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Fishtales_April-0001It’s a good mix, cham­ber music and cock­tails. Douglas Mews thinks so, any­way. A while back, play­ing a show about Nel­son (the Lord, not the town), he mixed up a rather intim­id­at­ing drink called Nelson’s Blood, a half-brandy, half-port con­coc­tion. It was inspired by stor­ies of sail­ors who showed their respect to the great admir­al by drink­ing from the bar­rel of brandy in which his body was pre­served, on the sail back from that fate­ful day at Tra­fal­gar. (There are no prizes for guess­ing what the port represents.)

This is rel­ev­ant because, when we meet in his house in Aro Valley’s Essex Street, he is work­ing on a new show about Nel­son, called Lines from the Nile, to be per­formed in his front room. His is a res­id­ence of many key­boards, each with its own char­ac­ter and back story. The vir­gin­al, a rep­lica of the sort of thing the first Queen Eliza­beth might have played, makes its sound when the strings are plucked by little devices made from, as it turns out, crow’s feath­ers. “If you know of any­one who shoots crows, let me know,” Mews says, as if this were a likely pro­spect. “Crows are good. You need large feath­ers.” He also has a harp­si­chord inscribed with the motto “Oti­um cum dig­nit­ate” (Leis­ure with dig­nity), which his aunt once told him was the Mews fam­ily motto. “It’s from Cicero, of course,” he adds, with a sharp but play­ful look that implies that, some­how, you’re being tested — but that the test is itself a great joke.

If the clas­sic­al world seems some­times shrouded in ser­i­ous­ness and gloom, there is no such mal­aise in the Mews house­hold. Lines from the Nile is made up of music of a cer­tain weight — most of it con­nec­ted loosely to ideas of empire, and in par­tic­u­lar the 1840 mar­riage of Queen Vic­tor­ia (she who was, fam­ously, not amused) — but Mews looks on the light­er side. “It’s meant to be ser­i­ous,” he says of one par­tic­u­lar piece, “but it’s pretty funny, really, the melo­drama of it.” And indeed it is dif­fi­cult not to laugh as he recites the lines — “trem­bling midst unnumbered griefs”, and so on — with an enthu­si­ast­ic ‘bad­um bad­um bad­um’ sort of emphasis.

Pianos of one sort or anoth­er are nev­er far away. Mews talks about the old Broad­wood instru­ments, the kind that Beeth­oven played, and how their sound has a “romantic haze” — which, he adds, fix­ing you with anoth­er one of those half-ser­i­ous, half-laugh­ing looks, “is a tech­nic­al term”. Also in his col­lec­tion is a piano that belonged to the Robert Tait who foun­ded Taitville, a now largely for­got­ten name for the area around Aro Valley’s Nor­way Street. A square, taste­fully dec­or­ated instru­ment, rather like the eponym­ous star of The Piano, it bears the most del­ic­ate and evoc­at­ive traces of the past: the names of Tait’s chil­dren, signed in curl­ing script on the sides of the keys, with a date, 11 May 1887.

You’d think that such a thing might be a loc­al treas­ure, but one of its pre­vi­ous pos­sessors, Mews says lightly, “was going to rip the inside out and turn it into a cock­tail cab­in­et”. That fate hav­ing been aver­ted, the piano will be pressed into ser­vice for Lines from the Nile, whose title comes from a piece com­posed by Haydn about Nelson’s fam­ous Egyp­tian vic­tory over the French in 1798. It was com­mis­sioned by Nelson’s almost equally fam­ous lov­er, Emma Hamilton, who had met him when he popped into Naples after the battle (“Emma appar­ently flung her­self at him, and took three weeks to recov­er,” Mews says, in passing) and decided that this great man’s vic­tory must be com­mem­or­ated in music. And so Mews came to be play­ing that piece, and oth­ers, in his front room, in a kind of cham­ber music for the twenty-first cen­tury. It might not, in fact, have been cham­ber music, as the clas­sic­al world nor­mally uses the phrase. But it didn’t seem like he was going to take the defin­i­tion too seriously.

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