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…
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.