Cubing the Baroque

When I first came to Prague in the spring of 1988, travelling overnight on the sleeper from Budapest, I had only one guidebook to guide me (apart from a fact-heavy, utterly impersonal, poorly translated and amusingly ideological tome published by the Czechoslovak Tourist Office). It was Richard Bassett’s A Guide to Central Europe. According to the short biography printed just inside the cover Richard Bassett is an art historian (Cambridge), a journalist (Vienna correspondent for The Times in the 1980s) and a musician (once principal horn player at the Ljubljana Opera House). I love a generalist. And I loved his very personal approach to everything he saw. It’s always more interesting to see a city through the eyes of an individual, a person, with his own particular tastes and sense of humour, than to be deluged with dozens of dull facts that are immediately forgettable and unmoving. One wants opinion, with which, on occasion, one might disagree.

I stayed , on his recommendation, in the ‘cosy shabbiness’ of the art-nouveau Hotel Europa (which, today, is finally under restoration). He laments the unavailability of any English language newspaper other than the Morning Star (Britain’s Communist Party answer to Pravda, still in print today, though with a daily circulation of only around 10,000), but how times have changed since then.

In vain, this morning, I looked for his remarks on a delightful architectural oddity which drew me to Spalena Street in 1988, and which I noticed again yesterday evening when attending a splendidly euphonious choral concert in which a colleague took part. Bridging the gap on Spalena between the baroque church of the Holy Trinity, 1713, by one of the Dientzenhofer brothers, and a cubist building,  the Diamant building of 1912-1913, and squaring the circle in stylistic terms, is a baroque figure of St John Nepomuk protected by a cubist arch. It’s a delightful, witty, confrontation of and synthesis of styles. Who says that the Cubists had no sense of humour?

See also An Architectural Wink

Baroque – 1713

IMG_3075

Cubist – 1913

IMG_3074

A witty hybrid

IMG_3073

 

 

What is it that they know?

I’m rarely prone to panic, and despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I pass through railway stations and airports without anxiety. It’s true that if I’m on a train, or on the Tube, an unaccompanied bag or box will nag at me until I see it repossessed, and I admit that I glance with a little apprehension at backpacks. I try hard to avoid racial stereotyping when I’m assessing the suicidal intent of my fellow passengers. But most of the time I’m entirely blasé about risk, not bravely uncaring, but unconscious or it. After all, the more we give in to fear, the more the terrorists are winning. And, as we all know when we do the arithmetic, the risks are greater from road traffic, mad cows and falling masonry.

That said, I don’t like to see well-armed soldiers patrolling in a shopping mall. Our LLP Group offices adjoin the seldom-visited Harfa Shopping Mall in Prague. The mall, built around four years ago, has been, I suppose, a commercial disaster, and as I pass through it every day between the metro station and my office, I note that yet more shops have closed and others, selling ever trashier trash, have taken their place. Tragically, Marks and Spencer closed a couple of months ago and I miss their biscuits terribly. Shoppers are sadly few and far between, except on those evenings when there’s an ice-hockey match in the O2 Arena next door.

So, why, suddenly are there gun-toting soldiers on the prowl? What do they know? It’s hard to imagine that Prague’s Harfa Shopping Mall would make a good target for terrorists. Or perhaps, that’s its very attraction. It’s such a soft target that it’s a perfect one. But if not terrorists, then what is there to fear? Even rival shopping malls have no good reason to provoke an outrage here. They’ve nothing to gain.

harfa soldiers

Far from being reassuring, the presence of soldiery makes me nervous. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. It’s like seeing the cages and walls that surround US Embassies all over the world. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. I walk on the other side of the street whenever possible.

And on my way home on the metro yesterday, six soldiers on patrol at Florenc station, boarded my carriage at the very last moment. They didn’t seem especially alert. I stood next to them, almost crushed up against a semi-automatic rifle, terrified that an inadvertent movement might be misinterpreted. Everyone tried to look relaxed about their presence, without entirely succeeding. I studied their uniforms (parachute regiment), weapons (real, and each of them with two) and demeanour (cheerful).

Perhaps they’ve been put on the streets to reassure us, but they have the opposite effect on me. If anything they make me more anxious. It’s the thought that we need protection as close as this. And it’s the knowledge that if a terrorist gang sprang into action, there’s little these brave soldiers could do about it.

