Friday, September 25, 2015

Great review!

One of the best reviews I've had of any of my books relates to Diary of a Prostate Wimp, and was recently posted on It's not only an enthusiastic review, it helps tell people why the book is worth reading. 

What would anyone find in a book about experiencing prostate problems?
Here - you'd find a lot! Not that these are my problems, I hasten to say. So why read it, why review it?
Because I enjoy reading about process. My favourite quotation is The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I like and learn from reading the first and subsequent steps of any journey.
So this book fitted the bill perfectly. The process of dealing with prostate problems.
I found it thoughtful, sensitive, insightful and poignantly amusing.
One of the best things about the book is Mike's openness - he is dealing with what we normally don't discuss, penis-es, urine samples, peeing, overflow...the less discussed problems. By writing so openly about these issues he is in fact normalising them, making them understandable and acceptable. He introduces friends with the same problems, and uses their narratives to support his own descriptions, and he uses the greatest friend of all, God, whom he happily describes as 'Dad'. His communing with Dad I found the most touching part of the book. Also touching was his openness about the support of his wife, and the issues of intimacy.
By the end of the book I felt more understanding and empathy with a variety of health processes, not just those dealing with prostate issues.
Well worth a read.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An integrated shackle for the tack

I've always loved the idea of a gooseneck holder. It's one of those things that sound much more interesting that you think. I know now, whereas I didn't once upon a time, that it's a piece of equipment musicians use, but before I knew this I imagined all sorts of possibilities, not the least of which was literally holding onto a goose by its neck in some sort of prefabricated holder. 

I suspect this isn't as easy as it sounds, however effective the holder is. Geese aren't by nature the most amiable of creatures, and even if you managed to catch one in the aforesaid holder, it's likely its mates would be onto you in a flash, pecking away at whatever body part they could aim most directly for. 

The holding of the holder might be short-lived in such a case. 

Courtesy: Joel Bradshaw
Goosenecks don't just appear on geese, of course. Nor is it only musicians who deal with them. A gooseneck appears on a sailing boat and is, according to Wikipedia, the swivel connection on a sailboat by which the boom attaches to the mast. The boom moves from side to side and up and down by swivelling on the gooseneck. 

This gooseneck may be a two-axis swivel, in fact, with an integrated shackle for the tack. These are common. Something about the first sentence in this paragraph strikes me as having a poetic shape:

This gooseneck may be a 
two-axis swivel, with an 
integrated shackle for the tack. 

Don't you love that last line: an integrated shackle for the tack. I have no idea what it means, but no doubt Wikipedia would inform me if I was a mind to find out. Here's another version of the verse:

A two-axis swivelling gooseneck
an integrated shackle for the tack. 

Getting better all the time. It just goes to show you where a bit of creative meandering on a topic will lead you...

Two steps forward, one step back

I wrote last month that I was intending to work on sorting out the chapter order of the second half of my latest children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard.

That was the plan, and I did it. But then along came my co-author, and her opinion of the second half of the book was that it wasn’t at all on a par with the first half. (In fact while she wasn't rude about it, she might as well have been.) I could only agree: there were weak spots, the climax was merely a repeat of an earlier episode with a bit more drama, and the characters had gone round in a circle to come back to where they started when they should have been moving forward.

Quite disheartening, and for a few days I couldn’t see a way forward. However, I began doing something an author called Peter Elbow had suggested in a book (Writing without Teachers) that I’ve had for many years: write and keep on writing even if it seems total nonsense, because at some point in the writing you’ll start to find ways forward again.

Well, I did do this, and it worked up to a point, and then I felt as though it was getting sticky all over again. I tried several creative approaches, things suggested as ways to get the brain functioning in just such a situation, and out of these emerged an idea of discussing the book with one of the characters. In this case, the villain himself.

This proved productive (when he stopped sulking about not being the hero), and more progress was made. And then when he seemed to want to go off and do something else, I began talking to a ‘person’ I called the ‘Outliner’, that is a person who prefers to write books by working them out in advance. (I tend to be a writer who likes to write and see what happens...)

