A Ticket To The Sergeant Pepper Gig

This is a fanciful trip to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper concert, exploring details in both lyrics and music which give a kind of reality to an imaginary event. I wrote the original piece over thirty years ago in my early twenties, during an isolated period in my life after university. The album provided solace, an experience which has remained with me ever afterward. Just lately, I’ve felt compelled to go back to those Sergeant Pepper notes written as a young man, and have my older self pull them together into something that might be coherent. Maybe a period when live music is largely inaccessible, would be a good time to revisit history’s greatest virtual concert.

In the original version there was no messing about. I just launched right in with Sergeant Pepper’s first song. Now, I think it would be more satisfying to imagine a short build up. After all, a real concert involves anticipation, selecting an outfit, planning how to get to the venue and travelling there. So in that spirit, I’ll imagine a period of impatient expectation, followed by the donning of colourful clothes and a journey to the gig. As my mode of transport, I select the Yellow Submarine, which appeared on the Revolver album in 1966, a year before Sergeant Pepper. The interesting thing about the Yellow Submarine is the way a cramped, enclosed space apparently has enough room for everyone: “We all live in a…” The submarine could do multiple picks ups, and never turn anyone away, no matter how many people wanted to climb aboard. This is an unlikely scenario, until you consider the way colours work in this deceptively simple song. The submarine is yellow, the sky is blue, the submarine sails through a sea of green. Yellow and blue in combination make green. So individual colours of the song are part of each other, like pigments running together in a water colour painting. This colour combination suggests that the Yellow Submarine is actually part of those vistas of sea and sky it sails through, which of course really do provide enough space for any number of passengers. And this idea of small, lonely, individual things, somehow existing as part of a bigger picture, would be the inspiration for that imaginary concert that the Beatles devised on their Sergeant Pepper album.


Things seem to have started nicely. We have arrived by Yellow Submarine, and stand in a queue outside the concert hall. But remember, there will always be someone at the door, who wants to check tickets and bags. In my imagination, the door of the Pepper concert hall is guarded by The Walrus. This is a character John Lennon wrote about in his song I Am The Walrus, recorded only a few months after Sergeant Pepper’s release. John described writing I Am The Walrus as an attempt to thwart academically inclined fans who indulged themselves in scholarly interpretations of his songs. Any lengthy consideration of Beatles songs has to get by The Walrus, who is an undeniably intimidating presence.

“Tickets please. No photography, no literary or musicological analysis. Thank you.”

Alright, let me handle this.

We already know from our submarine voyage that Beatles songs had begun to involve themselves in the idea of specifics and generalities – small submarines and big skies – coming together. Similarly, in talking to The Walrus, we find ourselves facing a very specific individual, whose identity bamboozles us precisely because of the dramatic way The Walrus announces that identity. That word the is the thing. After all, if someone said “I am a walrus”, it would be clear we were talking to a large sea mammal who swims in the sea, eats fish and enjoys sunbathing on rocky shorelines. But The Walrus is something else. Is this an honorary title, referring to a monarch of walruses? Is it something else entirely? We don’t know. The Walrus, apparently big and intimidating is somehow indefinable. So, with a bit of positive thinking, and maybe even some of the analytical skullduggery, which John Lennon was so suspicious about, The Walrus steps aside, leaving the way clear for us to enter the hall. John liked a joke, and putting thoughtful subtext into his song designed to defeat earnest fans would be just like him. Even though I’m sure our enigmatic door attendant must still be around somewhere, he has allowed us through.


Now for some practicalities. We must check we are here at the right venue on the right day.

“It was twenty years ago today.”

These opening words tells us that the concert takes place on a very definite date. However, I have listened to the Sergeant Pepper album on countless occasions, over decades. In my twenties, I went through a period of listening to the album almost daily for months. As the years went by, I continued to listen, though at longer intervals, the album reserved for particularly needful moments. On each occasion, without exception, it has been twenty years ago today. And any time I might listen in the future, it will still be twenty years ago today. So the date for our concert is not so definite after all. In fact, any day can be the special anniversary day when the Pepper concert takes place.

We have worked out that we are here at the right time, which conveniently can be any time. How about the venue? Are we in the right place?

“It’s wonderful to be here.”

“Here” has been many places for me, the concert having followed my travels from home to university, into adult life, in places where I’ve lived, worked or visited, and on train journeys between. Everywhere I’ve played the album has been “here”. So it seems the specific venue can be here, there and everywhere. The Walrus wasn’t so intimidating after all. No lonely heart is excluded. Welcome.


We are in the right place at the right time. So who is this band we have come so far to listen to? And will they play the oldies or try something different? Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band appear to be a very familiar outfit, having been around for twenty years, going in and out of style – almost in the easy-listening category. They could turn out for any birthday or wedding. On the other hand, as recognisable as the band might be, they remain unknowable enough to promise something new. After all, are you familiar with the band’s lead singer, the one and only Billy Shears? Are you thinking, Billy who? He is presented as a very definite, special individual; yet no one has ever heard of him. After this single mention, he will never appear again. This is the person who will lead the band, someone unknown in their fame. He’s a bit like Sergeant Pepper in that respect – who we never even meet at all.

With equivocal introductions made, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show. Fittingly for us lonely hearts, the first song is about trying to find love.


With a Little Help From My Friends is a song about someone looking for love, when a flighty nature makes it difficult for them to settle on any one person. Could it be somebody? Could it be anybody? Might they find love at first sight, or will their search continue forever? The feeling of longing is so expansive that in some ways it seems incompatible with an individual person. And yet, if you never settle on an individual and keep searching without end, then you never will find love. To find love, it would be best to just relax and accept friendship. But that leaves you just “getting by” with only a little help – which of course leaves you yearning for love… And so our romantic circles around from one special person to many friends and back again; just like The Walrus circles around between dramatic individuality and someone we can’t define.


