Jan 14 2023
WHAT THE TRUMPET TAUGHT ME: Pamela Johnson enjoys a collection of prose reminiscences by the poet Kim Moore
This is a gem of a book. A pocket-sized volume of short chapters, perfect to carry with you a on bus or train ride. Each chapter reveals a key event from childhood to the present, episodes that are both self-contained but also accumulate, charting the creative journey of the author.
It begins with a refusal to play the violin: “I know the violin sounds terrible. I blame the instrument rather than the children wielding the bow.” In the closing chapters we witness the transition from playing music to writing poetry. Along the way we are offered snippets of working-class history and the role of brass bands; the story of the oldest trumpet unearthed in Tutankhamun’s tomb and we meet the people who are important to the learning process – her father, twin sister, friends, teachers and an abusive relationship.
What holds this together is the ever-present trumpet: learning it, playing in concerts, saving up to buy one, teaching it, losing one. The central image of the trumpet holds steady a narrative that circles around it. An echo in one scene might lead to the next even though there is a shift of time and place. For example, one chapter shows the dedication of Moore’s father who, though he cannot read music, finds a way painstakingly to transpose a duet so Moore can perform the piece with her cornet-playing sister. Turn the page and we meet a father figure whose ‘dedication’ is of an altogether different nature. Throughout the book there are scenes which reveal a complex, difficult and abusive relationship. Here, Moore employs a more distanced viewpoint, so this chapter starts ‘once upon a time a girl and a man walked for two days in the wild … she thought of him as a kind of other-father. The man carried the trumpet …’
In later scenes the fairy tale becomes darker:
Once upon a time a ghost lived in the middle of a city, in a tall tower … a lord lived in the tower with the ghost …
the ghost owned a silver trumpet wreathed in gold. The trumpet was made to fit only the hand of the ghost, and only ever supposed to be played by her. One day the lord took the silver trumpet away, though he knew it was the most precious thing she owned.
These occasional shifts in tone and viewpoint, which allow the author to appraise her younger self, are all the more arresting as in most of the book Moore’s voice is conversational, down-to-earth, an approachable presence-on-the-page, someone you want to spend time listening to. Early on she establishes trust as she acknowledges the slippery nature of memory. She recalls a fellow player accidently sitting on his cornet just before the band was due to play but then pulls back:
I remember it being completely flattened, like a thin sheet of silver paper, though now I think this can’t be true. Maybe the horror I felt back then has created that image in my mind in the intervening years – surely nobody could squash a cornet so decisively with just the weight of their body.
This admission settles the reader into accepting the episodic form. We trust that each short, vivid scene explores only that which is emotionally important to the development of a creative talent.
Moore, by the example of her engagement with the trumpet, reminds us that all creative work proceeds incrementally and comes from practice, regular engagement with a chosen art form. Learning is life-long.
Given cuts in arts education and arts funding, the book is a timely reminder of the importance of introducing creative practice from the earliest years. Would Moore have picked up a trumpet had it not been for the encouragement she received at junior school?
Years on, her playing and teaching of the trumpet enables her to transition smoothly to writing and teaching poetry, “as if language has flowed into the space the trumpet used to take up.” And with this book, it seems poetry has flowed into thoughtful and compelling prose.
Pamela Johnson is novelist & poet. Her poems appear in magazines, many anthologies and in Stories & Lies, Blue Door Press, 2018. Her sequence, Tidelines, was featured at Poetry In Aldeburgh, 2017. Her third novel, Taking In Water, (Blue Door Press, 2016, https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/books/book-1/) was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award. She taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, 2002-2018