The Outliner and I are still discussing things, and bit by bit solutions are coming to light. My co-author and I (yes, she’s a real person!) will get together and start discussing these things face to face and hopefully will make real progress, working out how the second half is going to function.

Her perennial phrase to me is: You Can Do Better. And she’s right. So that’s what I’m aiming to do currently.
Onward and upward.

Where writers go wrong

Last year I read most of a book by Sol Stein, called Solutions for Novelists. I read it rather randomly, skipping back and forth between the chapters, but one chapter in particular struck me enough to make quite a few notes, and so I'm including and edited version of these here, since they're helpful for many writers, I think. They relate mostly to a chapter entitled, Where writers go wrong. I've laid them out here as bullet points, just to keep them a bit more readable.
  • Try summarizing the book in one page [that's easier, I'd say, that Blake Snyder's one-sentence approach - Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame]
  • Break the draft down into scenes [Stein recommends doing this before the draft is written, unlike some of the others I've read recently who opt for just writing and then pulling it together. Both methods work. However he also quotes both Malamud and Fowles on page 142/3 who talk about writing the first draft to find out what the novel is about. See comments from them at the end of this post.]
  • Then check if the order of the scenes is right for full emotional experience for the reader.
  • Stick with one protagonist - two or more means the writer hasn't worked out whose story it is. [Although, that said, there are some books with more than one protagonist that work perfectly well.]
In the rewrite of your draft keep an eye out for: 
  • Sentences that are out of order [this also applies to phrases within sentences]
  • Authorial asides [I noted one of these in the chapter I was writing at the time in The MumbersonsGrimhilda! had a number of them because it's part of the style.]
  • Adjectives that aren't necessary. [And of course adverbs, which, by the way, are still essential in their place.]
  • Things that only the author can know...these have to go if you're focused on your protagonist's story.
  • Unimportant. or too early, appearances by minor characters. [Just finished reading UnderMajorDomo Minor, by Patrick de Witt. He ignores this advice by interrupting the main story to write about minor characters in a way that's irrelevant to the main events.]
  • Descriptions of the way a piece of dialogue is said [he whispered] are often better before the dialogue.
  • Be clear to the reader as to who the protagonist is.
  • Didactic stuff that isn't part of the actual story [don't think The Mumbersons or Grimhilda! are guilty of this.]
  • Delete words that soften the pace. And cliches - find fresh ways of saying things.
  • Too many antagonists? [Note how I originally had trouble with dwarves as well as witches as antagonists in The Mumbersons, until finally one of the two had to go.]
  • 'Beats' - those little bits of 'business' that characters do within a dialogue scene. They need to be relevant, and give the scene actual action not just pretend action. [I remember the awful 'business' in the popular Christian apologetics book The Case for Christ where Lee Strobel broke up long conversations with real people, by always having them crossing their legs, or standing up to make coffee.]
  • Don't bring in backstory late in the book [Amazingly that's exactly what a novelist who was also supposed to be an editor did - terrible muddle of a book - the book is The Accident, by Chris Pavone.]
  • 'Point of view of the person is most affected by what is happening.' In other words it's not necessarily always the POV of the protagonist, though it helps to keep them in focus. In The Mumbersons, Olivia gets some POV too, because she's an identifying character. POV doesn't mean seeing it from their perspective necessarily, but focusing on what's happening to them without interrupting it with another character's POV.
  • Avoid cartoonish cliche characters; the sort that often appear in TV series, especially US ones. {Note how there's often the 'funny' character, the geek, the wacky secretary and so on in crime series: they're always unbelievable to me.]
  • An antagonist can be given his or her due by the writer seeing both the protagonist and the antagonist as equal antagonists. Interesting thought.
  • Pets can humanize a character. [Snyder is strong on this idea: the title of the book Save the Cat applies to the hero doing something that puts him onside with the audience - rescuing a cat, for instance. Even the most unpleasant ‘heroes’ need this kind of moment to make the audience have some empathy with them, and of course antagonists often have animals accompanying them.]
  • Be careful with names that have similarities, or use the same initial letter, or even how you feel about a character...though perhaps this isn't so applicable in a kid's book where fun names are more usable. J K Rowling is as good as Dickens when it comes to naming her characters.
  • Phone conversations shouldn't be used often.
  • Trim down any fat in a tense scene - in terms of detail that's not relevant enough.
  • 'We know' - means the reader already knows this and doesn't have to be told again - or rather doesn't want to be told again. This is different to a stage play where audiences have to listen and can miss things, and may need them repeated.
  • Be particular about details - the three-wheeled car [in The Mumbersons] can actually have its brand name, for instance. [Not being good with cars, this was something I had to research for that book!]
  • Omens are good...
  • Characters do the same things too often: he smiled, she shook her head, etc. [In one book I read in the last couple of years, characters kept showing their 'incisors'. Really? This seems to me a difficult thing for them to do.]
  • Don't throwaway an important event, such as the finding of a body.
  • Confrontations, not discussions.
  • If action seems confusing then work out things in sequence - like those picture boards they use in making action movies.
  • Make sure the action word is can't sprint across the average office.
  • In a realistic novel don't do melodrama. Keep it sensible to real life. 
  • Make sure the readers know who is the characters as you go. Too many books leave the reader in the dark as to who is talking.     
Bernard Malamud notes: First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D H Lawrence did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain - where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.

John Fowles (who wrote The Collector in a month) says: During the revision period I try to keep a sort of discipline. I make myself revise whether I feel like it or not; in some ways, the more disinclined and dyspeptic one feels, the better - one is harsher with oneself. All the best cutting is done when one is sick of writing.  


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning piano

Someone asked me the other day about when I began learning the piano. It's so long since I began - something like 63 years - that I have no memory of learning how to move around the keyboard, or of learning to read the notes. Somewhere along the line I found I was able to sightread more readily than some musicians, and that led me into a career (professional for a short time, but mostly amateur) as an accompanist and repetiteur. Not everyone goes this way: there are just as many, if not more, musicians who learn to play more by ear than by reading. It has its advantages and disadvantages: once you've got the notes under your belt you can sit down and play most popular music with relative ease, but it also means that you never quite learn to read as comfortably as you might.

I don't envy anyone beginning piano. Though children are more natural at learning than many adults, learning the piano is still a major undertaking. Instrumentalists who play only a single note at a time, look on with wonder at pianists (or organists, or anyone who plays a keyboard instrument) because there are so many notes going on all the time. Pianists probably often wish they had only one note to play at a time: by comparison with what they have to do, this would be a piece of cake!

Friday, September 04, 2015

The migrant problem

What is it that's sparked off the sudden angst about the refugee crisis? Refugees from Syria have been struggling to find homes in other countries for three or four years. Migrants have been invading Hungary for at least a couple of years (to such an extent that there's now a fence along the Hungarian border), and Sweden has been absorbing migrants for much longer (and is now struggling with the cultural difficulties of a people who won't assimilate).
Australia has been dealing badly with boat people for I don't know how long, and has been virtually imprisoning them on Nauru in appalling conditions.
Boat people have been pushing into Italy for more than a couple of years, or drowning in the Mediterranean.
Is it that we've reached a tipping point? Has a photograph of a small boy drowned on a beach triggered off something particular? It's hard to see why this is different to the photos of hundreds of people on leaky boats hoping against hope that they'll be saved before they drown. And the thing is that there are a number of European nations who are actually doing good work in helping such people.