 

Faraway Places

When Turkish fans jeered and booed during a minute’s silence held at the start of a football match between Turkey and Greece in November last year, some saw it as support for terrorism and as an insult to those who died or were injured at the hands of terrorists in Paris a few days earlier. More likely it was a protest against unequal and hypocritical treatment, since there were no similar moments of solidarity in Western Europe when more than 100 people were killed by terrorists a month or so earlier in Ankara.

It is a sad fact that all kinds of proximity make a difference to how we feel about events. Geography, family, tribe, culture, language, gender, race, religion – all bring us closer to, or distance us from, others’ suffering and joy.

Though technology has shrunk the world, the emotional impact of events in distant places is still diminished by distance. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain could speak disparagingly of a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. You’d have to travel further from London to be ‘far away’ in today’s world, but clearly what happens in Ankara hurts us less than what happens in Paris, even if it should not. The distance from Number Ten to Prague is still just a thousand miles, but London and Prague are closer than they were, especially since 1989. Indeed, events all over Western Europe are closer than they were, closer not only because physical access is easier but because there are more bases for solidarity – our ‘European’ way of life has converged on a liberal democratic model, we’re all seeking ‘ever closer union’, and we all have a strong shared sense of ‘European values’ (sadly, I am being facetious, but I wish it were so!).

A far away man

chamberlain1921

I was thinking about all this yesterday when reading an article on the BBC News website by Sarah Dunant about having too much money. The article was inspired by the leaking of the Panama Papers. She was curious about why people with vast amounts of money squirrel it away in far away places. But what interested me was her reference to Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher. He’s most famous for his work on animal rights, but has recently been promoting the idea of ‘effective altruism’, urging the rich to give their money away, but not necessarily to causes that are ‘close’ to them:

Broadly based on utilitarianism – he argues that if our decisions about our behaviour and use of money were based on how to effect the greatest good for the greatest number, then once we had what we needed we would simply give the rest away. But not necessarily to the causes we might naturally feel closest to. His definition of altruism here is not interested in feeling – indeed he argues that empathy can be dangerous simply because it can be manipulated, but rather adherence to a guiding moral principle.

This seems an odd idea to me, or, putting it another way, an unrealistic and unnatural one. Such ‘guiding moral principles’ would surely demand that we give our family and friends no special status, let alone our colleagues, compatriots, or co-religionists . But moral calculation can’t be a cold and technical affair, the application of principles from a distance. The basis for morality, to my mind, lies in ‘feeling’, our instinctive identification with others and with their pleasures and suffering. It’s this that also makes us hear noise as speech and meaning, and makes the brain the mind. ‘Effective altruism’ could have no underlying ‘engine’ if it must be separate from these feelings, and these feelings are inevitably stronger when identification is made easier by proximity in one form or another. That’s not to say that equal moral weight should not be given to Ankara and to Paris, but it is to understand why it doesn’t happen and never will unless the far away places come yet closer.

 

Business Image and Professionalism

Last night I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, in which Dame Maggie Smith plays Mary Shepherd, a malodorous, dishevelled,  but equally imperious version of ‘Lady Grantham’ in Downton Abbey. The mentally fragile Miss Shepherd, a former pianist and nun, in flight from an imagined crime, took up residence in a van in Alan Bennett’s London driveway in the 1980s and stayed there until her death 15 years later.

maggie

Step by step, though with characteristic indecision, the playwright becomes involved in her life. At one point a social worker asks Alan Bennett:

‘Are you her carer?’

He recoils from the word.

‘I hate the word carer,’ he says.

And one can see why. You can care about someone, care for someone, take care of this or that, but who, or what, exactly, is a carer? Are not all human beings carers?

For similar reasons, I’m always puzzled when someone’s behaviour is described as ‘unprofessional’. It’s usually meant as criticism, but when I hear the word I’m always cautiously optimistic that something interesting has happened.

I hate ‘professionalism’. But what I mean is that I hate the idea that there’s something more than doing a good job, with all that implies in terms of skill, knowledge, experience, courtesy, pragmatism and economy. What does ‘professionalism’ add to the mix?

What people often mean by a professional style is a gloss of conformity with some entirely artificial notions of standard business behaviour.

I’m still angry with something a client once said to me twenty years ago. I was working on a systems implementation project for an international company that involved simultaneous implementations of SunSystems in both Prague and Budapest. I was shuttling between the two and on one occasion I worked until the early hours of the morning at the company’s Prague office before flying to Budapest to continue working there. The question arose, at around 7pm, towards the end of a very long day, as to whether we should begin a new task or down tools for the day.

