John Lennon – What’s On The Other Side Of The Zebra Crossing?io

Abbey_Road_Crossing

I am not a natural idoliser.  Emotionally, the whole thing is uncomfortable.  Rationally, knowing what people are like, the perfection required is unrealistic.  It was in the case of John Lennon that I came closest to idolising someone. I decided to find out more about him, thinking this would take me closer to the magical quality in his songs.  I read biographies and visited Beatles’ places in Liverpool and London.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the person I discovered was not the one I expected. Saintly icons are not likely to write good songs.

Here, then, is my journey through disappointment, towards a more grown up kind of appreciation of what might lie at the other end of the zebra crossing.

John Lennon did not start out in life with any apparent promise to greatness. He was born in Liverpool’s Maternity Hospital, Oxford Street, on the evening of 9th October 1940 during an air raid. Early family life was turbulent. Albert Goldman, in his biography The Lives of John Lennon, makes much of these difficulties. But Philip Norman in John Lennon The Life argues for a much more ordinary picture. While John’s parents could hardly be described as enjoying a stable relationship, Norman presents John as enjoying the benefits of an extended family. He was in the pleasant position of having a number of secure homes to go to, that of his loveable but flighty mother Julia, or the well organised household of his Aunt Mimi. He could also wander off to Aunt Harrie’s if he wanted to.

John had an unremarkable school career. Goldman tries to tell a Tennessee Williams tale of violence and bullying, but once again the reality was probably more mundane. Philip Norman does not portray the Lennon school days as particularly troubled. Comedian Jimmy Tarbuck who was at school with John remembers he used to get into fights, though not with Tarbuck, who at that time was a terrifying Teddy Boy. John stuck to small-time fighting, and games of Cowboys and Indians with his best friend Pete Shotton. He did enough work to pass his Eleven Plus exam, starting at Quarry Bank Grammar School in the top stream, before slipping to the bottom. With Pete Shotten in tow there was much mischief, playing truant, shop lifting, and the running of a dinner ticket scam after accidentally finding thousands of tickets in a school bin. In his room at Aunt Mimi’s house, John would read Just William books and listen to music. Mimi grew tired of having “Elvis for breakfast, lunch and tea”.

Mendips_John_Lennon_House

Mendips – Aunt Mimi’s House

Although Elvis seemed like a distant god, the music that the young enjoyed in the 1950s was unusually accessible, even to boys in the bottom stream at Liverpool grammar schools. By the mid 1950s, skiffle had became a major youth craze. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: “Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap – just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar.” The musical structures were equally simple. Skiffle used the traditional twelve bar blues pattern of four chords, which in their simplest version could be played with only two fingers on a guitar. They could be learned very quickly. Julia – a banjo player – provided £10 to purchase John a mail order guitar, and gave him lessons. In March 1957 John Lennon formed his first band, originally called the Black Jacks, soon changed to the Quarry Men because most band members went to Quarry Bank School.

In October 1957, after failing all his “O” Level exams, John managed, on his headmaster’s recommendation, to get into Liverpool College of Art in Hope Street. Here he took a lackadaisical attitude to his studies, became good friends with the college’s most promising student, Stuart Sutcliffe, chased after girls, drank Black Velvets at lunchtime in Ye Cracke in Rice Street, and continued playing with the Quarry Men. Earlier that summer, on 6th July 1957, a promising guitarist and singer named Paul McCartney had seen the Quarry Men playing at St Peter’s Church garden fete in Woolton. Paul met John, played a few tunes, and proved that he was a good musician, better in fact than John. Once in the band, Paul started talking about his friend George Harrison, who after some grumbling about his young age was also asked to join. Knowing what happened later, it might seem that this was the start of something big. But it wasn’t. John’s life was traumatically disrupted in July 1958 when Julia was killed in a car accident on Menlove Avenue near Aunt Mimi’s house. The Quarry Men broke up early in 1959 after a disastrous gig where the boys all got drunk. From the original band, only John, Paul and George stayed together, with John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe attempting to play bass, even though he had little musical talent. The future Beatles were four guitar players – one of which could hardly play – with no drummer and few prospects.

John lasted two years at art college before music became his livelihood. Always struggling to find drummers, his band played on the Liverpool dance hall circuit, and famously at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Although John was moving on now from skiffle, the Liverpool dance hall scene continued the feeling of a rough and ready music for all. In other parts of the country Mecca and Rank ran dance halls on authoritarian lines, displaying signs with messages such as “No Jiving”. In Liverpool most people couldn’t afford these places, so local events were organised instead. These ranged from the family fun of village fetes, such as the one at Woolton where John met Paul, to altogether tougher affairs. During one riotous gig Stuart Sutcliffe was attacked and – in spite of John’s desperate efforts to defend him – sustained a head injury which may later have led to a fatal haemorrhage.

Mathew_Street_Cavern_Club

Mathew Street

Attacks on his friend aside, it seemed that most of the time there was nothing John liked better than an evening in front of, or fighting amidst, a violent audience. One of their drummers, Tommy Moore, eventually left the group, now calling itself the Beatles, disenchanted with John’s obvious relish for crowd trouble. Pete Best took over on drums, just in time for an engagement in Hamburg in August 1960. Rock n’ roll impresario Bruno Koschmider, hired a number of Liverpool bands, including the Beatles, to play in Hamburg. Playing for a tough crowd the Beatles adapted accordingly. At times things got out of hand, particularly during an embarrassing attempt to mug a drunk sailor. Although Paul and George lost their nerve, John and Pete Best carried on with the attack, only to get beaten off by their intended victim. This might not have been the only trouble John got into. Even the most sympathetic biographers admit that John could be violent when drunk. Stuart Sutcliffe’s younger sister Pauline, in her 1984 memoir, The Beatles Shadow, even suggested that the head injury which killed her brother in April 1962 was sustained not in Liverpool but in Hamburg, during a fight with John – though no one else corroborates this. Whatever the truth of the Hamburg period, it seems clear the Beatles became a willing part of their harsh environment.

This was all to change, however.  During 1962 record producer George Martin of EMI was looking for an act to package as his own Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The Beatles got the call during a stint in Hamburg, offering a recording session at EMI. This session went fairly well, Martin thinking that he might be able to do something with the Beatles. Pete Best, for some reason, wasn’t considered right for the emerging band. He was sacked and the job of drummer given to Richard Starkey, known as Ringo Starr, who had played with Liverpool band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

The Beatles in their final line up of John, Paul, George and Ringo, quickly won a wide audience. At the elitist end there was The Times classical music critic William Mann, who wrote that Lennon and McCartney “were the outstanding English composers of 1963”. Mann talked impressively of “major tonic sevenths and ninths, flat submedial key switches, and the concluding Aeolian cadence in Not A Second Time which had the same chord progression as Mahler’s Song of the Earth”. On the other hand there was a huge general audience for the Beatles. Fittingly for a band with such a wide appeal, Lennon and McCartney were typically finding poetry in ordinary things. First it was boy girl relationships, with Love Me Do in October 1962, and Please Please Me in February 1963. Then in a massive rush of creativity anything from trips to the Isle of Wight (Ticket to Ride 1965), memories of friends and places in Liverpool (In My Life, 1965), pine cladding (Norwegian Wood 1965), sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping 1966) and visits to the doctor (Doctor Robert 1966) became the source of classic songs.

John was now a star. After years of struggling to reach “the topper-most of the popper-most” he had made it. Once the initial thrill had worn off, however, he found himself spending his days trapped in hotel rooms. Between exhausting tours there were periods of recovery at a suburban home in Weybridge, Surrey, where he kept his wife Cynthia – who he met at art school – hidden away because she was bad for the Beatles pin-up image. Then in March 1966 the dream music career took a dangerous turn, when John gave an interview to journalist Maureen Cleave, carelessly remarking that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This interview was initially little noticed, until in July 1966 it was published in the American teen magazine Date Book. In the more fundamentalist environment of America there was a huge uproar, which coincided with an American tour. Amidst death threats, the Beatles could no longer sell out their stadium venues. The sound of fire crackers at a show in Memphis had all the Beatles turning to John expecting to see him drop dead. This tour finished at Candlestick Stadium in San Francisco on 29th August 1966, marking the end of the Beatles as a live act.

