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Thank You for the Music

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I was sent two rather lovely, seasonal gifts of music this week -- one by Pete Lawrence, the British ambient music promoter and producer (among other things) -- and one by Tom Green, who contributed to a number of the Orb's tunes but also has a fine line in solo composition under his label, Another Fine Day. (If you want to hear them, Pete Lawrence's Christmas mix is here, and Tom Green's here -- both free for the 12 days of Christmas: though you can put some money in the pot if you wish).

Listening to both of them on the tube and wandering around London was sheer pleasure and has definitely got me in the mood for Christmas and through the Winter Solstice. And they got me thinking about why music is so important for me, despite the fact that I spend my working life wading through words -- and knew, as early as five years old, that I wanted to be a writer.

Right from early on, though, I heard music coming through my bedroom floor, as my dad played his beloved Glenn Gould hammering away at Bach, night after night. Sometimes my mother managed to wrest control of the record player (as it was then) away from him, and then I got to hear the wonderful Emma Kirkby sing "Dido and Aeneas." Later I learned to love country music and of course John Peel taught my whole generation how to leave the popular combo beat well behind us. Think I first kissed a boy to The Clash's "First Night Back in London", which he gave me to remember him by when I went back to the UK from France.

Then there was the whole World Music explosion of talent, when I was studying at Cambridge. Hugh Masekela, Ali Farka Toure, Miriam Makeba, so many wonderful musicians, and many came to the local Corn Exchange, for sweaty gigs with enthusiastic students. We were lucky to hear them.

When I went to Newsnight as a producer, I drowned my films in music -- got a famous heart surgeon jogging down the park to Bach's 24 Inventions (fast), and used Arvo Part for films about the Holocaust. But, when I filmed in Rwanda, music deserted me. Cecile Kayirebwa was great for the liberating army as it fought its way down into Rwanda, but no music could make sense of what we saw there. So the films I made there were stripped bare of everything but natural sound. We filmed a fly buzzing on an old iron cross in the courtyard of a convent where 24 children had been taken from their sanctuary and murdered. Words and music failed us. Only the picture made sense, somehow.

Now, at a gentler time in my life, music has come back again -- Satie, Debussy, harp music from Ravel and Tom Green's array mbira music too, another African instrument (via California) that sounds like raindrops on a tin roof and takes me back to that troubled, great continent.

I've also been exploring the roots of music from my homeland, Persian music, from the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble, haunting music from the Persian gulf played on goatskin bagpipes as well as flute, percussion and drum (and check out the Sufi dancing in gold lame as well).

Having written one book this year (Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people) and having just embarked on my next book, The Outcasts, on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, it's not that I'm denying the importance of words. It's just that music is becoming ever more important to me.

I remember seeing the poet Tony Harrison's extraordinary documentary about three women living with Alzheimer's, Black Daisies for the Bride, a while ago. One of the women, who was an opera singer, could only sing one note. But song, and music, was left to them, and they responded to them, when words had failed them. Perhaps that's something to do with the start of all our lives -- the first sounds many of us hear are those of a mother singing, well before words are put in our mouths.

Music is, perhaps, our first language, and the one we recognise best and perhaps comforts us, right up to our death. So thank you for the music, all your musicians -- and the rest of us should be thankful for that they do -- and be sure we pay for the privilege so they can carry on giving us this amazing gift...

Happy Christmas.