Never mind the pubs reopening, I thought as I was watching the news. It’s the library I’m excited about. I survived the past three months with books I found by the side of the road or was given by sympathetic colleagues, and I made it through, but at the end of the day I need a steady and reliable supply of new reads to be happy. Or even slightly tolerable for those around me. So when my local library reopened on Monday I was one of the first to queue up. I wasn’t the only one who considered the event an important one. A journalist from the local paper showed up halfway through and interviewed fellow readers as they patiently waited to get their first library fix in months.
As expected the experience wasn’t quite what it used to be. With face masks, a one way system and a limited assortment of books available things didn’t feel like they’d gone back to normal. A lady near me complained: books had been put on shelves in no apparent order, so taking your pick was difficult. I also took less books than I’d intended. It seemed polite to leave some for others.
I solely relied on my intuition when picking books and the resulting pile looks promising, even if I only have the faintest idea what some of the tomes are about. It was very much a matter of take what you can get, not what you really want. A bit like going to the supermarket during the heydays of hoarding (remember those?). But the benefit of this haphazard approach turns out to be that I’ve stumbled upon a real gem. I always love it when that happens.
I had never heard of James Rhodes, so I didn’t know he was a concert pianist. I know next to nothing about classical music, so I’d never heard most of the pieces he is talking about before. I have no musical training or talent whatsoever so I didn’t understand any of the technical terms he uses. But boy, what a wonderful book Fire on All Sides turned out to be.
Fire on All Sides is a tour diary of sorts. Rhodes reflects on the aftermath of the – difficult! – publication of his memoir Instrumental and the pressures of touring. His story is really too complex to summarize in a few lines, but let it suffice to say that his life is complicated and touring exacerbates his mental health issues. The topic seemed oddly appropriate to my own situation at the moment. I’m fortunately in a good place right now, but I’m running a mental health training training at work, and several people close to me are struggling with some form of mental health condition.
For Rhodes, classical music is the one thing that keeps him going, in spite of everything. This premise could easily have turned the book into a sugary self help manual, but Rhodes hates those, and his dark sense of humour and no nonsense attitude keep his narrative pleasantly down to earth. His story is uplifting without being overtly optimistic: he acknowledges that his struggle is real and unlikely to end any time soon. But as long as he can play, he writes, there’s a space for him where he can feel safe and find joy. More than that: it is a space he can share with others.
I’ll certainly check out his other books – apart from Instrumental he has published How to Play the Piano, which apparently does what it says on the tin. In addition to that, I’m seriously considering to learn more about music. As it stands, I can appreciate music, and I do, but I can’t read or play and don’t understand its technical terms. For years this has been one of these things I wanted to explore but never did due to lack of time. Inspired by Rhodes and his incredible passion I’m cautiously considering giving it a go.
As lockdown is very slowly easing and things are gradually moving back to some semblance of normality, I’m beginning to realize how much of an effect the whole situation has had on myself and everyone I know. And it’s unlikely to end anytime soon. More than ever I feel that we all need beauty and positivity, a way to connect safely, something good and nourishing to focus on. Rhodes has convinced me that music can be one of those things, I don’t think I’ll ever be a concert pianist, or even a moderately okay amateur. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s the joy that counts.