‘I’m rather tired,’ I said. ‘We need to be very precise with what we’re about to do, so it probably makes sense to continue in the morning.’

Everyone agreed, but later it transpired that one of the young, arrogant, financial controllers had remarked that to say that you’re tired is ‘unprofessional’. He had worked for Arthur Andersen, and at Arthur Andersen no one would have dreamt of saying such a thing.

I’m still angry. I was being entirely honest and sensible and I expected a little sympathy.

I strongly believe that we should be entirely ourselves at work, not some ‘professional’ other self. We should neither look alike, nor behave alike. Diversity brings creativity to teamwork, and the less energy that we spend on attempting to be a person other than we are, the more energy there is available for the task in hand.

History, I think, is on my side. The worlds of work and leisure have coalesced. We work from home, we work on holiday, we don’t quite watch the clock as assiduously as we used to. We are flexible, and we are more ourselves, and, in my company at least, we rarely wear suits. Technology has made it possible for us to live and work in different ways.

Social media also reflect this change. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, these are tools that blur the edges between workplace and home. We no longer project a ‘professional’ and a ‘domestic’ style in carefully separated ways. When marketing ourselves and our values, especially if we work for a consulting company, we present ourselves as real, diverse and whole people, not as androids formed from pliable material in a specific professional mould.

Facebook is where this is most evident, and to that end we have recently published a new Facebook banner for LLP Group which celebrates our diversity and individuality. Have a look at it here.

LLP Group

From left to right:

  • Veselina Portarska, Administration and Marketing Assistant at LLP Bulgaria is passionate about driving.
  • Adam Bager, LLP Group’s Chairman, plays the oboe.
  • Alinka Varhegyi, Chief Accountant at LLP Hungary, trains dogs.
  • Irina Ilieva,  Country Manager at LLP Bulgaria, does anti-gravity yoga.
  • Gabor Varadi, Consultant at LLP Hungary, loves surfing.
  • Valeri  Yordanov, Technical Consultant at LLP Bulgaria, races cars.
  • Dimitar Dimitrov, Consultant at LLP Luxembourg, enjoys skydiving.
  • Lada Svecena, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, runs marathons all over the world.
  • Dana Benakova, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, sings in a choir.

Let us all be interesting!

Brexit or Bremain – An Algorithmic Approach

David Cameron faces 27 of his peers in Brussels tonight hoping to persuade the European Union’s leaders to accept a new deal for Britain. If there’s a deal there’ll probably be a referendum in June. The stakes are high, and whatever happens tonight and tomorrow, the referendum may still lead to Brexit.

I’d say the odds on Brexit and Bremain are close to even. I certainly wouldn’t put money on the issue. Cameron was a fool to promise a referendum, and I don’t doubt he regrets it bitterly, though perhaps he would have lost the General Election if he hadn’t. So, as people say nowadays, ‘we are where we are.’

brexit

News junkies aren’t starved of news and opinions, but it’s hard to know what to believe. I’m usually convinced by the most recent passionately expressed opinion I’ve heard. So I’ll attempt an algorithmic approach and assign a score to a few of the most commonly expressed opinions to reflect the extent to which I believe they recommend Brexit (0) or Bremain (10) and their weight in the overall argument. In respect of some of the more important considerations (economic, for example) I’ve listed a cluster of interconnected opinions. An average below 5 means Exit and an average above 5 means Remain.

First, I’ll make the calculation based on my own judgement, and then again based on my impression of what middle England might believe. Note that all these judgements, both mine and mine about Middle England, are formed two or three inches beneath the skull in a region where both logic and emotion contend (is there any place in the brain where these don’t contend?).

  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom, with Scotland demanding a second referendum on independence [8]
  • Brexit would mean economic disadvantage for Britain [6]
  • Brexit would allow Britain to pursue economic policies less ‘statist’ than Europe’s [5]
  • Brexit would strengthen the global role of the City of London [4]
  • Brexit would weaken the global influence of the UK [6]
  • Brexit would enable Britain to control and curtail immigration [8]
  • Brexit would return powers to Westminster [6]
  • Brexit weakens Europe’s political stance in relation to Russia (6]
  • Brexit would slow the regional and global advance of human rights and common cultural values [6]
  • Brexit strengthens the cultural identity of the UK [6]
  • Brexit weakens the military influence of the UK [5]
  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the European Union (8)
  • Brexit would lead to German hegemony in Europe (6)

So, my average is 6.15. I’m clearly for Bremain.

