AHAP#5: Hearing live music (which you know and love)

GoldbergVariationsBassLine

I don’t listen to enough live music, but who does? (People who have to listen to live music for their jobs probably hear far too much and hate it. And I don’t think I would want to hear from those who have it Goldilocks-style, just right, booking their tickets months in advance, congratulations). And of the tiny amount of live music that I do go and see / hear, it’s even rarer that it is the real core material, the songs closest to the heart. I can think of only one or two experiences of that kind, and they have been almost as unsettling as straightforwardly enjoyable. I couldn’t really believe what was happening when Dylan began to bark out “Desolation Row” in his gondolier’s hat and minimal moustache. “At midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do.” You? Genius? Here? In Brixton? It didn’t quite compute.

So I just don’t think I had many cultural or emotional references when we booked to go and see the Goldberg Variations (above) at King’s Place last month. Incidentally, what is even the right verb here? Do you listen to live music, see it, hear it, or just go to it? I know that you hear evensong, and I can see how classical music might fall into that usage, but I am not sure that you hear Bach. You certainly don’t see it / him or “go”. Who is travelling towards who? (On balance, I think you probably listen to Bach. You try to hear. You hope to hear). Anyway, we really didn’t think very much about the whole deal. We looked at the listings for Bach Unwrapped. Got excited. Clicked on the Goldberg Variations dates. Love Goldberg Variations. Listen to Goldberg Variations a lot. In the car. In the flat. Got nephew a book for Christmas purely because the title was a pun on the Goldberg Variations. Also got nephew the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould 1955). Nephew two months old. Never too young for Goldberg Variations. Anyway, we got tickets in the front row, went about our business, occasionally said things like, “Can’t believe we going to Bach this week” and turned up a few minutes before it began.

If you haven’t been to King’s Place, it’s a bit like being inserted into the chamber of some large, as-yet-uninvented wooden instrument. We sat down, everyone was older than us, and then Miki Skuta, the pianist, appeared through a doorway onto the stage. In pictures, Mikuláš Škuta (Slovakian) looks like the knowledgeable virtuoso that he is. His website says it: “All-out gifted artist”. But that night he looked heavy, concerned, lugubrious; like a border guard about to begin a shift. I could hear his shoes on the polished stage. I was struck, panicked almost, by the intimacy: not just because of our proximity to Skuta, the sense of missing nothing, but because of the sudden preciousness of what he was about to pick up, and plunge into, and pull apart, and fill us with.

It’s still hard to figure out, almost three weeks later, why those first few notes, those utterly familiar clamber-up, clamber-down phrases, managed to be so shocking. P and I both looked away. Something hurt. It was as if Skuta was operating on a relative. We needed to be there. It needed to be fine. But there was an agony too. I think it has to do with sharing. Until that moment, I had only ever heard the Goldberg Variations on my own (mostly on my own) or with P. Like most of the Bach that I know, I find it intensely interior music. It gets in me immediately. The notes are like thoughts and there is such a pleasing simultaneous complexity and pattern that I find myself hooked up to something that feels like a larger and stronger mind: carried away and brought closer to myself at the same time. Going to Bach. Coming to Bach. Whatever it is, it turned out to be very surprising that Skuta was daring to play these notes, to interpose himself in the middle of this very private event. And not just Skuta, but the whole room – all these people with their cloth shopping bags and closed eyes. It is very childish but I had not realised that these were not my variations.

They were, of course, if they were anybody’s in that wood-wound room, Skuta’s variations. As he played (hands crossing over themselves, fingers spiderous) it began to occur to me – but only in the smallest way – what kind of a relationship that Skuta must have formed with the music. I don’t know how many notes there are in the Goldberg Variations, there must be thousands, but there was not a question of him being able to remember them. They had, over the years, in the unheated halls, on Slovakian public transport, in his sleep, become his thoughts as well. And while I did not agree with every single one of Skuta’s expressions – sometimes his playing was just a shade too technical, a micro-inch too precise for how I imagine the music (which, after all, is just the Glenn Gould version) – I had to confront the idea of an entirely different level of association, of inhabitance, of knowledge. I was listening to the Goldberg Variations, but I was also witnessing Skuta and his life with them.

And existing, somehow, in all of this was Bach. That was almost the most surprising element of the night – and also the most ethereal, so I didn’t quite grasp it: where did he fit into all of this? If the first thought that humbled me, amid the pleasure, was that there were, in fact, other people in London equally excited and equally moved by the idea of listening to the Goldberg Variations on a Thursday night in January and I would have to share Bach with them. And the second thought was that a Slovakian maestro called Miki Skuta had been playing the piano for more than 40 years before being able to offer a fully-wrought interpretation of this work. Then the third was about the mind that came up with these variations in the first place.

