Not the song by Leonard Cohen. Oh no.

This is the Hallelujah of serendipity, the kind that only occurs in the rapidly disappearing, musty, drecklich environment of a used book store — in this case, the venerable Prospero’s of Manassas, VA, mainly noted otherwise for proximity to the battlefield of Bull Run and a, thank Frog, increasingly rare denizen known as the “Manasshole” (think pickup truck, Confederate flag bumper sticker, mullet, Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting on the radio).

I was there with a party of doughty shoppers, and I was damned tired of standing and sat down in the stray chair in the window alcove and there was a box of compact discs and DVDs, and in it was a copy of something I’d never heard of starring Trevor Howard as Georg Frederic Handel, titled God Rot Tunbridge Wells.

When you note that Charles Mackerras “realized” the music, you know you are in for a treat — and so, I suspect, was Sir Charles, who must have had the time of his life; the DVD’s liner notes, written by auteur Tony Palmer, describe his insistence on recording the Fireworks Music as written, with twenty side-drums. “Simon Preston, then Organist at Westminster Abbey, had wanted me to use his choir. The Abbey authorities would not permit it, so we used them anyway but called them The Extremely Ancient Academy of Singers, and remarkable they are too.”

I have never been that fond of Handel, but I sat through the two hours as if it were five minutes, in frank tears before it was over. You see, humanity wants its geniuses, its brilliant artists and composers, to be plaster angels, and no plaster angel ever did a thing worth remembering. Handel may well have been a temporal-lobe epileptic, subject to storms of energy in the brain; he wrote music at white heat, even when you allow that he plagiarized himself regularly in order to make deadline (something the film deals with; you use what you got). Musicians, especially, are venial, competitive, vain, autocratic, and ruthlessly dedicated to the music as the anchorite is to God; I grew up with them, I should know. And I should have realized what the film jostles us to realize: people have been treacling Handel all this time. Everyone hated the film when it aired; not reverential enough, apparently. It’s a terrible thing to be a national treasure.

You can see the whole damn thing on YouTube. I’m not sorry I spent the ten bucks though.


10 thoughts on “Hallelujah

    • I missed it during my time in Britain. But John Osborne, Palmer’s scriptwriter, apparently got pneumonia and had to go to hospital — in Tunbridge Wells, where “a very sexy nurse” told him this was his punishment for mocking their lovely town. I have no idea what level of irony was involved.

      • Ugh! The faded eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century opulence. The modernised Pantiles. The third-rate conference centres. The self-congratulatory mortgaged commuters (sardines on toast with the blinds drawn) living on the east side complaining about the train service. The dieseled spa waters and congestion. The over-used Moor. The over-praised Rocks. The 60s offices occupied for no discernible purpose. I have been many times since since childhood, always with high hopes, usually on the way to somewhere worth going to, only to leave in desolation.

      • I had four impacted wisdom teeth out there in 1984 and felt hardly anything in my mouth for months afterwards. Tunbridge Wells – not to be confused with Tonbridge, a short distance way, pronounced the same and far less pretentious – was true to form.

        Tunbridge Wells has never really got over the fact that it was deserted for the then fashionable Brighton and the seaside. It sports hotels overlooking the Moor in the hope that its heyday will return.

  1. It sounds a bit reminiscent of the area where I bought the DVD, in some particulars at least — pretensions to historical significance and eye-burning tackiness within a head-turn of one another, though the waters are lacking.

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