The Food of Love by Chris Green
I’m Clinton Stroud. Some of you will have heard of me but for those of you who have not, I am composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical coach. A long-standing one to boot. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday. This is a little longer than I expected to live, I can tell you. I have now had twenty two telegrams from the Queen, and I still think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the nineteen thirties. It is said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. Even Chief Superintendents have seemed like schoolchildren to me for as long as I can remember. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ It is best perhaps to think of youth as a malady from which we all recover. Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, antibiotics and sliced bread. Let us not forget the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have witnessed the collapse of Empire, the rise of secularism and the provision and destruction of the welfare state. Oil and petrochemicals have become crucial resources to human civilisation and transformed the balance of power the world over. Oil, of course, is running out. Oil production per year has been greater than oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon there will be a lot of disappointed people.
When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families had no bathroom and there was horse-muck on the streets. In cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. Yet you could walk for miles in the countryside in the cool clean air in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition. Our green and pleasant land has lost out to electricity pylons, motorways, and suburban sprawl. Communication in all forms has been revolutionised. When I was born, we had the penny post and the Daily Mail. Now twenty-four-hour television, mobile phones and superfast broadband are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was twenty nine million. Today it is sixty seven million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.
Things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, you are not aware that it is happening. The changes are so subtle that you do not notice from moment to moment, day to day. Age creeps up on you with clandestine stealth, as months, years and decades slide inexorably by. You can perhaps only measure change through a succession of befores and afters. Even then, time acts as an unreliable witness, leaving you unsure of precise chronology. But the uncertainty could be exaggerated by my circumstances. I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Emma, Natalie, Lucy and Sakura. I have, to my knowledge, twenty two great-great-grandchildren and twenty eight great-great-great-grandchildren, and, no, I cannot remember all of their names.
Music goes back a long way. It means literally the art of the muses. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects music has on the body and soul. Rhythm and harmony represent a universal language: rhythm the heartbeat, the voice the song. Music has been my inspiration. Through my musical calling, I have had the good fortune to meet some of the people who have overseen the historic changes.
Few people realise that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness. Not a mention of his musical interests. It was I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability and could have easily mastered the clarinet. But he preferred the saxophone. He saw himself as a trailblazer. He bought one of the first Selmer Modele 22, saxophones to come to the UK, and guested in jazz ensembles which, although there are no records of this, played at dance halls in the Manchester area.
‘Why did we have to fight the war?’ I asked Lloyd one day. I had spent a majority of World War One in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.
‘I will tell you why, boyo,’ he said. ‘National pride. Germany expected to find a lamb and found a lion.’
‘No question of sitting around the table and discussing things first then?’ I said.
‘Diplomats were invented simply to waste time,’ was his response.
This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go. I was more interested in his progress on the saxophone.
Mohandas Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica. But on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for tuition. Harp players at the time had started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp. Mohandas felt the harmonica was an instrument associated with the poor and being able to play it to the starving masses back home would lend support to his great mission.
‘History would turn out for the better if our leaders learned that most disputes can be resolved by a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and by using diplomacy and compassion,’ he said.
‘It is a shame that history has the habit of repeating itself,’ I said.
Mohandas thought this a negative view to take. He was optimistic that a new common sense would eventually emerge if you kept plugging away.
‘We must become the change we want to see, Clinton,’ he said.
Mahatma’s teachings stayed with me through the years of conflict that lay ahead. He was only four foot nine but he was a huge and inspirational man. I can still picture him, sitting in the lotus position, his bony fingers clenching his Hohner, blowing for all he was worth. I would have loved him to have been able to play Hoochie Coochie Man properly on the harp, but sadly he had to leave to catch his boat back to India for an important fast.
The nineteen thirties are usually associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Emma, and my first two children, Darius and Diana, were growing up. I enjoyed a modicum of success with my work, completing an octet and a jazz concerto. We moved to Pimlico, which then was up-and-coming. It was a great shame to see the clouds of war gathering at such a positive time, but politicians the world over are a stubborn breed.
