Procol Harum and G. K. C.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, ‘Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?’ he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, ‘Why, there is that bookcase… and the coals in the coal-scuttle… and pianos… and policemen.’ The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

My Muse is actually an imp, or perhaps a pooka, and cannot read a passage such as this without taking it as a challenge. I shall accordingly give my reason for preferring civilization, in the form of an example; and I hope to show that the example I give would be utterly impossible except in a state of civilization, and indeed, inconceivable in any civilization but our own. Mr. Chesterton would doubtless be glad to hear that my example does at least include a piano.

In October of 2010, I was sitting in a restaurant (an institution invented in eighteenth-century France) with an old friend, eating pizza (a food of ancient Mediterranean origin, substantially reinvented by twentieth-century Americans), and listening to classic rock (a distinctively Western amalgam of European, African, and Indian music) on the radio (an international invention, for which credit must be shared between the United States, Canada, and several European countries). We were talking of progressive rock, and the subject of Procol Harum came up. My friend mentioned that she had an LP of their 1971 performance with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: a remarkable event in itself.

The symphony orchestra and the rock & roll band are both manifestations, and each in its way an entirely typical manifestation, of Western music and technology. It was Western civilization that gave Gary Brooker his piano, his bandmates their electric guitars, and Edmonton the violins and horns and things for its orchestra; to say nothing of the most advanced musical theory and technique that the world has ever seen, to help them develop and refine their art. And it was that peculiar Western institution, the British Empire, that had transplanted the English language and culture to the remotest regions of Canada, so that a collaboration between a British art-rock band and a Canadian orchestra was even conceivable. As Albertans we felt a sort of proprietary interest in that concert, and in the reunion show that the two acts put on twenty years later.

It occurred to me to wonder what had become of Procol Harum, and whether they were one of those old rock acts that have kept going over the last four decades. (There are a surprising number of them, ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Royal Guardsmen. Jethro Tull was right: you’re never too old to rock and roll if you’re too young to die.) I whipped out my iPhone, that concentrated miracle of all the Western information technologies of the last half-century, summoned up Google, and found Procol Harum’s home page. (Thanks variously to ARPA, the IEEE standards body, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and thousands of computer scientists and engineers, mostly Western themselves, and all trained in the Western scientific tradition.)

It turned out that Procol Harum was not only still performing, but occasionally recording; and yes, like every band serious about retaining an audience, they had a list of upcoming tour dates. Mirabile dictu, they were returning to Edmonton for a third and final gig with the ESO — and the very next month! I followed the link to the ESO website, where I found out how to order tickets. Then, turning my phone back into a phone, I called the ESO box office and placed my order. (Thanks to Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-Canadian-American inventor, and to thousands of others who have contributed to telephony. Thanks also to the Western banking system, which has its origins in late mediaeval Italy, and the marvels of technology and trust that underlie that bizarre Western invention, the credit card.)

Came the day. Thanks to another Western invention, the automobile, we were able to travel to Edmonton and back again in a single longish evening, with time to take in the show. From Calgary to Edmonton is a three-hour drive; on foot it would take a week in clement weather. (And Alberta in November is seldom clement for a whole week together.) Indeed, without that other Western invention, the railroad, neither Calgary nor Edmonton would be cities at all. Before the rails came, Calgary was a minor Northwest Mounted Police post, established to fly the British flag and to keep Yankee whisky-traders from poisoning the Indians. Edmonton was a tiny fur-trading fort, tenuously linked by canoe with the Hudson Bay Company’s ‘factories’ on the half-frozen coast of Keewatin. Neither city could survive a single day without modern transport systems to carry away the region’s exports (chiefly grain and beef and fossil fuel), and bring back those other necessities of life which Alberta is unhappily incapable of supplying to any large population.

After all this, what of the concert? It was a magnificent performance. Gary Brooker’s voice has improved with age, and his songs, or the selection of them played that night, have worn quite well. ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ is, of course, deservedly one of the great standards of rock, and ‘Conquistador’ is a remarkably nuanced and sensitive composition, both musically and lyrically, while retaining all the drive and energy of its rock roots. But the highlight of the show was unquestionably ‘In Held ’Twas In I’, the rather oddly titled centrepiece of the album Shine On Brightly. (The title is an acrostic of the first word in each of its five sections.)

Not much of the prog-rock that followed in Procol Harum’s wake has aged well, and some of it, I am sorry to say, strikes one now as merely pretentious, pseudo-jazz noodling; but Brooker and Reid’s first grand essay in the form still holds up, especially when backed by a full symphony orchestra. Both my friend and I left the concert in a state that can only be called joy and exaltation; and I thanked God for putting me in a world where such marvels could occur. And that, Dear Readers, is why I prefer civilization.


  1. …and this is why we like having your books of essais on our shelves. It makes it easier to pull up gems like this one and re-read them (and they do bear re-reading) when the mood strikes.

    thank you.

  2. What a treat. And you’re right, it required the efforts of entire platoons of scientists, engineers, and designers.

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