Far-sighted but no visionary

Image of Harry Eyres

It would have been too easy (reader, I was tempted) to write a column dismissing all the hype about the late Steve Jobs. I must say for a non-Apple user – I have never owned a Mac, an iPod or an iPad – the effusiveness of the tributes, and in some cases the grief, was hard to fathom. The last time I remembered anything comparable was after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Whatever his other achievements, it appeared that Steve Jobs had arranged a posthumous coup: he had made sure his obituaries were written by his own PR department.

President Obama mourned him as a “visionary” who “changed the way each of us sees the world”. With still less restraint, the philosopher Alain de Botton gushed: “there are businesses that redraw the landscape entirely, creating needs we never knew we had, and remoulding our sense of what we have to have in order to be happy.” Goodness, was I only dreaming when I thought I still recognised those blue remembered hills? Might it be an advantage to remain unaware of needs I do not know I have?

You can imagine a Slow Lane line on all this: that, after all, the man had only been a creator, or refiner, of gadgets, which I for one have managed to get along quite happily without. Maybe Jobs “transformed our lives” (Obama again) somewhat, making them even more full of annoying electronic gizmos that render living in public spaces progressively less bearable. Perhaps I am missing something, but we seem to be just as fractious and addicted to short-termism as we have ever been.

But this was all just knee-jerk stuff. Not only was I not an initiate of the Apple cult but, frankly, I had little idea who Steve Jobs was. Reading his famous Stanford address was a sobering experience. Here was an undoubtedly impressive human being, a man of substance and originality.

Jobs was unusual in many ways, and not least in his approach to education. In contrast to the ever more streamlined, synchromeshed idea of expensive university degrees leading seamlessly into jobs (the normal kind), Jobs needed to drop out of university to find his way. More precisely, he dropped out of the required classes he found boring, in order to drop in to classes which inspired him. One of them was a calligraphy class which influenced all his subsequent thinking, and ensured, as he said with no false modesty, that personal computers would have “the wonderful typography they do”.

That was a very considerable achievement. I am still not convinced that it qualifies Jobs to be called a visionary. One of the qualities of visionaries is that they see far ahead; not just 10 years ahead but maybe a century or two. Often visionaries are little appreciated in their own time, dismissed as oddballs or madmen. Jobs might have been a maverick but was hardly an unappreciated one – and he became one of the richest people in America.

A week after Jobs died I was in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Claudio Abbado conducting Anton Bruckner’s towering Fifth Symphony. If there was a Jobs connection, it might have been that Abbado has fought life-threatening illness; he made a remarkable recovery from cancer and, though he now looks gaunt, skin stretched tight over his long bony face, he stood spry and upright as he conducted the immense symphony from memory.

I am not sure Abbado would consider himself a visionary. I see him more as a supreme facilitator, a great clarifier of textures. He looked humble, not full of ego, as he took waves of applause and a standing ovation at the end of the symphony, and eventually stood to one side of the podium, as if to direct the applause away from him, towards his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra (I have never heard more hushed and precise pianissimo playing from a string section), and ultimately towards Bruckner himself.

I have a feeling that Bruckner and this symphony in particular are finally coming into their own 135 years after the Fifth was completed (amazingly, Bruckner never heard the work performed by an orchestra). For the composer Arnold Bax, hearing the corrupt Schalk-conducted version in 1906, it was a monumentally boring piece of Austro-German pedantry.

I didn’t find it boring when I first heard it, as a teenager at the Proms. It was certainly extreme; extremely long, extremely slow, extremely desolate, extremely unruly and extremely loud, especially at its thrilling ending, one of the grandest perorations in music. I found the extremes exciting (as teenagers tend to). It was like being taken on a tour of the Arctic, or Patagonia, a landscape of arresting splendour and strangeness.

Yes, Bruckner did change the way I saw the world, and myself within it. It felt vaster and more thrilling; and, if it also felt frightening, the fear was tempered by the fact that a brave soul had been there before me and charted the territory.


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