World War Two may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. He showed initial promise when he came to me. I took him through a few easy pieces, early Mozart sonatas and the like. But when we moved on to Chopin, his interpretations were clumsy and heavy-handed. Winston had what we sometimes refer to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed to display a disdain for the instrument in the fortissimo passages. On the occasions I tried to explain this to him he usually stormed off in a huff. He did not take criticism well. His famous Hush over Europe speech in August 1938 came right after I told him that he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with all the subtlety of a tank commander. He growled something unintelligible at me, finished his Remy Martin and went straight off to the House of Commons. Had he been able to control these rages, he may have backed off a little on his warmongering. While we may now all be speaking German, Winston may have gracefully embraced retirement with his Steinway and his watercolours.
‘How did you come into music, Clint?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson in his big Buick. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’
It was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had introduced us. I had taught Hitchcock to play a weird instrument called the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might use the sound effects it made in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to be one of the most successful films of all time.
I did not often talk about my background. Not that I was ashamed of my humble beginnings, but somehow I felt it destroyed the mystique. I tried to dodge the question by talking instead about my early musical influences, but Orson had a persuasive way about him.
‘Are you going to answer my question, god-dammit?’ he said.
‘I come from a railway family,’ I told him. ‘Both my father and my grandfather worked on the railways. I came into music entirely by accident. I started playing when I was three on a penny whistle that was left in a railway carriage. It had probably belonged to a travelling navvy. I’m entirely self-taught.’
I explained that I quickly found out I was able to play any musical instrument I picked up. It was like opening a box of chocolates and finding all soft centres. I had what my music teacher at primary school, Miss Schnabel, called a precocious talent. I learned to read music before I could read my Jolly Animal ABC.
I got to know Orson quite well. In fact, it was through Orson that I met my second wife, Natalie. Natalie was a nutritionist treating Orson for his recurring obesity. Orson was a large man in every sense and, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, obsessed with his weight. He had flown Natalie in from America to keep an eye on his constitution while he was looking for film locations in the UK.
Natalie introduced me to the benefits of wholegrain cereal, bee pollen, goji berries and noni juice, all of which I have retained in my diet ever since, and are among the things to which I can attribute my longevity. These along with a positive attitude to life, regular exercise and an active sex life. I subscribed to my friend Pablo Picasso’s philosophy that a young partner helped to keep you young. Natalie made me feel like a teenager again. She was nearly thirty years my junior. I was fifty one and she was twenty four. Our extended honeymoon took advantage of the opportunities opening up in air travel and took in all six continents. We were stunned by many unforgettable sights, the multicoloured reefs and cays of The Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rainforest, the boat ride through The Blue Grotto Cave in Capri, the summer sun setting on The Grand Canyon, and the great migration of gazelles and wildebeests sweeping across the Serengeti plain in the early morning, to name but a few. But some less obvious sights were equally pleasing. The colourful paddle steamer chugging down the Orinoco, the silhouette of a camel train crossing the Arabian desert, the reflection of the houseboats on the Dal Lake in Kashmir on a Spring evening. Yes, the air miles were clocking up a little, but young love knew no bounds.
Although always modest about her talent, Natalie was an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music. She helped to take it in new directions. The nineteen fifties were productive. I was on a roll. My compositions began to incorporate dissonance and atonality. In a few short years, I wrote a concerto for orchestra using a small orchestra as a solo instrument against a larger orchestra, a quintet (four cellos and a flute), a jazz ballet, and a tone poem based on The Seventh Seal. I may not have become a household name, but these unusual pieces were well received. Miranda Miercoles, Melody Maker’s classical music critic, not one that one associates with praise of any sort, referred to my work at the time as groundbreaking. I framed the notice.
Natalie persuaded me that we should spend time in America. She was from New York and suggested we buy somewhere in the city. Money was coming in steadily and we were able to buy a comfortable apartment in Manhattan on The Upper East Side close to Central Park. We were within strolling distance of the museums and galleries that were beginning to prosper and the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. One day, while I was in the apartment tinkling away on the ivories, I had a call from a magazine illustrator. Orson had given him my name, he said. He told me he drew whimsical sketches of shoes. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate. I explained there weren’t any rules as such. You learned mainly through experience and spontaneous discoveries.
‘It’s very much a hands-on art,’ I said. ‘You have to be aware of point and counterpoint and of the families of instruments, timbres of each instrument in the family, and of course, tonality, but beyond that, it is up to the individual.’
‘Good!’ he said. ‘That’s uh what I wanted to hear. It should be easy then.’
‘You mean like major for happy and minor for sad,’ I quipped.
‘Uh yes,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’ He seemed perfectly serious about this being the case.
‘I’m not sure orchestration’s something I can teach you,’ I said. ‘What was it you had in mind to orchestrate?’
‘I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. That’s uh, what I’m going to do.’
‘Well, we can’t do it over the phone, can we?’ I said. ‘You’d better come on over.’
The figure across the threshold had a ghost-like quality. he seemed to be there and not there at the same time. He wore a white suit and a blue and white hooped Breton sweater. His tortoiseshell dark glasses and platinum blond hair made him look a little effeminate. My first impression, as he limply shook my hand, was that he was incredibly shy, but despite this shyness, he had astounding charisma.
‘Hi, I’m Andy,’ he said. ‘Andy Warhol.’
I invited him in and sat him down.
‘I’m going to be famous one day,’ he said, deadpan.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘In the future, everyone will be famous,’ he laughed.
‘What? For fifteen minutes?’ I joked.
‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘I might use that.’
I found Andy’s philosophy interesting and some of the things he said had yet more resonance in retrospect.
We moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were a good place to start. Mozart for his precision and flow and Beethoven for his bold innovations.
Andy felt it might be better to start with Debussy and Ravel because they were more contemporary and therefore it would not take so long to learn.
‘You need to be able to put an idea on one side of Letter paper,’ he explained.
I asked if he had met the minimalist composer, John Cage. 4’33 consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds,’ I told him.
‘Cool!’ he said.
We spent the next session putting together a bullet point list and the one after that at Boosey and Hawkes music store where Andy bought a selection of instruments. He showed no interest at all in playing them; I think they were peripheral to his mission. What he wanted to orchestrate was an Art Movement.
The times, they were a-changing. At least, Bob Dylan thought so. He wanted me to teach him how to play electric guitar to fit in to the changes he felt were taking place. The real reason Bob wanted to learn may have been that he was not very good on the acoustic guitar. Going electric seemed to be a good move. It suited his casual approach to the instrument. And the rest is history. He became the stuff of legend.
It was time too for me to move on. It had been over with Natalie for a while and it was with great sadness, I returned to England leaving her and our son, Adam, and daughter, Charlotte, in New York. I took a flat in fashionable Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames.
Hearing I was now in London, Julie Christie called me up. Darling had been a big hit for her and she wanted to stay in the limelight. She was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago. She was wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She thought learning to play the balalaika might help her get into the role. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty the cameras loved. The thing was, she was even more stunning in the flesh. Julie was also a terrible flirt. Most days, it seemed, the balalaika I borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched.
‘What is it that inspires you?’ she asked.
‘I hear music in the flow of the river, the rain on the window, the clinking of glasses, the hum of late night traffic.’ I said. ‘I hear music in everything, in the everyday and that is what sustains me. I have a tune in my head the whole day long.’
‘Play me your favourite piece of music,’ Julie said.
I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had turned down Desert Island Discs as I felt unable to decide on just eight tunes. I wondered what I could play for Julie. The great violin concertos of the nineteenth century were out of the question, as clearly they needed an orchestra. I could have picked Bach or Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed appropriate. I wondered if we might be going to have a full-blown affair. But we didn’t.
Popular music upped its game in the nineteen sixties. Record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushed back the boundaries of the art. Pop music spearheaded a huge social change. What had once seemed throwaway now seemed important and vital. London was the new capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a show The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here I met Lucy, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.
Lucy was on the fringes of the music business. The closest I could come to describing her role would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. She was someone you noticed; someone who stood out in a room. She was beautiful; with her deep and lustrous eyes and long dark flowing hair, she looked like a Greek siren, without of course the wings. She was twenty one. My paramours seemed to be getting younger. What was it Shakespeare said about music being the food of love? It was time to play on.
Lucy moved in with me right away. For the next year or two, we played host to the pop world at Cheyne Walk, as young musicians dropped by to learn exotic new instruments. Brian Jones and George Harrison were regular visitors, as were four young lads up from Cambridge who called themselves Pink Floyd. I like to think that in a modest way we changed the direction of rock music. It moved away from the established format of two guitars, bass and drums to utilise a more colourful palette. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from this period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Mandolin and my famous Wind Chimes Concerto over the so-called Summer of Love.
In 1968, in a nod perhaps to the hippy ideal, Lucy and I moved to Lanzarote. The ten years we spent living there were among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place for the mind to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting on the south-western coast. The artist and architect, Cesar Manrique, lived nearby and was a frequent visitor. His project was to transform the desert landscape, harmonising his vibrant modern design with the traditional architecture and colours of the island. A huge interest in alternative power was developing in the Canaries and through Manrique’s civil engineering team we had both solar panels and a wind turbine to deliver power to our house and the surrounding community. We were pioneers. Why not? Lanzarote is both windy and sunny. The rest of the world seems to still be resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.
Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over to see us. Although he would not return to Spain, he was happy to visit us in Lanzarote. Other than this, we had few visitors. Darius and Diana and their respective families came over now and again (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought Adam and Charlotte. Mostly though it was just the two of us and a handful of alternative free-thinkers. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of every day without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Lucy became a gifted painter of abstract landscapes. As for me, my music began to develop a profound simplicity.
How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb? The cypress tree in the courtyard.
I have always been a great admirer of Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired musical explorations Furniture music. He saw it as the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere, rather than serving as the focus of attention. Satie is the link between early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow innovator, Brian sought me out and came over. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think I coined the phrase. Ambient comes from the Latin verb ambire, to surround. Our collaboration produced sonic landscapes, atmospheres and treatments. Film directors came knocking. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. You will have heard my music from this period many times without realising it.
The nineteen eighties can be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the dangers of uncontrolled consumerism? It could only lead to disaster. A new set of guidelines regarding conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management was needed to rein in the excesses. Sadly, those brave enough to challenge Thatcherism and its free market sensibility were picked off and crushed. Lucy and I moved to the New Forest. At least here, we could show our respect for trees.
The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. Popular music reduced itself once more to a succession of bland, artless nursery rhymes. Cheap Yamaha synthesisers and drum machines programmed by greedy, tone-deaf computer programmers produced monotonous, predictable, exhaustible and hackneyed three-minute jingles. Flamboyant, androgynous models with streaky makeup and spiked hair pranced around in fancy dress to unrelated storylines in fast-cut short films produced by yuppie film directors. It was a case of nice video, shame about the song. And those awful drum machines at the front of the mix. Even established rock acts became mainstream and mediocre issuing insipid power ballads. And jazz began to sound like elevator music. How could you have smooth jazz? This is an oxymoron. Classical music fared no better during the period. With its fetish for dissonance, it became all but inaccessible.
Zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, but can also be related to the concept of collective consciousness, which describes how an entire community comes together to share similar values. Was this the explanation for the decline in musical quality perhaps? Subliminally, people had agreed that music was no longer important. It was better to get rich, and quickly.
When Tariq Ali came around for his violin lesson. I put this idea to him. ‘What do you think, Tariq?’ I asked.
‘In times of peace, the arts gravitate towards mediocrity,’ he said.
‘There was no war in the sixties,’ I said. ‘But there was lots of great music.’
‘No war in the sixties?’ he laughed. ‘There was the Vietnam War. We may not have been on the front line but as a culture, we were involved. Didn’t you go on any demonstrations?’
‘I was living in Lanzarote at the time,’ I told him. ‘We had just moved out. But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you?’
‘Indeed. And Mick Jagger wrote Streetfighting Man,’ he said. ‘But to get back to my point. Do you not recall the famous line in The Third Man about the Swiss?’
‘Not word for word,’ I said.
‘In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
‘Ah yes, I remember now. That was my old friend, Orson Welles,’ I said. ‘Perhaps we will have another war soon. There are some mad people in charge.’
