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Uncle Phil's Anecdotes

The Day the Music Died

“Have you noticed how.....?” That’s the way it usually starts. As a non-sequitur dropped casually, almost as a defence mechanism, into the Saloon Bar conversazione. We’re about three drinks into the session by now, and have exhausted the statutory speculation, based on such esoteric and misleading criteria as the length of her skirt and the configuration and percentage displayed of her front elevation, as to the proclivities, expertise and potential availability of the new barmaid. A particularly pointless exercise, as it happens; she’s a healthy antipodean maiden with a steady boyfriend in the army, and she’s hardly going to be interested in this crowd of piss-artists and has-beens. I know, because at some cost to my dignity, albeit she’d blanked me very nicely, I’d already checked. Besides, the congregation at the bar has mushroomed since we few thirsty stalwarts first trickled in at early doors, and there are now Ladies Present, which puts the kibosh on all that laddish grubbiness, thank heavens.

The conversation is currently dominated by the pre-senescent middle-management Boy Racer (florid countenance, greying temples, confidence trickster’s suiting, large Scotch), who is in mid-monologue, extolling blotto voce the virtues of the gleaming new turbocharged GT crumpet-wagon with which a benevolent employer has recently furnished him. His acolytes, the local DIY expert (untrimmed beard, anorak, badges, roll-your-owns, rough red wine) and the Rude Mechanical (acne, overalls, fingernails, pint of light-and-bitter), on secondment to the Quiz Team from his usual milieu in the Public due to his grasp of such down-market subjects as pop music and football, and relieved not to be out of his depth for once, interject occasionally with abstruse technical suggestions for major improvements, such as how to double the decibel output of the twin horns. Riveting stuff.

“Have you noticed how....?” somebody, possibly the indigenous Femme Fatale (designer jeans, epidermoid T-shirt, unfettered boobs, nipples like chapel coat pegs, clunky jewellery, Gin-and-Dubonnet), of a certain age and on the make, will finally manage to interpolate, into the small window in time when the Boy Racer pauses in his colloquy to swallow a slug of Scotch that would fell an ox, (and will someday soon do for him), to interpolate, to the obvious relief of a mute chorus of glazed eyeballs, “....how when.....” and you know that she’s going to trot out one of those universal truths, but anything’s better than the B.R.’s auto-narcoleptic, so don’t knock it “....how when you’re driving in traffic, no matter which lane you’re in, the other lanes will always move faster?” She has a sneaking fancy for the B.R., wants to road-test both his new car and his company gold card, and needs to convert his monologue into a conversation, preferably tête-à-tête, in which she can shine.

“Even if you change lanes.” The Professional Woman (power shoulders, designer briefcase, pastel-coloured mobile, Campari-Soda) will add, in an attempt to discomfort the F.F. by sheer weight of authority. She has no interest in the B.R. whatsoever, but won’t give an inch to the opposition, on principle. She’ll compete on as many fronts as there are going, even initiating a few just to keep in practice. She smirks, as if her pronouncement had settled matters once and for all.

“Especially if you change lanes!” The pub Savant (rimless glasses, sports jacket, leather patches, pipe, Amontillado), who has a reputation to keep up, will declare darkly, thus capping both the PW and the convenient conversational wellspring, and letting the Boy Racer in again. The local Antique Dealer (guess who, sweater and jeans, pint of old ale) swiftly improvises a pressing engagement, and makes his excuses. Others gratefully latch on to the same idea, the Quiz Team disappear into the snug, and the impromptu party fragments, leaving the B.R. holding court at a bar now empty except for the femme fatale, who grabs her chance and moves in for the kill. She’s had too many herself to realise that by the time he’s put away another couple of large ones whilst talking to her, he’ll be too far gone to drive his new acquisition, let alone for anything else she may have in mind. So let’s leave them to it, and get to the point.

It won’t always be that particular truism about traffic lanes. There are dozens of similar and equally valid examples which go to make up the genre. They are all practical manifestations of a law first propounded by the eponymous Mr Murphy, or depending on the version you prefer, by his alter ego, Signor Sod. In the same way that the chap (surprisingly, blessed as he has been with the dubious benefits of our once nonpareil but now tawdry secondary education) who can instantly calculate a complex pools permutation, or how to optimise a compound bet involving divers horses in different races, would rate you as barking mad if you suggested to him that he had a fine grasp of applied mathematics, most of us frequently and unthinkingly quote these examples of the basic laws of late twentieth-century living without realising that we are employing, even adding to, the science that is Applied Murphology.

But you must be wondering where all this is leading.

