THE madness of war drove the journalist Ed Vulliamy to the brink of insanity. His consciousness snapped as he wandered through London after returning from covering American military atrocities in Iraq. A power drill sparked panic, and he threw himself over a wall. Ten operations and months of recovery were needed to restore his shattered leg, but his most severe injury was his reaction to music: “the sound of all of it terrified me.” This “musical memoir” sets the healing potential of music against the destruction of carnage. It is a magisterial book, full of grace, and truth.
Vulliamy, a writer for The Guardian and The Observer for more than 30 years, reports from vast knowledge and perspective. He was drawn to hot spots, his “first war” being grounded research into the Irish Troubles when an Oxford student. War shadowed him. Achieving his “lifelong dream” to cover Italy for The Guardian, he received a call from London, about “something weird happening in Slovenia, could you check it out?” He spent the next four years in former Yugoslavia. Life-threatening work in Mexico tracked drug gangs; dodging sniper fire in Bosnia was routine.
He doorstepped history: on the Isle of Wight for Hendrix; in New York for 9/11; conducting the last major interview with BB King; talking in depth with many who define our understanding of music: Daniel Barenboim, John Cale, and Graham Nash among them. Dmitri Shostakovich is a dominating presence, his Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony having received its première in that starving city under Nazi siege, “in the most extraordinary concert ever”, in 1942. Vulliamy interviewed Edith Katya Matus, still dancing at 84, who played the oboe on that defining night. With intelligent depth and in telling detail, he conjures sweaty rock gigs and makes classics accessible. His book is often about survival, of Germany’s divisions, of the Bataclan massacre, and of himself.
In divided Israel-Palestine, he sees the reconciling work, through music, of the young orchestra developed by the Jewish maestro Barenboim and the Palestinian writer Edward Said, which has been replicated among deprived young people in Venezuela and Liverpool. “They were not Arabs,” a young Jewish musician tells him, of other players; “they were musicians, and music has no nation.”
Vulliamy himself is always seeking and developing connections; how Samuel Beckett — whose words provide his book’s title — loved Schubert; how Shostakovich, shadowed by Stalin, followed football; how a chance remark led Vulliamy to play Dylan to an audience of 250,000 in Hong Kong. And for the Christian community there is arguably a parable: about how reconciliation can offer to our wounded world, like music, the necessity for reflection and lament. For this wise and wonderful book is hallmarked by Vulliamy’s dominating question: “What on earth is going on?”
Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.
When Words Fail: A life with music, war and peace
Church Times Bookshop £9.90