Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The scissors is mitre than the PM

I’ve never paid too much attention to Archbishops, and I am pleased to say that they have, in large measure, reciprocated. But it is hard to ignore some of them, notably Dr. John Sentamu, The Archbishop of York.

Of the current crop, he is the man who, given the time, the circumstances and a Nebucadnezzar of red, I would be happiest to sup with. At least on the evidence of his PR.

He is the sort of chap who, when you are watching TV, pops up when you least expect it and steals the show. I saw him the other week on the Andrew Marr political programme, execute a perfect paper and scissors routine on his own dog-collar. It was as if some hidden hand had suddenly switched over to Blue Peter, were it not for the fact that as he chopped he gave short shrift to the President of Zimbabwe. Each snip was a cut to the gizzard of Fat Bob. One wanted to stand and cheer. And would have done so, were it not for the plate of cheese and pickle sandwiches delicately balanced on the knee and the pint of Genuine Stunning in the right hand poised to gulp.

It may have seemed an empty gesture (the dog-collar scissoring that is) but while everyone will remember the scissors of Dr John Sentamu, no-one will remember the Prime Minister’s calls for action from the international community. Sentamu is a natural PR man and with this simple act secured more column inches and airtime for his views on Fat Bob than half a dozen Prime Ministerial announcements.

Within days of being enthroned, the Archbishop had erected a tent inside York Minster and had his head shaved. He slept rough for a week, lead prayer every hour for seven days and fasted throughout. He highlighted the plight of people caught up in the Middle East conflict and declared it was an act of public witness to encourage peace. Some clearly thought he was barmy but he conducted scores of TV and Radio interviews and was reported around the world. No fool he.

Dr John Sentamu is the sort of Archbishop we have not seen before – an Archbishop who believes in action and knows how to get the press on his side. This alone makes him formidable.

I was interested to note in a BBC TV interview at the time of the tenting that he was quick to acknowledge that he would be sleeping on his mum’s knitted mat and showed the journalist his torch and reading matter – a Hebrew Bible and Greek Testament.

But it is not his learning, but rather his energy, inventiveness, and commitment that one responds to. Daily one expects him to turn up on other TV shows. Perhaps Britain’s Got Talent on which one would not be surprised to see him give us a racy rendition of Land of Hope and Glory on the spoons while gargling The Peer Gynt Suite through a gazoo, and hinting at the glories of paradise by semaphore.

Of course, one applauds such exploits, or, as one is at home with another glass of real ale for company and a further small plate of cheese and pickle sandwiches, one guffaws, spraying the place with crumbs and small pieces of vegetable matter which show astonishing aerodynamic abilities and fly to the end of the room, well beyond the reach of anyone sitting in an armchair watching television. But he made me want to get up and do something about it. You see what I mean? John Sentamu is the Pied Piper of both Archbishops and those who sit watching Archbishops on television guffawing through cheese and pickle sandwiches.

He is obviously a PR man’s dream. He would be the sort of client who, in a meeting with advisers to discuss what could be done to publicise the plight of latterday boat people setting themselves adrift to float to a new life in a happier land, would blurt out: “Hows about I go over Niagara in a barrel? If we can get a couple of boat people to fish me out at the other end and give me artificial resuscitation would that be good?”

Or, who, hearing of the trouble in Darfur, would say: “Let’s cut to the chase. Why don’t I dress up as a Janjaweed – all Kalashnikovs and machetes on horseback – and charge into Westminster Hall? We can highlight security deficiencies at the same time as raising the profile of the downtrodden in the Sudan. In fact, let’s do it now.” At which he would storm out of the room and be half way into the saddle before his advisers could claw him back and persuade him that perhaps a more considered and diplomatic approach would be more efficacious, and may not result in him being shot by security men. But the AB of Y is not a man for diplomatic approaches. When things have gone too far, he leaps into action. As the mortgage market takes a nosedive, I daily expect to see him chained to the satellite dish on top of a tower block, calling for a more compassionate approach to those who are losing their houses. As food prices climb, I know I will see him soon astride a rotavator, ploughing his own allotment, his toothy grin on every front page smiling through a forest of leeks. Dig for Victory! As energy prices sky-rocket, how long before he switches off all the lights in York Minster by throwing a big red switch and lights a ceremonial candle to echo what pensioners up and down the land have to do every evening. All filmed by the nation’s press.

Of course, there are those who think he is just a crude self-publicist, and certainly his omni-presence means he is taking a strong lead from his ultimate boss. But he always has a good cause and he has the good sense to be first. I hope other Archbishops are not inclined to follow suit. Leave the field to the man who knows how to do it, is my advice. It would be a pity if the waterfalls of the New World were suddenly chock-a-block with Archbishops in barrels.

In October 2007, Dr Sentamu was awarded the title Yorkshireman of the Year by the Black Sheep Brewery. In his speech he expatiated on the name of the brewery and turned a swift pastoral lesson, then drew the attention of the audience to the little-known African-Yorkshire DNA connection. ‘Perhaps my parents had this in mind,’ he said, ‘when they gave me, as one of my Christian names, the name Mugabi, (John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu). If you spell Mugabi backwards it is I-ba-gum.”

He reminds me a bit of the prelates whom one encountered in G.A. Henty books, who robbed the obviously evil Guy de Brotignan with a merry laugh and redistributed the wealth among the poor, drank ale by the flagon and fought with anyone who crossed them – a sort of Friar Tuck de nos jours but without the paunch. Swashbuckling is the word I am searching for.

You might be out for a casual sky-dive one day, and who will come whizzing past you, clad in red leather, but the Archbishop of York, bestowing an apostolic blessing as he plummets to earth. And, of course, who does he choose to do his stunt with? Why, the Red Devils of course. Does he miss a trick? Not often.

The story behind the story tells us still more about the man. He had attended a charity dinner and a Yorkshire businessman seizing his chance challenged Dr Sentamu to make the jump with him. The cause? To raise money for the Afghanistan Trust – who support soldiers and their families who had been wounded or killed on duty in Afghanistan. Did he hesitate? Not our man. They aimed to raise £50,000. With money still to come in, they have so far netted £75,000.

They tell me that Archbishops of York often go on to Canterbury. I, for one, can’t wait.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Interlude – The impossible question

Young men, starting out in life, often ask me “How can I become Geoffrye Chaucer?”

Since one does not wish to disappoint young men, it is a question replete with difficulty, and this is its great strength.

In my day, schooling was fundamentally a battle of wits. The great thing was to find the impossible question. Skilfully deployed this would bamboozle a teacher, confusing them long enough to make them forget to give you homework. Some teachers would fall for it every time. We loved them for their weakness, but, with the ruthlessness of the young, we gave them merry hell none the less.

A variant was to find an impossible answer to any question a teacher might ask. The aim – a similar delay until the bell rang. Soft teachers, like Mr White, would try to answer your question and get themselves tied in knots. Hard teachers, like Mr Gwynn, just shouted: “Cease your jabbering Murphy, and go to your next class.” It will be seen from this that while Mr White was putty in our hands, Mr Gwynn was a stranger to the milk of human kindness. It curdled as he hove into view. It was widely believed among the boys that he ate barbed wire, wore sandpaper next the skin and conducted black masses by the light of the full moon, but we never dared ask him if it was true. “Are you a double-headed axe murderer, Mr Gwynn?” was the sort of innocent enquiry which, had it been addressed to Mr White would have been taken as evidence of the spirit of enquiry that he wanted so much to encourage in the young mind before him. He would have delighted in trying to answer it. With Mr Gwynn it would just result in pain. At least six bouts of it.

Speaking of which…. My gas engineer (the guy who makes sure we are not about to be blown sky high by our central heating, although we may be by the gas bill) told me today that he had attended Rutlish school.

Now he is a splendid gas engineer. Quite the best the area has to offer. No-one can hold a candle to him. Not if they want to remain alive. He is efficient with a spanner, masterly with anything copper and a huge conversationalist. Within five minutes of arriving I knew more about his neighbour’s dog than any man alive including his neighbour. Or his dog. Conversation, for my gas engineer, is the staff of life and he leans on it fully and well. He reminds me of the sort of farmer, beloved of cartoonists, who stick their thumbs into their braces and lean against the wind to ask after your bunions, while the cows scatter in all directions behind his genial and unshaven smile.

