Libraries: gateways to other lives

Zadie Smith speaks out in defence of libraries -- and a Tory spokesman responds.

Zadie Smith gave a speech last night at a pub in Kensal Green, very close to the local library she hopes to defend. Public appearances from Smith are rare these days, and her most recent appearance is testament to her strength of feeling on the subject of library closures.

Smith delivered a robust defence of the value of public libraries. Books are a form of education, and education is one of the few effective methods of social mobility that this country has. Zadie Smith put this simply: "I know I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living a 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green. Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives."

She continued:

It always has been and always will be very difficult to explain to people who have money what it means not to have money. "If education matters to you," they ask, "and if libraries matter to you, then why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if they matter so much?" They're the kind of people who believe that value can only be measured in money.

No doubt the government would like to deny this. So who, when Radio 4's Today programme went looking for an official response, did the coalition send to do battle with the dangerous Zadie Smith? They sent Shaun Bailey, "ambassador for the 'big society' project", and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. As an unelected party member, he wasn't a participant in the parliamentary debate held in January on library closures.

Bailey is a former security guard, and a man who puts things starkly. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, he said: "The key wickedness that the Government has perpetrated is the idea that government can pay for everything. If you continually give people things and ask for nothing back you rob them of their will. People have to be involved in their own redemption."

To Bailey, Smith's speech was not about library closures, community disintegration or the dissolution of social apparatus, but rather "about self-driven success".

"The problem with this big massive state that she really enjoys," Bailey said,"is that it actually hasn't had any luck in imparting the notion of education to young people."

What if Smith's point, as the Today presenter Justin Webb pointed out, is not merely that we shouldn't be closing libraries, but we should be encouraging people to use them? Bailey runs what looks like an excellent social charity, which aims to "break the cycle of poverty, crime, and ill-health in struggling communities, through people centered sustainable change". Yet he didn't see how libraries would help this aim.

Smith isworth quoting at length on "community":

Community is a partnership between the government and the people, and it's depressing to hear the language of community, the so-called "Big Society", being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership, as it attempts to renege on the deal. What could be better than handing people back the power so they can build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives, and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government, and the protection of public services to government, that being government's mandate, and the only possible justification for its power.

Bailey had other ideas: "it isn't the government that decide if your library stays open or not, it's actually your local authority ... that's why this Big Society thing is important, because you are close to those people for an electoral point of view and have more sway over them. If you, as a group of people, want your opinions heard and that you have the right and the mechanism to go and do that so actually I don't accept any of her points on that."

Perhaps it's more that he didn't understand any of her points? Libraries are, currently, a public service. As Smith recounts: "Like many people without any money, we relied on our public services - not as a frippery, not as a pointless addition, not as an excuse for personal stagnation, but as a necessary gateway to better opportunities."

Smith spoke yesterday for a reason, and it would be a shame if fleeting publicity were to be the only result. Many people have been fighting to save libraries for quite some time now -- if you want to join them, or to check what your own council's plans for libraries are, a good place to begin is here, where Ian Anstice, a public librarian, has created a site that is the most up-to-date mine of information on the web. From there, you could visit Voices for the Library, and add your voice to theirs.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser