Opera and opera-going proliferate at very strange times. The opera revival of the last decade is a matter of considerable interest, since in some ways it seems so inappropriate, so profligate, when all the talk is about tightening belts. Opera booms when the expense of it is most ruinous, and events seem most ‘operatic’ when they are huge, scary and very much for real. Opera as a cultural form lays bare the fact that there is money to sustain it while at the same time – the same Wagnerian time, one might say – it calls into question the base that sustains it. Something was changed utterly when the children of Switzerland decided a few years ago to seek out and destroy the national opera house. Opera in Switzerland had become the symbol of an EEC style of bloatedness, of financial mismanagement on a scale that only the financing of opera could rival. After the riots in Switzerland, punks against Puccini, it really did seem that Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi; that Luciano Pavarotti was the ultimate Italian mother’s boy, bent on world domination, and that opera would be subsidised in the industrial wastelands of a Europe unable to employ vast numbers of its own citizens. History repeats itself, appearing first as tragedy, then as farce, and then as opera.
The social history of opera is instructive in other ways – above all, in the way people talk and write about it. There seem to be two positions: a modest one, a way of liking opera, as Frank Johnson does, on the quiet, without shouting about it, and an orgiastic one, where one is cosmically-life-affirmingly-overwhelmed by it, as Bernard Levin is. What we are talking about when we talk about opera becomes an intriguing moral moment. People who talk about it well seem to do it very well, to be able to be large-minded and yet sceptical at the same time. (True Wagnerians do not think that everything Wagner wrote was wonderful.) If talked or written about badly, opera wreaks a terrible revenge, and everything seems pompous and deranged. Talking badly in this way also becomes a way of not really thinking: we may, for example, call Parliament a ‘soap opera’ simply because we are staggeringly uninterested in what is happening in our own seat of government. Calling something ‘operatic’ is our way of avoiding finding out about it.
Opera sits at the centre of a now visible two-class society – Britain in the 1980s. As we sit idly by, a small élite of quite extraordinary wealth rediscovers opera. ‘The middling sort’ of citizenry may, of course, find their way into the upper circle. But the language of opera, rendered histrionically, invades other places, and the culture of opera can quite suddenly seem the province of the stinking rich. And, if we say this, if we dare to propose that opera in this version may be unacceptable, we have Mr Levin on hand to condemn us as life-hating-pleasure-loathing-Marxist-tainted-little-shits. Verbum sat.
As these successive collections of his political journalism indicate, Frank Johnson obviously quite likes opera. In fact, his own sense of opera helps one see why he has a deserved reputation for Parliamentary reporting: he doesn’t boast about opera, and he doesn’t underestimate Parliament. I make this point about Johnson not boasting about opera because he actually spent some part of Maria Callas’s performance in Norma at Covent Garden in 1957 with the diva’s right tit thrust into his eye, and ‘it remained there throughout the subsequent duet with Stignani.’ Mr Johnson, who was born in Hackney, was playing an urchin in the opera uptown, and there are programme notes to prove it. But Johnson is a sceptical empiricist, putting in the long hours, with a good sense of ordinary foolishness. He avoids the larger questions, in order to study the minute language of political life. He eschews the cosmic. It seems that Mr Levin’s life was changed by discovering Moby Dick. Mr Johnson, as a young man, found it ‘unintelligible’. Now of course Mr Johnson in some sense took over from Mr Levin at what one is tempted to call the late London Times. He was a little worried, following on in this line: ‘Politics was my trade, not the universe.’ No doubt it was a diminuendo devoutly to be wished. Johnson is not indefatigable compared to Levin, but he is, in the best sense, prosaic. He likes how elections feel, out on the streets. He inhabits the cruddy world of politics and sees hilarity in its tiny events. He knows his subjects (‘James Callaghan, the Harold Wilson of politics’). He knows that Mr Healey is clever, and will therefore lose the argument. And he reminds us that Mr Heseltine is ‘a blonde’.
Johnson quotes his namesake, the good Doctor, on taking care to see ‘that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it.’ This doubting conservatism informs Johnson’s political writing, and when he’s being funny it works. When he resorts to mere facetiousness, it doesn’t. He is wrongly uninterested in any Wilsonian legacy, silly about Dennis Skinner, bad on Enoch Powell and crass about gays and feminists. There is no necessary connection between being a political commentator and having no capacity for praise. Mr Johnson’s lack of ostentation is fine, but sometimes the large thing, well said, is the right thing. Out of Order is inevitably full of Falklands triumph, but it’s hard not to feel that Mr Johnson is too easily impressed, while, in his account of election year 1983, he seems deliberately underimpressed by Roy Jenkins holding Glasgow Hillhead, as he had been when Jenkins took it in the first place. It is the facetiousness that annoys. Is John Pilger really so dreadful? Can the Stephen Waldorf affair be taken lightly? Does Johnson have to talk about Greenham women as if he were an agent of Lord Gnome? The British Library will catalogue him under ‘Anecdotes, facetiae, satire etc’ – which is fine. But he should allow himself the chance to state a principle, as well as having the wit to hint that Lloyd George is the last PM one can imagine having a fuck. At one point he invokes Callaghan in Cardiff on 4 June this year – ‘perhaps the last Labour Prime Minister’. Callaghan is offered an umbrella against the rain. ‘“Thank you, but no. I prefer to keep both hands free when I’m working,” he replied, slightly chillingly.’ Johnson then takes a chance at a larger statement which is exact and chilling: ‘The whole effect was of a proletarian or lower middle-class version of the Third Marquis of Salisbury – wary, experienced, loathing ideological fervour.’ That is very good, and shows that Johnson should extend himself: he has earned the right to overwrite, because he has read his Trollope, knows his Goethe, but modestly. The index to Out of Order has the imposing body of G.W.F. Hegel interposed between Heffer and Heseltine, so you see my point. My feeling is that Johnson could do better still – and that he is not seen to best advantage between the hard covers of an anthology. It would be a pity if he were to end up as a footnote in the important story of how the Peterhouse approach has penetrated the metropolitan press – with the exception of the London Review of Books.
