Remember the old National Service story about the piano? The bullying sergeant asks his new recruits: “Any of you miserable shower play the piano?”
“Er, yes, Sergeant,” replies a weedy-looking Oxford type, in the army against his will and better judgment. “I do.”
“Right, then, Padarewski,” replies his tormentor with a nasty smile. “You can peel this hundredweight of spuds, then.”
Or the other one. “Do you know the piano’s on my foot?”
“No, but if you hum it, I’ll soon pick it up!”
Apologies for my recent absence from Voice of the North. I’ve been receiving some stick from my fellow-bloggers, but must plead that old excuse, the chaotic experience of moving house.
Fear not, dear reader! The Traffords will never entirely abandon their northern fastness in Northumberland (in what David Banks refers to as Godzone)! But we are moving out of Newcastle when I retire in the summer, and have secured a city pad down in the south near family and friends and within striking distance of both the cultural opportunities and the infuriations of the capital.
But don’t think I’m about to write an account of emptying boxes, the moment of panic when one can’t find the kettle or a toothbrush or any of those similar crises that most of us have experienced from time to time in our lives. They say moving house is the most stressful thing couples can do, short of getting divorced: we both reckon we’re far too exhausted by the former to consider the latter for some years.
Still, one small moral tale emerged from our move. It concerned our piano.
Mrs Trafford took charge of obtaining quotes from removals firms, and was consequently visited at home. Nowadays it seems the representatives arrive not with a notebook but with an iPad, which quickly calculates the cost of the move as items from one room after another are added to its database.
I won’t give the name of the firm that we chose, because in every other respect they were excellent: and, as so often in business, the guys who did the actual work were just fantastic: tireless, good-humoured, strong, resilient, they couldn’t have been more obliging.
But, in the event, the firm’s office was distinctly less helpful.
As the expert wandered round, Mrs T pointed out the piano. “That’s our most precious possession”, she said. And indeed it is. A 1913 Steinway upright, we bought it newly restored in 1981. At the outset of our marriage it put food on the table when we were coping with a healthy young mortgage at interest rates that would make anyone’s eyes water nowadays: Mrs T helped us to eke out a living by giving piano lessons. Subsequently our musical daughters both learned to play it and prepared for all those grade exams. We reckon that, by the time we are pushing up the daisies, that fine instrument will be ready for only its second restoration.
But it is a heavy beast, a veritable Panzer among pianos. Back before World War 1, as the piano restorer reminded us, they used to build the cast-iron frame first, then the mechanism, and only built the rosewood body around it afterwards.
All of this my wife conveyed to the removals expert. She could tell he wasn’t taking any notice. “Yeah, yeah” he responded. “We’ve moved them Steinbergs before. No problem”.
The day we moved out, it became a problem. Three blokes had spent all day packing belongings into boxes and loading the van at astonishing speed, and left the piano till last. Then they tried to get it onto a trolley and couldn’t, let alone get it around the corners involved. “Can’t do it, pet,” declared the foreman. “That’s a four-man piano and we’ve only got three.”
We were at an impasse. He phoned his boss back in the office who declared that it couldn’t be done without an extra bloke and a separate van – at an additional cost of some hundreds of pounds to us. Mrs Trafford, always a tougher negotiator than me, got on the phone: but ours was a poor bargaining position.
A deal was struck and, some two hours later, a smaller van appeared with a fourth man and a powered tail-lift, since the original truck’s ramp would not have supported the weight of our monster instrument. The seemingly inexhaustible crew of two drove through the night and parked up round the corner from our new property, grabbing only a few hours’ sleep. We too felt less than rested the next morning, having reached a bed-and-breakfast at midnight.
But by mid-morning a second van had appeared with our piano in the back, and two more jolly and immensely strong blokes who, with the original crew, made short work of getting the piano in. So now it’s in pride of place, unperturbed by its journey, and patiently awaiting a tuner.
And the moral? When a female customer says very clearly, “It really is a very, very heavy piano,” may I suggest that the representatives of removals firms avoid airily dismissing the views of the little woman (the sexism in the opinion was palpable), but listen instead? Or even try lifting one end?
The old adage that the customer is always right has worn pretty thin nowadays: but maybe even the experts should occasionally listen to a customer who might also know something about it. You don’t have to know the weight of a piano to play one: but as a pianist you’re likely to have been required to shift one somewhere along the way.
It would have saved the team on the truck two hours’ sleep and everyone’s nerves a lot of wear and tear.
Hell, if I’d had a moment I’d have played them a lullaby.