This is still far too large for me to get my head around. It would be like explaining the Milky Way, or Japan. But one very obvious, and new, thing did occur to me, watching Skuta, hearing Bach, was quite what an exhibition this music was. Until I saw those fingers, those hands, those shoes, I think my experience, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations, had been in their construction – in the filigree, the pattern-making – but now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional, and there just aren’t that many people that can play it. This was something to make you gasp. Whatever else he was thinking in 1741, Johannes Sebastian, with his “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals”, was out to blow some tiny minds.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

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In Dagestan

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I went on a secret mission to Dagestan and was amazed by the almost martial tradition of hospitality. It was almost difficult to interview people, because they were so agitated by the possibility that you might not be being sufficiently well looked after. An old wrestling champion of the USSR called Magomed Magomedov, who had hands like mechanics’ tools, just couldn’t settle. When did we arrive? Where were we staying? Would we really not visit Gimry, where Imam Shamil made his famous leap (eight metres at least!) over the Russian soldiers that had surrounded him? Who was our host? All of these details before we could talk. When, finally, Magomed became convinced we were safe as guests in his land, he became calmer and we talked. We talked for almost an hour and when we rose I was amazed to find I was taller than he was. I made the mistake of pointing this out. “You are taller,” said Magomed, agreeing straightaway, “but I am higher.” Point made.

Rousfeti and Eleni

Earlier this year I tried to write a book about the human experience of the European financial crisis. It didn’t work out. But my mind was turned back to the subject this weekend by a fine story in the International Herald Tribune about the crazy difficulties of selling off Greece’s state-owned assets and then talking to a friend today who spent last week in Spain on business. “Grim,” she said. Here is part of the chapter I wrote about Greece and some its social specificities around capitalism and a girl called Eleni:

“After a couple of days in Greece, I began to pay attention to customs and traits that no one thought were outrageous but were suspected nonetheless of being part of the economic edifice that had brought the country to where it was. This is what people talk about when they talk about Greek culture, and the Greek way of life. It constitutes an approach to living that ranges from the way that the entire property market works – there is an acknowledged, tax-dodging difference of about 30 per cent between what Greeks call the “objective” (false) and the “commercial” (true) value of their houses – to the way that people I met insisted on asking me round for dinner, or offering me wine at lunch. If we could not talk over food, then cups of coffee or frappés would always be magicked up from somewhere. If I was in an office – or once, a hospital – these would normally appear on a tray carried by a liveried waiter from a nearby café. I never saw money change hands. This was the world often denoted by the word rousfeti – literally, “spoils” – favours, gifts of patronage, a socialised way of doing business that extends from the most awful political corruption to the way that everyone in Greece gets their jobs.

One afternoon in Peristeri, a large working class neighbourhood in western Athens, I met a young woman who explained how an office position in a nearby municipality was arranged for her through rousfeti. It was an election year, a customary period for the trading and swapping of favours, and her boyfriend’s father – in exchange for roistering twenty votes for the local Pasok [socialist party] mayor – was offered a back-office job for the girl who might turn out to be his daughter in law. “‘The month goes in, the month goes out, and you get your money.’ That’s what they said,” said Eleni. “I remember it like it was now. It was so easy and simple.” To the anger of her boyfriend’s family – and the amazement of her own – she turned the job down. She did not know why, but she had decided that she wanted to make her own way in the world. Five years later, Eleni worked as a secretary in a shoe company, and was supporting the rest of her family as they prepared to close down her father’s autoglass repair shop. He had worked as a mechanic since he was fourteen years old. She wore t-shirt that said: “While I breathe, I hope.”

“People in Greece disagree about the origins of rousfeti. Some blame the Ottomans, of course. (The word has Turkish roots). But most people acknowledge that it is basically the remnant of a face-to-face, village culture, built around the family and bonds of friendship. It is as obviously incompatible with 21st century capitalism as it is a logical defence against it, an injection of blood and emotion in order to control things that are not supposed to be controlled. Since the economy began to unravel in 2009, rousfeti has been the virus that Greeks have blamed loudly for the sickness of their country and the vaccine that they have quietly searched for to help them survive it: a measure of protection in their jobs, support from their friends and relatives. It stands for human weakness and human strength at the same time, and it shows its different qualities according to your predicament.

“Over lunch one day in Athens I talked about this troublesome dose of humanness with a young Greek photographer called Eirini Vourloumis. Eirini’s father is an economist who used to run OTE, Greece’s national telephone company. He oversaw the company’s transformation from a loss-making state-owned rousfeti machine to a privately-run, salvageable enterprise 30 per cent owned by Germans. Naturally, he was pilloried for it, another Greek traitor. Eirini shook her head thinking about the screams and thunder her father went through to achieve what would be regarded as a rational business project in any western European country. “He almost went to prison,” she said. “It was like the mafia.” Partly as a result, Eirini had decided to try and capture this state of mind in her own work, when she came back to Greece to start documenting the economic crisis in 2010. She had started taking pictures of public buildings and offices, seeking out the markers of behaviour that make Greeks different, more resistant to the impersonal norms of markets and rules that have ended up governing other places. And in describing these signs – a huge, ultraviolet altar to Jesus in the office of an Athens police detective; a large fish-tank, backed with an image of a leaping cat, in the city’s fraud department – Eirini could not help smiling at the humour, the individuality, the imprint of personality on system which they characterised. Her favourite, she said, was a portrait of Che Guevara that she came across hanging in the ministry of development. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Nowhere else is this possible,’” she said.”

I got an email this afternoon from the talented young Greek journalist, Nikolia Apostolou, who introduced me to Eleni (“While I breathe, I hope”) and helped me during my reporting. “How’s the book going?” She wrote. “Eleni was asking me. She just got fired from her job.”