After the break up of his marriage to long-suffering Cynthia, the start of a relationship with artist Yoko Ono, and two hugely creative albums – the Sergeant Pepper and White Albums – John’s journey reached a kind of culmination in 1969. This apotheosis came not on world tours, or at the mountain retreats of Indian gurus, but on a zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios. On the Abbey Road album’s famous sleeve picture, the Beatles are crossing to the other side. Aware that the group was coming to the end of the road, there are allusions in the sleeve picture to death – Ringo’s undertaker’s outfit, Paul’s bare feet, John’s angelic white suit, with George perhaps as the grave digger in his jeans. These are all references to the kind of unfathomable, final, irrevocable journey that occurs at the end of a life: but in this case the journey is happening on a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood, London. Perhaps the picture is suggesting that all crossings over, no matter how major they might appear to be, are in fact like walking over a zebra crossing. As John said in 1968’s Across The Universe: “Nothing’s going to change my world.” These words are frustrating and reassuring in equal measure. Crossing at the Abbey Road zebra crossing was the best kind of ordinary everyday trip to the other side.

Beatles_Abbey_Road

John married Yoko in March 1969 just before the Beatles finally broke up in 1970. He then started a new career as a solo artist, and peace campaigner. Much of John Lennon’s later saintly image comes from the peace campaigner phase, though as Ray Connolly points out, this ignores some less than peaceful decisions, such as giving financial help to the Irish Republican movement in the US at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. How that promotes peace I can’t really fathom. But in his song Imagine, written in 1970, John left the imperfection of his life behind and found one of those moments of balance that only great works of art provide. He explored the contradictions of peace through the word imagine, a word which suggests both peace and restlessness in equal measure.

John_Lennon_Airport_Sign

In June 1973 the Lennons took up residence across the Atlantic in the Dakota Building, New York. Most of 1974 was spent away from Yoko in Los Angeles, living with Yoko’s secretary May Pang, whilst trying to make an album with Phil Spector. This chaotic time of drinking, partying and drug taking is often referred to as the Lost Weekend. Following the Lost Weekend John lived quietly at the Dakota with Yoko and their son Sean. He emerged in 1980 and went on a five month sailing trip to Bermuda. This adventurous holiday seemed to re-ignite a desire for song writing. Returning to New York he made the Double Fantasy album with Yoko, released on 17th November 1980. The following month, on the evening of 8th December, a disturbed former Beatles fan shot John at the entrance to the Dakota building as he was returning from a day of recording in the studio. His death was greeted with worldwide grief, confirming an iconic status. John himself, however, would not have wanted to be remembered as a god, but as someone who walked across Abbey Road.

I suppose this sums up my journey of discovery about John Lennon – a journey across a zebra crossing, not finding what I expected to find on the other side, but learning to appreciate it.

Help!

Best album titles. This week – Help!

Cry for assistance, promise of assistance, and title of the Beatles’ fifth album, released in August 1965.

The title track explores the paradoxes that hide in the idea of help. In this song, someone has suffered problems which result in a loss of confidence. Their independence “seems to vanish in the haze”. But if the problem is a loss of independence and confidence, isn’t it possible that help might make the problem worse?

The word help itself also holds contradictions. It can be both a noun and a verb. Help, as a noun, is a thing with a substantial reality. You can offer help in the same way that you can offer someone a chair or a bowl of soup. As a verb, however, help has no such certainty. It could be all good intentions and unpredictable outcomes.

There is a lot of history reflected in the complexities of the word help. There’s all that political struggle between, for example, 1960s prime ministers Mr Wilson and Mr Heath. There are those who want to offer help, and those who think that help might damage our ability to look after ourselves. The contradictions in the word we use to describe assistance, suggest that neither side is wholly right or wrong. The arguments will go on forever.

While they all argue, we can listen to Help! It might seem difficult to see how we can get real help listening to an album. It’s not like someone is going to jump out of the music and provide a cup of tea, or love or money, or whatever it is we might need. Yet the record tells us that real assistance can emerge in unexpected ways.

Imagine

Last week I wrote about an album title that managed to say a great deal with only two words. This week, I give you one word, three vaguely defined syllables which perhaps represent the creative peak of modern popular music. I give you:

Imagine.

Imagine is the name of John Lennon’s second solo album released in 1971. Imagine is a verb. Mr Dale, my primary school teacher, said I should think of verbs as “doing words”. This doing word, however, has an overwhelming suggestion of not doing, of dreaming, drifting away on a cloud.

The album explores this strangest of verbs. Most of us spend a lot of time imagining something better. In our own way we imagine heaven. In the title track, John asks us to imagine there is no heaven, to give up on endless dissatisfaction. To do that, we would have to stop imagining. There he is, John Lennon, member of the awkward squad, handing back his MBE, doing bed-ins for peace, on an FBI watch list because of his political activism, telling us to stop imagining a better world. How does that work? How can you say let it be and let’s make things better, at the same time?

The secret lies in the word imagine. This is a word where doing and not doing coexist.

Imagine.

Nothing more needs to be said.

Street Legal – The Art of a Great Album Name

Street Legal is Bob Dylan’s eighteenth studio album, released in 1978. It peaked at number 11 in the Billboard Charts, the first time a Dylan studio album had not reached the top 10 since 1964. Though Street Legal might not be Bob Dylan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, I think it has one of the best names of any album ever made. This two word title is a poem in itself, summing up the general direction of the album, and saying something profoundly true about the nature of communication.

So let’s have a think about these two words, street legal, which refer to a vehicle licensed for normal road use, meeting various criteria related to equipment and safety. These criteria exclude more rarified or specialised vehicles – racing cars, off road dune buggies, and so on. There is a sense of compromise as Dylan sets out on the road to meet his audience. He has to make sure his lights and indicators are in order. Are his rear view mirrors correctly positioned? Does he have his road tax and MOT documents up to date? He’ll need those if he’s visiting people like me in England. I know this does not sound glamorous or exciting. Something certainly seems to be lost when you decide to step out of a racing car into a Hyundai i10, which was the car I took a drive in at the weekend.

However, as you make that compromise, a huge new world opens up. You’re not racing pointlessly around a tiny track anymore, or jumping over the same old sand dunes. With your indicators and side lights in good working order, a whole new vista opens up. You are now free to follow the road wherever it may lead. This is a vista revealed by the ordinary rather than the special. You don’t have to be a rock star to make this journey. In fact rock stars risk getting left behind, at an exclusive golf club perhaps, riding in a golf cart, which like a racing car or dune buggy, is not street legal.

So here’s Dylan, magically coming through. He communicates not with special powers, but with the power of the ordinary. An album is a communication, a reaching out. It takes a journey from one person to another in a street legal vehicle. When I think of Street Legal, I think of something like Van Gogh’s portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, an ordinary fellow in an unremarkable job. He sits there, unassuming in his bushy beard, dark, buttoned coat, and his station master’s hat with “Postes” in gold lettering across the front. No one in 1888 could help communication between people more than an ordinary postman. The same is true of Bob Dylan in his Street Legal vehicle in 1978.

Jazz Writing

Bradshaw

Last week, writing met J.S. Bach trying to tune his harpsichord at Cohan Castle. This week, I read Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations, where Thomas Bradshaw takes a year off work to learn the piano. Coincidentally,  Thomas stuggles at one point with the C major fugue from The Well Tempered Clavier by Bach.

The Bradshaw Variations was a disconnected story, with no central character, no real plot, and no overt message. Music, however, held the show together.  It was a force representing both freedom and discipline.  Music is neither random nor monotonous – it’s a strange mixture of both. The Bradshaw tribe was similar. It included rigid, traditionally-minded old fools, modern career women who hated their careers, house-husbands who knew nothing about house-work, frustrated wives who drank too much, or who loved the idea of being an artist whilst secretly preferring chaotic family life with an impulsive husband, two long-suffering children, and a manic dog who pees, vomits and hurls himself at doors which he always wants to be on the other side of. They all lived together like musicians in some kind of experimental jazz band. By extension people generally might be considered to live together in a similar way. Bravo I say.

Fiction And The Well Tempered Clavier

Well Tempered Clavier

Fugue no 4 from The Well Tempered Clavier

Writing and music are two of my favourite things.  I’ve often wondered how they go together.  My latest musings have focused on the way writing and music both involve the instinct which yearns to predict how things will go.   People have a natural capacity to constantly review current circumstances and predict future events.  Writing taps into this by creating stories that involve suspense, with clues suggesting how events might unfold, and surprises coming along to keep the reader guessing.  Similarly, music has a quality known as “tension,” based on a sense of anticipation followed by release. This relies on alternating tuneful familiarity with some kind of unexpected dissonance.

This last point is interesting when we look at how music has developed into the form we know today.  Medieval musicians would have found playing two or three different notes together daring. But from the early fifteenth century, composers were experimenting with more complex harmonies. Complex harmonies were not an easy task to produce on musical instruments of the time. Getting harmonies to sound right for certain combinations of notes, meant careful retuning of notes in that combination. These adjustments would then put other combinations out of tune. To play all harmonies in tune meant constant pauses as instruments were retuned. In 1722 the head of music at Cothan Castle in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach, devised a solution.  Drawing on the work of earlier musicians, Bach worked out a way of tuning a harpsichord so that all harmonies in any key could be played in one sitting without retuning – a tuning known as equal temperament.   Bach then published a collection of music – The Well Tempered Clavier – in all twenty four of the major and minor keys. Bach achieved equal temperament by fettling every note so that, bizarre as it may seem, each one was imperceptibly out of tune. In this way Bach found a very delicate compromise which allowed every combination of harmony to work.  Incredible precision was necessary. In fact each note had to be retuned to 1.059463094 times the frequency value of the note below to reach equal temperament.

Equal Temperament allowed music to develop as we now know it.  Modern machine tools recreated Bach’s near-miracle of individual tuning on widely available musical instruments.  Music,  more than ever before, became a delicate balance between familiar but potentially boring tunefulness, and exciting but dangerous dissonance. Whether you are a composer or writer, if you can get that balance you are well on your way to success.  But if anything shows how hard success is to achieve, it’s that mind-boggling number which Bach strove so hard to find – 1.059463094.

Dylan Thomas – Handing Over To Bob Dylan

Allen_Ginsberg_and_Bob_Dylan_by_Elsa_Dorfman

Bob Dylan with poet Allen Ginsberg in 1975

In my view Dylan Thomas was the last great poet. Until his death in 1953, poetry could be considered an influential part of culture. In the nineteenth century the poems of Tennyson, Byron, Shelley and Keats sold in huge quantities.  Byron in particular was treated almost as rock stars are today.   Byron even dressed rather like Jimi Hendrix.  Into the early twentieth century, poetry continued to be a potent force, as seen in the work, for example, of the War Poets, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot. But from the 1950s onwards things changed.  I like to think that the power of poetry survives and prospers, not so much in modern poetry itself, but through the huge influence of pop music where the rhythmic possibilities of words have been expressed in musical poems.

Dylan_Thomas_Study

Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

When I visited Dylan Thomas’ home at The Boathouse in Laugharne, I discovered to my surprise that Dylan Thomas did not make money from selling books, but from the sale of records, particularly in America. Following his death it was record sales that provided for his children, and for his wife Caitlin. Historically Dylan Thomas stood on a border line. He died in New York City on 9th November 1953. Only five months later, on 12th April 1954 Bill Haley and the Comets gathered in New York City’s Pythian Studios and recorded the Freedman/Myers track Rock Around the Clock.  Decca released the record the following month and the age of pop music really began.

Rock Around the Clock, however, was not great poetry.  This played on the mind of a young musician called Robert Zimmerman, who though he loved rock ‘n roll, found something lacking in it.  In 1959, at the University of Minnesota, Robert dropped the stage name Elston Gunn and started calling himself Bob Dylan.  It is generally accepted that this was a nod towards Dylan Thomas.  This link is instructive. Bob Dylan took on the mantle of a poet.   In notes to the album Biograph he says:

“There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

Via Bob Dylan’s interest in folk music, the serious ambitions of poetry found their way into pop music, which over the following decades was to see a great creative flowering.

In 2016 the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Backp

Hitchhikers Cover

I’ve been rereading some of the science fiction that I enjoyed at school, just to see how the future has treated it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made a huge impression on me in 1978. The original BBC radio shows were on late at night. I’d listen sitting on a dark gold velour sofa, in subdued 1970s light cast by a ridiculously tall, scarlet lamp decorated with amber flowers. I recorded each show, carefully pressing Record and Play together on a cassette deck. When the book came out at the end of 1979 I bought it immediately.

Feeling nervous thirty nine years later, I downloaded a copy of Hitchhiker’s to my iPad and started to read…

It was like meeting an old friend again; but it wasn’t all about nostalgia. At school, I just went for a ride. This time, as we flew along, I had a poke about in the book’s engines. It might seem presumptuous to claim knowledge of how those engines work, but I think it has something to do with exploiting quirks in the amusing contradictions of an infinite universe.

The nature of the Hitchhiker power is there at lift off, in the first chapter. Arthur Dent faces a local council official who has arrived with bulldozers to knock down Arthur’s house to make way for a by-pass. Immediately big and small things start mirroring each other. It is a big deal to Arthur Dent that the local council want to build a bypass through his house. Arthur’s predicament, however, is insignificant compared to the threat posed by unpleasant aliens called Vogons who are planning to build a hyperspace bypass through Earth. The threatened destruction of Earth seems a big deal, until, in turn, you remember how Earth is described as the book opens – an utterly insignificant blue-green planet in the backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy. Against this background, you start to question the difference between big and small.

