Frivolous Monsters

Me, Concert Pianist. Me, Magician.

Some things you don’t know about me include that I once fought a forest fire, at the age of eight I went on the stage, and that I have an incredible amount of trouble with people’s faces. I’m also like a magician when I’m tinkling the ivories, so, think of a number… Magician 500

One of my peculiar issues is that I’ve been confounded, throughout my life, as my brain skews my neighbours into resembling famous people. The pick of these include a beetroot-faced Roy Kinnear over the back, the living embodiment of Desperate Dan who used to live opposite, and on the bend there’s Mary Poppins herself. Like that creepy kid in The Sixth Sense: I see celebrities. And you thought you had problems.

Whilst reading Oliver Sack’s book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat I almost started trying to self-diagnose myself when I found that it includes a chapter on a patient, known as Dr. P, who could not recognise faces at all. Dr. P would talk to fire hydrants believing them to be small children and could also walk right past you, not realising that you were human, as he relied on people to begin talking to be able to work out where, in the room, they were.

It was this facial perception issue that led to the titular incident when Dr. P once tried to pull his wife’s head off whilst believing it to be his hat on a stand.

Aside from seeing celebrities I also have problems recognising people, suffering from a poor short-term memory for faces, and I could easily walk past people I know on the street or equally squint at a dozen random strangers trying to fathom whether they are who I think they might be. The solution I’ve come to live by is that if they look likely, in a place that you’d expect to find them, then I assume they probably are who they are. The context of location, in this equation, is everything.

Three years ago a friend of mine, a graduate of The Royal Northern College of Music, invited me to attend a violin recital she was giving in a local church which holds an annual programme of lunchtime concerts. I arrived to find that it was a popular gig as the foyer was crammed with a hundred and fifty small grey-haired people coming at me from every angle, with their tea-trays and their brittle-bones, and as I dodged out of people’s way I realised that I was taller and half the age of every single one.

The whole scenario reminded me of the late Richard Whiteley’s anecdote about presenting the TV quiz show Countdown in the early days for when he complained to the floor manager about the noise of the studio audience dropping their pencils, as they played along with the quiz, he was informed:

That sound’s not pencils that they’re dropping… Those are their walking sticks!

I think after this that Yorkshire Television instigated a Zimmer frame park.

At the Bolton concert every time I stepped back to move out of the way of someone ambling past who looked very juddery, I nearly knocked over another who’d silently crept up behind me. Then when I turned around to see who I’d nearly hit I’d take out another three with my rucksack. I was a danger to myself and others. Mostly others though.

After the concert I was invited to hang out with the musicians in a city centre pub, where I was royally stiffed on the price of gin, and despite having known my friend for a number of years she poleaxed me when she made the revelation that she had a very famous relative. A very famous individual who I knew suffered a very famous death. And upon this bombshell my brain froze for a moment unable to rationalise how she was ever born – alongside the thought: But… he… died… – in much the same irrational way that you wouldn’t have concern for the antecedents of absolutely anyone upon hearing of the demise with any normal sixty-two year old.

I have come to realise that it mustn’t be so uncommon to find people in the real world who have connections to celebrities. There are, after all, a whole load of them roaming about on red carpets. My own Mother, for example, is godmother to a former Olympic gymnast; another friend revealed, again after a number of years, that he not only knows, but has worked with, the writer Neil Gaiman; and at University I knew an undergraduate who recounted tales of her cousin, a British Soap actor, with who she shared a surname and from whom she suffered a dint in her head where he dropped her as a baby.

Many years later I got to meet her actor sister at a theatre festival and of course couldn’t help but mention her “famous” cousin, and how he must have been a help in her line of work, to find that she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. It very quickly became clear that her sister had made the whole thing up and kept the story going for years. I guess she must see celebrities too.

Aside from my friend’s pub revelation about the identiy of her ancestor there was also the notable incident that night when the guy who’d been giving her piano accompanyment took great amusement when he assumed I was recanting a sexual annecdote, instead of discussing my educational history, when he overheard the clipped comment:

The second time I went to Bangor…

What can I say, he was a whacky guy.

Three years on and my friend returned to give another concert. This time that same pianist wasn’t back, although I was, and this time when I entered I got welcomed in as a member of the band although the locals turned more tricky when I tried to get a drink out of them in the foyer.

I asked the woman how much a cup of coffee was and she told me twenty pence.

I gave her fifty and told her to keep the change.

She said that would be hard as it cost eighty, and that at that price they were still cheaper than Costa.

I didn’t comment that they do a little more than offer coffee granules with hot water decanted from a tartan thermos flask, but gave her a pound and told her, once again, to keep the change. What can I say, I’m a generous guy.

She was most affronted at this, told me she wouldn’t, and found me twenty pence…

Which, I would like to point out, like a great magic trick, was the original number that she first thought of.

My friend’s violin performance was very well received by the knowledgeable local audience. The piano accompaniment went down well too. I know this as whilst milling about afterwards quite a few people came up and shook me by the hand, congratulating me on my performance.

In my own self-deprecating way I would have previously described my piano style as being very much of the Eric Morecambe school in that I could play all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, but now that I’ve mastered my Debussy, my Mozart, and my Elgar I’d describe the main facets of being a really good concert pianist, for a mostly elderly crowd, as being under forty but mostly by standing next to a piano for long enough.

The guy who’d actually entertained them for the past hour was standing a few meters away, but as I was stood nearer to the piano then it turns out that context really is everything.

Sadly the man handing out the appearance fee didn’t make the same mistake.