AHAP#4: Spotting a celebrity

Location: the small courtyard of a black-painted Georgian house in Hastings that has been converted by a chef-cum-photographer into a restaurant-cum-shop, “Hendy’s Homestore”.

We step into the small courtyard – B, D and I. It is small. There are three longish tables, intended to be shared by shopper-cum-eaters. There are perhaps another ten people in this space, eating or serving the tables. As soon as we step in, we all get the same animal whiff of celebrity. Someone is known here. Someone known is here. The air – it is threatening to rain – is specifically, minutely, charged with known-ness. We don’t know who it is at first: which person among the ten (unlikely to be the waiters, though) and which celebrity they are.

I never really know. (In that I have never heard of Jeremy Lee when B finally, assisted by Google Image and holding up his phone discreetly, conclusively verifies that yes, indeed, gesturing, grandly, camply, lordly, a television chef is among us). All I know for now is that there is one here, among the clean barbour-wearing, perfectly unshaved, prosperous-looking Hastings day-trippers. They’re all doing fine, eating mackerel and crab and wondering about the rain. They can all buy a ninety quid broom off Alastair Hendy after their mint teas. That’s fine. But which one of them is it? I want to know, and I want to get a good look at them.

What constitutes the pleasure of spotting a celebrity? We know it exists: there is a discernible thrill in coming back from a wedding somewhere and saying, as a friend in the pub did last night, “Oh, and Kiera was on the plane.” My mother and sister sat next to Hans Blix on a flight to Stockholm when he was at the peak of his pop-culture, non-WMD-finding powers and still talk about it. There is the mild tingle while the “spot” is in progress. You don’t quite want to tear yourself away until Jon Snow has picked up his coat from the cloakroom at Tate Modern. But it is not immediately obvious where our pleasure lies. Almost invariably, a spotted celebrity is not doing anything interesting, or revealing the presumed talent that made them a celebrity in the first place. They are, as we know from the thin-papered magazines, normally buying a coffee from Caffe Nero or “heading out for brunch” or “piling on the pounds”. (Jeremy Lee was eating, then shopping). It reminds me a bit of seeing animals on safari. They are there. They are, in all the wonderful senses, them. But they are, 100 per cent of the time, eating, staring, sleeping or walking.

Also again, there are millions of celebrities these days. That is part of the reason why celebrity spotting has become an activity in itself. “Id like to see just any fmailiar faces,” says phil222 on this depressing TripAdvisor forum offering advice on seeing slebs in London. We see celebrities all the time. Even ones which we have never heard of, especially ones we have have never heard of. And yet, even then, even in the process of confirming that Jeremy Lee – a finalist in the second series of “Great British Menu” (2007) – is in our midst, we get a kick. Not a huge kick, admittedly, but something real, nonetheless. What is it?

I think, almost by definition, part of the pleasure of celebrity spotting is that it is a surprise. There is the simple joy of something unexpected, and not awful, happening. We went out for lunch. We didn’t go out to have lunch and see a basically unknown (but not completely unknown, the telling difference of our times) television chef. “Oh god, is that…?” “Don’t turn around but…” These are the phrases that accompany a celebrity spotting, and they are exciting just to say. In fact, it is much more fun to be the one saying them because then you are likely to be the one who has done the “spot” and to then reap the prestige for doing so. The importance of the element of surprise in celebrity spotting – the shocking us out of whatever we had expected from our Saturday* – is made clear when we compare the feelings of the average spot to occasions when we have seen celebrities we have prepared, normally paid money, to see. There is often pleasure, sure, but then it is almost always bound up in their performance, their talent, their professional personality. It is not at all the same. I saw Amy Winehouse twice in her life. Once at a gig, when it was memorable to hear her sing. Another time, a few years earlier, when she was younger, fleshier, barely known, beautiful and foul at the same time, magnetising a pub in Camden just by standing near the door. I know which encounter I remember more. Although nothing in my celebrity spotting miscellany so far has come close to the time when, sitting upstairs in another pub, this time on Charlotte Street on a quiet afternoon, I noticed the only other person in the room was Kate Moss, curled up on a velvet sofa like a fox waiting for the dark.

I think the true pleasure in celebrity spotting is that it is a validation of our own experience. Because what are they to us, really? They are these half-real phantoms, existing partly in our world and partly in another, imaginary world, where everything is much easier, and more felicitous, and which we see most of the time framed in a screen, or the pages of a magazine. When we see a celebrity in our world, it is a sign that our lives are straying close to theirs. Not that we will join their world, but the two worlds – theirs is of course fictional – are bending together and that we are doing something right in making the choices that we have. It is an affirmation. It lends us purpose. My mother and sister were right to go to Stockholm. My friend was right to kiss the girl at the wedding and miss his plane and catch the later one. We were right to go out to lunch in Hastings. I was right to be in the pub on Charlotte Street. In a funny way, the sudden interdiction of celebrity – and all its unreality – lights up the colour and the vividness of the reality that we are making for ourselves.

* Literally as I wrote the word Saturday, I wondered whether the vast majority of celebrity spotting, as in 95%, must happen on the weekend. They are out and about, we are out and about. It also reinforces the likelihood that the slebs are doing something just as boring as ourselves.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

Gore Vidal and the death of obituaries

I realised, while reading The New York Timesextremely good obituary of Gore Vidal, that I have stopped reading newspapers. I still read magazines; I still read the news; I am still saving up for an iPad; but I have stopped reading the news-papers. I’ll buy one every now and again, but it’s so rare now that I can’t pretend that I am a paper buyer. It must have happened during the last year. I probably held out longer than most. I am a journalist, for pete’s sake.

I knew it for sure while I was digesting Vidal’s wonderful life because I realised that I had not read an obituary for a long time – months, probably. Obituaries are among the first thing I turn to in a physical paper. They are a convenient length – a tube stop or two – normally well written, and, unlike the news most of the time, provide such a natural weight and form of information. There must be something inherently absorbable about the story of a human life. We are attuned to take it in. There is nothing quite like it: the uncoiling of love (or its significant absence), the way they came to learn about the world and, almost always in the case of the obituarised, some satisfying portion of success. You very rarely come across a obituary with nothing remotely admirable in it, and usually it is the absolute opposite. Here is an all-time favourite: Tickets please, Werner Heubeck.

Obituaries also say something about community. They are survivors from the 19th century template of what a newspaper, and a nation, should be. The selection from the waves of passing dead reflects the standards, the aspirations, the interests that bind living readers. British newspapers have their distinct tastes: The Guardian‘s apparently inexhaustible hunger (really?) for minor jazz musicians and recording artists (JD Smith, the finest session alto-saxophonist in late 1960s Louisville, he once shared a cab with Count Basie) vs The Daily Telegraph, with the “last Telegraph Services obituarist to have served in the Second World War” (my grandfather).

Dead Vidal made me think more carefully than normal about obituaries because they have also been a way for me to discover writers. I know the death of any artist revitalises interest in their work, but I am also talking about coming across writers for the very first time about a week after they died. I remember reading the obituary of Sybille Bedford and deciding to read her books, and George Psychoundakis (more of a runner than a writer, to be fair). For the better known and who are in the always-accumulating queue, like Ryszard Kapuściński (in 2007) and Vidal last week, their death has acted as a quiet signal, an end to excuses, a move to the front, and then I have begun to read and to become immediately and irrationally sad for the writer I never knew and only now know because they are dead. I have that now with Vidal after “Coached by Camelot” (so fine) and I am sure the feeling will grow. But without obituaries, without news-papers, how will I find the rest, the quieter passers? What is the digital answer; what is our digital mourning?

AHAP#3: Watching the Olympics on television

Why is watching the Olympics on television so much more pleasurable than watching any other televised sport – any other television, really? I am sure it is not better. I could have spent the half hour I gave to the second round of the men’s badminton competition last Monday night (not even the controversial women’s one) on something much more dramatic, and better put together: one of those billion dollar biology shows, or something sharp and American, or any number of the culturally important programmes that I am always missing. But none of them would have been so satisfying, would have given me the same set of feelings as watching an upstart Finn briefly threaten – and then lose, puffing and wrecked – to a springy Malaysian with a shuttlecock for a heart.

P is away at the moment, filming, meaning that me and the televised Olympics have been spending a lot of time together. Not that her absence has made a huge difference, I suspect. Our last breakfast together was our first ever in front of the television: docile and quiet, being primed for the order of races coming from Eton Dorney. But her not being there has magnified the sense that the only living things in the flat are me, and even then only in so far as I exist in orbit around the other animated object: our tiny television, which has been pulled out from under the bookshelf and into the middle of the room. It is, without doubt, the current principal life source: a fragile, busy cube of blue hockey pitches, pink trampolines, green javelin fields and orange running track in an otherwise dead space.

My viewing pleasure* evolved over the first week of the Olympics. At first, the happiness was in handing over control to whichever competent person was sitting on the BBC’s black sofa, the white triangles of the stadium, creeping up behind them. They knew so much better than I did what was going on, and there was real joy in being led: to Lord’s, for the final of the men’s team archery (pudgy, moody Italians conquering taut, disbelieving Americans); to the pool for the heats (that reunion, every four years, like an astronomical return, with the figure of the fastest loser); to the dressage, to see horses immaculately crossing their legs one over the other in the pouring rain of Greenwich. Those early days in front of the television were defined by a sense of abundance, a city of things going on, and trusted guides to take you to the right places, providing “Essential Info” on the difference between the kayak and the C2 canoe. It was, I think, the pleasure of a tourist.

Of course it quickly gave way. One of the beautiful myths of watching the Olympics is the accessibility of the sports: we decipher them instantly, we know a 15.264 beam routine from something really horrid, a 13.761 say, within ten minutes. The BBC’s London 2012 coverage, with its 24 channels (I still don’t really know where they are); stop start rewind internet; etc etc; means that you can quickly cut Barker or whichever powdered lump is sitting on the sofa and get to the real stuff with a few random clicks and presses. This was the second phase of my television experience, steering my way to the untracked corners of the jungle: hauling past hours of stored footage on the internet to watch both semi finals of the women’s 200m backstroke; taking in twenty minutes of the American basketball team (glossy giants, smiling all the time, sinking basket after basket after basket after basket). It was how I came across the fencing: less a sport than a series of collisions between electrified marionettes, wired up to a giant, gameshow set. But wait until they take off their masks! Then it is the Olympics of operatic flourishes, Zorro swishes, Koreans screaming. I dare you not to cry. At the quieter moments of my self-propelled journey through the broadcast Olympics there were times when I noticed there was no commentary at all. I was just watching what seemed like abandoned live feeds, people filing in and out the boxing hall, the underside of the swimming pool waves. It was raw. It delivered a bigger hit than the presented, curated events. It was the pleasure of an addict.