The fate of the dreamer looking for a special individual is explored in the next song, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. This is a tale set in a dream world, where anything seems possible. A traveller sets out on a river voyage, which meanders past tangerine trees, towering cellophane flowers, and girls with kaleidoscope eyes. But even on a river like this there remains something that cannot be reached. The “girl with the sun in her eyes” remains elusive.

One journey leads to another, the river voyage followed by a trip in a newspaper taxi, which takes the traveller to a station where they board a train. Even after such a voyage, the traveller still find himself waiting for a journey to start. And then, would you believe it, the girl with the sun in her eyes turns up at the turnstile of the station, which our seeker is just about to leave. In searching for the sunny-eyed girl, he should never have got on this train. His search would have been more successful if he had not gone anywhere. The traveller passed rocking horse people on his travels, and maybe it would have been best to join them, rocking back and forth but never really moving on. Or it might have been advisable to take a lesson from the plasticine porters at the station, who are able to stretch themselves in different directions. These stretchy porters wear looking glass ties, in which their world appears reversed, once again presenting an image that goes in two different directions.

Following on from the strange fate of the Lucy traveller, in the next song, Getting Better, two people have got together. Things have improved in that sense, but the search is not over. Has the idea of things getting better itself become an oppression? The singer repeatedly uses a stoic British phrase, “I can’t complain”. Unable to complain, he is constrained by an idea that changes in his life have to be about a journey towards a better place. Thinking of the Beatles themselves, fame and fortune, seen from outside, appeared to improve their lives immensely. That, of course, was an illusion. For someone at the centre of such a storm, aspects of the Beatles experience must have been a nightmare.

The second part of Getting Better sees a change of perspective. Until now, past efforts have all been directed to breaking rules down. The singer hated school rules and vowed to escape them. Everything is reversed with a new resolution to bring discipline to his sometimes violent and cruel behaviour. The prize is impossible to define, the journey towards it having no end, even reversing back the way it has come. A harsh metallic beat appears at intervals through Getting Better, and continues on at its end. This beat seems to suggest that things remain monotonously the same despite all the other ups and downs of the rest of the music. But at least there’s a playful skip to break up the beat as it plays out.


Off we skip then to the next song, Fixing A Hole, where we again meet someone who is trying to make an ambivalent escape. Fixing a hole where the rain gets in, he is trying to repair a wall between himself and the distractions of the outside world. It seems strange to be trying to find freedom by repairing a wall that shuts out the world. And then there is that odd word fixing. There is enough ambivalence about the word to suggest he might actually be making a hole in the first place. Fixing a drink means making a drink.

Contradictory DIY then extends to the door. There are some cracks, which need filling. Wandering free usually means leaving through a door, not strengthening the door that locks us in.

For the sake of argument, let’s say efforts to fill holes and repair cracked doors are successful. This leaves the room sealed up, as a world of its own. In such a place an individual can do whatever they like, judge right and wrong on the basis of personal whim. There is nothing getting in from outside to challenge, or offer comparisons. The room’s smug denizen describes people outside as arguing and never winning. Despite this bravado, you have to wonder if the situation of those arguing people is really worse than that of our hermetically-sealed room dweller who can win because that’s just a personal decision.

The song ends as it began, with another attempt to fix a hole where the rain gets in. And of course the suggestion continues that this room is not as isolated as it seems. A fixed hole is both repaired and created. This room is not so much a stuffy, ivory tower study, more an enigmatic Yellow Submarine interior.

We have considered words so far, but Fixing A Hole is a good place to start thinking more about the music we are listening to. The thing is, as far as the music is concerned, Fixing A Hole alternates whole tones and semitones. Now, I know that any talk of something like semitones will have The Walrus reappearing, striding down the aisle, grabbing me by the lapels of my rainbow jacket and threatening to throw me out. There is nothing so unmusical as analysing music. This is almost as bad as trying to take photos of the show. But please, Walrus, bear with me just for a moment and you’ll see what I mean. You see, the thing about semitones is that they are notes with smaller gaps between them. The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss (the Walrus grip tightens on my jacket) once wrote that semitone intervals – half notes – sound so sad because they represent unbroken continuity. People are always seeking completeness, when attempts to secure that goal end up creating as many problems as they solve. The sad, moaning semitone is the sound of this frustration. In contrast, open, whole tones give a happy and hopeful feel. The emotional effect of Fixing A Hole’s music relies on both of these sounds working together. You see, Walrus, I am just trying to engage with the song, not push it away with over-thinking. I am not trying to be a clever musicologist, but to share my feelings about something I love. Quite frankly, Walrus, you ought to be pleased that someone is taking an interest.

That told him… or her…. or whatever The Walrus is.

Looking sheepish in a walrusy kind of way, The Walrus lets go of me and waddles off.


Since we are not trapped in a locked room, or thrown out of the concert hall, we are free to move on to the next song. She’s Leaving Home is about a young girl who has decided to leave her comfortable home and doting parents, to run off with a man from the motor trade.

Until this point, Sergeant Pepper’s songs have generally been about trying to get home, to find love, to feel complete and secure. But in She’s Leaving Home, home is quite clearly a place from which to escape. A young girl wants to find excitement in the outside world. There is much uncertainty in her plans. Will this man from the motor trade show up for the appointment they made? Recalling the contradictions of “twenty years ago today”, the girl chooses Wednesday morning at five o’clock to make her bid for freedom. The events of She’s Leaving Home are not happening on any particularly significant day. It is simply a day halfway between the freedom of a weekend which has gone and one that’s to come. The girl may think this Wednesday is a special day of liberation, but in reality there are endless Wednesdays to come after this one. The girl leaves a note for her parents. Her mother reads this brief and unsatisfactory explanation standing at the top of the stairs, which she has been climbing all these years in her hopes for her daughter. While the girl follows her dream, her mother’s hopes end on the landing.

Or do they? After all, the girl does not meet her man from the motor trade. She is waiting for him. Who knows if he will ever turn up? The girl could be back home by the following week and this whole sorry affair might have blown over. The girl’s dreams could be shattered, her mother’s dreams could be saved and it’s still only Wednesday.


Anyhow, the weekend soon comes, and with it the circus show of Mr Kite, as described in Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.

Mr Kite is a great showman, flying in the air, leaping through fire. His name suggests both a desire to soar free and tethered restriction. Mr Kite’s incredible feats are always attached by a string to ordinariness. To jump in the air, Mr Kite needs a trampoline. Mr Henderson, his partner, performs summersets on solid ground. Henry the Horse dances the waltz, his performance now so familiar that we are told that “of course” Henry dances the waltz. Henry could fly to the moon, but after a while, once this routine of equine space travel had settled down, the circus master would be introducing Henry’s moon-shot act with the words “of course Henry the Horse flies to the moon”.

Mr Kite’s ambitions are also restricted by a sense of specific time and place. The show takes place on Saturday at Bishopsgate; visitors are told not to be late; the band begins to play at “ten to six”, times becoming ever more specific.

Then, unexpectedly, in the final lines, the idea of time opens up. The show has been “some days” in preparation, a “splendid time” is guaranteed for all, and it’s “tonight” that Mr Kite is topping the bill. All of these times are non-specific. “Tonight” can be any night that the album is played. Now the Saturday of the show is more like the Wednesday in She’s Leaving Home. Mr Kite’s Saturday is one in a never ending, indeterminate sequence, becoming more like the vague “splendid time” which Mr Kite guarantees for all his guests.


And that brings us to the album’s halfway point, the Wednesday morning of Sergeant Pepper. It’s time for an interval. There was a natural pause with the original LP format, since I had to rouse myself from wherever I was – which was often lying on the floor between the speakers with my eyes closed – to go to the record player and turn the record over. An interval is an opportunity for getting some food or drink. Psychologically it also offers an opportunity to pause the suspension of disbelief, return to reality for a time and recover our critical faculties. “What did you think of that?” would be a typical question you ask of the person sitting next to you as the lights come up. An interval is a way to engage with the show in a new way, as something to think about rather than simply experience. I’ll explain that to The Walrus, who I imagine doubling up on his security duties, selling interval ice cream.


There’s the call for the second half. We must get back to our seats.


After the garish amusements of Mr Kite’s circus, the second half opens with George Harrison providing Indian inspired spiritual and philosophical advice with his song Within You And Without You. Will India offer something different to Bishopsgate, I wonder?

Within You And Without You is a philosophical song about the relationship between an individual person and the generality of things. The song consists of contradictory guidance. On the one hand, we are urged to look beyond ourselves to find happiness, to break down isolating walls of illusion and reach out to others. Only when we’ve seen beyond ourselves is it possible to find peace of mind. But much advice goes in the opposite direction, urging a listener to look inwards, to see all you search for lying within. Overall, Within You And Without You is telling me to look inside myself at the same time as looking outside myself.

This is confusing. Disorientation is also the theme of lines about looking for love. If we find love, the only way to hold onto it is with “our love”. There is a feeling of circularity. We look for love outside ourselves, but we can only hold onto love using the love within us, which we are looking for outside us. There’s a similar feeling in lines which talk about people who gain the world and lose their soul. “Are you one of them?” asks George in his role as bewildering guru. People who gain the world and lose their soul also lose their power of perception. They “can’t see”. This suggests that if think you are not “one of them” then you probably are, as your conclusion based on an unfortunate lack of awareness. Then there’s a further suggestion that if you think you might be one of them, then that shows a measure of insight which suggests you’re not one of them after all! I know that’s confusing, The Walrus is giving me the evil eye. All I can say is that pondering on these lines for a while, any easy idea of them and us, kind of dissolves.

And now going back to that question about whether India offers something different to Bishopsgate, well the answer is yes and no. We see the same relationship between specifics and generalities in Within You And Without You that we saw in Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite. But there is one big difference which India offers; that difference lies in the music. Recalling the semitones I talked about with Fixing A Hole, traditional Indian music is different to Western music in the way it makes much greater use of what are called microtonal intervals, that is, tiny gaps between different pitches, smaller than those between semitones, which are the smallest gaps Western music generally allows. Within You And Without You slides between its various pitches in a long, sweeping moment. To me, it has all the contradictions of semitones seen in Fixing A Hole, but more so.

Within You And Without You is Sergeant Pepper’s most obviously philosophical song, exploring in a very explicit way the characteristic Pepper relationship between an individual and the wider world. It’s a song that does take itself rather seriously. Fittingly, at the end of a self-important song, there are a few seconds of derisive laughter, importance and frivolousness moving within and without each other.


In the next song, When I’m Sixty Four, we have apparently left philosophy behind and are back in everyday life. A young man is writing to his girlfriend, asking if she will still love him when he is sixty four. He describes what they might be doing at that age – mowing the lawn, going for a drive on Sunday. He could mend a fuse, she could knit sweaters. And every summer they could take a holiday on the Isle of Wight, as long as it doesn’t cost too much money. It seems a mundane end to all the hopes towards which they “scrimp and save”. There is a lot of ironic sadness when the young man says “who could ask for more?”

