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What is it like to come from an intensely musical family?

Many generations of Steven Isserlis's family have been involved in making music, transported and shaped by opportunities to play. A celebrated cellist himself, he describes how closely music is connected to a happy family life.

“I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of my parents practising.” Photo: Getty

The other day, during an interview with a rather intense journalist in Armenia, I was asked a question that took me aback: “Coming from a musical family, did you feel more privilege or pressure?” I replied – almost immediately – “more privilege, of course”. But the question did get me thinking about what the effect of belonging to a family of musicians has on a child’s life.

Music was like an extra language in our family, one we all spoke. My father was a very keen amateur violinist, my mother a piano teacher, and my sisters both played piano for as long as I remember. The elder, Annette, is now a professional violist, as well as producer and arranger, while my middle sister, Rachel, is a professional violinist. (Perhaps the most expressive musician in the family, however, was our dog Dandy, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier of vast intellect and noble character – and impressive musical integrity. He would invariably howl a heartfelt accompaniment whenever any of us played Mozart’s piano sonata in C major, a particular favourite of his; but if we dared to change key – playing it a semitone lower, for instance – he would instantly break off and glare at us accusingly.) Obviously, with the piano, the violin and the viola taken care of, a cello was needed; and that was why I was taken to a local teacher to begin lessons when I was six.

The musical calling came from beyond our immediate family. While my mother’s background was not especially musical, my paternal grandfather was a pianist and composer famous in his day, Julius Isserlis. Julius was born in Kishinev in 1888. He was a child prodigy who was accepted to the Moscow Conservatoire at the age of 10 – a particularly impressive honour given that he was Jewish. His teachers there included a legendarily fierce piano professor called Vassily Safonov, who regularly reduced him to tears over the next six years or so, and for composition the great Sergei Taneyev, favourite pupil and later musical confidante of Tchaikovsky, and himself teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. Julius enjoyed a successful career within both Russia and the Soviet Union, until in 1922 Lenin decreed that 12 Soviet musicians should travel abroad with their families in order to spread the word about the cultural glories of the Soviet Union. A fine idea – except that not one of the 12 ever went back. Julius, with his wife Rita (also a pianist) and my father George, then five years old, settled in Vienna, lured by the same charms that had ensnared Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and countless others. (Not entirely relevant to the subject of this article, but this story is a favourite of mine: among their first tasks was that of finding somewhere to live. My father vaguely remembered going to see an apartment owned by a hausfrau of 102, who was friendly enough until she discovered that Julius was a musician. “I hate musicians,” she declared. “Why?” “Because I remember that when I was a little girl, my aunt had a lodger who was a filthy old man who used to spit all over the floor. Euagh!”  “But who was that?” “Beethoven!” So, for many years before he died in 2012, I am sure that my father must have been the last person alive to have met someone who had met Beethoven.)

Life in Vienna, not surprisingly, became increasingly difficult as time went on, and anti-Semitism increased. Luckily, Julius happened to be in England, playing here for the first time, when the Anschluss took place in 1938. He stayed here, Rita and George finally joining him some months later. My father, after being briefly interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man – where he roomed and played chamber-music with future members of the Amadeus Quartet – settled in London, and built up a career as a metallurgist.

Music remained his driving passion, however, and also my mother’s. I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of them practising their violin and piano. (A few years ago, we found a privately recorded 78 of them playing together; we had it put on to CD for George’s 90th birthday – it is actually quite beautiful!) As far back as I remember, Annette and Rachel were already having music lessons. The sight and sound of my older sisters playing their instruments was a tremendous spur – I had to do something similar, or I would be left out. So – after a false start at the age of four or five when I refused to play on the right side of the bridge, driving my poor teacher to distraction with the horrible squeaky noise that made – I joined in. The house was alive with the sound of music; perhaps we were not the best neighbours, but we were too involved to give others much thought.

Occasionally the five of us (with Dandy adding a descant if he was in the mood) would play quintets together. That was not an unqualified success, I have to admit, rehearsals frequently ending in tears. But of greater effect were the times that Annette (on piano in those days), Rachel and I would play trios together. Playing chamber music with two older sisters of whom I was a bit in awe has had a huge effect on my musical life. These days I like to describe myself as essentially a chamber-musician – even though I spend most of my life playing concertos with orchestras. I was taught, by my sisters as much as by my teachers, to listen to other voices, to treat music as a conversation between equals. It was a very different upbringing from that of the prodigy who is put in a room by him or herself and made to practise eight hours a day, learning to play louder and faster, the main aim being to win competitions.

Of course, there were pressures on us too. We were entered far too soon for competitive music festivals – something I would never suggest for a musical child. Music is not a competitive sport. And sometimes it was hard for my sisters, who were less lucky in their childhood teachers than I was. At the age of ten, I had been sent to study with an extraordinary lady called Jane Cowan. She had studied general musicianship with Donald Tovey – still one of the most revered writers on music of all time – and cello with Emmanuel Feuermann, famous for his total command of the cello. (Much later, I would get to play his Stradivarius cello for many years – a satisfying connection.) Jane was an inspiring teacher; she gave me the feeling that the composers were in the room with us, fascinating, humorous beings who could become my friends for life. It was her influence that led me to renounce my earlier ambitions to be either a rabbi or a footballer, and to devote myself to the cello; and it was also my memories of those early lessons that inspired me later to write two books for children about composers, in the hope that my young readers would also make friends with these glorious (if complicated) beings.

Jane’s influence percolated into our home, as a great teacher’s will. Although she could not teach Annette or Rachel their instruments, she suggested better teachers for them than they’d had previously, and she coached us all in chamber music together. And so the family musical bond prospered, as we grew older and started to play professionally. Annette, Rachel and I grew up knowing many of the same people, because we work with them.  Having been exposed to the same musical influences as children, we have pretty similar tastes; that is a huge link between us – like having a similar sense of humour. Some siblings drift apart as they get older; that couldn’t really happen to us, because we are always meeting at concerts – our own and those of our friends. We all married musicians, and have passed on the musical genes to our children – Rachel’s two daughters Isabel and Natasha, and my son Gabriel, who play viola, cello and cello respectively. No matter that of the three, only Isabel is training to be a professional musician; the musical link is there. At Christmas, the three children used to read through chamber music for fun; it was a melting sight.

So, apart from all the arguments for a musical education that are regularly put forth – music, we are reliably informed, is good for both brain and character development, as well as for a child’s happiness (it’s true that a child humming Mozart is likely to be a happy child) – I would say that some sort of connection with music is an overwhelmingly positive feature in family life. Of course, our family is exceptional in that we three siblings chose music as a profession; but that is not at all essential. Music is something that everyone in the family can share – either as players, on whatever level, or as enthusiastic listeners, telling the players how wonderful they are.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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