Do you have a motto?
Not as such, answers pianist Stephen Hough in Rough Ideas, Reflections on Music and More (Faber & Faber, 2019), but he offers as “a precept shadowing my life”: Everything matters; nothing matters.
I can see how this self-evident paradox might be useful to a concert pianist, indeed to a performer of any kind. When you study the score, when you practise at the keyboard, every note is significant, and you must research its individual meaning. You deal in minutiae; you “sweat the small stuff”. But when you finally walk out on stage in front of an audience, you have to let it all go, otherwise you will be paralysed amid a welter of detail. You have to take a step back, and see the whole picture. If you like, rehearsal is an act of differentiation down to infinitesimals; performance is an act of integration back to the whole. (This last simile is mine; Mr Hough, despite being a polymath, flunked math.)
When I read his motto, I was reminded of something that the six times world snooker champion Steve Davis once said – and again it’s all about performance. When you walk out into the Crucible Theatre to contest the world championship (and here I paraphrase from memory), you have to think that performing, and winning, means everything to you, and yet that it matters not one whit. In other words, it’s all about relaxation, calmness, and serenity. You have already done all the hard work during the thousands of hours of practice. Now you must deliberately remove all that intricate knowledge from your frontal lobes and consign it to what we sometimes call “muscle memory”, but which our neurologists tell us is really “basal ganglia memory”. You are on automatic pilot. You are “in the zone”. This allows your conscious mind to operate on a higher plane.
All well and good for Mr Davis and Mr Hough, but, having retired from the concert halls of Europe, Everything matters; nothing matters won’t do for me. I fell to thinking, do I have a motto? Actually I was asked this very question on a blog-site I think after the publication of Click, Double-Click, and I answered in an off-hand way, as if it were inconsequential, qua favourite colour, signature dish, Beatles or Dylan, and so on. I chose the last line of the Desiderata – Strive to be happy. Funnily enough, Stephen Hough doesn’t think striving to be happy is such a good idea. It is better to strive for a higher purpose, and maybe you will be surprised by happiness along the way. On the whole I think I accept that. Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
So what to choose? The old school motto? Not the unofficial one – it wuznae me – but the real thing: Spero meliora. I hope for better things. The irony of Spero meliora only occurred to me after I’d left a school that rather resembled an open-plan state penitentiary. It presupposes an existing state of disadvantage. It is inherently crestfallen. Hope, on this occasion, sounds more like fortitude.
When I left, and went up to University, I inherited two mottoes, that of the Alma Mater, Via Veritas Vita, and, courtesy of the University Air Squadron, that of the RAF, Per Ardua ad Astra. The latter is not unlike Spero meliora, if heartier and more energetic. Scramble, chaps. Via, Veritas, Vita clearly has Christian origins which, if forgotten, would render the motto characterless – any way, any truth, any life.
And I’ve always been puzzled by the jingle attached to the City of Glasgow Coat of Arms, that we were taught from the earliest age:
There’s the tree that never grew,
There’s the bird that never flew,
There’s the fish that never swam,
There’s the bell that never rang.
Just how desperate is that?
So what about something closer to home? A clan motto? Rob Roy’s is that of a man with a massive chip on his shoulder. MacGregor, despite them!
Despite whom? We may find a clue in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, when Alan Breck Stewart of Appin chances upon Robin Oig MacGregor of Balquidder, youngest son of Rob Roy.
“Mr Stewart, I am thinking,” said Robin.
“Troth, Mr MacGregor, it’s not a name to be ashamed of,” answered Alan.
“I did not know ye were in my country, sir,” says Robin.
“It sticks in my mind that I am in the country of my friends the MacLarens,” says Alan.
It’s these pesky MacLarens, who insisted on taking precedence before the MacGregors in the church at Balquidder. Their motto is Creag an Tuirc – the rock of the boar – a promontory high above the Kirk at Balquidder overlooking Loch Voil, and the rallying point for the clan. In addition to the motto they have a Crest, a Coat of Arms, and I’m particularly fond of the Badge:
A mermaid proper, her tail part up ended Argent, holding in her dexter hand a spray of laurels paleways Vert and in her dexter hand a looking glass Proper, mounted Gules.
You can quite see why Ernst Stavro Blofeld fell for all this heraldry stuff in OHMSS. On the whole it bored Bond stiff, although he was amused to learn his family motto was “The World is not Enough.” It seems apposite.
But as the autumn leaves begin to fall, Michaelmas term is fast upon us. (If you have spent any time at all in academia you never really lose the habit of thinking in terms.) The start of the academic year is more of a fresh start than is January 1st. My father used to say, “Very important year, this.” He said it every year so I guess every year was equally important. Maybe he was right. I used to draw up lists of resolutions, the longer the list, the more fantastical the resolutions. Now I’ve gone quite the other way, not, I hope, because my horizons have narrowed, nor even because I’ve become more realistic, but rather because I want to focus. I want to pare everything down.
Motto of the year commencing…
I choose words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover.
Sheer plod makes plough down sillion
For the purpose of the Coat of Arms, I might make it as brief as possible. Sheer Plod is my motto.
Hang in there.