Miss Jean Brodie – The End of the World Comes Without Intruding on Everyday Life


First edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published 1961

Miss Jean Brodie is an unconventional teacher at a conventional girl’s primary school in 1930s Edinburgh. Ignoring the curriculum, she gathers her charges under an elm tree in the school grounds, telling them stories of her lover lost in the First World War, and describing visits to Italy. She tells the children how much she admires Mussolini’s fascisti. Hang on, what was that? I went back and made sure I’d read it right, only to realise that, yes, this charismatic spinster is actually a budding fascist. On later trips to Germany she comes back with glowing reports of Hitler’s Brown Shirts.

I had to have a think at this point. It struck me that historically the founder of the German Nazi party was a locksmith. Jean Brodie is a parallel for one of these apparently unassuming but dangerous personalities. She’s not an obvious monster, but is all the more insidious for her apparent ordinariness. She’s like a sunset described at one point in the book, looking like “the end of the world had come without intruding on everyday life.”

The crucial thing is not that Miss Brodie is overtly evil, but that she has her own ideas about good and evil. Her values are focused entirely on herself. She accepts no outside system. As time goes on it becomes ever clearer that she exists beyond right and wrong as judged by society. Jean Brodie decides right and wrong.

Jean Brodie is a shock. But perhaps the biggest shock of the book is the subtle warning that while most people look outside themselves for guidance, whether it’s headmistresses, governments, or religion, all of these sources of authority are created by people. In the end there is no authority beyond people to which they can refer. One of Jean Brodie’s girls takes refuge as an adult in the Roman Catholic Church, an environment which we are told would have ideally suited Miss Brodie. This was an organisation in which there were “quite a number of fascists” who believe what they do is right because it is them doing it.

This is a humorous, beautifully written, frequently charming novel. Fittingly for a story about a teacher, it also has some hard, unsettling lessons.

Echoes of Munich


The Munich Conference of September 1938 has had a massive influence on subsequent history. Retrospective judgment of British government efforts to maintain peace in Europe has contributed to all kinds of bad decisions, from Anthony Eden’s ill fated attempt to invade Egypt in 1956, to Tony Blair’s military adventures in the Balkans and the Middle East. It has even been referenced in the nationalist politics of Brexit. All of this folly has been supported, to a greater or lesser extent, by the idea that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a mistake trying to find peace in Munich.

With this in mind it is fascinating to visit an influential moment in history and explore it, via Hugh Legat, Robert Harris’s fictional junior Foreign Office civil servant seconded to Number 10 Downing Street, to answer the PM’s phone and carry around his red ministerial boxes. An old university friend of Legat, junior German diplomat Paul von Hartmann, is a member of a group of German officials determined to stop Hitler. Hartmann and Legat try to smuggle documents describing Hitler’s real expansionist intentions to the British government in the hope that the conference will be abandoned. The idea is that with Britain and France standing firm, Hitler’s position would be weakened, allowing the rebel group to have him removed.

As the Munich conference unfolds, Harris’s story provides an intimate view of the real complexity of the situation; the widespread revulsion of going to war again so soon after the disaster of the First World War; the fact that British forces weren’t ready; the need to buy time so that rearmament started by Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin could continue; the fact that the German rebels wanted to restore the Kaiser, who three quarters of a million British soldiers had died trying to defeat twenty years before; the fact that people could not see the future.

This last point is the most significant. We see the difficulty of making decisions based on what might happen rather than on what is happening. I thought of Tony Blair, so worried about being viewed as an appeaser, misjudging the evidence of supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, dragging Britain into a war investigated ever since in the context of criminality. Blair has claimed that without his decision to stand up to Saddam Hussain, things would now be worse than they are. Well, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, and a whole region plunged into chaos, the alternative Blair saved us from must be bad. And anyway, how can we possibly know? It’s as though we’re being asked to climb into a time travelling DeLoren, to try out different realities. How do we know if Chamberlain would have been viewed differently by history if he had stood up to Hitler, in the face of a population which didn’t want war, with armed forces unready to fight it. No doubt that route would have had its own disasters. As pointed out in Munich, Hitler himself thought a war in 1938 would have been preferable to war the following year, since Germany’s military position was better then.

Robert Harris’s book is a deceptively straight forward account of a crucial four days in European history. There are few philosophical asides, but the events tell their own story. So many later decisions have felt their influence, and so much that is thought provoking can spin off from them.

The final thought I had finishing the book was that people who love the appeasement myth, who love the idea of aggressive resistance, are actually rather close bedfellows of the nationalist dictators that Chamberlain struggled to contain. Munich is a book for our times, a nuanced lesson from history rather than something cooked up to support a sense of resistance during wartime.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


Reviewing One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a bit like waking up in the morning, recalling a night of dreams deriving from some murky brain lobe where the rules of physics and politeness do not apply, and wondering how many stars to award. Applying numbers and categorisation to dreams is always going to be difficult. The song Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream popped into my mind as I struggled with my star awarding decision.

With no resolution to my quandary in sight, I indulged in some avoidance, idly looking up a Wikipedia article about Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream; and who would have thought it – that song is a good analogy for A Hundred Years Of Solitude. Bob Dylan’s lyrics, according to the article, describe “numerous bizarre encounters and happenings taking place in a highly sardonic, non-linear dreamscape, cataloguing the discovery, creation and merits of the United States.”

Just replace United States with Colombia and you have a description of A Hundred Years Of Solitude.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream was released on the Bringing It All Back Home album in 1965 – a few years before the publication of A Hundred Years Of Solitude, on 30th May 1967. Two days later, on 1st June 1967, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I often thought of Sergeant Pepper during the strange experience of reading Marquez’s book. Sergeant Pepper is an album of the lonely modern age. People used to live on top of each other in open halls with no dividing walls. Now they tend to live more solitary lives in individual rooms,  all bunched together in densely populated towns and cities. A Hundred Years Of Solitude features a rambling, old-world family living incestuously close to each other, who nevertheless tend to shut themselves away in rooms, where they engage in such things as obsessive metal work, or dwelling on past grievances. One character dreams of endless identical rooms, and ends up forgetting which room was the “real” one. At least a room of your own offers the chance to switch off and let your mind wander – which wouldn’t be possible out in the hurly burly where people would tell you to stop daydreaming and chop some wood. It’s like Sergeant Pepper’s Fixing a Hole where someone is “fixing a hole” in the roof of a room. Rain comes in through the gap and stops his mind from wandering.

That seemed to be what A Hundred Years Of Solitude was about – a dream version of Colombia’s history describing the contradictory nature of isolation.

Did I enjoy it? That’s a hard question to answer. Do I enjoy a dream which leaves me rattled and reflective when I wake up? Did psychologist Karl Jung enjoy one of the most influential dreams of his life in which God destroys Basel Cathedral by defecating on its roof?

I will say the book was a powerful experience, beautifully written, which takes solitary experience – like reading – and finds a kind of companionship in it.

I decided on five stars.

A Brief History Of My Efforts To Understand Physics

Stephen Hawking summarises the difficulty of his book right at the end. Science has become ever more complex and specialised. All the grand, universal theories of A Brief History are actually the work of experts who only have time to understand their small patch. This breaking down of knowledge into pieces has been going on for centuries, gathering pace after 1776 when, in his Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith described the future of industry as the division of labour. Then in 1988 Stephen Hawking comes along and has a go at explaining the whole of modern physics, with all its specialised fields and competing experts, to a general reader.

Perhaps part of A Brief History Of Time’s remarkable success lies in a nostalgic reaction. People used to live in houses with one big room. Go to Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford and you’ll see how a sixteenth century hall was split into the rooms of later centuries. Perhaps, in a figurative sense, we look into a tiny room in the attic – where the physicist has a study – and yearn to return to that big hall where everyone is in it together.

So how did Stephen Hawking do? I have to admit to reading general books on physics that I have found much easier and more compelling – Superforce for example, by Paul Davies, an accomplished physicist in his own right. This is a book I read back in the 1980s after failing, on that occasion, to get to the end of A Brief History. But Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous physicists of modern times, isolated both by his esoteric field of expertise and his illness. Looking into the study of such a man increases the frisson.

Overall I would say I caught the gist of at least some of A Brief History, without feeling I gained a deep knowledge of anything. Maybe that is an inevitable part of what us general readers might call the Dilettante Principle, our equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle. You can either know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little, but not both.

I think if I’m honest I was more interested in the book not so much for what was in it – which I often had a tough time following – but for what it represents about the times we live in, where people know more and more about smaller and smaller areas. A lot of good books are like that. They catch a moment.