All of the humour and wisdom of Hitchhiker’s then spins out from this paradoxical colliding of opposites set up at the beginning. After the Vogons move their bulldozers through Earth, a rescued Arthur Dent tries to come to terms with what’s happened. He can’t feel the loss of Earth, since the event is just too overwhelming. The thing that really hits him is the loss of McDonald’s hamburgers.

Later in the book, for reasons I won’t go into, Arthur visits a chamber of hyperspace, thirteen light seconds across. This truly is a place revealing the odd nature of the scale of things.

“It wasn’t infiniy, in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity – distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity.”

Ironically, with any immensity, a quality of smallness must be involved. This combination gives the sense of a long journey coming right back to where it started. I really enjoyed the comfort of that message. You could go back to sit on that velour sofa. At the same time you could take a typically 1970s kind of journey where you’re standing by a road sticking your thumb out, not entirely sure where you might end up. I once hitched in Scotland, and found myself dropped off in the middle of nowhere, north of Inverness. There was snow on the ground and doubt in my mind about whether I would get another lift before hypothermia set in. I took the advice on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide – Don’t Panic. I might have been in the middle of nowhere, but relatively speaking I wasn’t really far from home. The Guide’s advice remains as relevant now as it ever was.

Book Burning in the Age of the Kindle

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, is Ray Bradbury’s famous depiction of a totalitarian future, where firemen, put out of work by flameproofed houses, are reassigned by a repressive government to the task of burning books. Books with their tendency to make people think and question, are seen as a threat. They are destroyed while people get on with consuming a diet of what appears to be endless soap opera playing on wall-sized television screens.

After first reading it in paperback at school, I thought I’d have a look at Fahrenheit 451 again to see how it was doing in the age of the Kindle.  My reluctant conclusion is, not well, certainly in the predictive sense. Bradbury imagined a future where culture becomes monolithic, with everyone consuming the same lowest common denominator TV drivel. In reality, culture is much more fragmented than it was. Rather than a tool of uniformity as portrayed in Fahrenheit 451, information technology increasingly allows people to pick and choose. Television viewing with its fixed schedules and limited channels has fallen steadily – a 10% drop in the UK between 2012 and 2016, according to the Reuters Institute. People are increasingly finding their own cultural niche, via all kinds of on-demand services, video streaming and social media. This has caused its own problems, which are the opposite of the problems Bradbury envisaged. America, for example, where Fahrenheit 451 is set, has seen increased polarisation between people holding opposing political beliefs. During his time as President, Barack Obama noted that the choices offered by modern media allowed people to more easily shut away things that challenged a particular world view. He encouraged people to try and find a way outside their bubbles.

So the book’s look into the future has not exactly played out. Let’s also think about the way it views the past.

To accept the premise of Fahrenheit 451, you also have to accept the pompous nineteenth century view that the tastes of the mass of people, will drag down the achievements of the intellectual elite. The reality is there is no fixed distinction between high and low culture. Imagine the sixteenth century football crowd atmosphere of the Globe Theatre in raffish Southwark, during an exuberant performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The bankers on the north side of the Thames would be looking down their noses at such carry on. Neither the people in Shakespeare’s audience, nor the bankers on the smart side of London Bridge, would have imagined the reverence that Shakespeare would one day enjoy. Ray Bradbury himself ran into this irony during his unsuccessful searches for the work of H.G. Wells in the local libraries of his youth. He could not find those books because at that time they were not considered sufficiently literary.

So reading the Kindle edition of Fahrenheit 451 has been an odd experience.  Reading a book about the malign effects of technology on books, using technology which makes it easier to read books, was disconcerting.  Having a think afterwards, it seems to me that maybe lots of people who now work for internet companies also half remember Fahrenheit 451 from their youth, because these days governments and internet companies do not seem to get on.  A lot of them operate in a country so programmed to fear totalitarian government that the population has free access to guns which they use to shoot each other regularly.  Those left alive vote incompetent people into government who don’t actually believe in government, since their version of totalitarism is personal rather than institutional. In Bradbury’s book, we only learn the President’s name, but he is a faceless prescence.  There is no sense that institutions can actually defend us from the vagaries of individuals.  Perhaps once-young fifty somethings who run things should read Fahrenheit 451 again, just to remind themselves how different the real problems we face are from the ones we thought we would have to face fifty years ago.