This week on my blog, I’m looking forward to a jolly local event at my parish church, St Mary’s Hawkesbury. The active community life in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton provides me with an endless supply of story ideas for my light-hearted, humorous fiction set in the Cotswolds.
When Colin Dixon told me he’d booked the Port of Bristol Shanty Crew to sing at Church Farm House on Sunday 23rd July as part of the Friends of St Mary’s Summer Weekend, my first thought was, “But Hawkesbury is landlocked”.
My second thought was, “What exactly is a sea shanty anyway?”
Tight writing deadlines in the last few months have meant I’ve got way behind on my blog – so please excuse me if I now have a quick catch-up to shoehorn in two articles I wrote for the Tetbury Advertiser in November and December, before I run out of 2022! This article was written for the November 2022 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser. I’ll post the December one tomorrow.
A recent free concert at St Mary’s, Tetburyby the St Cecilia’s Singers provided a lightning tour of four hundred years of Anglican choral music, from Tallis to Tavener. Listening to the music, I gazed up at the soaring windows and ceiling, remembering from school history lessons that Gothic architecture was designed to draw the eye heavenward. St Mary’s high box pews reminded me, as box pews always do, of earthly coffins. Memento mori all round, then.
In October I was invited to take part in some medical tests by the research organisation Biobank, for which I’m a longstanding volunteer. I’ve taken part in various tests for them over the years, most of which have been short and uninvasive, but my latest call-up was for a whole afternoon of full-body and brain scans.
Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.
Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.
A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.
Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.
At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.
Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity. Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)
My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.
The stress kicks off when the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones, but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.
The Antidote to Stress
Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table. Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one source of stress that would bite the dust.
Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights? I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone. Then, each night before bed, I could check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.
Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.
Less Stress For All
My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.
You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.
I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo of all time: Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.
The only thing worse than hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on the piano is hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on a piano that is badly out of tune.
At the turn of the year, my daughter acquires this party trick from a school friend who has learned it from her cousin over Christmas. Chopsticks spreads like a virus among children. There can be few who are naturally immune. Roll on the day when the MMR vaccine gives way to the MMRC – Mumps, Measles, Rubella and Chopsticks.
But as this vaccination has yet to be invented, I decide the most effective remedy for my household is to get my piano tuned. My previous tuner in Bristol having retired, I scour the internet in hope of finding a new one closer to home. To my amazement, I discover there’s one in Didmarton – virtually on my doorstep. A phone call later he’s literally on my doorstep, toolbag in hand.
Clearing the photos and other debris from the top of the piano, I explain to him the history of my particular instrument. As I do, I realise why I’ve been so tardy in getting it tuned: I’m worried that it’s now beyond redemption and will have to be written off. A humble “cottage upright”, it’s not a valuable instrument, but it is precious to me.
Exactly a hundred years old, it belonged to my beloved grandmother, who was born in 1900. Her stepfather bought it for her when she was about eight – the age my daughter is now. In her twenties, she took it to her new marital home in Sidcup. (I can still picture the piano in the corner of her dining room, family photos and trinkets on the top, and I often dream that I’m back in that room having tea.)
Her husband, my grandfather, was a gifted musician, too poor to afford a musical career, but music was always his passion, passed down the family line. Unfortunately his musical genes passed me by, but I did eventually gain the piano. It went first to my more talented cousin, whose skills soon outgrew the instrument’s powers. A trained opera singer, she played this piano at my wedding reception.
That I have chosen the right piano tuner to revive this family heirloom soon becomes clear. He reveals that his mother was also born in 1900. When I tell him my daughter’s name is Laura, he immediately begins to play the eponymous tune, which I’ve never come across before, declaring it to be his favourite. When she comes home from school, Laura will be thrilled.
Lovingly he coaxes the piano back into good order. He suppresses the squeaks that had lately haunted the pedals. He handcrafts new wooden shafts that give new voice to keys that had turned dumb. In turn, little by little, he brings each note back to just where it should be in the scale.
And then comes the grand finale: that fabulous moment when he shows off his handiwork by playing pieces that test every note on the keyboard. It’s the piano tuner’s equivalent to the typist’s quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog.
Even if there is no cure for chopsticks, this is a most effective antidote. Thank you, Mr Felton – and may there be many encores.
This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, a great place to find a piano tuner and many other friendly local service providers!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in another post about how my lovely Grandma, contemporary of the Suffragette Movement, taught me to value my right to vote: