The Paved Road

Opening score page: Gallery

Opening score page: Gallery

My previous blog — Current Affairs — was a snapshot of some normal moments in normal day, nothing heavy, just a ‘retirement’ pic. The usual commercial ads seen in newspapers show retirement as if it were a long self-satisfied relaxation after a rather short working life, something to be richly enjoyed, a time of mature reflection strolling among green pastures. Mr Luckyman, with distinguished greying hair at the temples, is accompanied by an attractive younger lady who has either dug for gold or collected several divorce settlements. We feel the glow of a perfect sunset where the sun never goes to the trouble of actually setting.

Annoying? The truth is somewhat different for almost all real-life pensioners. Possibly edged out of work early, life may have come to a crashing stop, leading to a period of fiddling about with the loose change of time that you don’t know what to do with. It probably involves being under your wife’s annoyed feet, but also requires an humungous amount of patting very young grandchildren, followed by having to humour them as middle-aged children, many of whom seem to be understudying for a future life as robots (presumably for when the said robots rule the world), and also being careful not to cross those elderly young who are seriously focussing on respect (for themselves, not you!) in regard to their oh so important self-esteem.

Then there’s the health issue. It’s payback time! Old age is the illness from which no-one recovers. All those pints now come home to roost, all those fags, all that adipose tissue hanging off your midriff which you so carelessly and enjoyably collected over the years. These foolish things remind your doctor to constantly nag you to take this wonder drug or that magic potion so that you can live longer in order to suffer longer. One becomes, unless very careful, a secondary effect of the medical profession still practising after all these years. Will they ever get it right? Their practising on you, that is.Will they ever get it when they are wrong? The figures on iatrogenics (death by medical mistakes) are horrific, that is if they can be found before they are swiftly wiped off the net. The chilling words of doctoring’s new Hippocratic oath, namely that “lessons will be learned,” is not a lot of comfort.

What I thought of as a mild little blog seemed to be of interest to quite a few people and prompted one comment that tickled me no end. It characterised me as “Still as intelligent, interesting, eloquent and slightly mad as ever.” I loved the “slightly mad:” I have spent my life side-stepping certified sanity as you would avoid a killer contagious disease. When I left the London Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet post in 1976 to start conducting (although I played on in the studios till 78) people said to me “You’re mad! Giving up the best job in town just to become a second rate conductor.” (They didn’t even say slightly mad.) At that point I didn’t know Vincent van Gogh’s words from one of his letters — “Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow on it” — the fact is, my gut was telling me exactly that. And looking back now, my head knows it to be right, too. Vincent’s letters are as golden as his sunflowers, and there have been many flowers our path since we left London in 1980.

Otherwise — concerning the rest of the comment — I deny (almost) everything! In describing me, you would have to struggle very hard to get the word “intelligent” past my wife, or indeed past me. At the age of 19 when I finished at the Academy, I was confident I knew everything musical worth knowing, even about subjects I hardly knew existed. At worst I could just wing them. Today I know virtually nothing about anything. Over the years, Mother Nature has sat me down time and time again, and — slowly, quietly, patiently — explained to me that my rag bag of notions about everything were a nonsense, if only for the reason that they were just picked up here, there and anywhere for no good reason, just because I had heard them or read them. She also said (my wife that is) that just because I might have made a good lying lawyer that was no excuse for behaving like one. Finally, Mother Nature explained that it would be better if I stuck to what I really knew, absolutely only what I really really knew. Since those days I have followed her iron rule as best I can, only using my own thoughts, no one else’s. Nothing borrowed, nothing new, nothing old unless I’ve found it to be true … by myself.

As for “interesting” … that’s a worrying word … normally it is a keyword used by modern art critics when they are not sure what’s going on, but they feel they better cover themselves with a catch-all word so as not to be found out later as being un-cool. Or could it be a friendly word to sugar the pill of that “slightly mad” description? As I am not ready for paranoia yet, it might just be genuinely meant.

“Eloquent.” I like that. Thank you. One can do things with words that can’t be done with serious music, or with serious paint, or even with serious folding money. It’s possible to be a one-man band with words, vamping like a really good pub pianist. Words can dance even if I can’t, and can sing even if can’t sing either. Eloquence is a song with words, a song without music. (Actually I have sung in La Scala professionally, yes, for money. I won’t explain, but I did have a trumpet with me as well.)

A short diversion: I suspect that many people in the goldfish bowl of the brass world see me as ‘academic,’ when nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I do is by feel. I have to work hard to learn by reading, because I naturally learn by doing. Actions come first with me and any words or theories come after. Yes, I do try to peer deep into my actions in order to see what happened, what the processes were and what order they came in. End of diversion.

So what do I do all day in retirement? Well, as I write, I have just sent off to the printer all files for my new piece GALLERY, the commission for the 2015 Scottish Open Contest in Perth at the end of November. It’s an innocent looking piece: there are no five-eight or seven-sixteen bars that might tempt some conductors into re-writes, so no worries there. The semi-quaver count is relatively low: in fact for a test piece it could be a record. The seating plan is a little unusual, allowing me some antiphonal playfulness. There are no ensemble problems at the start: the Soprano cornet leads comfortably into the first bar. Again, no worries there. I admit to liking music to smile sometimes, but no banana skin stuff. When it’s serious however I’m serious. In summary, I just hope that the players, the conductors and the audience find it enjoyable. That will be bull’s eye for me.

Other than that, what do I do? I might look out of the window a little and then work some more, working through my lists. Or reading a book (currently on the ancient Greeks and Romans) or thinking about my own next book (On Conducting) that is in it early stages. And then I like to do a creative different something every day. And then it might need to be chopping and stacking wood, like earlier today. Or doing the shopping, like yesterday. Just like BR — Before ‘Retirement.’ My would-be slave-master, the British State, would like me to take the pills, sit in a chair and hurry up and leave — “no bed-blocking please” — meaning “you cost too much.” I am not going to do any of those three things.

If we are lucky at birth, and most of us are, we are born beautiful little animals … ahhhh! … but then we start at once to deteriorate. Our parents wreck us (kill us with kindness) — Philip Larkin got it about right — then school distorts us (dumbs us down), university warps us (no comment — luckily I didn’t go to one), and debt steamrollers us. Rarely does anyone suggest that the real work of life is simpler: to be giving and useful, to do to others as we would be done by.

I fully accept that I am a contrarian, if that is the thought that pressed the ‘slightly mad’ button on my commentator’s keypad. I admit that when I come across a crowd, I will immediately set off in the opposite direction. However I am not a contrarian because I am stroppy or awkward. It is just that experience has taught me that this is the way to bet. The wisdom of the in-crowd? Very average.

My advice for a reasonable life? Disbelieve almost all politicians. The political class is the enemy of the people: that’s us, you and me, the outsiders. The trouble is, in jungle terms, the political classes have no predators. They multiply like rabbits and then gorge on us at their leisure to pay for their financial incontinence. Because they can, they do. Simple.

Avoid doctors when possible: I will accept dying of an old-fashioned illness but definitely not from slow medical-drug-induced decrepitude. (See iatrogenics above.) Instead, drink your fill from the glass of music and perhaps … woodworking. (By the way, that wasn’t my idea: I read very recently that Albert Einstein suggested this course of action for one of his sons, as the best education possible.) I’ll just keep on working, trying new things, learning from that most informative of happenings — my errors.

At root, I try to expand the small amount of knowledge that is really mine, that I haven’t copied, or just guessed at, or just read in this morning’s newspaper, that I am sure I have earned-&-learned from my trials-&-errors, whether playing, teaching, conducting, arranging, composing, writing, whatever. V van G also has wise words on this subject, but they will keep for now — till the next blog perhaps.

Giving, through teaching, is probably the most important activity one can undertake, the passing on of one’s know-how, just as I gratefully drank in the words that generous older musicians offered to the youthful me. As fresh as yesterday, but fifty years ago, I remember sitting in an orchestra with that Prince of horn players, Alan Civil. He gently introduced me to appropriate phrasings for the classical repertoire: invaluable And he was one of many. Therefore, until my personal Last Trumpet sounds, I will follow that track, continuing to be a musician working and giving, and not a person just waiting.

I think I will stop here. Once more to the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. Spring has definitely sprung, the violets and cowslips are astonishing this year, the birds have been very vocal today and I know there will stars in a clear sky tonight. “Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” (How beautiful is that! I first heard it in a cramped schoolroom with 50 other boys some 64 years ago. Thank you, whoever taught that class! You gave and I have never forgotten.)



One thought on “The Paved Road

  1. Hi Howard, I am currently writing my dissertation on your brass band piece, Gallery, and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions?


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