A narrow scrape
Like most people of their generation, my parents played a musical instrument. So it was inevitable that my brother and I should, in pursuit of what was then called a ''rounded'' education, be similarly exposed. As the elder, my brother had first choice and opted for the piano. This was because he had noticed that it was the only instrument at which you sat down, for in those days you stood up to learn the violin or trumpet or what have you. I was directed to learn the violin, on which my father had been a doughty performer. To hear them talk about it, there were two violinists of the day, my father and the young Yehudi Menuhin , with my father having a slight edge over Menuhin.
It was unfortunate, from my point of view, that my parents' ambitions did not coincide with mine. At that age I was in thrall to the great cricketer of the day, one Len Hutton (the DiMaggio of cricket). It was unfortunate that my father happened not to like cricket - looking back, the only major flaw I can recall in an otherwise seamless character.
The instrument of my parents' wishes was the local music teacher, Miss Laura Smith. Miss Smith had no musical degrees but was wont to observe with a penetratingly tinkling laugh, ''I may not be an LRAM, but I do have those letters in my name!'' I worked it out one day: so she did. Miss Smith was a tiny , elderly lady who, in the late 1930s, dressed in the style of the Edwardian era. That is to say, she wore skirts down to her ankles and any number of petticoats underneath. I recall how fascinated I was when, in order to fondle our white cat, she sat down and turned back petticoat after petticoat until she came to a suitable colour. Miss Smith never gave lessons in her own home. Teaching in those days was very competitive and people expected to be visited, so most music teachers went on circuit. My violin lessons took place in our small sitting room every Monday evening after school at 5:30, which was the hour when any self-respecting boy in our neighbourhood would be off to play cricket or football in season.
Unfortunately, Miss Smith was always in season and took priority. She also possessed the constitution of a pioneer woman of the Old West. Monday after Monday I would hope against hope that strikes, fire, flood, Acts of the King's Enemies, or holes in the road would prevent her arrival. Around 5:20 on Mondays I, and my friend Harold from next door, would loaf at the window hoping not to see her. At 5:20 on the dot Miss Smith would come tripping round the corner. Harold and I would exchange glances and part - he to play cricket, for he saw no reason to be unduly self-sacrificing and wait for me - and I to get the violin out of its case.
The violin, highly polished and darkened with age, was a present from my father. Inside the hole under the strings was a label that said: MAITRE LUTHIE GENEVE and, in old ink writing, 1749. Many years later I discovered that the label was a forgery of a type common in the nineteenth century and that the violin was no Guarnerius, let alone a Strad. At that time I had little or no French, and my efforts at translation led me to the strange belief that this was the label of the owner; and by some mental transition of the letters, I came to believe that it was one ''Martin Luther'' and that he had once been the owner of my fiddle. At the time, this new light on the great reformer did little to enlist my support for the Protestant Revolution.
With less than enthusiasm I would get out the gilt music stand, an octopus-like structure prone to collapse under the weight of a sheet of music. I then had to tune the violin. This involved resting the broad end on my tummy while winding away at the keys on the other end. Once in a while a string would snap with a satisfying pop sound and cause a most satisfactory delay.
During my time as a student of the violin we always began with scales, moved on to exercises, and ended up with what Miss Smith called ''pleasant tunes.'' I didn't mind the scales. As a matter of fact, I thought them rather tuneful. I loathed the exercises, in particular one called ''Increasing Pleasure,'' a misnomer if ever I heard one. One hateful thing about ''Increasing Pleasure'' was that at one point one had to move up to the Second Position. This meant sliding the left hand up the violin to an agreed place without dropping the instrument itself. I never mastered it. Nor did I ever manage to achieve the skill of all experienced violinists, which is to keep the finger on a note and shake the rest of the hand. I couldn't do it then, and I can't do it now. And I still don't really understand how it can be done without the rest of the violin shaking, too. Nevertheless, I did master ''Increasing Pleasure,'' awful though it was. I can, if pushed, still play it. Would you. . .? but perhaps not.
In the fullness of time and far beyond the stipulated half-hour, the lesson would near its end. Usually there were a number of false alarms, introduced by the phrase ''and now before we end. . . .'' But at last, Miss Smith would say that she was afraid we would have to stop; it was a pity but she had another young gentleman to visit that evening. I never knew the other ''young gentleman, '' but I often thought kindly of him.
Naturally, over the passing years I have become a little sentimental over these violin lessons of my youth. As a conversational gambit, I have even been known to observe airily that I ''once played the violin a little myself, you know.'' After making sure there is no fiddle within half a mile, I manage to imply that I was up to concert standard.
Yet what I find so exasperating, when I think about it, is that not only did I not learn to play the violin well but that my cricket never came up to the standard of the above mentioned Len (now Sir Leonard) Hutton. I can see that I fell between two stools.
But then, I don't know of any violinist who ever played for England. As a matter of fact, take Yehudi Menuhin. He never played cricket for England, either. I bet that's a bit of a hang-up when he sits brooding!