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Miscellaneous writing

Piano sonata: first movement

The piano stands upright and proud in a corner of a spare room. The keys have not been touched for a generation.  Many are the colour of bad teeth. The name Bluthner is inscribed in gold leaf on the dark wood, a name so foreign sounding Jessica imagines it might have come from Africa, a place she has been reading about in an old encyclopaedia her Aunt Lydia has given her. A dark and sinful country, it would be sure to have tribes of Bluthners she thinks.

One afternoon she walks up to the instrument purposefully. She knows what she must do. The house is quiet, her aunt is in the kitchen happily occupied baking a cake. She sits herself on the stool with its faded crimson cushion, places her feet gently on the pedals (she has been reading up on Piano in the encyclopaedia), spreads her fingers and counts slowly and deliberately from left to right until she identifies middle C. She pushes it down with her thumb. But there’s no sound. The piano is mute. She tries again. Still nothing. The key sticks and does not rise. She pushes the key to the right, which she has read is called D, and this time there is a response. She does it again, listens intently, is dissatisfied and moves to the next and the next and the next until she reaches the end of the keyboard. She goes the other way and does the same. She remembers how many keys have stuck, closes the lid, tucks the stool under and runs to the kitchen.

– The piano does not sing, she tells her aunt.

– It has lost its voice, Lydia replies, offering Jessica a spoon covered in a sweet creamy mix. We will have to bring it back to life.

*

The piano tuner is booked for late morning when Lydia knows her husband will be absent. He is an old man, unshaven smelling of drink. The truck he drives is battered, belching grey smoke. He strips the instrument of its outer skin, revealing the massive upright ironwork frame inside, takes some tools from a blue canvas bag and sets to work. He shakes his head a lot, mutters incoherently under his breath, closes his eyes to assist concentration, or because he is tired, and after an hour tells Lydia: It’s not worth the trouble, nor the money. It’s too far gone. Only value is firewood.

            Jessica is upset when told the news.

– It has a soul, she says, surprising her aunt. There must be someone else, someone who will understand?

            Lydia contacts another firm who send two young men driving a shiny white van, the company name in black copperplate on the sides, underneath the statement: Piano Surgeons. She feels more confident this time and is thrilled when they tell her after their preliminary examination that the Bluthner is worth restoration, that it is: A marvellous instrument, one of the finest of its age we have ever seen. Sure, it is rather sad at the moment after decades of neglect. But the soundboard is in excellent condition. We will restore its spirit for you, young lady.

– Are you the pianist in the family? The other asks as they prepare to manoeuvre it into the van.

– I will be one day, she says.

*

Lydia engages a piano teacher. Her name, appropriate for a piano teacher, is Ethel, Ethel Jonkins, and she is, it will come as no surprise, a spinster. Jessica is delighted and can barely wait for the first lesson with the thought of meeting a real spinster. She hopes she is friendly.

            She is bitterly disappointed.

            The lessons go badly from the start, Jessica complaining that Miss Jonkins must be a witch because she stinks of something awful, foul smelling. Mothballs, Lydia can tell, very strong ones too.

            She asks around and is directed to a Jonathan Swift. She visits his house on the edge of town and is impressed by the two grand pianos in what he describes grandiloquently as his music room. She examines the framed certificates hanging on the wall, the most impressive from the London College of Music, 1947. She likes the fact he is the namesake of a famous writer. It adds another dimension and he is pleased also she has made the connection. Few in this town are as well read as you, he says.

– Is he a spinster? Jessica asks.

– He is a bachelor, she answers, adding, It’s the same as a spinster, but for men.

– Does he smell?

            Lydia says no, while recalling there was a dampness about the room.

            Jessica is happy and the lessons proceed well for a few weeks, if made more difficult by the lack of the Bluthner at home. Mr Swift says she is welcome to drop by any afternoon to practice, an offer Lydia accepts with enthusiasm, discreetly leaving a few dollars on a table in the hallway as a gratuity, though the teacher insists he is doing this for free because Jessica is such a delight to have around.

– I have few visitors, he says.

            Jessica listens to his stories about Mozart, the child prodigy he calls him.

– The greatest musician who ever lived bar one: the incomparable Bach.

He turns his back on her, breathes deeply. She watches his shoulders relax, his long hands rest on the black and white keys and, though she cannot see them, knows his eyes are closed. Only then, settled in a space far removed from this, does he begin the sublime aria from the Goldberg Variations.

            On the dusty drive home Jessica tells her aunt she is going to learn that piece. Lydia is thrilled. It is one of her favourites. She still has a treasured vinyl recording of Glenn Gould’s interpretation, something she has revealed to no one. Nor this. That when she was young she too wanted to play the piano but her parents could never afford lessons, let alone the price of an instrument. Instead, she listened to the radio and, when she was old enough to work at weekends, saved hard to buy a record player.

