A Rather Alarming Start to the day
As a self-employed musician, taking charge of the layout of a day is not only important, it is crucial, if progress in such relevant areas as practice, administration and forward planning is to be achieved. When precise intentions are not realised, in particular on days when no external activities or obligations are there to soak up the waking hours, it can become irritatingly easy to aimlessly drift through time. Having then hit very little in the way of targets, this in turn leaves one feeling rather frustrated, sometimes slightly dissatisfied and without doubt, cross with oneself! And as we all know, there is nothing worse than vacantly pushing paper clips, pencils and rubber bands around on an empty desk top for hours on end.
It makes sense therefore at night time, just before turning the lights out, to make a ‘map’ of the following day’s programme. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to deviate from the map, but to have a clear idea as to what you hope to accomplish and the timing of it, contributes to a positive start in the morning, with promises of a satisfying and constructive day ahead.
This was exactly my thought process the other night before falling into a slumber. A morning of emails, editing, music proof-reading, along with more general administrative tasks, such as paying bills, was beckoning. I went to sleep both happy and enthused for what lay ahead the following day.
Early to rise and with breakfast behind me, I set about my tasks. However, on this occasion, fate was about to take matters out of my hands.
At somewhere around 10.00 the doorbell rang. This in itself seemed a little strange, as the postman tends to arrive in the road no earlier than 12.00 and often later. Equally, I wasn’t expecting any deliveries.
One of the problems of living in a house that is divided into three flats is that delivery companies choose to ignore names on doorbell plates, as they know that everything will take place quicker if they just ring the ground floor bell. It doesn’t take so long for those who dwell on the ground floor to get to the front door, so therefore, if these people are home, the delivery takes the least amount of time. If the parcel is for the top floor, the time taken for the delivery driver, from pressing the bell, waiting for the occupant to descend three flights of steps to answer the door (if they happen to be in at the time) and to getting back into the van, is likely to be significantly longer. Irrespective of which floor the parcel is addressed to, most delivery drivers hit the ground floor bell first and as long as someone is in (yes, a potential game of Russian roulette looms here), their day will be shorter, which in turn can be considered to be a highly satisfactory result!
As I approached my own front door, I could hear that the bell for the flat above me had also been rung, which made me think that it really was the postman on this occasion. I lifted the phone on my intercom system to enquire as to who was there. ‘The police,’ came the answer. ‘Can we talk to you?’
For law abiding citizens, these seven words are possibly the most terrifying that can ever be uttered!
Why is it that we immediately fall into a blind panic if approached by the authorities?
How many times when driving, have we all become instantly uneasy on realising that a police car is immediately behind us and following closely? Nothing alcoholic has been consumed, but we suddenly feel that we might have accidentally downed the best part of a bottle of gin before getting into the car and for sure, we are going to fail the breath test and miserably so, to the extent that the sentence will include a minimum of two years in prison.
Whilst I have little to feel guilty about, there is always going to be a natural inclination to stay on the right side of the law and the fact that at this moment in time, from the other side of the threshold of my property, the law was now wanting to talk to me, was somewhat distressing.
The awful thought of being incarcerated for a crime that I was unaware of, but had obviously committed, was now on my mind. How on earth would I cope with prison? How dreadful was the food going to be, would I be forced to exercise and how many years would I be locked up for? And perhaps of greatest concern, there would be no wine or even champagne! Munch’s ‘The Scream’ wasn’t even coming close to portraying the list of horrors that were now passing through my mind.
In the time that it took me to walk from my flat door through the communal hallway to impending and almost certain doom, I was desperately trying to remember the multiple murders that I must have recently committed and where I had buried the dismembered bodies. I was also starting to freely perspire over the lack of any immediate alibis!
On opening the door and now with all the composure of someone who blatantly had been on a frenzied killing spree, I was welcomed by a charming female police officer.
Once again, blind panic surged. Was this their game? Send in a beguiling female officer to soften up the criminal (i.e. me!) and extract an instant confession?
‘Which flat do you live in?’ she asked. ‘The ground floor flat,’ I stammered.
Damn! What a fool I was to pass on this information. I shouldn’t have so readily given it away and had once again walked into the trap.
Now, without doubt, hidden in the garden, with high powered rifles homed in on every single ground floor window, there would be a 50 strong team or more, of special forces operators, ready to take me down if so much as a thought of putting up any form of fight or resistance entered my mind.
