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Cultural comforts for when times are tough

Cultural comforts for when times are tough

"Schubert at the Piano", by Gustav Klimt, painted 1899 | Alamy

6 min read

From Schubert to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, four parliamentarians reveal which poems, books and music they turn to for solace

Conservative peer, Lord Black of Brentwood, chooses: Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major

I have often joked that there is no great philosophical question which cannot be answered simply by listening to Schubert. But it is more than a light-hearted jest. For Schubert – the 225th anniversary of whose birth falls this month – is the magic elixir of life. He is the musical Heineken – reaching the parts no other composers can. In times of joy, he energises and encapsulates the mood of celebration. In moments of sadness, he offers solace and understanding. In the midst of reflection, he inspires with a vision of the eternal. And in tough times, he consolingly holds out the hope of something better.

His life was cut tragically short at 31, but he left behind a musical heritage which is, in my view, unsurpassed. It is invidious to pick just one piece. But in tough times, his String Quintet in C Major – one of the last pieces he wrote – is the piece which has always brought me comfort and hope. Throughout this work, there are vast changes of light and colour, as Schubert moves from despair to hope.

But the second movement in particular epitomises all that is wondrous about Schubert. If you are relaxing in the sun on an enchanting summer afternoon, he speaks to the beauty around you. If you are in the depths of despair, and without hope, he brings balm and reassurance that all will be well. Its sublime simplicity, and exceptional emotion, is always to what I will turn when the going is tough.

SNP MP for Aberdeen North, Kirsty Blackman, chooses: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

For me, reading Good Omens is like cuddling up in a cosy blanket and drinking a hot chocolate. That warm, fuzzy familiarity. It’s also absolutely hilarious.

I’m a big Discworld fan and I’ve read and re-read books like American Gods and Neverwhere. I have so much respect and love for both Pratchett and Gaiman. So it’s a joy to read their collaboration in Good Omens. To read references that could only have come from Pterry – boiling sprouts at seances, anyone?

I love how the character Crowley created the satanic symbol that is the M25, his car, the tendency of cassettes to turn into The Best of Queen, Sister Mary’s business nous and what she does to the poor computer salesman. 

I’ve recently purchased a Kindle version of the novel, so I can take it everywhere with me. The foreword, by Neil Gaiman, talks about Good Omens being the most repaired book ever. I don’t even remember where I got my physical copy of the book. Maybe I permanently borrowed it from a friend (really sorry if that was you) or picked it up in a charity shop. It was secondhand when it came to me, and it’s now even more battered and even more well-read.

Good Omens is irreverent and utterly wonderful. Pratchett and Gaiman separately understand humans better than almost any other novelists. Together, their analysis of the human condition is perfection.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and read it yet again.

Crossbench peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, chooses: Four Quartets by TS Eliot

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was a masterpiece composed in the toughest of times.

The Quartets were written in the aftermath of the First World War and just before, and during, the Second World War. 

They conjure up the lost opportunities of the inter-war years – “Down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened, Into the rose garden,” – but all is not lost. 

Having journeyed through terrible desolation – captured in The Waste Land – Eliot arrives at his destination in Little Gidding, the fourth of the Four Quartets. He joins with Mother Julian of Norwich in insisting “and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.

This is not a foolish belief that we can avoid life’s tragedies and misfortunes. but that we can come through the eye of the storm. 

The poet describes the procession of helplessness of all who “all go into the dark” and consoles us with the appearance of the wounded surgeon and “the deep compassion of the healer’s art”. 

Like John Donne and the devotional poetry of the 17th century, Eliot’s Quartets are meditative poems displaying amazing originality, extraordinary learning, and depth. 

His originality is central to this masterpiece. It is what he called “the music of ideas”.

Eliot himself regarded Four Quartets as his masterpiece and it led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: perfect for what Winston Churchill called our inevitable encounters with the “black dog”.

Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, Afzal Khan, chooses: This is the Place, by Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh 

Tony Walsh’s poem This is the Place brought together a city in mourning after the horrific Manchester Arena attack on 22 May 2017 – a date imprinted on the hearts and minds of all Mancunians.

In the spring sunshine, thousands of Mancunians gathered in Albert Square to grieve the 22 lives lost and hundreds more injured. Tony’s passionate recital of his ode to Manchester offered a moment of catharsis for the mourners gathered, as it encapsulated the pride, passion, and defiance of Manchester’s people. 

As Tony writes, Manchester is a city defined by its people: “Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home. And they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat, all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets.” I am one of the thousands drawn to this city from across the world – welcomed with open arms and proud to call myself a Mancunian.

This poem reminds me of our city’s darkest hour, when hate took so much from us. But it also reminds me of the strength, resilience, and courage that defines our people. In Albert Square that day, Tony showed us all why Manchester is the greatest city in the world and why our spirit could never and will never be broken. 

"Because this is the place in our hearts, in our homes, because this is the place that’s a part of our bones.

Because Greater Manchester gives such strength from the fact that this is the place, we should give something back.

Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester."

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