I was in the office at the front of the warehouse early one Sunday morning, cocooned in an oasis of calm before the staff and customers arrived. (We opened 7 days a week in those days [1966], partly because we reasoned that as we paid rent every day we owed it to ourselves, but more significantly because Sunday was often the busiest day.) I was taking on some intravenous coffee and shadow-boxing with a particularly intractable Mephisto, when the Trimphone’s electronic warble officiously chivvied me back to duty.

After the usual pleasantries had been observed the caller told me that he was in the process of moving into a house nearby, that there was some furniture and other bits and pieces that had been left there by the previous occupant, that they were in his way, and did we do House Clearances? Too right we did. So as soon as some of my staff turned up I popped round to have a look.

It was one of those lovely big old properties to the back of Maida Vale - large well-proportioned rooms, high ceilings, fine plasterwork, marble chimneypieces, the epitome of gracious living in the 1840s when they were built as town houses for the professional middle classes. Many of them had been allowed to run to seed over the years, but the area was now becoming fashionable again, and they were being ‘gentrified’, and more often than not converted into several flats.

My caller answered the doorbell, took me up to the first floor, and showed me round, pointing out the offending chattels. There were some candidates for the tip, a few reasonable pieces of ordinary secondhand, some boxfuls of small stuff, (which he apparently hadn’t bothered to go through - when we got them back and unpacked them we found amongst other things a rather pleasant carriage clock) and a couple of inlaid mahogany Edwardian Sheraton bits which were far better than run-of-the-mill, and which given a cleanup would be highly saleable. We established that he didn’t want money - we could have the stuff gratis on condition that we took everything, rubbish and all, and that we got it out of his hair immediately, that afternoon, as his own furniture and family were due. This was fine by me - a couple of lads and the van could manage it in an hour, and they were on duty in any case, idling in the warehouse soaking up coffee and wages. “Right. I’ll go and organise it,” I said.

“But there’s something I haven’t shown you yet,” he told me, leading me up half-a-flight of stairs and into the main reception room. Wherein, in solitary splendour, reigned a superb concert grand piano. Celebrated German maker - overstrung iron frame, and in a lovely 1920s red Japanese lacquered, gilt and decorated case. Beeootiful. In those days, pianos in general were not the easiest things to sell, but tasty ones, given time and the space to show them, could fetch a lotta money. And this was the tastiest piano I’d ever seen. A grand grand. And worth a grand. In the days when a grand was worth a grand.

While music is one of the greater pleasures in my life, I am only equipped to play the role of passive consumer - the manufacture and delivery side I have to leave to more fortunate fingers; sadly the technical and physical dexterities required to operate any instrument more demanding than a kazoo had all been allocated by the time I reached the head of the talent queue. At one time, I did try to learn the violin, but I could never coax a sound out of the instrument of any more musical value than that resonant of a particularly bad-tempered tomcat having indignities of a proctological nature foisted on him by a singularly uncompromising vet, sans benefit of Vaseline; and I was forced to abandon the process by familial demand and Lysistratan persuasion. But I can understand that a dearth of pianoforte about the premises, should one be of musical bent and in need of the emotional outlet of a quick tinkle on the ivories or the catharsis of a crashing chord or two, might prove a frustrating, even disconsolating experience.

But these thwarted creative disappointments pale into piddling insignificance compared to the diametrically opposite problems of he who has no need of such an instrument, but who finds himself willy-nilly in loco custodis. A surplus piano is a loathsome thing, God wot. And a surplus concert grand can disconcert in the grand manner, especially when, abandoned to its fate by a former owner, it’s occupying most of one’s new drawing room. One can’t, after all, stick it in the boot of the BMW and run it down to the tip with the dead claret bottles and the old copies of Hello! And you can imagine, in these days when Jack is better than his master and when local authorities have severed the traditional link between rates paid and basic services supplied, what H.E. Bateman would have made of “The Man Who Asked The Dustmen To Take A Grand Piano Away”.

So, in theory, I had him by the short and curlies. But I wanted that piano. Oh how I wanted it! So I couldn’t afford to overcook my advantage. On the debit side, I’d have to find and hire four extra blokes, and seeing as how it was the Sabbath I’d have to forget any appeals to the loyalty of an indifferent workforce, and resort to some heavy-duty bribery. Could be expensive. I explained this, and gave him the option. If we could leave the piano till the Monday, I’d shift it for free, but a Sunday afternoon job would cost him. Fifty crisp oncers were mooted, and to my surprise, carried nem. con. I zoomed back to base, got on the phone, mustered a militia by pledging substantial shares in the prize money, piled them all into the van, and off we went.