I think it's amazing that 10,000 Icelanders are prepared to house refugees; but how long for? And where will the refugees go once they want to have their own homes, or when the Icelanders find they're struggling to house them?
Germany is talked about taking in tens of thousands of refugees, and being admired for it. Where exactly is Angela Merkel planning to put all these people? What will it do to the structure of German society?
In the light of the great difficulties the UK is already having with hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in its midst - a number of whom are threatening the fabric of British society - how will they cope with even more? It's become a huge difficulty in Britain - a country with Christian roots - to find that a people living in their midst are denigrating the foundations of their society.

I certainly don't think NZ's immigrant quota is large, but presumably there are people from other nations besides those with refugee status who want to make their homes here. We have taken in large numbers of people before: I can remember during the Hungarian Revolution that a number of Hungarians arrived. And there were many Dutch immigrants arriving when I was a child. And later on Cambodians and Vietnamese began arriving.
As a country we certainly have room for more people; in fact part of our problem is that in some ways we are just a little too small for our own good. I don't have a problem with increasing our quota. I am troubled, however, by the way in which people from a Muslim background have tended not to assimilate in the countries they've gone to. Perhaps this will work out over a couple of generations and the mix will work. But Britain is one of the strongest examples of it not working. And I feel uncomfortable about the possibility that it may not work here either.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Reading kids' books

I read kids' books quite often, and by kids' books I don't mean those aimed at any particular age group but ones ranging from delightful full-colour picture books to books that just come in just under the young adults' age range. I've read some YA books too, but usually they're romances or gloomy apocalyptic things, and I'm not so strung out about those.

I had a real go at Diana Wynne Jones' books in 2011, when I read eight of them (they vary in quality but are always imaginative). I read a couple more earlier this year. Her books are in the same kind of fantasy genre as mine, though of course, so far, she's been considerably more successful than me in terms of a wide readership and lots of sales.

However, in the last month I've read a couple of other books I'd like to mention. The first is Speed. Speed is a word with several meanings of course, and Grant uses that ambiguity in her title and in her book. But it's also something of a speed read, because she piles on the angst and the action. I'm not sure if anyone's yet invented an equivalent of the phrase 'page-turner' for e-books, but whatever the correct phrase is, it applies to this book, which I read on my Kindle.

It's probably aimed at young teens: the hero was around 14, if I remember rightly, and proved to be a pretty tough character by the time he'd got himself through dealing with his parents dying and lying policemen and houses burning down. This book is by the Kiwi writer, Dawn Grant (although she writes under D C Grant). It's the first in a series and I wrote a brief review on Goodreads: The book races along at a great pace with the young hero gradually getting himself deeper and deeper into difficulties. Along the way there's a good deal about coping with grief as well as making the right decisions even if they may cost you your life. 

The second book was one I finished today. It starts off a bit more slowly than Speed, is aimed at a slightly younger age range, and is written by someone living here in my home town, someone I haven't met face-to-face but have corresponded on email with. I'd written to her husband on a few occasions - he writes a column in the ODT called WordWays - and it was he who introduced me to his wife and told me about her book. 

This author is called Beatrice Hale, and she's written an exciting adventure called Ice Escape. (You can see my review on Goodreads here.)  This book has two young narrators, both boys, and while initially it's a bit of a puzzle as to why the second narrator is there, it soon becomes evident that the two lads' lives will connect. 

The story is about a family embarking on a long flight together, on a flying boat. It's set in the 1920s and their adventure is meant to take them around the world. Of course, this being an adventure story things don't quite according to plan. The characters are straightforwardly-drawn, and the adventure itself is exciting enough to make you keep turning pages again. But the interesting thing is that a great deal of information about flying, and living in a perilous situation, and being rescued, and working on a fishing boat is included. There's no sense that it's there just because the writer thinks it's interesting, but because it's integral to the story. 

I probably won't write a thriller like Speed or an adventure story like Ice Escape. But each book you read shows you better how to write your own - quite apart from the sheer enjoyment involved in sharing the adventures of fictional characters. As poet Billy Collins writes in One Life to Live
...this is the only life I have and I never step out of it, 
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel...