And then there was Saturday night. Which was, among all the other things that it was, a statement of the combined power of the Olympics and television. The Nazis, visual pioneers, noticed it first, and sought to harness the symbolism, to engineer a fusion of Games and Volk. The 1936 Olympics were the first to be televised: to a collection of cinemas in Berlin. The next time it happened, in London in 1948, the culture of amateurism, and the sense of television as an experiment was still strong enough for the IOC to turn down an offer of 3,00 guineas from the BBC for the broadcast rights.

It was only in the 1960s that television became the dominant means by which the Olympics were experienced. In Rome, the tapes were flown across the Atlantic and processed at Idlewild Airport, in New York, to be broadcast that night by CBS. The same year, a CBS producer called Tony Verna was asked at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley to provide footage of a ski race to the judges, and the idea of the instant replay was born. Instant replay, slow motion, close-ups, montages, post-match interviews: these were the innovations that made television more than a poor substitute for being there – they became the thing itself. The spreading of satellite dishes has been spreading of the Games. They were first broadcast in Africa in 1994. TV rights now bring in 47% of the revenue of the Olympics: $3.9bn in the current quadrennial of Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. In Beijing, TV money brought in ten times the income from ticket sales. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony – with its Oscars’ inspired TV insets – was made for television. Jessica Ennis knew the importance of “putting on a show” – to make a visual, replayable memory – of the 800m race on Saturday night that she did not need to win.

The third, and most advanced, stage of my pleasure of watching the Olympics on television has been knowing that everyone is watching the same thing at the same time. It is the opposite of variety, or being told what to watch, it is the certainty, and synchronicity, of a few moments of mass shared experience. (I wonder, by the way, if that is partly behind America’s backlash against NBC’s coverage: the people are out of sync, the internet, the TV advertising has fragmented them, and they don’t like it). A great part of the deep joy of watching Mo Farah streak around that final lap was shouting “Mo” at the screen and hearing the crowd in the stadium shout “Mo” and shouting “Mo” again and knowing that P was in Scotland, shouting “Mo” as well. We all had the same pictures and we all had the same words. And then we watched the same, breathless pro-forma interviews (the pressure, the support, the disbelief) and then we watched it all again on the news because we did not want to turn it off. We did not want it to end. We did not want to be on our own again.

*AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

AHAP#2: Surprise parties

We have been to two surprise parties in the last few weeks. I think I have been to six in my lifetime, including one for me (on my 17th birthday), and one for my mother (her 40th). The surprise party, of life’s many purported pleasures*, is a very ambitious animal. It cannot happen in moderation. There is such a thing as a surprising party, but it is no relation of the real thing: the lights out at home, the stumble in, carrying modest shopping that no one was supposed to see, and then the flick-on, the terrible roar of friends and former lovers who have been hiding in the dark, and the explosion of something like joy in the surprised heart. SURPRISE!!! The simple, self-referring scream.

The surprise party claims, at its conception, a bold combination of enjoyments. These include the thrill of the conspiracy: lies, deception, the stealing of phone numbers, wrongs made right, and so safe to enjoy. This excitement is focused in the surpriser, but it still radiates a burr of anticipation throughout the email list and (although I can’t really remember, but presumably) the telephone calls and word of mouth that used to make ancient surprise parties. Looking through old emails, invitations to surprise parties are covered with breathless syntax like SSSHH and warlike invocations. There are crack teams and emergency committees and emails that just start: “Chaps.”

On the day or night itself, the person being surprised is, naturally, expected to have a transcendent experience that informs them beyond doubt how much they are loved in the world. The chief surpriser (it is understood) will be rewarded for their unasked-for efforts with special favour and respect. As for the rest of us, we get not only a brilliant party (although this is rarely thought through) but also the hunkering down, the several false arrivals, the hiding in our friend’s bedroom, the whispers, our own small surprise in who we end up crouching next to and hollering with at the crucial moment.

My own and only surprise party took place on June 11, 1997, after an A-level French exam. My friend Al, who spent some years in Paris as a child, had been assigned by the committee to bring me from the exam to some half-arsed café in Canterbury where people used to go and smoke in their free periods and worry about who fancied them at the time. Al had had a terrible exam. We met on the steps outside the school hall and she started to cry.

We had arranged to go into town and have lunch a few days earlier. It was my only birthday engagement that year. I asked her if she wanted to call it off, sure that she would, but she shook her head and said no, she would like to go. I imagined a quiet lunch in our school uniform somewhere, me commiserating, doing some non-sexual adolescent sadness and understanding (my speciality in those years) and so was, basically, a bit pissed off and confused to find a bunch of my friends hiding in a boat at the back of the café that Al had decided we should go to.

