The Diary: James Naughtie

The conductor Valery Gergiev decided this week not to try to be in Milan and London at the same time, and I was surprised. There is no one more famous for letting his brilliance shine through last-minute arrangements and mad dashes across the world. Is he getting more sensible?

He had won the disc of the year at the BBC Music Magazine Awards (for a stunning account of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on the London Symphony Orchestra’s Live label) and was considering attending the ceremony. But he was conducting at La Scala in the evening. Could he make it? Even he concluded that three hours door-to-door from the awards ceremony at Kings Place in London to the pit in Milan was pushing it. An impressive piece of common sense.

It’s easy to caricature classical music as a divided world. The maestros at the top, zipping around the world, and at the bottom the struggling young artists who can’t get recording contracts unless they have some selling point that has nothing to do with talent or commitment. The good news is that it’s not true. This year’s BBC Music Magazine Awards were evidence of this: wonderful recordings, young artists galore, a confidence about standards, even amid the gloom that has descended on the arts.

The occasion also allowed me to reflect on a dilemma. I had been to a London auction room the night before the awards, with a determination not to get carried away. I nearly came unstuck, and rather wished I had.

There was a Broadwood square piano for sale, probably from the last decade of the 18th century, mixed up with the stuffed birds, the chairs with stuffing coming out, the sea pictures – there are always sea pictures – and a surprising number of pieces of G Plan furniture (“the antiques of the future”, we were told from the auctioneer’s podium). The piano was sad, its innards half-missing and half-tangled up, its box a little twisted and its keys looking like an elderly Scotsman’s teeth. But it was still a square piano – the newfangled machines that Mozart discovered, and that Beethoven and Schubert played.

I started to bid with the hesitation of the buyer who’s going to have a bad night. It was clear that a woman behind me was going to get it, and did. I was defeated without even feeling the satisfaction of making her pay more than the piano was worth.

The next morning I awoke with the relief that I wasn’t going to have to explain how a rickety, unplayable large piano had joined the household. Yet such objects are precious, because they hold the memory of performances, of music that has passed through them and brought them to life. As much as a night in the concert hall with Gergiev, they are a reminder of the transcendent moments that music represents.

Who knows, maybe another, similar, piano will pop up. Next time, no mistakes. I’ll prepare a corner for it, just in case.

I picked up an unexpected volume the other day from a second-hand bookshop: the wartime diaries of the newspaperman Cecil H King, with the spectacularly misleading title With Malice Towards None. Misleading, because it would not be unfair to sum up King’s later diaries, when he was a newspaper proprietor, by substituting the word “none” with “everyone”. Never mind. I bought the book because of an entry from June 30 1944, where the page seemed to fall open.

It tells of a German doodlebug landing on the Aldwych, hitting the Air Ministry first, describing dozens of corpses lined up and bleeding girls coming out of Bush House. I was struck by a feeling of an ever-more intriguing set of coincidences. For this attack was almost certainly the one in which my father-in-law (whom I never knew) sheltered behind a double pillar box on the Strand, which saved his life. Our children always enjoyed looking at the shrapnel marks that are still visible on it and musing on the vagaries of fate. Without that box they would never have been born.

We subsequently discovered that a Fleet Street friend lost his father in the same attack, and a little time ago I discovered that the poet Dannie Abse was on a bus coming up the Strand when that bomb came down. Then a medical student on the way to a dissection class at King’s College, he saw it all and many years later wrote the poem “Carnal Knowledge” about those events.

King was a diarist with an ear for a good line. He describes a woman from a nearby greengrocer’s shop, surveying the rows of bodies, saying: “Hitler’ll get hisself disliked if he goes on like this!”

When my father-in-law limped into a pub in Essex Street after the blast, covered in dust, he would have cut a striking figure because of his limp. He’d lost a leg in the Spanish civil war, an event which has its own spooky links. Many years after her father’s death, my wife discovered the name of the British surgeon who’d done the amputation on the battlefield. That doctor turned out to be the grandfather of one of her closest friends, and the father of the best school chum of a dear journalist mentor and companion of my own. As the years go by, the world appears to get smaller.

Smaller, and more familiar. This week we’ve begun to move into a home in Edinburgh. I have always been wary of the belief that we all eventually make a journey back to source, like a salmon swimming across the world to a Highland stream to spawn. But just as coincidence can seem less of a Hardyesque set of artificial collisions – and something closer to the way things really are – so I’m conscious of a pull that is hard to resist.

Edinburgh is not my home city but I find that with the years comes a feeling for place that gets stronger. It’s long been a joke in our family that when the train crosses the river Tweed at Berwick, the clouds lift from my countenance. And, my voice starts to revert.

Maybe it’s the perfect balance that we all strive for. A working life that will keep to the same pattern – and must, faute de mieux, be mainly metropolitan – but that has an anchor elsewhere. I won’t get tedious about the coincidences I’ve discovered about the Victorian architect who built our Edinburgh house – but I’ve found half a dozen already and expect more to come along any day.

Let’s just call it a natural discovery of life’s connections. I am trying not be too dreamy about it. The main connections I’m concerned about, after all, involve East Coast trains. Just as it is life-reviving to arrive in Scotland in spring sunshine with a tang in the air, so it is to get to London without setting foot in an airport. If you run into me at Heathrow, something’s gone wrong. Flying Scotsman? Only when necessary.

James Naughtie presents the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4

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