Notebook: Piano world from major to minor

Ian Jack
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:05

WHERE DO you find a good second-hand piano? Perhaps this question occurs only once in a family's lifetime, usually when parents feel that their young children need to begin seriously to annoy the next-door neighbours; and last week it occurred in ours.

We consulted the Yellow Pages and found a place quite close by in north London: J. Reid Pianos, Tottenham, ("Well Worth a Visit"). We drove to a shabby main road in N15 and there, in a warren of workshops and showrooms stretched across a couple of early 19th-century houses, found a great storehouse of pianos: old, new, grand upright, English, German, Korean, Chinese.

Nowhere else in Britain are so many pianos, of so many different kinds, gathered together on a single site. And nobody else in Britain (I suspect) knows quite as much as about the trade in pianos as Mr Jimmy Gregory (aka Reid), who has been dealing in them since 1933. Today his family, two sons and a daughter, Susan, do most of the business, but he still comes up a couple of days a week from retirement on the Sussex coast, just to keep his hand in.

Before I met Mr Gregory I had two principal images of pianos. The first: a man with floppy hair throwing his floppy jacket-tails over the back of a stool and flexing his fingers. The second: small girls with sheet- music cases being led by their mothers up the garden paths of music teachers.

Pianos, in other words, were filed in my mind alongside "artistic temperament" and "elocution lessons". There was only a small history of them in our family. My father had been sent for tuition as a small boy shamefully stuffing the music up his jersey so that his friends wouldn't see, but he got no further than "The Fairyland Waltz". (All further musical progress was curtailed when, as a young apprentice, he had a finger knocked off by his foreman, who aimed a sledgehammer at a bolt . . . and missed).

An encounter with Mr Gregory revised these ideas. There is nothing at all fancy about him. He wears a flat cap and a woolly waistcoat and, as he said more than once, he started in the piano business on nine bob a week. That was when Tottenham and adjacent parts of north London turned out thousands of pianos every week as the capital of the British piano industry. Wood came up the River Lea on barges; spruce for the sound boards, pine for the keys, walnut or mahogany for the casing. Mr Gregory's father was a timber porter on the wharves. North London was then making furniture for the world. A Tottenham firm, Rebus, had the biggest furniture factory in Europe. The manufacture of pianos, which, uniquely, are pieces of furniture as well as musical instruments, grew up naturally alongside the making of sideboards and armchairs. Local foundries moulded the internal iron frames. Mechanisms came from specialists in Camden Town. There were piano factories in dozens, and this is not so distant history. "There was Brasted's and Challen's and Barrett and Robinson," Mr Gregory said. "At Brasted's for the Christmas season they sometimes did four hundred a week."

"And the Warwick Piano Company and Kemble's in Stoke Newington," said his son John.

"Rogers . . . Hopkinson's . . . Reevley's," Mr Gregory went on.

You can read these names on the lids of the uprights which the craftsmen of J Reid have restrung and reconditioned. Plain pianos, art- nouveau pianos, art-deco pianos (though no arts-and-crafts pianos; "in demand", said Mr Gregory). They're now part of London's industrial history and a reminder that London, contrary to the received wisdom of northern Britain, was once a city that made things. (For the record: in 1961 London employed 1.6m workers in manufacturing industry, about a fifth of the total for England and Wales; today the figure is about 300,000.)

Mr Gregory said: "People forget. Between six and half-past-eight in the morning around here all you heard were factory hooters." He made a whoo- whoo sound.

So what happened to all this industrial production? A part of the answer is plain to see in J Reid's backyard, where big cardboard boxes stand after they have been unpacked from containers delivered by ship to Felixstowe. The labels read Korea, China, Indonesia. Pianos are assembled on moving belts in these countries, by workers who keep up alongside on trolleys.

Mr Gregory first saw pianos from the Far East at a music fair in Frankfurt 30 or so years ago. They were "a quarter of the price and three times as good" as Tottenham pianos, so he bought one and showed it off in a local factory, where the manager said: "What do you expect, Jimmy, they work for a bowl of rice over there." And Mr Gregory said he replied: "Well, the way you're going, you won't even be having a bowl of rice."

The Tottenham factories fell in their descending scale. major key to minor, throughout the 1970s. Today there isn't one left. Yamaha has an assembly-plant in Milton Keynes, and one or two small manufacturers struggle on elsewhere in England, but even Broadwood, perhaps the most distinguished British name, founded in Handel's day, has its products made in Malaysia.

Cheap imports, however, don't entirely explain the British piano's decline.

Germany still makes pianos and manages to sell them for five times the price of the Korean equivalent: pounds 15,000 for a good German upright, anything from pounds 34,000 to pounds 80,000 for a good German grand. Steinway in Hamburg, Bechstein in Berlin, Bluthner in Leipzig, Bosendorfer over the border in Vienna.

Mr Gregory spoke admiringly of Germany's musical traditional, its craftsmanship ("If you're buying a Steinway, don't get one from the New York factory"), and the German public's unwillingness to settle for second-best. "You can't beat the Germans," he said, even though he was part of the army that once did, landing in Normandy and pushing east via Arnhem to the Baltic.

No, in Britain something else went wrong. We made too many pianos, perhaps too cheaply, and then fell out of love with them in a big way. All of Mr Gregory's working life has been spent struggling against inventions, first the gramophone, then the wireless, then TV, now the electronic keyboard, which have displaced the piano as a piece of parlour furniture and entertainment in what he called the "pound-noteish" classes.

And, as his son John pointed out, the piano as a consumer durable is just too durable. It lasts several lifetimes. A decent upright, sold for 15 guineas in the 1920s, can be overhauled in J Reid's workshops and sold today for fifty or a hundred times as much. But for a long time they were junked in skips or broken to bits in piano-smashing competitions.

Even in recent times, the decline has been steep. In 1989, Britain bought 11,118 new pianos; in 1998, only 6,855 new pianos. In France (let alone Germany), they sell about 40,000 a year. If it weren't for Chinese families and the people of North Wales, who in John Gregory's estimate buy more pianos per head of population than anyone else, then the British figures would be even worse.

We went round the workshops and saw the techniques of piano adjustment and repair. John Gregory explained the mechanisms and the various methods of construction; the benefits of under-dampers as opposed to over-dampers (the small pieces of felt that stop the wire ringing after the finger has been lifted from a key); why over-stringing is better than straight- stringing; how sound-boards can crack.

Twenty men work here. It must be among the largest place of its kind left in Britain. It almost certainly owes its survival to a vanishing notion - the family business - and perhaps to the fact that the Gregory children are half-German. After his regiment reached the Baltic in 1945, Jimmy Gregory got some hot water for his tea from a German girl, and married her. Whether J Reid Pianos ("Well Worth a Visit" ) will pass from his children to his grandchildren is a different question. The lack of skill and expertise in Britain troubles him. He said: "The attitude of the English workman is, `That'll do'. It's getting so hard to get labour. Nobody wants to spend five or six years learning a trade. That's what's going to kill the business." Recently, said his son, they'd advertised for an apprentice in the Job Centre. The advert had been up for a year. There hadn't been a single inquiry.

Sometimes, to demonstrate an instrument's tone, Mr Gregory would spread his 80-year-old fingers across the keys and press out the first bar or two of an old popular song. It was a wonderful, sweet sound. I felt my house had been missing something.

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