What do I think middle England thinks?

  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom, Scotland demanding a second referendum on independence [6]
  • Brexit would mean economic disadvantage for Britain [6]
  • Brexit would allow Britain to pursue economic policies less ‘statist’ than Europe’s [5]
  • Brexit would strengthen the global role of the City of London [5]
  • Brexit would weaken the global influence of the UK [4]
  • Brexit would enable Britain to control and curtail immigration [3]
  • Brexit would return powers to Westminster [4]
  • Brexit weakens Europe’s political stance in relation to Russia (5]
  • Brexit would slow the regional and global advance of human rights and common cultural values [5]
  • Brexit strengthens the cultural identity of the UK [4]
  • Brexit weakens the military influence of the UK [5]
  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the European Union (4)
  • Brexit would lead to German hegemony in Europe (7)

 

Middle England’s average is 4.85, marginally for Brexit.

It’s going to be close.

But that’s looking at it largely from a British point of view. What’s very clear to me is that Brexit would be a disaster for the European Union. Frankly, I think that matters enormously, but I live in Prague in Middle Europe, not in Middle England.

Berlin

Sometimes a city means more to you when you know it less well, especially when it’s a city whose history and monuments you’re acutely aware of in other ways, from a distance. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it certainly diminishes the power that a city possesses to gobsmack you in virtue of its history, and its most emblematic monuments. Over time, and when you get to know the street-level detail of a city, the awe that you might have felt on first arrival becomes a distant memory. Showing visitors around can help to revive a sense of excitement, but only partially.

Nowadays, it’s not often that I go to a large European city whose streets I hardly know, but which in another sense I know well. Yesterday I travelled to Berlin from Prague. The city is just four and half hours away by train, but in twenty-three and a half years of living in the Czech Republic I’ve visited it only once, briefly, for a business conference in a far-flung suburb, and just once before that, in early 1989 when I was helping an East German to escape to the West by pretending a relationship that didn’t in fact exist (an exit visa to the West was finally issued two days before the Wall came down).

Yesterday, arriving at the main railway station in Berlin I suddenly felt that feeling of awe that I probably last felt more than twenty years ago, when. for example, I found myself hardly believing that I was standing in front of the actual Roman Forum, and in the actual Vatican – a sense of unbelievable privilege that I could actually get to see these things.

It was a glimpse of Norman Foster’s dome on the Reichstag that did it for me yesterday, and then, as a taxi took me to the Plan B Gallery (to look at the Serban Savu paintings I wrote about some days ago), the Brandenburg Gate and the double-brick line in the streets that marks where the Wall once stood. I was no longer, for a moment, the jaded business ‘road warrior’ who’s seen it all. It was almost like being young again, capable, once again, of awe and excitement. And it all looked so different from 1989.

What is Berlin to me?

  • The 1930s city of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and stories and Liza Minelli’s Cabaret.
  • The 1920s and 1930s city of Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht.
  • The city of the Reichstag fire of 1933, set by the Nazis but blamed on the Communist Georgi Dimitrov, who went on to rule Bulgaria.
  • The city of Hitler’s rise to power and the enabling act passed with apparent legality in the Reichstag, but in reality under duress, that let Hitler rule by decree
  • The city that was reduced to rubble in 1944
  • The city of Hitler’s bunker and, finally, his suicide
  • The city of Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and the airlift of emergency supplies when the Soviets cut off the city
  • The city of architect Albert Speer’s monstrous plans for the capital of a post-war Germania
  • The city of the Pergamon Museum containing, amongst other artefacts, the head of Queen Nephertiti
  • The city of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • The city of John le Carre’s spy novels and of Checkpoint Charlie
  • The city of the superb historical thrillers of David Downing which are set in the 1920s and 1930s and which I read a year or so ago
  • The libertarian and cosmopolitan city or artists and (before the fall of the Wall) young German draft dodgers
  • The city of the fall of the Wall in 1989 and of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth near the Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Day 1990

Sad, then, that yesterday I had just three hours in the city before catching a flight to Warsaw.

