Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Au Piano; a painting based on shame

Au Piano, Oil on Canvas, 2004

I used to play the 'cello. No, that's a lie: I didn't really play: I had 'cello lessons, for which I did the sparest preparation imaginable and to say I played is to glorify beyond all sense the bestial noises my bow produced.

Miss Jones taught me. Her hair was red and curly and pinkish. She hitched her skirt up to play; you could see her large bare pink thighs: fatty. I think she was highly sexed; Jaqueline du Pre in Aberdeen: she had that physical energy.

She had tremendous enthusiasm, always overjoyed to see me for reasons that I now realise were only partly commercial, and mainly a product of genuine affection. But I found the enthusiasm oppressive, given that my lessons were always marked by my feelings of guilt: when I entered he room she would ask me how much practice I'd done: half an hour a day was what I was supposed to do: I stood there in my corduroy trousers, fibbing, an embarrassed 10 year old. I'd never done more than five minutes.

I went to the lessons when other pupils had Religion. I was naturally drawn to religion, with a strong ability to interpret the scriptures. This deviced from a good analtical curiousity, but also issued from two other mental tendencies- priggishness and compassion: two sides of the same coin. I harboured a romantic, secret ambition to be a priest and ‘cello lessons were an interference. But every Friday I dutifully crossed the black tarmac of the playground up the steps of the pre-fabricated music block of the school to receive my lesson and fulfill my commitment.

My mother paid for the lessons writing cheques for tiny sums (the lessons were then subsidized by the Aberdeen council, and the use of the cello was too*). My mother always had this earnestness. She was unforgiving, you were held to contracts, you'd agree to study 'cello. What made you think you should be allowed to shirk practice? I wanted to stop ‘cello but fear of my mother’s reproaches and guilt at having embarked on the lessons in the first place made it on learning ‘cello conspired to make me timid.

So I continued the lessons somehow imagining that if I quit I'd be disappointing those around me.

It can’t have been in the least pleasant for my mother to hear my desultory practice every afternoon as she prepared dinner in the kitchen with the door open. I once recorded my playing and it was execrable. I listened to the recording only once, in disgusted disbelief.

Another boy joined cello classes. His name was Fergus McTavish. He advanced rapidly at 'cello, learning the necessary techniques with a speed and ease that made me quite disgusted. Miss Jones held a joint lesson for us at Christmas: he played with élan. She asked him how long he practiced each day- he replied sometimes an hour, sometimes two. He even practiced at lunch time. I slunk low, my hot hands burning with shame, buried deep in my corduroy pockets: the boy was brazenly, horrifiyingly keen and had overtaken my playing ability in weeks.

I also played, that Christmas lesson, scraping my bow hideously across the strings. My disgrace was plain. To console me Miss Jones said, “But, of course, Fergus is a year older than you”, a mollification that did not reduce my mortification.**

I matured. I moved to the upper school. I overcame my pusillanimity: I told Miss Jones that I wanted to stop. I remember the moment, I was in the prefabricated block where music was taught and I told her. The lesson before she had enthusing about Wimbledon and was joyful (like many British middle class women she was a keen follower of tennis). She wept: the first woman I’d ever seen or made weep.

Good kind Miss Jones. My shame is threefold: shame that I never did the practice nor had he manliness to end the lessons; deeper shame that I lacked the depth to see and appreciate her affection.

This picture features a dissolute young man and an evangelical music teacher, and takes its inspiration from those experiences. It elides the man I am now with my childhood experience as a music student.

I apologize for the photo. It barely befits me to say that it doesn’t do the painting justice, given that I both took the photo and painted the picture. But it is true: my camera cannot manage strong contrasts of tone or colour in a subject.

*The sort of low cost expenditure which does much to encourage cultural development and pleasure by allowing access to musical training among the poor, but which is much less glamourous than expensive showcase building projects, and therefore tends to get sidelined in local authority budgets.

**I observed at this point a wicked element in my character revealed itself: instead of feeling praise and admiration for Angus, my immediate response to his success was to say to myself, "he is cheating, because he practiced more". I had the notion of that truly admirable successes were effortless, a product of genius, and to accomplish something having worked at it didn’t really count- that was merely a matter of doing the time. In this light, Angus became an imposter. My philosophy contributed to an increasing foppishness as my years advanced, much resembling Delacroix’s Baron Schwiter, developing an obsession with Aubrey Beardsley.

My attitude was a reaction to the rigour and patient energy applied by my immigrant parents to reach respectable positions in public life. I guess it was the sort of rebellion all children must make against their parents so to allow themselves to form an identity. For this too much worthiness is at least as unhelpful to youth as too little (indeed, possibly more unhelpful as it is can justify its own oppressiveness: see James Dean in “Giant”). I still dislike hard work and anything that smells of it: this explains my complete lack of success in the world.

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