The Airing Cupboard - No. 1

Why am I here? by Stephen Pettitt

13 February 2009

The Minotaur

About three years ago my name slipped very quietly from the arts pages of the London Evening Standard. I was at least allowed to bid a modest adieu to my readers in my last review, which at my own request was of a recital by Mitsuko Uchida, but there were no farewell parties, no announcements, and certainly none of the brouhaha with which my first experience of having a seemingly secure connection with a newspaper severed had been surrounded. (On that initial occasion, back in 1995, my enforced departure had been considered a matter for the UK Press Gazette.)  

I simply became one of that legion of the journalistically nearly-disappeared, and have survived since largely on my weekly 150 words in the Sunday Times and lodgers. I wasn't actually sacked, because I wasn't actually employed. Like most of those who earn their income from writing about music, I was and remain a freelance, earning my fees on a review-by-review basis. I wasn't even legally contracted, although when it came to being asked to write features for other papers the Standard behaved as if I had agreed to - and it had paid for - an exclusivity deal. True, there did exist around the place a piece of paper which called itself an agreement, presented to us critics on an annual basis. At first I signed it, but having an eye for these things I soon realised that legally it guaranteed me nothing. So after a year and a few attempts at suggesting a wording which gave me something in return for my loyalty I simply ignored the document. I wanted them to know that I knew that there was no quid pro quo involved in our relationship. In a buyers' market I had to be grateful for whatever crumbs were tossed in my direction. That's the way of the world.
Between this latest dismissal and the first there had been a couple of others. In 1997 I disappeared from the pages of the Sunday Express after only a year when Sunday and daily operations merged and it was decided that the papers needed only one music writer between them. Then a few years later I deeply offended the plainly rather over-sensitive Financial Times by spilling the beans in my Classical Music column, Going Critical, about its refusal to pay for even a modest hotel after it had asked me to cover a chamber music weekend in Fontainebleau in France. This was despite the fact that I hadn't mentioned the paper by name and the bean-spilling was done in the context of what I had imagined was a funny story about my near-immolation of those who had eventually been kind enough to supply me with a bed. When five years later I tentatively made an enquiry about the possibilities of writing the odd concert review for the FT again I was reminded in no uncertain terms that the indiscretion was still remembered and that I was persona non grata.
I'm recalling all this now because I have recently received the news that my friend Geoffrey Norris has been given his marching orders by the Daily Telegraph after a quarter-century of loyal service, for the greater part of which he has been Chief Music Critic. Geoffrey, likewise, did not hold a salaried position, but some sort of contract. His departure is part of a severe cost-cutting package at the paper. Just before Christmas - it's always just before Christmas - all contracted arts journalists were informed that their contracts would be terminated at the end of December. (It took someone else to point out that some contracts required a little bit more notice than that, so execution has been delayed.) Some writers were retained on a piece-by-piece basis, required to do more work for less money. I've no news on whether or not London Mayor Boris Johnson's reported £250,000 pa for his weekly column has been similarly trimmed, although to be fair he's reputedly donating a tenth of that sum to his bursary for a budding young journalist at the London College of Communication. (One hopes only that there will be a job for the recipient to go to when the time comes.)  

What has happened at the Telegraph is, of course, symptomatic of what has been happening in the national press for some years. Since the early 1980s arts coverage has slowly become fused with entertainments coverage, and classical music has suffered particularly badly. Only The Guardian retains credibility as a daily newspaper which adequately acknowledges its significance and reflects reasonably what goes on in this country, thanks largely to the fact that its Editor, Alan Rusbridger, is himself a cultured, musicianly man who knows what a sonata is and indeed plays a few of them himself on his handsome Fazioli. The change can be summed up in the categorisations. When I began writing for The Times, in 1980, what I wrote came under the generic heading 'Music'. The work of Duran Duran, Banarama and their ilk was 'Rock/Pop'. Now 'Music' is rock, pop and the rest, and the stuff with which I and you are concerned is shoved in the corner and labelled 'Classical' (which it often isn't, of course.) Moreover, under that heading come artists like Hayley Westenra, marketed as such by their recording companies and Classic fM. When the Standard asked me to review Westenra's concert at the London Palladium I couldn't wriggle out of it, so I decided to take the categorisation as gospel. She didn't get a very sympathetic review. Her adoring fans' website still bears a page painting me as an evil and ignorant monster.
The broadcast media are no better. When did Newsnight Review last feature on its panel anyone of any real musical literacy? Their spectacularly idiotic critical reaction to Birtwistle's The Minotaur last year would have been comical were it not insulting, and meanwhile Kirsty Wark's enthusiasm for various bland pop bands scarcely rises above the intellectual level of a star-struck teenager. Is anyone who fronts Radio 4's Front Row as versed in the skill of listening - the absorbing, processing and reacting to complex patterns of sounds - as they are in the skills of looking or reading? And if not, why not? One recognises fully the need for copy that is approachable as well as eloquent and insightful. But there comes a point, long passed, when the manner becomes so important that the message is forgotten. A populist approach need not obviate solid content.  

What's also happened in recent years, thanks to the internet, is that anyone, however lacking in experience, can be a critic. There are any number of web sites out there only too pleased to publish the views of Joseph or Josephine Public. Insight, musical literacy, listening skills and a way with words are often conspicuous through their absence. I have been deeply critical of many of these sites, and with justification, though as a believer in free speech I would always defend their right to exist. The problem is that they take on an air of authority which they do not always, shall we say, merit.  

But I sensed when I first chanced upon that here was a site which aimed to be a cut above the rest. It conveyed not only enthusiasm but a questioning intelligence and expertise, and so it was no surprise to discover that the idea from it came from former and current postgraduate music students at King's College, London. True, nothing is ever perfect, one has one's own views on certain matters like star-ratings, and there's always room for refinement in any publication. But it's a space where thought is welcome, and that makes it invaluable. It's run - for no reward - by people who really care about the art of music. It fills an important gap, and more and more one sees snippets of its reviews quoted alongside or even above quotes from the broadsheets. The industry likes it and needs it.  

In an ideal world advertisers and subscribers would ensure that was a going commercial concern, and its writers and editors would be paid for their hard work. They certainly deserve to be paid, for, make no mistake, writing about music is difficult. Writing about it well, combining insight with literary flair and appealing to as wide an audience as possible without diluting the subject, is a task for committed professionals. As newspapers provide less serious coverage, some even pretending that ignorance is a virtue, and as even our specialist music magazines plunge downmarket, seeking out glamour for their covers, so becomes a more essential part of our musical landscape. Where else are we now to find the next Andrew Porter or Paul Griffiths?

By Stephen Pettitt  

Photo: The Minotaur (Bill Cooper)


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Stephen Pettitt and do not necessarily represent those of or the Editor.