Accompanying the big A

In which I proffer my experience in the service of the East European mafia as a model for helping us help the Aricept generation.

Cover of The World magazine of Jan. 18, 1914 featuring Francis Grierson as Psychic Pianist. Public Domain over at <a href=''>Wikimedia Commons</a>

Cover of The World magazine of Jan. 18, 1914 featuring Francis Grierson as Psychic Pianist. Public Domain over at Wikimedia Commons

The other day I read Luc Sante’s review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and was rather disappointed. For Mr Shields’ book appears not to be the route map awaited so long by the half of Europe whose staple diet does not yet consist of 10mg doses of Aricept: a DIY guide to the lost half, whose prophecies of reality may be oral rather than written but are nonetheless set in stoned. Instead it sounds rather like a conceptual spec for the fuzzy search novel, written by someone unacquainted with the serendipitous, unauthored delights of Google (whose Booker is long overdue).

So, while we wait for the experts to catch up, how to accompany the demented? These people are themselves authors, so attempts to lead them, to author them, are doomed to failure. And hiring linguistically or mentally challenged helpers to mimic with them the uninspired shambles of an authors’ convention are similarly pathetic, as well as cowardly. My personal solution, perhaps more widely applicable as Europe descends into the usual shambles, is to turn for inspiration to the post-Soviet mafia.

About a decade ago when I had a real but terribly boring job in The Hague, every now and again I would pull a sickie, put on my dark glasses and false beard, and take the train south over the border to Antwerp for the day. Antwerp was–may still be, for all I know–Western Europe’s least known but most efficient Saddam ‘n’ Gomorrah: a wonderland of luscious Jewesses born of bankrupt diamond dynasties, muscular drug-crazed mariners growling idiosyncratic fantasias on Antwerp dialect (itself Belgium’s greatest cultural treasure), and, of course, Russia & Co (m/f).

I used to drink in a number of superb establishments in the port and in the Russian Quarter, and got to know customers and staff quite well. One day I was gazing at my reflection in the taps when the barman from the hotel round the corner rushed in and asked if I would come at once and play the piano for Mr Big: a Georgian who daylighted as a consulting surgeon back home but made considerably more as a tourist, selling guns, explosives, nuclear subs, and his female in-laws on the Antwerp’s black (which is to say, exclusively white) market.

We hurried back and found him apparently asleep with his head was poised in an uncomfortable equilibrium between tipsy and turvy, one hand clutching onto the bar while the other held the floor at bay. Aroused, he crawled over to and then, heroically, up the side of the piano, and announced that I would accompany him while he sang New York, New York.

All went reasonably well until he wearied of my introductory vamp and launched into, not the work of Messrs Kander and Ebb, but Yesterday by Mr McCartney and Ms Yoko Ego, and then fell straight out of love with that and segued through a potpourri of snippets from around the globe, interspersed and intertwined with lion roars from Africa by way of Tbilisi Zoo (free admission for children under 3 and well-behaved gangsters) and requests for more alcohol. It was quite my most exhilarating experience as an accompanist until I started cultivating Dr Alzheimer’s garden.

If he’s still there–may still be, for all I know–then I can think of no finer finishing school for Silver Service Alzheimer nurses than to be made to learn piano and try to follow him in his “creative use of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, of messiness and self- consciousness and high-spirited looting.”

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