Charles Acton, who wrote about music for ‘The Irish Times’ for three decades, was fuelled in his sometimes fierce assessments by an intriguing background that combined Anglo-Irish privilege with family bankruptcy and a string of almost comically inappropriate jobs
A DECADE AFTER his death, Charles Acton, who was this newspaper's music critic for 30 years, is still remembered in certain musical circles for delivering ferocious reviews of the wrecking-ball variety. On a personal level, by contrast, some of us remember him as an occasional kindly presence in the Irish Timesarts section, an elder statesman with plenty of encouraging words for a rookie writer. All of which makes the publication of a biography by Richard Pine, Charles: The Life and World of Charles Acton 1914-1999, even more of an eye-opener. This isn't the gentle anecdotal tale one might expect, chock-full of opening-night reminiscences and late-night recollections. Instead it's a bit of an epic.
It’s the story of an Anglo-Irish family, major political players and landowners in Co Wicklow, living on an estate, Kilmacurragh, that may have been handed over to them by Cromwell; moving in the same circles as the Parnells and the Synges; unravelled eventually by bankruptcy and premature deaths. It’s also the story of cultural politics in the years before Ireland became a republic, when we were a Free State that was anything but free. And in a strange kind of way it’s also a love story – obliquely and almost matter-of-factly, but all the more striking for that.
“A most unusual context,” is how Pine introduces his subject, “and a set of bizarre circumstances.” The ferocious music critic was born in 1914, along with the first World War. His father, Reggie, gave him his first review. “He dribbles & is sick occasionally & snorts his milk in his nose,” he reported of his infant son. They didn’t, sadly, have much time to get to know each other; he died when Charles was two. Pine suggests that Acton’s famously definite critical opinions might not be unconnected to this early tragedy. “As a child he’s terribly insecure,” he says, “which I suppose is the same for a lot of kids who lost their father when they were very young. Add to that a rather domineering mother, and of course he’s sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, where the most common expression used about him was: ‘He’s very highly strung.’ ”
It wasn’t just any boarding school, needless to say; it was Rugby. There followed a spell at Cambridge, where Acton studied chemistry, physics and mineralogy but didn’t emerge with a degree. He played the piano from an early age, as well as the bassoon and clarinet, and was a passionately enthusiastic listener – at one point, well before websites and podcasts, he wrote to the BBC to request the scripts from a series of radio talks – though he never acquired any formal musical qualifications. In 1939 he inherited a crumbling Kilmacurragh. “He knew very little about Ireland, but he decided to go back,” says Pine. “He could have lived in England and become a journalist or an industrial chemist or something.”
It must have seemed, for many years, like a dodgy decision. He had a series of jobs to which he was almost comically unsuited. At one point he drove around Ireland selling encyclopaedias. "The trouble was, having read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he didn't approve of it, so he couldn't recommend it to purchasers," Pine explains. "You were only paid on commission – so if you made a sale you got, say, £5. Which would cover your petrol and your trip to the next town and your hotel. Or maybe not. I suspect he lost more money than he earned in that job."
After a doomed attempt to turn Kilmacurragh into a country-house hotel – those were definitely the days before there was a market for country-house hotels in Ireland – the estate was sold. For many Anglo-Irish families it would have been a disaster. For Acton it seemed to be a kind of liberation. “Although it looks as if he made an abrupt jump from being an Anglo-Irish landlord to being involved with cultural politics, I don’t think it actually was as abrupt as all that,” says Pine. “I can see characteristics from his family that are carried forward in Charles’s character. He was very much an 18th- and 19th-century person who said, ‘I can use all this to make myself into a 20th- century person.’ ”
In 1951 he married Carol Little, a violinist who was to become leader of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra, later to become the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Acton betrays more than a hint of insecurity when he writes to her: “I . . . with my caustic irritabilities, my slovenliness, my cowardices, my lethargies, my Yahoo-ness, fear that I shall be but a poor ill-favoured thing for you.”