‘It won’t a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ Tariq said. ‘Russia is not a country you can invade and occupy. War is about occupation and colonisation. The next war will be against Islamic states, where they can send in an occupying force. And, of course, there’s the oil. Iraq’s my guess.’
In retrospect, it seems he was right.
The days get longer and the days get shorter. As you get older, the heat of summer makes you uncomfortable, so you look forward to the winter, but you can’t cope with the long dark nights and the cold, so you look forward to the spring, and your life passes by, with this contradiction. You are getting older but you are willing the time to pass. Seasons replace one another in a relentless procession as the northern hemisphere tilts towards or away from the sun.
According to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, the planet Mercury has no tilt and therefore no seasons. Luigi was a prototype Google. He knew everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind, his specialist subject, String Theory.
‘No seasons,’ I said. ‘That’s good then, isn’t it? Why couldn’t we live on Mercury?’
‘There is a little problem my friend. It has no atmosphere,’ he said.
‘Not so good for the old breathing then.’
‘And its four hundred degrees during the day and minus two hundred at night.’
‘Bit hard to get used to.’
‘You’ll like this, though,’ Luigi said. ‘Mercury has a crater called Beethoven which is the largest in the solar system. They have also named craters after Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi, Schubert, Sibelius and Wagner. It is riddled with craters. You name me a composer and they have probably named a crater on Mercury after him. I’ll find out if they have named one after you, my friend.’
He never did find out. Sadly Luigi died when the steering on his Fiat gave out as he was overtaking an articulated truck near Basingstoke on the M3. He was only sixty two. No age at all.
When you reach your eighties, you understandably find those you have known or admired are dying with increased regularity. When you get a call from a friend you have not heard from in a while, you know it will be to inform you that someone you both know has died. The receptionist at the funeral directors gets to recognise your voice, as you order wreaths for lost friends and colleagues with increasing frequency, and you start getting Christmas cards from the undertaker. You find you know all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Abide With Me, and your copy of The Times falls open at the obituaries. Death is all around. When you visit the doctors with a routine chest infection, you imagine the grim reaper is sitting next to you.
Following Lucy’s death from a rare blood disease, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. It became obvious that one day I would die and although I seemed to be in remarkable health, I began to speculate on how I would die and when. None of the ways seemed especially pleasant and most involved a protracted period of pain. Cardiovascular disease was statistically the most likely cause for someone of my age, although hot on its heels were cancer and strokes. Then there were lower respiratory infections, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And worse. How bad could old age be? Constantly worrying about when the door would open and whether you would know when it was going to open. Nostalgia too, I found, was something that could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back!
Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend. Throughout the twentieth century, Irving had had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. If anyone could deliver a pearl of wisdom, it was Irving. I was fortunate to gain an audience with the great man on a stopover trip to New York to see my grandchildren, as he was by then famously uncooperative. I asked Irving his secret.
‘Music is the key,’ he said. ‘Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory and helps with concentration. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance. That’s what my doctor tells me. And he’s older than I am.’
I knew Irving to be in his late nineties, so this made his doctor very old indeed.
‘I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.
‘Another thing,’ Irving said. ‘I presume you suffer from earworm, where the last tune you hear stays in your head.’
‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘I don’t even have to hear a tune. Just reading the title of a song I know can set it off.’
‘The secret is to make the tune in your head a joyful one with happy words.’
‘What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the baby left me lyrics.’
‘What! you mean lived to be twenty seven, like Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.’
He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, there was a Blind Boy Fuller or Freddie King.
‘Look at me as a living example of someone who keeps a happy song going round in his head,’ said Irving. ‘It has worked for me.’
‘OK, I will try it.’ I said.
‘At the same time, don’t avoid thoughts of death,’ Irving continued. ‘Remind yourself your death is guaranteed. Facing death should be something that empowers you and heightens your senses. Feel the inevitability of it. Feel the horror of it. And then open your eyes and realise you are now alive. But try not to do this every day.’
It took a little application, but after a while, I arrived at a view whereby death offered an increased opportunity to see what was important. But, as Irving had suggested, music was the way to make my mark. This realisation provided me with motivation. I kept a happy tune in my head and entered a new creative phase. My Tenor Saxophone Concerto was popular, as was my Sextet for Four Pianos, Oboe and Harp. But the piece that gained the most recognition was my opera, Gatto di Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s Cat), which played at opera houses around the world. Who could forget the rousing fortissimo chorus for one hundred voices, ‘Il gatto è tanto vivi e morti.’
Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had he not come to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea and become rich, or should he put it in the public domain for the benefit of all? In between run-throughs of Schumann’s Reverie for Cor Anglais and Piano, we discussed the pros and cons of both viewpoints. It may have been my suggestion that the World Wide Web be royalty-free so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventors. He argued that others would make billions out of the idea.
‘How would you best like to be remembered?’ I asked him. ‘As a universally reviled figure or as a benefactor to humankind?’
Tim must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, He seemed to have come off the fence. He used the very arguments I had used.
‘The World Wide Web must have an open standard,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, there will be incompatible forms of media, backed by Microsoft and Apple and the like.’
I met Sakura at The Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood at an exhibition called Young British Artists. The show featured work by the little-known Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, all of who would go on to win the Turner Prize. I had not particularly wanted to see the exhibition, having read the press write-up about tiger sharks immersed in formaldehyde. But a friend whose view I respected told me I had to go.
‘Something important is happening here,’ my friend had said. ‘Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the fragile boundaries between life and death.’
Sakura caught my look of puzzlement as I took in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the fourteen-foot tiger shark in the tank). What was Art, I wondered? Where were the boundaries? Paul Gauguin had once said ‘Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’ I could accept that Art constantly needed to re-define itself. But in my cynicism, I wondered if was just a question of a dealer or curator saying something was important art, a prominent critic supporting him, and collectors with their megabucks being persuaded. It was becoming like an investment bank.
‘The shark is a metaphor for mortality,’ Sakura said.
I found myself no longer looking at the unsettling spectacle in the tank. Sakura was a much more attractive prospect for my gaze. She possessed an exquisite beauty. She had long raven black hair, obsidian eyes and rich nut-brown skin with a flourish of red across her cheekbones. Her body pushed in all the right places against the fabric of the tight floral print dress. I was transfixed. I felt a profound surge of well-being. Another bout of rejuvenation was on the way.
I must have come up with a clever riposte, because the next thing I recall, we were eating dinner at Claridge’s. Before I knew it, we were living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. It appeared she had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend recommending the exhibition. Sakura worked in television. I did not watch a lot of television, so I was not aware of any of the programmes she had been involved with. In no time at all, she suggested writing my biography.
‘I don’t think I’m famous enough,’ I said. In fact, I had many times thought of writing my autobiography, but I was too lazy to start. With so many years to cover, such a project seemed daunting.
‘Everyone knows who you are,’ Sakura said. ‘But no one knows very much about you. The world is crying out for some insight into your life.’
Sakura had formidable powers of persuasion. The chapters charting my childhood in the Cotswolds were in the bag in a few days. However, after the move to North London, sister Susanna joining the Suffragettes, Walter and I going off to war, and Emma and I marrying, we reached the point where retrieval of memories was becoming more of a challenge. Looking back was becoming vertiginous. It was a long way down.
‘You should have kept a diary,’ said Sakura.
‘I started to keep one,’ I said. ‘A long time ago. After the First World War……. I think that they may be up in the attic somewhere in an old leather bag.’
Sakura dug them out, four gnarled Evening Standard Diaries from 1918 to 1921, and eagerly began to devour them.
‘Why did you stop writing the diary after June 1921?’
It was a fair question. Had my pen run out of ink? Had I had an unexpected illness? Had I sold my soul to the devil? I couldn’t remember.
The biography progressed more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures. I had dates for my recordings. But with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead. Even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. To my great sadness, none of them had taken well to Sakura. I could recall the big events like the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (I had been introduced to one of my early heroes, Sir Edward Elgar) and the General Strike (I was stuck in Dover with Aleister Crowley for twelve days). But the devil was in the detail. You wait until you are my age and Alzheimer’s starts gently kicking in.
