Monday, August 20, 2018

Knightsbridge March

The other day I went to interview a wonderful young musician in order to write the booklet notes for his next disc. We had an hour to talk about a very great composer, the challenges he poses, the eternal appeal he holds. The musician in question lives in Germany and was staying in a hotel in Knightsbridge, so I trotted off to the tube and got off at a stop I visit perhaps once every two years, if that. I wasn't quite prepared for what I found up at street level.

Start your week with the Eric Coates 'Knightsbridge March', above. It'll put you in a better mood than what follows, beneath. Because Knightsbridge is not like that now.

What and who exactly is Knightsbridge 2018 for? When I was a kid (OK, a long time ago, but not that long, surely?) it was a place we'd sometimes go to for fun on a Saturday afternoon or a day off in the school holidays. We'd park the car in a side-street and wander through the Harrods sale or the food hall, where my dad might buy matjes herrings or some sponge biscuits, and my mum might throw her hands up in horror at the tastelessness of its fake-Egyptian decor and the ostentatious displays of wealth on show. We might walk up the main streets looking out for an affordable shop in which to trace a good bargain on something useful like a smart raincoat or winter boots. I'd been to Knightsbridge, too, on a couple of dinner dates in the 1990s - one occasion that was a date date in a beautiful brasserie that I've never seen again, and once with a friend who worked for a music management company: we took the octogenarian Shura Cherkassky out to Boscht'n'Tears, a Russian restaurant that had apparently been a flourishing institution in the 1960s. That was an evening I'll never forget...about 25 years ago.

You know those designer shops in airports where the logo is huge, the clothes are literally chained up and there's nobody inside? That's Knightsbridge today, only it has knobs on. Sloane Street is a parade of fancy names - Prada, Zegna, Gucci, et al - and it's not as if you'd dare to go in if you're a normal kind of working journalist in your jeans and cardigan because there are what look like actual bouncers, never mind a security lookout, on the door. Anyway, why would you go in? The shoes are hideous: I surveyed some cream-coloured patent leather ultra-high heels with what looked like receipt spikes for heels, wide ugly-pink ribbons to tie them on and the label's logo in huge letters all over the back. Why would anybody want to wear those? How much might they cost? These places don't put prices in the windows. Who are these shops for? What are they for? What is the earthly use of them?

This was a Saturday afternoon, in August, when London is teeming with tourists. There weren't that many here, other than a large tour party of French students looking into the windows and laughing fit to bust. Some other interesting languages and accents did go past me, including Russian and Arabic. Occasional groups of women - mothers and daughters in some cases, ferocious people in heels in others - wore expressions of boredom, ennui and get-outa-my-way. A few clusters of youngish men in dark clothes, talking hard but doing nothing in particular, strode past: my guess would be chauffeurs off duty, or security bods in disguise. There was no traffic to speak of, except a few long, low vehicles in shiny black and gold zooming up and down making their engines roar for the heck of it. Who are the people who do that? What's the matter with them? Haven't they got anything better to do? If you'd watched McMafia, you'd have had the distinct feeling you were on its set and you'd have expected a film crew to turn up any moment. It didn't. This shit is real. This shit is happening in my city.

My musician and I wandered out to look for somewhere to sit quietly and talk music. The hotel had a posh restaurant, but no quiet place to get a cuppa. There was nothing, but nothing, on the main road. Eventually we went into Harvey Nichols - a shop that used to be pleasant and browsable with one's sister back c1995 (I even had Karina and Lindy going to 'Harvey Nicks' for a fun girls' outing in Hungarian Dances, written in 2006-7 - I doubt either of them would bother now). Everything is so beautifully presented in there that it's scary even to approach a garment to look at a label; you can't help thinking how excellent it would be if that amount of aesthetic care, expertise and money were to be put instead into the presentation of concert halls, theatres, colleges and schools.

We ended up in a coffee bar in the basement and did the interview. Yesterday afternoon I transcribed it and ended up with a splitting headache as I tried to disentangle my soft-spoken interviewee's words from the more than usually hideous thumping, wailing, deafening electro-pop music that blared out over us throughout.

The vacuity, the emptiness, the arrogance, the ostentation, the prices, the soul-deadening noise... What a place to talk piano concertos. My musician spoke gently, shyly, about the joy this music always brings him when he plays it, about the incredible, colourful range of emotions it contains, about how he and the conductor first met. And eventually I delivered him back to his parents at the hotel, and zipped back to the tube station. On the way home I stopped at the supermarket, where a young Romanian sells The Big Issue at the door and the well-heeled donate boxes of cornflakes or tins of spaghetti to the food bank collection point on the way to the car park, and picking out my fish and salad for supper I found myself wondering exactly how much money is being laundered though London these days and what will happen to places like Knightsbridge when we leave the EU, as I fear we really will next year (unfortunately I have no confidence in our politicians' competence to stop the madness before it's too late).

Meanwhile, there's this: many people in the British capital who have jobs can't afford to eat.

After our inevitable crash-out Brexit, when the medicine can't get to us and people start dying, there may well be a revolution. And then I will be pleased I saw Knightsbridge in 2018, because soon it won't exist any more. I'll remember, to tell new generations, what unchecked greed did to a once beautiful city. And then I'll listen to my young musician's recording, with all its sensitivity, humanity and communicative, poetic beauty, and I'll remember that that's why we went into music in the first place. The music will last and while we have it, God willing, our souls will stay intact.