The Singer, October/November 2009
"Johann…!" I could feel the voice curdle slightly, akin to that soured whine of an Edwardian dowager aunt in a dreadful period film, Michael Winner-directed and starring a Geraldine Mac-thingy or whatsername Dame Doohdah Rigg who used to be an Avenger. My Dearest and (Cheapflites agogo permitting) sometime Nearest is playing with fire. Literally. We are in the cottage and my delightful little garden is wondering when the man-in-tights will be passing through the jumble of briar, bush and sucker, to awaken the princess. In short, since Xmas, an overly excited wisteria has consumed exactly half of the cottage's exterior. There is no natural light getting in and the living room is bathed in a deathly verdant glow. Fronds and tendrils curl through the bedroom veluxes (spellcheck thwomper of the day!) and Johann is burning bay and buddleia like a pyromaniac, coughing and grunting with a warrior like precision.
I make tea.
Simon, a local gardener came to survey this horti-uncultural hoohah and left, muttering something about three men, a van and two ladders. Johann is unmoved by all this negative non activity and solemnly massacres the wisteria to an inch of its life. The bonfire is lit. It rains. With his Austrian will and German fervour, firelighters are utilised and the pungent black plumes of burnt baytree wisteria meet their end, choking half of the Kent coast.
A triumph. Light is returned to the house, the terrace is visible and the cottage is no longer ruled by the dead spirit of a sinister secret garden. Thank you darling. I couldn't have done it without you. Done what?
And here begins the column-endorsed proof that… I am, well… an artist… a writer not a fighter… a diva not a doer, a delagateur, a bon-viveur, a creative, a poet, a boho and… A Bum. Did Truman Capote do the garden? No. Has Jessye Norman mowed a lawn? Miles Davis. What a great hillwalker he was. Have we seen Van Morrison clean a car? Where oh where do we delineate. Not doing very much at all yet seeming to be Mr. Busy is a fox-like skill I have been honing since Bohemian Rhapsody re-defined our lives. As a teen, I speed-read Hardy, Brodies got me through my exams, did maths homework at breakfast and sustain pedalled all my grade three arpeggios, fooling no-one, least of all the fierce ladies who passed for piano grades examiners.
And so my life has become one great sustain pedal. But please let this sloppy yet effective philosophy not blur my career as a jazz singer, writer and comic. Oops. Too late. "This'll Do Productions" gives you…! Watched and savoured by the envious masses. How do you do it? A cheerful admirer probes.
My father was the practical one in our family. Hewn from the grime of the collieries and the rugged flinty slopes of the North Wales sheep farms, dad applied his solid but gentle ways to all that came his way, unflinching and always with the warmest sense of self-irony. From his early years, one of five brothers, he survived the awful death of his mother during boyhood and turned to playing the cornet in local brass bands, continuing until a few years before his sudden death at seventy. A good and simple man, he taught me everything. Apart from pragmatism… and homosexuality. The latter is a given, the former nags and gnaws like something in the bones. However, when the tiniest bit of it is applied, then, as my dear mum says… "needs must".
It's 1982, a chilly spring has finally given onto a humid summer. King's College, London. Final piano recital. Stripped of my normal post-punk attire mixed with a whisper of New Romantic, I am soberly dressed in sludge brown and a decent pair of borrowed shoes. I announce the all rare and rarely heard last piano sonata of Hindemith. The room is hushed and I deliver the performance of a lifetime on the ancient Bechstein in the Grand hall. EVERY NOTE IS MADE UP. Over twenty minutes of what the great Hindemith WOULD have done next. I await the thunderous applause from my peers and recognise the titters of the select few I had let into this dreadful coup de fin de term. Revenge is best served cold and all that ,and boy did it feel good. The final act in a three year nightmare of feeling distinctly unmusical and profoundly untalented while the tutors and lectures, bored and uncaring, performed their one-way lectures to a bunch of mixed undergrads, hoping and praying that their research was being sustained. My low point was bringing in a piece of mock Palestrina and being told to "go and study law you moron". Of course there were, like always, the exceptions to the rule. The wondrous and inspiring Richard Shaw, a gentle young postgrad who took pains to make me understand the simplicity, improvisation and beauty of the art of continuo, and produced the Complete TS Eliot for my twenty first birthday. He now operates as one of our finest accompanists, specialising in chamber music.
Sorry dad. That Hindemith thing. Never told you about that one. Dunno what you would have said, so best keep it to my guilty self at the time. I got the bargain basement second class honours once removed. So that bit of plagiarised Bartok string quartet did us proud in composition. The Shostakovich symphony details, biroed extensively up my arm got me through that history final… and my playing the top witch in "Dido and her Knees" (how we laughed a that, most spectacular of "mis-hears") added to something. How I wanted to play Dido that year, all white tulle and tragedy. But you saw the cap, the gown, the cut-price wishes, the future. And you were there when I sang with that big band you loved. You turned a blind eye to the sustain pedal trick and allowed me to fluff a few things on soprano cornet. You questioned nothing if it made our mum happy. You asked me nothing that would embarrass either of us.
He reminds me of you sometimes. Johann, that is. Especially when he builds bonfires. His nearly touched the sky too.