Even though the young man understands what’s in store, this does not diminish the ardour of his love for his girl, or his desire that she stay with him until he is sixty four. The young man begs for a reply to his advances, and hopes they will “fill in a form”, which in a gawky way, suggests the practicalities of marriage. Desperation causes the young man to sign his letter: “yours sincerely, wasting away”. It’s as though old age exists in youth, the strength of youthful ardour causing debilitating listlessness, when someone in their calmer, later years is more able to relax and avoid such stress. When I’m Sixty Four, suggests that youth and old age, energy and lethargy, are different sides of each other. The song comes over not as energetic, or lethargic, but as mischievous, a feeling which lies somewhere in between. And that includes the music as well as the lyrics.

What exactly is it that makes the music of When I’m Sixty Four sound mischievous? I’m not sure whether the desire to know comes from the old age or the youth in me. Analysing mischief might be the sign of a boring old boomer; or it might demonstrate the curiosity of a vibrant young fellow. As I started writing about Sergeant Pepper in my twenties, and continue now in my fifties – maybe it’s both.

We’re going back to the semitone. Writing about Fixing A Hole, I said that the sadness of semitone intervals was the sound of completeness, which does not bring the happiness it promised. But this really refers to downwardly moving semitones. When the chromatic scale slides upwards, the effect is humorous, mischievous, and in a quirky sort of way, happy. So, two different feelings can be expressed by a chromatic scale, the sadness of completeness desired and denied; and the cunning fun of trying to creep up on that ever-slippery completeness. The play between these two feelings gives the music of When I’m Sixty Four its expressive quality. Look at the line “will you still be sending me a Valentine”. The words “will you still be sending me a…” move up in two groups of semitone intervals, B, C, C♯, G. Then the three syllables of “valentine” fall in a sad semitone decline over A, A♭, G. There’s exactly the same effect with the phrase “yours sincerely wasting away”. The words “yours sincerely” slide upwards, with “wasting away” slithering downwards. And just to add texture to this whole effect, the initial rising phrases use rhythm to break up the semitone completeness, either with a dotted quaver, semi quaver rhythm – dum de dum de dum – or with clear crochet beats – dum dum dum dum. Then in the falling phrases, on “valentine” and “wasting away” the rhythm slips off the beat, dodging away from the metronome as all good mischief should.

The sweetness of this music does not have the meditative quality of Within You And Without You, where someone accepts life for what it is. This is more the sound of a cheeky game, darting around between frustration and hope offered by the prospect of completeness in terms of Western life, earning money, saving it, and retiring happy.


In the song that follows on, Lovely Rita, old age seems a distant prospect, as we are back with a young man trying to win his girl. With the confidence of youth, the lad is sure that “nothing can come between us”. But as the song goes on, it seems that everything comes between them; and it’s not even major or dramatic barriers that keep them apart, but life’s ordinary constraints, which somehow become overwhelming.

Rita is a meter maid, an enforcer of mundane, small scale restriction. In her uniform Rita looks “a little like a military man”, a representative of watered-down martial discipline. Even when Rita is out of uniform, a sense of ordinary but insurmountable restriction continues to follow her. The young man takes Rita to a restaurant where they have to face the petty embarrassments of social etiquette, having an awkward discussion, it seems, about who pays the bill. Then when the couple go home, nothing more sensational than a “sister or two” sitting on the sofa, thwart any attempt at seduction.

It seems that the young man is unable to move, hemmed in by unremarkable, insurmountable barriers. But as I thought about this, I remembered that meter maids punish people who have stayed in one place for too long. Rita is filling in a ticket in her little white book, because someone has outstayed their time at the side of the road. There is inertia in this story, along with a force that drives people onwards, even when they would rather stay where they are. The young man is caught between two traps – he can’t get anywhere, and is always forced to move. Perhaps he faces the worst of all worlds. Or maybe like Mr Kite, he strains against a tether, which helps keep him aloft. A lost kite flapping about in the air is never a pretty sight, and does not stay airborne for long before snagging in a tree. The music of Lovely Rita comes down on the happy side of things, with a lively beat and intervals which are generally open and hopeful.


We are coming now towards the end of the show. Given Sergeant Pepper’s ambivalent sense of time, it is fitting that the next song is called Good Morning Good Morning.

Good morning is a phrase we use so regularly that it has become meaningless, more a reflex than an act of communication. The singer says he has “nothing to say,” a sad statement which he always follows with an enthusiastic, “good morning, good morning.”

After saying his good morning, the singer goes on to describe a mundane daily round, where people have “nothing to do”. He has to go to a job which he hates. He travels home again through a ruinous wasteland of a town, where everything is closed and people are half asleep.

Then, the singer’s spirits lift. It is difficult to determine any precise reason why. It’s not as if anything has changed about the town. In fact, a walk by the old school confirms that everything is just the same. Nevertheless, a once sad man is now feeling cool, flirting with the girls and enjoying a general sense of vibrancy. Even little things are pleasurable, like meeting the wife for tea, or having someone asking the time and showing gratitude for a little help. The singer continues to declare he has nothing to say. In fact he ends the song with this, before greeting us with a final good morning. But having nothing to say is alright. It leaves the freedom of a new day where everything remains to be said. “Good morning” says something and nothing, expressing something positive about all those options left open for the day to come.


Good Morning Good Morning ends with the sound of a noisy, lively, even frightening awakening. Dogs bark, lions roar, horses gallop, a cock crows. The final cock crow is picked up by the guitar note leading into a reprise of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the song bidding us goodbye as the show comes to an end.

As with most endings there is much sadness. The line “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely…” is repeated six times in this short song. It might even seem that the band, and their cheering audience are even more lonely now than they were at the beginning of the show. The band sing that they are the “one and only”. We all want to be the one and only, believing that some quality of distinction will make us more deserving of love. And yet all the work that goes into making us the one and only, in the end leaves us alone – because if you are the one and only, there is by definition only one of you.

This is the saddest song in the show, but its unhappiness is combined with joyful music, full of open tones. We might seem alone, but something in that state makes us all the one and only, the star of the show who the audience adore. We’ve all been stars together.


And then, just after the band’s last exuberant whoops, while the audience is still clapping and cheering, we hear the opening chords of A Day In The Life. With this final song, it’s now as if we have gone beyond the end.


A Day In The Life begins with someone reading about the death of a man who seems to have been vaguely famous. He may have been in the House of Lords, but nobody is really sure. Already his achievements, whatever they were, are fading away. He was a “lucky man who made the grade”, though whether he made the grade through his own achievements or luck, doesn’t really matter now. “He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” Maybe his death was the result of a car accident, a momentary lapse of concentration at traffic lights, maybe while under the influence of something you are not supposed to take while driving. Alternatively there might be a suggestion of suicide. The phrase “blew his mind out” is more suggestive of a gun to the head than a car crash. Alongside the literal idea of unnoticed traffic lights changing to red, there is a suggestion of something like that abrupt change of mood in Good Morning, Good Morning, where a bleak situation suddenly turns around. The driver might have carried on if only he had noticed that the lights had changed to green, allowing him to proceed.

Our singer narrator, turns his attention away from the newspaper report to watch a film, where the English army have just won the war. The fictional achievements of the English army count for nothing in the end, as demonstrated by the audience, who turn away.

The first section of A Day In The Life ends with “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by a long, discordant, suggestively sexual orchestral build-up, which culminates in an alarm bell ringing to wake someone. The life of the man who might have been a peer had built to nothing, while the orchestral build up leads to a new morning. By now we know about the ambivalence of mornings. There is much going up and down stairs in the detail of the singer’s morning routine. The man who crashed his car, the English army in the film both aspire to an achievement which is about as significant as climbing the stairs.

The singer returns to his newspaper for one last time, reading about four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. It seems necessary to count the holes and work out how many it would take to fill the Albert Hall. The thing about holes is that we know what they are, we can identify them, point to them, report them after they damage our cars; but given all this, they still don’t really exist. A hole is an absence defined only by what lies around it. Holes cannot fill the Albert Hall because holes cannot fill anything. A hole exists only in terms of what it is not – a final confirmation that individual things are part of everything around them.

So we come to the last line, “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by another orchestral build up to a final chord that gradually fades into nothing. But at the last we know that nothing can still be something. A hole is nothing, but a hole can definitely exist. There is a final snatch of music mimicking a stuck record going round and round. This nothing could very easily be a new morning. The sun keeps coming up again.


Now it only remains to say goodbye to The Walrus, who after all that initial huffing and puffing, seems sad to see us go. Tired and happy we board the Yellow Submarine and head home. And if you ever want to go back to the concert and enjoy it all over again, then rest assured, it will always be twenty years ago today. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Ted Lasso – Praying For A Win

Ted Lasso is an Apple TV comedy drama about an American sports coach, who without any prior football experience, comes to London to take over struggling premier league club, AFC Richmond. We then follow Ted on a heart-warming journey, as he dedicates himself to helping his team become the best people they can be, both on and off the pitch. This is more important to Richmond’s new coach than simply winning games.

Ted is a kind of sporting pastor, and his football journey actually made me think of religion. This might not be such an outlandish comparison. Did your know that early football clubs often had close links with churches? In the 1880s, according to football historian David Goldblatt, a quarter of all football clubs in Birmingham had their roots in the Church. In 1887 a group of Catholic churchmen founded Celtic as a way of keeping Catholic football players within a Catholic institution. There were similar links in rugby. The sports historian Gareth Williams says that every church in Leeds in the late nineteenth century had its own rugby club.

Sport grew up around churches because it tended to reproduce the feelings that people once looked for in religion. There’s the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself – seen in huge chanting crowds, or Mexican waves flowing around stadiums, or mottos like “you’ll never walk alone”. Ted goes out of his way to foster this kind of togetherness, both among his team, and in the wider community.

Sport is also reminiscent of religion in the way it serves as the outlet for heightened emotion – useful when opportunities for public displays of passion have declined in modern society. The fluctuating fortunes of AC Richmond generate extremes of fervour, amongst players, coaches and fans alike.

Then there’s the way sport provides a sense of continuity and tradition, which is particularly welcome in a technological world that is rapidly changing. When Ted arrives at Richmond, the first thing he learns about is the club’s history, which extends back to the First World War, when the stadium was used as a hospital.

And finally there’s that feeling of aspiring to something more. This mysterious quality of something more is tricky to define. It could be the prospect of a great victory and transporting emotion; or the chance to make fabulous amounts of money; or it could be something that goes beyond money and winning – enjoyment, for example, or fellowship and belonging, which both tend to foster honourable behaviour, where individuals put others before themselves. Ted Lasso personifies these latter qualities. The show is a passionate, sensitive and entertaining journey into the modern religion of sport. It’s just for fun, but like sport itself, it also concerns itself with matters of vital importance.

No One Is Talking About This Review

The first part of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This reveals a rather highly-strung woman who writes for, and immerses herself in, the internet and social media. The writing takes the form of a series of surreal tweets.

The writing is poetic in tone, and makes some interesting points about the nature of the internet – the way it loves to judge, simplify, divide, mislead. I liked the line about a woman joining social media to see pictures of her grandson, and ending up believing in a flat Earth. The book is good at sketching in the grey that actually exists beyond all the social media black and white.

Then in the second part of the book, due to draconian Ohio abortion laws, the narrator is forced to give birth to a cruelly disabled child. The Ohio governor and his supporters are enthusiastic about the sanctity of human life. When it comes to giving support to said sanctified life after it’s born, then Ohio governor and friends are not nearly so interested. Yet the new mother does love the baby, despite the suffering of the child and of those who care for it. So more grey areas, all still presented in tweet form.

