At swimming practice (Hamilton Crescent School, relocated to Balshagray at the bottom of Broomhill Drive, Wednesday afternoons), I floundered up and down the pool and Mr Mennie barked, “Campbell, when are you are going to learn to swim?” It was one of these occasions when the appropriate repartee only occurred to me later: “When are you going to teach me, sir?” But then again, it was always dangerous to be precocious at school; you might get a clip round the ear.
Much later, at medical school in Edinburgh, I was studying along with some of my colleagues in the Royal Medical Society in its rooms across the quad from McEwan Hall, and above the Potterrow Bar. A young consultant who was making a name for himself in the literary world called by to cut a swathe through our allegedly dull and studious lives. I think he thought he was Somerset Maugham or Mikhail Bulgakov, but he was more like that grotesque James Thurber character in his laugh-out-loud piece Something to Say. He said to me, “What are you going to be when you grow up, Campbell?” On this occasion the apt riposte arrived on time: “A doctor. What about you?” He snorted and said to the company in general, “Here’s a man who knows exactly where he’s going, and nothing’s going to stop him!” Actually he couldn’t have been more wrong. I had no idea where I was going and, to paraphrase the late great George Harrison, if you have no idea where you are going, any road will take you there.
How do we choose our path in life? As a kid, I think I would have been rather good at the pole vault. I was a monkey on the rings and trapezes of Arlington Baths, swooping around over the pool to my heart’s content. I have this fantasy of approaching Mr MacKay the PE teacher and saying, “I would like to learn to pole vault.”
“Pole vault. Pole vault! I’ll pole vault ye!”
(Pole faulting did not feature in the curriculum.) But perhaps I am doing Mr MacKay an injustice, after the fashion of the driver who gets a flat tyre late one rainy night out in the boondocks. He sees the light from a cottage in the distance, and plods his weary way in that direction, in the hope of borrowing a jack. En route, soaked to the skin, he convinces himself he is going to suffer a frosty reception, and works himself into such a lather that when he knocks and the door is opened, he yells, “You can keep your f****** jack!” For all I know, down at the playing fields in Scotstoun during “Games”, Mr Mackay might have produced the fibre glass pole.
But I don’t really regret not having tried the pole vault. It strikes me that regret is a particularly redundant emotion, useless because it is incoherent. If you no longer have the desire, what is the point in nursing the ambition? And if you do have the desire, then, dammit, go for it. Remember Tennyson’s Ulysses.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
With this in mind, at the beginning to 2019 I started a beginner’s evening class in German. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. I always had the notion, listening to Mrs Merkel on the telly, that I nearly understood what she was saying. German has a staccato quality quite unlike the syllable timed lenition and enjambment of French, and each subordinate clause is clearly punctuated both in speech and in print. So I think it has an accessibility to the native English speaker. I put it to an Austrian friend of mine that English was really a dialect of German but he reckoned that was going a bit far.
Anyway the German class is great fun. It is so recreational to take up something entirely new. Early days of course, but I do have a sense of the accessibility of the language. One of the reasons I wanted to try was that I listen to a lot of German music, including lieder. Listening to a Schubert song cycle and not knowing what is being said is like playing the viola at the back of the orchestra pit; you only get a partial, and distorted notion of what’s going on. With this in mind, I listened to a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde on Radio 3 on Friday night, and I followed the German text. It was a Pentecostal moment. What a revelation! It was almost like the restoration of a missing faculty, like sight or hearing. I thought, what on earth have I been doing for all these years, wandering around in a twilit world following the collapse of the tower of Babel? Why didn’t I do this before?
I didn’t study German in school. I did French and Latin, and, in my 6th year, Spanish. But I was never a linguist. Indeed, looking back, I’m not sure we were ever educated to be linguists, merely to master some grammar and pass the exam. When I started to learn French as a twelve year old I don’t think there was a single person in the class who had ever been abroad. And there were precious few in the entire school who had come from Elsewhere, even from anywhere outside Glasgow, and even, come to think of it, from beyond the immediate precinct and catchment area of the school. Of course it is more difficult for inhabitants of an island to master a foreign tongue, because of the lack of opportunity to speak the language in the real world. I noticed when I lived in the antipodes that this was also true of New Zealanders, being so far removed from everywhere else. New Zealanders are broadly as poor linguists as Brits, with some notable exceptions, usually people who have mastered Japanese or Mandarin. The Dutch, by contrast, are fantastic linguists. They need to be, in a country barely the size of Yorkshire, surrounded by the great European powers. I remember a Dutch girl in New Zealand, Kate, who said, “I think I’ll learn Maori; it looks pretty easy.” You see, there’s the difference.
There we were, in High School French class, struggling with the subjunctive. “Il aurait fallu que nous assassinassions le Cardinal Richelieu.” Or something. But who cares? Nobody talks like that. Nobody uses the Past Historic, apart from General de Gaulle. Learning a language is not an academic pursuit at all. I was made sharply aware of this when as a doctor I had as a patient a teenage girl from Costa Rica, holidaying in Scotland. My ‘O’-level Spanish was hardly up to it, so the patient’s friend, a local teenage girl, came in with her and acted as interpreter. She had holidayed in Costa Rica and picked Spanish up. She had sat at the feet of the patient’s grandmother, thumbing through a dictionary, saying, how do you say this; how do you say that? She turned out to be a fantastic interpreter, and mind, the conversation, turning on symptomatology, became quite technical. I told her afterwards that she had a great talent, and asked, might she be interested in pursuing a career using her Spanish? Yes, she would like to, but she couldn’t see a way to do it because she had absolutely no school qualifications at all.
Well, what does passing an exam tell you about somebody? It tells you they are good at passing exams. And the trick of passing exams is knowing how to avoid making mistakes. But the essence of learning a language is to make thousands of mistakes. The essence of learning a language is not to be careful, but to be bold. Just go out there and blurt. Nobody gives a damn. Put yourself in the shoes of the person listening to your efforts. You know what it is like when a foreign visitor asks you for directions in the street. “Can you say please me where is castle?” You don’t discourage, do you? You certainly wouldn’t mock. You are glad to be of help. You use your arms, and clear, simple language. He says, “Mine English bad,” and you reply, “Better than my Latvian.”
I suppose the study of German might be for me a route into Wagner. But here I confess, I don’t really “get” opera. I remember one night Paul Merton saying of opera on Have I got News for You, “It never really caught on, did it?” In Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis takes his Vivian by private jet up from LA to San Francisco to see the opera. He tells her that if you aren’t truly an opera lover, you might learn to appreciate the art form, but it would never enter your soul. I guess that’s me. I’m okay with opera if I close my eyes and just listen to an aria. But I can’t get past the idea that there is something preposterous about the whole package. I just can’t suspend my disbelief, voluntarily or otherwise. In the 1987 film of The Untouchables (which incidentally has a distinguished musical score), Al Capone occupies a box at the Opera and listens to some lachrymose Verdi lament – I seem to recall it was from Pagliacci, in which a clown is heartbroken to discover that his lover has been unfaithful, yet he still must put on the greasepaint and go out on stage and be funny. It is the most pathetic thing. Capone sits there, weeping. Then one of his lackeys comes in to whisper in his ear that one of the Untouchables, an Irish cop played by Sean Connery, has been bumped off. You see Capone’s tears turn to laughter. His tears all along had been crocodilian.
But all operatic tears are crocodile tears. I watched a programme on BBC 4 on Sunday night when Antonio Pappano talked about the Aria throughout the history of opera, discussing arias with some of the great opera singers of our day, and rehearsing with them. The music was wonderful, as were the singers. But I can’t take the libretti seriously. And the acting is so hammy. A few weeks ago I had reason in these annals to extol Michael Caine’s memoir Blowing the Bloody Doors Off. It’s a book that some opera singers might do well to read. In Rep, Sir Michael was rehearsing the part of a drunk man, and the director said to him, “Michael, what are you doing?” “I’m acting a drunk.” “But that’s my point. I don’t want you to act a drunk. I want you to be a drunk. You are trying to act drunk, but what a drunk does is try to act sober.”
So who knows, maybe opera would work if the players remembered that “less is more”. Hamlet tells the visiting troupe at Elsinore to “speak the speech trippingly”. I have an idea Mozart also favoured a lightness of touch. In Così Fan Tutte the men farewell the ladies and go off to the wars in music that would break your heart. But of course it’s all tosh. They are not going to war at all. They are going to play an elaborate sex trick on their lovers. I can’t think Mozart looked to Lorenzo da Ponte, his librettist, for psychological depth. He probably read the stuff, burst out laughing, and said, “That’ll do.”
But who knows, once I’ve got a little more German under my belt, maybe I’ll become a regular attendee at Bayreuth, solemnly responding to the summons of the Wagner tubas.
Hier wird der Vorhang aufgezogen.
Volles Wogen der Wassertiefe.