News David Robbins

Thursday 28 August 2014

David Robbins: Going backwards is never really the way forward . . .

Published 06/08/2011 | 05:00

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The evening was drawing in. The rain was rattling the windows and a tree outside in the garden was bent before the wind. We were huddled together in front of the fire in a scene familiar to anyone who has spent their summer holidays in the west of Ireland.

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My wife suggested a game of Trivial Pursuit to take our minds off the weather. My daughter leapt into action, rolling the dice, moving the counters and delighting in letting me know that my answers were wrong.

Even the dog seemed to be up for my wife-and-daughter team, wagging her tail whenever they got a question right. It was one of those warm, family moments when everyone seemed happy.

The next night, our daughter suggested that we play "that game with the questions again". The drive to recreate something pleasurable is very strong, I thought.

Even the dog, who used to spend large parts of her day on my lap as a puppy, tries to relive those moments from her youth by climbing all over me whenever I sit down.

Time moves on, Pipsi, I tell her. Things change. There's no point in trying to re-enact pleasant memories from the past. It just doesn't work. Plus, you're a lot hairier now.

Mind you, it's a lesson it took me a while to learn, and my instructors were the unlikely pair of W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Gilbert and Sullivan, masters of the comic opera in Victorian London, loomed surprisingly large in my youth.

Every Sunday, my brother and I were taken for afternoon tea to my aunt and uncle's house in Ballsbridge.

The evening would follow exactly the same course every week. I often wondered if I was really there or was I just having a particularly vivid flashback to the previous week.

After tucking in to scrambled egg on toast, bread and jam and some of auntie Vera's Victoria sponge, we listened to Sing Something Simple on BBC Radio 2. (My uncle called it the Light Programme.) But the rollercoaster of excitement didn't stop there.

My uncle would heave himself out of his armchair and approach his record player with a mixture of pride and trepidation. It was a large, square contraption with a grille at the front like a sportscar.

Various knobs and levers were adjusted and soon the sound of one of the Savoy Operas filled the little sitting room. The Mikado was his favourite, but sometimes it was Iolanthe or The Pirates of Penzance. If he were feeling particularly anti-Establishment, he'd put on Trial by Jury.

Now, any normal boy of 11 or 12 would make throat-cutting or vomiting gestures whenever the strains of 'Three Little Girls From School Are We' began to wash over him.

But for some reason, I liked the operettas. The cleverness of the libretti appealed to me. I especially liked the fast, 'tongue-twisters, such as the Nightmare Song' from Iolanthe or 'The Very Model of a Modern Major General' from The Pirates of Penzance.

My uncle often took us to see The Mikado performed by the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society at the Gaiety Theatre. He seemed more excited than we were, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

I could understand why generations of middle-class Dubliners liked Gilbert and Sullivan: their operas fulfilled some sort of duty they felt towards "the Arts" without forcing them to sit through Wagner.

Many years later, when my uncle was an elderly widower, Mike Leigh, made a film called Topsy Turvy about the first performance of The Mikado in the Savoy Opera House, London in 1885.

What better way to repay my old uncle's kindness than to invite him over to watch it. I could make scrambled eggs on toast and Victoria sponge and somehow recreate for him one of those warm fireside evenings from my boyhood.

All went smoothly. I think the movie is a work of genius, but I was enjoying it that evening because I was thinking of how much my uncle was enjoying it.

I glanced over, expecting him to be on the edge of his seat. He was fast asleep.

Later, he conceded that the parts of the film depicting the staging of the opera -- ie the bits when they were actually singing -- were well done. "The rest of it," he said with the candour old people think age entitles them to, "was a form of torture."

drobbins@independent.ie

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