There’s only one thing worse than being told what to do, and that’s being told what not to do. I mean, of course, when there’s no justification, though I have to admit that in quite reasonable circumstances, too, as, for example, when I was learning to drive, I don’t like being told what to do, and in 1987 when a man in Twickenham barked at me for four whole days and occasionally seized the steering wheel, it meant that I never got as far as taking the test.

When you’re on holiday, as I am now, in a quiet place on the south coast of Crete, being told you can’t do something when there’s no good reason at all, can make you very peevish indeed.

Consider this, posted at the top of the steps to the bar at a very modest three-star hotel in Loutro  (70 EUR per night for two).


Two things annoyed me immediately. First, the spelling of ‘ambiance’, which I mistakenly took to be wrong. It turns out that ‘ambiance’ is an acceptable, though little used alternative to ‘ambience’ so it’s fortunate that I mounted no attack on the hotel’s management on that score. But second, the assault on liberty.

In general, we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others or infringe their rights, and whilst moralisers, blue-rinsed conservatives, and luddites might long for an age when quiet conversation was the only alternative to suicide, times have changed, and if we choose, as couples, individuals or families, to sit quietly with our eyes on our phones, and laptops, texting, totting up numbers in spreadsheets, emailing, blogging, talking quietly to our distant colleagues and loved ones, or snapping a pic or two, that is surely our business and no one else’s.

Obviously we mustn’t make too much noise, and we must switch off those pings and beeps. We must certainly prevent those tinny high-pitched tones to seep from our earphones into the calm quiet around us, but if we’re doing no harm, then let us do what we want in the bar.

‘Harming others’ of course, is something that is hard to define, but we should be very wary of allowing those who would curtail our liberty from citing what they might call ‘indirect’ harm. A man wearing the wrong kind of cricket gear might be said by some to ‘lower the tone’  but I would struggle to understand what this might mean.

And, for example, there were some who argued against same-sex marriage on the grounds that, whilst it didn’t in any obvious and direct way harm mixed-sex marriages, it nevertheless undermined the whole ‘concept of marriage’. Piffle. It would surely be hard to demonstrate exactly how, just as it is hard to explain quite how the use of mobile phones or laptops harms the ambience of a simple and unsophisticated bar at three-star hotel in a remote part of Europe.

Nevertheless rules and conventions are hard to ignore. A couple of months ago I went to see Der Meistersinger at Glyndebourne and I didn’t wear Black Tie, as most men do, rather a lounge suit, a little tight around the waist. I would have been much more comfortable, though even more ill at ease, in jeans and a polo shirt, and I can’t think that anyone in the audience would have been harmed in any way. But, convention is powerful and even if we don’t care about belonging to a particular tribe, we don’t want to be scorned.

At the Salzburg Festival, three weeks ago, believing that the rules would be more strictly enforced than in Sussex, I wore Black Tie, but, to my dismay, saw that most of the audience was quite casually dressed. I didn’t feel ill at ease, but I certainly felt uncomfortable. It was a very hot evening and the auditorium wasn’t air conditioned. Two rows in front of me, a man was wearing blue jeans and an open-necked shirt. I didn’t notice any scornful looks cast in his direction, and I cast none myself. There were only envious and admiring ones, but that might have been for other reasons.


Why do we lay down the law, when it doesn’t matter a jot?

At the hotel beach there’s this notice too, which I think equally silly. I go topless, myself, as it happens.






Wagner for Remain

I saw Wagner’s wonderful Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg at Glyndebourne yesterday – England’s top-notch country house opera house. The British Establishment were out in force, in black bow tie, braving the drizzle as they picnicked on the lawns. I’d seen the opera only once before, in Budapest, in the 1990s. It was a clunky performance with sets constructed, it seemed, from pictures cut out of the back of breakfast cereal packets, and it put me off the opera for two decades, no matter that I love all the others, Parsifal most of all, and live a largely Wagnerian life. Only now do I realise what I’ve been missing. There’s nothing clunky about Meistersinger at all – the Glyndebourne production is lively, joyous and funny. And how apt that it should emphasise Wagner’s pro-Remain sympathies at this dangerous time.


Though Wagner’s music isn’t whistled in the street, his vision in Meistersinger of art lived hand in glove with craft and ordinary suburban life, is wonderfully tempting, if also utopian. He was never exactly a craftsman himself (at least never a baker, cobbler, locksmith, or tailor), but as a poet and composer he sensed his indebtedness to ordinary German life, craft and culture.

The opera tells the story of an aspirant poet/composer/singer, Walther von Stolzing, who is eager to joint the guild of Mastersingers. To do so, he is told, he must learn and follow the guild’s strict rules of composition. The wisest Master, the cobbler, Hans Sachs, sees that Walther’s talent is too great to be constrained by the guild’s stultifying rules, and he persuades the guild that they must bend and adapt to genius when they hear it. Walther, fails at first to persuade the Guild of his talent, but under Sachs’ kind guidance, he eventually wins them over. But, impatient with their pedantry, he is at first unwilling to accept their accolades. Again, Sachs explains that just as the Guild must reform and adapt, so Walther must accept that his talent exists within a tradition created and preserved by others. He must understand that art and culture belong not only to him but to their lesser guardians, the Guild and the people. He accepts.

Better to remain, and reform, than to reject. Better to lead than leave. Wagner was right.

There’s a lot of Wagner’s theory of art in Meistersinger, and it goes on at length about ‘heilige deutsches kunst’- sacred German art. Many see supremacist nationalism in this, but Wagner would equally have argued that for the English there is also ‘sacred English art’, living and breathing in the English shires. Each to his own. And if we could only live and breathe European values, he might have added, as well as national values, we might also one day create ‘heilig Europäische Kunst.’

The British Establishment, in their black ties, braying and whinnying in their own particular way at Glyndebourne yesterday, no doubt took note that reform is possible and that rejection is the wrong path.

And , as if the great master had cast his spell over the land, the polls look better today. The mood may yet swing in favour of Remain.