They all piled in. They started smoking. They ate sandwiches. I had recently been acquiring some friends in the top year at school who I didn’t know very well, and I found myself on a table surrounded by them. Some people had chipped in to buy me some aftershave. I would shave, properly, for the first time in my life that October. I overheard someone at another table say, “Look at Sam with his new friends.” Al continued to cry. It was okay, but not more than that.

It had nothing of the beauty of my mother’s surprise 40th birthday party, which I remember as my first encounter (I was 8 years old) with adult pleasure. In a novel way, my father had arranged for the surprisers (and the food and drink) to gather outside our house in the November night, and to start singing Happy Birthday as my mother was opening the front door to head out for supper. She took a step out, and they flooded in, a cold happy procession, overwhelming her. I remember the trays coming into the house at my head height, the belts on the men’s trench coats. I ran around. I made a bet with a man that I could guess how much change he had in his pocket. In the morning, I came down when my parents were still asleep and found the sitting room covered with little papery balls, about the size of Maltesers. In the quiet, I considered these little balls and recognised them as symbols from a world of grown-up sin that I was a long way from understanding.

In the surprise parties that I have been to since then, my principal unease has been at the precise moment of the coup, when what seems to me a force-field suddenly forms around the person who is hopefully being astonished. At this one instant when – as our denied fantasies have told us repeatedly – the world does indeed revolve around us, we are the meaning of everything, people invariably are left to face it alone. Everyone stands off and there is a strange moment of confrontation: We are here. You did not know. The surprised person is oddly excluded at the moment of their celebration, glorified but separate.

It passes, of course. They cry / cover their face / are enveloped. But it always goes on longer than I like, and then really the next phase of the surprise is a kind of examination of the surprised: how will they react in this emergency? How will they carry themselves? And at the last surprise party we went to, last weekend, the surprised did this so well. She was not absolutely expected to be happy about being ambushed after lunch in her own flat on her 32nd birthday, but she came in, leaned briefly against the wall, and then retreated to the safety of the toilet, before emerging and edging her way in, from the bedroom where people were leaving their coats, into the kitchen, and then went step by step, conversation by conversation, joining her own conspiracy.

*AHAP is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

A Parfit profile

Delayed appreciation for Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of the philosopher, Derek Parfit, in the New Yorker last month. The profile is such an elastic kind of article. People write up boring, arranged conversations with celebrities in cafés and dress them up as profiles: “She is taller than I expected.” “He looks down, as if he might not answer.” But the genre can go as big and deep as you want it. I thought MacFarquhar’s article (paywall) was particularly fine because it was built from a unity of form and substance. Parfit is not an ordinary guy:

“For years, according to a colleague, he made the same meal every morning for breakfast, which he conceived of as a recipe for maximum health: sausage links, green peppers, yoghurt, and a banana, all in one bowl. One day, the colleague’s nutritionist wife explained to him that this was not a particularly healthy meal, and suggested a better meal; the next day he switched to a new meal and never varied it.”

He also communicates in short, declarative statements, framed by logic and underpinned by feeling: “In all, strong emotion is audible under restraint”. MacFarquhar points this out early in the article and says that there is little difference between Parfit’s written and spoken words. Then come two technical coups:

1) Throughout the profile you never know whether MacFarquhar is quoting from interview, email or Parfit’s philosophical treatises. She puts his words in separate paragraphs, isolating them from her own. There is a moment, after Parfit has a terrible attack of stress and anxiety, when he briefly loses his mind and is asked if he knows who his wife is:

Yes. She’s the love of my life.

Adrift on the page.

2) Even more boldly, MacFarquhar decided to write the whole article in a way that echoes Parfit’s short, spare pronouncements. The simplicity of the phrases belies their broadness of their intentions, like Parfit’s statements on our moral universe. The profile himself speaks like it. This, for some reason, was my favourite passage, about Parfit’s emotionally close but difficult relationship with his sister, Theo:

“She tried to see her brother when he came to the East Coast, as he frequently did, to teach, but usually he didn’t call. He didn’t do this to annoy her – it simply didn’t occur to him, because he was thinking about philosophy.”

AHAP#1: Looking at holiday pictures

I am a poor photographer. It’s not that I take absolutely terrible pictures (sometimes I get on a jag – a phrase P used on our recent holiday in Sicily and I’m sticking with) it’s more that I don’t take them at all. The camera stays in the bag, or on the shelf above my desk, its memory card stocked with the evidence of soft-paparazzi binges (P brushing her teeth, P emailing, P putting up the laundry) and then nothing at all. But that does not disqualify me from an honest appraisal of the pleasure* of showing or looking at holiday pictures. There is no disputing that this is advertised as a pleasure: I have been invited around to people’s houses for specifically this purpose, although more often holiday pictures are introduced as entertainment sometime between being given something to eat and being offered a hot drink / shown out the door. They are rarely offered up with the accompaniment of alcohol, which might be something to think about.

The main and obvious problem with being shown someone’s holiday pictures in the year 2011 is to do with technology. We are in a bad technological place, a foul quarter, screwed by a misalignment which means that we have the equipment to take a basically unlimited amount of images on unlimited number of devices and yet no safe and pleasurable way to receive them. I don’t care about the tiny crew who know how to plug their computer into the television, the way most of us look at holiday pictures these days is arranged around a laptop (the third person cannot see the pictures, don’t pretend) or on the back of someone’s camera. With two people this is at least physically possible, but it is not a good enough way to look at the pictures, unless they are not worth looking at.