The two halves of the story seem to come together in the baby’s situation, which involves a condition where the brain cannot make connections. The suggestion seems to be, in the end, that people are happiest when they make connections. The internet, for all its faults, for all the divisions it can open up, is primarily an evolution of the human need to connect.

I don’t know if I enjoyed this book. The second half is harsh and upsetting, so much so that I could barely continue reading. It would also take someone more internet-savvy than me to get all the references and in-jokes. Even so I found No One Is Talking About This interesting and timely, making me feel that sharing a review on the internet about it was a worthwhile undertaking.

The Sun Also Rises – Ball Games Against A Monastery Wall

The Sun Also Rises is Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, published in 1926, describing the European meanderings of a group of British and American expatriates in the aftermath of World War One. Jake Barnes, an American journalist; Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer; Mike Campbell, a Scottish bankrupt; Bill Gorton, a hard drinking American with no discernible job; and Brett Anderson, a beautiful English socialite, hang around in Paris. Their somewhat pleasant, rather aimless Parisian existence is then interrupted by a visit to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. During the festival, enflamed by a hectic atmosphere of drink, dance, packed crowds, running bulls and bull fights, rivalry among some of the men for the affections of beautiful but flighty Brett, boils over into physical violence.

All of this action, or inaction, whether it’s wandering around Paris cafes, or having fist fights in Pamplona, is described in the same low-key tone by Jake, the American journalist. Jake’s detached point of view is partly a product of war injuries, which have left him unable to have a physical relationship with a woman. His situation seems to lift him out of the usual hurly burly of life – the standard course of courtship, marriage, children and so on. Jake is a disinterested Catholic, but despite his imperfections, his laziness, superficiality and casual episodes of meanness, he reminds me of a monk living in his own kind of monastery. Forced into a vow of celibacy Jake cannot have the relationship that Brett wants with him. Nevertheless, she keeps coming back, mainly because he can just be a good friend. Jake is not particularly wise or virtuous, but he is a steady centre, somewhat set above the bitter competition of normal men.

Churches, cathedrals and monasteries are mentioned frequently in The Sun Also Rises. They are passed during journeys, or become the subject of desultory tourist visits. Bayonne Cathedral is described as “nice and dim”. Roncesvalles Monastery, grudgingly accepted as impressive, is not as interesting as fishing, or a nearby pub. Jake notices village churches with signs asking people not to play ball games up against their walls. These buildings might presume importance for themselves, but there is nothing other-worldly about any of them. Like Jake, they are very much part of everyday life.

Thinking about it, maybe all the main characters, flawed as they are, qualify in their own way as unexpected members of monastic orders. They are separate from society. Nearly all of them are war veterans, even Brett who was a military nurse. The experience of war seems to have left them unable to settle back into ordinary life. Robert Cohn, the Jewish writer, is the only non-veteran, which only serves to separate him off in a different way. Lacking the bond felt by the others, he is singled out with cruel, anti Semitic remarks. The same deceptive monastic separateness also defines secondary characters – the prostitute Georgette who accompanies Jake to a few Paris cafes; Brett’s friend Count Mippipopolous, veteran of seven wars, who sits in the splendid isolation of his war experience and social position; or old bull fighter Belmonte who coming back from retirement, can never live up to the legend of his former career.

The whole book, in its characters, plot and ascetic, spare, yet shaped writing style, is a huge, dim, monastic interior, fashioned out of material, which – remembering those signs about ball games – is equally suitable when building cathedrals or squash courts. It suggests both the hidden depths of everyday experience, without shutting a sense of importance away in an inaccessible place. The Sun Also Rises deserves its classic status

White Teeth by Zadie Smith – A Style Check-Up

White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a generational story centred on the lives of two men, one British, one Bangladeshi. They fought together in World War Two in a Spike Milligan Hitler, My Part In His Downfall kind of way. We then flit about through subsequent decades, exploring their lives, those of their wives and children, and the multi-cultural British society in which they all live.

There is a lot of interesting material on the complexities of identity. For example, a music teacher tries to persuade her school orchestra to play Indian music. When this idea is not greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher asks a Queen fan what he would think if this lack of respect were directed at Queen – ironically not acknowledging the Parsi-Indian background of Freddie Mercury himself. This is a typical observation. It can all get a bit bewildering when genetics come into it – but basically the book celebrates variety and complexity rather than straight lines in life.

The book is interesting in its themes and ideas, but I did find it hard to read. I was not convinced by efforts to reflect a messy social situation in the writing style. Frequently the book would break grammatical “rules” in an attempt to give further perspective on the collision of communal rules and mores described in the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea. Ernest Hemingway does something similar in A Farewell To Arms, when American solider, Frederick Henry, breaks the most serious of regulations in deserting from the army. Henry’s non-literary voice describing his ordeal, serves as a further layer in a classic study of society’s expectations. However, for me, things don’t work quite as well in White Teeth, where the style does not reflect a particular narrator. Instead, White Teeth has a disembodied narrative voice, which periodically pops up and self-consciously bends literary rules, uses brackets in weird ways, or gives us two pages with no full stops. It comes over as a literary exercise, which is not the feeling you get with Hemingway, where the style is part of a character.

So, I found White Teeth interesting for its ideas, less so for its writing style.

The Kominsky Method – Facing Up To Denial

The Kominsky Method is a Netflix comedy drama, telling the story of revered Hollywood acting coach Sandy Kominsky, and his agent Norman Newlander. Both are now in the last years of their careers, facing the difficulties of ageing – ill-health, adapting to the loss of loved ones, and feeling adrift in a changed world.

