Monday, July 29, 2013

The Performance

The moment I saw the venue, my hands went clammy and a cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. 

As we swept up the wide staircase, my brain had already spun into a spiral that matched the brown swirly carpets, and by the time we entered the cavernous hall, with its rows of white-covered chairs facing the window, I felt sick to the core.

It wasn’t the wedding, of course: that was a joyous occasion, with small children playing games on the floor and uncles and aunts getting tipsy in the Saturday afternoon heat. It could not have been a nicer or more original event. The bride wore purple and each table was beautifully decorated to represent a different literary genre (the groom is something big in publishing). 

What had churned up my stomach, at least until the alcohol took effect, was the memory of another occasion almost 50 years before. It was the last time I was in this vast room, when I faced the music and lost. 

The Assembly Rooms is a large Georgian edifice near Newcastle’s Central Station. Quite why I had been entered for the piano competition, I don’t know. Maybe my music teacher, a sweet, balding man called James Liddle, thought it would be good for me. I was 13, I think. 

The room of terror - set for a more traditional wedding
Back then, the chairs weren’t covered in wedding white – they were brown and wooden. Hundreds of people sat in rows facing a stage with a large walnut grand piano. The other teenage competitors, their ambitious parents urging them on, were brilliant, each performance more spectacular than the last. 

When my turn came, I was a bundle of nerves. Knight Rupert by Schumann, it was called. How I hate that piece to this day, with its wretched semiquavers, cunningly placed to catch small fingers out. Well, unrehearsed small fingers anyway. 

Quite what I was expecting, I don’t know. I guess I thought it would be like my piano exams, with a sole kindly adjudicator patiently helping me through my scales and giving me a pass from generosity rather than merit. I certainly didn’t expect a huge audience, particularly one in which all but two members were urging me to fail. 

They were not disappointed. ‘Tranquillo’, was the instruction in the sheet music: calmly, 80 beats per minute. But there was no metronome, only the hectic fluttering of my heartbeat. Maybe that’s why I took the thing as such a lick. 

I stormed through the piece with both pedals hard down, the one to merge the bum notes together, the other to quieten the sound so as not to draw attention to the mistakes. This, when combined with the echoing room (its wooden dance floor no absorber of errors), created such a messy cacophony that, when I hit the semiquavers, the entire performance derailed. It was an unmitigated disaster. 

The judges were polite but firm: it was awful. Simon Cowell could not have been more damning. My parents squirmed in their seats, while the rest of the audience smiled smugly. From that day to this, although years later I manage to pass my Grade 8 with distinction, I have never dared to perform in public. 

Not so Joe Bewick. Never heard of him? You soon will. 

At Saturday’s wedding he was the groom’s son and best man. A somewhat gawky-looking teenager, with hair perched at an angle and giant shirt cuffs sticking out of his suit, when he rose for his best man’s speech, we feared the worst. 

“I really want to thank my Dad,” he said, “for teaching me everything I know about… well, you know… love and stuff”. 

Then he paused and added sadly, “I’m single”. It brought the house down. 

He was brilliant. Though only 15, he turned out to be a real standup comedian – which is exactly what he wants to be when he leaves school. The image was part of the act. By the end of the speech we were all in stitches. 

I hope he’ll remember the Newcastle Assembly Rooms fondly as his first major public performance. Unlike mine, I’m sure it won’t be his last.

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