Monday, August 24, 2015

Disenchanted Wizard takes another step forward

My latest children's book, The Disenchanted Wizard, has now been revised again, and is about to go before my editor/structural advisor/picker-upper of errors and inconsistencies...

It was nearly ready the other day, I thought, and then just as I was about to send it off, I realised that I could improve the ending considerably. This took some rewriting of a couple of chapters and reshuffling of more. However, the result was worth doing, and I think the thing is better altogether for it.

This story has a brief reference to Grimhilda!, so it can justifiably be considered as part of the Grimhilderness series. I'm even thinking of a sequel to it (already) which will tie up its links to Grimhilderness still more. But that's not quite ready to get up and running yet.

The story concerns a 12-year-old girl, Della, whose cousin, Harold, has just received a new map - it's his hobby to study maps. This map is a bit unusual in that it has some badly drawn pictures around the sides. Which would be all right, except that one of the pictures moves...

It turns out that Della's father was involved in a very strange event about fifteen years before, and is now in danger. And of course, he's not the only one.

Anyway, that's just a taster of what's in it. I'm hoping to have it e-published before the end of the year. It's taken a lot longer to write than I'd expected, so I'm not promising that it will actually appear in 2015, but let's hope so!

Video splurge

Had a bit of a video splurge yesterday. Didn't start out that way, but circumstances just brought it about. I decided to see what Hitchcock films were available on You Tube, and found Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's one of Hitchcock's less action-packed films, relying on the subtle interplay of character, and has only one really big scene: a party hosted by Claude Rains, a Nazi-sympathizer living in Brazil after the war. The characters are vividly drawn, and the dialogue full of sub-text: the love story that underpins the suspense is the main focus of the movie in many ways. I've seen it a couple of times before, but had forgotten some of the story. It stands up well after fifty-plus years.

After tea my wife and I carried on watching the Australian legal series, Janet King, which is apparently a spin-off from some other earlier series about a legal firm. We're up to about episode five or six, and I think I haven't seen a series that's so full of improbable legal stuff in a long time. Because the Attorney General seems to be able to command that people do what they're told, for her own political reasons, the Department of Public Prosecutions (where most of the story is focused) jump and go through ridiculous hoops trying to prove cases that are unprovable. Added to that is the detective and his boss who seem to think that building a murder case on the most flimsy of circumstantial evidence is good police work, and you have a series that while it's full of solid characters requires them to do absurd things. The police seem not too fazed about producing witnesses who tell lies; the legal team seem careless about ethics, and so on. If it wasn't actually interesting, it would have been dumped by now. The main character is a lesbian, living with another woman and their twin children, who are toddlers. The lesbian angle seems to be just that: another hook to throw odd bits of storyline onto.

In spite of all this we actually watched two episodes last night, which goes to show how something that's well done can get away with plot-hole murder.

Finally, after having written in one of my other blogs about a production of Puccini's opera, Gianni Schicchi, that I was involved in when I was at the Opera Centre in London in 1969, I decided to see if that was on You Tube too. It is, in at least three versions, and thankfully I picked the best-directed one to watch. The other two were okay (I checked out a minute or two of each) but the 2004 Paris version directed by Laurent Pelly, containing a very mixed European cast, was the one that I stuck with.

The opera, which runs for just on an hour, is a total ensemble piece, with a cast of fifteen or sixteen, nine of whom are on stage the entire time. There's no chorus, just larger and smaller roles (one lasting about two minutes). It's a piece of nonsense about a man, Buoso, who's died and left a very unsatisfactory will - that is, he hasn't left anything of substance to his relatives. They plot to bring in the cunning neighbour, Schicchi, and he, being even more cunning than they've thought, winds up replacing the original will with his own version, in which the bulk of the proceeds go to him.

