The Silent-footed Butler

Reviews

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Review by: Mike Hatchard

This book is so beautifully and compellingly written it’s hard to believe it is Cathy’s first book. Her father was something of a linguistic bully, so perhaps the unfaltering eloquence of her prose is not surprising. Both of Cathy’s parents were extraordinary: on the surface liberal free-thinkers out of step with the world, but in fact authoritarian and bigoted, with politics that were in truth naïve rather than idealistic. Cathy’s sympathies are clearly with her mother, but I found her mother’s musical apartheid appalling, and her inability to show any physical emotion, even after tragic occurrences, disturbing. I was also intrigued by her father’s drawing skills, which were not dwelt on in the book, but a couple of his illustrations are reproduced: the ones he did at seventeen are stunning.
      There are in truth two books here: one a well-researched biography of two families dating back to the nineteenth century, written, inevitably, with a good deal of speculation and (acknowledged) supposition; and a very detailed autobiography. Being the same age as Cathy it is not surprising I preferred the latter, which I found compulsive reading. It could be argued that a third book is lurking here, the biography of Chris which is what, after all, it purports to be. I personally don’t see it that way. The more I read, the more I saw Chris as a catalyst to its creation rather than its main character. ‘Genius’ is a much-maligned word but Chris almost certainly deserves it, possessing an extraordinary gift to draw, an awesome (I know, another much-maligned word) knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, natural history and a precocious musical talent. Chris is not the most interesting character in this book; he is the most remarkable perhaps (some stiff competition in that regard), but such effortless, unchallenged brilliance and popularity does not necessarily make for an ideal protagonist. The often amusing narrative is always darkened by his inevitable demise as telegraphed on the front cover and indeed the title. There is the strong implication that one generation dooms another in this book; and yet, Chris’s fatal accident is just that, an accident. It is not the tragic consequence of the behaviour of a dysfunctional family, nor an act generated by depression. The real tragedy lies in the way that it is dealt with by the family, unprepared to face their emotions, contrasting with the warmth and affection displayed at the memorial concerts.
     The footnotes, incidentally, are almost endearing in places. Having mentioned “Marley tiles” the note below helpfully informs us of their size and constituent materials. In a message to the doctor Cathy’s mother describes her daughter as possessing from an early age “a compulsive need to organise others” - perhaps then it is not surprising that a little of this organisational compulsion is still evident in her writing.
     There are a good many letters quoted in the book, and as Cathy observes, it’s hard to believe how young everybody was. I found myself looking at my own letters from this period, and they strike me as being written with a much older tone than I write now, and I’m surprised at their formality. I suppose a letter was, by its nature, a very different medium back then to what the written word is today. So much of the book is related with a cosy niceness you can almost miss the underlying seriousness of it all. The descriptions of the life of a working musician are fascinating – I’ve read biographies of people performing at Carnegie Hall and Jazz Festivals, but the less lofty experiences of people playing in theatre pits and the like is an area largely untapped by writers, as far as I know. The sexual openness also makes for fascinating reading. These days it’s hardly challenging to find graphic portrayals of sexual encounters, but they’re a little unexpected from effete young cellists at the Royal Academy. I felt vaguely voyeuristic at times and I wondered if Simon Rattle was really happy to read how he’d ordered so many condoms, pulling myself up sharply with the realisation that he probably jumped for joy.
      As I said at the beginning, this is a beautifully written book, the illustrations lavish, the frontispieces well-chosen and the whole package and presentation first class. It might seem at first glance to almost be a coffee table book, but it needs to be read in its entirety. For me, reading it initially was quite a physical challenge as I’d just recovered from an eye operation, but it helped me enormously forget my situation. I think many people might feel it’s unnecessarily on the long side – my personal feelings are that it is what it is. Cathy has succeeded in writing the book that she had to write; I am sure she feels it couldn’t be any other way, and I feel the same. This book deserves to be read. I thoroughly recommend it.

Mike Hatchard - musician

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The Silent-footed Butler by Cathy Giles