Pissed-off Toff

Prelude XXI by Bach … aka the Bugger-bugger prelude

in Pissed-off Toff Performs

After a period of hibernation, Pissed-off Toff returns with a performance of one of his favourite pieces of music.

Yes, it’s been a dismal month or so for Pissed-off Toff. From old friends I received invitations to stay over Christmas, near Cirencester and also in God’s chosen city of Sunderland. But I had the flat in London to myself; I thought that rather than accepting undeserved generosity, I should work through the piles of unwelcome envelopes that had been accumulating for months, filling me with a dread that only grew with the size of the task; and I imagined that even at this late stage it might be useful to scan, in solitude, the balance sheet of my life.

Of course no meaningful action or reflection took place, and as usual I indulged in a series of what psychologists call ‘displacement activities’ … that is to say, adjusting the invitations on the mantlepiece when the house is falling down.

Of these acts of evasion with which I am so familiar, playing the piano is the most harmless. Indeed, I’ve even worked pretty hard at it over the past few years, with results that occasionally offer some consolation for the mistakes and lost opportunities in almost every other department. Now, when I see a piano, I simply have to play it. (Not an upright, let’s be clear. I’m the most frightful piano snob. Only a decent grand will do.)

The brief recording that follows was made at the Caledonian Club very late last night at the end of what had already been a long and liquid day. Conventional musical wisdom has it that you can’t play when you’re tanked up, so in theory I shouldn’t have been able to play a note. But alcohol does funny things, and on this particular evening it pretended to be on my side.

I love Bach’s Prelude XXI. When I was a boy, my mother used to play it on her Steinway grand, one of the most beautiful instruments of its kind, made around 1895 and now in the Provost’s Hall at Eton. (Sad for me, but I’d rather it was there than anywhere else.) As she practised this piece in the music room in our house in Gloucestershire with its deep red William Morris wallpaper, she used to sing “bugger-bugger-bugger-bugger” in time with the demi-semi-quavers. The habit was infectious, and when my beloved godmother came to stay, she was surprised to see her young godson running round the house gleefully shouting out a string of obscenities.

Then when I last went to down Eton, about a year ago, I played this same piece on that same piano at the end of an Old Boys reunion at which, for some unaccountable reason, I was seated at the top table. I had almost forgotten the beauty of my mother’s Steinway, which was so much part of my childhood and early youth, and as my fingers moved over the ivory keys I reflected ruefully on what one is and what one might have been.

Why, I wondered, was I not playing this music on a grand piano in my own house in France or Italy, bought with the earnings of a successful career in the City or in the law? … And not only there at the piano, but with wife and children nearby? But I had made other choices, most of them almost too awful to contemplate. A friend brought me a glass of whisky from the bar, and I carried on playing.



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