James Rhodes Q&A: “I feel like I have a less punchable face on canvas”

The musician talks unanswered texts, George Michael and an invitation for Celebrity Mastermind.

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James Rhodes, 42, is a British concert pianist, writer and TV presenter. He survived a mental breakdown and in 2015 published an acclaimed memoir, “Instrumental”, which described his experiences of being sexually abused by a PE teacher.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting in a blue-and-white striped buggy (stroller?) feeling like I was floating. Simpler times back then, no?

Who was your childhood hero?

I really want to say Freddie Mercury but it was actually George Michael. Wham!’s biography was the first I ever read. Freddie came a bit later on. Teodor Currentzis is my adult hero. Listen to any of his recordings and you’ll understand why within four bars.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It contained so much sadness it actually stopped me thinking. Which is something of a miracle.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

None. Honestly. Fuck all of them.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. They invited me to be on Celebrity Mastermind (go figure) and I suggested this, and they rejected it because the audience might be bored. What a time to be alive.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Berlin, 1930s. I wouldn’t like it but I’d totally do what needed to be done.

What TV show could you not live without?

Frasier. It’s my anti-anxiety medication. Also Friday Night Lights. One of TV’s best-kept secrets.

Who would paint your portrait?

A few people already have. It’s always nicer than looking in the mirror. I feel like I have a less punchable face on canvas.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received? Have you followed it?

You are what you give. And yes, I’ve tried. Usually unsuccessfully but always with good intentions.

What’s currently bugging you?

The clock on my wall with the loudest tick in the world, four bars of Beethoven that I simply cannot get memorised, three text messages I have still not got responses to, endless emails, Love Island, take your pick.

What single thing would make your life better?

Cigarettes that don’t damage your health. A lack of shame. Free minibars in hotels. Lawyers acting with integrity.

When were you happiest?

I worry if I find a lovely memory I’ll jinx it by talking about it. Just imagine a quiet moment, perhaps with one other person, where you’re safe and protected and like you’re on your very own private island.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I could only ever have been a musician. A doctor would be amazing, but I’m not smart enough and the effort involved would kill me.

Are we all doomed?

Of course. But I’m hoping that finding five minutes a day of loveliness (whatever that looks like) will have a cumulative effect and I’ll eventually be one of those people lying in hospital, dying, but with a serene smile and sense of “fuck you, I won at life”. 

“Fire on All Sides: Insanity, insomnia and the incredible inconvenience of life” by James Rhodes is published by Quercus

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history