The cast played the thing in a style verging on the comic grotesque, and there were even some surreal moments (a kind of ballet involving the moving around of the bed which features prominently). It's a lot of fun, and requires the main singers to do a huge amount of work. Those who are on stage all the time have to keep up particular characters constantly: there's no let up. Very enjoyable, even if it was sung in the original Italian with French subtitles....some of which I understood and some of which I probably misunderstood.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Milner and Bacchus

Some time ago we watched a number of episodes from both Inspector George Gently and Foyle's War. We've been watching them again on Netflix recently, and catching up with ones we missed.

They're two similar series in many respects: both set in the past (the first in the early sixties, and the second during and after the Second World War); both featuring an older and wiser senior detective with a sidekick. The older detective is always on the button, even when things flummox him, and in both cases he has a liberal point of view: not racist, not fazed by people's foibles, and - more in Foyle's case even than Gently's - he is inherently just, which sometimes means letting certain people off the hook. However episodes in both series often end with a hanging.

The biggest difference is between the two sidekicks. Foyle's man, Paul Milner, who was injured in the war and retired from duty, is an earnest, quietly-spoken, almost invisible character who, like a straight man in a comedy duo, asks all the pertinent questions, so that Foyle can pontificate. He's as dull as ditchwater (no fault of the actor, who's given an almost colourless character to deal with). There's another offsider, a young girl who starts off as Foyle's driver, and in the later series is the wife of an aspiring MP. She's a bit more interesting, though she often gets Foyle into difficulties by being too willing to take risks. Milner was eventually retired from the series: he moved to a different station, but even then Foyle came along inopportunely, and solved his cases for him (!)

Gently's sidekick is a Detective Sergeant called John Bacchus. He's presumptuous, arrogant, cocky, racist, chauvinistic and frequently wrong-headed. Even though he seldom solves much on his own, unlike Milner, he has personality in spades (it perhaps helps that he's played by Lee Ingleby, one of TV's top notch actors) and however much he trips up you can't help liking him.

Martin Shaw plays Gently, very quietly, only occasionally raising his voice, and even less often getting angry with someone who's blatantly trying to con the police. Shaw was 62 when he began the series in 2007; he's now 70, and doesn't move any faster than necessary.

The superb Michael Kitchen (who's three years younger) is Foyle. He can take a basic line and give it such emphasis, or surround it with pauses, that you think he's delivering Shakespeare. One of the delights of Foyle's War is Kitchen's acting. And his wry humour. I don't enjoy Shaw so much, though he has the measure of his character, and provides plenty of subtlety within a relatively quiet frame. Sometimes he seems to be given just a bit too much of the older, wiser stuff (though Bacchus can be such a dolt it's not hard), but he seldom overplays it.

The stories vary in intensity and interest. In general the supporting casts in the Gently series seem better than those in Foyle. But it's probably a moot point. There are plenty of good actors in both series, including some now famous faces in the earlier episodes, including David Tennant (Dr Who) and Emily Blunt.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Popular post

I have a bit of a thing about stats. I'm not trained as a statistician, but I've done quite a bit of reading in the subject, and also worked in a job late in my working life that involved some stats. But apart from the work angle I've always enjoyed finding out what the stats are about all manner of subjects - and checking the original stats have been correctly interpreted.

That's the wider view: just now I was having a look at the stats on this blog, and in particular which post has had the most visits since it first appeared. It turns out to be one that was written on 13th February, 2011, called Commonplace Post. It's fairly random, taking as its topic insurance and riffing on about the topic by using a few paragraphs I'd found in my Evernote file.

The interesting thing is that this post has had more than three times as many visits as the next most popular post. At this point that's 9923 to 3295. Nearly ten thousand visits to that post alone. That seems extraordinary for something as random as this. Check it out, you'll see what I mean.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Fictional people

Being at the point of having completed the first full draft of my latest piece of fiction*, and of having a sense that most of the characters seem to have had a life of their own even before they discovered themselves in the pages of my book, I was pleased to re-read this paragraph by Marilynne Robinson, from her essay, Imagination and Community (from the book of essays, When I was a child I read books). 

"I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification."

I found this paragraph in an article on Robinson, by Mark O'Connell, which is well worth reading for its other insights too. 