‘We have just been informed that workmen at the house on the corner, three doors away from your property, have been digging in the garden this morning and have just unearthed a World War 2 incendiary device. As a result of this, we have been instructed to evacuate the whole area. Please leave your property immediately.’
Relief will never be a big enough word to describe the rush of happiness that now surged through my body. There was me thinking that I really shouldn’t have run down that large group of small children at the pedestrian crossing the other day, whilst all the police wanted to tell me was that there appeared to be an unexploded bomb in the locality! I wouldn’t be going to prison after all. I could feel a tidal wave of euphoric relief passing over me.
Potentially deadly, the arrival of a WW2 bomb at the end of the road had created quite a bit of a stir in the neighbourhood. I reside in a corner of West London named Bedford Park, which is in Chiswick. It is referred to as a ‘leafy suburb’ and really is a very pleasant area to live in. It must be, as I have managed to stay in the same road for 34 years!
Built in the mid 19th Century, it was designed as a quirky enclave on the then outskirts of London for artists, many of the houses coming with the addition of a studio in the garden. Times have changed and if I am allowed to be grand enough to refer to myself as an ‘artist’, I am now most definitely in a minority, as the majority of people in the area these days work in law, finance or media businesses.
London was horrendously bombed in WW2. Brentford and Chiswick in West London saw around 150-199 bombs per acre, far fewer than London’s worst hit area, Stepney (in the East and therefore closer to mainland Europe and the Germans), with over 600 per acre.
History tells us that the German forces ultimately failed in their quest to conquer the United Kingdom, but in the process of that failure, they also made a hell of a mess of the area that I have lived in for much of my professional life.
As you might imagine, the problem of an unexploded bomb in your road, unless you happen to live in an area of high terrorist activity, is not really one that confronts us on a regular basis. What are you supposed to do and how should you react? What precious belongings do you gather to take with you in the event of the thing actually exploding and destroying all the houses in the vicinity?
In the end, I just took my laptop, as no indication had been given as to how long it would be before returning would be safe and I could at least then work on emails etc in a local cafe. The bomb disposal team had yet to arrive and they would then have to figure out if the device was still ‘live’, so I might be away from home for quite some time.
The police officer had wondered if I might like to move my car to a safer place, but as I possess an old diesel and in this country at least, they are currently deemed to be vehicles of Satan himself and therefore impossible to sell, I was rather hoping that a significant bomb blast might at least produce a better amount of money from any insurance claim. Then of course, bombs are not normally covered by insurance. It would though have got the car off my hands with the minimum of fuss had the bomb gone off!
Once I had closed the front door and the police officer had escorted me to the other side of the ‘Do not cross the police line’ tape, I suddenly remembered that I was due to give a flute class at 2.00pm at the Royal College of Music. Under such circumstances it often helps to have a flute to hand! Still, even without a flute, this was a situation that at least could be managed. I would simply borrow a flute from a student, if demonstrating was required at any stage of the afternoon.
Meeting up with a neighbour, we decided to walk to the nearest coffee shop (The Post Room, which as you might have guessed from the name, used to be our local Post Office), where naturally other neighbours were congregating and embracing a similar approach to the morning’s unfurling events. It was all very British. If something deeply worrying or disturbing is taking place, or there is a crisis, sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and talk about it in a calm and relaxed manner.
Being of a somewhat suspicious nature (I am still trying to work out if early and extensive over-exposure to the Church of England has anything to do with this predicament, but that part of my life must wait until another day!), I made the suggestion that the incendiary device in a nearby garden was actually a colossal scam.
Perhaps the police officers were in fact thieves in disguise, with an elaborate plan to get us away from our homes for a lengthy period of time, so that systematic breaking-in and plundering of our properties could be carried out at ease. We had all been duped. Whilst we were innocently sipping our coffees, the ‘crooks’ were calmly sifting their way through our properties and belongings and making off with anything of value.
This in turn reminded me of something that happened a long time ago, when I was a student living in Islington, North London.
My first address in London, was 27, Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, London W8. Not bad for an impoverished music student! The flat belonged to the parents of my best friend from school, but as they spent most of their time in Manchester, they had decided to rent out the flat for what was in essence a peppercorn rent. I was exceedingly lucky!
