Off Piste: Beyond the Boundaries

John D. Brewer reflects on his passion for two artists who transcended social convention and produced work redolent of a bygone time and place

February 18, 2010

Going off-piste is about pursuing private passions. Mine include two eminent Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen, suitably whiskered, fond of wearing three-piece tweed suits and spats - although surely not together. They are seemingly the very antithesis of ardour and are more or less overlooked today: Alfred Edward Housman and Edward William Elgar. Last year marked the sesquicentenary of Housman's birth, and it passed without pomp and circumstance; and notwithstanding the popularity of the tune of the same name at the Last Night of the Proms, few today associate Elgar with the piece.

The two men originate from the same corner of the Welsh Marches where the counties of Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire meet, were born within a few miles of each other, and died at the same age. But as far as I can gather from the biographies I have devoured, they lived oblivious of each other.

Sociology is obsessed with outsiders. As the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman once said, the discipline finds itself at home in the world of hipsters, drug addicts, jazz musicians, night people, drifters, grafters and skid-row denizens: "It prefers the offbeat to the familiar, the standpoint of the hip outsider to the dull insider."

I disagree, or at least I believe this no longer applies. It is not people on the margins of society who are more interesting but those who transgress its boundaries; those who do not fit because they transcend rather than live outside convention.

It is hard to think of Housman and Elgar as "cool outsiders": they were out of time even in their day. But nor is the dullness of their insider status the point. They were transgressors, not outsiders, and their transgressions were significant to their achievements. This draws me to them.

Housman and Elgar lived between social classes, were torn between provincial and cosmopolitan identities and had ambivalent attitudes towards tradition.

Housman's solicitor father was lazy and incompetent, useless even at his attempts to embezzle his family's fortune without detection, and the family progressively downsized its home. A sympathetic schoolmaster, a scholarship and the University of Oxford followed conventionally enough, but Housman failed his degree - reputedly for being too brilliant for his examiners, but in reality it was likely the result of the emotional stress arising from his unrequited homosexual love for a fellow student.

He worked as a civil servant in London for ten years, studying part-time, writing poetry and Latin translations and gaining fame in both before entering the academy, first at University College London and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was made responsible for the wine cellar. As a full-time classicist, his reputation developed from his part-time poetry. He was a taciturn colleague (refusing Ludwig Wittgenstein the use of his private toilet in college), resistant to admitting women - he likened them to Trinity's ivy, describing them as clingy and ruinous of the fabric - and a hostile, aggressive reviewer. His lifestyle included sexual tourism - his affection was for gondoliers from Venice - and ostentation; he was a gourmet and let everyone know it, often employing a chauffeur to drive him around Europe, where in coded letters he reputedly noted the quality of the food and sex. His traditional donnish life in Cambridge concealed a hidden one.

Elgar, by contrast, was even further caught between trade and respectability; his father sold pianos, his family at first living above the shop. They were Catholic and although non-practising, Elgar earned his first income playing the organ in the local Catholic church, although during the sermon he would skip over to the Anglicans for another musical burst. He was entirely self-taught in music, often unable to afford more than the occasional lesson, and he scratched together a living as a professional musician and composer - one of his appointments was as director of music at Worcester's "lunatic asylum". His scores were originally played in the provincial Midlands to lukewarm receptions.

Elgar married upwards, coupling with the daughter of a colonel in the Indian Army; her family objected to her choice based on class and religious snobbery, and her friends complained that her husband's father entered through their back doors to tune their pianos. Living off his wife's money was a transgression of a different sort for the Victorian lower middle classes and led the Elgars to try to make it in London, although even the sale of his wife's pearls did not prevent the family from returning to Worcestershire in failure.

The two men's contrasting reactions to London are worth emphasising. Housman lived there for many years and his poetry portrays it - and really any large city - negatively: it represents loneliness, emotional rejection and unrequited, untouchable love for a friend, who also worked in the Civil Service and lived nearby.

