How the creator of the Eden Project started out

He started playing the piano at two, but, thanks to a "lazy eye" that blurred the dots, his Moonlight Sonata sounded more like a blues. At Durham University, he and a fellow student, the guitarist Charlie Skarbek, put together a band whose first booking was at the poshest of the balls. The gig proved brief: the strobe lighting went berserk, they went to pieces, and the head of the college offered to double their fee - if they stopped playing. "We got a bit better," he says.

After graduating, he and Skarbek landed a small songwriting deal, but it failed to keep the dole at bay, largely because they played difficult chords instead of a danceable 12-bar blues. Their last gig was at a Dutch club fittingly named Exit. It began with Skarbek swinging his mike round and accidentally smashing a punk's teeth. It ended with the sound system crashing on to the drums.

"Then we had our big break," Smit says. "My sister-in-law came to babysit with her friend, Louise Tucker, an opera singer." They knocked out a demo with Tucker and sent it to a Dutch record company. In 1981/2, Midnight Blue was No 1 in 13 countries. Single and album sales reached seven million. "We peaked," Smit says ruefully. They did another bestseller, After the Storm, and then moved into production for Manilow, Twiggy and Alvin Stardust.

He hated the flying involved, and the people in the music business - the rudest he has come across, says Smit: one moment they're your best friend, then they won't phone you if your next record isn't a hit.

He moved to Cornwall with his family and began setting up a recording studio. One day, he was taken into the Heligan estate and the rest is horticultural history [Smit uncovered the "lost" gardens of Heligan]. Yet he does not dismiss the skills picked up in his decade in the music business, particularly the marketing aspects. It is salutary to have learnt that you may always be a "fag-paper's thickness away from catastrophe". And he knows how not to treat people. Best of all: "I still play the piano when I get the chance."

The Eden Project's new education centre opens this summer

jonty@jonathansale.com

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