The book that flew: A hawk used for pigeon control in St Pancras station. Photo: Getty
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Peregrines over Westminster, my bloody great beehive and the Samuel Johnson Prize

The winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for her book H is for Hawk chronicles a life-changing week. 

Saturday is a disconcertingly beautiful day. The November air is like hot gin. I’m driving down from Newmarket to Hastings in a glorious mood – until I realise with horror that I’ve still not sent the BBC people a release form for the Samuel Johnson Prize interview they filmed last week. I panic all the way to Hastings, where the employees of a local branch of Waterstones come
to my rescue. They and other high-street booksellers have been fantastic champions of H Is for Hawk – my book about the death of my father, training a goshawk and the life of the novelist T H White – but this is way beyond the call. I email them the form from my phone. They print it out for me. I sign it, photograph it and email it to the BBC, feeling half like a spy, half like a complete idiot. Then they give me directions to my destination – the Beacon, a huge Victorian villa perched on an inland cliff. Carefully I write the directions on a piece of paper and promptly leave it behind.

I’m here for the Black Huts Festival, a bewitchingly eclectic event run by the poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson. He publishes my poetry and invited me to give my first public readings decades ago. Eventually, I find the Beacon and haul my case from the car. Distant police sirens, a waxing moon, a sprawl of end-of-season courgettes over winter garden frames – and above, a migrating woodcock flying in from over the sea, uplit in the sodium dusk. Where has it come from? Finland? Russia? Then inside to greet Nick and hear the folk musician Alasdair Roberts rehearse. Astonishingly beautiful, playing to an empty room.

Explosions in the sky

Sunday is lunch with friends and a ride on the Hastings funicular – seaside architecture is so magical – before a reading with Patrick McGuinness. His Other People’s Countries is one of my books of the year. Then I set off back to Newmarket in darkness. It’s Bonfire Night weekend: all the way, sprays of light blossom and fall across the horizon, turning Essex into a scene from Tron. The best moment was sitting in the car park at Birchanger services munching a cold samosa alongside scores of other drivers, all of us transfixed by a huge local display across the road. It was extra thrilling for being unexpected, for not being meant for us at all.

Peas and progress

I’m at the RSA for a Samuel Johnson Prize event. Six white chairs on a spotlit stage under James Barry’s extravagant 18th-century paintings The Progress of Human Culture. No pressure, I tell myself. I stuff my face with wasabi peas from a bowl in the green room and spend the first few minutes onstage necking glass after glass of water, my throat on fire. The diversity of the shortlist is thrilling. There are many memoirs on it this year. I am fascinated by the reasons you might write yourself into a narrative about wider historical and cultural phenomena. Doing so is a good way to explore how your assumptions colour your understanding of the subject, how your view, like everyone’s, is always subjective and inevitably partial.

Too much adrenalin

Tuesday is lunch at the British Museum with a fellow historian of science. We talk about invasive tamarisk, rescue dogs, British empire shipping maps from the 1930s and the ecologist Charles Elton. I rush off to get my hair done for the Samuel Johnson Prize ceremony. I’ve decided on a bloody great beehive. It is a ridiculous creation and I love it. Back at the hotel, hyperventilating and spaced on hairspray fumes, I drag on a frock, stumble into a taxi and zoom off to the awards at Riba. Rosy light, crowds, pilasters, smiles, the whole thing already surreal.

“Did you manage to eat anything?” I was asked afterwards. Well, yes. Only because the dinner was so lovely I kept forgetting what it was in aid of. Then I’d remember, put down my cutlery, all appetite gone.

One by one, the judges take the podium to deliver acute critical assessments of each book. Then the impossible news from the chair, Claire Tomalin, that H Is for Hawk has won. Shock, disbelief, delight, then waves of dizziness. I manage to hug my dear mother, my editor, Dan Franklin, and my publicist, Ruth Waldram, without falling over but trying to make it up to the stage in high heels is very dicey. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry if I won. But I cry anyway, right the way through my acceptance speech.

Then I’m whisked away for interviews, feeling oddly as if I’m made of helium and hay – buoyant, airy, liable to fall apart. All social ability has vanished. When the BBC’s Nick Higham describes the book to the camera as being “three in one”, I blurt out that I like the comparison because it makes the book sound like washing powder. Oh, God. Too much adrenalin. I can’t sleep a wink that night. I spend most of it playing “match three” games on my phone and when the taxi comes to collect me for the Today programme at 6.40am I resemble an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

How to make books fly

Wednesday’s hero is Ruth, my Jonathan Cape publicist, who accompanies me all day, organising things to perfection. We race between the BBC, Four Colman Getty and newspaper offices; a whirl of podcasts and photo shoots. Cranes, denuded plane trees, burnished silver light. There’s one glorious moment of stillness in stationary traffic: I look out of the window and see a pair of peregrines circling over Westminster, high in a cirrus-hatched sky.

By lunchtime, I’m almost hallucinating with tiredness but a quick stop for fish and chips works wonders. Then to the Random House offices for a celebration. I’m reminded once again that, however lonely the writing of a book might be, it’s other people who make books fly: editors, designers, artists, proofreaders, sales people, booksellers and all the others behind the scenes. The prize belongs to them, too. As I stand there, cup of tea in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, I try to make a less emotional speech. But seeing how happy everyone looks, I burst into tears all over again. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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