With Bernard Levin all the opposites hold. Enthusiasms could be read as an innocent saga of how a lonely schoolboy came to love life, but that doesn’t work. Levin’s odyssey through his own greed is aggressive and ridiculous. He may see himself as busy slaying the New Puritans, but it is the story really of his own appetite that concerns him. His review of Nicholas Nickleby undoubtedly helped that show to its later success, but Mr Levin claims that he himself ‘legitimised enthusiasm’ (his emphasis). I am drawn to his hope of glimpsing into transcendental things, but most of this offensive book is accusatory: if you don’t talk big, and think big, like Levin, you are somehow anti-life. Why should we be told about his eating something, stuffed with something else, sauté’d in some other bloody thing, and dished up in some unreachable village in Provence that no one else knows about? Does it matter that Bernard Levin is surprised that he didn’t discover (or is it invent?) Shakespeare until he was 11? He tells us that ‘a man of modest means’ may not ‘be able to eat at the Gavroche, but he can eat at the Gay Hussar.’ You have only to ponder what a family of modest means would make of that to see it for the baloney that it is. Books like this drive one to class warfare, simply as a way of answering back. Levin is of course swift with his famous double-bind, that if I invite him to ‘tell the inhabitants of Dalston about your mousseline de rascasse in Cannes’, then I must be a pleasure-loathing-creep. After this torrent of cultural, gastronomic, literary and musical display, maybe I’ll become just that. The world, poor battered thing, is Mr Levin’s oyster. He has seen into the Infinite and, not least, Wagner (who, as Levin well knows, would not be grateful). I have to plump for Frank Johnson’s deliberate Philistinism, where he talks about Amfortas, in Parsifal, ‘doing nothing but moan all evening’. I see that Enthusiasms has driven one reviewer to R. A. Knox’s classic Catholic work. Enthusiasm, of 1950, a critique of illusionist visions. Well, to play the game, I was driven back further, to Meric Casaubon’s Treatise concerning enthusiasme, as it is an effect of nature: but it is mistaken by many for either divine inspiration, or diabolic possession, of 1655. So there.
I thought I’d never say it, but thank God, after all that, for Clive James. Poem of the Year is not a great success, partly because it is worried about itself, and the presence of one of its best antecedents, MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. James goes for a ‘sprightly’ ottava rima to write about 1982 as it was happening. Lebanon, Falklands, space shuttles. As a result, we get a curate’s egg, hatched under pressure. Take Thatcher on public spending:
She can’t trim bureaucratic overmanning.
She cuts the social services instead.
You needn’t be as wise as Pitt or Canning
To see how malnutrition lies ahead.
Now the decency in this is to propose that malnutrition does lie ahead. The cock-up is ‘wise as Pitt or Canning’, where the demands of the rhyme bring in on the side of deep perception two of the least wise leaders of early 19th-century Britain. This nervousness in James’s public style is not a fault, except when it leads on to Levinesque, name-eating conspicuous consumption. And leads to howlers such as the discussion, at the beginning of Section VIII, of something called ‘the British World Cup football team’:
A goalless draw with Spain wipes out the chance
Britain was in with.
Hey Clive, you’re going to need a bodyguard after that.
Poem of the Year is best when most about private things, and private hopes. Even if it is Biarritz, there is a lovely glimpse of his children, happy on a beach, oblivious to the various distant horrors. James too often quotes to show off, but here Auden’s line from ‘Taller Today’ – ‘Something fulfilled this hour, loved, or endured’ – is right. And James can be shrewd, even Audenesque:
The artist when he claims the Right to Fail
Just means the risk he takes is a sure bet.
Tucked in towards the end of James’s poem is an optimistic aside – a glimpse of China, a future China, perhaps, of relative freedom, bicycles, safety, a place, maybe, where children could be brought up, without heroin, or paté de foie on a bed of caviar toast. James disliked the regimental side of China, looked clumsy on a bike, and also felt in Hong Kong, by his father’s grave, that freedom should have ‘a sharper taste’. James sees China as a place which is neither Australia and America, where the biggest ambition of all seems to be a chance to see the masterworks of European grand opera.
Vague expectations of the SDP, a sense of how the world is joined together in networks of horror, images of that horror, the need to believe in a continuing struggle in Poland – these are features of the poem, features that seem overtly political when compared with the collection of satirical essays by Michael Frayn. As James Fenton suggests in his Introduction, Frayn’s satire, even when concerned with worldly matters, seems to come from a slightly unrecognisable recent past. Frayn’s is a style that is wry, conversational, non-operatic, and closer to Beachcomber than we can now afford to be. Some of the pieces are hilarious, and also innocent in a way that is hard to pin down. It may be to do with how the world changed after 1968 (when Frayn ended his stint as an Observer essayist), but Christopher Smoothie MP does seem to come from a different time – as do titles like ‘I said “My name is ‘Ozzy Manders, Dean of King’s” ’. The recent past, as Alan Bennett has suggested, is a puzzling time and Frayn’s individuality and wit share in that puzzle.