The bigger point though is not about how to technically display the images, it is about how to comprehend them. We are dwarfed by our recording capabilities, how much we can capture. It’s like the moment in the Cold War when the Russians and the Americans realised they could destroy themselves and the world many times over. We can now photograph ourselves without limit. There is no hold on us. As a result, we are in the psychologically frightening position of having more pictures than things worth taking pictures of. We have far, far more images than stories. What is an average number of pictures from a weeklong holiday taken by a modern British couple with at least one half (imagine two!) snapping away? I think it’s probably about 150, more than 20 a day, the business end of a picture an hour.

There is no narrative, unless the holiday was like Moby Dick, to accommodate this many visual prompts. So to be shown someone’s pictures now involves a marathon of clicking, a diminishing of explanation and context until we are just racing through, “Oh yes, that’s the same place.” “Didn’t we go there in the morning, before the market?” (No. The camera knows when you went). “That’s the hire car again.” And if you don’t take anything like this number of pictures, I am afraid there is a nagging expectation that you should have. Not being good at remembering my camera, I took a mere 69 images on our holiday to Sicily. Last week I had lunch with my mother and showed them to her. I knew she was disappointed. It took about a 69 seconds to go through them, presumably because we were both tuned to the higher processing speed you need to get through a normal batch.

Of course it wasn’t always like this. And it seems likely to me that the supposed pleasure of showing your own, or sitting through someone else’s holiday pictures, is one of those pleasures whose identity is basically historical. Its official status as a pleasure has persisted long past the point when it stopped being so – like air travel. On Saturday morning, in the European manner, we had coffee with two friends of ours, one of whom is an Austrian actor who grew up in Vienna in the 1950s and 1960s. He is also a keen photographer (when we left the café we lost him briefly on the street, he was taking a picture of some metal). The Austrian actor pointed out that the ritual of showing one’s holiday pictures arose after the Second World War, in the union of full employment, working class tourism and the Kodak Instamatic camera in the US and the Agfa Isolette in Europe. Film was expensive, meaning that each holiday normally had to be recorded in 12, small, black and white images, crimped with zigzags at the side.

The homely, imagined version of this ritual sees a family and friends arranged around the table, with these twelve images lying around, each one inevitably missing the actual moments of interest on the trip to Cologne, but fulfilling their purpose as fragments of veracity, points of light in the story, strange, condensing compositions. In this idyll, holiday pictures are there to support a larger narrative, an involving story of travel and incidents in places that are yet to be seen, which is the real reason why everyone has come over. Back in those days, the editing was obligatory: 12 pictures to frame a story. Who edits their holiday pictures now? Who works out what they are there to tell?

It wasn’t all sunshine and sepia back then. Our Austrian friend, who spent his summers in the Alps, told us that the holiday snappers back in the 1960s were normally Germans, whose economy was recovering faster and whose clothes and cameras were better his own. It became a trick, when the tourists were swimming or had their stuff lying about as people did back then because they were so innocent, to steal their camera for a few minutes and take pictures of your naughty bits which they would not discover until they got home (but presumably before they had invited their friends over).

Even then, in the pre-digital days, technology was about to turn things darker. Soon, by the 1970s and 1980s, the lights were going out all over Europe because people started taking their holiday pictures as slides, giving rise to perhaps the most exquisitely bad version of this pleasure, the curated-by-father holiday picture slide show, whose only, barest redemptive quality was the fact that you could close your eyes and no one noticed. The door was shut though, to keep out the light, and you knew this.

*AHAP, “An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure”, is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

Anders Behring Breivik and the veil of ignorance

I am having trouble expelling the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, from my mind. Ever since last Friday evening, when it began to emerge that the villain behind Norway’s day of murder was not, as everyone expected, Islamist extremism, it has been difficult to agree on a language or way of thinking about Europe’s new bogeyman. The diffidence and confusion, in the middle of Norway’s extreme grief, has been understandable. On Monday, when Breivik was due in court in Oslo, there was the brief dilemma about whether he should be allowed to appear in his made-up knight’s uniform and to articulate his psychopathic outlook. Partly on the basis of security, partly because he clearly craves nothing else but a platform, the Norwegian authorities decided quite sensibly to keep a lid on Breivik, to shut his mouth at least for the time being, and we were treated to silence instead. Breivik arrived at the court out of sight. The only picture we got of him was as he was driven away, smiling his placid smile.

My instinct says this is wrong. People will find out – in some incomplete form, anyway – what is in Breivik’s mind. He has posted a 1,500 page confessional manifesto on the internet and has a 12-minute video of martial images and right-wing nonsense running nonstop on You Tube. People are curious as well. In killing 76 people on a Friday afternoon in one of the world’s safest and most prosperous countries, Breivik, however unfairly, has got our attention. We should use this moment to interrogate his thinking, despite our reluctance to admit that his actions might have had any basis in a rational mind. Yesterday, his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, told us that Breivik was insane and it was noticeable to me how gratefully the newspapers and the radio stations grabbed this information. It added another phrase to the language that we have used since Friday night to distance ourselves from him: lone gunman, secret life, delusional, cold, mad.

