Champion sportspeople are often asked what they would have liked to be were they not the footballers, golfers or swimmers they are. Golfer Nick Faldo, for example, said he would have liked to be a racing-car driver. Sterling Moss said he’d have fancied being a professional golfer. Faldo had done a few laps in a racing car in an exhibition event and Moss was a low-handicap golfer.
Other people responding to the question I suspect would be more likely to think about things at which they were hopeless rather than things at which they were half good. For me, it would be music and languages.
There was no music at home other than, to use the expressions of the period, on the wireless and the radiogram. No piano, no mouth organ, even. My father, it was said, had been able to play the bugle but, like many other things he was supposed to have done, like ride a motorbike and play tennis, I never knew him to do it. It was as though he left his younger, more sprightly life behind him when he married.
It seemed to me that to be able to express oneself through music and entertain other people would be a joyous thing but I did nothing about it. In my late twenties a folk-singing, guitar-playing girlfriend attempted to teach me the basic folk guitar chords. I was hopeless. I had the disability of being unable to move my hands independently of each other. Hard to hold the strings down and pluck and strum like that.
Later, when I still bemoaned my musical inability, Jean bought me a series of lessons with a professional guitar teacher. I drove from Glebe to Paddington on Saturday mornings for the lessons but it was useless. I just couldn’t do it.
A friend told me later that I was starry-eyed about playing music. Being in a band was hell, he said, with members turning up late for rehearsals or drunk or not at all. There were fights over styles and repertoire. Keith Richards’s autobiography makes the point: when he saw Mick Jagger fiddling with a guitar he said, ‘There are two guitarists in this band and you’re not one of them.’
With languages it was the same. For a few years I struggled with high-school French. Having a good memory, I acquired a wide vocabulary but was all at sea with the grammar. I’d never mastered English grammar in the first place, so all attempts to teach me the language through grammar were bound to fail.
It was a serious matter. To be admitted to an Arts course at the University of Melbourne in those days you had to have matriculated with a language. My French result in the preliminary test was so bad the headmaster of Melbourne High School, ex-test captain W M (Bill) Woodfull wrote, ‘Keep after this French. If Arts is your course it must be done!’
I failed French but with high marks otherwise my score of 30 was just enough to admit me to Arts on a conceded pass. I did French 1A, known as ‘idiot French’ at university. The examination entailed a translation from French to English (not the other way around, which had sunk me at school) and questions on French novels which could be read in English. No problem. The snag was the dictation. One was held at the end of each term and you had to pass two to pass the subject. I failed the first lamentably and for the rest of the year I attended dozens of practice sessions held at various colleges at lunchtime (I was not alone in my difficulty) and squeaked through.
That was the end of my academic endeavours at languages. I was left with a feeling of deprivation and tried, at various times, German (through another girlfriend) and Spanish via the ‘Teach Yourself’ book series to no avail.
So I remain a non-musical monolinguist. Luckily, I happened to have a knack for writing light fiction.