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A Nice Conundrum - My Life in Two Worlds
by Alan Poulton
Publ. 2020, 554 pp Self published
Alan Poulton is a multi-talented man – accomplished pianist, composer, writer and business manager. The two worlds of his autobiography’s title are as follows: One in Industrial Chemicals, the other in classical music. He also worked on and off as Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Business and Promotional Manager until the composer’s death in 2006. Since 2014 Poulton has been Chairman of the Malcolm Arnold Society. As an only child he was brought up in post-war middle-class suburbia and studied piano from an early age. But his father had other plans for him and so, by the age of eighteen, Poulton was sent out to work in the sales ledger department of an American tyre manufacturer. Four years later he joined the industrial gases giant British Oxygen (BOC), where he worked for approximately thirty years, climbing through a number of senior management roles despite any technical qualifications. He took early retirement at only fifty-two. It gave him the opportunity to return to his musical roots and forge a new career as freelance pianist and entertainer. He befriended composer Sir Malcolm Arnold in 1982, becoming his business manager, as mentioned above.
Alan Poulton’s autobiography seems to have been self-published or the manuscript prepared and sent for printing by the author himself. Not that this is an issue but people might wonder – as I did – why there was no publisher or ISBN number listed. Although the book is beautifully made – navy blue hardcover with a nice white and blue jacket – once I began reading it and going through the chapters, I couldn’t discard the impression this was a Word document manuscript printed directly and shaped into a book. The font used – Times New Roman, size 11 or 12 – is a tad small; may prove difficult and tiring when one is reading for a long time. Each page is crammed together as it would be in the page of a normal Word document. I understand the need for the relatively small print type, as if it were any large the book would probably double in size. The downside is it may make reading difficult for some people.
In his eagerness to fill his memoirs with as much information as possible and not miss a thing, Poulton does not appear to have made any cuts. Personally, I found the book would have benefited from a ruthless, skilled editor in the sense that the narrative suffers with too much information and additional in brackets notes that in my view were not really needed.
Alan Poulton’s life is interesting, his many talents impressive and he comes across as a compelling human being with a fascinating personality. He writes skilfully, in a fluent, eloquent style. His descriptions can at times be over long and too detailed but he manages a well-structured, chronologically organised narrative with strong dramatic elements that can hook the reader. He says himself in a brief note at the start of the book that “all the events recalled in this autobiography did take place, but some may have been overly-exaggerated to heighten the drama.” It wasn’t quite clear to me which of these events he meant but he certainly achieves the desired dramatic effect, keeping one interested in moving through the pages. He tells his story as if sitting in front of the reader. What I mean is that he appears to recount events and memories in a style similar to an oral tradition. This quality enhances the authenticity of the book, making the reading more pleasurable, however it can at times also hinder it and become a little tedious. It happens mostly when Poulton suddenly recalls a related episode by association and interrupts the story with a note in brackets and italic to report on that particular moment. Some may find it enriching. Personally, I found it disruptive and on occasions skipped it, continued reading the story and later returned to it after finishing the chapter in question. I understand why these kind of associated episodes were included – they make the tale more lively and credible, helping to place the story in a social or historical context – but they can cause the narrative to become fragmented, in reading and visual terms, and the reader to lose interest or stop caring about what happens next. Foot notes might have been a better option but that is only my personal opinion. A very strong feature of the book are the dialogues and conversations. These are reproduced rather vividly, sometimes with a play-writing quality that adds to the feeling of veracity and of listening to a story being narrated in front of you. Squeezed between chapters 48 and 49 there is a thirty-page edited essay on Alan Poulton himself, entitled A Catalogue of Achievement: Alan Poulton’s Early Years. Written by Anthony Meredith, it was published in Maestro, the annual journal of the Malcolm Arnold Society. Engaging though it is, it appears in the wrong place. Its location makes sense from a chronological perspective but it is by a different author and about Alan Poulton himself. For the integrity and structure of the biographical narrative, it should have been added as an appendix at the end of the book. It is a different voice and another style of writing, interrupting the flow of Poulton’s own life story even though the subject matter is relevant and appealing.
The most engaging part of the book is arguably Poulton’s relationship with composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, providing a fascinating insight into Arnold’s life and work. It is therefore no coincidence that Alan Poulton has written a catalogue for Malcolm Arnold’s compositions, which was reviewed here by MusicWeb’s Rob Barnett and defined as an excellent reference work.
Alan Poulton’s autobiography is an engrossing read albeit too exhaustive and detailed. Poulton has led an unusual life that is worth telling and quite entertaining as well as informative. In my view, however, the book could have been cut down to 300 pages, give or take, instead of the over five hundred. It however appears to have been a labour of love for him, warmly dedicated to his family. For them and his close friends, it is undoubtedly a wonderful memoir that they will treasure and cherish. For the average reader, with 554 pages and over 180 photographs and illustrations, it may prove too much of a challenge, especially bearing in mind the many hours one must invest to read it. A Nice Conundrum is available at £15 (a very fair price given the physical quality and length of the book) only from Alan Poulton directly – at least I couldn’t find it in any bookshops or online retailers. Postage is free for British Music Society members.
I enjoyed parts of Alan Poulton’s autobiography, found it generally revealing, instructive and at times very pleasing though on occasions too comprehensive and a little tiresome due to information overload. The extensive illustrations and black and white photographs are rather compelling though and enrich the book, making the experience more absorbing.
Summarising, A Nice Conundrum is not an autobiography for just anyone to read. However, musicians, musicologists and possibly historians, as well as some die-hard bookworms, will no doubt spend many happy hours going through it.