The main way Sandy tries to cope with these challenges is through his work. The Kominsky Method involves an actor facing up to personal life experience, even at its most painful, and using this self-awareness to bring authenticity to a role. This is a nod to “method acting” as taught by famous teachers like Konstantin Stanislavsky or Lee Strasberg. Ironically, however, our method acting coach isn’t actually very good at facing up to life experience. We see this in the first episodes, when Norman’s wife Eileen dies. Returning from the hospital, Sandy duly tells his students about his anguish at Eileen’s death, and explains that this is the kind of pain which actors can draw upon in their work. Norman, who happens to be watching the class, objects to this use of personal tragedy as mere material for acting. We get the feeling that making the loss of Eileen into an acting resource, Sandy is not so much facing the pain of loss as trying to lessen its impact on him. This fits with his behaviour leading up to Eileen’s death. Unable to deal with illness, he kept finding excuses not to visit her.

Sandy Kominsky has reached a point of reckoning in his life, when it is becoming ever harder to hide from harsh reality. The days of taking his health for granted are over, just as his tendency to keep other people at arms length now risks the prospect of a lonely old age. It is time to face up to things. He thinks he has been doing this in his acting, when it has been a means of avoidance.

Perhaps, in the end, however, we come to realise that acting is valuable because it actually allows both avoidance and engagement to happen at the same time. Norman regularly “talks” to Eileen after her death, acting out conversations with her. In a sense these conversations are denial. They also allow Norman to come to terms with feelings that are difficult for him, but in a manner that he can cope with.

So, for me, the true Kominsky Method is a process of make-believe which allows people to both face difficulties and handle them in a form that is bearable. It’s like a scary movie where people can endure danger, in a safe way.

I loved the show. It is a passion project of writer and producer Chuck Lorre. Lorre, now in his late sixties, has had a hugely successful career in television, with his credits including Roseanne, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Young Sheldon. I feel he has put a lifetime of experience into The Kominsky Method. All that is entertaining, funny and moving about the show, also serves a larger purpose – to demonstrate how the contradictory business of acting can help people face difficult things more easily.

Add on June 2021

I have just finished watching the third and last series of The Kominsky Method. This is a series where Sandy faces his fears. Now without Norman, his agent, friend and protector, he enters a new period in his life. Sandy takes a big step in reconciling with his first wife, Ros. Sadly, Ros has leukaemia, and does not have very long. The old Sandy would have avoided the situation, as he did with Eileen. Now he takes a role in Ros’s care. When she passes away, he faces the pain squarely. Yes, he tells his class about what happened, as he did with Eileen. But this time his advice takes the form of a truly moving scene, which contrasts movie death with the real thing. Sandy urges his students to treat a scene involving death with the utmost reverence and respect. This is different to the speech with Eileen, which had more the feeling of passing on a bit of technique. Acting can still play its role in giving protective distance, but that distance is shorter now

And the suggestion is that Sandy’s acting only gains as a result. He finally gets the big role he has dreamed of all his life.

I thought The Kominsky Method was great a piece of work, a worthy monument to Chuck Lorre’s career and to the art of acting in general.

The Morris Ital – A Window On The Past

There is a thing called survivorship bias where the best, strongest and most beautiful things from the past are usually favoured for preservation. This means there is a natural tendency for the past to appear better, stronger and more beautiful than it really was – since all the ordinary stuff which touched a lot of people’s lives has long gone. This informs how we think and write about the past.

I thought about this recently on my regular walk, which takes me past a dilapidated Morris Ital. This car, built by British Leyland between 1980 and 1984, was a cosmetic update of the Morris Marina, a car, which whilst selling well in its day (including to my dad), is best known in 2021 as one of the worst cars the UK has ever produced. The Marina is now very rare. The Ital, already obsolete when it was released, and suffering all kinds of build quality issues, was if anything even worse than the Marina. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Ital is now officially the rarest of all UK production cars.

I consulted howmanyleft.co.uk which records a total of 27 registered Itals for 2020. The particular model I see on my walk is an HLS, Auto and apparently there are only two of those left registered for road use, with nine others registered as off the road. https://www.howmanyleft.co.uk/vehicle/morris_ital_hls_auto

So there it sits, a humble car from the early 1980s. Of the 172,276 built, only a handful survive. But the Ital illustrates the past more accurately than any number of Aston Martins. I thought it was worth a celebration.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – Explaining The Inexplicable

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad – published in 1907, and set in the London of 1886 – is surprisingly contemporary in its themes. The book deals with terrorism, looking at the sort of people involved, and the possible motivations behind their inexplicably destructive acts. We meet characters whose vanity and self absorption drive them to seek notoriety, when they lack the ability or desire to shine in normal terms. Their supposed revolutionary ideology is simply a disguise for twisted personal deficiencies. The book also illustrates the way in which people of limited intellectual abilities can be manipulated into becoming terrorists.

On the other hand, the book’s many contradictions, make it impossible to write terrorism off as an aberration confined to psychotic, or vulnerable individuals. We see this at the beginning when the ambassador of an east European country has a meeting with Mr Verloc, one of his secret agents. The ambassador complains that Britain’s liberal society allows anarchists to hide and operate. The ambassador sees this as a threat to his own country. In response, he demands of Verloc an atrocity of such absurd barbarity that the British will be forced to accept much more rigid social controls. He directs that there should be a bomb attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

So an act of terrorism begins as an attempt to make society “safer”. From there the contradictions continue. We meet, for example, a rich, well connected woman who enjoys showing off a former anarchist at her fancy parties, thereby demonstrating her worldly broad-mindedness. And when it seems this man might be involved in the Greenwich Park plot, a senior government official intervenes in a police investigation to ensure his usefully well-connected lady friend is not caused embarrassment by association with her tame terrorist. This craziness makes you wonder if there is something in the ambassador’s criticism of British society.

