Saturday, 29 December 2012

Ivor Novello’s piano — a slim tale from the Green Room.

In the summer of 1997 I landed a job running the Classical Record department of my local Virgin Megastore. Whisper it quietly, but according to my line manager I was the first person in the history of that now sadly defunct chain to be hired specifically for my Classical music knowledge. Previous incumbents in the Classical Departments of Virgin stores nationwide presumably landed the job as a short straw duty option, or only made their knowledge of Classical music manifest after working in other departments — but I really don’t know. I still find it rather hard to believe, but anyway, that is what I was told.  The following eighteen months saw me increase sales of Classical music in the local area by an alleged 25% but much more importantly, forge some lasting friendships. A full account of our rousing antics is worth an entire blog entry all to itself. But not today, as the late, great Bob Holness would no doubt have said.

All of this is largely irrelevant detail but I include it because when I was eventually sacked from my position in the spring of 1999 (Yes, sacked. Yes, yes, another time, I promise), I spent the following months in abject freefall. I never knew I had a work ethic until the framework upon which to apply one was suddenly taken from me. My parents greeted the news of my sudden ‘career’ halt entirely not as I’d anticipated, meeting it less with anger or argument, but mostly with a sense of puzzlement and denial. Then again, they were both of over pensionable age and had probably not expected their youngest son to be of any more trouble to them. They could have done without my woes.

My girlfriend of six years had left me several months earlier, although as often with these things, the relationship had, retrospectively, wound down to a grind rather than reach a decisive crunch point. At this stage in proceedings I still felt I could keep in touch. I remember her precise words to me, over my friend Rich’s brand-new mobile phone that he’d kindly lent me for the purpose: “You lost your job? What’s that got to do with me?” To be fair to her, she could also have done without my woes for some time, too. 

I can’t quite describe the stomach-dropping and deeply depressing sensation that followed me around like a pestilential storm cloud for the following five months. Depression is a far-too-casually bandied-about word in conversation and I am wary of using the term on myself. During this period, I sought help from my doctor who told me that I wasn’t ‘painting a picture’ of clinical depression. I believed him, but it was of small comfort. Besides, the depth of my despair had started to run to the pathological, as over the course of the coming months, I visibly lost weight; a considerable amount of weight — about four to five stone — which on a chap my height was severely noticeable and a source of concern among my long-term friends who had known me as an amiably rotund person at the best of times. I don’t recall deliberately not eating, as such, but then again, nor do I remember eating all that often either. No, my days were spent skulking sulkily about the family home, smoking the ever-appetite-suppressing cigarettes and the odd joint in my bedroom, only venturing out to draw my dole, buy more ciggies and make occasional forays to the pub, where my friend Rich would buy me scotch and cokes and try to keep me laughing. He was particularly worried for me. One time I borrowed a three-quarter-length jacket from him and I remember the evident shock on his face as I buttoned it up as neatly as he could do on his own, notably slender frame. 

As my waking hours had become miserable, so my sleeping ones, perhaps through a slightly stoned, subconscious instinct for self-preservation, became wondrous. Sleep became my favourite activity — easily achieved, and oddly, of as high a quality and duration as any I’ve ever enjoyed in my life. Indeed, waking every morning brought the grudging realisation that my perceived nightmare was facing reality. I never quite wanted to die — but I remember reasoning to myself, with baleful calmness, that nor did I particularly enjoy being alive. 

Now of course, you must not trouble yourself with thoughts of compassion, or at least not for too long. In truth I was idle and wasteful with the hours to myself I had suddenly acquired and my job-seeking lacked, shall we say, not as much rigor or consistency as my smoking and drinking at the time. Nonetheless, the summer of 1999 saw me sorely vexed, rattled to my very foundations as events in my life thus far had failed to do quite so perniciously. I was unemployed and worse, I felt unemployable. In the weeks to come I started to have panic attacks, episodes of shooting pains across my chest and down my arms, breathlessness — indeed everything, it seemed to me, symptomatic of incipient heart failure. I ended up in hospital after one specially harrowing sensation alone at home. A trip in the ambulance to Casualty, while getting high on pure oxygen, culminated in having my disturbingly scrawny chest wired up to the ECG and subsequently X-rayed. The doctor gave me a gentle smile, a flimsy copy of the image of my immaculate-looking ribcage, a bottle of glycerin tablets and the rather un-medical (I thought) advice to “just calm down.” I was left sat alone on the gurney in the X-ray suite, semi-naked and sobbing profoundly with a mixture of relief, and extreme guilt at all the kind, serious attention I had clearly wanted — and got. I never opened the glycerin bottle. I learned to recognise my (admittedly real-feeling) symptoms as mere panic, nothing more. The hospital could also have done without my woes, that was for sure. 

Fortunately, I had two friends in particular who spent the next several months ‘looking after’ me. I use this term quite precisely as there were times when I was of the distinct impression that I had been placed under some kind of low-level ‘suicide watch,’ and who’s to say my self-destructive behaviour didn’t suggest otherwise, outwardly, even if I really didn’t feel quite so fatal, so final, myself. The redoubtable Rich you already know. The other was my ex-Virgin colleague Sarah, who had been so outraged by my sacking that she sent me a card expressing her sorrow and anger — and offered to buy me some drinks. Sarah wore her hatred for her job like a big, bright badge with a snarling face on it, but outside of work hours or in briefly snatched staff room conversations she was convivial, witty, and of similar outlook. She lived in a house in South London that she shared with several people, nearly all of whom I can’t recall with much clarity, save for Sara (don’t get confused), who was a delightful — and delightfully shapely — Northern lass who dispensed cheerful informalities along with an endless supply of cigarettes from one of those self-rolling devices. Sara was great fun just to talk and drink with: chatty, sympathetic, complimentary, unflappable, with an endless line in salty stories, filthy jokes and encouragement. She was probably about only half-a-dozen or so years older than me, a woman in her mid-thirties but she seemed untouchable and magnificent to me, which is a real shame now, looking back. 

