James Rhodes performs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Photo: Amy T. Zielinski/Getty Images
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In pianist James Rhodes' self-hatred, there is a compelling case for empathy

In his memoir Instrumental, it feels at times as though Rhodes is daring you to dismiss him, to find his story trivial or inferior.

Instrumental: a Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music
James Rhodes
Canongate, 275pp, £16.99

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice in his career – at the start, in 1955, and then again in 1981, the year before he died. His technical mastery had, if anything, increased over the decades and in the later version there is a swithering, autumnal colour, an aching sense of loss that you feel could only come from a musician nearing the end of his life. To the frustration of recording engineers everywhere, Gould used to hum while he played – unconsciously, he said – and somehow his gentle vocal overtones during the 1981 performance, hovering at the edge of your hearing, only drag you more completely into his perfectly voiced melody. At times, it can feel like your entire future happiness is suspended somewhere in between two of his sublimely hesitant notes.

This is the music that the pianist James Rhodes has chosen as the first and last “tracks” for his memoir, Instrumental, in which each chapter is named after a piece that has a particular resonance for him. These Goldberg Variations, he writes, “do things to me that only top-grade pharmaceuticals can achieve”. After a few chapters, you are ready to take him at his word. From the outset, it’s hard not to feel that we’re in “misery memoir” territory, as Rhodes explains how he was repeatedly raped and abused by his gym teacher from the age of six, an experience – “Child rape is the Everest of trauma,” he writes – that leads to years of self-harm, medication and hospitalisation.

He dealt with the horror by escaping, first out of himself (he learned to divorce his consciousness from what was happening to his body) and then into music. At seven, he had what he calls a “Princess Diana moment” when he found a cassette of the Bach-Busoni chaconne, an early-20th-century piano transcription of the Partita for Violin No 2, which is said to have been Bach’s memorial to his first wife. “It was like being on the receiving end of a Derren Brown trance-inducing finger-click while on ketamine,” Rhodes writes, which is something that I am absolutely sure nobody has ever said about this music before.

It is typical of the furious bluntness and belligerence with which Rhodes writes. At times, it feels as though he is daring you to dismiss him, to find his story trivial or inferior. The book received a lot of publicity after Rhodes had to overturn an injunction taken out by his ex-wife to prevent the publication of passages relating to his abuse on the grounds that they would cause harm to their son. Seeing him standing triumphant outside the Supreme Court, next to his schoolfriend Benedict Cumberbatch, you could feel the defiance emanating from him.

In his performing style and image – tattoos, cigarettes, jeans and trainers onstage – Rhodes positions himself as an outsider to the classical music world. He is often described as self-taught, too, which is not entirely true: although he didn’t go to music college, he certainly had lessons during his time at Harrow and then later in Italy. His concerts aren’t to everybody’s taste, as he likes to talk between pieces and is unashamedly positive about the music.

There is a gear change about halfway through this book where he begins to set out his manifesto for how to make classical music more approachable (he suggests dropping the “classical”, for starters). Technically, he might not be among the top flight of concert pianists; in a rare lapse of ego at one point, he describes himself as a “tattooed loser” who “plays the piano perhaps as well as a bunch of music college undergraduates but certainly no better”, but if anyone can bring much-needed diversity to concert audiences, it’s him.

Reading a memoir is always an exercise in getting inside the author’s mind, to a greater or lesser extent. For at least half of Rhodes’s book, this is a distinctly unpleasant experience. He is frenzied, wheedling, entitled and infuriating by turns. Then you realise that such is the horrific nature of the trauma he is still living with that there is no criticism you could make of him that he has not already made of himself. Extreme self-hatred is an unusual route to empathy but it is no less powerful for that. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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