‘Any level of guided imaginative activity teaches you just how difficult it is to reach mastery’.
I remember several creative people in my family. My grandpa on my mother’s side was a tenor who, I’ve been told, was invited to train in Italy but had to turn the opportunity down because he was a railway clerk with a family to support. On a trip to London he recorded his voice at HMV, Oxford Street, which had its own studio. Sadly, the 78 rpm disc he produced has gone missing. He conducted the local choir in his NE seaside town in performances of The Messiah, even changing churches to retain creative control. His wife was a skilled accompanist on the piano and also played the organ. They were like fire and water; he was the leader, she gave of herself and supported. Their front room was a busy place with leading members of the choir popping in, and recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies rising from the depths of the ‘Horn Cabinet’ which he and my dad built in the corner.
My dad was very serious about classical music. It didn’t come from his family; he was entirely self-taught. He could knock out popular tunes on the piano, but Beethoven was his real love. Unfortunately his tolerance levels were low. So when he first heard Mahler as a result of a programme change at a concert he decided from then on that all ‘modern music’ was rubbish.
DIY was one of Dad’s skills. I have photos of him covered with grease lying under a small black Austin. He fixed appliances and rigged up his own version of double glazing. He was also a hobbyist. So he cut wood to make marquetry pictures, was a keen photographer, played chess and bridge, and started me on Airfix and Meccano models. His father collected cartoon books, clocks and fancy tin boxes. He knew lots of jokes and could recite all the capitals of the world. Granddad was naughty and competitive, cheated at cards and teased his wife with practical jokes.
The women in the family would sit in deckchairs knitting on the beach. They made patchwork rugs, mended clothes, shopped and cooked, baked on tight budgets, and cared for children. My dad’s mother brewed fiery ginger beer. The jars stood maturing along a high shelf in her kitchen. Since housework was so much more demanding in those days, their activities were less flamboyant than the men, more bread-and-butter.
True, most of these activities were heavily sex-typed and some of them were similar to painting by numbers. But any level of guided imaginative activity teaches you just how difficult it is to reach mastery. I discovered how contorted a musician’s body has to be when I learned the piano at 40 and watched my son being taught the violin.
All this creative energy often seemed to go with eccentricity. So at school we had an English teacher nicknamed ‘Dracula’ who wore a long black cloak, and an RE teacher who set out to terrorise us with Old Testament rage and quotes from Oscar Wilde. At home my ultra-serious dad had a goon-crazy side where he’d imitate the voices of Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
Craziness was never far from the surface in such a conformist society, so my family engaged in long-running political arguments, often in deckchairs on the beach. Also there were numerous taboos, one of which my singing grandpa would break when he was drunk. In front of an audience he’d hold up a lit candle. Then he’d puff and splutter, pretending to have a lip deformity while trying, and failing, to ‘blew oot the candle’. This routine, making fun of disabled people, was common at that time in the NE. No one saw how unpleasant it was.
What I see now when I look at photos of my busy family is their drive to stand out. Their stamp albums, knitted hats and record collections were flags to be waved. There was an eagerness and perfectionism about everything they did, a desire to do well and get top marks. They were keen to fit in and yet determined to be different. And they cultivated their own patch as if their lives depended on it.
But my main point is that all these hobbies and activities involved a creative spark. They all took time and effort and stretched people in one way or another. What I think now is that ‘being creative’ or ‘using your talents’ isn’t necessarily about choosing something with high-art status. Some people suit caring or listening or DIY and some are better at writing novels. When everyone has to be a singer or writer it’s bad news for society. What matters is finding out what’s best for you.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.