Con­stel­la­tion of con­ster­na­tion, or the faults in our stars 1in4

Her­ald read­ers booked a last minute short break la sty ear.

The Herald Magazine - - Arts OPINION - KEITH BRUCE

THIS seems like an ap­pro­pri­ate sea­son dur­ing which to give some con­sid­er­a­tion to stars. How­ever, I am not think­ing of the one in the sky over

Beth­le­hem 2,000 to years ago that was fol­lowed by the Magi and is re­mem­bered on the top of Christ­mas trees – although I do heartily rec­om­mend a view­ing of the BBC4 Sky at Night Christ­mas Spe­cial broad­cast ten days ago that in­ves­ti­gates what the bi­b­li­cal story may ac­tu­ally have re­called in sci­en­tific terms.

No, the stars I have in mind are the ones that fea­ture at the top of re­views of per­for­mances on the arts pages of this and other news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. This past year I learned that I am known be­hind my back as Keith “Four Stars” Bruce. This quasi-US mil­i­tary des­ig­na­tion is a re­sult of my de­fault po­si­tion on the star rat­ing I am obliged to put on every re­view.

I am choos­ing my words care­fully here. “Obliged” be­cause I am re­ally not keen on stars on re­views at all, and “de­fault” be­cause that is pre­cisely true. Most of the time I have prob­a­bly in­tended the rat­ing, but the fact is that the tem­plate for the set­ting of a re­view on The Her­ald pages has four stars on it, by way of il­lus­tra­tion of how the ty­pog­ra­phy should look. So if the pro­duc­tion jour­nal­ist de­sign­ing the arts page is dis­tracted dur­ing the task and for­gets to al­ter it to the num­ber of stars spec­i­fied by the critic, four stars is what will ap­pear. Re­sult: one slightly cross critic, and pos­si­bly a dis­crep­ancy be­tween the way the re­view ap­pears in print and on­line, a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the writer and the venue and/or per­form­ers etc, etc.

In the days when I was sat be­hind a desk in Her­ald tow­ers rather than trip­ping mer­rily be­tween con­cert halls and the­atres and send­ing sen­tences from wher­ever I lay my hat, this was by far the sin­gle most com­mon er­ror that re­quired sort­ing out. You can ap­pre­ci­ate, then, why I am not a fan of stars. In fact I fought a rear­guard – and plainly doomed – ac­tion against them when the edi­tor of The Her­ald at the

time in­sisted on their in­tro­duc­tion, af­ter they be­came com­mon­place in Lon­don papers.

“They are for peo­ple who count but don’t read,” I wailed, ar­gu­ing that I wanted the care­fully con­sid­ered words of The Her­ald’s re­spected team of crit­ics to be fully con­sumed, not scanned for the num­ber of ding­bats at the top. This prin­ci­pled stance is, I re­gret, eas­ily trumped by a few fac­tual ob­ser­va­tions in de­fence of stars as be­ing what the same edi­tor called “en­try points” for the reader.

At the time when the ar­gu­ment over them was still a live one, I tried adopt­ing a max­i­mal­ist strat­egy of in­sist­ing they were at­tached to in­ap­pro­pri­ate copy to il­lus­trate their ab­sur­dity. Our new lit­er­ary edi­tor un­wit­tingly un­der­mined that tac­tic by giv­ing a bru­tal two stars to a book fes­ti­val ap­pear­ance by in­tel­lec­tual gi­ant Su­san Son­tag, thus en­sur­ing that ev­ery­one read her re­port to find out why.

Con­versely a bill­board ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign for Paolo Nu­tini’s most re­cent al­bum con­sisted sim­ply of the cover art and a con­stel­la­tion of five-star rat­ings next to the name of the pub­li­ca­tion in which they ap­peared. The Her­ald’s rave re­view was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent be­cause, for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons that prob­a­bly only I now know, al­bum re­views have al­ways ap­peared in this news­pa­per with­out star rat­ings. Of which, of course, I heartily ap­prove. Ex­cept in that in­stance.

Of course, star rat­ings don’t “mean” any­thing and every writer ap­plies them in their own way, so con­sis­tency is im­pos­si­ble. And I do some­times go for three or five. Gen­er­ally, though, the pe­jo­ra­tive is true: I favour four. Is it fair? That’s up to you to judge by read­ing the 300 or so words be­low them. (I reckon that means I win.)

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