29 March 2010
Today is Thursday. This morning the sun was so bright that I put down the newspaper and went for a run through the pine woods that overlook the Bay of Palma. Ignoring the ‘processionaria’, which are processing at this time of year, for it is just before Easter, I took the path to the woods. These caterpillars form their processions among the pine trees just as the people of Palma have their processions in the streets of the city during Holy Week.
I had reached the top of the long flight of steps that leads into the heart of the woods, when I heard a strange sound. It was slow, sad and mournful. It was hard to place where it was coming from as it seemed to bounce from tree to tree and to be everywhere at once. I continued running on my usual route and then I saw him. Behind a high wall, in the morning sun, in this pine wood near Palma, stood a lone piper with his bagpipes clutched to his chest.
Like the novice ski jumper, a beginner on the bagpipes has to take the plunge some time, and I suppose that these incipient pipers prefer to be alone. This one was in his late twenties, and, I deduced, recently married. He had that slightly worried look as if he wasn’t at all sure about how his day would turn out. Clearly earlier this morning he had started his piping in the bathroom, and his wife had turned him and his pipes out of the house, and told him frankly and briefly not to come back until he had finished piping. So there he was, on this beautiful morning, alone in the woods, standing between two tall pine trees, piping one sad melody after another.
I ran past looking straight ahead. I wanted to reassure him that I understood his plight, but I thought that a smile as I jogged by might be misconstrued as a criticism. A smile and a nod together might have been alright but by the time I had worked this out, I had left him behind. I stared steadfastly in front of me with no more contact than if I had been sitting quietly on my terrace and he had been piping in the middle of Australia.
Down the ages young bagpipers have always been forced to practise alone. I have evidence for this from 1889 but they were probably shunned by the rest of mankind for centuries before. In 1889, then, not long before the Holmes year of 1895, for it is always 1895 in Baker Street, Jerome K. Jerome wrote “Three Men in a Boat”.
That year Jerome and two friends, George and Harris, made their heroic journey in a rowing boat up the Thames from London to Oxford and back again to London. Actually, they did not quite reach London on their return, but I must not anticipate.
In “Three Men in a Boat” Jerome describes the trials and tribulations of a young bagpiper. After refusing to let him play in the kitchen, his family “knocked up a little place for him at the bottom of the garden about a quarter of a mile from the house. Sometimes a visitor would come who knew nothing of the matter, and they would forget to tell him all about it, and he would go out for a stroll around the garden and suddenly get within earshot of those bagpipes without being prepared for it, or knowing what it was. If he were a man of strong mind, it only gave him fits; but a person of mere average intellect it usually sent mad.”
Do read about Jerome’s bagpiper, and read also how Harris got lost in the maze at Hampton Court, how George woke up at three in the morning, thought it was daybreak and walked to Holborn to go to work, and how the three of them never did open the tin of pineapple. Read all this, if you do nothing else today.
Montesquieu said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” “Three Men in a Boat” will reduce the time to five minutes.
I hope that the young wife of my piper in the woods realized that even bagpipes are not worth falling out over, and that she welcomed her husband home with a smile and never mentioned the topic again. I hope too that, once he had stowed away his pipes for another time, they both had a happy day together.