Serban Savu’s paintings were as wonderful as I expected and I’m going to buy The Allegory of Painting rather than The Guardian,  and after a tiny bit of haggling, this one ‘thrown in’ for good measure (it’s smaller than it looks):

serbansavu

The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

Now I’m in Warsaw on the way to look at this one:

Meeting

 

 

 

 

Snow, Titian and Vanity

Prague is beautiful when the snow falls, at least for those few days whilst it remains fresh and untrudged. It’s a few years since it lingered long enough for anyone to enjoy, but it was still there and pristine over the weekend when my partner and I took the 22 tram to the castle to visit the Titian and Vanity exhibition.

titian-woman-mirror

It’s a small collection (always a relief), put together on a fairly slim pretext – the existence of a few minor Titians in Prague, variations on the theme of a wide-bosomed lady considering her own beauty, a subject that brought Titian and his Warhol-style ‘Factory’ considerable commercial success. There’s also a masterpiece borrowed from the Uffizi, another from Barcelona, and – my favourite painting in the show – a rather intriguing painting of a woman transfixed by her own image in a mirror, to the evident distaste of a man I presume to be her suitor (see above). She’s more interested in her own assessment of her beauty than in his judgement, and she shows no interest in him. He must simply hold up the mirror, as if it’s the only route to her heart.

The exhibition is otherwise propped up by portraits of Titian, some of them self-portraits, and includes copies of Titians, paintings from the school of Titian, and a few engravings I wasn’t patient enough to look at and understand. I don’t mean to sound philistine, but the show didn’t exactly shimmer. It also happened to be the worst-labelled art exhibition I’ve seen in years (one painting was labelled as painted by Titian twenty years after his death), and the English translations were unreadable.

The globalism of the art world, though not new (Titans were brought to Prague even in the sixteenth century) is equalled by the globalism of the café world. As much fun was to be had outside the gallery, in the snow, and in gazing at the Lesser Town’s rooftops from a fabulously well-sited Starbucks, where, as it happens, globalism is celebrated through an intriguing map, which I presume to show the provenance of the cafe’s visitors.

map1

map2

Titians are fewer and further between. The best are to be seen in his hometown of Venice.

roogtopssnow

snowtree

 

When the Sirens Sound

As I pressed the Publish button on yesterday’s blog, comfortable in the kitchen of my flat in Prague, sirens began to wail in the streets outside. I checked the time. It was precisely twelve noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Nothing to fear.

It is a curious anomaly of life in Prague that so long after the end of the Cold War when so little evidence of it survives amongst the Gothic, Baroque and Cubist glory, the sirens still sound to test our preparedness for disaster. After a couple of minutes, as the sound fades, a deadpan voice reassures us that it was only a test. I confess I never wait for that reassurance in fear and trembling, and I’m quite sure that if it didn’t come, no one would actually notice.

Prague, and every other town and village in the country, is riddled with public address loudspeakers. Look up and you’ll see them strapped to lampposts here and there. In the bad old days they broadcast the inarticulate nonsense of the incumbent Communist leaders. Except, perhaps, when they announced the arrival of shipments of basic commodities, they were then, as now, ignored.

I’m not sure, actually, what we’re supposed to do if the sirens sound for real. I know that Prague’s Metro was built with fall-out in mind. You can still see the vast doors that are supposed to seal off the system in the event of nuclear war. And I understand there are huge troves of tinned sardines to feed 400,000 for four or five days, and cisterns full of water (still, not sparkling)  But I also know that when they closed the doors to seal out the floodwaters of 2002 the doors simply failed and the water gushed through. Rather you than me. Expiring underground with the taste of sardines in the mouth doesn’t attract me in the least.

I lived through most of the Cold War, but never in fear, and never sensing that incineration was imminent, or a lingering death from radiation sickness, or, worst of all, a descent into barbarism as survivors fought over what remained. Was fear justified? It always seemed unlikely to me that anyone at the top would actually press the nuclear button. And so it transpired.

Perhaps, if I remember accurately, which is unlikely, I sensed a frisson of fear in the adults around me (by which I mainly mean my parents) during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was just five. As when the announcement of Kennedy’s death came some months later there was a gravity of tone to the television newsreader that seemed out of the ordinary, even disturbing. In any case, politics and war were out of nearly everyone’s hands. It would be just one man or woman, our Prime Minister of the time, who would actually, metaphorically, press the button.