She remembers sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the magic box, entranced, marvelling at how a needle trapped in a spiralling grove can reproduce this polyphony of sounds. She watches it bobbing this way and that, waiting for the moment at the end when it rises, moves back across the surface of the glistening black disk and, with a sharp click, comes to rest from where it started. Decades pass, she marries, moves to the property and there, in a room, is the Bluthner, left by the last owner, or perhaps the one before. Who knows. Her husband wants to get rid of it but she talks him round.

– Maybe when we have children they might show an interest, she ends.

He acquiesces and soon forgets about it as work takes him criss-crossing the country, leaving him exhausted on his return, the last thing on his mind a battered piano. Finding it unplayable Lydia forgets about it too. Until the day Jessica sits on the faded crimson cushion.

*

Bach now occupies Jessica’s thoughts. In her encyclopaedia she reads the entry about him over and over.  Though there are lots of words she does not understand – cantata, counterpoint, fugue – she believes she has found a soul mate, even if he is an old and dead German composer. That night an electrical storm breaks the silence, igniting the sky with jabs of white, filling clouds with bursts of light. In bed, restless and agitated she finds comfort humming the Goldberg aria.

To be continued….

Categories
Miscellaneous writing

Welcome 2021

Welcome back. Much has changed since my last post back in July 2020. But let’s not talk about the C!

This year I’d like to try something different: to expand the scope of the blog beyond typography, in fact to everything! What got me thinking this way was checking out Substack this morning. I was wondering if this might be the way to go but then realised – hell no. I’ve already got a blog and some who follow it. Surely be better, I mused, to build on this small following than start out afresh. Therefore, I propose to incorporate my musings on life as seen from the perspective of a 60+ year old, white, Englishman who’s lived in Australia for the past 16 years. Yes, there will still be typography from time to time but a lot more too.

Let me know what you think.

To begin here’s something I wrote in 1975: my recording of a conversation between two women sitting on a station platform in south London as they patiently wait for their train.

Someone was singing Waltzing Maltida. The air was given a shrill rendering by a man just coming down the steps leading to the London platform. People cast an eye towards him – someone too gay in the morning is one person too many; it makes all others sad. The two women turned to each other. Both wore glasses, both had their legs crossed.

‘You know you can’t get the bus from Kingston now?’ one of them started. ‘So I’ve had to catch the 171 which takes you right round the world. It’s fortunate I can catch that or else I wouldn’t be able to visit my sisters regularly. You know it’s dreadful the way they’re operating these services. Just like the trains.’

‘And what about the 161?’

‘That goes right out of my way. It has to be the 171.’

‘Yes. Do you know I’ve discovered you can have your teeth repaired as you wait? I never go to work without my teeth. I’d rather have a couple of days sick than be seen without!’

‘How are they now, your teeth?’

‘Well, to be honest, I’ve had some trouble with them. When I first got them they kept slipping out and, of course, I had to send them away for a week or so. But they’ve been okay recently.’

‘I think it’s going to be fine today, though they’ve forecast the rain. There was a red sky this morning.’

Categories
eric gill Thoughts on lettering typographers

In Conversation with Eric Gill

I present a piece of fiction written two years ago. On re-reading I have concerns about the ending, but I leave it without self-censorship: that is what I wrote then, so be it. This blog has made it quite clear my view on Gill and his legacy in light of sexual abuse of children, noting that most sexual abuse happens within the confines of the family unit. Gill was a serial abuser, of that there can be no doubt. [See here for a previous blog on my view of this man.]

In conversation with Eric Gill, Catholic Englishman

It is mid afternoon, that time when you push through the hours in anticipation of the end of the working day. But when you don’t work there is no relief against the empty hours.  I sit alone in one of those concrete shelters on the promenade local councils were once so fond of erecting: a civic contribution to the general wellbeing of the community, a public sanctuary protected from the weather. Protected too from observation, where clandestine rendevous can be arranged. Spies, maybe, to exchange secrets (how thrilling); lovers to furtively enjoy one another (how erotic); older couples to sit silently starring out to sea, their minds blank to the inadequacy of their relationship even if their hands are joined (how melancholy).  A shame then that each shelter has a sharp smell of urine and is decorated, if that’s the word, with spray can graffiti. Tags, that’s the word I was searching for. Am I losing it, my wits not as sharp, my synapses – a word I can remember having heard it on the radio this morning – not firing so easily? I am as old as Dante and, I think, my best could be behind me now.

Of the shelters along the sea front I prefer this one since it’s the furthest from town. Too far for families with young children, too distant for the old and infirm for whom this part of the coast attracts with the same hidden force a magnet does metal, and beyond the range of visitors whose time limits them to those gaudy pleasures clustered about the now abandoned and derelict pier: fish and chip shops, shell fish counters, ice cream parlours, candy floss; arcades pumping out music and bedazzling the eye with flashing lights; shops selling last year’s desirables at knockdown prices; and, amid all this trash, a pub dating to the seventeenth century and still displaying its architectural heritage for anyone caring to observe, yet preferring to hide its charms behind contemporary adornments: always-on-TVs broadcasting sport, juke boxes, ‘eat as much as you can’ buffet. These places entice and capture most of those who might choose instead to walk the mile or so to my hiding place, and for the few who do make it this far (locals exercising either themselves or their dogs, in rare cases doing both simultaneously) the sight of me brooding alone is sufficient to cause them to quicken their step, to call their pet to heel, to turn quickly in case our eyes might meet. It’s as if I carry a sign of unwelcome or there is in the air a pestilence that compels strangers to flee. Or perhaps it is just the sharp smell of urine that makes them scamper.

