Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Camel-Swallowing and Rising Organs

I was planning to write today about one of my piano teachers, and I shall in a moment, but this morning on both BBC and VOA I heard of an exercise in camel-swallowing that I cannot let pass without comment:

President Obama of the U.S.A. is currently visiting Cuba, where he has had the astounding gall to ask for ‘improvements’ in its human rights record. (I think he means improvements in its human rights, rather than in the record of them, but let that pass; it’s been some time since we have had a literate American president). Now whatever happens elsewhere in Cuba, and certainly I know of writers critical of the government who have been imprisoned, (in America such people are not imprisoned or even tried; they are hounded out of their country and sometimes suffer unfortunate fatal accidents), there is one place in Cuba where people are held without trial in cages whose use in a zoo would be illegal, and subjected relentlessly to torture to extract ‘confessions’. It is called Guantanamo Bay; it is owned by America and the vile people who do the caging and torture are Americans working for the American Government.



I.M. Fred Waterworth

Whenever I have lived in one place for more than a few weeks I have tried to equip myself with a piano and then find a piano teacher. Thus I have had many piano teachers, most of them, frankly, no good as teachers, whatever their abilities as pianists. My present one, here in Greece, is the best ever; a very gifted teacher who begins to understand the quite special difficulties of an older person who knows a great deal about music, but can’t really play much.

Anyway, some of my piano teachers have been retired people living quiet and perhaps lonely lives, so very often we spent more time talking than playing. Or rather, teacher talked and I listened.

Fred Waterworth lived in a flat on the sea-front at Lee-on-Solent, between Portsmouth and Southampton. I say ‘lived’ and ‘I.M.’ because if he’s still alive he would have to be well over 100 years old. Once or twice a week I cycled from the Royal Naval Married Quarters where I was living to his house. Mostly he gazed soulfully out to sea at the window while I played the first movement of Beethoven’s C# minor sonata; the one known (though not by Beethoven) as the ‘Moonlight’. At half-time his wife would bring us tea and biscuits, and Fred would tell me anecdotes of his life. One of his fingers was flattened and spade-like at the tip; Lord knows how he managed to play just one note at a time with it rather than three. He explained it had been crushed under a rifle butt during the First World War, and the surgeon had wanted to cut it off, but he begged them to patch it up as best they could.

He had been a cinema pianist in the silent film days; peering sideways up at the screen and improvising along with the film. Then talkies came in and one might think he was out of a job, but no, like many others, his cinema installed an organ, all bells and whistles and coloured lights, like some nightmare of Scriabin’s, on which Mr Waterworth entertained the audience before the show and during the interval, and of course played the National Anthem (everybody standing at attention) at the end of the evening. This new arrangement left Mr Waterworth free to pop out while the main feature was on and get a jar or two at the adjacent hostelry; he just had to be sure to be back for the national anthem at the end of the film, and he always was.

Now those cinema organs were usually installed in what passed for an orchestra pit, and he actual console would rise on a hydraulic column in front of the screen, organist already playing, as the house-lights came up at the interval. One evening our hero, after perhaps a jar too many, came back in good time, climbed into his organ console, looked up at the screen, saw there was a good half-hour of film left to run, and dozed off. But in doing so he slumped forward onto the knob that set the hydraulics working — just as the film was reaching it climax, the view was obscured by the huge organ console slowly ascending to full height in front of the screen. Boos, jeers, screams, arrival of a furious manager, ‘Fred! Come down at once!’ But Fred was deeply asleep; no-one saw the end of the film.

Fred Waterworth’s career as a cinema organist ended that evening.

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