Now this revelation that he had attended Rutlish school caught me by surprise. We used to thrash them regularly at rugby and cricket, so I was surprised that anyone would admit to going there, especially since their most famous alumnus was one John Major (one time Prime Minister of the UK). Not the sort of thing one would wish to boast about.

He told me a tale that began with the school uniform of the day – the boys wore boaters in the summer – and went on to reveal that he had been cruelly and unjustly punished over some minor transgression of the school rules. What made my eyes water was the punishment meted out. The boys (there were ten involved) were marched up onto the stage at morning assembly the next day and ‘given the slipper’ in front of the whole school. It was administered on the traditional gluteal area.

There will be those of you who will have no idea what that means, and leaving it unexplained will perhaps make you think it is something worse than it is, but suffice it to say that this ritual punishment involved pain and humiliation in equal measure. Actually, let my correct myself. It involved pain and humiliation in hugely unequal measure. For as my gas engineer told the tale, I could hear the traces of the humiliation experienced forty years earlier, still rise in his gorge.

But… to come back to the impossible question…

Our playground variations of these question and answer tricks were imaginative and played wonderfully with the language.

“What’s the difference between a duck?” we would ask each other.
“One of its legs is both the same,” we would correctly respond.

Flann O’Brien would have approved. It is a splendid bit of near sense combined with verbal surprise which still comes in handy in awkward social situations of which there are so many. I have had to deploy it several times, notably on finding myself at the front of a queue at the railway station, but without my change quite ready because I had been day-dreaming or trying to remember a fugitive quatrain, which is not the same thing at all. Asking the duck question through the grill, gives you time. They presume they have misheard and ask you to repeat what you said, by which time you have found a crumpled tenner in the depths of your pocket.

I would have thought that things had changed at school these days, but a teacher recently told me that this skill is fully alive in the new generation. He tells me of a fellow teacher who asked a pupil about her music coursework: “Jane, did you write the lyrics of your song or did someone else?” To which the girl replied: “I don’t know.” A splendidly impossible answer. But it was topped the next minute when the teacher felt she had to offer some reassurance to extract the facts: “It’s all right, Jane, it doesn’t really matter, but did you or didn’t you write the words?” To which the girl replied. “Yes.”

Check mate in two. One imagines the hard-pressed teacher holding on to the corridor walls until, gaining the safety of the staff room, a swift restorative could be administered.

Hearing this tale reawakened my faith in the young generation who have clearly got some good moves. In fact it has made me realise that everything we hear about them is a confidence trick of the highest order. They are supposed to be thick, illiterate, innumerate, moronic, ignorant, paralysed by computer games and stuffed with junk food. But they are playing us for fools. In fact they are bright, incredibly clever, funny and getting on for semi-literate by exam time.

And exam time is upon us. Upon them, actually. And among them is my son. I wish him and all his schoolmates the best of luck. If cornered by a difficult question I advise them to throw up their hands and ask the invigilator “Is it half past shovel-spade sir?”

It will give them time.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Writing 3: purée of bat guano

Time was, writers could assume things. We assumed readers knew enough basic English, Mathematics, History and Science to get by. We assumed they were familiar with the central, basic literature of the culture. They would catch all the references we made, so we felt free to make them. After all, we were all from broadly the same educational background. They knew what we knew.

We cannot write like that any more. Not if we want to communicate. We cannot make the assumptions of old.

This is no tedious complaint about falling standards of education, or changes in society, it’s too late for that. As a writer, I just want to be sure that, given the standards of education, I can still be in touch with the audience. And I can’t. If I want to communicate, I have to change my references, or lose them altogether.

For example, here in the UK we can still assume, just, that most people will know about The Second World War and the Holocaust, but I think it may be different in the US. If you are writing for a worldwide audience, which increasingly we are, you have to explain.

Increasingly, people these days learn about history from Dan Brown novels and video games, but only if there is no sport on TV. And what they read and see is coloured by their own experience, not the experience of previous generations.

No-one spends time chatting with their grandma over the tea and biscuits any more. No-one ever sifts through the fading monochromes with Uncle Jim. The conversational cup has been replaced with children’s television or a video game of gut-spewing violence. Let’s face it, you don’t get your drug-money together by shooting the breeze with Grandad. Life is a bitch, and you’d better get used to it.

Harlan Ellison, the American writer, tells his experience of addressing a hall of university students in New York.

“In the course of talking I mentioned Dachau,” he says. “I can’t even remember what the context was, but I mentioned it. After a moment a woman about 21 years old, raises her hand.”

“I can usually catch most of your references,” she says, “but who was that you were talking about before?” she asked.

“Sorry? Who?” asked Ellison unable to remember what he had said.

“Dachau.” she said.

“Dachau?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“ Yea,” she said. “Who is that?”

Ellison, telling this story, gives his own commentary.

“What this points to,” he says, “is a rampant ignorance. A failure to maintain any ties with our past, a dissolution of our roots, a disregard for tradition.”

Later on he says that he finds that students are increasingly ignorant. “Not only don’t they know a damn thing, they are arrogant about not knowing a damn thing. Their brains have been turned to purée of bat guano by eating McDonald’s toadburgers and watching too much television.”

Of course, Ellison is known for expressing himself colourfully, and thank heavens he does. The truths he points to, however, are clear enough: we have failed to maintain any ties with our past.

But which of us has seriously struggled with this and changed our writing style to suit our changing audience? Which of us has taken to never mentioning things our audience will probably have never heard of (most stuff) – thus pandering to their ignorance – but maintaining lines of communication? This is what is required of us more and more.

The tail-spin destination of all this is to crash on the lowest common denominator of writing, the cardboard style (see Writing 2: cut out cardboard). The next is achieving a smooth, even texture with no variety of tone, syntax or meaning at all – the writing equivalent of babyfood, only less nutritious. Wet cardboard if you like, pulped for easy digestion.

Some of you, though, will refuse to write cardboard out of respect for your reader, whom you suspect may yet be capable of thought, or may wish to learn. Some of you will refuse to serve up pap to adults. Some of you will chose a risky written life full of variety and spice, hoping that people will enjoy the ride, risking that they won’t, and settling in for the long refusal to compromise with mediocrity.

You will become like an old war veteran who refuses to move out of his crumbling terrace house thereby causing a huge problem for developers who wish to put up newer, brighter, better designed and more efficient slums.

One or two of you will know, like that veteran, that the only battles worth fighting are the ones that are lost already. You alone can comfort yourselves with the thought that although you may be increasingly distanced from your reader, and the bulldozers are revving at your gate, you will never be purée of bat guano. You would die first.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Writing 2: cut out cardboard

Variety, the cliché runs, is the spice of life. We recognise this truth in all aspects of our lives – even marriage, where it should be interpreted with care. But there is one area where we limit its truth and seem happy to provide an unvarying and unspiced diet – writing.

I have already written (see Writing 1: the challenge to management) about a recent journey into the heart of darkness – the reading of fifteen articles from senior management – a cross-section of British industry. I have complained about management’s failures in this, but I am worried about the writing.

There was no spice, no variety in the writing of these pieces. After reading them, I felt as if I had just eaten a huge meal of fifteen courses, each of the finest cardboard. Indigestible is the word I am searching for.

A big problem is style. And by style, I am including the approach to an article – the chosen form of the piece as well as the tone of voice.

More than anything, indigestion was caused by an identical approach being taken to each piece – a few hundred words from the desk of the top geezer. No interviews. No question and answer. No oblique angles. No background. Often, barely an introduction. Just straight in to the dull stuff. A suit speaks.

Good writers consider the reader first. The reader needs variety. But these days, when so many are cowed with fear, variety implies the out of the ordinary, which carries with it the risk of rejection. I am sure that writers do sometimes come up with ideas for approaching the same old articles in a new way, but they have been knocked-back so often that they have given up trying. They have settled for the safe, for the bland, for cardboard.

Editors should push for variety from their writers. A piece that is correct but dull is not good enough. They should insist upon enjoying it. But so much damage has been done, that most writers have one style now, because they only ever need one. Nothing more is required of them.

Reading those articles was like listening to a Mozart Opera where all the notes had been changed to one note, all the colour coalesced into one hue. Why do we imagine that we can remove all variety from writing and escape identical results?

That’s what was missing from these publications, lifeblood. All the variety that writing should bring with it, all the music, was lost. It was a dispiriting realisation. I had been reading bloodless cardboard.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Writing 1: the challenge to management

I was angry at first, then depressed, but now I’m back in the fight.

