The harmonica: the perfect instrument for the travelling melancholic to play

Sometimes the artistic soul blossoms only in solitude.

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My time in the MacHovel is drawing to a close, and I must make plans. To this end, I have decided to visit That London again, to do a bit of cat-sitting for a friend. Just as spring is cautiously, hesitantly poking its nose around the corner of Scotland. (It is proving most hesitant indeed. As I write, hailstones the size of Tic Tacs are bouncing off the window. I am glad to be indoors, and that the central heating is finally installed and up and running.)

Not for the first time, I find myself astonished at how happy I am in the countryside, although it has to be said that I don’t take as much advantage of its charms as I ought to. I should be taking long walks – let’s face it, that’s pretty much all there is to do in the countryside if you’re not actually working – up and down the glens and whatnot. But, just as when I lived in the middle of London and ignored more or less every civilised amenity it had to offer (apart from the Wallace Collection, which was free and five minutes’ walk away; and even then I eventually ignored it), I decide to save it up for later. Also, hailstones.

I could, I suppose, go out and look at the stars a bit more on clear nights, but even though they are amazing I kind of know they’re there now, and I am happy to stay in front of the fire chatting with friends on the internet or watching Line of Duty.

One thing for which I have used my situation to good advantage is to practise the harmonica. I forget when I got it; but it seemed like the right thing for the travelling melancholic to play. However, it is more about therapy than music, and I would not like to play it in front of anyone who was sober. There was a Jeeves and Wooster novel in which the latter repairs to the countryside in order to play the banjolele; I find myself in a similar situation. Sometimes the artistic soul blossoms only in solitude.

But oh, Scotland, am I going to miss you. It’s not just the landscapes, it’s the people: the high level of civility and courtesy, the general level of intelligence. It’s nice to know that when you chat to anyone round here, the chances are they didn’t vote for Brexit. I never got the whole golf thing – but nobody’s perfect.

It’s an odd feeling, the thought that I might be coming back to London at a time when I am also seriously considering staying put in Scotland. I know a woman who gets sexually aroused by the words “Leicester Square” (long story) but the days when I considered London the only place in the world worth living in, with the possible exceptions of Paris and New York, are long gone. (Another possibility, for a few months at least, is Brighton, which I love. My friend B— called me the other day and told me how he’d been clearing out his flat and had discovered two antique Colt revolvers hidden behind some pipes in a storage cupboard. When he went to drop them off at the local police station, he noted that the duty sergeant had green hair. “Typical Brighton,” he said, although this anecdote is also typical of B—. Things like this happen to him more than is statistically probable.)

But the anxiety is that for the foreseeable future I am going to be once again at the mercy of the winds of fate. It’s been nice having a place of one’s own for almost a year; one gets used to little luxuries like one’s personal kettle, or a postal address, or a doctor’s surgery. An incipient twinge at the back of the mouth the other day made me wonder whether it was time to register with a dentist up here, but now I wonder what the point would be. The twinge has gone, thank goodness, and touch wood it won’t come back again, but the larger fear that I have is for my sanity. The political situation has apparently been driving everyone crazy with anxiety but when I add to this a radical uncertainty about where you are going to live, and how long for, I begin to marvel that I am not falling to bits.

Is the countryside soothing in itself? “I couldn’t stand London, the pace of life is so fast there,” is something I’ve heard quite a few times while up here. But when I lived in London, right in its beating heart, I found I could quite easily potter along at 0mph.

I suppose what I will miss are the hens. There are three survivors of the Terrible Fox Assault of 2018, plus three newcomers. I hadn’t seen them for a couple of months – it was too far, and too cold, for it to be worthwhile – but when I went down to visit them the other day with some leftovers the three veterans ran to me with wild cries of delight. (The newcomers, on the other hand, huddled among themselves in a corner and looked at me warily.) As I dished out the grub, each one of them, by turn, came and gave me a single peck on the boot, as if to say “howdy”. I almost burst into tears. How am I going to tell them I am leaving? l

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure