To Scrape or Not to Scrape?

I gave my first concert on a plastic reed on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t the Strauss Oboe Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, fortunately, but rather an intimate family concert to celebrate her 95th birthday at my mother’s sheltered accommodation in Salisbury (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). I believe the average age was a musically tolerant 80.

I am an amateur musician, and have been playing the oboe for nearly fifty years, on and off. Over the last twenty years, more off than on, unfortunately, though there have been bursts of activity when I’ve found a piano-playing friend. I’ve always struggled with the making of cane oboe reeds. It takes hours, most of them are no good, and the good ones last two weeks or so. I’ve also found that I can’t buy ready-made reeds that suit me. So recently I’ve become rather excited about the new ‘plastic’ oboe reeds produced by Legere (see The Artificial and the Natural).

Well, I bought four of them and whilst bicycling in the Dordogne two weeks ago I adjusted them to my own liking – ruthlessly removing the hump-and-spine features of the ‘European Scrape’. I don’t mean I did this whilst actually bicycling. I mean at the end of the day in hotel bedrooms when there was nothing else to do.

I should point out that they are expensive, which I take as a measure of how far oboists will go to solve the reed problem.

I am, on the whole, pleased with the result and I got one of the four reeds to the stage of being the best reed in the box. So I played on it on Saturday – Poulenc, Bach, Boismortier, Stravinsky and Rossini, with my brother (flute), his partner (violin), and my two nephews (piano and bassoon). The result did not provoke a riot.


The oboe world is buzzing with curiosity about these reeds, so I’ve added my own comments in a short YouTube video – To Scrape or Not to Scrape.. I strongly believe that within a few years we’ll all be using them. Legere will inevitably produce different varieties and their materials will improve. Perhaps the price might also decline.

It’s years since I’ve played the oboe as frequently as I now intend to. Plastic has changed my life. Forty years ago when I began to play the oboe I could never have imagined that I might believe this.

95 Today!

My mother is 95 today, and undiminished. Of course, she’s incapable of a marathon, but with the aid of a walking frame, and the motorised buggy she drives around Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, she’s perfectly capable of fending for herself, as well as providing for an ever-growing menagerie of stray cats – ‘the breakfast club’ as she calls it –  mostly strays on the make who’ve recognised a good deal when they’ve seen one.

Mentally she’s as acute as ever, and as provocative, mischievous and argumentative. She’s an avid reader, a critical viewer of the afternoon soaps, and still up to the demands of University Challenge and Mastermind. If she complains about anything, it is only of the boredom of old age, but there is clearly much to keep her entertained and exasperated.

Dressed for this year’s Easter Bonnet competition.


Though most of them have chosen intellectual retirement, my mother likes to discuss the political and cultural issues of the day with the other elderly residents of the community where she lives in Salisbury. She’s an outspoken atheist, socially liberal, politically Conservative, pro-EU, refugee-tolerant, and she’s quick, indeed eager, to see dishonesty, self-interest, pretension, arrogance and insincerity in almost everyone in public life. She loved Margaret Thatcher and loathes Tony Blair (at least she has loathed him consistently, whereas I only loathed him after he got started with Iraq). She can’t bear false piety, or affectation. She hates pomposity, and officiousness. She can’t bear whining.

There are also a few things that she likes. She likes animals. She likes poetry and music. Above all, she likes her own country. She has travelled widely, but late in a long life has formed the view that British is always best, whether it’s a matter of gastronomy, landscape, politics, justice, or kindness to animals. Garlic, above all, must be avoided. She likes a drink or two, and would drink a little more if it weren’t that a single glass topples her.

Her low opinion of human nature has led her to see innocence only in animals, and she’s quicker to write a cheque for ailing donkeys than for the conventionally underprivileged human. I differ with her on the question of human nature. She sees the world as a worse place than when she was born: I see it as a better place, and getting better all the time. Animals, as far as I’m concerned, aren’t moral beings capable of good or evil.

My mother was born Grace Evelyn Tizard in Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. Her father was a quarryman, her mother a domestic servant brought up in a harsh Workhouse School in north London. She inherited from her mother the conviction that good things only come from hard honest work, and that laziness and luxury sap the soul. I have, in turn, inherited those views. ‘I want never gets’ was the constant refrain of my childhood.

She won a scholarship to Grammar School in the mid-1930s, and joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service when war broke out in 1939. She’d long thought that war was inevitable, and had no time for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. She spent the war years calibrating guns and assisting with the development of radar on the cliff tops of southern England and Wales.

In 1944, despite her admiration for Churchill, she voted Labour, for the first and, so far, the only time.  The war years were hard, but possibly the happiest years of her life. As for many women of her background the war was liberating, bringing new, wider possibilities in its train.



On demobilisation she studied at a teacher-training college in Cheltenham, and from then until the 1980s she taught at a number of state primary schools. She was a firm but fair teacher and had no problem with discipline.

She met my father, an Army Major, in 1954 and they enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 2003. She was undoubtedly the more articulate, thoughtful and opinionated of the two, and he the more conventional. Since his death, my mother has expressed her opinions without restraint, and she cares little for others’ opinion of her. If there are those who disagree with her, they must make their case intelligently, and expect to see it demolished if it’s weak. I share her approach on such matters.

She is a woman of strong views. On a good day that can be invigorating. On a bad day…..well, it’s her birthday, so let’s put that aside for the moment.

If she can avoid physical dependency and retain her wits and wit, she’ll gladly live to a hundred. Fingers crossed.

Isn’t it marvellous that…..?

I am fond of my mother, on the whole. At 94 she’s as intellectually astute as ever, or very nearly, a champion of atheism, socially tolerant, and, thankfully, only slightly infirm. But I so wish she could be more of an optimist. It’s her view that the world is a lesser place than when she was young, or even middle-aged. It’s lost its innocence, it’s more cynical, its values have declined. I know that pessimism and nostalgia afflict the elderly, but I don’t see that’s she’s changed very much since I’ve known her. She’s always been a glass-half-empty lady, not a glass-half-full one.


So, I had a bit of a row with her the other day. I was tired after a long day of travelling, and my tolerance was at a very low ebb. What depresses me is that  she sees everyone, whether the man or woman or child in the street, or the politician in Westminster, as selfish and grasping. Only animals are innocent and deserving of unqualified admiration. Unusually, I snapped.

‘Before I come to see you next,’ I said, ‘I’d like you to work on a list of ten sentences that begin, “Isn’t it marvellous that…..”.’

Of course, I can think of more than ten. Top of my list might be ‘modern dentistry is almost painless,’ and I’d go on to list the decline in poverty, disease, tyranny, violence, injustice, and so on. True, there are some balancing evils – pollution, global warming, obesity, and so on. I’m not against sentences beginning, ‘Isn’t it awful that…..’, but I don’t want them to dominate.

I won’t hold my breath, and I probably won’t hold her to it, but I was thinking of this yesterday when I saw this report on the BBC Website. My mother was a teacher, so I’m hoping she’ll notice this one. I find it very cheering.

Children are reading more. Reading is cool. Isn’t that marvellous?!

Lost innocence is hardly a new theme. Humanity has never lived in the Garden of Eden, hence our longing for it, but it doesn’t exist in our youthful past either.