Saturday, 19 March 2011

Drowning in Praise

I used to learn to play the piano from a person called Mrs Remnant. I would go to her house each Wednesday afternoon and run through my pieces, and she would tell me how to fix the bits where I was going wrong. It's surprising remembering those lessons - and, especially, Mrs Remnant herself, (indeed, even her marvellous name) - to realise that, although it seems just a moment ago, my past is already something out of history.

One thing that makes it almost historic, I think, is the fact that I went off to Mrs Remnant's by myself, even though I was only 10 and the area where Mrs Remnant lived was, while not dangerous, certainly less than completely salubrious - it was on one of those gritty, truck-swept roads running north-south through West London, a house which found itself at the end of a terrace not through design but because where its neighbour had once been there was now a hole. This was in the 1960s, but I suppose that hole might well have been created by a wartime bomb.

Then there was the system of entrance, which surely suggested a more trusting attitude than might be the norm today: all you had to do was put your hand through the letterbox and feel about for a brass key that hung just inside on a hairy bit of string. Then into the narrow, dusty hallway you would go and up the stairs, covered in threadbare carpet, to a tiny sitting-room full of worn furniture and sallow plants.

In one corner of the sitting-room sat Mr Remnant - or perhaps he was Captain or Major Remnant; I don't recall that detail. There was a rug across his knees no matter what the weather, and he never spoke in my presence, although he smiled in an amiable way. He wasn't looking at his surroundings though; his eyes were fixed elsewhere, on some distant point of memory -  probably, I realise now, he was another bit of war damage, like that void in the street outside.

In the opposite corner stood what I was there for - a well-worn upright piano, complete with Mrs Remnant already at the keyboard. As I entered, she would lean round the edge of the thing and greet me with a cheerful games mistress grin and a hearty, Joyce Grenfellesque, 'Hello.' Even if I was late or forgot my music, she was never put out, never vexed. She was probably one of the nicest people I've ever known.

Recalling the details of her appearance now, I can see what I couldn't see then - that Mrs Remnant was already a creature in danger of extinction. Not much more than a mile away, Vivienne Westwood had opened Granny Takes a Trip a couple of years earlier, but Mrs Remnant showed no sign of being aware of this. All the time I knew her, she always wore the same skirt, which was made of pale tweed - 'Such an enduring material, tweed, ' I remember my grandmother (who, incidentally was not of the trip-taking kind either) saying - and which she teamed with leather lace-up shoes and a parade of alternating although remarkably similar and simple 'blouses', plus a cardigan - preferably hand knitted - over the top on cold days.  (The skirt was actually part of a suit, but the jacket only came out when we had to go to Kensington for music exams.)

Mrs Remnant's hair was fair and rather wiry. The top part of it was pulled back with a comb or a clip and the rest hung loose almost to her shoulders. I think she may have had a brooch of filigree gold with a couple of pearls on it, but that was her only bit of jewellery so far as I could tell. She did have a reliable looking watch  - fairly important when you're charging by the hour - but she did not wear it on her wrist. Instead, she placed it on the music stand, propped up beside whatever I was playing.

 Even at the time - and despite the fact that she displayed unfailing good humour - I could tell that Mrs Remnant's circumstances were not particularly easy. Various things told me this, most especially the fact that, beneath the piano's most regularly used pedal, the carpet had completely worn out, leaving a hole through which the boards could be seen.

Mrs Remnant laughed about that and told me how a pupil had promised to make a little rug for her to cover it with but somehow had never got around to it. There was no trace of resentment in her tone as she recounted this story, and it was probably that lack of rancour that gave me the impulse to try to remedy the problem myself.

I wonder how many other pupils reacted in the same way that I did, immediately persuading their parents to buy canvas, a hook and enough black and white wool to fashion a rug with the pattern of a treble clef and a couple of bars of music on it - and how many then, like me, after setting feverishly to work, got distracted and never quite managed to finish the project. Are there dozens of half-finished bits of carpet for Mrs Remnant mouldering in landfills all over west London?