London was everything his childhood in rural Worcestershire was not in terms of social bonds, sociability and pastoral simplicity. It was neither the subject of his poetical imagination nor the centre of his professional life. The donnish life in provincial Cambridge, although it concealed a quite different lifestyle when he was abroad, facilitated the quiet contemplation of Latin translations and poetry writing.

Elgar, in contrast, was a full-time artist and London was the centre of his profession. The capital's musical establishment was snooty towards him and he was left to take it by storm from his base in the provinces; and conquer it he did. The piano tuner's son became a knight - Housman is reputed to have declined honours - and a symbol of Edwardian Englishness.

But Englishness is another boundary they both transgressed. I hesitate to judge Housman's classicism, but his poetry is divine. A group of classicists recently published an assessment of his scholarship in an attempt to rescue the public Housman from his poetry; their book made a welcome Father's Day present. Just as Elgar is cast in our mind with those limited number of pieces that dominate the public repertoire, Housman is now almost exclusively known for his poem A Shropshire Lad (1896). But I don't mind. Rarely a night passes without my leafing through his collected poems, kept on my bedside table, for a wistful late night return to a place "Far in a western brookland/That bred me long ago" or to that "yon far country", memories of which blew into his heart an air that kills, of "The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again".

However, to see this as a celebration of the English countryside, the poetic equivalent of the anti-modernist movement that lamented industrialisation at about this time, is to misunderstand him. Housman is a one-point man, as someone once described the Austrian social scientist Alfred Schutz: that point being, in Housman's case, loss and its associated pain. He had deep affection for his corner of England, but after A Shropshire Lad his poetry, much of it published on his instruction after his death, is about intensely held human feelings, not national identity. And he was not an anti-modernist: he took with gusto to the new-fangled aeroplanes for his jaunts to the Continent and his gondoliers.

The reason why it was Ralph Vaughan Williams, not Elgar, who put Housman's poetry to music is that Elgar was European and not English in his musical style. It is prosaic to say of Vaughan Williams that he celebrated England and its folkways musically, but this is not true of Elgar. This seems deeply paradoxical given Elgar's association with English patriotism and, today, with the jingoism of the Last Night of the Proms; rarely outside Orange marches or UK Independence Party rallies is one likely to see so many Union Jacks as when Promenaders cavort to Elgar.

A good friend of mine who is principal French horn at the Ulster Orchestra will not mind me reminding him that he once described Elgar - and the English pastoral group collectively - as "diddly-dee, cow-pat" composers. But Elgar transgressed that boundary too, for he was influenced mostly by German composers such as Richard Wagner, attending the whole of the Ring Cycle on several occasions and picnicking annually at the Bayreuth music festival for several years.

He was not anti-modernist, either. He was the first British composer to embrace the novelty of the gramophone, giving us today scratchy old recordings of him conducting his work. Photographs have him sat beside the horn listening to the results, still wearing whiskers, a three-piece tweed suit and spats - yes, he really did wear them together - but keenly enthusiastic about technological change.

One may be left wondering what it is that can possibly excite passion in the tales of these two gentlemen. There is a biographical reason, as I share with them origins in that pretty part of the Welsh Marches; it is a source of pride that both these figures spring from border country, an area frequently described as a place people drive through without stopping on their way to holidays in Wales.

But their appeal goes deeper. They were not outsiders, driven to excellence by their marginal status, as are so many emigre artists. They may be described as rather dull, even shallow in their artistic achievements, at least by today's standards, but as transgressors they help us understand the nature of the moral boundaries they had to negotiate to succeed as artists. Their transgression of boundaries rather than exclusion from them opens, as it were, a window into a social world. There are some features of that world that to me are deeply troublesome and problematic, but they nonetheless enable me to reflect upon a bygone age of which my relatives were a part; "walking with dinosaurs" may be too unkind an analogy, but in listening to Elgar and reading Housman, I feel something of my ancestors. And this points to an even more significant attractiveness.

Their memories, embedded in their art, react with mine when I engage with them in a double hermeneutic, making memory itself an eternal present, as shifts in time and spatial location invoke in me a sense of how their memories and mine intersect to speak to the present through poetry and music. Of course, leather on willow does much the same for me, but cricket is a passion best kept for another story.

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