He needn’t have worried. Carol adored him. She still does. In her 80s now, she’s still a small whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. It was Carol who insisted on the biography, so it’s appropriate that the book is shot through with a leitmotif of other, shadowier couples, romances more distant in time and more stiff-upper-lipped in nature: Charles’s parents, Reggie and Isabel; his grandfather Charles Ball-Acton and his wife, Georgina.
The job at The Irish Timescame about almost by accident. Pine relates with some glee that the previous incumbent, AJ Potter, was relieved of his post after making an abusive, drunken phone call to the editor. The job was offered to Joseph Groocock, who turned it down but recommended Acton.
He took up the position in 1955, and here's another surprise for those who remember the crusty connoisseur of later years. In the early days the "music correspondent" was expected to review not just classical music but also Bill Haley and the Comets, Liberace and musicals such as Oklahoma! In all he published some 5,500 reviews, and the entire collection – pasted into scrapbooks by the tireless Carol – is now held at the National Library of Ireland.
Much of the second half of the book is taken up with a detailed account of Acton's struggle to influence cultural policy. When he started reviewing for The Irish Times, orchestral music in Ireland was in a bad way. There was no concert hall and no conductor, and he saw it as the duty of a music critic to argue for both, and more besides. He and his Cambridge friend Brian Boydell were often in the thick of long-running and often acrimonious debates about music education and the role and nature of traditional music – though they were to fall out in later years when Boydell had, as Pine puts it, "grave reservations about the role and nature of music criticism".
In his later years Acton was a master of the waspish remark, of which plenty are recorded here. “If this is authentic, I am a gamelan,” he once noted of a recording by the tenor Frank Patterson that he considered fake Oirish. One of the interesting subtexts of the book – indeed, one of the open questions of contemporary criticism – is the way in which his determination to express his very strong opinions plays out against his attempts to be, as he saw it, objective. It was a fiery combination, and it has resulted in a mixed legacy.
“A lot of people, when they see this book, are going to say, ‘Oh, that bastard, he gave me a bad review back in 1970,’ ” says Richard Pine. “I know of two people who said they were never going to play in public again after he reviewed them, not if there was a critic invited. On the other hand, as I’ve tried to show, there were people who genuinely welcomed what he had to say.”
Acton, Pine writes, was “charming, erudite, committed and persuasive” and also “aggressive, petulant and irksome”. His biography is to match. As often as not it makes the reader shake her head in despair. And then, when the page is turned, smile.
Charles: The Life and World of Charles Acton 1914-1999, by Richard Pine, is published by Lilliput, €30
Family estate that’s a well-kept Wicklow secret
It must be one of Co Wicklow’s best-kept secrets. Not far from the hustle and swish of the N11, but swathed in quiet back roads and verdant hedges, Kilmacurragh Arboretum is an other-worldly place – and a great spot for a picnic.
Run by the National Botanic Gardens, its 23 hectares are cared for but admirably unmanicured, a delightful mix of rhododendrons and bluebells, yew walks, oak avenues, towering monkey puzzles and a wide expanse of native wild-flower meadow that, at this time of year, is alight with buttercups.
The snazzy wind-powered lights in the car park and the new trees and shrubs dotted here and there – many of them from South America, the Himalayas and China – reveal that things are happening here: a major replanting programme, in fact, as well as sustainability workshops for schools and a plan to establish genetic collections of native tree species.
The one sad note is the state of the house, forlorn behind health-and-safety fencing. Not, says Richard Pine, that its one-time owner would have been bothered. “Charles said, ‘I never liked
the house anyway.’ But he was desperately keen that the State should acquire ownership of the arboretum. It was only in the last years of this life that this actually took place, but it was probably the crowning moment of his late life.”
Kilmacurragh Arboretum is open from 9am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday; from 11am on Sunday. Entry is free, as are the daily guided tours at noon and 3pm. See botanicgardens.ie