Last Sunday morning found me at the Highcliff Hotel in Bournemouth, the conference hotel for Labour’s 2007 gathering and — the reason I was there — the temporary home of the BBC television’s Andrew Marr Show.
Along with my fellow journalist Anne McElvoy, I was Andrew’s guest reviewer of the morning newspapers. I was in to read them at seven, a huge red orb of a sun rising over the sea as I made my way along the cliff tops from my hotel on the East Cliff to the West Cliff and our studio. It was cool, breezy and beautiful, the Channel a choppy and restless autumn symphony of greys and blues.
Inside the Highcliff another mood reigned. Beneath low ceilings and the glare of television lights, people rushed hither and thither. There was a panic about the presenter’s earpiece, which had not arrived from London. Hotel staff jostled through the throng with trays of coffee as technicians and personal assistants faffed and fiddled, mobile phones rang and guests tripped on trailing camera cables. Sky News was there too, in another corner of the room with Adam Boulton, who never sleeps, pacing bear-like up and down. Sky were awaiting Harriet Harman. The BBC’s principal guest was to be Gordon Brown, and some of the Prime Minister’s retinue had arrived in advance of the great man, adding to the sense of near-chaos and excitement among the milling throng. Security was tight. Stress and self-importance, of a reasonably cheerful kind, were written in the air.
Anne and I had spent our time tucked in a corner desperately trying to read through the entire morning’s press, pick out the pieces we wanted to discuss, remember which papers we’d found them in, agree a pecking order, and get all our excerpts set up with neat little red squares felt-tipped around each, so the camera could find them. A capable and pleasant BBC person, Thea, was trying to organise all this for us, keep an eye on the time, make sure we got our creased morning faces seen to before the make-up assistant was whisked off to tend to Gordon Brown’s, and monitor the progress across southern England of the earpiece.
The command to get ourselves and our heaps of newspapers into our hot-seats in advance of the opening shots for the programme always seems to come suddenly, before you expect it; but we were nearly ready, and settled nervously into our places, trying to remember the order of the pieces we were to discuss and what we were going to say about them, while a sound-man fiddled with little microphones. Andrew Marr was his civil self, as always, but an imminent interview with the Prime Minister weighed on him. Breaking news: arrival of the missing earpiece. But where was the Prime Minister? How would all this coming and going resolve itself into a coherent programme within the remaining 30 seconds, as somehow it always does? Heaven only knew.
And then came a sound. Familiar enough in its way, it was yet totally arresting. Andrew Marr had invited a young violinist Nicola Benedetti to play something, solo, for the show. She was practising in the corner by the coffee trays. She had chosen something simple, haunting and serene: just a collection of notes, yet sublime.
Anne and I looked at each other. We could tell we were both feeling the same thing. This music was so beautiful, this scene so bizarre, this unreal confusion of disparate and unconnected sounds and images so spine-tinglingly strange. Gordon Brown was arriving now, but suddenly, and for a moment, all that was background. Foreground was the violin.
‘It’s like a dream,’ Anne whispered to me.
I leant over to whisper back, ‘Yes. When we are dying, this is how it will be, won’t it? Snatches of things from different parts of our lives, all jumbled up, the sublime and the ridiculous.’ She nodded.
And then off we went, led by Andrew: opining on general election fever, bitching about Cherie Blair’s memoirs, giggling at a newspaper item about the renaming of fish. It was soon over and, hustled off the set to make way for the Prime Minister, we found some seats tucked behind a screen, from which we could strain our ears to hear what he was saying, which was nothing. Phrases, mechanically repeated, ricocheted around the room: ‘managed migration’, ‘just trying to concentrate on getting on with the job of governing Britain’, ‘managed migration’, ‘getting on with the job’.
But now I had heard the violin, nothing was the same. I couldn’t bring any of this busy tension, this clamour, this excitement about personages, to the front of my mind any more. Frozen there were the image of the red orb of the rising sun in the silence before the noise, and, amid the noise, the strains of the violin.
Music transfigures. It stops you in your tracks. It lifts, it freezes, it distances, it shames, it cuts the unimportant down to size. How many times, running down those interminable subterranean London Underground pedestrian tunnels and late as ever for some stupid thing that seemed important at the time, have I heard the sound of a guitar or clarinet swell as I rounded a corner to encounter a busker’s pitch, and felt suddenly ashamed of myself for my preoccupation and hurry? And why should it be that a melody, a harmony, a tone has the power to strike straight into the human heart and make us know that none of this really matters?
I am already forgetting what Gordon Brown said to his conference in Bournemouth this week. The Sunday newspapers over which Anne McElvoy and I chortled are lining Monday’s bins. ‘Managed migration’ and ‘getting on with the job’ were only ever convenient phrases, space-fillers, signifying nothing. So was I, and this time next year my little stint on Andrew Marr’s programme will be filed away beyond retrieval among the many reviews I’ve done before and the many I may do again.
But just a few short seconds, in which a red sun rose above the ocean, and in which Miss Benedetti played a lovely phrase on a violin, will still be there and always be there. In all our lives there are moments of transfiguration, and they come when least expected.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.