It is not easy to find out how Norman Mlungisi Mkhize, the youngest of six children of a Durban warehouseman, a black boy in apartheid South Africa, ended up rebuilding the pianos of leading pianists and orchestras in London. And with a white South African assistant.
'I think Richard needs a fact or two,' said his English wife, Catherine. She spoke in the tone of one who, many times, has seen Norman display his brilliant repertoire of characters and places, successes and failures, incidents of love and luck. She knows the magic of it and loves it and its creator. But she sensed my frustration when Norman began every reply a long way from the question, bounded off through several anecdotes, doubled back through a couple of hilarious memories (giving on the way his fierce opinions on good manners and the future of South Africa), and seldom ended up anywhere near an answer.
So I do not know how old he is (neither does he), nor when he came to Britain, nor how he came to own the Islington Piano Galleries. But I do know that he was raised in strict Zulu tradition. 'My aunt brought home a gramophone. I thought there were little people in there so when she went off to work I took it apart. But I was too little to put it together again. When she came home it was in pieces all over the floor. I was beaten - past the point when you know there is pain. Being brought up a Zulu is like being locked up in a cage, it's very strict, very dogmatic.'
Norman was named Mlungisi at birth; in Zulu it means 'the one who fixes things'. He began his career by taking the family clocks apart. After the clocks and the gramophone there was nothing mechanical in his life until he got a job sweeping the Lyric cinema in Durban. Then it was the film projector. 'My life came back to me.' It was a sort of African Cinema Paradiso.
The cinema later became a theatre and Norman flourished in that, too, designing and painting sets. But he attributes his success to his school and his mother: 'When people ask me how a black from South Africa can set up a piano business in London, I see Loran school and my teachers and then I see my mother sitting like the Queen of England telling me what to do and teaching me respect.'
The theatre was taken over by a man named Cecil Hayter who later paid Norman's fare to England. 'He was one of the most important people I have come across - and he taught me everything about pianos.'
Working at the theatre meant that Norman was often out late at night in the white part of town. For that he needed a special pass, but sometimes he forgot it or the police did not believe it was genuine. Time and again he ended up detained or in prison overnight. He decided there was little future for him in South Africa.
After 23 years, what does he say about racism in Britain? He laughs. 'What happens is this: I answer the telephone, 'Norman here', and someone says, 'I've got a piano which needs to be restored'. So we discuss it and make an appointment. A couple of days later I knock at their door and someone opens it and says, 'What do you want?' And I say, 'I've come to talk about the piano'. Then there's a gap - you can count one, two, three. Then they say, 'Ah . . . they've sent you'. So I say, 'We spoke on the phone.' Then it comes: 'Oh, you must be Norman]' ' He collapses in laughter again.
Had he ever lost business because he is black? 'Sometimes, especially among French people. But I don't care, I don't need their business, the French don't have nice pianos anyway . . . But on the whole England is full of clubs with signs outside which are not written. You can embarrass yourself badly by walking into a place only to find out you are not welcome. But it's all class really - nothing to do with race.'
Catherine, the daughter of a diplomat, met Norman through the Yellow Pages - she was looking for a piano tuner. Last year Norman went back to South Africa for the first time in 23 years and took Catherine and their three children. 'You could see white people looking at us, me, then Catherine, then the children, and you could see them thinking: 'Apartheid only ended a year or so ago - so where were these people? What have they been doing? But mostly the whites thought I was just the driver.'
Norman says the whites' treatment of blacks has changed immensely. 'In the old days I was hit by a white man just for walking on the pavement. Now things have changed so much. My niece says she sometimes walks along the pavement and deliberately bumps into a white person just to hear him say 'I'm sorry'.'
He was ecstatic about the reception his family gave to Catherine. 'I wanted Catherine to see real black people and it was wonderful. She was welcomed with open arms - it was perfect. They killed a sheep and did all the wedding dances for her and presented her with the Makhote mat - the mat a bride is given by her new family.'
But could they live in that sexist, chauvinist Zulu society? Norman begins: 'It isn't really like that . . .'
This is too much for Catherine: 'Oh, Norman . . .' she begins. He doubles up with laughter. This is an argument they have obviously enjoyed before.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content