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The Gatekeepers -is there Bach on Mars?

This week, NASA’s Mars Rover Vehicle starts laying down samples on the surface in tiny titanium cylinders. When the interplanetary DHL van eventually arrives to collect the cigar tubes and dispatch them to Earth (‘please select two-hour delivery window’) there will be no art, theatre, music or cinema amongst the samples, just, well… earth.

To get to the red planet currently requires a nine month journey (think Avanti Sunday Service) while the earthly delights of its blue neighbour (the breathtakingly vast sweep of entertainment, art and culture) are as close as the nearest book, phone, laptop or picture on the wall. And yet for most of us there are some stretches of the business of pleasure that remain as remote as the farthest galaxy. For me they might be the undiscovered worlds of Bach, Braque or Paul McCartney. I can see them shimmering in the distance a trillion light years away from the safe confines of my cultural home planet (Beethoven, Picasso, and Bowie). So what are the barriers to cultural exploration? And how can we learn to leap over them?

Low hanging-ravioli

I know at least two people who, if finding themselves in a cell on Death Row, would choose, from an unlimited selection of the world’s finest cuisines, Heinz Beef Ravioli for their last meal on Earth. Their ultimate culinary feast, accessed in three minutes via a tin opener and saucepan/microwave, which they would then carry with them into Eternity.

Some things take a little longer. Both to prepare and to appreciate. A ticket will give you access to a venue, but it is not always enough to allow you full access to the experience. With Jukebox Musicals, that ever popular genre (that some would consider the theatrical equivalent of a tinned pasta) it’s as easy as stepping into an elevator; a lift in which the ‘much-loved’ numbers themselves press all the buttons. And there’s a similar trajectory at play when you’re at a gig performed by one of the Giants of the Genre… Please God let them play all their classic hits and not the recently-released concept album celebrating the post-Modernist architecture of Milton Keynes.

Accessibility is, without doubt, primarily the responsibility of the writer, composer, film-maker or choreographer. But those creative individuals, and collaborators, often share a broader responsibility … to explore the furthest boundaries of their fields and take audiences with them. And that is not always a pain-free journey. Imagine what it was like, Earls Court 1973. Two pounds fifty for a David Bowie ticket and fifteen pounds for a Bowie-clone haircut. Only Bowie has undergone a Doctor-Who-like regeneration; Ziggy Stardust is dead, killed off not by the fans, as the song would have it, but by his creator’s restless spirit. And so we’re presented with Yamamoto-clad Aladdin Sane kibukeying to the sudden glissando strings of Mike Garson. And we don’t know any of effing the lyrics!

But artists are not the only gate-keepers. Indeed, some creative spirits are simply incapable of breaking down their work into more comprehendible chunks. As Alan Bennet replies to a young student who’s proudly analysed one of the writer’s pieces. “You might well be right. I’m only the writer. I’m the last person to ask.” (I paraphrase wildly but you get the gist. Apologies, Alan). Often we will need others to carry the torch and lead us in new directions. Be it John Peel perpetually skirmishing on the outer fringes of popular (or-not-so-popular) music, to Wordsworth and the Old Romantics outraging the conventions of their day by insisting that the rugged, untouched vistas of Switzerland and the Lake District were actually beautiful. Our path-finders might even, on rare occasions, be critics, that often waspish and frequently-ridiculed breed of newspaper vendors, who, when at the top of their game, can spring open the doors to life-changing new experiences, either by setting a piece in its creative context or throwing light onto an unfamiliar landscape and making it recognizable and resonant. Or it may fall to one of the other chapters of the business of pleasure to spark the flame; such as the art dealer, Paul Durand Ruel, who, pretty-much single-handedly, recognized the genius in the work of those most unsellable punks of the modern-art-world …The Impressionists.

We rely on these cultural hustlers, calling like touts from dark doorways, to lead us astray.

Without them so many roads would have been untrodden, so many voices unheard.

Keats dedicated his first volume collected works to the critic and fellow-poet Leigh Hunt. Without Hunt, the ever-young poet’s fiercest proponent, it’s likely that none of us would have heard ‘The Nightingale.’ Keats’ dedication to Hunt reads:

‘Glory and loveliness have pass'd away; For if we wander out in early morn, No wreathed incense do we see upborne Into the east, to meet the smiling day: No crowd of nymphs soft voic'd and young, and gay, In woven baskets bringing ears of corn, Roses, and pinks, and violets, to adorn The shrine of Flora in her early May. But there are left delights as high as these, And I shall ever bless my destiny, That in a time, when under pleasant trees Pan is no longer sought, I feel a free, A leafy luxury, seeing I could please With these poor offerings, a man like thee.’

Leigh Hunt lived in Putney. Down the road in Wimbledon there is a school which was the first in the country to introduce compulsory failure lessons. The school had a formidable entry test, which kind of pointed to its pupils’ more-than-likely success at subsequent exams during their stay. And this worried the headmistress. “What’s the point of our students spending seven years here?” (I paraphrase wildly again). “If they never encounter challenges that really take them beyond their current limits?”

There has never been a better time to go one step beyond. No matter how daunting that first ‘giant leap’ they may first appear, nowadays there are guides aplenty to help you on your journey of discovery; be they books, TV and Radio programmes, or, heaven forfend, Podcasts. And as the spirit of panto melds with ghost of pandemics past, I sincerely hope that the Genie of the Lamp brings you all at least one new cultural experience in 2023. One voyage into the unknown that seems challenging early doors, but that you persevere with, wrestle into relevance, and resonance, and thereafter becomes one of your favourite future haunts in the business of pleasure. Part of your cultural home planet.

Because as we all know, the name of that solitary Rover Vehicle, trundling across a freezing rock-scape ninety-million kilometres away is… ‘Perseverance’

Copyright David Thomas 2O22 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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