Musick has Charms to Soothe a Savage Breast

With the recent ratcheting up of tensions in the Korean Peninsula I’ve noticed a resurgence in the media of public health advice of the “Duck & Cover” variety, about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.  I was particularly intrigued to hear that if you find yourself potentially exposed to nuclear radiation, it is a good idea to take a shower and lather yourself with plenty of shampoo, but not, note, conditioner.  Apparently while shampoo dissipates radioactive particles, conditioner binds them and facilitates their contact to human skin.

In this age of evidence-based medicine, I wonder what clinical trials established this fact.  Were the relevant papers peer-reviewed?  Have there been comparative studies comparing different products?  Could it all be “fake news”?  And what about two-in-one shampoo-conditioner combinations?  Perhaps the big toiletries and grooming companies will market products “safe to use even at ground zero”.  As they say in the best medical journals, further research is required.

There is a scene in the movie Bridge of Spies (Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance – terribly good) in which, circa 1960, some young American schoolchildren are being educated about what to do in the event of an attack.  The boys look fascinated and excited, but one girl, who is clearly imaginative and insightful, with tears pouring down her face, is the picture of abject misery and despair.  She knows all this public health advice is a load of tosh.  I remember in the early 1980s the British Medical Association produced a publication, “The Medical Effects of Nuclear War”, which painted such a black picture of the reality of a nuclear holocaust that the then government was rather displeased with the BMA and its negative attitude.  It wasn’t good enough, they said, to wring one’s hands in dismay; one had to come up with a plan.  The BMA’s central point was that in the event of an attack, the number of seriously injured patients would be so vast that no medical response could possibly make any significant overall difference to outcomes.

Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, was on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning.  Mr Marr pursued him about the alleged slow response of the British Government and the armed services to Hurricane Irma.  Sir Michael answered robustly.  But I thought, that is not the issue upon which to pursue the Minister of Defence.  The question I would wish to ask Sir Michael is this:  you say the doctrine of nuclear deterrence works for us.  (You’ve heard him say it: Trident works every day for us 24/7, protecting us from the threat of attack.)  Why therefore should it not work for Kim Jong-un?  Should we not, indeed, encourage Mr Kim to perfect his long range thermonuclear capability?  Will that not add to the general deterrent effect and will not the world be a safer place?

Meanwhile life goes on.  I listened to the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday night, first half on Radio 3 and second half on BBC 1.  Highlights of the evening for me were the E flat clarinet riff in John Adams’ Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, and Nina Stemme’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s Surabaya Johnny.  I’m impressed by the professionalism of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; they didn’t merely run through all the traditional chestnuts, they performed them.  The principal cellist’s solo in Tom Bowling was so affecting that the prommers’ crocodile tears became real.  I knew leader Stephen Bryant would slip in an ad-lib in his hornpipe and he did; it was the James Bond theme from the original Dr No.

Then our English hosts invited the cousins to join the festivities and there were party pieces from Glasgow, Enniskillen, and Swansea.  It was good to hear Gaelic, and Welsh.  I’m intrigued by the fact that, following this, Scotland and Wales took early leave.  Maybe Land of Hope and Glory and all that was just asking too much.  Thus far, and no further.

Conductor Sakari Oramo’s speech was good.  He avoided the cliché of the panegyric to music as a uniting force for good in a troubled world.  He even told a joke.  That Scandinavian humour can seem leaden is part of the joke.  Maestro Oramo told us a couple of years ago that a Finnish introvert looks at his shoes while talking to you; but a Finnish extravert looks at your shoes.  Saturday night’s joke was something along the lines of, “I’m a conductor.”  “So, where’s your bus?”  He told it in a Birmingham accent which I thought was quite a feat.

We moved on to four anthems in quick succession.  The rendition of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was unusually thoughtful partly owing to a very steady tempo.  Then came the setting by Parry, orchestrated by Elgar, of Blake’s mystic poem Jerusalem.  It has become a de facto English National Anthem but what can it possibly mean?  What are these dark satanic mills?  Oxbridge?  Call centres?  BAE systems?  What are my arrows of desire?

Then came the National Anthem itself, and, finally, a kind of international anthem, Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne.  This used to be an impromptu a cappella rendition by the prommers but has more recently been orchestrated and performed on stage.  At least the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus sing accurately in Scots; they had already performed Finlandia from memory in Finnish so one would expect nothing less.

And that was that.  I always miss the Proms when they stop.  The ensuing Sunday evening has the atmosphere of the close to the second movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Fêtes.  A jolly band has just marched through town and, as you hear it receding into the distance, there is a sense of anti-climax and ennui.  As we say in Scotland, back to auld claes and purritch.


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