The Three-Tongued Serpent

Culture. As Brian Sewell famously said, there’s a lot of it about. Yet something which should enhance our lives all too often leads to anguish, to crippling self-consciousness, becomes a weapon against us, as we allow ourselves to feel inadequate, to feel judged. The gaps in our education can’t be allowed to show. We have to know and appreciate everything, for fear of being shown up in front of others.

But there comes a time, about the age of 40 – to pick a figure completely at random – when you are reconciled to your imperfections, and no longer care about the many ways in which your enemies real or imagined can pick holes in your persona. You become settled in yourself, and realise that culture is a game whose rules we don’t have to play by. We can at last own up to what we’ve always been thinking.

Here is one fact I have learned over time: most classical music is boring. Yes, there’s an occasional cool cymbal crash, as the fat guy at the back of the orchestra does his one easy job, but it’s mainly people sitting on chairs while a man in evening wear points at them with a stick every now and then. It takes ages and there’s no singing – except in opera, which is just singing made boring. It’s what posh people are drawn to instead of pop music, because there’s no intellectual content and thus no emotional engagement. They are people of shallow feeling.

This might sound like ignorance on my part. I’m uncultured, you might think. But I know that the sort of joyless aesthete who pays lip service to Mozart would have annoyed the actual Mozart to tears of blood. Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t write for the prissy upper classes whose engagement with art is primarily intellectual rather than visceral. He had no desire to be accepted by the sort of people who saw artistic appreciation as a marker of pedigree or as a means of distancing themselves from the less educated. He knew art should be raw and subversive, should target the emotions rather than the critical faculties. And for this insight he died in penury, unappreciated by his peers.

Admittedly, everything I know about Mozart comes from the film Amadeus, for whose veracity I can’t vouch. I didn’t realise Mozart was American, for one thing. Hence such memorable lines as:

                       “Godammit, Mozart, put your pants on and let’s hit the sidewalk.”

                                “I see ol’ Mozart done gone write hisself a new opera. Guess I’ll jist sit my fanny down and listen.”

                                “Hey, Wolfgang, quit goofin’ off and write a motif based on a classical theme with baroque embellishments considered excessive for the time.”

Just because you don’t get the opera questions on University Challenge is no reason to feel bad about yourself. No one should know those answers, with the sole exception of music students. It’s okay to like that bit with the violins from that advert, while not having the patience to sit through five sodding hours of violins. Someone isn’t your superior just because they know the difference between Grieg and Saint-Saens while you feel proud for being able to identify two of Gustav Holst’s planets which you remember from school.

Another lesson it took me a long time to learn is that Shakespeare is meant to be read, not seen. Many are the times I was prevented from falling asleep in the theatre simply because my buttocks were spasming from cramp as I looked at my watch and willed the end to come sooner. Greek drama is relatively short – because the Greeks sat on bare stone steps. Those four hour school trips tried and failed to convince us that the Elizabethans must have had seats whose comfort humanity’s glutes have long since forgotten.

Tragedy is fine. It’s the universal and timeless language of suffering which we can all at least imagine if not empathise with. It’s the comedy which causes problems. I sympathise with English teachers whose main tasks include explaining to teenagers that comedy didn’t mean the same thing back then as it means now. That a play didn’t have to be funny in the slightest to be officially classed as comedic, that just by writing laboured puns about horns you could win your place as a top gag writer. Tastes are more sophisticated today, although we still laugh at a man dressed as a woman because let’s face it how could we not.

This historical change in appreciation of mood is not so obvious to some directors, and some audiences. Many years ago I saw a production of Antony and Cleopatra and vividly remember those lines from Scarus:

I had a wound here that was like a T

But now ‘tis made an H.

There was –

There was –

Okay. Finished? Good. There was a man sitting in front of me who laughed uproariously at this, as if it were the funniest thing he had ever heard. What he was really saying with that was “I’ve read the footnotes. I’m here because I love Shakespeare – unlike you, who probably just bought a ticket because it features some actor from a TV programme.”

Tragedy is always tragic, however many centuries pass. Comedy not so much. Accusations of cuckoldry have a very short shelf life, in terms of humour content. A sensible director knows this, and acts accordingly. The problem is there are no sensible directors, which is why there is always that scene you have to sit through with teeth gritted while some middle-aged freelance writer on economics with a conservatory and unrequited lust for his wife’s best friend of twenty years guffaws like it was a joke written last week by someone with at least the scantest understanding of how jokes work.

In short, it passes quicker when the words are just in your head. And then you don’t have to feign a smile at any point. Shakespeare remains eloquent on the page, in a way he could never when brought out into the open.

