Sunday, 1 August 2010

Tolkien opened the doors

Lord of the Rings was the first grown-up book I read, at the age of 13, and it shaped the whole of my adolescent experience of high culture.

The next heavyweight authors I tackled were George Bernard Shaw and Robert Graves - both recommendations of my father. They represented two sides of my character which developed in parallel - rationalism and romanticism; classicism and medievalism.

At this point and for a few years there was an intoxicating sense of culture opening-out; as if it would become a self-sufficient world for me. 

On the rational side I was bowled over by Bronowski's Ascent of Man on TV and went on to read others of his books, I focused on science in school, and I read modern socialist political theory - joining the Labour Party on my 16th birthday. A typical Fabian technocrat.

On the romantic side I read William Morris's political essays and stories, Fritz Schumacher, and was an adherent of the 'ecology' (now Green) movement. I loved Thoreau's Walden and intended to become Self Sufficient following the guidance of John Seymour. A typical utopian transcendentalist.

In music I loved the classical baroque on the one hand (Telemann before Bach - which must be unusual), and opera on the other hand; the classicism of the treble recorder and the visceral appeal of folk rock (especially Steeleye Span) an unaccompanied group singing. I sang in Gilbert and Sullivan, and a Haydn mass - and played Morris Dances, jigs and reels on the most vulgar instrument of all: piano accordion.

A third side of my character was a particular liking for clever and stylish 'aristocratic' lifestyle as epitomized by 18th century classical architecture (eg. nearby Bath and Bristol), the plays of Sheridan and Goldsmith, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (which I acted in), Three Men in a Boat (which I imagined to be aristocratic - although actually it was lower middle class), PG Wodehouse and Tom Stoppard's plays.

These enthusiasms were enabled by the cultural resources of the local library plus inter-library loans, then later Classics for Pleasure records, the Bristol Central Library (including an extensive free record library with classics and folk), the Old Vic Theatre, and the elegant backdrop of Park Street, Cawardines Coffee Houses, and George's bookshop.

Three to four decades on, and most of this has fallen by the wayside except for Tolkien, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jerome K Jerome, and baroque classical music - the rest is mostly a matter for occasional re-visitation in a pleasantly nostalgic spirit (or to understand my previous mind-set) rather than a living, learning, serious engagement.