On backing vocals… and a guitar that leads nowhere

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I AM talking to my mother, phone cradled to my left ear, as she chats about her month-long trip to Australia. At 84, she does a lot more travelling than I do.

So that’s my left ear fully occupied. A different demand is being made of my right ear. My wife’s in a choir and she had a practise earlier. “You’ll have a peaceful evening,” she croaked to me afterwards.

This is turning out to be a few bars short of the truth. For she is singing loudly in the kitchen, adding soaring soprano scrolls to whatever Craig Charles is playing on the radio. I stand up and push the door shut so I can hear what my mother is saying. All I need now, I think, is for my daughter to ring me on my mobile and complete the female chorus of my life.

The choir has been great for my wife, and watching her perform with her friends is always a pleasure. But let’s just say that quite a lot of singing goes on in the house, and when one ear is filled with your mother and her travels, and the other is ringing to impromptu backing vocals in the kitchen, it can be a challenge.

My reaction here is unfair in a sense as I couldn’t hit a note if you painted a target on its semiquaver-ing heart and hung it in front of my nose. Singing? Sorry, just can’t do that.

If living with a member of a choir can sometimes involve a lot of unscheduled singing, it would be fair to say that living with me can sometimes involve a lot of unscheduled guitar playing.

If put on the spot, my wife could well say in retaliation that listening to someone mess around on a guitar for years can be a little trying. How many times, she might say, does a man have to attempt a Richard Thompson song before producing something even remotely resembling the original? How many times does she have to point out that my playing lacks rhythm in a strict sense? This, by the way, is sadly true. Decades ago I remember my friend Paul telling me the same thing more or less.

Here is my history with the guitar. Classical guitar lessons as a teenager, even played in a school concert or two. Picked up the lessons about ten years ago for a while, then stopped again. Strum while watching television if alone; usually send out a flurry of notes before going to bed; and always, superstitiously, play something before setting off on a long car journey.

That’s me and my guitar, a mistimed love affair. I could always seek the advice of my son the guitarist. I taught him everything I knew when he was seven; and when the 15 minutes was up, I left him to it – and he has flourished ever since without further assistance from his father.

Perhaps I could ask my father, who still plays violin in the Stockport Symphony Orchestra at the age of 83. Or perhaps I am just a lost cause.

My mother is telling me about Sydney now. I chip in a few memories from my time there and then do the calculation; that was more than 30 years ago. I wonder if my chances of returning are stronger than my chances of learning to play the guitar properly.

Our chat about this, that and Australia continues for a while longer, then the call ends. In the kitchen my wife is still singing along to the radio.

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