I have been been blogged again by Jeannette. My ‘exercise’ from two weeks ago is now on her blog, which is very kind of her. You can read it here. The story it tells is basically true. I have been thinking of writing it up into a ‘proper’ short story – when I find the time, that is. Brussels, I feel, is full of such stories, particularly among the drifting expatriate community.
This morning was a typical Monday morning in a plenary session week, with an earlier-than-usual meeting of the Directors followed by a ‘pre-session’ meeting of all of the services involved in the organisation and management of this week’s plenary session. But then, just as the pre-session meeting was about to begin, we heard news of a bad train crash at Halle, on the line from Mons to Brussels. Twenty or more people may be dead and a much larger number are feared injured. At least one of our colleagues was on one of the trains involved although, thankfully, survived with only minor injuries. We anxiously await news and, of course, our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones or been badly injured. There is, as yet, no clear indication of the cause. Stop press: another colleague was on board one of the trains but is fortunately OK.
This evening I had a most enjoyable meal with Nigel, Brian and John; the composer and two musicians involved in the West Malling Concert (see various October posts including this one). Before the meal we listened to an electronically-produced version of Nigel’s Earthrise composition. I am amazed at how quickly he has produced a substantive and original piece of work – though he confessed he had been getting up at three or four in the morning to get the thing written out. And I got a chance to try out the first draft of my accompanying poem. Sharing a meal with musicians – especially those that have worked together – is always an enjoyable experience. They have a seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories and anecdotes about musicians, composers and performances. The last time we met we had been laughing about a Charlie Drake joke. Drake plays, among others, a triangle player in an orchestra who has a single note to play. He starts counting right from the very beginning of the piece and the gag is that he counts wrongly and so never gets his moment of glory. (You can see the whole sketch here.) John, a conductor, explained to me that this is not so far from the truth. There is, somewhere out there, a whole orchestral piece where the score calls for just one cymbal clash, but he couldn’t remember which it was. The search is on! Was it Bruckner? Beethoven? I await the winning entry!
My composer friend, Nigel Clarke, has invited me to team up with him once again. He was recently appointed guest composer for the Buizingen Brassband here in Belgium and is busy writing an original piece for them to perform in the European Brassbands Championship. The title of his piece is Earthrise and Nigel has invited me to write an accompanying poem, as I did for Heritage Suite. This is a slightly taller order than writing a poem about a Kentish town, though that too was a great challenge. To help me out, Nigel offered me a book, Earthrise, by Robert Poole, and I have been galloping my way through it. It’s a fascinating read. If I ever knew, I had long since forgotten that the Russians beat the Americans to the moon; their unmanned Zond 6 mission got there more than a month before Apollo 8, and took the first photographs of the earth rising (though a Lunar Orbiter probe took some fuzzy, grainy shots in 1966). But it’s the ancient history that is perhaps the most fascinating; Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Seneca and Lucian all tried to imagine what the earth would look like from afar, and with a fair degree of accuracy. In the 1630s already, Kepler imagined journeying to the moon and looking back at the earth and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells penned convincingly accurate descriptions of the clouds and the seas and the colours. Poole’s account is also full of wonderful ironies. For example, the crew of Apollo 8 only first saw the moon when their spacecraft travelled behind it. Because of the position of their ship, they had spent the whole of their quarter of a million mile journey gazing back at the receding earth! Happily, I have completed a first draft of the poem and must now start knocking it into shape.
It has been a strange week. Beyond the usual coordination meetings, there was only one ‘set piece’ meeting, of the Committee’s Budget Group, on Tuesday morning, and when I looked at my timetable on Monday morning it did not seem as full to overflowing as is normally the case. And yet, in reality, it was quite a heavy week. This was down to a succession of meetings, most of them with individuals – members and staff – on a number of fraught or difficult topics. It reminds me of the observation made by a military man (was it Wellington?) that he feared grape shot more than cannon balls. Meanwhile, in the EU institutions more generally, there was a strong sense of a collective rolling-up of sleeves and getting down to things: the Barroso II Commission was at last approved and able to get to work, and the new-style European Council met, convoked by its new-style President, Herman Van Rompuy. The birthing pains of the new External Action Service will no doubt rumble on but, thankfully, we can otherwise put constitutional discussions behind us (for a while, at least) and get back to the EU’s primary raison d’être; to make Europe work.
