The road that I live on is a friendly sort of place. It’s not too long and not too short, with only one way in and one way out. It is home to an assortment of cats who may or may not deign to pass the time of day with you, depending on their mood and depending on the day. The human residents are generally less contrary and wave and ‘hello’ in a neighbourly way. Some of them have known each other for years, like the ladies who reside at the ‘no way through’ end of the road. Every Wednesday they set out along the pavement together, bound for the shops or the bus stop. A slightly infirm older women version of ‘here come the girls’, from the Boots adverts.
Spencer the sausage dog is a more recent addition to the street. He and his humans travelled all the way from South Africa to live in the house with the bright blue door. He likes to have his silky ears tended to whilst the humans talk thoroughly above his head – mostly about how his poor back is coming along and whether he’ll soon be able to walk the length of the road on his own four feet, rather than being pushed along in his dog chair. Yes, dog chair. I was ignorant of the invention of such transport before I met Spencer, and am ashamed to say that my mouth did hang open for a second or two upon my first encounter with him. He was wearing a green camouflage coat, insulated against the lack of Cape Town sun, sitting upright in his ‘pet stroller’, a slow moving smiley grey haired lady at the helm. I imagine the Victorian houses looking on blinking at such shenanigans, as they probably did when cars first appeared on the street and telegraph poles were planted. Nowadays, Spencer in his chariot modelling the latest in canine couture -he has quite the wardrobe- is a common spectacle on my road, although I remain incapable of squashing my smiles whenever he is rolled into view. He has rather a supercilious air about him as he sits there high above the ground, for a sausage dog, lording it over the lesser, wheel-less animals.
Across the road from me on the ‘odd’ numbers side of the street is a handsome detached house. Years ago it was owned by a lovely Mr. Whippy haired old man who lived alone and knew all about everything that went on in the street. This was perhaps largely due to the considerable amount of time he spent leaning over his front gate, absorbing the life of the road, watching over the lives of its inhabitants. He did love a good natter, and captured his neighbours for a chat whenever possible – a wave and ‘hello’ not quite cutting the mustard. During one of our over-the-gate conversations I discovered that his late wife had been a dancer. She had acquired lots of sheet music over the course of those dancing years, which had ultimately come to rest in the loft of the detached house. My lovely white haired neighbour suggested that perhaps I would like to have the music, being a musician and so handily placed to carry it away. He had no use of it, he said, it was just sitting in boxes gathering dust. And so it was that I became the keeper of the old music.
I love a rummage through a box of old things. I love the anticipation of the unknown. What I most love is the story that goes with it. When my chap’s mum had a sort out of old table linen I was only too pleased to rehouse some of it. Admittedly I don’t regularly use the pretty white tray cloths, but I love that such things were invented for that use, back in the day, and that I am their caretaker. It is a lovely feeling to flap out one of the old tablecloths and see it settle comfortably over my table, knowing that it belonged to my chap’s nan and is still being used all these years later. The boxes of old music, with their fusty aroma and dust filled creases, held just such intrigue and promise. Lifting out a handful of soft paper, some of it age nibbled around the edges, it became apparent that these were more ‘handle with care’ boxes rather than the ‘rummage at will’ kind.
Some of the music is ripped and the spines of many of the fatter ‘book like’ music pages are carefully held together with wide matt brown tape. Despite its fragility and thinness of paper, most of the music is in playable condition – although would not survive a fast page turn! There is a mix of song music, with piano accompaniment, and classical piano music. Medleys of fox trots, marches and waltzes share their box with Rachmaninoff and Brahms, as well as compilation piano books, like the splendid no nonsense ‘Difficult Pieces for the Pianoforte’, priced at one shilling. None have the glossy covers or slippery pages of todays printed music. The paper has a brushed cotton feel to it, and even though I have been the new owner for some years now, it still smells old and musty.
The song music is a soft papery pile of music treasure. The title pages are works of art in their own right, a mix of black and white photos with blocks of colour, coloured drawings and bold lettering. Many of the songs were made famous by performances in musical theatre, on stage and in the ‘Radio Pictures’ of the time. The boxes are brimming with Novello, Berlin, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Lerner and Loewe. Fred and Ginger dance in black and white across various coloured song covers, beaming and elegant. A baby faced Frank Sinatra smiles out from the 1940’s on the covers of miniature-sized sheet music, each with a different background colour. A trio of songs from ‘My Fair Lady’, with pale pink borders and cartoony drawings of Eliza and Professor Higgins, found their way into frames and onto my wall. They make me smile every time I look at them.
Behind every piece of music there is a story. How it came to be written in the first place, the influences of its creation, the composer’s background. In the case of the eye-catching song music – who are the people in the photographs and were the beautiful women with the perfect hair that smiley in real life? I was compelled to dabble with a search engine and delve into some of the songs and composers that I came across in my boxes. One could very easily become addicted to such investigation, and fancy oneself a music detective and lose hours of each day without even noticing. The deliciously sentimental title, ‘I May Be Wrong…but I think you’re wonderful’, was impossible to resist. The cover has a heart shaped aperture with black and white photos of a man and woman within it and a dark red background. Words – Harry Ruskin, music – Henry Sullivan. According to the Internet, the song was written on demand for John Murray Anderson and was included in the musical revue ‘Murray Anderson’s Almanac’ in 1929. Apparently Anderson believed that the best songs were written when under pressure, so he locked the composer in a room with a piano and threatened to keep him there until he came up with a hit! When eventually set free, Sullivan had written what turned out to be the most successful number in the show – it ran for sixty-nine performances on Broadway in 1929.
As keeper of the old music my duties were never discussed with my lovely old neighbour, he just needed to hand it on. I am glad though that the music has been gently rummaged through, inhaled, admired and googled. The title pages are too interesting or beautiful to confine them to the boxes. I feel the urge to decorate every wall of my house with them, like a more aesthetically pleasing version of the newspapered walls of a womble’s burrow. Perhaps I should take out a second mortgage and have every piece framed, and then display it all in an exhibition. And how about a series of concerts, where all of the music is performed and people can dance, or not, as they choose?
The detached house on the odd numbers side of the road is home to a family these days, but I often think of my Mr. Whippy haired neighbour when I look across the road at it. I wonder what he would make of the blow up snowman that bobs about in the front garden of the house each year, and the fairy lights in the laurel bushes. Perhaps he would smile and shake his head and say it was a sign of the times, though I’m pretty sure he would have a stronger opinion on dogs in pushchairs.