Book review: Instrumental by James Rhodes

James Rhodes found solace in classical music after being sexually abused as a child. Picture: Contributed
James Rhodes found solace in classical music after being sexually abused as a child. Picture: Contributed
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THAT I am reviewing this book at all is remarkable, and not for the obvious reason. On 20 May, the Supreme Court overturned an injunction granted to the author’s ex-wife, preventing publication on the grounds that his revelations might constitute a danger to their son. It is indeed an exceptionally harrowing book, recounting how the concert pianist found solace in music, after being sexually abused as a child, suffering psychotic incidents brought on by alcohol and drug use, and was sectioned in psychiatric units several times. No, the reason it is remarkable is, as his therapist tells him frankly, that he has such a propensity towards self-destruction that he estimates his chances of survival at 50-50. That he made it at all, let alone becoming a musician, writer and broadcaster, is humbling, although he would be the first to refuse to be any kind of role model.

Instrumental is no “misery memoir” (how quaintly Nineties that now sounds), as James Rhodes unflinchingly relates the harm done to him – abuse, as he says, is shouting at a traffic warden, whereas what he experienced was rape. The after-effects of the crime are almost as debilitating as the crime itself: hypervigilance, tics, anxiety attacks and, most especially, dissociative identity disorder. I have rarely read so cogent an account of the nature of victimhood. Parts of this may surprise. Rhodes is almost thankful for the dissociation – the sense of leaving the body during trauma – which leaves him with multiple identities. It can make him sly, narcissistic and ambitious. There is no sense of saintliness in being a victim. There is a very bleak humour in his writing: after a partial recovery from his breakdown in Edinburgh he gets a job in London. “My job involved selling advertising and editorial to businesses around the world for financial publications no-one read. And as it involved manipulating, lying to and cajoling older men, I was absolutely amazing at it”. That dark wit can turn instantly to a kind of translucent fury. “Paedophiles”, he writes, “– don’t think for a minute you’re anonymous to those who’ve been through it.” Perhaps the most ghastly irony is that when he finally admits what has happened to him, the results are every bit as disastrous as his abuser claimed they would be if he ever told anyone what had been done to him. Likewise, his description of self-harming is visceral and palpable – he says the only comparable feeling is heroin – so much so that it is prefaced by a trigger warning.

There is an awful clear-sightedness in this powerful work. Rhodes has a rigorous lack of self-pity, even when it comes to confessing how self-pitying he can be. The text bristles with smart asides, put-downs, demotic upbraids. Each of the 20 chapters is prefaced with notes on a piece of music of significance to Rhodes, beginning with Bach’s Goldberg Variations (played, of course, by Glenn Gould) and wheeling through Shostakovich and Bruckner, Chopin and Brahms. Music was, in the parlance of psychotherapists, Rhodes’ “safe space”, and he is eloquent on how music affects us. “If there was something not manufactured by government, sweat shops, Apple or Big Pharma that could automatically, consistently, unfailingly add a little more excitement, lustre, depth and strength to your life, would you be curious? Something with no side effects, requiring no commitment, no prior knowledge, no money, just some time and maybe a decent set of headphones. Would you be interested?”

Given that two-thirds of this book are among the most powerful pages I’ve read all year, the turn from memoir to manifesto is slightly disappointing. The rather wince-making “relationship advice” is Deepak Chopra dressed up as Tupac Shakur. Rhodes rails at the “people who put the ‘ass’ into classical”. Deriding music industry snobs while taking pot shots at Andrew Lloyd-Webber may smack of double standards. Rhodes limns the lives of the great composers to stress insanity, booze, egomania and eccentricities, but I doubt that anyone is going to go and hear Telemann or Stravinsky because they think the composer’s a rebellious dude. Classical music does need to be demystified, but it doesn’t need to repackage itself as the old rock’n’roll. When I took my brother and sister-in-law to their first opera, they were anxious at first about what to wear. I said if you fancy dressing up, dress up; if you want to wear jeans, wear jeans. And I have never truly understood what “to be transported” meant until I saw their faces in the last act of Don Giovanni. It is concomitant on those of us who love this music not to keep it to ourselves. Initiatives such as the BBC Music Magazine Ten Pieces or Big Noise Raploch might prove a more efficacious route to involving young people in classical music.

The parts of this book dealing with Rhodes’s ex-wife and their son are done with sensitivity and a sense of profound regret. Rhodes neither seeks to excuse himself nor to apportion blame. Although I can understand Canongate’s desire to get the book into the public domain as soon as possible, I hope that the paperback will include Rhodes’s thoughts on the case. I am profoundly glad that this brave, intelligent and affecting book is not now censored. I am quite certain that if his son ever reads it, he will be immensely proud of his father. n