So. Classical music, Shakespeare… In my early twenties I reached a stage where I thought youth was now officially over. I decided to stop wearing jeans, because adults don’t wear jeans. I stopped being interested in pop music, because grown-ups don’t care for pop music. Everything had to serve the new paradigm. I started reading up on art because that was something I knew nothing about. Numerous joyless afternoons led me to the conclusion:

I will never be someone who gets art.

There’s something imposing about a wall hung with art works. How long to spend on each? What should you be looking for? Is everyone else judging you according to how thoroughly you examine each piece? Who recorded that song about not keeping it all inside? What time does this place close? Can I really be arsed to come back at any time? Ugly Kid Joe?

I used to keep a minimum time I would spend in front of each picture, to establish the illusion that I knew what the hell I was there for. My attention wasn’t on the brush work, the composition, light and shade, but on what the Chinese tourist next to me would think of me if I left too soon. My self-doubt and stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to move on before I had spent a convincing length of time there. In my lifetime I have wasted whole days on this, trying to find value in a Titian sketch or Picasso print which seemed designed to take the piss out of the conscientious viewer. When I realised that by the three hundredth painting of the day I no longer cared, well, that was a revelation. Life is short, and you’d be surprised how many painters there have been. Skipping a room became a revolutionary act, and in ignoring the many, many paintings I felt powerful, like a critic who hates everything.

What we lose sight of is that no art work worthy of our attention was created with the intention of lining the wall of a gallery. Galleries are unnatural places, whose existence speaks merely to the wealth of the owner and not the quality of the art on show. And just because something is from the past is no guarantee of its artistic value. How much leeway to give to the ignorant beings of ages gone, on seeing yet another painting of Madonna and child where Mary has popped a breast out, painted by someone who has clearly never seen a woman naked? No. Work for my attention, paint scrubbers. Earn it.

Ever had that experience, head achey from absorbing all that freaking art, when you’re trying to relax on the train reading the book you brought with you, only to fear the entire carriage is judging your choice? Yes, you want to say, I’m reading Dan Brown, but I’m doing it ironically! I don’t really like this shit! Or maybe you’re packing something far more respectable and want the whole world to know you’re not as stupid as they for some reason probably think you are. You just want to read something you find enjoyable but the whole experience is fraught with intellectual snobbery, both your own and that you project onto others.

Now that we are older and more sensible we know not to make excuses for the way chance has caused us to develop. With age you care less about trivia – what others think of you and what you think others should think of you. But this wasn’t always the case.

Any discussion of books among people thrown together by the mere fact of working in the same building tends to elicit one of two responses. There are those who become defensive, all too aware of the gaps in their reading history, who either fall silent or try to steer the conversation elsewhere. And then there are the people who welcome this latest opportunity to prove their superiority via the lazy means of a checklist. Sometimes it’s tempting to switch to discussing politics instead, as a safer option.

A word of advice here: lying never works. I still remember that time I was with a group of work colleagues discussing Ulysses. I was holding my own admirably right up to the point where I ventured that my favourite character in the novel was No-No, small robot you know, friend of U-ly-sses. They literally spat in my face, clawed holes in my jacket and chewed the fuck out of my tie.

The literary criticism which has stayed with me the longest was something I saw on a subway train in New York for a book by David Baldacci. I know literally nothing about David Baldacci, beyond what the advert said: “When Baldacci is on fire no one can touch him.” But that’s true of anyone. When a table’s on fire no one can touch it. And it implies he’s frequently on fire, which suggests it’s carelessness on his part. But this was the quote the publisher thought to run with. So the people whose job it is to convince random strangers to purchase a product, the people whose livelihood depends on convincing strangers to pay for a product, are simply flawed human beings.

Which leads me to my main point. As children we are always encouraged to believe that the adults know what’s going on. In times of chaos we can always trust that they know what to do. It is only as you reach and then pass the threshold of adulthood that you realise this is not so. You might reach the age of 40, for example, and only then realise that you are now an adult and that you are expected to be responsible, when you’ve only just learned (vaguely) what a mortgage is and are hoping no one ever asks you difficult questions on the subject. Rather than the world being divided among the responsible and the naïve, no one at all knows what they are doing. No one. Everyone is playing their part.

Once realise that you are an individual in a big universe of uncertain provenance and benighted future and this tension falls away. Like whatever you like. Search for the joy in life and never worry that you aren’t doing it properly. Our time here is brief and –

Stiltskin. It was Stiltskin.