November 2, 2012 6:51 pm

Mind the gap in standards

What pieces are acceptable out of a modern pianola? Not the plebeian Chopin nocturne or ragtime by Joplin

Sir David Tang, entrepreneur and founder of ICorrect offers advice on questions about property, interiors – and modern manners for globetrotters

You wrote about trains recently and complained that their modern designs have turned for the worse. I, like you, love travelling by train but I find them dull and even dirty. Have we passed the point of no return?

I fear the days of cosy compartments with comfortable quasi-armchairs in velvet have now gone – irretrievably and sadly. No more romance with drifting steam separating the forbidden affair between Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in A Brief Encounter with Rach 2 pounding away in the background; nor murder mysteries to be solved by Miss Marple on the 4.50 from Paddington. The modern carriage is now all laid bare in open plan, lit in harsh fluorescent white lighting, has seats in drab grey cheap leather with plastic arms, and abortive bits of orange triangles sticking out as handles for fat passengers wobbling to and from a buffet counter stuffed with junk food. Worst of all is the night sleeper to Scotland, from which one would have expected a modicum of comfort. Instead, when I went on it recently, I was confronted with grime and filth around the corners and along the sides of the bed, which was made up with a plastic underlay that was more hospital than hospitable. The boiled sheets and blankets and pillow cases might well have been the preliminary sketches for Tracey Emin’s famous installation. The so-called breakfast came through on a plastic tray with biscuits in wrappers and weak tea in a flask, with enough fingerprints on it to have given a forensic expert a bonanza. It is such a forlorn sensation to go on a train now that I positively try to avoid it, when years ago I would have looked forward to it. I notice that even the number of train spotters has decreased, probably because the designs of the modern train have become so uninteresting and ugly that they are no longer worthy of logging – plus the perennial delays, which must have tested the patience of even the hardcore spotters. We need to bring back the glamour of the Blue Train, or the Golden Eagle, or the Orient Express, even if it means the occasional murder, so long as we have Monsieur Poirot on board.

. . .

I would like to correct you that in India, as in other parts of the world, Indians eat Indian cuisine by hand but eat western food using knives, forks and spoons as the dish demands and eat Chinese, Japanese and Thai food using chopsticks. It would be as ridiculous to eat Indian food with western cutlery as it would be to eat noodles with a knife and fork.

Unless I am blind, I have witnessed many Indians in Indian restaurants and homes eating Indian food with cutlery and not with their hands. As I am not blind, you must be wrong! But the point is that curry is a great human invention of which the Indians should be very proud – although in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, the culprit laced his curry with arsenic in order to kill off a couple of heirs who were in his way. We Chinese are a bit more careful: as a precaution, we use silver chopsticks that tarnish when they come into contact with poison. Maybe Indians should silver-plate their fingers if they become suspicious of any relations or friends wanting to bump them off.

. . .

A friend of mine has a white grand piano placed in his drawing room, with the lid permanently open, even though nobody in the family plays the instrument. The keyboard, however, has one of those automatic machines that functions like a pianola. When switched on, a Chopin nocturne or a ragtime by Joplin springs to sound. Acceptable or not?

I cannot think of anything more unacceptable. For a start, you can only have a white piano if you were either Liberace or John Lennon, because they were both over the top – he with air-conditioning in his garden through which he walked in his heavily sequined white tie; and Lennon going around naked with his Yoko Ono and hanging a Dalí above his lavatory. Otherwise, all pianos should be in black, preferably a nine-foot Steinway or that Bösendorfer with three phantom white keys in black at the bass for perfect balance*. A Chopin nocturne or ragtime by Joplin should always be avoided because they are plebeian and excruciating if they ring out of a modern pianola. The piano is not a piece of furniture, nor should it be camouflaged as a hi-fi; it is a beautiful instrument that demands to be played. Unless you inherit one or play one, you should not have one, any more than you should have a double-bass or a French horn hung up on the wall as sconces.

*In the interests of editorial accuracy I have to reveal that, despite David Tang’s hifalutin answer, he tinkles the plastics on a utilitarian electronic keyboard while entertaining at his Hyde Park residence. Ed.

**In the interest of space, my Börsendorfer is at my house at Eaton Terrace and too big for my garden chapel. D Tang.

Email questions to david.tang@ft.com

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