Tommy can you hear me …

May 9, 2010

On a whim I recently bought CDs of all the LPs that I had loved and lost from the early 1970s. Cream (remember that Ginger Baker drum solo?), Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath & John Mayall from whose Blues Breakers all else evolved. The first album I ever bought however was the pioneering rock opera Tommy from The Who way back in 1969. It was the means by which I infiltrated the strong maternal determination of what constituted acceptable entertainment. To give you a sense of the cultural control, we were not allowed a television until 1965 by which time two years of Doctor Who deprivation was having an impact of my social standing in the playground. I negotiated the television thanks to the BBC producing an eleven part adaption of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s controversial production of the Bard’s Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. I had been initiated into Shakespeare a year or so earlier on the grounds that I should have read all the major plays (and be able to engage in dinner time conversation with adults) before going up to Grammar School at the age of eleven. The short term rental of a black and white television for the Shakespeare was then extended indefinitely by careful selection of upcoming “educational programmes” of importance for my studies and a gradual parental addiction to BBC Drama, Documentaries and, yes, Doctor Who.

Emboldened by that success I took a risk and bought a copy of Tommy having fallen in love with Pinball Wizard at a friends house. By now I had a solid five years of opera going behind me. The first opera I ever saw was a production of The Marriage of Figaro by a traveling opera which was marred by constant interruptions for the opera to be explained to the young audience. I think my long standing dislike of Mozart stems from that experience. From then on every visit by the Welsh and Scottish National Operas to Liverpool resulted in a family expotition. I haven’t misspelt that by the way, it was part of the private language of a family brought up on the very best children’s classics and the educated reader will immediately recognise the reference.

Given that opera was acceptable, it seemed to me that there could be no reasonable objection to my bringing a modern example of genre into the home. The tactic worked, although the sight and sound of my mother trying to understand it was excruciating. My father simply retreated to his workbench in the garage and listed to Radio 4 (only two years old then having replaced the Home Service), tending his glue pot and immaculately maintained saws, planes, spokeshaves and chisels. From there it was a short step to get permission to watch Top of the Pops. As the Sixth Form approached we had total capitulation, which was good news for my watching the truly wonderful late night productions of The Old Grey Whistle Test. By now we all had hair down to our shoulders, were growing beards (the headmaster had banned them so there was no alternative) and wore the most interesting of clothes. My all time favorite outfit was the purple shirt with large rounded collars, a set of Blue and Yellow vertically stripped trousers with 12 inch flares, a six inch wide belt and a Russian Army Great Coat.

So I am writing this, listening to Tommy for the first time in several decades, reliving the memory of when I first played it. The Hi Fi unit was in the dining room which abutted the kitchen and sitting room. I can still see the glass fronted bookshelf with Mum’s University Books (German literature) and various political works of the left in front of me. I gradually turning up the volume until the inevitable intrusion and interrogation. By now I was school debating champion for the lower school and a shoe in to win the impromptu speaking competition at each years school eisteddfod. I had learnt the value of rational argument and the use of metaphor over unreasoned protest. I think (and it shows how strong the memory is) that my argument of the dangers of over restriction of engagement on popular culture was the most successful. An indirect threat of degeneration into a drug crazed act of rebellion held more promise for compromise than actually rebelling.

I should make it clear that I don’t resent the maternal constraint. In practice we were never told no, just made to have a sense of profound shame at deviant behaviour! My love of Opera and Rugby come from that period, and they remain my two great passions (along with Shakespeare). One of my great pleasures in later life was taking my mother to modern interpretations of Wagner and introducing her to the greatest of the modern composers Harrison Birtwistle; culture is an evolutionary system and exaptation one of its most interesting features. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that my parents were far more effective in managing constraints and constraint relaxation that my wife and I were during comparable periods. The key lesson of complexity is that a lack of constraints can only be chaotic, whereas over constraint leads to catastrophic failure.

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