Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Bagpipes in the boot


My friend R. asked me today if I'd ever played the bagpipes. I think he was quite surprised when I said yes, I had.

Three months after starting teaching in Southampton, now many years ago, I had an unexpected tax refund. There seemed at the time nothing more prudent nor praiseworthy than to spend this windfall, about £40, on a set of bagpipes. So I did, and spent several months thereafter, mostly in the school hall after the kids had gone home, wrestling with the beastly things. Eventually I beat them into submission, and even the long-suffering school cleaners remarked on how I had improved.

Using mostly recorder fingering I mastered various pipe tunes, Bonnie Dundee, The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill, The Brown Bear and curiously named dances like Mrs Farquharson's Farewell to Towcester. In my vanity I used to keep these pipes in the boot of my car, at that time an MG Magnette, so that it would be work of a moment to take them out and give them a blow to jolly up any party I might be invited to.

Pride went before the inevitable fall. One sub-zero January night, at a party in Totton, an area of Southampton not known for its devotion to the Great Highland Bagpipe, at about 2am, just as things were livening up, my hosts invited me to blow up a reel or two and give the party - and the neighbours - no end of a treat. Out I went into the wintry night to fetch my £40-worth from the boot. (If you're reading this in the USA, and I hope you are, 'boot' means 'trunk'.) They were strangely, inexplicably, rigid. With horror I realised what had happened: naturally prey to interior condensation with all that blowing, they were frozen. Yes, frozen stiff. Lifting them out was like manipulating a dead miniature giraffe as rigor mortis sets in.

I took them inside to warm them. Attempting to ease the chanter out of the stock (see diagram above) before it had properly thawed, I split it open along the grain of the wood.

I never played them again. Later I took the chanter to a craftsman in wood for repair. He made an excellent job of the outside. You wouldn't have known there had been any damage. But it isn't the outside that matters: it's the perfect conical bore of the inside that guarantees the accuracy of the bagpipe scale. Inside the chanter my craftsman friend had, all unknowing, left little dowels and splints, globs of glue and lumps of plastic wood. The people of Totton were spared.

* * *

One reason why I left the blogosphere temporarily last autumn, absenting myself a good bit longer than I expected, was to deny myself the pleasure of posting two or three times a week when I should instead have been devoting my time to the composition of a piano trio. This Trio, a 25-minute work for piano, violin and cello, is now finished and the parts have been sent off to the musicians who are due to give it its first performance here in France on August 18th. (You can find details here: click on 'Concerts 2012'.)

It would be a delight to see any blog-friends, or indeed anyone at all, at this concert, if you happen to be planning summer holidays just now, maybe with the south of France in mind. No bagpipes, I promise.


9 comments:

Tim said...

Nobody has ever asked me if I can play the bagpipes. If they did, my answer would be 'yes'. I firmly believe that I can play any musical instrument yet invented. To what degree of competence is an entirely different question.

Vicus Scurra said...

"Accuracy of the bagpipe scale", I done a lol.
Along with Tim, (or without him for that matter, but I would prefer with him) I could play the bagpipes.
Any bugger could play the bagpipes.
In what universe could school cleaners, or any other sentient being, distinguish between one who had been playing the pipes for 5 minutes, and one who had been blowing and sucking for 60 years?

The wv, by the way, is "armflaga", which describes the movement made by the limbs of a bagpipe player, in the conceit that it makes any sodding difference.

Z said...

Ooh, Chris, I'm planning summer holidays just now! Are you saying that just on a whim, one of those "we must do lunch" sort of things?

mig bardsley said...

Is there no end to your talents?

There was a boy who played the pipes at the local prep school a few years ago. It was rather nice from across two fields on a sunny afternoon. I'm told that the reason we got to hear him was that it wasn't so enjoyable inside the confines of a Gothic/Victorian mansion.

Martin said...

Apologies for deserting your blog, I thought you'd packed it in for good.

Totton, eh? When my mother remarried, I was dragged off to Totton, and lived there for about 16 years. On the occasion when I finally escaped to Cornwall with wife and daughter in tow, there may well have been bagpipes playing in my head.

Christopher said...

Tim, you're so right. Who said anything about degrees of competence? Appearances are all. Could this be why playing the bagpipes has to be associated with all the gear, kilt, sporran, hose, brogues, sgian dubh, plaid, clasp, tunic, shoulder-boards, bonnet, eagle's feather, Capstan Full Strength between blows?

As I typed 'accuracy of the bagpipe scale' I thought if Vicus is good enough to put in an appearance, he's bound to pick up on it. But I think you ought to know that at the time referred to in this post I was 24, and I have not yet turned 80, let alone 84.

Z: No whim, of course not. I must tell you, however, that round here quite a lot of wine is drunk, that it gets quite hot in summer, that many are devoted to the pleasures of the table, that the area is mountainous compared to East Anglia and that the Trio I mentioned, while to some extent contemporary in style, contains actual tunes. In the light of all this, you might want to consider e.g. the Faeroe Islands.

Mig: No talent, honestly. Just brute effort to keep the bag full of wind.

Martin: Good to see you again. So theoretically it could have been you in the house next door to the one in which that party took place? So in consequence of a providential frost I escaped violence at your hands or instigation? And my bagpipes escaped ritual burning in the street (which would have thawed them out, certainly)?

Rog said...

My Mum's old neighbours are still fuming from her 80th birthday when, as a surprise, we marched down her road in full regalia leading a 12 person pipe and drum band. Sunday morning it was.

Sir Bruin said...

I am impressed at anyone who can wrestle a tune from a set of bagpipes. Mind you, I am at that impressionable age.
Drums were my thing until I gave it up a couple of years ago, but I used to pride myself on being able to get a sound from almost any instrument. Usually, a sort of snapping, crunching sound......

Mike and Ann said...

Good morning Christopher. We wish you a happy birthday and many happy returns of today.
Warm regards, Mike and Ann.