Malcolm Arnold: The Inside Story
by Anthony Meredith
Hardcover, 528 pages
The Book Guild Ltd
This is a hefty book that promises, and delivers, much. It tackles the life story in considerable detail. At about £20 it is very good value and makes a long but satisfying and swift-flowing read, complementing Meredith and Paul Harris’s earlier book
Malcolm Arnold - Rogue Genius, which, at 529 pages, is about the same length as the present book. In
'Inside Story' Meredith goes solo. Having been a little familiar with the earlier book, I find that this later one is not a second or revised edition of the earlier one. There’s a short bibliography and a 13-page index; no list of works and no discography.
The book has plenty of well-chosen photos – quite a few in colour - presented as groups of photographic quality plates. In that respect, it follows a different design path from the earlier book - Rogue Genius - where the numerous photos are reproduced - with some compromise of quality - cheek by jowl with the text.
Meredith sets a good pace, often at full pelt. Arnold’s life and music are made to commingle well. His years were riven with furious work as well as conflict, cruelty, neglect and beneficence for and with friends and family.
There is no divorce of the life from the music - one enriches the other and there is much to be learnt in vivid and sometimes lurid terms about Arnold’s travails with writing music, his epic destructive benders after completing each work, recording projects, concerts and honours, his bitter alienation from his wives and children and his calculated cruelty to friends and potential allies. There are stories of his, to put it mildly, ‘bumpy’ relations with his publishers. Orchestras, managements, soloists - I think particularly of recorder player Michala Petri - and fellow composers (David Ellis and Christopher Palmer) pass by in spectacular and sometimes grievous panoply.
The years up to the Eighth Symphony (which I love) fly by. The chapters take on epic length, all the way up to the death in 2006 … and beyond. They remain easily assimilated and this is aided by a liberality of section headings. Many pages are lavished on the later life with a magnifying glass held up to those (for Arnold) awful years.
His carers and their burdens and stewardship are tackled head-on. The years with the Charltons (a horrific episode) were new to me. Many pages are devoted to his years with Anthony Day whose care came at a high price indeed. Day on the other hand did, with others including Alan Poulton, keep his name and music to the fore internationally, way past the stage when Arnold had become a damaged and sometimes alarming husk of a human being. As the reader will learn, Day was a controlling and self-serving individual. That said, he ensured that Arnold - always the bon viveur - enjoyed the high life. There are whole sections on his international travel, fixtures and stays in luxury hotels.
Meredith’s approach takes in a range of cultural references beyond the obvious. At several points he links his narrative with contemporary echoes from popular culture. These include Charlie Parker (in the Sixth Symphony), The Kinks, Deep Purple, A Whiter Shade of Pale and Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Cornish years (1965-77) at St Merryn, Trevose and Treyarnon are strikingly recounted. We are not spared his legendary, profligate and self-destructive drinks generosity at The Farmer’s Arms. This was a pattern to be repeated for most of his life until it and his psychological trauma, and the damage it wrought, brought this to an end. National Honours came his way as did a harvest of revealing TV documentaries including ones by Tony Palmer and Kriss Russman whose lecture on Arnold at one of the annual Derngate Arnold events rang true and vivid.
In many aspects Arnold led the life of a rock star steering and being steered towards doom. This makes for neon colours, disasters, escapes, resentments, injustices, litigation (fully documented) and hopeless endings.
Criticisms? A few and of little consequence. John Ogdon’s name is wrongly spelled at one point and ditto a ‘dither’ on the spelling (Neguib/Naguib) of the name of one of Arnold’s psychiatrists. ‘Sic’ is used intensively at one point and then discarded for the rest of the book. ‘Less’ is used in some cases where I would have been happier with ‘fewer’. I also felt a moment’s discomfort about the journalese of ‘Inside Story’. For me this strikes a false populist note in a book of this genuine moment.
Arnold was a British composer of the first rank, with popular as well as subtle high art gifts. For many academics and most critics, he was viewed as having feet of clay when it came to his film music and the way they heard it ‘bleeding’ into his concert works. His embrace with alcohol, depression and outrage and his workaholic life-style, his unbridled anger and controversialist inclinations all drove his trauma, separations and his nomadic life.
This is a close-quarters and detailed account of Arnold’s life that holds the reader in a web of prurient fascination, it makes for a provocative and disturbing read.