to negative thinking, or that you have called it in in some way,” I would probably have decked them.  In what way do they think this might actually help?  “Oh wow, that’s amazing!  Thanks so much, now I know that it’s entirely my fault, I will embrace what you say and you can do some healing on me.”  Fuck. Off.

I did ask myself “What am I learning from this?”  and that’s entirely different.  No judgement, no imposed crap from anyone else.  Have you ever had depression, or felt suicidal, you smug, moral-high-ground-loving people who presume to understand what depression is?  The best story of this week came from the #findmike campaign – Jonny Benjamin, a brave, wonderful mental health campaigner was going to end his life by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  He was talked down by a total stranger, who just listened.  That was all he did.  Jonny talked, this man listened.  And Jonny came off the bridge.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do.  And all you should do.  There are rarely instant fixes, perfect solutions.  There is compassion, and an attempt to understand someone else’s pain.  It’s not about dropping a ladder down for people to climb out, sometimes it’s about going down the ladder to be with them.

We’re born, we live, we die.  Everything else is up for debate.

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The one about Abbado

1985.  I’d just left drama school, wondering if I’d ever get a job.  I was temping, having been ‘encouraged’ by my parents to do a secretarial course which left me with a typing speed of 90 wpm – extremely desirable for a temp.  I was fortunate enough to have music-loving parents so had grown up in a house which was filled with it, from classical to musical theatre and our favourite Sinatra.  So I loved classical music from an early age, although I grew out of my Wagner phase after standing through the entire Ring Cycle at the Proms one year.  The Wagner phase came after my wanting-to-be-a-nun-after-seeing-Jesus of Nazareth phase – hands up those of you who also wanted to be the bride of Robert Powell.

Anyway.  I found myself at the Barbican one evening, for a performance of Mahler 9, part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s “Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century” series.  I’d progressed to Mahler from Wagner, and was enjoying him far more.  And then Claudio Abbado stepped out onto the platform and something extraordinary happened.  Magic happened.  Understanding, joy, awe, tears happened.  And at the end, the silence went on for minute after minute, because who would willingly break that silence?  Who would want to be the one to drag us back from transcendence?

I left in a daze, and the following week auditioned for the London Symphony Chorus, because Abbado was the LSO’s principal conductor, which meant that the LSC would sing with him.  And I had to sing with him.  The first concert was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, a notoriously tricky piece both vocally and rhythmically.  Before tutti rehearsals, there was always a piano rehearsal with the conductor, just the chorus, chorus master, accompanist and conductor.

During my time with the LSC, I sang with (clang, let’s drop these names): Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Antonio Pappano, etc etc.  But none of them, despite their brilliance, was Abbado.  Because Abbado was the one I worshipped, from his artfully floppy hair,  signature cashmere sweaters slung casually over his shoulders down to his immaculate probably-Italian shoes.

When Abbado walked into a piano rehearsal, you could feel the energy ramp up – not from him, he was so quiet we could barely hear his instructions to us, and more often than not, these would be in the form of grunts – but because the magic always happened.  For the chorus, in any case.  The orchestra were a little less enamoured, for those very reasons.  He also conducted without a score; a risky proposition for both conductor and orchestra.  But because he never looked down, he was always looking at us.  Or at me, obviously.  Of course he looked at me, I adored him, why wouldn’t he?

Oh those looks…  The ‘I have just ascended to heaven thanks to the string playing at the end of (insert Mahler symphony here)’.  The ‘I asked for a diminuendo, and you have given me braying donkeys, I am now a broken man’.  Or as one ex-LSC member put it today “The look of utter, inconsolable anguish when some phrase or other wasn’t exactly as he wanted it,” as though we’d killed his puppy, or the ghost of Mahler.

And the gestures.  He didn’t need words – finger to the lips and we were as pianissimo as he.  Praying gesture at the end of a concert and it was as though the gods of music were praying with him.  We toured Amsterdam, Paris and Lucerne with him and the LSO, performing Mahler 2.  Every night was revelatory.  I think we all knew how lucky we were to be working with him, but now, years later, it all comes back, as we share memories and thoughts.

Abbado always championed contemporary composers and was a passionate believer in bringing young people into music.  He pissed some people off.  He inspired far more.  Everything was about the music, so you felt as though you were hearing it for the first time, every time.  I hope he’s having some brilliant conversations with Mahler now.

Artistic conversations I would like to think happened

1.  Johnny Depp to Tim Burton (both of whom I think are brilliant)

Johnny Depp: Tim, Tim, I’ve had this idea about Willy Wonka – I’m going to make him sound exactly like Michael Jackson!  Well, maybe not exactly, because that would be a bit too weird, even for us, and also might get us sued, but what do you think?

Tim Burton: Cool.

Johnny Depp:  Tim, Tim, I’ve had this idea about how to do Sweeney – I mean we both know I can’t actually sing, right and, you know, Sondheim, but if I did it like Bowie, maybe the audience would forget I can’t sing and just go: ‘Doesn’t he sound like Bowie?’.  What do you think?

Tim Burton:  Cool

Johnny Depp:  Tim, Tim, I’ve had this idea about the Mad Hatter… So what if when he’s being kind of normal-mad he sounds a bit like Prince Charles but when he gets his mojo back… wait for it… he has a Scottish accent!  I mean, I can do a Scottish accent, so why not?  Makes as much sense as anything else in the film.  What do you think?

Tim Burton: Cool

2.  Peter Jackson to Guillermo del Toro (both of whom  I think are brilliant)

Peter Jackson:  Hey, Guillermo, I’ve been thinking…  There’s no women in The Hobbit.  And we’ve got loads of pointy ears left over from Lord of the Rings, so why don’t we just invent one?  Pretend it’s in a lost appendix that only we’ve been allowed to see.

Guillermo del Toro:  Great idea.  What do you think of this – I’ve just bought myself a hybrid car which actually sounds like an elf name, so we could twist it round a bit… and you get… Tauriel.

Peter Jackson:  Brilliant!  What shall we do with her?

Guillermo del Toro:  Um.  Ninja warrior elf maiden?  Haven’t had one of those before.

Peter Jackson:  Nice.  Oh, and another thought.  Aidan Turner.

Guillermo del Toro: What about him?

Peter Jackson:  Unfeasibly beautiful.  Why we cast him as a dwarf I have no idea, but there you go.  He falls in love with her, we throw in a few jokes about how he’s too tall and handsome for a dwarf and that’ll divert attention from all the other dwarves only having about three lines between the lot of them.  Unless they’re James Nesbitt.

3.  Danny Strong (screenwriter of The Butler) and best friend at the end of a night’s drinking

Best friend:  I bet you can’t write a screenplay that manages to make the American civil rights movement really, really boring.

Danny Strong:  Bet I can.