Sara worked in London theatres, although I’m afraid I don’t remember the precise details. I think she was someone in Stage Management, but her work ran all the way from basic admin to dealing with the ‘talent’ and even painting the odd background flat. She knew of plenty of short-term work going, so it was that in the June/July of 1999 I found myself helping out backstage at the Peacock Theatre in Holborn. It was part of the Sadlers Wells group and so I felt I was in the environs of a genuine theatrical institution, even if the Peacock was nowhere near as famous as its parent venue. 

My job involved repainting the dressing room and there seemed to be endless cups of tea on the go at any given moment. So far, so straightforward. Sadly, my previously dormant asthma, coupled with my receding, but still ongoing panic attacks, rendered me useless at the job within an hour or two of arrival. Sara was briskly attentive, spiriting me out of the building and down Holborn way to get me something a little stronger along with a ciggie (yeah, like that’ll soothe the chest pains...) and a sit down. I was subsequently given some other tasks involving handling the lights onstage for the rest of my stint, which also afforded me the opportunity when quiet to stand up front, gaze out at the vast expanse of seating in the auditorium, imagine a full house and ‘have a moment’...

Thanks to Sara, the Peacock Theatre provided me with gainful part-time employment for several weeks, enough to stand a round or two for the pair of us in the pub after work. It was a splendidly sunny and warm summer, the kind worth staying out in, until late. One evening, after several drinks in Theatreland and with the pubs close to chucking-out time, Sara suggested we continue the frolics to a members club she knew. Sounded good to me. 

Good Lord, The Green Room. I didn’t know it then, but of course I’ve since learned of its preeminent status as one of the most prestigious clubs for anyone in the theatrical profession in London, with a highly illustrious roll-call of members over the decades, both renowned onstage and backstage (for all the right reasons). It has since closed (and reopened) several times in several places since I entered the door of the Georgian town house of its most famous location, on Adam Street, off the Strand and ventured into the basement with Sara. At the time, I merely thought it was somewhere open into the wee small hours and that was fine enough with me.

The small bar room was famously described by Sir Peter Ustinov as a place where giving an after-dinner speech to a capacity crowd was “like addressing sailors in a submarine,” but was empty enough at 1.30am on a weeknight as we found it. Here and there were several expensively dressed individuals, sat at small round tables as if waiting for a cabaret act, clearly soaked to the eyeballs and enjoying the calm tolerant atmosphere in which to be so. Sara knew the barman and as they chatted she introduced me as someone who was musical and could play a bit of the piano. I found this odd as I don’t think Sara had ever seen me address the ivories. I should point out, if I’ve not done so in a previous blog, that my piano playing technique is dubious, more of a fight between me and the keys, and one I only occasionally win. Nonetheless, the barman was a genial and accommodating chap and offered me a free pint of Guinness if I were to give the assembled patrons a tune. I sipped my current, paid-for pint of the Black Stuff and said, “Maybe later!” He added, as if by way of incentive, that the piano belonged to Ivor Novello, the legendary actor, singer and composer — and the invitation was not bandied about willy-nilly. I brightly promised to knock out a ditty for them all before I left, thinking the incident would be forgotten and I’d be able to drink in peace. 

However, after a pint of two more of the Sauce, and with the conversation flowing, I felt magically encouraged and emboldened, until eventually I indicated to our host that I was ready to have a bash. I was hustled over to the piano, which was a marvellously battered old upright on a dais. After a short announcement to the rare few in the room at such a long hour, the bartender let me have it. I announced apologetically that my repertoire was slender and unconventional and that the best thing I had on me was a rather frantic and tricksily percussive piece I had composed myself. This won me some polite, smattered applause. 

I then forget the next three minutes. Entirely. The only part I remember was some slightly more enthusiastic applause at the end and a pint of Guinness appearing magically beside me. I’d done all right. As I returned to the table and Sara, one of the elderly, floridly-sozzled chaps sat adjacently continued to applaud a little longer, but I noticed that his was the sarcastic, slow handclap of derision, of disapproval. He continued until his rheumy eye caught mine. He smiled joylessly. 

“You play like Béla Bartók,” he offered.

A stunning, disproportionate comparison. I suspect I gasped. “Why, thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so!”

“I loathe Bartók.” he concluded with coddled conviction, continuing to smile thinly.

“I’m sorry,” I said, all too delighted, “but that’s a compliment. I’m having that!”

Never was I insulted so fulsomely!

Due to an administrative cock-up at the Peacock, I didn’t get paid for the majority of my employment there for a couple of months afterwards, by which time I had secured a decent full-time job and glad to do so. The money I earned was barely more than my dole, but acquired more agreeably. In the middle of all the craziness I experienced in the summer of 1999, I never expected that I would ever end up in The Green Room, playing Ivor Novello’s piano, for beer — and it was in tune. 

Sara — if you ever happen to read this, thank you ever so much, you were awesome. 

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and I wish you happiness in the New Year. 


Currently listening:
Lots of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music — too many to mention individually. 

Currently watching:
The eight Harry Potter films. The winsome, racy and charming magic of the early years gives way to something grittier, greyer and possibly taking itself far too seriously. But that’s enough about me, the films are pretty good.

Red Dwarf X (Dave, 2012) resurrected series, back by popular demand and almost back to basics too, with less emphasis on effects-driven high concepts and more of the snippy dialogue and hilariously embarrassing situations that endeared it to millions originally. It’s like they never left. Not the dizziest heights of Dwarf yore, perhaps, but still excellent post-pub viewing.

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