This Christmas my standout gift was an illustrated edition of Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, The Prelude. Wordsworth grew to adulthood in turbulent times, witnessed the French Revolution first-hand and, upon returning to England, became so disillusioned with English politics that he found himself in a church surrounded by people praying for a British military victory in the ensuing war, and petitioning God for the opposite outcome.
The Prelude, written primarily for his friend and soulmate Coleridge, tells the story of his life and spiritual education, from a childhood spent in the natural beauty of the English Lake District through college education, youthful adventures in London and on the Continent, the discovery of his vocation as a poet and the revitalisation of his inner life as part of a small circle of loved and trusted friends (plus his devoted sister).
What struck me about this poem written over 200 years ago is its feeling of immediacy. Many of the struggles Wordsworth goes through – the idealism that burns and is crushed, the confusion about the direction his life should take, and the powerful pull of his homeland, are fresh and contemporary. This great work, regarded as a pinnacle of high culture, has the freshness and vibrancy of a modern blog. Its central theme, of a passionate and sensitive young person working out their place in a turbulent world, has never seemed more relevant.
The other cultural experience I will draw on in the dark months that probably lie ahead comes from the opposite side of the high/low culture divide but I find it equally moving and powerful. It’s the elegant perfection of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in Follow the Fleet, and the words and haunting tune of the great musical number, Let’s Face the Music and Dance.
There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance
I’d forgotten how dark the setting of this diamond is. First, the political situation in 1936, when the movie was released, was ominous in the extreme. Secondly, just before Astaire launches into his musical appeal, Ginger’s on the point of throwing herself overboard. This, and the melancholy threaded through the exquisite melody and deceptively insouciant lines, gives this “cheap music” (Noel Coward’s line in Private Lives) a real emotional charge. It seems a perfect fit for this edgy New Year’s Day when any celebrations we feel are overshadowed by what is to happen in Washington on January 20th, and much else besides.
One of the most depressing political developments of 2016 was the increasing tendency to mock culture as the fiefdom of a privileged elite. There’s nothing new about this; the Nazis did it too. Why bother with the past? This is an increasing tendency in extreme political circles on both the Left and the Right. It has to be resisted at all costs. It is our ability to envision and create things of beauty that makes us uniquely human, that gives us empathy, courage and hope. The defiance of Irving Berlin’s lyrics speaks to the human spirit, which can manifest itself in forms and circumstances that seem trivial and banal, but are anything but.
In England we live in a culture controlled by a vicious tabloid press and a culturally bankrupt broadcasting scene that has thrown up the horrors of reality TV. Our Government starves local authorities of the resources they need to keep libraries and museums open and gross social inequality bars the way of many talented young people from underprivileged backgrounds into the arts. But the human spirit will not be daunted by such short-sighted blindness; people will face the music, they will help to write it in new countries and new societies (as Irving Berlin did), and they will need it to survive.
One final thought. We can often feel overwhelmed by horror, unable to decide what to do to make the world better. The answer is simple – find what you do best, and do it with all your heart. That was what Astaire did, what Wordsworth did, and what I will continue to do in my own work in 2017. Like the words of Irving Berlin’s song, this will turn out to be more powerful than you could possibly imagine.