I’ve had a very violinistic week. Last Saturday in Glasgow Nicola Benedetti played the Elgar concerto; on Friday night in Milngavie Tasmin Little played unaccompanied works for “The Naked Violin”, and on Saturday, again in Glasgow, James Ehnes played the Beethoven. Nicola was terrific, Tasmin wonderful, and James sublime beyond comprehension. I wondered why somebody as distinguished as Tasmin Little should choose to play in an obscure church in Milngavie. Maybe she heard Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour say that the nation’s happiest women live in East Dunbartonshire. But then Ms Little’s community outreach programme has taken her into a maximum security prison so maybe it isn’t such a leap.
These three wonderful exponents made me think about facility. (Chambers – facility ease in performance or action: fluency.) In terms of violin technique, they all have it in spades. The thing about facility is that, if you don’t have it, you admire those who do and you know that they have been blessed with a miraculous gift. Yet it seems to me that so often, those who have it are quite indifferent; they fail to realise they possess anything. Ms Benedetti puts it all down to hard work. Her work ethic is well known. Her Majesty has even expressed the wish, with great solicitude, that she not work too hard. Ms Benedetti herself has said she needs to keep practising to stay on top, but she has been known to admit, grudgingly, that she might have a grain of talent. The thing is that facility is not recognised by its possessors as a positive attribute; it is taken for granted as merely the absence of something negative such as clumsy ineptitude.
Aeons ago, at a crossroads outside Thebes, I had the opportunity to become a professional viola player. I was a jobbing viola player, of the sort that is the butt of jokes, melding with the furniture somewhere in the background. Oom pah pah oom pah pah. I was “serviceable”. “Serviceable” is an expression Sir Simon Rattle uses to describe the Barbican, prelude to his advocacy of a new concert hall for London. I could practise all I liked but I would never be playing Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante up front with Benedetti or Little or Ehnes. So, without regret, the life of the professional musician for me became the road not travelled. Just as well. Nowadays the standards among professional musicians are so high that they could all come up front and play a concerto. I had neither the temperament nor the facility.
Sometimes I rail against my own maladroitness. When I wrap a Christmas present the cellotape curls over on itself and becomes a useless fankle. I type carelessly on this very keyboard and then blame Word for all the misprints. I usually incur an occupational injury undertaking the meanest household chore. DIY flat packs? Don’t get me started. There’s something deeply seductive about succumbing to rage. I could be Charles Foster Kane, systematically tearing the contents of a room to bits. It’s a frenzied protest against the sullen intractability of things. Why won’t things do as they’re told? I’ll teach things a thing or two. Rage is destructive; most of all it is self-destructive.
I hope I have been more careful with people than with things. As a doctor, after I’d put in my ten thousandth suture, I suppose I had gained a degree of – dare I say it – facility. Maybe Ms Benedetti was right after all; it’s the ten thousand hours of practice that matter. Yet it helps if you are not always going against the grain. It is not merely having the facility that is the boon. If you combine the talent with the desire, if you have the desire to develop the talent through hard work, that is the true blessing.
