Acton man

 

IN Waiting For Godot, Beckett's hapless tramps Vladimir and Estragon, faced with endless nothingness, exchange insults. Back and forth, the abuse flies at speed. It is interesting that of all the epithets traded, the one that wounds the most is the accusation "critic". Estragon's cruel slur shocks Vladimir into silence. The stage directions read: "He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

The critic is indeed a maligned, seldom popular creature, often dismissed as an irrelevance, an eccentric, a crank or a fool, yet curiously feared as if he were a god. Theatre critics have been known to end runs, literary critics are seen as people who praise poor books written by their friends and rout masterpieces penned by their enemies. The critic evolves rather like a caterpillar. One day he does not even exist and then, hey presto . . . here he is, carping, complaining, sometimes eulogising and often peculiarly powerful.

Popular opinion holds that many critics don't even like being critics, as they invariably believe they are destined for greater things - usually at the receiving end of criticism and/or praise.

Being a critic, however, never bothered Charles Acton, who as music reviewer of this newspaper nurtured and encouraged the international coming of age of classical music in Ireland. As far as Acton is concerned, "my life only began when I became music critic of the Irish Times." This second coming or rebirth occurred in 1955 when Acton was 41. It helps explain why interviewing Acton about his childhood is close to impossible. "Why do you want to know that?" his exasperated gestures adding more weight to his explosive "that happened a long time ago. I'm 82 for Heaven's sake." His 41 years on earth predating his career as a reviewer appear in danger of slipping away into the closed backwater of his personal history. As does the interview.

This week Acton's Music is published, a selection of his more kindly reviews written during his 30 years as a music critic, as well as some Letters to the Editor inspired by Acton's personalised style. His attitude towards the publication is a practical one. "Well. I'm too old to write a book now." It is curious how reviewers and opinion makers acquire a position of national institution. Matching the importance of Acton's reviews was his tireless campaigning for the establishment of a national concert hall. If Dublin has an international concert venue today it is largely due to Acton's labours.

SITTING in his preferred chair - "I sat here when I was interviewing Panufnik in 1977" - in the living room of his converted railway station home in the Dublin suburb of Carrickmines, Acton has the air of a man well accustomed to holding court. Unwelcome questions are brushed away like so many intrusive winged insects. Not surprisingly in the opening, agonising moments of an interview based on the life the person who has lived it has no wish to recall, my eyes remained fixed on the pale green plastic fly swatter resting on a nearby table. But this interview is not an interrogation, merely an attempt at revisiting a life which began in 1914.

Long minutes pass. Stalemate. Before asking him what it was like to hear Rostropovich perform live, the interview form dictates that firstly he is asked to recall his early life, particularly memories of his parents. Any interviewer must be more interested in hearing him speak about them than in asking about the many fascinating objects in the house. No information is forthcoming. Huffing and puffing, Acton is irritated. Small, businesslike, his wife Carol immediately takes charge. "Come here for one minute," she says, "Only one minute and I'll give you some idea of what Charles is about."

Down a short passage with a poster of a Tony O'Malley exhibition, on to a large room which was built on to the original house. Lit by a wide window which offers a fine view of the lawn, itself planted over what was once the Harcourt Street railway line, the room is unusual - the old world contained in a modern setting.

In an imposing row, along the wall, above door height, is a portrait collection of Acton's ancestors. The first is of Thomas Maule, who had been appointed Surveyor of Customs in Kilkenny in 1629; the gold headed cane which appears in the portrait also hangs on the wall beneath it. When was it painted? "I don't know, I wasn't there,"

he will later reply. The family itself can be traced back to the 12th century. Shelved along the far wall is a library of sheet music and Acton's record collection. As for CDs, he has fewer than a dozen. There is also a magnificent bookcase, a composite piece possibly dating from the 18th century with some Victorian additions. Later, on returning to that room, he points to it and says: "That came from the Synge house." It is possible that the Synge family modified the bookcase and transformed it into its present free standing form.

Back in the sunlit parlour Acton waits for Carol's tour to end. Reginald Thomas Annesley Acton, his father died at Ypres in 1916. "I was born in the April of 1914, so I hardly could have known him, could I?" His mother Isabel Ball died in 1971, "three weeks short of her 95th birthday."

To the question did he have any special sense of his father from stories he may have heard from his mother or others, the response is economical. He stares at my apparent stupidity. Acton is an only child, and his mother, who later remarried, "was the absolute best person until I was about 15". He was born in Bristol yet the Actons had strong Wicklow connections. Kilmacurragh House, dating from 1697 and situated about five miles outside Rathdrum, was the family seat. "I never particularly liked the house, it was not comfortable; it was too cold, impossible to heat. Its interest is its age. But there are wonderful gardens." Acton sold the house in 1944, but it is now a ruin. The gardens, however, are currently in the process of being purchased by the State.

Meanwhile Carol, sitting in a chair behind me, has decided to steer the conversation. "I'm here to fill in the gaps" she says jokingly.

"I tend to forget things" says Acton, "but Carol remembers the lot." Having been together for 45 years, the Actons who do not have children, present an unintentionally intimidatingly unified front. Shared experiences, shared references; both know that should either of them abandon a sentence at midpoint, the other will finish it - and exactly as the first speaker would have.

THERE is no denying it, it is tense. Diffidence or deference undermines spontaneity. Acton is a chatty, opinionated man with an impressively baroque accent and an almost theatrical style of delivery but he is also practical, unsentimental, impatient and clearly uninterested in nostalgic strolls down memory lane. The facts are contained in Gareth Cox's introduction to Acton's Music, but the object of the interview is to have Acton tell his own story.

