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JTS columns from the Guardian newspaper

26. Knock on Wood

Why did the new, strange, exciting, syncopated ragti
me 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 e
mbraces 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 clai
m 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 co
mposition "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 Mozart.)

One day last autu
mn 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 har
monies 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 lifeti
me 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

On board 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 books..."

He wouldn't like it. He didn't like "Olly Olly mistletoe, sit the baby on the po, when he's done, wipe his bu
m, Olly Olly mistletoe", chanted all round Port Vale school playground; he's dropped the name. Prickly too about my over-written letters from home.

"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 Midship
man. 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 Mu
m'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
might help.

"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)


Jack Trevor Story's texts copyright ©  the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.


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