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A Man of Letters. Please, Mr Postman.

January 2, 2013

We all have to look behind us sometimes. That’s how we know which way is forwards.

Some of what I would like to achieve in 2013 is defined by what happened in 2012.  It may be too soon to say exactly how, but there were highlights of the old year which will shape the new one, which is why I took a few minutes earlier on just to think about what would make the cut on a précis of the year.

There’s work, naturally, but I’m sure you don’t want to read about that. I don’t object to talking about it, but that’s one floodgate I advise against opening. Even thinking about it starts the relentless rhythm of ELO’s Bluebird running round my head: “You work (work, work), you work you work so hard…” There’s family and human stuff, to be sure. Without wishing to dwell too long on something which will be of primary concern to the participants and their families, there is good reason to mention some of this, and I’ll get round to that shortly.

Music, of course: there’s always music. Much of it forms its own set of highlights; I could without difficulty paint a picture of last year based entirely on the music I heard, discovered or was introduced to, and that would be, to my own satisfaction at least, a good account of the year. It might not work quite so well for you, though.

I pondered, too, the best way of presenting you with such a review, without making it look too much like a round-robin seasonal greeting. I get the point of those round-robins, and they do serve a useful purpose, I suppose, but despite that I am not fond of them. Above all, they lack the intimacy of a letter – that personal connection that means that what was written was for you alone.

postboxWhen I was a student – in the days before (but too much before) we all began to have mobile phones and computers like extra limbs – to write or receive a letter was a measure of the regard you had for someone or they had for you. It was a big deal – and always has been – and music has noticed that. I’m grinning as I write this, because Fats Waller singing  I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter is coming through the speakers. (“I’m gonna make believe it came from you…”). In these times when “You’ve got mail” usually indicates that you are the addressee of a message which anyone with administrator privileges can access, or which may also have been copied to any number of others, we forget that the art of letter writing involves careful consideration both of what you want to say, and of how you want the other person to react. See (or rather, hear) the beautiful Letter Duet from The Marriage of Figaro.

That leads me to a genuine highlight of last year – my brother Richard conducting Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. To be entirely personal for a moment, it will be hard to beat the combination of family pride in a monumental achievement and the sheer joy of hearing what must be some of the most beautiful music ever written performed by some of the best artists in the world. I’ll move on, before I get too choked.

2012 also saw a family wedding, starring the same brother and (sharing the lead) the lovely Maddie. Now, I could say a lot about both of them – and in posts to come I will no doubt do so, because they are musicians, like my sister Anne-Marie, and this blog is after all, vaguely muso-centric. But I shall change tack for now and share with you the one regret I have, which is that I can’t share with you the moment when Maddie’s siblings (who had come in force from Australia along with all the family) almost stole the show at an advanced stage in the proceedings with a highly customised version of the Muppets song – Rainbow Connection. Poor Richard – required to accompany the parody of which he was prime target, somewhat like a carpenter caught out in a misdemeanour and compelled to build his own pillory.

Back to letters.

There is a track on the Jam’s fourth studio album – Setting Sons – called Burning Sky. On the LP’s inside sleeve the lyrics to the song are set out like a letter, with the recipient and the sender’s name left out. The “Dear” and “Yours” are not sung, and the text on the page ignores the rhyme and rhythm that the words have in the song, but seeing it so laid out has coloured forever my understanding of the song. It’s a punchy song, a sort of anti-celebration of capitalism, and the typography underlines it by making it personal. Paul Weller’s musical craft and his lyrical skills were never better balanced. Always political and socially aware, he seemed to put into Setting Sons something extra: a bit of personal and occasionally emotional conviction.  The album also includes the brilliant Eton Rifles: QED.

I discovered Muse last year. I knew that they existed before that, of course, but started to listen to them properly after first hearing Uprising. I seem to have come to them rather late in the day, but made up for it fairly quickly by immersing myself in their entire catalogue. A lowlight of the year is the fact that I didn’t manage to get tickets to see them live. I got a friendly, encouraging e-mail to mitigate my disappointment, but it didn’t have the individual touch – a letter or a call from Matt Bellamy, for example – that would have properly made up for it.

It’s trite to say that digital media, especially Facebook, twitter and blogging communities, create opportunities for meaningful associations that would otherwise not arise. How else would I have come across the tremendous Dancing Professor? I can’t actually recall how I first happened upon her blog – only that I now look forward to each post, whether or not it’s in her academic field. I know that she’s in Philadelphia, and that by coincidence my nephew Patrick is studying there for a year. But that doesn’t quite add up to a relationship – just a rewarding (to me, at least) connection. Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope would not have held it to be sufficient acquaintance to support actual correspondence.

There’s nothing quite like getting a letter, is there? The anticipated pleasure of receiving post from Gran, or from Mrs-to-be simonsometimessays as she then was, is rarely felt these days. E-mail is good, though not the same. I still make sure, though, that my inbox has plenty of room inside. The annoyance at receiving an automatic notice that my message (“message”, mark you, not “letter”) couldn’t be delivered because someone’s mailbox is full is not something I want to inflict on anyone else. It’s like an envelope with your own handwriting on it coming through your letterbox stamped Return to Sender.

Well now, look: I’ve run out of time to give you that proper trip round last year. Never mind. If you’re that bothered, drop me a line.

Happy New Year.


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  1. !! I was enjoying your musings as always, and then blushed to see my name come up! The pleasure is mutual. And if I meet any accented Patricks in Phila this year, I’ll assume they’re yours and be extra nice to them. Happy New Year 🙂

  2. Why, thank you most kindly! I feel that’s a transatlantic handshake (though even a handshake was a step towards intimacy according to Miss Austen).
    Happy New Year again to you – and this time it’s personal.

  3. Good to see the Muppets slipped in there for your more low brow audience (ie me). Look forward to reading more posts in 2013. Oh, and delighted to see they’ve got round to doing the gold letterbox for you. Better late than never.

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