At the American Academy of Arts and Sciences -- with Paul Simon and friends
The Induction event at the American Academy in Boston yesterday rather exceeded hopes and expectations. I'd caught the red-eye from San Francisco (why are long US domestic flights so punitive?... a rock hard seat and a scrap of material supposed to be a "blanket", but only covering half a normal sized body). So by the time I got to Boston at 7.50 am I was in no state to start the day, and was beginning to dread it.
I decided, in the interests of kindness to self, to skip the first part of the induction program -- and fetched up at the hotel in Harvard, where my son (the escort for the occasion, thank you Raph) had already bedded down, for a couple of hours kip. Then things (and energy) began to look up.
We turned up at the Academy's HQ mid-morning, were recognised by our accents and given our badges... I then went to a bit of the briefing seminars, while the son amused himself analysing the acceptance letters for membership that were on display, all the way back to George Washington. Then lunch (with plenty of wines and some artfully themed cookies, as you can see on the right.. tables after the jump), and on to the Sanders theater for the induction itself.
There were well over 100 new members present and being inducted (including a few 'Foreign Honoraries' like me). And the whole thing was brilliantly choreographed (including, bizarrely, some Gaelic bag-pipers from the Boston police department, piping the platform party in). We were divided into five classes (Maths and Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts (that was me), and Public Affairs). For each class, there was an introduction and a speech by one new honorand, and then all the rest of us went up and shook the hands of the chair and president, and signed the book.In Class 3 (Social Sciences), the new boy's/girl's speech was given by Adam Roberts (the President of the British Academy), and it was -- even I am biased -- a little masterpiece: it captured politesse, history (via J. Bentham), some uncomfortable lessons about modern geo-politics and salutary reflections on the current state of the Social Sciences and Humanities on both sides of the Atlantic.
But choreographed as it was, there was still the possibility of some personal choice. On the front row of the platform party was Paul Simon (new member in my Class). The first group to go up to sign stalwartly ignored him and went to shake the hands of the Chair and Pres. Then a couple of Biological Scientists decided to shake Simon's hand, and then go on to the Officers of the Academy. After that, it was a question of "Simon or not?". Some went directly for him, shook the hand and moved to the Officers. Others walked determinedly by.
So what did I do? Well, I felt that Simon might have by this stage have been feeling a bit bored/embarrassed by the parade; so I decided not to shake the sainted hand, but I gave him a big smile as I walked past. Hope he noticed.
Overall, it felt both like - and very unlike -- the British Academy (and I imagine the Royal Society). Like..? Well, despite what I imagine are heroic efforts, the whole gathering seemed pretty white, be-suited and male (and middle aged, of course.. but that's the point of the Academy; it isn't for teenaged celebs). I think there were a few more women in the hard sciences category than we have in the Royal Society, but not hugely more; likewise with non-whites (more but not that many).
But the real difference was what happened at the end. Paul Simon didn't give a speech, he played a song ('American Tune' -- a nice choice). All those suited men and super-successful were, of course, 60s and 70s children; there couldn't have been more than a handful in the room, who hadn't grown up to Paul Simon's music, and it was more than a little bit moving to have him play for us and with us. It was "our generation".
Now I haven't yet seen many meetings of the British Academy (and the BA doesn't have a category for performing artists etc), but nothing like that has ever happened. I now think I have a bit of a mission. To get some music into BA events... and not just the occasional operatic aria, but the music that we greybeards grew up with and still hum to, by musicians who grew up and grew old with us.
But who should it be? Paul Simon and his acoustic guitar was perfect (could we entice him over?). Nationally, what could the British Academy lay on? Paul McCartney, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens (if he would ever revisit "Wild World", which he probably isn't now allowed to perform), Jarvis Cocker . . . or if we counted the commonwealth, what about Leonard Cohen? He was also elected to the American Academy this year, but didn't come to the Induction; but I would LOVE to hear "Hallelujah" in Carlton House Terrace (great location, by the way).
So if any one of these stars ever gets to read this blog, and fancies a pro bono London gig, do get in touch and we'll see what we can do. Adam Roberts seemed to really enjoy the Paul Simon, so I am guardedly optimistic that we could pull it off.
Just to finish the story. The son and I ended the evening with Academy Member and Classicist David Konstan and Pura Hernandez, and Jeff Henderson (another inductee.. and brilliant editor of the Loebs), and Pat Johnson. Thank you everyone. No need to tell me that I have been a beneficiary of the democratic pluralism of the USA.
Here are some pics of the final dinner...good time being had by all.