Billions of blathering buffoons

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The week has passed, spending its time gawping open-mouthed at the events across the Atlantic, and pausing only to complain about the first significant rain for two months.

When it hasn’t been raining (don’t tell anyone, but this has actually been most of the time) I’ve managed some fine early morning walks, taking in my regular patch on Streatham Common, where I’ve been serenaded by, among others, a hopeful song thrush and London’s 3rd-loudest chaffinch. Those birds who have already hooked up and are busy tending to the needs of their young haven’t yet reached the ‘completely wrung out by the pressures of parenthood’ stage, but it’s only a matter of time.

Streatham Common, by the way, looks fantastic at 6 a.m. at this time of year. Recommended, although perhaps only if you live nearby.


Away from the common, I tend to block out traffic noise with a succession of audiobooks, the latest of which has been a book about marketing. Not my natural milieu, I hasten to add, but with my own second book some way down the pipeline it seems perverse not to do some research into how best to sell the bally thing when it does appear.

I’m usually allergic to this kind of thing – exhausting talk about ‘quality evergreen content’, ‘media influencers’, ‘incentive structures’ and ‘platform-building’ – but this book does contain some decent advice. Nonetheless, the author’s repeated insistence that we be ‘relentlessly helpful’ to our readers conjures up unappealing images of Boy Scouts forcing cookies on unsuspecting passers-by, or, even more chilling, the relentless helpfulness of a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses camping on your doorstep, playing the long game in their quest for your thoughts on the good news about Jesus.

It also occurred to me that helpfulness is more than somewhat against the natural ethos of the conductor.

I was reminded of this by the discovery that a programme I recorded a few weeks ago will be broadcast this Sunday (5pm, Radio 3, and afterwards on iPlayer, thank you for asking.)

This programme was prompted, apparently, by a letter from a listener asking if conductors were no more than ‘self-aggrandising buffoons’. Tempting though it was, when the ever affable Tom Service challenged me with this bold statement, to agree wholeheartedly with it and adjourn to the nearest hostelry for a well-earned snifter, this might not have made for the most entertaining broadcasting experience, and I felt it incumbent on me to provide some sort of counter-thesis.

The problem is that even though the recording was made quite recently, I now can’t remember what I said. I remember filling the microphone with blather. I remember Tom occasionally giving me a thumbs-up (I took this as a good sign, but it was more likely a secret code between him and the producer in the booth behind me, denoting their intention to cut everything I said out of the programme and send me on my way as soon as possible). I remember, as always when asked to elucidate my thoughts about conducting, leaving the studio and immediately thinking of a dozen better things I could and should have said.

Part of the problem is that it really is difficult to explain what conductors do, and as a result their part in the music-making process remains largely mysterious to concertgoers, orchestral musicians, and, very often, to conductors themselves. And because I can’t remember what I said, I’m not sure how helpful my contribution to the programme is going to be.

So in accordance with the precepts of the aforementioned marketing book (optimistically entitled ‘Your First 1000 Copies’, by the way, should you ever be in the market for such a thing), I am now going to be relentlessly helpful. Because it just so happens that there exists a volume dedicated to the demystifying of the conductor’s art, from upbeat to cufflinks.

What a coincidence.

Tom, incidentally, has also written a very fine book about conducting. I present this information not merely in the interests of balance. If you want to learn about conducting from the mouths of various horses, this will serve you well.

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