The Dunblane Chamber Orchestra met up on Sunday afternoon, not to rehearse, but just to play music for fun. We played Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Haydn 6, his Trumpet Concerto, Fauré’s Pavanne, and Mozart 32. Great fun indeed. Mozart 32 is fantastic. It is not so much a symphony as an extended overture, in the Italian style. Its development section is out of this world. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t had the viola out of its case since we performed Schubert 2 in June. I could easily have opened the case to find the Archinto Strad had vanished, and I would be like the Glasgow boy having to explain himself to his teacher: “The dug ett i’.” But in fact the viola was there; it was even, more or less, in tune. And I was even able, more or less, to negotiate the notes. I suppose if you have put in the 10,000 hours, something of the muscle memory remains. I heard last week on the radio a report of a study that suggested that the vocabulary of people who studied a foreign language at school decades ago remained as extensive as that of recent school leavers. That suggests to me a lesson about hobbies and pastimes: never give anything up. Unless, for one reason or another, you have to.
New Year is supposed to be the time for resolution, but I prefer to be resolved for September, because it is the start of Martinmas, the “new term”, the academic year, and I’ve never been able to lose the habit of thinking in terms of “terms” even if, thank heaven, I have no academic commitments. There is a character in a Graham Greene novel – is it Fowler in The Quiet American, or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, or Bendrix in The End of the Affair, or Query in A Burnt Out Case, who remarks, with evident self-loathing, “At the time, I still took my future seriously.” They always have peculiar names, these Greene characters, awkward, uncomfortable names befitting a square peg in a round hole. Once you stop taking your future seriously, you abandon hope. If you abandon hope, you abandon resolution. So, as Abe said, “We hereby highly resolve…”
There are seven things I try to do every day. I start with a muttered consecration, a prayer of dedication if you will. I read something; I write something; I play a musical instrument; I speak a foreign language; I get some exercise; seventhly, and perhaps more nebulously, I try to get outside of myself and attempt something generous. All of these things are easy, with the exception of the seventh. It is the seventh one which I fail to do most often. I am haunted by that story in the Gospels. “I was hungry and you fed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you visited me…” I haven’t carried out too many prison visitations recently. I’m bad at hospitality. Yesterday the minister in Dunblane Cathedral, who has a mischievous sense of humour, said “Guests are like fish. They go off after about three days.” Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t taken in any Ukrainian refugees. I send money to salve my conscience. Then I say, “Don’t beat yourself up. You had an entire career tending the sick and needy. How many times did you get up in the night? Anything now would just be virtue-signalling – ‘cold as charity’.”
It doesn’t work.
Then there are the bucket lists. You really must learn Wagner’s Ring Cycle! You really must read Proust! You really must master Maxwell’s equations! (As you can see, I’m not exactly a bundle of laughs.) But actually, I’ve largely dispensed with bucket lists. Or at least I’ve whittled them down to one thing only. I’ve lodged a book with the publisher (thereby hangs a tale), and I have another on the stocks. This is the extent of my bucket list – finish the next tome. It is a benison, to know what one is supposed to be about.
So here I am. I may be holed up in my citadel, in company with my hostages bitterness, acidie, and self-recrimination, but I can still hear the tinny voice through the megaphone of the negotiator outside: “James, you still have a future. Come out with your hands in the air.”
Or, as a character of mine remarked in Cobra, “The curtain has not come down on the opera, Sir Sphagnum, until you have heard the aria of the obese contralto.”