A bullying teacher almost made our classical music critic give up playing as a child but when she switched lessons for making music with friends she discovered true delight
I had an uncle who, intermittently and not necessarily simultaneously, wore a kilt and played the violin. Each to me was exotic – twin roads to freedom from the dullness of a prosaic, southern English childhood. For a short time I took up highland dancing, with real swords and modest skill. I was seven when I begged to be allowed to join the new string class at school. Above all, I wanted the “equipment”: an eighth-sized violin and silk scarf to wrap it in, bow, spare strings, heavy wooden case with green felt lining (just as I’d wanted the kilt, jacket, sporran, jabot and special laced shoes for dancing).
The other children soon dropped out, bored by playing long, slow notes on open strings. It was deadly indeed and sounded awful. There’s no quick path to becoming even a modestly accomplished violinist. Left on my own, things progressed. The nice teacher complimented me on my “good ear” as I sawed through Will Ye No Come Back Again. I won a place at the junior department of a London conservatoire, going by myself, aged 11 until I left school, every Saturday morning: negotiating public transport, having breakfast in cafes and spending the afternoon wandering up and down Charing Cross Road, wondering at the mysterious rubber “health” objects (health meaning sex) hidden at the back of seedier secondhand bookshops. It was an education. It was, too, a wonder I escaped unscathed. A few creepy flashers aside, I was left alone.