* The Disenchanted Wizard, the third book of fantasy for children, all under the general umbrella of Grimhilderness. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few random thoughts of Mahler's music

I finished reading Norman Lebrecht's 2010 book, Why Mahler: how one man and ten symphonies changed the world yesterday, and have done a rather hastily-written review here, so I'm not going to repeat what I said.

I just wanted to make a few notes about my experience of Mahler over a long period of time, which admittedly has been entirely through recordings. I've never actually had the opportunity, as far as I recall, of seeing his work performed live.

The first time I heard anything by Mahler was when I bought a record of his Fourth Symphony through a record club I belonged to, back in the late fifties/early sixties. They'd post out their record of the month, and you could either keep it (and pay for it) or send it back and get something else, or just get nothing. Anyway, the symphony started with sleighbells. Odd. And then in the fourth movement a woman began singing, sweeping along with the orchestra at a great pace - Leonard Bernstein was the conductor.

Singing in a symphony? Well of course I was young and naive, and didn't know that having singers in a symphony was hardly new - Beethoven had done it way back in the Ninth, though I probably wasn't aware of that then, being only a callow teenager. (I was ignorant enough to have been astounded to hear from another piano player that Shostakovich was not only still alive but still writing symphonies.)

But Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the Ninth (a jolly little folk song he commandeered which drives me mad wherever I hear it) was nothing compared to the joyous and delightful singing in the Mahler. Mahler's own songs often made their way into his symphonies in some form or other, and if you know the songs you'll recognise them in the symphonies; or vice versa. He's a very self-referential composer, which makes you think, when you hear one of his symphonies for the first time, that you've heard bits of it before. You probably have. He seems to use ideas from one symphony to the next, and certainly his style is so peculiar to him that on hearing a piece of music you can often identify it as being his: there are phrases, mannerisms, ways of orchestrating things that appear again and again.

This is hardly unusual: many composers' "voices" are surprisingly unique, in spite of the fact that they're working with the same bunch of notes. Mozart is recognisable almost invariably, so too Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and dozens of others.

But Mahler is a little different. I remember Chesterton (I think it was) saying that the books of Charles Dickens were like chunks cut from one long cloth. They were full of Dickensian stuff; and even where he plans out his books more carefully, it's unfailingly Dickens. Mahler, to me, seems the same. It's as if he had one enormous symphony inside him and just chopped off an hour or so at a time for the next one.

That's a simplification, of course. As is the comment about Dickens. And yet both have an element of truth in them.

I was a bit surprised the other day to find that I had five of Mahler's symphonies on CD. Which means that I've listened to a lot more of his music than I'd thought (apart from what I've heard on the radio over many years). I don't have the Symphony of a Thousand (it's number 8), so watched this on You Tube yesterday. The wonderfully enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel conducts a combined - and enormous - orchestra made up of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Four different choirs are involved, massed up and up beyond the orchestra on stands. (The youngest choir sings without music, and occasionally you see one of them turn to another and maybe tell them they've sung something wrong, or else one spies the camera and gives a grin.)  Apparently there are 1400 people involved. Crikey. There are seven soloists as well.

Mahler seems to have delighted in going for the extreme. In at least one other of his symphonies (no 2, the Resurrection) he lists out the instrumentation required, then adds, as the score progresses, twice as many of this and six more of those, as though musicians would suddenly appear out of the woodwork during the course of the performance. I'd love to see it happen, but it's probably not going to.

I don't know whether Mahler's Symphonies changed the world. Certainly hearing the 4th for the first time was a delightful surprise, but did it change my world? Possibly, but not in a way that made me turn direction. I still get a lump in my throat at hearing the singing beginning her song in it, but then music of all sorts does that. Listening to Mahler's 2nd Symphony the other day, which also has a large choir and soloists, I got all emotional when the choir came in, super-super softly, and just sang about the life after death, about being raised from the dead. Does it change my world? Well, I don't know, but it certainly adds to it.