Catching a train last week at London’s St Pancras I encountered a man playing a piano. You can do this at St Pancras: there’s an old Yamaha chained to the ironwork just by the lift serving the upper platforms for Sheffield and Nottingham. The instrument is somewhat out of tune but serviceable, and placed there for anyone who wants to play. The facility is generally respected: it’s not for buskers collecting money but just for pleasure — the player’s pleasure, and that of the random, changing audience who pause, hurry or amble by.
I was hurrying yet in no hurry: there was plenty of time. But you just get a bit tense in London sometimes, and hurry for the sake of hurrying. And of late, politics has got me down. I so want the Conservative party to provide good government but instead see a faction pulling us apart, and am beginning to fear the self-destruction of both the government and the party that, however fitfully, I’ve served all my adult life. I had a Times column to write, and was feeling all wound up about what to say. Jaw tight, and on edge, I was stalking past the lift (out of service) towards the up-escalator, feeling irritated that the lift was out of service, anxious about what I would write, cross with a range of Tories and frightened by the appalling mess this country has got itself into.
As I approached, the sound of the piano broke into my unease. I stopped. This soloist, of African origin, was really something. Tallish, thin and perhaps in his thirties, he looked slightly academic, almost dry; but the music, all surging chords and soaring crescendos, was at the same time romantic and triumphant. Slipping into a corner away from the human flow, I stayed to listen. A young lady who had also stopped applauded as the classical piece he played came crashing to its conclusion. I applauded too. He began another piece. On my iPhone I videoed 30 seconds of the performance, to remind me. When he finished I asked his name. ‘Ashley,’ he said, and told me the name of the piece — but I forget. He continued to play but I had to go, and left with the music pouring over me, my eyes pricking with tears.
I shall pause now in writing this, and listen again to the recording, to help bring it back. Up the escalator I went as the music faded, inhabited now by something I struggle either to define or explain.
There exists a feeling for whose precise description I know no word or phrase in the English language. Yet we must all have experienced this, sometimes powerfully. ‘Moved’ comes the closest but doesn’t quite do it. One is moved to… what? Tears of sorrow, joy, regret… but moved always to something. One is moved by… what? Beauty, longing, hope, compassion… but always moved by something. The word ‘moved’ tends to anticipate elaboration, explanation of the what, how or why. Unsupported, it stands awkwardly, asking for something proximate.
But I was just moved. I said tears pricked my eyes, and so they did, but I was neither sad nor happy, pleased nor sorry. Feeling moved did not relate to anything or anyone in the world. I felt, yes, connected to something, and the music had touched me, made the connection, but a connection, I think, to something within. All I know is that it made the things preoccupying me seem small, less important, temporary; while what engulfed me felt timeless, overarching, like the stars at night.
Decades ago, in the late 1980s when reviewing books for the Sunday Times, I was given a new autobiography for review. It was by the late Lord Mayhew: Christopher Mayhew as we’d known him as a politician. He’d been a Labour foreign office minister, later joining the Liberal Democrats, but always a free spirit. In a parallel career in the media he had tried taking mescaline for a TV experiment, but the programme was never aired.
Mayhew was unusual in politics (and perhaps unsuited to it): game for anything, nothing if not honest — too honest. His obituarist in the Independent called him ‘one of the liveliest spirits of his generation’ and went on to remark that he ‘was someone who lifted the atmosphere of any room he entered, an optimist, whose sunny good-nature survived all the conflicts and uncertainties of a life shared between politics and the media’.
I wrote my review. The Sunday Times never printed it; and I recall sad letters from the elderly author, asking if I knew when he might expect to read it.
I’m not sure it was reviewed anywhere at all in the end, but remember the focus of my own unpublished review: an attempt by Mayhew to describe exactly the feeling of being moved that I try to explain here. He said it came suddenly from he knew not where but was unmistakable when it came. Though he called his autobiography Time To Explain, he was no more able to explain this than I am.
Religious people will speculate, no doubt, on divine inspiration but I doubt it. I remember listening in the dark on my headphones in the middle of the night, on a long-haul flight amid a plane full of sleeping people, to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, and (as someone who almost never gets Schoenberg) being suddenly moved in the same way: just the feeling that Mayhew tries to describe.
Meaningless? Yes, in the sense that one is left with no better understanding of anything. Contentless? Yes, I suppose so. Without consequence? Yes, in a way: at St Pancras I was soon reimmersed in my tasks and the anxieties they bring. But I cannot escape the sense of having been momentarily lifted: from what, I know very well; to what, I know not at all. But lifted. I shall listen yet again now to my little recording, to remind myself of that mysterious, powerful, passing, evanescent moment.
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