Craig Brown

Diary - 3 October 2012

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This week sees the 30th anniversary of the death (or ‘untimely death’, as death is now invariably known) of Glenn Gould. The fame of most classical musicians tends to wither when they die, but Gould’s seems to grow and grow: his grave is the most visited in Canada, he has appeared on The Simpsons, and not long ago in its apparently straight-faced list of The 100 Most Important Canadians in History, Maclean’s magazine ranked him the No. 1 artist in the world. Such posthumous blossoming makes him rather closer to a rock star, which is, in all but the most literal sense, what he was. In fact, he makes most of today’s rock stars look doggedly conventional. He hated Mozart, sunshine and Italian opera, and loved tomato ketchup, overcast skies and Petula Clark. He was a rabid hypochondriac, taking a briefcase of pills, a bottle of disinfectant and a blood-pressure kit with him wherever he went: he once hung up the phone when he heard his friend sneeze on the other end of the line.

When he still performed in public — he grew to hate audiences, describing them as ‘a force for evil’ — Gould refused to wear the customary white tie and tails, preferring to appear in scruffy clothes and mismatched socks, his shoes held together by rubber bands. He would then play his piano from his special low chair, sitting just 14 inches from the ground, so that his knees were a good deal higher than his buttocks. Thirty years on, his fame has increased but for some reason his influence hasn’t. Classical musicians remain studiously starchy. One might have expected Gould’s influence to have liberated them, but far from it: the pious aura of the Sunday school still hangs over classical concerts. We should be grateful, though, that, in at least one area his influence has been so negligible. He was a rotten driver, generally driving with his legs crossed whilst singing and conducting from a score open on the passenger seat. He couldn’t see what was wrong with it. ‘It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion,’ he once protested. ‘But on the other hand, I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones and never gotten credit for it.’

Jack Straw certainly wouldn’t approve of Glenn Gould’s grubby, rubber-banded shoes. In his autobiography, Straw confesses to what he calls ‘a clean-shoe fetish’, incessantly brushing and polishing his shoes whenever he has a spare minute. In a footnote, he outs Ernie Bevin and Neil Kinnock as fellow Labour shoe-polishers, and names Tony Blair as the owner of ‘the most extensive shoe-cleaning kit I’d ever seen’. Jack or Glenn? Smart or scruffy? On the great shoe divide, I’m firmly with Glenn. Shining shoes is as loopy as washing cars, or cleaning trees. People with well-polished shoes generally have something to hide, just like those with ostentatiously firm handshakes, and those who spend too long looking you straight in the eye. If in doubt, think what Lord Archer would do, and do the opposite.

Was it the political shoe-cleaning fetishists who gave rise to the current mass hysteria about dogs’ mess, or ‘poo’ as it is now more familiarly known? I am all for making us dog-walkers pick up poo in parks or on pavements, but nowadays it’s hard to escape bossy signs everywhere depicting dogs bending over messes, replete with curvy lines, presumably to indicate a stench. Poo-ist vigilantes are everywhere. The other day, my dog had just squatted in the middle of the countryside, well away from the path, at least half a mile from the nearest house, when a jogger suddenly appeared from behind to announce that he had spotted Pip pooing, and telling me to ‘clear it fucking up’. I pointed out that this was the countryside, where, as Julie Andrews might have put it, the hills are alive with the mess of rabbits, cows, birds, badgers and horses, with mess they have pooed for a thousand years. But before I had burst into song, he called me an ‘arrogant bastard’, threatened to beat me up, and jogged away. But this militant pooism has, as it were, backfired. Many dog-walkers have picked up the wrong end of the stick. Nowadays in rural car-parks, or next to bottle banks, there is the horrible spectacle of piles of knotted plastic bags, each with a dog poo preserved inside for ever. I am now thinking of taking a leaf from Glenn Gould’s book: as a child, he kept a pet skunk.

Last week, Charles Moore argued that the police must have put the word ‘pleb’ into Andrew Mitchell’s mouth. But if it wasn’t pleb, what was it? It is easy to mis-hear. Another of Mitchell’s friends has suggested to me that it might have been ‘plod’. Or could it have been ‘Peg’, ‘celeb’ or ‘deb’? Only the most effete police officer would want to be known as a deb. I only hope that it wasn’t that most offensive of all current insults, ‘Clegg’, or Mitchell could be facing a long spell behind bars.