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.

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

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser