I am driving down to Wiltshire on a Wednesday morning, listening to Radio 3, and for some reason the weather forecast presenter Siân Lloyd is invited to choose a piece of music and say why she likes it. She chooses Handel's The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and the general drift of her appraisal is that it never fails to cheer her up. "All the blues just melt away," she says. Normally I would at this point snap the radio off or change channels but I think: well, let's see. I could do with some cheering up.
Hard to Handel
It doesn't work. Ms Lloyd must either have successfully banished unhappiness from her recall, or have an unusually sunny disposition. But then again, how was she to know that the reason one of her audience was at that moment failing to be cheered up by Handel was that he was driving to a friend's funeral? A couple of days later, it occurred to me that as that person was a musician, and quite a few of the people driving to Wiltshire to remember him were also musicians, some of them may well have been listening to the same programme and being not cheered up by it, too.
Robert never expressed an opinion about Handel to me - but I have a feeling he would have considered him beneath even his contempt. As a rule, he didn't like German composers at all, although I once sprung a recording of a Haydn piano sonata (Hob. XVI no. 50, in case you're interested) and he admitted to liking it. The novelist David Flusfeder once wrote a piece for this very magazine in which he got Robert to explain why Mozart wasn't necessarily the sublime genius he is generally assumed to be. ("The sweet sound of piddling on flannel", 26 July 2010.) Robert, a musician of extraordinary gifts - he was given a half-fellowship at Oxford at the age of 17 - made a good case against Mozart, but the comment of his that struck me on rereading the piece was that Mozart's structures "appeal to people who like their lives to be highly ordered". It made me smile then and I smile again now.
Robert did not like his life to be highly ordered. Most 16-year-olds at Oxford, I would imagine, would be pretty intimidated and knuckle under; but Robert was given his half-fellowship in spite of never getting up before noon, pissing in the sink so often it had to be replaced and then pissing out of the window thereafter. He then spent the rest of his life being brilliant at music and scandalising people.
He never quite managed to scandalise me; I existed on the same continuum, albeit far, far behind - Robert Lite. I've never had the balls not to care tuppence about what people think about me. I certainly envied him his success with women, for despite everything, women were drawn to him.
I remember a dinner party where most of the guests were women and conversation had drifted towards him, as it often did.
“Hang on," I said, as I realised where the talk was converging. "Hands up everyone round this table who's slept with Robert." All bar two put up their hands. One of them was my wife and the other one came up to me later and said she would have put her hand up, but her husband was sitting next to her. I don't think my wife slept with him because he kept asking her, usually in front of me, to do so. It got to the point where if he didn't, I'd feel faintly insulted, or wonder whether he was ill.
And he did get ill; very ill, first with an alcohol-induced coma, which would have killed or unbrained most people and which left him unable to walk except very slowly, with two sticks; and then with throat cancer which obliged surgeons to remove his jaw and tongue. Sober, he achieved true, devoted love, peace after the hurly-burly; and his kindness floated to the top. He was one of the most assiduous of my friends in cheering me up, rather better than Handel has ever managed, after my marriage went phut; he never even pressed me for the £150 I lost to him at backgammon one day. But his operation also made him reclusive, and I curse myself for not seeing more of him thereafter.
The crying game
I learned at the funeral that to be beaten soundly by Robert at backgammon was a rare distinction. Last night, sleepless, I felt slightly embarrassed by my tears on the day; for there were others who knew him better and for longer than I who were keeping it together (although I've never seen so many crying people in a church at one time). The portrait I have drawn may make some of you wonder what on earth there was to like about this man. I assure you there was plenty. And to love.