Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99, 416 pages
You could say Play It Again was something better not played at all. For the editor of The Guardian to write a memoir about mastering one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written while at the same time leading his paper to triumph with scoops on WikiLeaks and phone-hacking sounds unwisely self-satisfied.
At just over 400 pages, the book also sounds far too long. The jealousy with which Alan Rusbridger carves out precious moments in which to practise Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor is not matched by a similar concern for the time of his reader. If you open this doorstopper at random, you find lines such as this: “Maybe I should be using a second finger in the RH chord on the second and third beats of bar 212, not a third?”
Worse still is the fact that as his memoir hits the shops, redundancy letters are due to hit a few dozen of his staff. Rusbridger describes how he endlessly flies off to give talks on the future of the media but nowhere does he mention how his insistence that comment be free has resulted in the paper losing nearly £1m a week.
Yet, despite these discordant notes, Play It Again turns out to be surprisingly pleasing, not only to the mind’s ear but to the heart and even, at a pinch, to the soul. For a start, it isn’t about triumph at all. Instead, it is about determination – determination to do something fiendishly hard and almost entirely pointless, and having the courage to stare down failure every day.
The point of the title, Rusbridger explains, is threefold. It is about taking up the piano again as an adult, about how you must play repeatedly to get any better, and also about how “the journalist in me also likes the fact that it’s a misquote. Bogart never said it.”
More than a journalist, the man on the piano stool in Kentish Town turns out to be a nerdy fanatic, marking up the score with a 6B pencil. His obsession is both charming and infectious: I ended up taking a keen interest in the fingering of the piece and I can’t even play “Chopsticks”.
The journalist is there too and roams around interviewing every pianist you’ve ever heard of. Murray Perahia thinks the Ballade should be played as a story of captivity and counter-revolution. Daniel Barenboim describes it as slippery. Boris Berezovsky sees it as too poetic. And Stephen Hough thinks that if you watch the body of a pianist playing the piece’s hellishly difficult coda, you see that the movement of the arms looks like the ripping up of a love letter.
In embarking on this mad project, Rusbridger’s inspiration was Arnold Bennett, who in 1910 wrote a pamphlet encouraging all office workers to get up a bit earlier in the morning to pursue a hobby. Bennett did not imagine anyone working a newspaper editor’s hours of 8am to midnight; but Rusbridger not only found time, he also found the absorption of practising the piece in the early morning left him more ready for the onslaught of news that followed. With only the tiniest glint of superiority, he refers to fellow editors who attempt to achieve the same effect by going to the gym.
As well as charting his progress at the piano, Rusbridger throws us juicy morsels of gossip from the day job. He describes how the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, by then increasingly twitchy and paranoid, turned up to a meeting accompanied by a minder who wore dark glasses with hidden cameras in the lenses. He also tells how, when the phone-hacking story got particularly nasty, one News International executive sent him a roll of toilet paper with the instruction it was to be used to “wipe the arse” of the Guardian journalist who had written the story.
During the 18 months it took to learn the piece, Rusbridger seems to find a stray piano wherever his work takes him. In the middle of the Labour party conference in Manchester, he sneaks off to a music shop where there are “serried ranks of pianos, their lids up, beckoning to passers-by to have a go”. Later, in Libya, where he has gone to negotiate the release of The Guardian’s man there, he finds a ropy piano in a Tripoli hotel restaurant and plays under the chandeliers waiting for the journalist to be set free.
The constant flitting between his houses in north London and the Cotswolds (where we have to endure the progress of the building of a music room) gets a bit grating by the end. Yet, even so, when Rusbridger finally sits down to perform the Ballade, missing his own deadline by six months, I found the only truly annoying thing was that I couldn’t hear it myself.
Throughout the book he observes how the internet has changed the worlds of the amateur journalist and of the amateur pianist. On YouTube, a 10-year-old Japanese child plays the piece, watched by 10 times as many people as could fit into a Festival Hall. And there is Rusbridger, too, though most of his video is devoted either to him talking, or to his friends and colleagues applauding wildly. Play it again, Alan: let’s hear all those impossible 264 bars.
Lucy Kellaway is the FT’s management columnist