Looking back made me question whether the quality of life had changed for the better over the years. We were now able to travel fast over large distances and get information at the click of a mouse. Every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient. But hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seemed to have sacrificed a fundamental simplicity. The time and effort spent learning how to use our time and effort saving technology raised the question, at what point would the cost-benefit ratio no longer be in support of our technology? When I was a child, listening to someone reading the story of Alice in Wonderland aloud, without the benefit of even pictures to look at, would have filled me with awe. Nowadays, if a six-dimensional, four-headed Kraken suddenly materialised in a ring of fire in the room in front of a young child, it would engender no surprise, they would probably just see it as a continuation of a computer game.
Around the time of the millennium, Sakura and I took a walk in the Cotswold Hills. I was showing her some of my childhood haunts. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We came across a family having a picnic. They were tucking into plastic-wrapped supermarket lunches. The two youngsters played games on hand-held devices, while the parents thumbed through an Argos catalogue looking at domestic appliances, oblivious to the beauty around them. Nowadays they would be able to dispense with the family outing, the countryside and the picnic and buy the Dyson online.
‘Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still trying to keep the idea of the biography going.
‘Of course!’ I said, not going down the Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra routes. ‘Many things.’
‘If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ she asked.
‘I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically.
One morning I pulled back the curtains and saw a ball of bright light blazing brilliantly in the Southern sky. I was mesmerised. I began to understand how the expression, bright as the morning star came about. The man in Jessops told me that what I was seeing was Jupiter and, what I needed was a Celestron 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer-controlled telescope. He just happened to have one in stock. It was simple to operate, he said. I would be able to use it right away to discover the delights of star-watching. Once I got it home, I did not find it easy and it sat in the conservatory unused for several months. I had an arts background. I had never learned even the basics about the universe. Finally, with the help of The Beginners’ Guide to the Cosmos, I began very slowly to pick things up.
Each of the billions of stars that I now had access to through the telescope was another sun. The problem was I had no idea where to look. There were so many of them. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet, I could pick out the Plough and use this as a reference point. I was able to distinguish an endless array of spectacular celestial sights. I could now see Jupiter up close, with its four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, strung out alongside it, Saturn and its unmistakable rings, the forever changing crescent of Venus and the fiery red of Mars. I was also able to see distant nebulae, star clusters and the Great Andromeda galaxy that lies about two million light years beyond our own galaxy, The Milky Way.
I learned that our sun is four million times as big as Earth and produces so much energy, that every second the core releases the equivalent of one hundred billion nuclear bombs. Also that a supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, releasing a huge amount of gamma rays, which can outshine an entire galaxy. After the supernova, the once massive star becomes a neutron star, white dwarf, or if it is large enough, a black hole. Black holes are so dense and produce such intense gravity that even light cannot escape. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The Universe is at least one hundred and fifty billion light-years in diameter. I had to reconsider my definitions for large. The word that came to mind was astronomical.
The relationship between music and the cosmos probably began with Holst’s The Planets. The work was composed around 1914, just ten years after The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, and Holst had no idea what was going on out there in space. Little more than fifty years later, we had landed a spacecraft on the moon. The piece of music I always associate with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, from Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form finding them. The music included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Chuck Berry. These have left the Solar System and are now in empty space. In around forty thousand years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode. In 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just four hundred and thirty one light years away. Lately we have been pinging stars all over the cosmos in the hope that there is someone out there. Time is not on my side, so I am having my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) once me was the most likely place to find life in the Solar system. I am told this will take a mere seventy six minutes.
There are signs that our four hundred thousand year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the violations of our stewardship. The forest fires that raged for months in Australia this year were the worst in history, finally doused by storms of biblical proportions, bringing, in turn, the worst floods in history. Bangla Desh was reclaimed by the ocean, after all the rivers that drained the Himalayas cascaded into one. Fourteen million people died in the famine in the African country no one knew was there. I see on the news this morning that an iceberg the size of France has just detached itself from Antarctica. It’s all happening. As the writer, Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.’
What will tomorrow bring? The answer is up to you. It doesn’t matter much to me. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday.
Copyright: Chris Green, 2019: All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents herein are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.