Review: Soundscapes

Inside a creative mind


By Paul Robertson
Faber & Faber, £15.99

Paul Robertson, a remarkable violinist in the full flush of middle-aged vigour at 55, is shaving in his lovely farmhouse home in Sussex when a devastating pain shatters his body. It is the beginning of weeks of unimaginable anguish.

Brought back from the brink by a team of NHS surgeons, specially convened on a Sunday, his rare aortal tear is operated on and his life saved. In a few weeks, he goes from energetic musician and impresario to someone who simply fails to recognise himself in the hospital mirror:

"I thought that an unknown, sick old man must have come in with me. My body was appallingly emaciated, my face almost skeletal, and my shoulders, once broad and full, had collapsed. I looked like a starving prisoner of war."

Almost worse is his mental state. In a prolonged coma over many weeks, apart from one beatific vision of a benign goddess, his mind fills with grotesque images of dark pits of desperate humanity, or slick, uncaring apparatchiks intent on his destruction. Panic and terror dominate his recovery

Yet, from all this, Robertson - founder of the Medici Quartet - has created a delightful memoir full of bizarre anecdotes, intriguing thoughts and, most of all, amusing stories.

What begins as an alarming attempt to explain the nature of our place in the universe - after a welcome death, we unite in harmony with the cosmos - turns into the story of an extraordinary man's life and its deep links to the music that has always been his guide.

Paul Robertson was born in a caravan in Oxford (he recently opened a college department there only yards from his birthplace). His mother was from a Jewish family of Russo-Hungarians (the only contact he had with them was at a disastrous barmitzvah where she wrecked the event with a blistering attack on her own sister and the presiding rabbi). His father was an itinerant Geordie Marxist given to preaching, Jeremy Corbyn-style, on the nature of the corrupt capitalist state. But, unlike his modern counterpart, he was, it seems, a sweet-natured man who suffered excruciating angina all his life. When he and Paul's mother married, he was a genuine tramp.

It seems Paul's mother's family had a penchant for "men of the road," having taken one such vagrant into their London house on condition he helped with the housework. Paul's mother became quite enamoured of this quiet educated man - who turned out to be Eric Blair, the future George Orwell.

The family lived on very little money and when Paul's eccentric Armenian violin teacher decreed that a new violin costing £80 was vital to his continuing development, they did the pools to pay for it. Paul worked out a code based on Mozart partitas and kabbalah, and they won - £80.

Snippets of Judaism crop up, along with early erotic encounters, in this engaging, guileless book as Paul emerges as an intuitive musician with a spiritual but endearingly candid personality.

Sadly, Paul Robertson died on July 26 just after the book went to press.

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