Archive for the ‘books’ category

St Leonards — more local history

July 30, 2012

Spotted along the Marina yesterday.  Evidently he didn’t stay long!

An Eminent Victorian, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was a fascinating and infuential writer — author of Sartor Resartus, The French Revolution and On Heroes and Hero-Worship among many other things.

His personal life was interesting too, and quite sad,  but let’s not go there.


‘The foreign gentleman executes an air upon the Grand Piano’

June 4, 2012


This is a scan of a rather faded print that hangs above my piano – found on a stall at Cambridge Market for 10p (‘Nice picture;  two bob?’) among a pile of Victorian generals, circa 1971.  Having just written an essay on Liszt (for Philip Radcliffe), I knew at once who it was.

The mount is labelled ‘London, Richard Bentley, 1843’.  The print was included in ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’ of 1848, but I suspect it was a Punch cartoon first.

The scrawly signature is not, as I first thought, ‘F Liszt’, but ‘J Leech’ – John Leech, prolific and well-known Punch cartoonist.

So… was Liszt in London in 1843?  Any thoughts on whose salon this might be (if not entirely fictional)?

in memoriam Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008)

March 19, 2008

Arthur C Clarke died yesterday, aged 90.  The obituaries all call him ‘the man who invented geostationary satellites‘ and ‘the man who wrote 2001‘…

Down-to-earth and practical scientist and inventor, visionary prophet, inspirational writer — we owe him our thanks for opening our eyes (and directing them skywards) to so many unexplored possibilities.

I hope it’s not too long for this blog, but I’d like to reproduce a short story which made a huge impression on me when I first read it (40 years ago!) and still resonates in today’s world…

The Nine Billion Names of God (1953)

Arthur C. Clarke

This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint. “As far as I know, it’s the first time anyone’s been asked to supply a Tibetan monastery with an Automatic Sequence Computer. I don’t wish to be inquisitive, but I should hardly have thought that your- ah – establishment had much use for such a machine. Could you explain just what you intend to do with it?”

“Gladly,” replied the lama, readjusting his silk robes and carefully putting away the slide rule he had been using for currency conversions. “Your Mark V Computer can carry out any routine mathematical operation involving up to ten digits. However, for our work we are interested in letters, not numbers. As we wish you to modify the output circuits, the machine will be printing words, not columns of figures.”

I don’t quite understand….”

“This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuries––since the lamasery was founded, in fact. It is somewhat alien to your way of thought, so I hope you will listen with an open mind while I explain it.”


It is really quite simple. We have been compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We have reason to believe,” continued the lama (more…)

Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia

February 8, 2008

At last – with grateful thanks to Santa Claus – here is the book I have been waiting for! –  an intelligent, informed, detailed but also imaginative and perceptive book about music and the brain, from the author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Uncle Tungsten and many another thought-provoking work.  Previous attempts to tackle the subject for the general reader have always seemed to me to be calamitously uninformed musically, and/or insufficiently technical or detailed scientifically  (and the more specialist scientific reports had not come my way).  Pace Dr Sacks, Anthony Storr‘s Music and the Mind (1992) was a great disappointment to me (having eagerly looked forward to it) – too much vague romantic waffling and not enough hard knowledge of what is actually going on in music.

Oliver Sacks approaches the subject from a deep professional knowledge and experience of neurology, plus a keen amateur interest in music and, as always, a probing imagination, an enquiring mind, and an openness to the ‘unscientific’ realms of emotions, personal life histories, irrational thought processes and associations, fantasies and dreams. 

The criticism sometimes directed at his other books – that he finds poetic and philosophical insights in the case histories of what are actually seriously dysfunctional, unhappy and sick patients – is less applicable here, since in most cases music is not only a boon and a comfort to his patients/case histories, but may be the only thing that keeps them functioning at all.

He writes fascinating chapters on topics including:

• Sudden musicophilia (following a stroke or injury)
• Catchy tunes and ‘earworms’
• Musical hallucinations

• Faulty music – amusia, dyhsarmonia
• Absolute pitch
• Musical savants
• Synaesthesia

• Music and amnesia (the case of Clive Wearing, who suffered near total memory loss – short and long term – following an infection, but still has his music)
• Aphasia and music therapy
• Tourette’s syndrome and music
• Musician’s dystonia – the sudden or progressive inability to play one’s instrument

• Musical dreams
• Music and emotion
• Music and depression
• The hypermusical abilities of people with Williams Syndrome
• Dementia and music therapy

Dr Sacks occasionally (more…)