At the weekend my goddaughter Hannah married her fiancé Brett and we went to their wedding in Milford-on-Sea. You can see the pictures on Facebook if you know either her present or her previous surname. While they signed the register my brother Jonathan played the bagpipes: the Leicestershire bagpipes, whose history and authenticity are rather tendentious. Later he told me that he had chosen some obscure tunes, presumably so that the wedding guests would not sigh and say to each other, Not that old warhorse of the Leicestershire bagpipes repertory again.
I thought back to occasions when I had provided occasional music for weddings. It started badly. My first time involved playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on the flute. The room where the register was to be signed was small and the bride’s mother was enormous. She lurched into my music stand, swept the music to the floor and trampled on it. If ever asked again I resolved to busk.
My favourite weddings have been my own and my daughter’s but the other occasion when I provided music is not far behind. It was in the west of Ireland, where I then had a house. Deirdre was marrying Mike the Bike. Deirdre was Irish, from an immensely proud family, steeped in Celtic culture and the Irish struggle for independence. Mike was from Newcastle. They were to marry in a tiny church on an island in a lake. It was too tiny to have an organ or a piano and I was to play the flute.
The families sat warily, each side of the aisle. Deirdre’s family, notwithstanding the ancestral weight of Irish culture, turned out not to be Catholic, and dithered through the responses and the bobbing up and down, which the Newcastle people performed with cold efficiency.
I played a mixture of things that I had made up and some old tunes. When the couple walked down the aisle at the end I played the Scottish march The Boy’s Farewell to his Dragon, not because it was obscure but because I had it from Hamish Moore’s wonderful record Stepping on the Bridge and I liked it. It all went quite well.
The reception was to be in Kenmare and we drove there, stopping at every pub on the way, which is an old Irish tradition, apparently. Then there was champagne, the meal, the speeches and so on, and after that the celebration proper got going. The wedding party had grown since the twenty or so people in the tiny church and now filled a sizeable hotel. I wandered from room to room, still clutching my old wooden flute, which I had not been prepared to entrust to the hotel cloakroom.
In one room Jimmy Bergin and his band were playing. He is a very fine musician; I met him years later when we both played on Tim Goulding’s CD Midnight Fry. I had a top ten hit in Germany once, he said. It was called Some Cunt Nuked my Village.
In another room was Tim Goulding himself, whom I hadn’t then met but who became a friend later. He was improvising ruminatively to himself on an available piano. I joined in, eventually resolving into a tune with which he joined. After it was over he asked, kindly but not entirely unpatronisingly, Is that your favourite tune? Hard to say, I said; I just found it.
At about one or two in the morning the local musicians arrived, having finished their paid gigs for the evening and come on to jam. One of them was Seamus Creagh. Seamus was a most elegant fiddle player. He was also, as I was shortly to discover, a gentleman. He died in 2009, much too young. He was sitting there by himself playing away, surrounded by an audience that veered between respectful and adoring. My friend Charlie Tyrrell seized me by the shoulders and thrust me through this audience, shouting, Get the flute player a chair.
As he thrust me forward he deposited the main part of a pint of Guinness onto my linen suit and I arrived nervous and soaked.
Sometimes everything comes together and this time it did. We knew each other’s tunes and played beautifully. It was partly luck and largely Seamus’s sensitivity, but it was good. It isn’t by any means always. After half an hour or so we shook hands and I went on my way. Give up the day job, Charlie shouted.
Deirdre’s father came up to me, a Yeatsian gleam in his eye. That music, he said, is the true Irish soul. You English wouldn’t understand.
Yes, I said, but it was me playing it, not you.
He turned away with a massive and contemptuous shrug.
Charlie incidentally came to my own wedding some years later and towards the end we noticed that a crowd of Irish people had crashed it, with Charlie’s assistance. I think that it’s one of the best compliments I have ever had.
At four or five tiredness set in and I decided to drive home. A German lady cadged a lift. She sang a song that she rendered without irony and at the top of her voice as Hey Mr Tangerine Man and she stroked my thigh absent-mindedly. Several times we had to stop so that she could pee, which was a performance as she had voluminous hippy skirts. I remember her squatted down on the cliffs, a lot of brocady material and the occasional alarming flash of very white skin, as the sun came up.
The wedding went on for days, and people drifted back to the village throughout the following week, with many more heroic tales to tell.