This sense of the ordinary man or woman’s dislocation from dangerously threatening events was never better or more poignantly captured than by Raymond Briggs in his graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982). Its protagonists, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, are an ordinary elderly couple coping inexpertly with the aftermath of nuclear war, dying helplessly and hopelessly, and bickering affectionately to the last. (It’s hard to believe it comes from the same crayon as the joyous and more famous The Snowman.)

bloggs

When the Wind Blows (the beginning of the film version).

The Government broadcast in the event of nuclear war that begins the story is completely realistic. Until the early 1990s most Governments around the world developed elaborate plans to deal with the aftermath. I worked in the Presentation department of BBC Radio 3 in the early 1980s and my colleagues, the announcers, knew exactly what to do in the event of war. There was a cabinet in every continuity studio containing the Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ instructions (alongside what to say in the event of the death of the Queen Mother) which they were to read out as calmly as if announcing a symphony by Mozart. Of course, in reality, the BBC’s studios in central London were likely to be liquefied by thermonuclear explosion long before any announcer could reach the bottom of the first page. But I never saw the text. Perhaps all it actually said was ‘Pray’, instructions no less futile than any others.

Protect and Survive

Members of the Government, I understand, would scuttle away to a deep bunker in Basingstoke. A fate worse than death, you might think.

In retrospect, we are told, 1983 was a dangerous year. The KGB feared Reagan’s more aggressive stance towards the Soviets, and mistakenly interpreted a vast NATO exercise as preparation for a preemptive nuclear strike. The Soviet Army, it seems, had better sense and cautioned against mutual assured destruction. And there was a tricky moment in the same year when the Soviets’ early warning systems erroneously detected an incoming missile. The good sense of Stanislav Petrov who had a hunch that his equipment was at fault, saved the world.

It seems odd that after so much danger has passed the sirens of Prague still suggest we live on the precipice. I think we don’t (discounting the arrival of meteorites or other ‘Acts of God’). There are dangers, but I fear they are not of the kind that any siren will save us from. In any case, when the sirens sound in earnest, what are we actually supposed to do that would make the slightest sense?

Music and Dignity

I love to see pianos played in public places, and, of course, other instruments too. Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more pianos, some of dubious quality and provenance, in railway stations and airports.

On Saturday I saw someone play jazz (very well) on a piano at Avignon station, and later a teenager practising a chromatic scale (very badly) at Charles de Gaulle airport. And when I was last in Sofia I admired this lonely, unplayed Steinway and its incongruous ‘piano stool’ at the airport, but sadly, there was nobody to play it, and no one, I think, would want to hear what I can do.

sofia piano

Live music, wherever it is, in the concert hall or the departure lounge, is always preferable to the piped variety. I’d put my own Bluthner grand piano in the street outside my apartment if only I could get it through the window. It would probably get more playing there than in my living room.

People often think that classical music should be played with a special kind of dignity, in sombre, old-fashioned, uncomfortable, expensive clothes, in sombre, silent, sepulchral halls. We forget that it’s ‘entertainment’, by which I don’t mean that it isn’t serious or intelligent. It’s entertainment because it’s played for, or to, an audience, and audiences can be found anywhere.

Most of the time classical music is played as if it’s a ritual, whose moves are known only to a few initiates, and as if its practitioners are unapproachable high priests, even Gods, remote and full of dignity. It’s usually played in sterile ‘laboratory’ conditions, in an inert and unvarying atmosphere, where performers and audience are set decisively apart. Heaven forbid that you should clap at the wrong time or show too much emotion as you sit and absorb what the musicians are doing in front of you. Small wonder that when this is the prevailing style, audiences are sparse, and elderly.

Why should we listen to music in just one way? We eat in restaurants, on the street, at home, even at 30,000 feet. Every new location adds something different to the experience. Food tastes different in the open air. A Beethoven sonata, taking us by surprise on the concourse of a railway station, comes at us in a different way, catches us in a different frame of mind. And for the performer, too, it can be exciting to play for different audiences in different places. Why should the experience of performing and listening be confined only to a few locations?

Classical music needs to be stripped of its excessive dignity. At its best it’s an informal, warm, living, exciting, entertaining, even challenging, activity that’s performed by people for people, the one lot ‘saying something’ to the other, and the other responding with appreciation, delight, or sympathy. Music, at least in the form of singing (or howling!), was probably the precursor of speech. Music is communication of an elemental kind.

