Maybe I’ve overvalued culture, retreated into its ivory tower too much as an escape from noisy, messy reality. I remember driving along the Westway out of London, past rows of what the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster called “bypass variegated” semi-detached houses, designed “to achieve the maximum of inconvenience … [using] the least attractive materials and building devices known to the past”, while listening to Mozart or Beethoven and finding the coexistence of angelic beauty and aesthetic disaster hard to reconcile.
Of course the best culture is not divorced from life, but the most profound way we have of making sense of it. Two of my musical highlights this year were dark, rich confrontations with mortality as interpreted by artists bringing all their life-experience to bear on music of almost unbearable poignancy: in one case by a young composer, aware of his limited time and raging against the dying of the light, the other by an elderly one looking back with nostalgia and infinite regret, but also with warmth and love.
These were Schubert’s last three piano sonatas performed by Mitsuko Uchida at the Southbank Centre, and Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet played at the Music Shed in Norfolk, Connecticut, by an inspired David Shifrin and the Tokyo String Quartet.
This last performance was made especially poignant by the Tokyo String Quartet’s announcement that this would be their last season, and by a conversation I’d had a couple of days before with viola-player Kazuhide Isomura, in which he poured out memories of 40 years of the quartet’s history. Amazing to think that when they started they had to counter the prejudice that oriental performers could play with machine-like accuracy but lacked feeling. Anyone doubting Isomura’s depth of feeling only had to listen to him play the tender inner lines of the Brahms, or, a couple of months later at London’s Wigmore Hall, with his marvellously rich, amontillado tone, the opening melody, marked mesto (sad), of Bartók’s Sixth String Quartet.
I approached the London 2012 Olympics with a world-weary cynicism that the events thoroughly confounded. I was charmed by the modesty of so many of the competitors, not least from Team GB. The brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee from Yorkshire, who won the gold and bronze medals in the triathlon, were splendidly down-to-earth. There was no doubting their competitive grit but they carried it all off with not a trace of egotism. They had also managed something that Cain failed to achieve: how to battle your brother to the death without killing him.
I had felt the heptathlete Jessica Ennis was overexposed in almost every sense in the weeks leading up to the Games. But then, like everybody else, I was captivated by the way she combined her athletic prowess with beauty, intelligence and warmth of personality. Ennis was more than just an athlete; she was the embodiment of a multiracial Britain.
The Olympics also saw the triumph of Britain’s most talented tennis player for nearly a century, Andy Murray, and the final laying-to-rest of the trolls of self-doubt that had haunted him in major finals. It must have been sweet revenge for his defeat at Wimbledon by Roger Federer, and the perfect preparation for his first major victory the following month in New York against the bionic Novak Djokovic.
But, readers, you will have guessed that the victory I treasured most was Federer’s Wimbledon title, in the autumn of his career, when his sublime drop-volleys broke a rampant Murray in the second set, and changed the course of the match.
That match seemed to reverse the ordinary course of time, in which older makes way for younger.
The year’s most revelatory exhibition, Bronze at the Royal Academy, curated by David Ekserdjian, made time stop. Bronze does not decay in the way that pigment on canvas, wood, and even stone does, so the result was that works of antiquity such as the Dancing Satyr, recovered from the sea off Sicily, seemed impossible to assess in terms of age.
Working on a book on the Roman poet Horace for the past couple of years, I’d come to believe his claim in the 30th ode of Book Three that he’d completed a monument more lasting than bronze. But I hadn’t realised what a risky boast that was.
My final highlight has nothing to do with high culture. It was the warm, personal, intelligent care my father received in the last 10 days of his life from nurses and doctors at the Florence Nightingale Hospice at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire. They appreciated him, and he appreciated them, and so he was able to die as he had lived, with dignity and humour.