I had to research various company journals this week, looking for interviews with senior managers. I wanted to see what others had done, hoping for some inspiration. After an hour, I was angry. What marked these pieces out for special concern was their lack of original thinking, or, indeed, any discernible thinking at all. And woe to the cynic who says I was looking for originality in the wrong place.

The articles I read were of the most profound dullness – paragraph after paragraph of platitudes, comparative figures and pious hopes. I wondered how they had come to be published. The answer was that these pieces contained the thoughts of the Gods. They had spoken from on high. So they must be published. That, or something like it, seemed to be the reasoning.

Responsibility for these abominations lies in two places. Firstly it lies with editors. The question that should precede the commissioning or publishing of each and every article is: is this good enough to publish? Will this interest people? If the answer is ‘no’, it should not see the light of day.

This is true even of words written by the Chief Executive himself. He has no right to bore his readers, and not only because they may be his workforce. As a communicator it is your job to warn him that he may lose people, and urge him to say something that will be meaningful. You may be the only person in the organisation who can do this knowledgeably, and can back it up with cogent argument.

If you are afraid to do this you are in the wrong job. Editors are hired, inter alia, to warn, to see the problems and solve them. Just be ready to defend your point of view.

Articles like the offending pieces I read, are often the result of lazy briefings and result in what most in-house magazines and intranets are full of – words that no-one wants to read. “It’s time we did that article on the figures, I’ll send an e-mail to the finance man and tell him we need 1000 words.” Fundamentally this is an insult to the readers.

But though editorial laziness can be to blame, I reserve my chief anger for managers. That is, those managers who have still to learn that emitting sound is not the same as talking sense. The challenge for management is to say things that are worth listening to. Remember that no matter how good at alchemy your communications team is, they cannot produce gold from dross.

I have seen managements eventually grow resentful of their communications teams. They see them as a constant reminder of a higher purpose, and a constant reminder that that purpose has not yet been achieved. They are the triumphator’s slave. He who, riding with the victorious commander on a golden chariot through Rome to the adulation of the city, reminds him that he is only mortal.

It must get a bit irksome. But good communicators will be pushing management all the time.

But what do you think?

When I had finished researching these articles, the source of my complaint, I asked myself: When was the last piece of really imaginative reporting I had read in a company publication? When was the last piece of internal or external communication, read in a house journal or website, that had set me alight, or had changed my perception. When was the last time a Finance Director’s article stopped me in my tracks with its perspicacity or gave me furiously to think. When last was my intellect thoroughly engaged by reading an interview with the Chief Executive?

Is this too much to ask? Too much to hope for?

If your answer is no, and you are a communicator, please refer this article to your management and ask for their opinion.

If your answer is yes and you are a manager, then please consider your position, for these are the things that you are meant to be asking your communicators to help you do.

Are you?

© Roger Murphy 2008

Friday, 21 March 2008

Checking the facts

It has been suggested to me that there are too many classical, literary and art references in my blog to appeal to a modern audience. Well that’s fine by me.

As far as I’m concerned the only good audience is a dead audience. If my remarks are to be understood only by Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine of Hippo, Piero della Francesca, and Dante Alighieri that’s fine. They can read my blog, I can read theirs.

Although being accused of not having learning or of having pretensions to learning might be bad, the key accusation here is of actually having some learning. Obviously, this is a charge from which we all recoil with loathing. It is second only to being called a paediatrician.

You will recall how a howling mob burned down the premises of a paediatrician in Portsmouth, mistaking it, apparently, for the premises of a paedophile. Presumably they reasoned that all paedophiles put up a brass plaque proudly advertising their proclivities.

But something about the story made me doubt its veracity. Only a little digging has revealed the truth.

Yvette Cloete, a paediatrician in Newport, Gwent, returned from work to find ‘paedo’ sprayed on her front door. This was in August 2000 at the time of a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles in the community. She said, “It looks as though it was just a question of confusing the job title for something else – I suppose I’m really a victim of ignorance.” The distressed Ms Cloete moved home shortly afterwards.

So by exercising that old journalists’ trick, unknown to the modern audience, of checking the facts, I had discovered that nothing was true in this story apart from the one thing I had thought might be wrong. The incident had taken place in Gwent, not Portsmouth, there were no burning firebrands, nor was there an enraged mob baying for blood.

