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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia