Why did the new, strange, exciting,
syncopated ragtime music offend polite society in the early 1890s? Not because it
erupted in the brothel (Elmer! What are you whistling and where did you hear it?) but for the
same bowel-deep reasons
that all demotic art upsets the God-endowed. They feel they are being got
at. You come to recognise that uncertain smile of appreciation.
"And now why don't you play something really serious?" means that humour
and humus are too close for comfort.
The well-mannered atheist is easy-going but the Christian who embraces God rejects the
molecule. The rhythm of life
goes on, planets cycle, the flower dies. Mrs Manson-Cleaver goes back to
the Makers for the second time round. The next best thing is an open car
on a sunny day. There is a good deal of spirituality just now on the
cross-country road between Biggleswade, Potton and St Ives, what with the
half-grown corn and the
mustard in yellow blossom.
"There's my first poppy!" we cried together, whistle twice, I claim first letter in the post office.
The private fear of any sensitive
motorist - good driving starts
where the Highway Code stops - is that one day he'll meet himself driving
swiftly in the opposite direction. The really unnerving thing for me would
be if it were a different car. Everybody has a double, but which is the
real you and is he on his way to something better? Lying alone in a
darkened room and playing the record, is he a reincarnation of Scott
Joplin, the tragic negro piano classic regicist?
"The sensitive, introspective features revealed by portraits of Joplin
perfectly reflect the character of his music. A pervasive sense of
lyricism infuses his work, and even at his most high-spirited, he cannot
repress a hint of melancholy or adversity..."
Anyone who finds his composition "Maple Leaf Rag" an occasion for happy feet will do better
to get back to the simple,
more easily graspable emotions of symphony, concerto and fugue; where rain
is played on the xylophone, thunder on the timpani and the late Boris
Karloff is banging on his coffin-lid in straightforward C-sharp minor.
(Hope: we are taking the
mickey out of people who leave their door wide open when they play
One day last autumn when I had lost
my home and didn't know where to find it, a wraith-like figure came
walking out of the mists. It was, of course, Whispering Paul McDowall.
"Play this whenever you feel the pain," he whispered.
Ever since then people have been telephoning, sorry to trouble me but
anxious to know, what was that haunting music? It was "Scott Joplin Piano
Rags" played by Joshua Rifkin on Nonesuch H-71248 Stereo. It sounds like
Rachmaninoff with a beat, a hurdy-gurdy with a soul, a man sitting alone
in a large, empty hall playing to his God.
Whether the subtle, poignant quality of the music, the melody shifting,
repeating, inverting and reprising in its harmonies from movement to
movement, strident major, sobbing minor, lies in Joplin's composing or
Rifkin's playing or in its harrowing association with
my comatose hours of remembered sunlight
is not easy to decide. The indications are that the recording has a
certain esoteric appeal; people don't go to a funeral and afterwards ring
up to inquire after the décor. Sadness is a secret society.
When they played the
most moving rag, "The Entertainer" during the interval at the Everyman,
nobody seemed surprised to see a woman running for the exit. If I could
persuade old James to play it on Maggie's dictaphone it
might do more than a book.
During his lifetime Scott Joplin's
music was acclaimed only by the passionate few. He died at 48, deranged and
rejected, in Manhattan State Hospital
on April Fool's day, 1917, the week after I was born.
The other thing the skilled driver thinks about is how his brother is
getting on in Australia.
S.S. Esperance Bay, 18 July 1928:
"Dear Mum and All: Just a line or two to let you know the boat is still
afloat. We reach Port Said tomorrow evening where the real hot weather
starts. I've two pals, both Public School men, so I'm not lonely. There is
a very mixed crowd on board, mostly Scotch, but they are a very cheery
lot. I think this is about all for now. Hope you are jogging along
alright. Love, Olly."
While some broke speed records, played polo, flew the Atlantic and hung on
to the Empire, the rest of us jogged along. I expect Olly's an Australian
by this time. Nobody has seen him since he left 45 years ago, except
(wouldn't you know?) Marie-Annikke in her round-the-world search for
Richard. The letter came from Perth.
"I am meeting your big brother Jimmy. He would like to try one of your
He wouldn't like it. He didn't like "Olly Olly mistletoe, sit the baby on
the po, when he's done, wipe his bum, Olly Olly mistletoe", chanted all round Port Vale school playground; he's
dropped the name. Prickly too about
my over-written letters from
"Re. Jack. After reading his last letter I really think, if you could
spare him for a year or two it would be best for him to go into either the
Air Force or the Navy as a Midshipman. If he doesn't go in early I think he will regret it later as I
have. Still jogging..."
Looking at these old letters in Mum's
shoe box, the ink faded to brown, cut by their own folds, I realise that
I've given our little French friend a bum steer. Baptist chapel, Toc-H,
Boy's Life Brigade; Olly wouldn't know where Richard is.
Keep driving and all roads lead to Brussels. Richard's original plan was
to give Maggie a room on the next floor. That means there's probably an
empty room up there. The phantom piano strikes again, the little snore
falters... Old Aunty Celia
"If it were me, I would come back to you," Celia said, unashamedly,
before flying to join the outpost. "There's not
many men in your life who love you and want to
marry you and share everything
they've got and leave you comfortably off - even if you only think they're not too bad."
This is a possible bridgehead surely? I should have totally recalled that
conversation before. Isn't it funny? Till you write it down you don't know
what's happened. Maggie used to hate
me calling her a boy, for
instance. You have to get used to that with fenmen; boy, mate, old 'un.
Re. Maggie. I'll try to write about her in greater depth.
(The Guardian, Saturday 23 June 1973)