I think I must be getting used to both lockdown and retirement. I seem to be quite happy taking Bruno for a walk, sitting in the garden reading a book, making a Zoom call with some friends, writing this blog, watching some TV and going to bed. And then doing the same thing tomorrow. And the day after…. Even more of a giveaway is that I find myself sitting in the garden, not doing anything and not really thinking about anything. Long periods of time can slip away. I’m quite happy not to be in a hurry and not worry about “getting things done”.
More Malcolm Gladwell now. I’ve written about him before. I recently read his book “Talking With Strangers.” Wikipedia states that his “writings often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology and social psychology”. I also found that he has a brilliant podcast called “Revisionist History”. I listened to one today while Bruno was ferreting out rabbits in the fields.
Today’s podcast was all to do with time. He started by describing the Law School Admissions Test in the USA. There are five 35 minute sections to the test, all multiple choice. It is, apparently, very hard to complete the test in the time given. The score attained by students determines which Law School they get admitted to. Malcolm Gladwell asks why it is so necessary to allow limited time for each of the tests. He makes the point that if more time was given, different students would be admitted to the most prestigious Law Schools. I wasn’t sure about the validity of this argument because I have always placed great value on achieving a task in a small amount of time. It was one of the real differences between being a programmer and being a teacher. For most (but not all) teacher tasks, completing a lot of preparation/marking/administration was deemed important. There were very few tasks that were really important. The odd error never really mattered. As a programmer, completing a shoddy program in a short time was pretty useless; completing a perfect program was essential and the time taken didn’t really matter. So in the past, speed was more important than accuracy. Getting things done quickly was essential. Now I think my attitude has changed.
Malcolm Gladwell moved on to chess and spoke to a Grand Master. They discussed three variations on the game of chess. In a World Championship game, the players have a total of 120 minutes for the first 40 moves, followed by 60 minutes for the next 20 moves and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game. Two variations on the timings for chess games are “Blitz Chess” (where each player only gets a total of 10 minutes for all the moves in the game) and “Lightning Chess” (where each player only gets a total of 1 minute for all the moves). Different players are ranked as Number 1 in the World for these three variations. The point that Malcolm Gladwell makes is that the rules for World Championship games are arbitrary and if the timings changed, the rankings would be different. He asks why is it so important to put a time limit on a game of chess or an admissions test to Law School? Do things have to be done in a hurry? And why is so much value placed on doing things quickly?
So this got me thinking about music. I often think about “Bob Wilson – Anchorman” by Half Man Half Biscuit which is 1 minute and 36 seconds long. Or “For No One” by The Beatles which is 2 minutes and 1 second long. I used to think that packing so much emotion/humour/imagination into a short song was fantastic and it was part of the appeal of the song. I started wondering about whether this is a sensible way to think about things. Now that lockdown and retirement are starting to be a way of life for me and not just a temporary inconvenience, spending longer doing things, taking my time and not worrying about getting things done in a hurry may become more important. Taking my time is a state of mind I should embrace and not fear.
I then started thinking about pieces of music that take their time and seem to be in no hurry to end. The first piece of music that immediately sprung to mind was the title track from the 4th King Crimson record, “Islands” which is 9 minutes and 15 seconds long. It stretches out in a languid unhurried way and slowly develops into the most exciting and emotional climax. In fact, I’m always disappointed when it finishes. Always.
It starts with a simple piano from Keith Tippett and vocal from Boz Burrell. Keith Tippett was never a member of King Crimson and is still a highly regarded piano player. Boz Burrell was a member of King Crimson at the time but left soon after to play bass in Bad Company. After a couple of minutes Mark Charig plays a mournful cornet solo. He had previously played with Long John Baldry and Soft Machine. He is now 75, currently lives in Germany and is a member of the Wuppertal-based Conduction Orchestra. The lyrics in this song are by Peter Sinfield who wrote the words to the first 4 King Crimson records and later went on to write for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Bucks Fizz, Celine Dion and Leo Sayer. Mark Charig plays two cornet solos on this song and the second one is so sublime that I must have listened to it 1000 times and never tire of it. It builds and builds with Robert Fripp’s mellotron adding dramatic tension while Keith Tippett’s piano playing is outstanding.
The rest of the album is nearly as good. Here is a review from “Pitchfork”: “The title is fitting: These jazzy, string-accompanied tracks are somewhat disconnected from King Crimson’s larger body of work, but they’re worth a visit. Their final album to feature the lyrics of Peter Sinfield, “Islands” is a transitional work, showing a band on the way to a tighter, bolder sound. While this exercise in jazz fusion was a brief phase, it was also an essential one. The album’s gorgeous story-songs, like the title track, and psychedelic saxophone parts courtesy of Mel Collins show the band at its most escapist. A minor work for King Crimson, “Islands” would have been the highlight of many other acts’ discographies.”
Amusingly, a Rolling Stone review of the record says this: “It’s only in the final, title track, all 9:14 of “Islands,” that King Crimson get to the best of their music and the heart of their dilemma. It’s a pastoral, lyrical, open – ended and open-tuned piece that washes over you like slow tides or an extra-warm bath late in the evening, and just like that bath it has a tendency to put you to sleep in the tenderest, most sanguine way. In fact, I recommend it for that very purpose, with no sarcasm intended. “Islands” wins the Award of the Month, and perhaps of the Year, for Best Last Record To Put On Before Retiring.”
So there you go then. It’s time for me to linger on things a bit more. Time to take my time. Time to put on the Best Last Record To Put On Before Retiring. Zzzzzzz.