The fact that music is entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. I mean ‘entertain’ in the broad sense of capturing the attention of an audience. In this sense both Hedda Gabler and Absolutely Fabulous are entertainments. Seriousness needn’t be pompous, needn’t be surrounded by too much dignity. You can play Beethoven just as well in blue jeans as in a dinner jacket.

When I played my oboe regularly in amateur orchestras in London in the 1980s we often performed in busker venues, such as in the piazza at Covent Garden, and these performances were as serious, and as much fun as any in a concert hall. Never mind that some people came and went, that others stayed, that the applause came at the ‘wrong’ moments, I’m sure we said as much as we ever said in the frigid conditions of the concert hall.

So, I love the pianos that we see in public places, where the public are invited to perform any music that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes (too often) it’s Fur Elise, and sometimes it’s deeply serious music. When my nephew Frederic played some Chopin at Herne Hill Station in London, a small crowd gathered and applauded. I would love to come across Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff playing at St Pancras station or on this Steinway at Sofia Airport. I hope that they could dispense with the dignity they’re used to.

But, for some players, music is so special that it’s no longer part of life. It’s something separate, dignified, dead. There’s a young pianist I know in Prague who takes himself too seriously. He’s good, and has played as a soloist with many famous orchestras. Though he has a magisterial way with Brahms, he’d be a happier man if he could lighten up a little. I invited him to my annual Christmas Party, which is also a Birthday Party for my partner. As I lit the candles on the birthday cake (a little the worse for drink, I will admit), I asked him, on an impulse, to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Bluthner grand. I knew immediately it was a faux pas of colossal proportions. He actually shuddered, as if I’d put something nasty under his nose. Too much dignity!

If Leonard Bernstein were my guest (sadly, he never will be now, because he’s dead), I wouldn’t even need to ask. It would be difficult to get him to stop. Music infused every moment of his life, not just those moments in the concert hall, and he didn’t give a damn about dignity.

Inclusion and Diversity

It’s Gay Pride week in Prague, and as well as all the fun and festivity (which is, to my mind, completely unendurable during a 36C heat wave) there’s also some serious talk about diversity and inclusion – and some heavyweights to do it.

Yesterday’s Gay Business Forum, at the Hilton Hotel, was moderated by Evan Davies, the BBC’s Newsnight anchor, and presenter of Dragon’s Den. Whether he got back to London in time for Newsnight I don’t know, but we were lucky that he could spare a whole afternoon for the cause.

The first guest speaker was Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP, and architect of the company’s huge expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. He’s a formidable man, one of the world’s most prominent oil businessmen, and now Chairman of a new Russian-financed oil company, L1.

lord browne

In 2007 Lord Browne was ‘outed’ as gay by one of the UK’s gutter newspapers, and he resigned from his position as CEO, not because of the disclosure that he was gay, but because he had briefly lied in his attempt to prevent publication.

Following which, by his own admission he has never been happier.

I read Lord Browne’s book, The Glass Closet – Why Coming Out is Good Business, last year. As well as explaining how foolishly he had lived most of his life, attempting to conceal his sexuality (which everyone seemed to know about, and no one cared about) he argues forcibly that corporations of all kinds must be inclusive of all kinds of difference if they are to cast the net for the world’s best talent as wisely and widely as possible. The best might be black, white, blue, green, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, young, old, female, male, physically handicapped – whatever. All must feel comfortable in the workplace – and (to repeat a word that he uses frequently) ‘authentic’.

Some clever statistician in the audience claimed later in the afternoon that 300 Billion EUR of productivity are lost to Europe because ‘closet cases’ in the workplace are 30% less productive than the typical worker (a claim that could not, I think, be made about Lord Browne, who though securely in the closet, was, and probably is, an extreme example of the workaholic).

But I agree about authenticity. When I’m training consultants in soft skills I stress that we must be the same selves at home as in the office, merits and faults. And I encourage difference. Anything to avoid what is dull! Technology has blurred the edges of the workplace, and even the workday, so it’s less easy to define the limits of ‘work’ and ‘life’. We’re sometimes on holiday at work, and at work on holiday. At least I am.

But, most of all, it was moving to hear Lord Browne talk of the overwhelming support he received after his ‘outing’ and it’s clear that he is now a happy and entirely authentic man, and just as big an oil man as before. We were lucky to hear him speak and it is impressive that he devotes some considerable time to making the argument for diversity and inclusion.