'It was damp in its joints, hamstrung and hipshot.
It still had a grubby mouthful of elephant.
The casewood hankered
after the big trees of empire.'
There were moments as I read Sleeping Keys, and this poem was one, when I suspected Jean Sprackland might have been to our house and had a look round, and if you have a piano, an old creaking one like ours that weighs a ton, then the opening to the poem Moving the Piano will resonate with you too.
It was the 'grubby mouthful of elephant' that made me smile...yes, that is it exactly.
A family friend went out to buy Brillo pads many years ago and came home having bought a grand piano. We were much more organised, having planned for and bought this one about twenty five years ago for £100 thinking we had three children who would go for lessons and be doing Grade Eight. As it is only Offspringette expressed an interest in learning and then didn't want to take any exams, how people tiger-mother and cajole their children into doing things they don't want to do I really don't know. I think the piano had seen a few years in a pub and it cost as much again to have five men collect and deliver it, but it is a good quality Bluthner upright and yes, as solid as an elephant.
Our elephantine-mouthed dust-harbourer is firmly ensconced in what was the sitting room, but which is now Bookhound's study. I say ensconced to give it a sense of permanence because if we ever need to move it we need to summon the strength of youth to assist. Worse is moving it to a new place, a decision never to be taken hurriedly or lightly, and then realising that it looked better where it was... another decision that obversely has to be made on the spot while the 'help' is still around.
'It was all stubborn resistance,
groaning and slubbering, innards jangling...'
We had a lot of repair work done to the hammers and pads back in 2001 but it hasn't been tuned for a few years now, on the basis that we aren't perfectly pitched or musical enough to tell the difference when it has. Bookhound is the only one to caress thump a tune out of it and by a musical method uniquely his own; the piano seems to have a memory of its pub years and reverts to type, being much happier with beer tunes than Bach.
I wrote to Bluthner some years ago because it has labels and serial numbers. Back in 1993 they held index card records for every piano imported in the previous 120 years and Bluthner were able to locate the record for this very elephant, number 39813. It was manufactured in 1894 in a Rosewood case, and supplied to a distributor, Stockley & Sabin who we think were in Birmingham. Imagine how many lumbar discs might have been slipped down the years getting it as far as the Shire.
Bluthner very kindly sent along some history including an original catalogue entry for our Overstrung Upright Grand, and its Compass of 7 octaves, along with a quote from Sir Henry Wood...
" The Bluthner Pianofortes realize my ideal. Every nuance of emotion felt by an artist can be expressed on these unique and sympathetic instruments.'
Well quite, this is more or less what I say to Bookhound each time he plays.
And each time we do move the piano...yes it does, as Jean Sprackland suggests, 'stink of old felt and lamentations.'
'and it would be a dead weight, passive as an invalid,
knowing its time had gone, but wanting only
to be left alone in its own home,
in its own wavering patch of light
while the clamorous room fades
to a tinnitus of dust and dead wasps.'
And then I think about this row of different 'sleeping' keys...
Musical ones lying dormant and unplayed...
By this time I am feeling bad about cursing our piano for harbouring so much dust, and for the day it conspired to conceal a live mouse brought in by Rocky, and for regularly losing the veneers on its 'teeth', and so I take out the duster and the polish and I smarten it up...and Bookhound comes in and plays a 'version'... maybe let's call it a 'likeness' of Moon River, and I love the Bluthner all over again.