I was a one talent man. I had a facility with words. Reading this, you may wish to disagree. I sound like Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, with regard to the pianoforte. “I could have been a great proficient!” Perhaps I’m like one of these people on Britain’s Got Talent with a tuneless whine of a voice who insists his destiny is the Big Time; Simon Cowell shakes his head (No! No!!!) and tells him to get off. In my final year at school I had a wonderful English teacher who gave me great encouragement but was exasperated by my insouciance. He waved my essay in front of my face. “This stuff – it’s nearly publishable!” Ah. Slain by the morganatic compliment. “You don’t seem to care!” I was indifferent to my own facility. For a time I despised the arts. I wanted to enter the Pythagorean School and be privy to the secrets of science as expressed in the runes of chemical and mathematical symbols. I experienced the deep jealousy which I now believe was endemic within the late twentieth century artistic community. In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski asserts that the intellectual leadership of the world now rests with scientists. C. P. Snow, a polymath who bestrode the twin boulevards of art and science as well as the Corridors of Power, would criticise his artistic friends because they didn’t know what the Second Law of Thermodynamics stated. He said that men of science had “the future in their bones”. The distinguished Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis couldn’t stand this. He composed an anti-Snow polemic and tore him apart. Snow could have expressed his central idea more cogently but there is no doubt that he struck a nerve. He certainly struck a chord with me. I read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and decided to become a doctor. Meanwhile I sat the exam for the Civil Service and went down to Whitehall to take part in table-top workshops with chaps from Haberdashers and Eton. The mandarins asked me what I wanted to do and I said I was thinking of going to Med School. Amazingly enough, they didn’t say, “So what the hell are you doing here?” They were very kind. I visited Guys and Barts and made enquiries. I must have had a degree of chutzpah because it actually looked like a forlorn hope. But I did indeed follow in the footsteps of Maugham’s character Philip Carey – in rather more ways than I would have wished. At the time, when things were looking a bit unhopeful, I wrote a piece of verse. Well, call it doggerel. It’s dire; I sound like a poseur out of a tragedy by Sophocles and the first line is a self-conscious snatch from Aristotle. Yet I reproduce it now, because at least it accurately reflects the mind set of somebody who felt himself to be lost.
I went to the poets, tragic, dithyrambic
And vouchsafed my service in lieu of the world;
Sat by a cloister and sang riddles, iambic
Pentameters meet for a banner unfurled.
They listened – mine was a face bent on smiling
Upon them, but theirs were all hoary and grey.
They clapped softly, found my tales faintly beguiling,
Wondered if really they weren’t quite au fait.
Impatient I glanced down the valley below us
Where rivers of blood burst their banks without slake.
I questioned my teachers on whence these streams flow as
They broadened and merged in a great crimson lake.
They told me the source of all suffering torment
And pointed out where its sour fruit reached the sea.
I looked long and hard without venturing comment
For deep haze had hid the horizon from me.
I left these old poets and went down the mountain,
Greeted the world by the riverside
Where men without faces, bedrenched in a fountain
Of blood, rescued souls from the incoming tide.
I rolled up my sleeves and stepped forward to aid them
But one put his hand on my shoulder and said
“You’re one of the poets and you have betrayed them.
“Retrace your steps to the summit’s head.
“I knew you at once” – he ignored my dejection –
“Perceived your apartness and knew you couldn’t stay.
“Step forward and look at your crimson reflection.
“Look! Can’t you see you’re all hoary and grey?
“But don’t touch that redness, or sure it will kill you
“For you were not meant to raise life from this mirk.
“Go back to your soul-searching – harmless, I will you” –
Suppressing a snigger, a smile, wont to lurk.
I shrank back, betook myself up from this deepness,
Stumbling, a man heaving so many chains,
Came back to my mountain but, awed by its steepness,
Faced me about, and went out to the plains.
Things got better after that. I went to Edinburgh Medical School. In a flash, forty years later, I’d hung up my stethoscope. Although the business of fishing bodies out of a crimson lake had been all-encompassing, I never stopped scribbling. I hope I never really buried my one talent. I’m immensely fortunate that I got another bite at the cherry, and actually published something that was “nearly publishable”.
I think it was Doris Lessing who said that the problem for a writer is not how to write, but how to live. My English teacher was kind to me about my ability to string two words together, but I knew myself that what I’d written was worthless, because I knew nothing about life. I was like poor wheelchair-bound Chatterley in Lady C who wrote clever stuff for the London literati. But, said Lawrence dismissively, it was nothing. I had to go and do a bit of living.
I expect these musicians with phenomenal techniques feel the same. It doesn’t matter how much facility you have, if you have nothing to say. Mstislav Rostropovich took a cello masterclass and, having listened to a young cellist with such a technique, he conducted a thought experiment in which he had the cellist open an imaginary, expensively beautiful and gorgeous bag. “Look!” – it was very cruel – “There’s nothing in it!” I don’t think Slava should have said that. He should have considered that he might have been wrong.
For myself, facility or not, I’m going to carry on wrestling the best of three falls with words. It’s a life sentence. I will take my inspiration from Lord Tennyson, me with my outworn buried tools.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.