Finally, there are all the contradictions personified by Stevie, the simple, innocent young man manipulated into carrying the Greenwich Park bomb. Stevie has a painfully developed sense of empathy, feeling pain in others as if it were his own. Verloc exploits this gentle, humane quality, as a means to manipulate Stevie into taking extreme measures to attack an unfair society which allows some people to enjoy great wealth while others suffer in poverty.

The Secret Agent is a dark and twisty book, both in terms of subject matter and style. With its dense writing, point of view changes, and switches of plot direction, you do have to concentrate. But it’s worth the effort.

Beach Read – Romance Meets Literary Fiction

I read Beach Read by Emily Henry as a challenge. I had this plan to look at unfamiliar genres, with the unexplored territory of romance seeming like a good place to start. Trying to choose a book, I discovered that Beach Read was about a romance author and a literary fiction writer deciding to attempt each other’s type of book. Seeing as I was engaged in a similar swap myself, Beach Read made sense.

January (romance) and Everett (literary fiction), two former rivals from high school writing club, find themselves living in neighbouring beach houses on Lake Michigan during turbulent times in both their lives. Trying to overcome an engrained distrust of each other’s writing, they devise a scheme to swap genres, and agree that once a week they will take turns in organising some practical teaching activity. January’s training course consists of an evening at a drive-in cinema watching three Meg Ryan films in a row, line dancing, going to a funfair, and walking on a beach at sunset. Everett’s training course in literary fiction is more vague – as is literary fiction, if you ask me. It’s all about heavy meetings with survivors of a cult. You get the feeling that literary fiction is meant to be dark and twisty, with tragedy waiting at the end.

Beach Read is much more romance than literary fiction in its tone. Told from January’s point of view, the book in many ways turned out to be definitive romance, an education for a reader, and Everett, in how it’s done. Most of the tropes of romance – which I now know about – were there. We had enemies to lovers, forced proximity, second chance romance, work romance, and fake relationship/dating – which is where people pretend to be in love for some reason, and then fall in love for real.

My favourite parts of Beach Read were when January and Everett sat working in their separate beach houses, or went on each other’s research trips, trying to find a way to communicate. I felt this was a very interesting, amusing reflection on the way writing has divided itself into genres serving particular groups of people. And yet writing is also about communication between people. Romance itself is a genre that seeks to bring two people together, people who are usually enemies, if one of its most popular tropes is to be believed. So that aspect of the book – the idea of writing splitting people up and trying to bring them back together – was fascinating. It is also timely with trends in writing heading towards ever more focused genres serving different groups of readers.

The ending seemed more straightforward romance fiction than the first three quarters, with January and her best friend discussing their respective relationship problems. There was a lot of crying in this section. I felt out of the loop at the end, as any man would when two women get together to discuss men and how disappointing they are. I’m not saying they’re not disappointing, obviously, but this part of the book felt like it was for a different audience. But maybe that’s the point. Sometimes writing is an activity that defines who you are and where you belong: and sometimes it’s about trying to escape these boundaries and reach out further.

Beach Read offers a perceptive insight into life, love and the fragmented modern literary scene. I enjoyed it.

A Book For Everyone, Or Everyone With Their Own Book

Today writers can work in a bewildering variety of genres tailored to certain groups of readers. It’s as though each group can aspire to have their own books. This is an interesting and characteristically modern development, the history of which it might be instructive to explore.

All contemporary categories of writing are descended from an original single category of book which existed when the printing press first appeared around 1440 – the Bible, or books about the Bible. In 1440, very few people could read, and books were prohibitively expensive. Writers are sometimes known as authors, and that word author – derived from the word authority – is very much a hang over from the time when “divinity” was, in effect, literature’s only genre. The ultimate author was considered the writer of the Bible, which reached people almost entirely through the authority of the Church.

One of the great social schisms of Western culture occurred in the sixteenth century, when the printing press, and some increase in literacy, allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves. This widening readership was actually the beginning of the shift away from the idea that one book, and one author was relevant to everyone. Now individual viewpoints started to become more important.

The centuries continued to pass, literacy rates crept up, and improved printing technology continued to make headway in reducing book prices. By 1700, academic Jeremiah Dittmar estimates that there were around eighty basic varieties of book serving an enlarged, but still modest, book market, where divinity continued to account for half of all sales. Through the next three hundred years, the rate of change gathered pace, so that today, literacy is now almost universal, and digital publication offers reduced book prices, and an opportunity for anyone to publish their work. As a result, genre varieties have exploded. The current situation in publishing is a mirror image of what it once was in 1440. Whereas in the fifteenth century everyone shared the same book, now it’s almost as though everyone can have their own book, unique to their own part of life. The bewildering variety of genres reflects the fact that today almost everyone is a potential reader, which means that all kinds of different people with varied tastes, interests and experiences, are all looking for books which reflect themselves.

It is of course great that perspectives and viewpoints reflected in books have increased out of all recognition. And yet perhaps there is also a link with the characteristically modern phenomenon of a widely inclusive culture also, ironically, becoming a fragmented one, as people tend to live more in their own cultural bubbles.

Writers write based on their own experience, so it’s inevitable that people similar to themselves are more likely to resonate with their work. Nevertheless, I think in some small way, any writer instinctively harks back to 1440, when there was one book for everyone. Writing has to manage that trick of reflecting its readership, while not confining them in a bubble. A book should be a means of offering a wider perspective rather than closing the door. After all, a best seller is by definition a book that crosses divides, appeals to lots of different people, and echoes in a small way that situation right at the beginning of publishing when a book was something that everyone shared in together.