I am struck by what seems to me to be the difference between how we are approaching the problem of Breivik and how we have attempted to understand attacks by Europe’s more accustomed nemesis, Islamist extremism. Let’s say, as for a few hours we all thought on Friday afternoon, that the attacks had been perpetrated by a cell of young, fanatical Pakistani immigrants to Norway. They had done the usual things: made their confessional video in front of a scary banner covered in Arabic phrases in a flat on the outskirts of Oslo; been radicalised and steered by a supposedly influential cleric in Egypt, or Yemen. If this had happened, then we would have accepted, almost without hesitating, that these boys were marginalised, were brainwashed, were fragile, had fallen off the deep-end. This would be so obvious (there would be the calamitous event that turned a gentle teenager into a cold and distant young man, his life increasingly embedded in the mosque until they chucked him out and reported him to the police who ignored the warning) that it would scarcely be interesting. We would spend most of our energy launching ourselves loyally into another round of endless conversation involving words like immigration and integration and multiculturalism and failure. We would feel tormented, and sad, not least because the shape of the disaster is so familiar and it keeps recurring.

By contrast, with Breivik and his threat, which is novel, we are more concerned with him as an individual. It’s true there has been reporting, as in this morning’s Guardian, about his contact with other right-wing “anti-jihad” groups in this country and in Europe, but there is nothing like the instinctive interest in the idea that he is part of a wider movement of violence that threatens us. It is inexplicable, in logical terms at least, why we don’t really believe that there are more “cells” of people like him out there, stockpiling dum-dum bullets and police uniforms, about to launch attacks in Paris or Leeds. But we do not. And we are probably right not to. I think that is because we are instinctively familiar with the arguments and fears that Breivik holds. They belong to the same diatribe of arrested intelligence that we hear from the British National Party and the English Defence League: the absolute conviction that a white, Christian way of life is dissolving in the weak, liberal hands of our leaders; that our once-great minds have gone mushy, fatally so, and the next minute we will be woken by the muezzin in London and the law will be Sharia, enacted by a dark man with a beard. We have heard this paranoia before, seen these men and their St George’s flags on their marches. We know they are frustrated. We know they are capable of starting a riot. But we also know that they are wrong and weak.

Here is my thought: because we are basically familiar with the cultural and political context of Breivik, because we know what he is talking about, the articles in the Daily Mail that have gone around and around in his head, we are able instinctively to see him in proportion: mad, yes, but also a reminder that real violence does stalk in Europe’s right-wing and “cultural conservative” movement. So we should be alive to that.

That is moderately interesting. What I have found much more interesting over the last few days is the idea that what I feel today towards Breivik might just approximate to what educated, middle-class Muslims have been feeling towards their terrorist brethren over the last decade. Breivik is an outlier in the civilisation that I belong to. Nothing more, nothing less. Think about it: Breivik’s beliefs and enemies are an almost uncanny parallel to those held by al-Qaeda and other militant groups. He evokes an essentially medieval view of the world, finding his heroes in the Knights Templar of the Crusades; he identifies himself as a Christian in a way that no normal Christian would; his ultimate enemy, of course, are the infidel, but in the meantime, the first stage of the war must be to rid the supposedly pure lands of Europe from the “cultural Marxists” and liberal elites who are leading it to destruction. Al-Qaeda’s fixation with the inadequate Islamic regimes and colonial puppets in the Middle East is right there, staring back at us from Breivik’s airbrushed face.

Because I live in Europe, in a powerful country, with a political class and a media that knows about Western Christian civilisation and can see the patent baloney, the hokey nonsense of Breivik and his 60-year crusade to rid Europe of cultural Marxism, I feel no threat from his ideas. I can see how marginal he is. This must be how sensible people living in Arabic countries must have felt when they first heard of bin Laden and talk of a worldwide caliphate. This has nothing to do with me. This is quite mad. The idea that I could ever, even in the most tangential, theoretical way, be tarred by some kind of association with this interpretation of the world and its politics does not even cross my mind, even if I share some of the same primary identifiers: Muslim, politically-repressed, uneasy about Israel.

This is why we have stopped using the word terrorism, or dilly-dallied around it, since last Friday. Because what would we call Breivik? A Christianist terrorist? (But his association with Christianity is glancing, and what is this word, Christianism?). A conservative terrorist? (Big C, small c?) A Europeanist terrorist? An anti-cultural Marxist terrorist? The language makes no sense. We know it is not accurate enough. We know it overblows him, gives him an intellectual indignity, a heritage for his ideas that we know – because we know the ideas – is not valid. So we eschew these words and these organising labels and we call him what we know him to be: lone gunman, secret life, delusional, cold, mad.

Breivik tells us that there is danger in paranoid Europeans of his stripe. If we suspected it, we know it now. But the larger, and to me more interesting opportunity that he represents, is a rare chance to stand in a magnificent world civilisation and see someone commit murder in its name. This is the parting of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance: a moment, for non-Muslims, when we are finally equipped to imagine what it must have felt like for the last fifteen years to see a philosophy stolen, a faith awarded to madmen, mistaken associations and connections written straight across a culture by those who do not know it. If we are not going to make that mistake with Breivik, then we should not do it to anyone else.