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‘Put it this way – if it was a horse I’d have to shoot it.’ John, the piano tuner came today. It’s an old joke of his. It’s an old piano, too. Although the serial number doesn’t give me the precise year of manufacture, it places it between 1922 and 1924. Whatever John says, it’s not in bad shape for an almost-centenarian.
My mother gave it to me when I bought my first flat, in 1975. She found herself with a spare, having recently remarried and acquired a lovely Bechstein (or was it Blüthner) grand. So my Gors & Kallman baby grand made its way from Scotland to Notting Hill and a basement flat just off the Portobello Road.
Neither the interior nor exterior stairs were designed for the movement of pianos, so it was swung into the outside basement area using a padded wooden contraption called a T-bar. With the arms of the T braced across the inside frame of a first floor window, an angled leg connected with the outside wall of the building to support the stem of the T, at the end of which was a pulley-wheel.
I watched the removal men truss the piano with rope, still on its wheeled movers’ ‘shoe’, swing it off the pavement and up over the street railings. Heart in mouth, I recalled the moment a few years previously when, on the return leg of a road trip to Iran, I had watched a gang of ferocious-looking Turkish stevedores hitch our VW Camper van to a crane and swing it from the dockside to the deck of the ship which would take us along the Black Sea coast, from the eastern port of Trabzon to Istanbul. Happily, the fastenings held on both occasions.
From that Notting Hill basement, my piano moved in turn to a first-floor flat on Portobello Road, a cottage in Wiltshire, a top-floor flat in Battersea (pity the poor removal men), a ground floor in Balham, then back to Scotland and the ground floors of three successive houses. Stained and sun-bleached in places, its topmost keys cannibalised to repair notes in the middle range, a few strings bereft of their resonance, blobs of old candlewax adorning the plate, I still love this piano. It’s become like a favourite pet, or perhaps an extra limb. I can’t imagine life without it.
Yesterday, listening to John methodically working his way down the scale, I felt as if I was being tuned myself. After he had gone I sat and played for a while. Although it’s some time since I’ve left it so long, I’ve never before noticed quite such a difference in the pre- and post-tuning tone. It sounded louder and brighter, more full of life and energy. It struck me that its slow decline over the summer had mirrored something that had been happening in me, a gradual sapping of energy by the constraints of Covid.
And now, while the constraints remain and even look like they may tighten further, I feel something has shifted. Perhaps it’s a gradual accommodation of the new reality. Perhaps it’s that what feels like several months of slog to shift several courses online is now paying off. Perhaps it’s that I have finally cleared the space I need to continue with my big writing project. Whatever it is, hearing the piano regaining its pitch literally struck a chord within me, something harmonious and resonant. It rang me like a tuning fork.
Maybe A440, concert pitch, is really the frequency of optimism.
Don’t shoot the piano! I’ll never forget stopping at a petrol station to ask directions to Birnam. “Who are you visiting?” asked the attendant, which seemed a ridiculous question to me, coming from London. Still, I gave it a shot. “Jamie Jauncey,” I said. “Oh, they’ll be on your left as you drive through. You’ll see a grand piano in the window.” You don’t get directions like that in Kilburn or Clapham.
It was a lovely visit, Paul. Hopefully there’ll be another before too long …
Lovely and warmly encouraging.