When I was a student at Nottingham University, back in the dim and distant past, I was invited to join a group of friends at a performance of Opera North’s Der Rosenkavalier in town. I’d never seen the show before, and as far as I knew, I didn’t really know anything about it. Since this is usually my favourite set of circumstances in which to encounter a new opera, I gladly agreed to go; though the group included several of my lecturers, so I didn’t want to look too obviously ignorant. I decided I’d keep quiet about my lack of knowledge unless quizzed.
Well, it was amazing. I’d say Rosenkavalier is probably one of my favourite operas of all time, in fact. I was a total wreck by the end, and although there were lots of things I wasn’t to learn about just how Strauss had put this extraordinary piece together until years later, I was blown away. As we walked back across town to our lifts, one of my lecturers fell in step beside me to ask me what I’d thought. I was babblingly enthusiastic. ‘And,’ he asked (because of course I wasn’t going to get away with it entirely), ‘did you know much of the piece before tonight?’ ‘No,’ I confessed. And then rather daringly added, ‘but I did know the trio.’ ‘Oh, where had you heard that? In class?’ ‘No.’ Time to fess up. ‘Actually, on Inspector Morse.’ If I had been waiting to be harshly judged (a university music student who only knew about a great work like Rosenkavalier because of a TV murder mystery series?), I was to be disappointed. ‘Oh yes!’, my wonderful lecturer replied. ‘I rather like that show.’
It might not seem like a big deal, but that evening, I realised something that no one had ever really explained to me before, and which I had apparently been worrying about without even knowing it. Important things, and even ‘academic’ things, might be found in places that were not traditionally considered to be, you know… ‘academic’. Fans of Inspector Morse will be aware that there was plenty more classical music where that Rosenkavalier trio came from. My first taste of Wagner, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Mandolins, and several other gems were given to me courtesy of Morse episodes and CDs. It turned out that sometimes, writers of fiction said things that could be legitimately quoted in essays that were not actually specifically about those works of fiction – who knew? Even, heaven forfend, things in non-academic musical books might prove relevant. Amazing!
If you’re rolling your eyes at this, then I’m delighted to hear that you’ve got there already. Much as I loved my school, subjects largely operated in silos, and aside from very specific projects (mostly when we were pretty small), there were precious few opportunities to form connections across classes. Besides, I’d studied Music, Maths, Physics and German at A-level. Aside from some pretty awful Lied translations (instigated by me: not part of the syllabus, obviously) and a whole term’s worth of mechanics equations, there weren’t many opportunities for joining them up. Things existed in boxes, and stayed in boxes, and were usually labelled as pertinent to certain boxes. Fiction was the thing you read when you didn’t have to read for school, or because you were studying literature. Films were for fun only. And so on. It took me quite a long time to realise that these boxes were artificial, and I’d say John Thaw and Colin Dexter were at least partially responsible for that.
In an age of fake news and endless streams of statistics which can be interpreted in a hundred different ways, we have grown more suspicious of the validity of sources. Rightly so, in the case of government policy and current political matters. But for all that I urge my students, with what they no doubt consider to be mind-numbing regularity, to check their sources and find multiple forms of evidence to back up their arguments and conclusions, I think it’s important to remember that a certain batch of sources don’t ‘belong’ exclusively to a particular domain or mode of enquiry. Newspaper and magazine pieces, radio reports and shows, books (fiction, non-fiction, specialist and non-specialist), TV programmes… all these and many more can hold fascinating nuggets of insight and information. Since I’ve been working as a freelancer, I have been in a constant state of awe at the sheer level of expertise and knowledge that those writing and creating such things can have. To ignore them because they’re not ‘academic’ is a nonsense.
And it works the other way, too: just because a book is published by an academic press, it shouldn’t automatically seem out of bounds for those not working within a university or college environment. If technical language is an issue, a dictionary might help. If you’re interested in historical contexts but not so much in deep-level score analysis, you can always skip those bits. There are gems to be found in all manner of different sources, for all manner of different projects and enterprises. Forget the box-by-box categorisation of what you should and shouldn’t be reading: have a dig around. You never know what treasures you might find.