I was at an elderly relative’s house recently. Someone had been helping her clear out old cupboards. Rescued from the debris was a stack of old piano music, some of it still inscribed with the names of people who were born when Queen Victoria ruled an empire. Slices of social history from an era before television, when a family made its own entertainment around the piano, or the ‘ol joanna’ as one London great-aunt used to call it. Some sheets evoked an image of elegant couples dancing foxtrots or waltzes to the sound of big bands with massed saxophones. The words shone a spotlight on an era that is passing from memory.
‘Here we are, out of cigarettes, / holding hands and yawning, look how late it gets, / Two sleepy people, by dawn’s early light, / And too much in love to say “Goodnight.”’
An image of innocence formed in my mind; young lovers in a past so distant that unmarried cohabitation was unthinkable.
Then one thin, folded compilation caught my eye; on the cover a cartoon showed a British soldier sitting on an ammunition box, tin hat at a rakish angle, waving a torch as he apparently sang along with the music inside. Copyright 1940. At least, I think that’s what MDCCCCXL means. Certainly, the songs were of the era when courage and defiance seemed to be the watermark of the British soul.
‘There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover…’
No one will ever pay me to play a piano. In fact, when music I’ve never tried is being passed around, people learn only to ask me once. A tight, polite smile stretches over the listeners’ faces, cracked by the odd wince as I massacre another chord. But hey, ho, this stuff was too good leave unplayed, so I propped it on the piano and started.
‘There will always be an England…’
Have you ever felt that an audience was with you? I mean, totally with you, carrying you, urging you on?
‘And that England shall be free…’
Around me, querulous, reedy voices found a power they hadn’t felt since before the old King died. Their enthusiasm filled me with confidence. I even started playing better. Well, at least the noise drowned the mistakes.
‘If England means as much to you as England means to me…’
More! More! We were on a roll. A ninety-two year old clapped her hands over her head before her voice faltered at the memory of the dashing young Major she’d married in 1943.
‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…’
I turned as the singing faded into sniffs behind me, and in the dewy eyes of the older generation, I saw the ones they’ll meet again, some sunny day.
You can have too much of a good thing. Now where did I put that Flanders and Swann album?
[article first posted on Litopia.com]