John Walsh On Monday: A song in their hearts and stars in their eyes

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The Independent Online
I THINK it was when the Transylvanian strawberry blonde started doing the witchy-quavery bit from Carmen at 2.05am that I began to see the point of this singing malarkey.

Things had been going OK around the piano before she arrived, although not sensationally. The Resting Actress had made a reasonable fist of "Rocket Man", the Record Company Executive had had a bold try at "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight". But the Writer had forgotten the lyrics half-way through "My Girl", and I myself had abandoned "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" after making an unexpected hash of the line, "If you would only love me- ee-ee like you use to do-oo-oo-yeah."

The Piano Player, Roddy, had started eyeing our group coldly, as if he'd suddenly rumbled that we were not, after all, a sensationally talented professional close-harmony sextet travelling the country giving impromptu renderings of recent commercial hits, but just a gang of slightly plastered late-night friends behaving as if auditioning for Stars In Their Eyes.

Then the strawberry blonde arrived. Her accent was American, but there was a throaty, rolling-Rs undertone that breathed east-European sultriness. She paused by the piano and surveyed our glee-club harmonies with amusement.

Her long hair was streaked a la 1987 Madonna and cascaded around her in mad tentacles. Her date went to the bar to get some port. As I plodded through "Heart of Gold", she hummed a sophisticated harmony, with the air of a duchess running a finger along a dusty escritoire. When the Writer and the Resting Actress began a duet of "Kooks", she beckoned to me. "Dollink," she said, "what is this Kiddie Korner stuff?"

It's a song David Bowie wrote for his little boy, I replied. That's why it's a bit childish. Do you, er, sing anything yourself?

She raised an eyebrow. It was time for action. She leant over the piano and had a word in the Piano Player's ear. He seemed to tremble with anticipation.

She shook her streaked mane as the minor chords began, and launched into Bonnie Raitt's "Love Has No Pride". Seven minutes later, she was still singing it. Hands extended, eyes shut, face contorted, lipsticked mouth twisted with passion, she was giving it a lot of what musicologists call "welly". She was sending notes swooping and diving in all directions like strafed infantrymen, while the Piano Player - a man clearly now in the grip of colossal amour fou - followed her every vocal curlicue as if magnetised or bewitched.

She was, it turned out, a nightclub singer called Scarlett from the vampiric end of Hungary, who had sung torch songs to audiences in Manhattan. She was that rare sight in the bar where we congregate - someone who can actually sing. She put us all to shame.

But we've been doing our best to sing for some weeks now, and that is something. The bar is in a fashionable London club where most of the punters simply drink, smoke and fantasise about their own 13-part series. There's been a piano in the bar for years, but the pianists mostly played slushy wallpaper music.

Then the new guy arrived, with a repertoire of soul and Motown and blues classics, and gradually people sitting near by started humming, then muttering the chorus, then singing a whole verse, amazed at their intrepidity. Now it's commonplace to walk through the club, past a dozen delirious faces singing, "Take another little piece of my heart", as if their lives depended on it.

Do you know how extraordinary it is to see English people singing together? It's a phenomenon as extreme as the Five-Legged Bandicoot of Saddleworth Moor. The Irish sing all the time, so do the Welsh, likewise the Scots - but not the English. Most English people can't sing, but they're uncomfortable with singing as an activity, anyway. They don't like having to "join in", as if there were some viral taint about doing so. Once, the English would sing around a pub joanna or sing along with music-hall artistes. But that only meant that singing became branded - in middle-class minds - as irretrievably working class.

For English people, communal public singing is for football crowds and worshippers. And someone singing unaccompanied in a pub is a self-announced drunkard. English people never know the words to songs beyond the first chorus - even the words of carols,

the only songs they regularly sing outside a church. Heaven knows how Mick Jagger and Robert Plant and Elton John ever discovered they had voices, although when they found they could carry a tune, the voices were instantly transposed into American.

Because both of my parents were Irish, I sang from the age of five or six. You couldn't argue about it. You had to stand there in the living room, looking ludicrous in your blue floral dressing-gown, and sing The Bard of Armagh in your piping treble.

