I wandered aimlessly west and south until I was quite near Oxford Station in London, and caught the sound of piano music on the breeze. Not just any piano music, Binky, but solid, rhythmic tunes, heartily played. None of this George Winston stuff, or piano lounge faux jazz. Songs, Trevor my lad, actual songs with verses, written more than forty years ago. People gathered around the piano and sang along with whatever the accompanist played. There was a WWII medley, including one I had not heard but found easy to learn, about Hitler having only one ball. There were a smattering of old show tunes, quite a bit from ragtime and flapper eras, a Tom Lehrer tune… all quite jolly. The people knew each other but were quite welcoming to me.
The pianist was a small man in a battered blue blazer, smoking tiny hand-rolled cigarettes -- they were legit, I checked. He comes in most Thursday and Friday nights and plays as long as he feels like. There were a very few people in their 20’s, more in their 30’s, but most of us were 45+. The bar was full and most other customers paid no heed to the 20 of us singing. This struck me as odd at first. Why come to a pub where people sing old songs if you aren’t going to give at least half an ear? In time the mystery explained itself, as individuals from across the room were invited by name and with scattered applause as certain songs were begun. When finished, they usually requested another song be played, sang it, and sat down.
Pale ruined choirs. None of us had excellent voices any longer, though some were still good. I thought I remembered this population from theater parties after musicals or Gilbert and Sullivan productions, oldsters trying to reimpress for one more night. “I used to play for Garland when she came through DC,” they would mention casually on the way to some other story. But they looked at you hungrily, hoping you would ask about it. Vain people, horribly trapped in their own lost talent.
There was something calmer about this group, just happy to sing with each other. The musical ear remains good long after the throat is shattered, and these talented people must have heard what years of whiskey and tobacco and talking over pub crowds had done to their voices.
Yet there were no apologies for not being as good as they once were. It would have seemed out of place, somewhat naïve, drawing us back to the old world, when such things still mattered. To apologize for a strain in range among a people who have long since ceased to measure their range would be embarrassing. It would be akin to chuckling “I was always such a trouble to them in the Westminster Abbey youth choir” -- a false humility, worse than arrogance. For a long minute I misunderstood this atmosphere, worrying that the vocal deterioration was the one awful secret that should not be mentioned. Too much exposure to psychology; I pathologize all I see. Reading Pinter produces the same effect.
This group had it right. Of course we’re all washed up, mate. What of it? If you stop to bother about that you’ll miss the next song. They all may have once sung with someone Known, been one of the many thousands who brush the edge of importance in the music world. I hope these aren’t the only few who escaped through the flames. I fear the others are still dropping names and places, hoping for a moment of admiration. These simply sang, and then sang more.
It may have been a glimpse of heaven and hell. Certainly the hellish picture is much like C.S.Lewis’s portrayal of hell in The Great Divorce, with the unrelenting preoccupation with one’s place and importance.
We will all sing in heaven -- I always thought we would have magnificent voices, but perhaps not. Perhaps that would be beside the point.