A Book That Helps

Saul Bellow’s narrator Augie March – a 1930s working class, Chicago-born boy with vaguely European aristocratic connections – tells the story of his efforts to work out what to do with his life. Early on he develops an interest in high brow culture, though the books he reads are derelict Harvard classic cast offs, or books shoplifted in a scam designed to supply students at the local university. Shoplifting and other petty crime might not suggest a good person in the strictest sense, though with his warmth and inability to resist helping anyone in trouble, Augie often seems like a person who is too good for the rough world in which he lives. The writing itself presents a similar irony, breaking all kinds of grammatical regulations, and yet achieving beauty.

Amongst all this confusion you keep wondering how Augie is going to find his own path in life, particularly when he is always helping other, less selfless individuals achieve their own aims. He finds himself assisting a number of powerful people, who he realises manage to “intercept the big social ray, or collect and concentrate it like burning glass.” Tolstoy, in War and Peace, portrayed Napoleon in a similar way, as someone whose larger than life image was due to the way he caught the way things were looking, rather than deciding on the way things should look. Tolstoy suggested that a humble person, like Augie, free from all the “social rays” shining on Napoleon, would ironically have more control over his life. Saul Bellow, in the end seems to suggest the same thing.

By the end of Augie’s long journey it’s not clear if he has discovered the answer to finding a good path through life. The book does not provide any clear advice you can sum up in a review. This is not a self-help book you could call How to be Rich, Fulfilled, Powerful and In Charge of Your Life because categories of good and bad, wealth and poverty, power and humility, don’t make much sense in its pages. There is, however, at least a suggestion of that reassuring idea John Lennon described in All You Need Is Love, when he said: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” It’s that suggestion which makes this book not so much a self help book, as a book that helps

The View From Mona Lisa’s Window – Riding the Pilgrims’ Way

The Pilgrims’ Way, one of my favourite cycle rides, does not take you through the Alps or the High Sierra. There’s no Matterhorn or Grand Canyon, no easy recourse to adjectives of size. An understated beauty is not easy to describe, as Leonardo Da Vinci found when he had a go at painting a subtle smile.

Thinking and reading about the Pilgrims’ Way, in the afterglow of a ride along it, I discovered a history as a simple track, which evolved at a convenient border between heavy, cultivated lowland soil, and rough, sometimes inaccessible ground up on the crest of the North Downs. Borrowing from Saul Bellow, this was an unassuming route serving travellers “without any special Jerusalem or Kiev in mind.” And yet the North Downs trackway – originally running from the Kent coast all the way to the ceremonial monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire – also has undeniable mystical connections. The Wiltshire ceremonial complexes, and the road connected to them, were built on dramatic landscape features which have long figured in people’s imaginations as spiritual symbols. The Hindus had their mythic Mount Meru, the Japanese, Mount Fuji, the Christians, Mount Sinai. Greek goddesses lived on Mount Parnassus. The people of ancient Britain revered their downland. The Pilgrims’ Way was a functional route, which remained part of a symbolic outdoor theatre extending across a swath of southern England, designed to make you think bigger and see wider. It was difficult to differentiate the special place you were travelling towards and the affecting road you travelled to get there.

The power of the Pilgrims’ Way is demonstrated by the fact that it suffered a fate reserved for the most spiritually significant of places – usurpation by Christianity. Following the founding of Britain’s first Christian church, at Canterbury by missionary St Augustine in 597AD, a policy of assimilation began. Just as pagan celebrations were modified into Christian festivals, and churches built on the sites of older shrines, so people made pilgrimages from Winchester to Canterbury along the same road used by their predecessors. It was the Victorians who finished the process of assimilation, when they decided to invent a Pilgrims’ Way, giving the suggestion that this route was some kind of standardised road dedicated to Christian pilgrimage. This isn’t the case. People on pilgrimage to Canterbury came not just from Winchester, but from all over the country, using any convenient route. Chaucer’s pilgrims, for example, made their journey from London to Canterbury along Watling Street, the course of which is now marked by the less than spiritual A2. The official history of the Ordnance Survey terms the name Pilgrims’ Way an “enduring archeological blunder” blaming OS director Sir Henry James, after one of his researchers applied the term to the route in 1871.

The enthusiasms of Sir Henry James aside, I like to remember that the North Down’s trackway has a much bigger history than that related to Christian pilgrims. This is a route probably dating to the Stone Age – archeological finds suggesting a history stretching back to at least 400-600BC. Up on a hillside that stretches for hundreds of miles, you enjoy a breadth of vision that is not comfortable with confinement in certain places, or the names of this or that religion. It is not even comfortable with the label of historical significance, preferring instead to remain a quiet, unassuming route, parts of which do not appear on most maps. It’s a special road in the sense that Bob Dylan’s Route 61, or the Beatles’ Penny Lane are special – never so extraordinary that they are shut away from daily life.

Two Truths Are Told – James Comey’s Higher Loyalty

James Comey is clearly someone who values truth and transparency. Looking through the window of his book, we witness a meeting in the Oval Office during the George W. Bush presidency. Sitting there at the very centre of American government, amongst a group of ordinary people trying to figure things out, Comey realises that this is all there is. The implied question arising is one that has come up repeatedly down the ages – surely the last word in authority shouldn’t lie with people like us.

The search for leadership, for guidance in life, has shaped human society. With human judgement so imperfect, it’s not surprising that the idea of supernatural leadership evolved. The Romans considered their leaders as gods. When this illusion proved impossible to maintain, divine intervention continued in the sense that leaders were appointed by God. Eventually that idea also failed to withstand scrutiny. Parliamentary rebels beheaded the “divinely appointed” English king, Charles I in 1649, and the rise of secular government began. The English political settlement enshrining this type of civil governance in law – the Bill of Rights of 1689 – was a major influence on the writing of the Constitution of the United States.

However, even after all this time, the desire for leadership beyond that offered by flawed humanity has not gone away.

The title of James Comey’s book suggests a search for a new higher authority, acceptable to the modern world. He finds this in two things – firstly in the accumulated, dispassionate wisdom which we call the law, and secondly in a regard for truth. Other people in America it seems, have expressed a nostalgia for divine certainty by electing a president who is deluded and dishonest enough to say he has all the answers. A Higher Truth documents a collision between these two different efforts to find a way back to reliable leadership. A reader will hopefully come out on the side of the rule of law and adherence to truth. James Comey’s book is honest, moving and could easily serve as a reference on effective leadership.

There is however, one “critical” point I would like to make. This is given in the spirit of a contribution to a debate – responding to the respect for varied opinion which is so obvious in the pages of A Higher Truth. There is a contradiction in this account which is not fully explored. America idolises the individual as the repository of moral good. James Comey himself does this. He refers to a time at college which required a strong individual to stand up to the harassment of an unpopular student. Comey bitterly regrets that even though he suffered serious bullying at school, he wasn’t able to be that person. Comey sees that he should have followed the advice drummed into him by his parents. He should have stood up to the group and followed his own moral compass. America admires this idea of the maverick. Now I enjoy Die Hard movies as much as anyone, and I admire people who stand up to a group behaving badly, but the glorification of the maverick hero, taken to an unwise extreme, played a significant role in the selection of a totally unsuitable president in 2016.

I am British, which is a different perspective. Britain with its ancient institutions and sometimes stuffy ways tends to be more Shakespeare than John McLean in its outlook. Shakespeare, who Comey quotes early in A Higher Truth, would not be a natural writer of Die Hard movies. His political mavericks – Macbeth for example – tend to cause trouble rather than restore justice. I read A Higher Truth and wondered how an American author could see the individual as the last word in moral judgement, and then also present government institutions as guarding against rogue modern day Macbeths. Perhaps America needs to come to terms with the fact that its maverick myth, forged during difficult pioneering times, might not be so relevant anymore. As I say, the American veneration of the maverick individual contributed to the election of Donald Trump. It also contributes, incidentally, to the American habit of individuals carrying guns. I don’t think A Higher Loyalty really explored the irony of a thoughtful author defending America’s government institutions while also buying into the cult of individuality which threatens them. If we go back to the bullying at college episode, we recall that this was presented as a personal lapse. You could equally say it was an institutional failure, since Comey’s own description shows the college thoughtlessly creating an isolated, unsupervised dormitory, where bullying was more likely. It’s the same on a larger scale – a shooting is a personal failing on the part of someone with a gun, and an institutional failure on the part of a society which allows easy access to guns.

The balance of the individual and the group is always a shifting one. The debate continues, and James Comey is clearly a man who enjoys a debate in its finest sense, as a sharing of viewpoints so that we all see the world in a better way. I applaud his book.

Night of the Literary Dead

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo initially struck me as an odd, unclassifiable book. It starts out as a kind of bizarre historical fiction, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son William kicking off a story set in a surreal half way house between life and death. Various individuals, unwilling to move on from their lives, inhabit the bardo, a word sometimes used in Buddhism to describe a transitional state between death and rebirth. The sense of oddness is reinforced by an unusual narrative style, where a myriad of narrators tell the story with credits given in the manner of a history text book.

Within the first twenty pages, however, I started to experience a nagging sense of familiarity. By about half way through, I realised Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t so unidentifiable after all. It was, for all intents and purposes, a zombie story. Even though the Bardo’s inhabitants weren’t portrayed in an overt way as typical zombies, they are the undead, and seemed to have a place in a long tradition, stretching from ancient folklore, through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, numerous stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the blind walking dead of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Emerging from all that, the zombie story became a place where writers could explore anxieties related to science, industrialisation, globalisation.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Lincoln in one section thinks of his lost son as an intricate machine, and wonders about the nature of the magical spark which allowed him to live. Other characters populating the precincts of the undead seem trapped in the mechanical patterns of their past lives. A shop keeper appears stuck in the routine of his lost working day, as does a musician, a professor and an overzealous soldier. Former slaves seem to either live out their submission endlessly; or former slaves and former white bigots are condemned to continue their fight endlessly.

The portrayal of three former clubmen, in particular, shows how difficult it is to stop your life settling into an enervating pattern. These jolly bachelors, who lost their lives as a result of silly pranks, appear trapped in their fixed determination never to be tied down to any obligation at all.

We are clearly in zombie story territory here, exploring the complex business of staying alive via a story set amongst characters who are neither alive nor dead. The writing has a very organic quality, ethereal at times in portraying earthly beauty, then plumbing the depths of physical degradation. This is set against that dry sense of quoting each narrator as if they are a reference in a text book. It all makes for an interesting, intellectual twist on the zombie tale. Even intellectual readers need zombies it seems. Perhaps with their quotes, references and essays, the struggle to stay vibrant and alive is especially relevant to the intellectuals. I’m reminded of the literature professor in Educating Rita, who found hairdresser Rita a breath of fresh air, even as Rita herself tried to escape the boredom of her humdrum life and her taste in low brow novels.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes the low brow zombie genre and turns it into a strange, high brow novel. It’s a bit like an unfulfilled Professor Frank Bryant meeting an unfulfilled Rita, the two of them finding mutual benefit.

Lost in the Middle


The first edition of A Bend in the River, published in 1979

A Bend in the River starts in the childhood of Salim, our narrator. He is an African of Indian origin, living on Africa’s east coast – except this part of the continent can’t really be described as Africa:

“AFRICA WAS MY HOME, had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean.”

When civil unrest threatens, Salim heads into the interior to take up a business opportunity offered by a family friend. This is a shop selling bits of everything in a town beside a river in an unnamed central African country. Salim’s town is at the heart of both country and continent, but – in an irony characteristic of the book – seems very much a marginalised place. Despite the town’s central location, in terms of the river it lies right at the end of navigation, as far up stream as a boat can reach. The east coast might be not truly African, but Salim’s town in the middle is not truly African either. It’s a peripheral place, with a turbulent population riven by all kinds of allegiances. This situation is reflected in the real world. Think of the great cities of America, for example, and you’ll see that the top two – New York and Los Angeles – are ports on the coast, where there is the greatest interchange with other places. America’s geographical centre is in rural Kansas, close to the town of Lebanon, with a population of just over 200.

Pondering on the book after I’d finished it, I thought about a line in a Lindisfarne song about another town by a river:

“The fog on the Tyne is all mine.”

There’s a passage in A Bend in the River involving river mist.

“In the darkness of river and forest you could be sure only of what you could see –and even on a moonlight night you couldn’t see much. When you made a noise –dipped a paddle in the water –you heard yourself as though you were another person. The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder. In the daylight –though the colours could be very pale and ghostly, with the heat mist at times suggesting a colder climate –you could imagine the town being rebuilt and spreading.”

The town is little more than a fleeting daydream. People think they own the fog, but the fog belongs to no one – or it belongs to everyone if you wish to look at things from a warmer perspective. Admittedly, a warmer perspective is not very evident in A Bend in the River.

Perhaps a warmer perspective comes from the sense that finishing the book, people might not be so quick to differentiate insiders from outsiders, people who belong from those who don’t. With the centre in the same place as the periphery, with home presented as such a nebulous concept, we might ironically become more welcoming and tolerant.

Arriving at Highway 61

Songs have long acted as aids to travel. Tramping feet and the stroke of oars follow a steady rhythm. Songs once served a practical purpose in smoothing this rhythm, a process reminiscent of tuning an engine.

There is, however, more to a song than providing a beat, just as there is more to a journey than getting to a destination.  Does the destination really match up to expectations? Does focusing too much on a goal take away from appreciating what we see on the way to it? The wisdom that comes from experiencing the conflicting emotions of a journey seems to have leaked into songwriting, making it much more than a utilitarian device to help coordinate a team on the move, or in modern terms, to help motivate an exercise class.

So, as part of my series of articles on album titles as effective writing, let’s have a look at some travelling album titles. First, there is Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. The real Highway 61 paved the way for Bob Dylan to follow his song writing dreams, running from the Canada United States border, through Duluth – where Bob Dylan was born – and on down through America to New Orleans, one of the early homes of modern popular music. On the way, the road passes close to Memphis – where Elvis Presley lived at Graceland – and Clarksdale, birthplace of Muddy Waters. The Blues singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on Route 61 near Clarksdale. Clarksdale is also the place where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. This crossroads is a musical tourist attraction, commemorating a young Blues singer named Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have offered his soul to the devil at this spot, in return for musical ability.

Bob Dylan gets his camera and sets off to explore this long series of musical milestones. The crucial word in the title of Bob Dylan’s strange travelogue is “revisited”. Apart from the sense of going back on yourself, there is something odd about the word revisited when applied to a road stretching for 1,400 miles. We usually use a road to visit a particular place. Highway 61 is a place in itself, one long series of arrivals and departures in a world associated with music.

Highway 61 is the opposite of the Yellow Brick Road, as immortalised by L. Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is like one of those coloured lines at Victoria Station, existing for one purpose only – to guide a traveller unerringly to a destination, whether that’s the taxi rank or, in the case of Baum’s story, the Emerald City. It is interesting that when Elton John came to reference the Yellow Brick Road in the title of his massively successful album of 1973, it was to say goodbye to such a road. Highway 61 is notable for itself as much as for where it goes. The Beatles who named an album after a road, are known for crossing that road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, the story of selling his soul to the devil might be a lot of nonsense, but it shows that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than highways reaching the Emerald City. Abba called their most successful album Arrival. Think of the difference if they had called it Arrived. Arrival is a process which continues. It involves marching bands and excitement. Arrived is something finished. Arrived is what happens when Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City and find it’s something of a sham.

It only takes a small detail to transform the mundane description of a journey into something musical. Consider the band Supertramp – a band with a great name when it comes to endless journeys. In 1979 they took a trip across the Atlantic on an airliner in the title of their album Breakfast in America. Breakfast in America suggests a long, trans-Atlantic night flight, while the detail of breakfast at the end of it suggests a brief pause before the journey continues on somewhere else. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America.

Judging by the album cover, Supertramp seem to be flying into New York. So, taking a detour via some individual song titles, what does the song title New York New York tell us about getting to the big city? That song could have been called New York. The repetition of the name makes it into a song title, creating a sense of dreaminess, as though someone out in the sticks is dreaming of getting to New York; or is reminiscing about good times once enjoyed there. Either way, New York New York is less of a place to get to, more a vision to dream about.

After breakfast we could head off into America, which puts me in mind of the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ from the American Beauty album. The Grateful Dead could have called their song Trucking, but dropping the final g in favour of an inverted comma suggests a word repeated frequently enough for abbreviation to creep in. In this way, Truckin’ suggests the routine slog of driving. This is not trucking from one place to another, this is truckin’ without end.

We might not be able to reach the end, but perhaps we can take a break from the trip with the Eagles at the Hotel California. This musical hotel has a name which suggests it encompasses the entire state through which you drive, like a visit to Highway 61, where the journey and destination are the same.

This is the contradictory nature of musical travel – offering a Ticket to Ride, which refers both to the journey taken, and the destination, which, according to Paul McCartney was the town of Rhyde on the Isle of Wight. Music is a transport of emotion, the sort of transport that can move people even if they stay in the same place.