Monday, 26 March 2012


Wednesday 28 March
The comedian Arthur Smith is sunning himself on his small patch of lawn beside the service entrance roadway into his 1930s South London apartment block which Hitler admired. We discuss the forthcoming Shakespeare Birthday celebration in Southwark Cathedral on Monday 23 April at two-thirty (as the Chinaman said to the dentist). This year's theme is Dickens and it becomes clear as we talk that the Victorian novelist rescued The Bard from perpetual down-marketing. He used to put on plays with his friends and family every year on Shakespeare's birthday like we do. The singing cellist is taking part too. Arthur shows concern for her condition. He too once spent a week with a tube up his nose he tells me. It is ten years since his own stay in intensive care which is another event to commemorate.   

Saturday 24 March 
The singing cellist is home from the hospital for the weekend. She has a rehearsal, so we pack her instrument into its coffin-like case and take the bus to St Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, where the Centre for Young Musicians’(CYM) is giving its annual concert. The college is on the other side of town but the CYM director gets the venue cheap, because he is also the organist. This makes him successor to Thomas Tallis, the Father of English Music, who is buried in St Algfege’s with his wife Joan. He died in 1585 aged 80 which impressed his contemporaries, one of whom wrote in a brass plaque :

'He served long tyme in Chappell with great prayse
Fower Soveregnes Reygnes (a thing not often sene)
I mean King Henry and Prince Edwards Dayes
Quene Mary and Elizabeth our Quene’

 This is fixed to the wall in the south-west corner of the church next to an ancient organ console behind a glass screen, presumed to contain pipes which Tallis himself used. A notice draws attention to the fact that the D key is more worn than the others, but offers no explanation beyond hinting that D, perhaps, was as supreme with the Tudors as C with us. D to D on the white notes is minor and modal, invariably producing a dark, melancholy flavour. Another note also says that the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth grew up in Greenwich and would have come to church at St Alfege’s.

The head of strings makes frantic calls to absent members of the cello ensemble. They arrive in dribs and drabs. A cellist I remember as a treble has grown to exceed six foot. He wafts by, a girl on each arm and the sophisticated whiff of tobacco smoke in his wake. I wander among the dead while they rehearse. General Wolfe was brought back here after his ‘glorious death’ at the age of 32 on the heights above Quebec having ‘won Canada for the Empire’. General Gordon, who was assassinated in Khartoum was baptised here in 1833. Conrad Dinwiddy ‘fell’ in France in 1917, aged 36. He had invented the Dinwiddy Rangefinder and a slide rule for field firing, but, I thought, neither did him much good in the end.

We walk to Greenwich Park through standstill traffic, frustrated drivers fuming through their windscreens. I have a recollection of walking here holding my father’s enormous hand fifty years ago. Six foot four, he stood and I have never outgrown him, though I stand a chance now that he is shrinking down to my height with age. I in turn hold the singing cellist’s tiny hand though hers has shrunk with anorexia. We sit on a bench while the sun goes down and Mrs Jones makes her way to us with a picnic. The singing cellist doesn’t eat hungrily, but neither does she resist my urging to finish her sandwiches like she used to. She even has a sense of humour. Passing a sweet shop in Greenwich with minutes to spare before the concert, she says, ‘Although I’m an anorexic, I think I’ll just pop in here for a moment.’ She eats nothing indulgent herself but she loves poring over food which other people are going to eat.

The concert is impressive although most at some point give away their youth and inexperience in aberrant tuning or insensitivity to balance. The only group which is completely and obliviously professional is the Theodora Piano Trio who perform two movements from Bruch’s Op83 Acht Stücke, forgetting their individual selves entirely and feeding off one central collective intelligence