The element I had doubted, was the word the perpetrators had daubed: ‘paedo’. Although presumed by police to be the work of teenagers, the culprits seem to have spelled the diphthong correctly, so that can’t be right. It is obvious to me that the police should have been tracking down a classics scholar. I have been thinking about this, and I feel I can save them some time. The finger of suspicion points unerringly at Plato.

Although being dead for two thousand years may seem like a corker of an alibi, it should be remembered that this is the sort of thing you can expect from classicists: general sneakiness and rank duplicity. Take a look at this photofit of the man (remember they were pretty backward in those days, it is actually, can you believe it, chiselled out of marble!) and read the guilt written in every feature. And then there’s the matter of the smoking gun: he wrote a book called The Phaedo!

He can run but he cannot hide. I vote we go to Athens and spray something on his door. What’s the Greek for paedophile?

A bust of Plato who was born in Athens c434-424 BC. He died in the same city in c348–347BC. In the Phaedo, Plato gives us Socrates’s final conversation. Socrates, who has been condemned to death and must drink hemlock, deploys four arguments for the soul’s immortality. Obviously a wrongun.

© Roger Murphy 2008

The Lep'rous distilment

The papers in Britain were much occupied in the early months of the year by two strange cases of disappearance. The first concerned the records of all those who received a government allowance, which included their bank details, addresses and national insurance numbers – in short all the things you need for a spot of identity theft and the swift and silent voiding of bank accounts.

It turns out that two disks containing all this information were thrust into an envelope and stuffed in an out-tray with nary a thought for their secure delivery. They disappeared and have not been seen since despite everywhere being searched including all the dustbins.

A senior civil servant resigned. Things looked grim for the government. At this precise moment, a quite different case of disappearance eclipsed this story in the headlines.

A man who disappeared five years ago, presumed dead when his empty canoe washed ashore, nipped into a police station and said, ‘It’s me. You know. The bloke you haven’t been looking for, for the last five years. The canoe bloke. I’m not dead, I’ve just been hiding in the house next door. Sorry about that.’

His wife, the press suggested, had connived at this and spent her holidays with her husband in Panama, enjoying the life insurance. The kids were excluded from the deal.

This is a clear case of Atalanta’s golden apples. The Panama story is a distraction, a diversionary tactic. The searchlight of embarrassing enquiry was beginning to focus on a shortcoming in Government circles, so a story is dreamed up of such bizarrerie that the tabloids cannot resist it and go off yapping in that direction. Sherlock Holmes, I recall, used a steak to toss to slavering guard dogs, while he nipped across a lawn to retrieve the Ruritanian Emerald, or was it the Balkan Treaty, from the small casket secreted within the chinoiserie cabinet. Anyway, it’s largely the same idea. For Panama read steak. For steak read misdirection.

It is clear that a whole department in Whitehall is devoted to fabricating unlikely stories and giving them semblance and verisimilitude with the aim of distracting the press from the government’s woes. These stories are called Downing Street press releases. They are fed through to Fleet Street whose ears are ever open. Shakespeare was for a time a parliamentary reporter on the old News Chronicle (which replaced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which some of my older readers will remember with fondness), and in his memoirs he recalls how he was tipped the wink by the Prime Minister’s spokesman:

“Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard, my custom always of the afternoon, upon my secure hour thy tipster stole, with juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, and in the porches of my ears did pour the lep’rous distilment; whose effect holds such an enmity with blood of man that swift as quicksilver it courses through the natural gates and alleys of the body, and with a sudden vigour doth posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk, the thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine; and a most instant tetter bark'd about, most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, all my smooth body.”

Ah. The old News Chronicle.

However…. little has changed it seems in the corridors of power. You mark my words. The next time there’s a bit of a problem for the government, just watch the unlikely story that removes it from the front pages. But what I was getting at was that I think I would be rather good at coming up with unlikely stories for these Government Johnnies, and so I would like to apply for a post in Downing Street doing just that. But here’s the problem: search though I might, I have never seen a job advertised in this department.

