The ballerina’s name was Lucette Aldous
and the company was Ballet Rambert. I was 9 or 10, and they danced on the platform of the hall in a new school to which children of various other schools were invited for the performance. When I mentioned the noise of the toe shoes to my parents, my father explained that the wood of the platform hadn’t enough “give” to absorb the impact of the shoes plus the weight of the body. I was impressed then, I still am. I had never seen ballet before and I fell in love with the illusion, the shapes and the soft pretty steps, the lightness and the line, the floating, the humour and characterisation. It was years before I began to understand the discipline and the training and the endless harnessing of muscles into magic.
Recently I watched two actors Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly make sketches of the wonderful Laurel and Hardy (the wives played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda were wonderful too.)
The script conveyed frustration, disappointment, getting lost in the maze of your own fame but it didn’t convey – perhaps it couldn’t convey – how much sheer hard work went into the effortless charm of their little dance. Just wonderful. How did they get to the wonderful ?
There are all sorts of people who can make difficult look easy, whether it’s making meringues or balancing on a highwire or playing a sport – and we grant them that little word – “just”. Long ago, God bless that man, a senior figure somewhere in television gave me the chance to interview Michael Aspel,
who always made everything look and sound as it were second nature and he were falling off a log – and I discovered a completely different person, whose father had never understood his aims or endorsed his talent, who worried and sweated and worked at the illusion that everything he did happened, occurred in some marvellous puff of smoke. I so admire that ease.
And we all have our favourites, people who fooled around and fell about, danced or sang, interviewed, preached or taught, painted or sculpted, made furniture or wove cloth or just were in some special magical way – the common signature is that they made it look easy – “just” whatever it was.
We did two programmes on four letter words, and the general public as contributors were their funny, generous, insightful selves, long before the current days of bloodspitting. Just is one of the words of which I am most wary because it is so often to do with diminution as in “he’s just a carpenter”
or “she’s just a sempstress”: OK. Can you do that ? I can’t and I know I can’t, let alone do it and make it beautiful.
My gift is even more ephemeral and harder to describe. Think of smoke or frost flowers.
No class for those. Somewhere along the line I thought about a one woman show called Talking for My Life. It came to nothing and I am totally fatalistic about that. Everything happens for a purpose, not mine to know or necessarily understand. When I began my current adventure, one of my friends took longer to come through than anybody else, then a brief email followed by a phone call in which she described herself as “proud of you.” She then bit it back immediately but I thought I knew what she meant because she has far more gifts than I and that makes her able to recognise a gift when she sees it.
Long ago when it was intimated to me that what I did was “special” but indefinable and therefore couldn’t be evaluated or praised, I interpreted that as not amounting to much, no frame or plinth, no terms equals no worth. And I have lived long enough to know it is not true. Just because you can’t define a thing, it doesn’t follow that it has no worth.
We are busy discarding in the aftermath of something that has unsettled us (how I wish I could amass the cardboard of Mr. Bezos’s packing and put it where the sun doesn’t shine) and inevitably, in cultural shakeup, the baby may be threatened with the bathwater. But babies come through –
and so does just talking.