Barack Obama’s travails in both domestic and foreign policy have led me to re-visit American presidential politics a little. It is a land strewn with ironies. Take the three Presidents of my childhood; JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Kennedy won against Nixon in 1960 by just two-tenths of one per cent of the popular vote (120,000 votes); 49.7% to 49.5%. There were serious allegations of voting abuses in Texas and Illinois. Though it is a matter of record that Kennedy intended to withdraw from Vietnam if he had been re-elected in 1964 (whether he would actually have done it was another matter), it was Kennedy who first got America deeply involved. Johnson won in his own right in 1964 with a massive landslide; 61% of the vote and a 15 million vote margin. Thereafter, he introduced a raft of ‘Great Society’ domestic legislation, from medicare to civil rights, famously losing the south to the Democrats for a generation. Notoriously, LBJ escalated American involvement in Vietnam. In effect, ‘tough’ foreign policy bought him the support to get his liberal domestic agenda through. Put more bluntly, the Vietnamese paid for American civil rights. It was not until 1973 that Richard Nixon was able to drag America out of Vietnam with some honour. In religious terms, an East Coast Catholic was followed by a man drawn from the Southern Baptist tradition who was, in turn, followed by a West Coast Quaker. That last piece of information is surely the most ironic of all. Nixon, the ‘warmongerer’ of my childhood memories, stated in his inaugural address that ”the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” Looking, in retrospect, at his first term – China, Vietnam, détente, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – he could lay some claim to that title. And there may be lessons for Obama in all of that history, for Nixon first escalated the war in Vietnam and surrounding countries before negotiating a ceasefire and effective American withdrawal.
This evening we went to a double charity performance for the Human Rights League. First up was Anakrouze, an all-female a capella choir. They treated us to a whistle-stop tour around the world, with songs from Corsica to the Congo, from Bulgaria to Togo, Lithuania to Zimbabwe. This was followed by a performance of Bach’s mass in B minor, performed by a largely amateur choir (Andantino) and a mixture of amateur and professional musicians (the Acanthe Orchestra). The performance was to a high standard and the more enjoyable for the fact that it was probably performed in conditions that Bach would have known well - in a church, with amataeurs and professionals. The conductor, Samir Bendimered, summed up the spirit of the evening; a Belgian, of Algerian origin, born in Morocco, performing for free for a common cause.
Martin’s Christmas present to Martin was a complete set of the Beatles’ remastered LPs. Two years ago the Westlakes went to Liverpool and were treated to a guided tour of all of the Fab Four’s haunts by a local guide. This tour, which included a visit to the place where John and Paul first met, sparked a serious reading up on their history, and now George Martin’s cover notes to the remastered disks add further information. I remain fascinated by the way in which two such musical geniuses (that’s not to do down George) met up in the way that they did, leading to such a prolific partnership, with each drawing so much from the other. It wasn’t just that they were prolific (though they were – they could come back from an intensive tour and write all the songs for a new LP in a few weeks). They were also so professional, both as musicians and as singers (including all those distinctive harmonies). As their music and popularity progressed, George Martin’s notes show how they went from being slaves to being masters of the music industry. Their first album, Please Please Me, was recorded in just nine and three-quarter hours (including a song they didn’t use), and they had to work in the EMI studios to the bureaucrats’ rhythm (from 10.00 till 13.00 and from 14.30 till 17.30). The fourteen songs on With The Beatles, their next LP, were recorded in just 28 hours, spread over six days. By contrast, Rubber Soul took over a hundred hours. By then, morning studio sessions had been abandoned and afternoon sessions could go on all night long. Revolver, recorded just three years after Please Please Me took an unprecedented 300 hours. George Martin’s notes also explain well how the Beatles persistently explored the technological frontiers of the recording industry. Those who were there on Saturday, 6 July 1957, prosaically, at the Garden Rose Queen fête at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, and witnessed John’s first meeting with Paul could hardly have imagined what would happen next.
This evening, as a guest at a most enjoyable dinner party, I found myself sitting opposite the Director of the United Nations’ Office in Brussels, Antonio Vigilante. We started off talking about the trauma of Haiti. Antonio mentioned that he had lived through several big earthquakes and that, indeed, his home town had been badly hit by one. Since he had already told me he came from Campania, I guessed it was Lioni. That was 23 November 1980, not long after I had arrived in Italy (in Bologna) as a student. It made a huge impression upon us students. The ‘quake went on for 90 seconds. Three thousand people died. We tried to volunteer our help, but there was little we could do. If you go here you can see some photographs of the damaged towns and villages. People were still in temporary cities of tents and prefabricated cabins when we drove through two years later. Like me (I think), Vigilante is a passionate supporter of his organisation and its cause but also like me (I think) is a fervent reformist. Unlike me, though, Vigilante has spent 21 of his 23 years with the organisation working in the field and this has tempered his idealism. All too often, he argued, catastrophe serves as a necessary catharsis for reform that was previously obvious but unattainable. I would like to believe that people can see the need for reform without experiencing the reason why first. But we both agreed that we need visionary statesmen/women like we’ve never needed them before. So where are they? Obama stirs with his oratory, but is chained to majority management in Congress. Any others? We had an excellent debate. It felt like being at university again – only this time I suspect we knew a bit better what we were talking about.