Never mind. It was not that rug, but something else entirely that started me thinking about dear old Mrs R. Strangely, it was something I read in The Merry-Go-Round-in-the-Sea. It was an exchange between the main character, a small boy called Rob, and his friend's father, who rescues him after he falls overboard from his boat:

"'You didn't do that very well,' said Kenny Beaton's father, whose boat it was.
'No,' said Rob, shivering in his wet clothes. 'I know I didn't.'

That conversation between man and child struck a chord with me (excuse the musical terminology, in the context of music lessons). It seemed to me to come from a very different era to the one we live in.  It reflected a straightforward no-nonsense way of treating children.

It was the way that Mrs Remnant treated me and my efforts to master the piano. Just as Mr Beaton didn't pretend to Rob that he hadn't been rather hopeless, Mrs Remnant never pretended that I was doing particularly well.  Although encouraging and enthusiastic, she never flattered me or gave me false hope about my non-existent talents, telling me only if I'd improved, without ever suggesting that I would ever be really good.

That didn't bother me at all. We both understood that genius was a rarity and there were other things involved besides being always the very, very best. As far as I was concerned - and I think Mrs Remnant would have agreed with this - Mrs Remnant and I were engaged in the slow demanding task of making me a competent piano player. There was no need to hint at glory. It was skill not art that we were aiming for.

Funnily enough, (or perhaps there is a pattern of incompetent but pathetically eager lack of talent emerging here),when I tried to learn tennis I had a similar experience to the one I'd had at the keyboard with Mrs R. No-one tried to pull the wool over my eyes and pretend that I was actually okay at the game. In fact, at one of the schools I was at for a bit, they even went so far as to tell me that I was the worst tennis player they'd ever seen, (not unfairly, I should add - think a female Frank Skinner, minus beret, plus racquet, and you begin to get a faint idea of my on-court hopelessness).

But that was then - it would be a brave teacher indeed who would dare to make such a statement to a pupil today. Such naked truth cannot be spoken to students in the modern world. Like all the children in Garrison Keilor's Lake Woebegon, every infant these days has to be 'above average'.

The trouble is, while this policy may build self-esteem in the short-term - although I am even doubtful about that, since I believe children are pretty astute when it comes to assessing their own abilities, regardless of what they are told - it cannot fail to end in disappointment. Eventually the majority of people, however well they've been brainwashed, will discover that they are in fact average - or even a bit below - and that they have been set up and misled by well-meaning adults. Having been encouraged since infancy to believe that success is the only worthwhile option, that a glamorous life is the only one to strive for, what will they feel when they see at last that the pinnacles of success and glamour may never actually be within their reach?

Instead of creating false expectations, would we not be wiser to spend our time introducing our children to the pleasures of hard-won achievement? Instead of urging them to grab all the glittering prizes, might it not be better to show them the pleasure of perseverance and trying to master something hard?

Despite having no illusions about my playing, I still love hammering away at the keyboard (the neighbours only complain sometimes) and trying to get a ball to rise over the net and sail into some part of the marked court on the other side, rather than the bushes - and I also get huge pleasure from watching people who play piano or tennis superlatively; I feel the kind of awed admiration at their talent that comes from firsthand understanding of exactly how hard what they are doing really is.

I don't dream of stepping up onto the podium or of collecting prizes. While acknowledging that what I am working on is probably a passage that Mozart not only mastered but actually composed himself before the age of six, I do not dream of anything more than playing the thing with a little more fluency - and I get a lot of satisfaction when I sometimes manage to do so.

Rather than instilling in our children the idea that they will all be roaring successes, might it not be better to teach them that - as Robert Louis Stevenson put it wisely (although, some might argue, rather  miserably) - their 'business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in good spirits'?  It may be an approach that contributes in the long run to the sum of human happiness even though, at first glance, it probably seems a little grim.


  1. P.S Today's thought for the day at Books, Inq. expresses things better than me, of course:

    'Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right or better.'
    - John Updike, born on this date in 1932


  2. How lovely to read about Mrs Remnant and her piano lessons.A well composed tale.

  3. What she lost in tennis she won in love

  4. I bet neither of you would actually take me on for a real-world tennis game - or listen to 1 minute of me playing Chopin's Minute waltz (performance time from me=six hours [errors and restarts extra])