I kept shaking hands. Magic.

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12 thoughts on “Me, Concert Pianist. Me, Magician.

  1. I often don’t recognise people but that’s because I’m too vain to wear my glasses apart from when I’m driving. I think I might have met somebody like you the other day though as a man I’ve never seen in my life said ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ in the supermarket as if I were a good friend though, thankfully, not good enough to grab me and kiss me on both cheeks as they are apt to do here at the faintest excuse. Of course, I nodded and smiled and asked ‘how are you?’ back because it’s too embarrassing to do anything else but I think I was, for him, in the right context.

    • I haven’t gone that far yet, although I do err on the side of caution. I do wonder if people have clocked me weighing them up, with narrowed eyes, although no-one has ever pointed it out. But there again if they’re offended by my (accidentally) snubbing them then why would they?

  2. Your ending had me laughing – if only standing by the instrument resulted in having a genuine talent for it. I’d sit on the piano all day :)

    That thing about knowing someone who KNOWS someone … I agree there are so many celebs you’d think everyone had a connection, but in actual fact it’s not so often you find these things. My dad went to school with Tim Rice (collaborates with Andrew L-W on musicals etc) but that’s about as far as my connections go.

    And coffee granules+water is so overrated. Parents went to France recently and were charged over 2 euros each for black coffee, having to pay extra for milk. Mad.

    • I will hold my hands up and say it was only three people who came up and shook my hand, but I think it was enough to blow this out of proportion here. I cannot play the piano no matter how close I stood to it.

      I suppose some “celebrities” did go to my school and college, but none whilst I was there, I don’t think. Including, I see now, some girl who was in Hollyoaks. Fame indeed.

      And I have nothing against coffee granules and water, in their place, and as this was a church hall it was all I expected. I didn’t think they’ be so funny about it though as I imagined that all profits went to a “good cause”.

  3. The Man has a similar affliction to you, he encounters many people in his line of work and is such a helpful bloke that everyone thinks they are his mate.

    Wherever we are someone will walk up and greet him by name then launch into a conversation which show they truly have met him before. Once we go our separate ways I will ask who it was and the Man will give me a blank look and say “I have no idea”.

    Of course he can’t remember people he should know too, and many people we know now have descriptive names like ‘Vanessa-next-door’ and ‘the-other-Ethan’ otherwise he’d have no idea who we are talking about.

    I like the idea of talent by osmosis, I’m off now to stand near the kids collection of instruments in the hopes I’ll get some extra benefit from all the money we’ve spent on music lessons!

    • Ah, it seems I am not alone. I have trouble with faces and names. It’s not like I’m getting (worryingly) more forgetful, just that names have always been a problem too. I struggle greatly with some of our cats, plus for most of my life I couldn’t remember which of the two light switches in the hall were for the hall light and which for the landing. I mostly get it right these days.

      Also I have trouble with things like birds (always confusing a coot and a moorhen) and I think my old girlfriend got mightily miffed when she repeatedly tried to point out different plants and flowers to me, of which I would take very little in. I truly think that this memory for that sort of info is why I struggled with chemistry (of which I battled through to get a PhD) as although I’m fine with the practical work I cannot retain the plethora of reactions (and reaction names) that others do.

      We should all stand near stuff. It’ll make us all look cleverer.

      • Battled through to get a PhD. I love that. I battle through to remember my shopping list.

        No, you’re not alone. I easily remember things I’m interested in but have to look up the simplest things which just bounce off my brain leaving not the slightest dent of interest in their wake.

        The old girlfriend was probably miffed because she thought you weren’t bothering to remember something that was important to her rather than the reality of you not being able to.

        The Man also has problems remembering anything to do with housework but that’s something else altogether….

        (The kids have been obsessively playing Minecraft recently and I can see that it is the perfect tool for getting kids into chemistry*. I showed them a periodic table with a minecraft bent and, having never seen one before, knew that Au was gold, Fe was iron etc etc just from the colour of the block, and were actually interested rather than bored. They have to combine elements to create things too, if only a teacher would utilise this in the classroom the kids would love to learn it and then they might go on with it rather than wandering away to something easier.

        *and possibly 8bit architecture)

    • I think she was frustrated for that reason, so the whole thing was upsetting for me. Anyway she went and married a man from NASA so she’s fine.

      I don’t know that game, but did have one from my youth that had mercury represented by the symbol Hg so it does all help. You can also tell your kids that Lead is Pb from its Latin name Plumbum. Another element which oddly tends to stick in your memory.

  4. Was there really a guy who tried to pull his wife’s head off thinking it was his hat?
    I bet that went down well. I never hear the end of it if I don’t have a brew ready for when my wife comes down in the morning.
    I am starting to think now that maybe her head resembles my wooly City hat, and it is cold this morning. Your honour.

    • It really happened, in front of the neurologist Oliver Sacks who compiled his notes of patients into this book. I should point out that Dr. P was a university lecturer so it’s not like it held him back, although I think he struggled which is how Sacks got involved.

      And yes it would be an interesting court case, getting off murder, if you were to claim something like this but then even if you managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the court you’d have to keep up the pretence for the rest of your life.

  5. Out there somewhere, there’s an sad pianist writing about never being recognised.

    • Yeah, sad story. I’ve tried very hard to anonymise people of note in this story, but alas the second pianist only played a minor role. What was his name? What was his name? Not a clue. He needs to go watch Gladiator and to learn that it’s not just about the winning, but doing so in style… I think that was the message in Gladiator, I forget, something about that and gay camels.

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