However, the neighbours were not so impressed by the arrival of an aspiring flute player, who insisted on practicing every day for several hours on end. After various encounters with the local borough council Air Pollution Officer (I was apparently polluting the air with noise according to the charming people next door), it seemed like the decent thing to go in search of some alternative accommodation, where I could practice freely and without disturbing people.
Fortunately, another friend of mine knew John Culshaw, the man who masterminded and produced the first studio recording of Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, with Sir Georg Solti (I have personal stories relating to SGS too, but they will have to wait for another time!). John then went on to become the BBC’s head of music programmes, inaugurating ‘André Previn’s Music Night’ with the London Symphony Orchestra. This series was phenomenally successful for the orchestra, reaching more people in just one week through the medium of television, than in 65 years of the LSO’s concert giving history.
In the mid 1970s John became a senior fellow in the creative arts at the University of Western Australia and decided to spend a year living in Perth. His house in London would be empty throughout this period and he was looking for a ‘house-sitter’.
My second address in London was to be John’s home in Arlington Avenue, Islington.
Islington is now one of the more affluent areas of London. Then, it was very different. Whilst there were many architecturally interesting buildings, they looked shabby, run down and most definitely in need of some serious love and attention.
John had moved into the area doing just that, renovating his house stylishly by adding a penthouse floor as a guest room, complete with its own en-suite bathroom.
Being on the corner of the street, I really could practice as much as I wanted to, without disturbing anyone.
Slightly further down the road, is Arlington Square, which was built in the mid 19th Century by the Clothworker’s Company and today has 46 listed buildings.
In the 1970s, it too was extremely run down, but those who wanted to put their personal mark on property were gradually drifting into the area and one by one, these old houses were being purchased for what amounted to comparatively little money and then being restored at great detail and expense to their former glory.
One such house was purchased by a young professional couple, he a surgeon and she a highly successful barrister. With their substantial joint incomes, there was no shortage of money and they set about their restoration project. All of the electrics had to be renewed, along with plumbing and a new roof. Antique shops throughout the country were visited to find exactly the right pieces for their new home and woodwork and plaster throughout the house had to be decorated from top to bottom with a view to how it would have looked more than 130 years earlier. The attention to detail was second to none and the project took a year and a half to complete and cost a fortune.
They also happened to be great opera lovers and were regular visitors to The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Finally, over budget and over-stressed and utterly exhausted, they were happily installed in their ‘new’ home. All went well for the first few months, but one morning they awoke and on opening the curtains to the front of the house, discovered that their brand new Mercedes car had been stolen from outside the front door.
Naturally they contacted the police who put an alert out for the car, but for two days, there was no sighting and no news of what might have happened to it.
On the third day, they awoke and opened the curtains and there it was again in the road, exactly in the same place they had left it three days earlier.
They went down to the car and on approaching it they could see that it had been cleaned and it was looking pristine. Getting closer to the car they could also see that something large was resting on the front passenger seat. It was a vast bouquet of fresh flowers!
Attached to the flowers there was an envelope with a card inside. On the card was typed the following:
‘We would like to apologise profusely for the inconvenience we have caused by taking your car the other day. However, it was an extreme case of emergency and we simply didn’t have any other options. We would like to make amends for the trouble we have caused you. We know that you are both keen opera goers and as a small token, please accept the two enclosed stalls tickets for ‘Tosca’ at Covent Garden next Wednesday evening.’
They called the police to tell them that the car had been returned and that all was well and sure enough, the following Wednesday they went to Covent Garden and had a wonderful evening listening to ‘Tosca’.
Having had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, they later returned to their house in Arlington Square to discover that whilst they had been out, thieves (presumably the same people who had taken the car in the first place) had broken in and ransacked the entire house. Not only had all their valuables and personal belongings been taken, but the antiques that they had devoted so much time, energy and love looking for, had also been carted off in a large van too. Clearly the thieves weren’t in any hurry!
And by the way, rewinding back to the reason for this story in the first place, as it turned out, the WW2 incendiary device (which apparently you can buy online for upwards of $595!) ended up being dead as a dodo and no danger at all to any of us. Within 40 minutes we were allowed back into our homes.
However, just to be on the safe side, I shall probably skip any form of enthusiastic digging in the garden this weekend!