Refusing to sing meant you were being English, stuck-up, too grand for your elders and betters. It was an effective form of coercion, and you discovered how to carry a tune and remember the words, even if you sang as flat as a CD.

Umpteen years later, it has started happening again with our little group around the club piano. In our crew is a genial tyrant from northern England, one of those people who, while he himself contributes only a low and rumbly "Me and Bobby McGee" to the general convivium, gets everyone else to sing by flattery or brute force. Through his persuasiveness, we discovered one of the waitresses was a natural blues shouter, that the crop-haired lesbian at the bar had a voice like early Marianne Faithfull, and that one of the guys on reception could enter a Barry White soundalike competition in which Mr White himself would come second.

And you get to meet the most extraordinary people. The other night, I wound up singing with a blond Irishwoman who was the dead-spit of Imelda Quirke in The Commitments, the Dublin dreamboat who aspires to being a backing singer. It was a very Stars In Their Eyes moment. "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be the blond one in The Commitments." Then it turned out that it was her - or at least it was Angeline Ball, the actress who played Imelda. I gazed into her gorgeous china-blue eyes. Look, I said, me and a few friends who sing round this piano every week, we're thinking of starting a band. You wouldn't like to be a backing singer, would you?

I'VE BEEN worried sick about Prince Edward. Have you seen the wedding list he and Sophie Rhys-Jones concocted after spending hours at Thomas Goode last week?

It suggests a couple who have only a limited connection to the real world. I'm not referring to the expensiveness of the list, although I myself would balk at paying pounds 105 for a single, own-brand teacup (without any guarantee that the saucer is included). I'm talking about the shocking redundancy of some of his choices.

They're asking for a Bang & Olufsen entertainment centre with a wide- screen television and video, which also has a combined CD, tape and radio system. They're also asking for a CD player. Oh, and a combined television, CD player and radio. Oh, and 14 speakers. Have they gone stark staring mad? Have they considered the chaotic state of their living-room when they've installed three CD players, two televisions, two radios and a video. Even with 14 speakers, they cannot hope to derive enjoyment from having three records on at the same time. And 14 speakers seem to be evidence that Prince Edward has wholly misunderstood the point of stereo, which is to have sound coming at you from two directions. Just two - not more than two. Having 14 speakers is not going to make records sound better, unless they're recordings by an unusually wide orchestra.

Then there's the tea service. Asprey & Garrard - very nice. But apart from the folly of asking someone to spend pounds 8,800 on a teapot (what does one say when brandishing it? "Shall I be Queen Mother?"), they're requesting a milk jug costing pounds 10,000 and a "small milk jug" at pounds 3,925. Edward, Edward, one protests silently, just the one milk jug, surely? Having different sizes of milk jug is evidence of petty-mindedness, like decanting HP Sauce. If you're having formal tea, use a big milk jug that won't run out. If you're having tea by yourself, use a milk bottle like the rest of us. Did they teach you nothing at the Really Useful Company? And as for the notorious pounds 3,110 tea strainer, what do you think teabags were invented for? Who the hell last used a tea strainer? Should Sophie and Ed also have included bedwarmers, cigar divans and anti-macassars on their must- have list?

And when you buy that damask tablecloth or that silver hip-flask, and want to have the royal recipient's name embroidered or engraved thereon, remember that the Prince now styles himself "Edward P". Though the royal household is trying to dissuade him, he's started signing himself Edward P, in emulation of his great uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who became Edward VIII. Apparently, you're only allowed to use the "P" if you're Prince of Wales, not just any common-or-garden prince. But I like it. Edward P is cool. It instantly aligns him with other groovy people whose surname is one letter: Kenny G the saxophonist, Mel C the singer, Ice T the rapper, Bruno S the Berlin lavatory attendant who starred in the movies of Werner Hertzog, and, of course, the great prototype, Joseph K, hero of Kafka's The Trial. For the Prince to align himself with a man who, without actually doing anything wrong, spends a lifetime being accused, vilified and ridiculed by unseen and nameless forces, is an act of striking empathy, or my name's not John W.

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