Alex James: The Great Escape

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If all goes well this morning, I'll get "The Entertainer" ticked by Mrs Swann, my piano teacher, meaning I'll have finished Piano Book One. It's taken about 18 months of lessons. Learning how to fly only took a year. Mrs Swann says the biggest challenge has been teaching me to play quietly. As she points out most weeks, piano means "soft". Once you hit 30, life becomes one long and sometimes difficult quest for soft, I suppose.

"The Entertainer" is a pretty sophisticated piece of music. I'm wondering whether to move on to book two, or to do book one again. Book one's really got everything you need for pop music. The pop bubble's a primary kind of a place. A good pop record is a just bunch of crafty gypsy tricks. The producer's assistant on the last record I made had a degree in music, but in 15 years of making records I can't think of anyone else I've worked with who has had any tertiary musical qualification. All a singer needs is a big mouth, and bass players get by on haircuts and grins. Guitarists mostly have some idea of what's going on, but not enough to hold you back. Keyboard players invariably know everything and are usually best avoided. Ben Hillier, who I'm writing the opera with, has some sort of drum doctorate, but, as he says, being a great drummer is not about being able to do anything fancy, it's about being able to do the simple stuff, really, really well, like Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon. This was confirmed by Madness' drummer, Woody, whom I met recently. I told him I was having drum lessons. He said, "You don't need drum lessons, no one needs drum lessons. Drums go bum, smack, bum, smack. That's it." He then got me to sing some Madness songs and accompanied me with bum smacks. He was right.

Piano's a bit more tricky, but I enjoy going to Mrs Swann's. She is a most distinguished lady of a certain age. I don't know how a house could be as tidy as hers is, or as wonderfully quiet. Until I moved to the country I didn't know any old ladies. These days I couldn't get by without them. They're the backbone of rural high society. Daphne did the flower garden. She called last Saturday to tell me her garden was on the cover of Country Life. I said, "Wow, ours is on the cover of The Times Magazine. What are we going to do now?" She said she was going to have a gin and tonic.

It's rained every day for as long as everyone can remember and the garden looks fantastic. It looks its finest when it's just stopped raining, but it's still cloudy. The colours of the flowers are more vivid under a grey sky. The best thing about the rain is that it's filled up the lake. I've been waiting until I could be sure it's not going to leak away to buy some trout, but now they've beaten me to it. They've swum up the swollen stream and arrived by magic. If it keeps raining we'll have them in the cellar, too.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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