Head to head: Wilkinson with Cromwell's skull
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Barbarism begins at home: a macabre history of severed heads

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires.

Severed: a History of Heads Lost and Heads Found 
Frances Larson
Granta Books, 336pp, £20

When did you last see an image of a freshly severed human head? It used to be possible to get though life without ever encountering one. Now this most horrific represen­tation of human degradation – in which the victim’s suffering advertises the killer’s pride in his own depravity – is likely to jump out at you without warning from your social media feeds.

It happened to me earlier this year when I found myself browsing through Kurdish solidarity campaigns on Facebook. Here’s a petition, here’s a meeting, here’s some new piece of information – and then an image I saw for maybe a quarter of a second before reflexively closing the browser window: the head of a Kurdish woman, drenched in her own blood, held aloft by the hair.

Alongside this was another that purportedly showed the woman when alive, smiling and making a V sign in her olive peshmerga fatigues: the female fighter known as Rehana. Although it later emerged that the beheading photograph showed a different woman entirely, that seemed beside the point. Somewhere near Kobane, a brave, beautiful woman had still been reduced to an object and a bloody trophy to be used for political ends by – let’s call him what he is – a degenerate barbarian.

I can’t get the picture out of my mind, which, of course, is what both the poster on Facebook and the perpetrator want. Here, “Witness what is being done to us” and “Witness what we will do to you” come together in a single image. What was truly horrible, though, was that the murdered woman remained beautiful, her eyes closed, her brutalised face at peace. If a dead countenance, disconnected from its human passions, represents some form of truth, can that truth still be beautiful?

These are some but by no means all of the themes explored in the impressive Severed by the Durham University research fellow Frances Larson, biographer of Henry Wellcome and historian of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. On almost any other subject you would applaud the author’s foresight – well done for reading the zeitgeist, Sunday Times bestseller guaranteed – except that in the climate of horror brought on by the seemingly endless YouTube beheadings, readers could be forgiven for reaching in panic for the new Robert Galbraith instead. This would be an injustice because Severed is an eloquent and provocative exploration of what the detached head means, one that reaches beyond today’s desert atrocities into the core of human culture.

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires. Larson’s first step is to describe in intricate detail a peculiar behavioural feedback loop wherein western explorers’ fascination with shrunken heads and other Amazonian fetishes led the “savages” – who were exceptionally canny – to increase production of the said heads by means of war and kidnapping. (Bad news for Paddington Bear: market forces operate in darkest Peru, too.) These supposedly authentic tsantsas, or shrunken heads, freighted with confirmations of cultural superiority as well as unknowable talismanic energy, were in reality just so much grisly tourist tat: I Went Up the Jungle and All I Got Was This Shrunken Head.

If you think we liberal moderns are beyond all that, consider the reliquaries in Larson’s beloved Pitt Rivers Museum. “Visitors may . . . think of them as gruesome trophies of an untouched savage people,” she writes, “when what they are actually seeing are the gruesome trophies of a western fascination with the idea of an untouched savage people.”

Severed does not consist solely of mea culpas for imperialist perfidy. It is worth emphasising Larson’s range, her splendidly ironic detachment and her incorrigible fas­cination with the bizarre and illuminating anecdote. We learn how Oliver Cromwell’s detached head was paraded from dinner party to dinner party atop a spike for hundreds of years after his execution; we see Canon Horace Wilkinson, a Suffolk vicar, brandishing it like an ecclesiastical Bez as late as 1949. (It was finally buried in 1960.)

In the Frankenstein horrors of the French artist Théodore Géricault – who painted severed limbs and heads that he had borrowed from morgues – and early transplant medicine, we find that art and science share grotesque, death-fixated roots. We read how, in 1488, the Hamburg executioner Claus Flügge despatched 79 pirates in a single day and remarked: “I am feeling so well that I could easily go on and do away with the entire wise and honourable Senate.” Its humourless members put Flügge to the chop instead.

Severed is as enthralling and entertaining as a book on such a subject could ever be. Time and again, Larson reminds us how much better medical writers are at this stuff – how much calmer and more penetrating – than the imprecise generalist could ever be. Evidently cutting up human bodies as a student teaches you a certain forensic stoicism. Her book deserves a wide audience but I fear it won’t get one. The subject matter is too close to home and it is coming closer.

Andrew Harrison is the editor of Esquire Weekly

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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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