It took the six of them about twenty minutes to load the rest of the stuff onto the van [memo to aspiring furniture removers - always put the piano on last - it’s easier.] and so it must have been about 12-30 by the time we started on the main course.

By half-past-three we hadn’t even managed to get it out of the front room. Well - not all of it. Not all of it at once, that is. I’m good at moving furniture. I should be - I’ve done enough of it. There’s a knack to it, especially where grand pianos are concerned,[1] but it was a knack that I’d long mastered. But that afternoon all my experience was useless. We tried it longways. Tried it sideways. Vertically. Horizontally. A Euclid-full of diagonallys. Edgwise. Upside down. From this angle. From that. Managed to get it stuck between the doorframe and the landing wall a couple of times. Sweated a lot. Cussed a lot. Had ideas of taking the window frame out and dropping it down that way. Rejected them, after application of a tape measure. Considered taking the movement out, but that wouldn’t have made the case any smaller. Lighter, certainly, but no smaller.

Then, to add flavour to the ragout, enter the removal men with the incoming furniture. You might think that this was a plus point. Extra labour, and all that, right? Wrong. The foreman was one of the Old School. He knew all about moving pianos. He’d show these young whippersnappers a thing or two. So we went through the entire process again, under his direction, and with his men. Same result. Mr Householder (or, more accurately, Mrs Householder, who by this time had arrived, offspring in tow) was going ballistic. The little Householders given a nice echoey empty flat to play in, were doing Yahoo impressions, rushing around shrieking and getting under everybody’s feet, bless ‘em. Gaudeamus bloody igitur.

Then I had a brainwave. After all, I reasoned, the thing had gotten up there in the first place. It must go down the same way, if we could only find the way. I asked Mr Householder if he knew the people who’d occupied the flat before him. Maybe they knew how it had originally come in. He didn’t, but he did know the landlord, who he said had once occupied the whole house. He rummaged around, and dug out a phone number. I rang it, explained the situation to the voice on the other end, and asked it if it had any idea how they originally got the piano into the room.

“Oh yes,” it said. “Mother and Father bought the piano in - ooh - let me see now - about 1943, I think it was. It came straight in up the stairs and through the door. Mind you - we had the entire house in those days. This was before we converted it into flats, put in some extra walls and ceilings, and divided and redirected the main staircase. You might have a bit of a problem now, come to think of it.”

Problem? What problem? I had no problem. All I had to do was to go down to the van, fetch the sledgehammer, and apply it to the wretched instrument with some force. Because that was the only way it was going to reach ground level. In instalments. Broke my heart, but there was nothing for it. I was still going to have to weigh out the lads, so the fifty quid was a necessity, or I’d have left it in situ.

But what really pissed me off was when, just as we were clearing away the last of the debris, [we managed to save the lid in one piece - it had lovely Japanese scenes in gilt lacquerwork on both sides, and somebody bought it for use as a high-camp room-divider, for a lot more than the 50 notes I paid the lads] Mrs Householder came in, and said to her husband - “Darling - you know - on reflection I might have rather liked that piano after all. It would have brightened up the room no end. Still - too late now.”

Every schoolboy has heard, at least - every schoolboy of my generation - I can’t answer for the present crop, blighted as they are by dogmatist social engineering, potbound by political correctness and starved of nutrients by an education system whose priorities seem to be merely the processing of its charges into either bland bovine euro-nonentities or mindless anarchistic thugs rather than in teaching......

Enough! Wrong soapbox. Start again.

Every schoolboy has heard of Newton’s Law of Wossname, that it had its genesis in the beaning of the unfortunate Sir Isaac by a homicidal Bramley’s Seedling (or was it just a Golden Delinquent), and that it states something to the effect that “Whatever goes up must come down.” Although in truth I must confess that I’ve not been able to verify this in any book of quotations available to me, attributed to the doughty knight or anyone else. Thus it may be a blanket precis, a translation into the vernacular for the benefit of us unscientific masses, or a complete myth.

Regardless, allow me to introduce to you James’s Codicil, which appends the following, borne of bitter experience, to the allegedly Newtonian axiom.

“.... but not necessarily in the condition in which it began its ascent.”

Murphology, or what?



[1] Take the legs and the pedals off and tip it onto its longer side, basically.

© Phil James



Further Anecdotes

A Cynic's Philosophy
Scripture for His Purpose
All Greek to Me
Beef and Mustard
The Day the Music Died
Unconsidered Trifles
For Such is the Kingom of Heaven
Laid on with a Trowel
De minimis curat lex.


©Uncle Phil's Books 2004