So I am casting the net wide. If you have seen such a job advertised, please get in touch. I would be happy to pay for the information. Perhaps by swapping it for a couple of disks I have recently come across.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Interlude – Concerto for Black Hole

It was Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday or the eve of Quadragesima (Lent) as I more frequently call it to annoy the children, and I had slipped into a doze in front of the post-prandial television, surrounded by a loving fire, warm relatives, and a fine old bottle of crusted.

‘Although a black hole cannot be seen, it can be heard,’ the TV documentary distantly burbled. I cocked open an eye.

‘The note emitted by a black hole,’ continued the respectful and awed commentary, ‘can be described as a B flat fifty-seven octaves below Middle C, a note so low that it is beyond the limits of human hearing.’ I was wide awake.

The lowest B flat on the piano is three octaves below Middle C. The limits of human hearing are only about two octaves lower than that. A piano that could play the B flat of a black hole would have to have a keyboard about 35 feet long. I could see contrary motion scales being a bit of a problem but otherwise a magnificent idea. On the other hand you could play with about twenty people at one time. Just imagine the fun.

I began to wonder why no-one had written music using only notes out of the range of human hearing. How exciting it would be to attend a performance of Concerto for Black Hole that could only really be appreciated by dogs, whales, teenagers and perhaps black holes themselves. You’d have to build an auditorium the size of the universe to get them in. The badly behaved ones would obviously go for the cheap seats at the back. I was instantly filled with a wild ambition to write and design the programme notes, perhaps in invisible ink on a wonderful hand-laid paper cut to the shape of a breve, that rarely seen note-length.

And what would the music itself look like? Think of the leger lines! Fifty-seven octaves below Middle C – you’d need broadsheet pages at least. Double elephant if you can still get it.

It was at this point that the bottle slipped from my twitching fingers as I essayed a quick scale played on a keyboard 35 feet long. The warm family suddenly became cold and agitated and I passed the rest of the evening banished to the office sofa to construct premieres of black hole symphonies that were heard only in the infinite space of my head. My last thought was about Pythagoras. How would he feel, I wondered, about attending the very first concert utilising the music of the spheres?

© Roger Murphy 2008

Friday, 25 January 2008

Heroes and villains

We’re a strange lot. We like things to be perfect and have trouble understanding when they are not.

For example, we expect our doctors to be fit, healthy and in the peak of condition. Were they dogs we would expect them to have a shiny coat, a wet nose and nuzzle our genitalia with evident relish. When we find doctors stressed, deathly pale, and wincing as they move, we worry.

But why? A deaf musician might be thought a contradiction, but it was little trouble to Beethoven, or Fauré. The painter, El Greco, had a serious eye complaint. Then there’s the double amputee Oscar Pistorius, one of the fastest runners in the world, widely referred to as ‘The Fastest Thing on No Legs’.

Why can’t our dentists be snaggle-toothed? Why can’t our doctors get ill? Surely, some of them will get the flu. One or two may even die. What’s wrong with that?

In Britain we love a little harmless eccentricity. Indeed, we revel in it. We adore our corrupt politicians, for example, and when they emerge from open prison we interview them at length on television and give them high-powered jobs in government. When they prove to be drunks, we experience a fellow-feeling for them. Sins of the flesh – we all suffer from that.

Yet, somewhat unfairly it seems to me, we insist on strict sobriety and cold detachment as the proctologist advances towards us with a glinting scalpel. This is an unfortunate double standard.

Luckily though there are fresh avenues opening all the time in our brave new world for those who like to be eccentric and wish to benefit from our national attribute of tolerance. For example, it has recently become clear that society at large no longer requires communicators to be able to communicate. Specifically, reading and writing is not considered a necessary skill in the job. No longer do communicators have to be able to listen to people and explain their ideas cogently. Jargon and the use of buzzwords are now fine. And thank heavens for that. It will certainly make things easier.

What a relief it is to be able to look at these people with the same tolerance and love of eccentricity as our politicians. They add a touch of colour and amusement to our otherwise drab lives. After all, isn’t there something heroically distinctive about writers who can’t write?

And when you come right down to it, there is much to be said for those that gun down others in the street. All right, they exhibit no strict sense of community, and seem bad mannered. But who cares about manners these days? It’s so rear-view mirror. Aren’t these people just doing what we would like to do ourselves? It would be hypocritical and intolerant to condemn them, and we can’t have that.

Perhaps I should stand for parliament.

© Roger Murphy 2008