M flew back to Russia yesterday morning. There was great drama. The flight was at 9.30 and at 7.40 the driver, who was supposed to pick her up with the limo at 6.45, was still apparently asleep. They got there in the nick of time, no doubt at the expense of stress, exertion and – the worst thing – running in front of strangers. Why do people put themselves through this? Is it a sense of duty? She could have been anxiety-free in a lovely black cab or even better the Heathrow Express, even if she baulked at the friendly dark-blue Piccadilly Line.
Professor David Daube of Oxford and Berkeley Universities, who taught me Roman Law, used to say that it was from collective guilt that the upper classes in ancient Rome would expose a selection of their children to death on mountain tops from sun, rain and wild beasts. He drew parallels with the predilection of the English upper classes to exposing their children to the public school system. Maybe these days the comfortably-off assuage feelings of guilt by submitting to the unreliability, venality and occasional criminality of contract drivers.
Actually it’s not just drivers. Years ago I was required to fly somewhere in Europe with a suspicious-looking but obviously prosperous solicitor, who was acting for a proto-oligarch. I said that I would meet him at the gate. Half an hour spent reading a book on the Tube to Heathrow would be a welcome break in the working week.
He brushed this aside. No, he said, I will pick you up in my Ferrari. It is only a few miles out of the way for me.
So he did. The traffic was terrible, so I was standing for half an hour by the roadside in the rain, and then we crawled all the way to some hut in Hounslow. I would never use the public car park, obviously, he said; I leave the Ferrari here and they polish it for me. It’s very reasonable.
How do we get to Heathrow? I asked. Do they run you there? It was already long after the checking-in deadline. I’m sure a cab will come along, he said.
Of course we ended up running in front of strangers, and when we got on the plane, which they held for us, unkind remarks could be heard on all sides. We settled into our seats. He named the proto-oligarch. He uses a helicopter service, he said wistfully, when he flies. It’s very reasonable.
Nowadays, of course as often as not it’s not even Heathrow: it’s down to the depths of Hampshire for the private jet.
I have made a significant discovery as regards Wagner. The other day I found a CD entitled The Ring Without Words. I have always found opera singers a bit of a trial and I thought that an instrumental account of the masterwork, particularly one coming in at just over an hour as opposed to just under a day and a night, could only be a good thing. Furthermore since the orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel no one could suggest that it was a greatest hits package or anything vulgar of that sort.
I’ve done my dues. I’ve attended all the operas, Covent Garden and in English. So I felt entitled. I considered myself a Wagnerian.
The record certainly doesn’t hang about. No sooner had the Serious Incest Music been run through at the beginning of opera two than, bugger me, here come the Valkyries, riding. And before you know where you are the World has ended, again.
I suppose that my view of Wagner was more or less the Stephen Fry one: horrid man, racist, early Nazi, self-obsessed, humourless, mercilessly unkind to his friends; but a composer of sublime music. The supposed antithesis didn’t bother me. It seems to me to be evident that unpleasant people often make great art, and vice versa. Another piece of the jigsaw came with my discovery that most of Wagner’s musical language, and even some quite specific things like the Tristan chord, were developed by the good Abbé, Franz Liszt, at a time when Wagner was still in shorts and pulling the legs off non-Aryan spiders.
Then I listened again, and the lack of singers lent the experience some perspective. And what struck me, apart from the magnificent sound of the Berlin Philharmonic being vigorous, was that it didn’t sound sublime, it sounded exactly what you’d expect from someone who was horrid, racist, proto-Nazi, self-obsessed, humourless, unkind to his friends and had stolen his best bits. In fact it sounded silly. I could hear lashings of self-pity (the quality that Anthony Powell says is a prerequisite for a best-seller). I could imagine Wagner button-holing one with the frightening intensity of the wholly humourless. ‘I’m not joking,’ he would say, as they always do.
Maybe it is because of discovering and loving the good Abbé, his enormous humanity, decency and dignity, and his very good tunes. Maybe it is the advancing of the years. Maybe, after all, the fat ladies’ singing is the clue to it.