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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday November 01 2009

Just before telling a story about Bela Bartok, that I didn’t properly catch (something to do with playing one of his string quartets to his dead body), Radio 3’s David Owen Norris just said this:

There are some stories that are just too good to check.

That particular Bartok story sounded to me entirely dreary enough to check, but the quote above remains very quotable.

Other better stories had been told earlier, about how the man who commissioned Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, paid Bernstein either with a fountain pen or with nothing, depending on which version you go with.

The nothing version went like this.  Hussey and Lenny are having dinner:

Hussey: “Now Lenny.  We’ve not talked about money, have we?”

Bernstein: “No we haven’t.”

Hussey embraces Bernstein warmly: “How very kind!”

The usual story here in Britain is that it is the Scots who are the tight bastards.  But a constant theme of Anglo-American stories, both true and made-up, is what freeloading scroungers we English often are.  I seem to recall an English journalist in The Bonfire of the Vanities who conformed exactly to this stereotype.  Maybe we Anglos should be a bit more uncomfortable about such tales, and a bit less ready to laugh at them.

Often the problem is simply convention.  Suppose that in Culture A the rule is to offer favours and for them to be refused.  But what if someone from Culture A finds himself in Culture B where there is no such reluctance, or worse, in Culture C, where there is a positive obligation to accept, no matter how unwelcome the gift, to avoid causing offence?

Maybe Walter Hussey was not so much scrounging as punishing Bernstein for rather sneakily conducting the premiere of the Chichester Psalms in New York, rather than in Chichester, where what should have been the premiere happened a fortnight later.

Or then again, maybe Hussey should have talked about money a bit sooner.

Someone has just emailed in to say that the Bartok-cadaver/Bartok-string-quartet story is true.  “I was there”, said the emailer.  So, whatever it was really happened.