A FEW weeks ago I was rehearsing a choir with the usual physical energy I try put into conducting, on the grounds that the more effort I make the more the singers will too, when I felt my back go. It was very disturbing. I was conducting from the foot of the flight of three steps that lead up to the chancel in the village church. I have this habit, a very bad one, of conducting from the pelvis: at one point, in urging, encouraging, demanding and practically threatening the basses, I shot out my right hip towards them, mounted the first step, just to be closer, and made a sweeping upward movement with my right arm to make sure they came in on time.
Nothing like this was ever mentioned when I was a music student. The terrible example was held up to us of Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian-born composer and conductor who worked at the court of Louis XIV. He stabbed himself to death with his baton. For a long time this seemed to me improbable. How could anyone possibly self-inflict a fatal wound with a slender white wand with a cork handle? The thing would snap, surely, unless you poked it forcefully into your ear or eye, an unlikely scenario even with my energetic conducting. Further reading revealed what actually happened: Lully conducted by thumping the end of a hefty pole on the floor. On the fatal occasion he thumped his pole on to his toe, which became severely bruised. He neglected to have his toe dressed, gangrene set in and carried him off. Nasty.
I never use a baton, certainly not a hefty pole, when I'm conducting singers, just my hands (and elbows, head, eyes, pelvis, etc.), so batonicide isn't on the cards. But on this occasion something snapped in my back, not so badly me as to floor me, but all the same I staggered about for a second or two. The singers probably took this as another example of my eccentric conducting style. I recovered a bit and carried on, but thereafter I wore a lumbar support, a thing of steel plates encased in a Spaghetti Junction of velcro straps, and after a few days it felt a little better.
* * *
AN ONGOING project for the past seven and probably the next ten years is the building of a mighty 300-metre drystone wall at the back of our property. Local stone rates very highly on the bloody uselessness scale. It's all metamorphic, that's to say it was once, millions of years ago, good, rectangular, easily-split sandstone, ideal for building, but geological ages of heating and cooling and subjection to massive pressures have turned it into shapeless, knobbly lumps of brittle slates, schists and marbles, useless for anything but the coarsest of infill. I make a rod for my own suffering back by refusing, as a matter of the highest honour, ever to use cement: I always insist on my stones jig-sawing together as close as possible. This makes for a long job.
It was while jumping down a metre-high bank with an armful of useless infill lumps that I felt something else go in the region of my right hip and knee, nothing too dramatic, just uncomfortable. The next day, such is the matchless variety of activity here, I spent nearly three hours in full midday Languedoc sun twisting, turning, bending, leaning, reaching, scrambling up and down stony overgrown banks among the brambles, with the purpose of not letting a single blackberry from the bumperest of bumper crops I've ever known here escape my clutch.
That afternoon I was completely immobilised. Back, hip, thigh, knee, ankle swelled in a mighty chorus of pain. A mighty chorus I had no means of conducting.
I hobbled and stumbled down to see the doctor. Our regular GP, Agnès, was on holiday, so an elderly locum, Dr Mas, received me, the very last Friday afternoon appointment of his stint. Seeing from his list that I had a British name, he turned out to be more anxious to air his English than find out what was wrong. 'Good day, Mister.' (An accurate, though hardly idiomatic, rendering of Bonjour, Monsieur.)
I answered in French. Dr Mas frowned. Clearly this wasn't to his liking. He asked me how old I was. Slightly discountenanced by his attitude and racked with pain, I made the classic mistake of saying Je suis (I am) x years old rather than the correct French J'ai (I have) x years, something I haven't been guilty of since I was put in detention for it when I was about 10. He pounced on this error with a whoop of delight. My French grammar needed doctoring more urgently than my leg.
'You are migrant, Mister?'
I was up there with him on this one. No, he didn't mean was I some kind of nomad or gipsy: migrant is the unflattering term the French health authorities sometimes use for non-French EU citizens resident in France. In translating migrant literally he was asking if I was was registered under the French national health scheme. Which I am.
Dr Mas gave me a prescription for some stuff that, unlike most French medicines, did no good at all and quickly became dangerously addictive. I left wondering if a Friday afternoon doctor's appointment had anything in common with a Friday afternoon car.
* * *THE PAIN persisted so in due course I went to see somebody called Pierre Castan.
Pierre Castan is an elderly accordion player. He specialises in Languedoc folk dances. He also conducts a village choir. You may wonder where this is leading: he's also known as by far the best osteopath and general healer for miles and miles - erm, sorry - kilometres and kilometres around. But he's retired. And he's blind.
I don't know if the freemasonry that often exists between choir conductors had anything to do with it, but he agreed to see me very quickly. Normally sceptical about such things, I felt a certain powerful sensitivity radiating from his hands. He told me more than the X-ray did. He said: 'Why, your liver's not in the right place!' Push, pull, knead, thump (gently), squeeze, massage. 'Nor are your kidneys!' Push, pull, etc., etc.
My head and heart appeared to be in the right place, but all this was pretty alarming, and only to be explained by the jolts caused by jumping down banks laden with stones. He examined every vertebra, corrected any slight displacement of discs, and when I left, feeling in some respects a new man, he assured me that my back was good for years to come. Well done, Monsieur Castan.
Why is it that some of the most gifted healers are blind?
The pain is slowly disappearing, thank you. My wall hasn't fallen down for lack of attention. Yet. M. Castan advised me to conduct standing bolt upright. Sir Adrian Boult upright, I thought, remembering the famous mid-20th century conductor who stood so straight that he probably had a hefty pole up his back. But I said nothing. I doubt if M. Castan would have grasped my little joke. As for Dr Mas with his fabled command of English, I'm doing my best to massage him out of my mind.