Yet today will be unlike every other day for today I will meet Eric. We met yesterday when our paths crossed, quite literally, at the train station though the more I think about it the less I believe it was chance. For what is chance but our laziness to recognise a pattern in all that happens in our lives. He had emerged from the footplate amid steam rising from the boiler. He was laughing and clearly in high spirits, cracking a final joke with the fireman with whom he had shared the journey. He had the demeanour of a boy and seemed to skip away from the locomotive with a lightness of foot that is without care or consequence. I watched as he adjusted his glasses, removed the cloth flat cap he was wearing, slapped it against his thigh to remove any lingering soot ash, replaced it and nodded to young couple passing just then, his eyes fixed, one might say penetrating the woman’s clothing as in his mind he began to sketch her naked. He was, after all, an artist. I think she understood for she looked behind to receive his smiling invitation. Eric, I thought, you are no different from what I imagine you to have been. As the woman’s male friend dragged her away (she complaining) his attention turned to me. ‘Are you really going to say something?’ I thought. His course was set. It was inevitable we met.

Eric Gill, he said.

I know.

You know me?

I was once a fan of yours.

Fan?

I mean I was once a letter carver like you.

You made a living at it?

Not really.

Then you cannot call yourself…

I don’t.

What are you?

What am I?

Are you deaf? What is your occupation?’

I do many things.

Any of them well?

I think so.

What? What in particular do you do well?

I listen.

That’s it?

Isn’t that enough?

You are asking me that?

Who are you to judge?

Considering this he lit a cigarette.

I will see you tomorrow, he said and walked away.

I watched until he vanished amid a circle of dancing children.

*

I smell the cigarette before I see him.

You’re late, I say.

He sits close, our thighs almost touching, and crosses his legs. He wears something like a kilt and grey woollen socks come just below the knee. He adjusts them, a band behind the turndown needing to be slackened. In the burnished shine of his brown leather shoes I see clouds reflected. The cigarette smoulders at the end of a long mottled Bakelite holder. He looks out to sea then closes his eyes.

Do you believe them? he asks.

Without hesitation or reflection I answer. It is what I have waited to say.

What you did was vile. It was unconscienceable. I don’t know how you were able to live with yourself knowing you had violated your own. If then it was not a crime, today you would be sent away and, good riddance, Mr Gill.

But was it unholy? His eyes are open now.

How can you hide behind false gods?

I am off track already, my long-prepared assault on his reputation has been easily parried. It’s like he was expecting it all along, had determined to take me on at the outset without the distraction of introductions or well-mannered small talk.

My dear child, he begins. Everything we do is holy. Everything I did was promoted by that desire also to be truthful.

You fucked your own daughters, I shout.

There is no need to be vulgar. Intercourse is a beautiful partnership.

Not with your own.

Why ever not? I am surprised how orthodox you are. These taboos you speak of have been placed there by institutions keen to clamp our spirits.

I am becoming angrier. I force myself to calm down, take a moment to draw a deep breath.

Even your own fucked up religion does not tolerate incest.

Not incest, he counters, his voice rising an octave. No! It was not incest.

Then what is it?

A partnership mutually agreeable, he answers.

It sounds rehearsed as does what follows.

There was never dissent. After I had drawn and sketched her we lay together.

Then you took her every which way you liked.

I pause to allow the words find their level, attach to memories I sense are flooding his mind.

You took her and you knew she would never protest, call out, scream, tell her mother.

Mary knew, he says and his eyelids close.

Open them, I shout.

I stare at him. He focuses on mine, his glasses now reflecting the shit grey sea. Way above us a seagull cries. There is almost a thin smile of triumph moving across his face. I want to hit him but he is a shade from another place so my words must do duty.

You…you…

I hesitate. I have long thought of this moment, triumphant in my moral justification, imagining him squirming at the end of a well placed, one might say clinical demonstration of reasoned judgement. I had considered my words, prepared a mental script. I was incisive in my preparations. I’d make him seek mercy as the magnitude of his sins were revealed. But now with him here by me I cannot. My mind is blank. Everything has been deleted. This man is Eric Gill and I can’t continue for at another time I cherished him, loved him like my father even if he was dead. I feel I should apologise for my outburst. He leans forward, takes my right hand in both of his, pulls me closer.

Dear child, he says gently. Be angry. You are right. I did wrong. I was a bad man, a bad father, a bad husband to my wife. Know this though: What I did harmed no one. It was God’s gift.

 

The End – so to speak…