"I went to Rugby". There he became interested in music. "Loved music, hated sport. Never played rugby. Bloody awful game." While there, his beloved step father - "my absolutely best pal" gave Acton his clarinet, but it proved difficult to play (as it was, in fact, composed of the parts of two separate instruments, it was unlikely that the two parts would ever be in tune simultaneously). The music master introduced Acton to the bassoon. In time he would become "the worst second bassoon player in Ireland".

As a schoolboy he heard Boult conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. His was a memorable and privileged musical education, begun early with piano lessons from the age of six and continuing with the bassoon, included hearing Toscanini conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing all of Beethoven's symphonies in 1935. Three years earlier, during the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester Cathedral, he heard Elgar conduct The Dream of Gerontius.

At Trinity College Cambridge he read Natural Sciences - physics, chemistry and mineralogy. However, as have many aspiring scientists before and since, Acton's plans floundered on his poor maths. Aside from that he was far more involved in drama and music and was already reviewing. His first music reviews appeared in Varsity Weekly and one of them was a notice of the premiere of Vaughan Williams's The Poisoned Kiss. He failed his degree in 1936, but having spent his last summer as a student in Munich where he had heard Hans Knappertsbusch conduct a feast of Wagner including Lohengrin, Tannhauser, Parsifal and the entire Ring cycle, exams must have seemed fairly insignificant.

His student days over, Acton went to work as a booking clerk at Thomas Cook's travel agents. Initially working in the office in Holburn, in 1937 he went out to work for the firm in Palestine and later ran a small library. While abroad he was always regarded as an Irishman, and points out that the Palestinians knew that he understood what it was like to have a nationality imposed by another country. "Of course I was seen as Irish, although it is unusual that as an Irishman when I say `my father died in 1916', I don't mean during the Easter Rising."

Returning to Ireland in 1939, he worked at various things including selling Encyclopaedia Britannica "very badly"; he manufactured charcoal as motor fuel during the war and then became involved with selling Proctor's Tripod Harvesting. "It's a method of preparing hay, are you familiar with the Austrian way of preparing hay?", he then explains the process. Market gardening was another unsuccessful venture.

At a meeting held at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Acton met Carol Little, - a violinist, leader of the Dublin Orchestral Players and a teacher at the academy. They married in March 1951. When Joseph Groocock declined the offer of becoming the Irish Times music critic, he suggested Acton. And so Acton's real life finally began.

HIS approach to reviewing was always to adopt the position of a paying member of the public who had come to a concert for entertainment, not as a job of work. Acton's conversational reviews are very personal, often as much about himself as the performance under scrutiny. He defends this approach by saying: "Reviews are opinion. I was giving my opinion."

Often castigating international performers for poor performances when reviewing Alfred Brendel's recital at the National Concert Hall in 1982, Acton wrote "for all the perfection of his playing of the first two sonatas (Haydn Sonata in D minor; Mozart sonata no 8 in A Minor), I wondered why I was not `sent', even though they were in totally right style, with the expectedly great intellectual commitment (his treatment of repeats was interesting and I am sure that he could easily have justified each). I concluded that this was a matter of the difference between the live and the recorded performance" he was noticeably sympathetic to, almost protective of, fledging Irish talent at a time when Irish classical music was at a vulnerable embryonic stage.

`I always thought that if there were a reason for someone having an off day, the critic should be told. Not that this would justify giving a `soft' review of course, but I think it's valid." Barenboim; Kontarsky; Jacqueline du Pre; Ashkenazy; Janet Baker; Rubinstein playing Chopin; Isaac Stern; as well as of course, Rostropovich, the privileges of being a classical music critic are immense. Our conversation only really settled down when the emphasis switched entirely to music. Mention of the great Itzhak Pedman earns instant approval from both Actons, they agree he is a genius.

From Samuel Barber, a 19th century sensibility living in the 20th, to Shostakovich to Schubert and Sibelius's great violin concerto, the awkward interview has now developed into an interesting discussion. Referring to Maria Call as, whom he never heard perform live, he says: "I was told she was an extremely meticulous artist, and approached the business of recording with immense care.

For all the concerts he attended in his professional capacity, Acton stays at home these days. Concert tickets are a luxury for old age pensioners without pensions - "I was always freelance at the Irish Times, I have no pension." Perhaps this explains why he has not set about compiling an expensive library of CDs. The Wexford Opera Festivals which he reviewed so often have become another luxury. "I should have given up reviewing three or four years before I did. Now we stay here, watching television."

As for all time favourite pieces, he says "my favourite is always the last great piece of music I have listened to." To my suggesting Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, he adds "Monteverdi." Having spent a life listening to great music, which composer would he most like to meet? "Not Mozart, too difficult - as a person I mean. Not Bach, too religious. I think Shostakovich. I don't know. This is like Desert Island Discs. Who would you pick?"

Approving of my fantasy meeting with a Beethoven with restored hearing, Acton loaned me his copy of Magidoff's Yehudi Menuhin and Testimony - Shostakovich's memoirs. A large branch of fragrant mimosa is brought in from the garden. It is a wonderful farewell present, or maybe a consolation prize. "Was I very difficult?" he asks solicitously. "Of course you were. You would have been disappointed if you weren't." His triumphant smile suggests it is the answer he wanted.