Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger

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Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A year in the life of Alan Rusbridger, Guardian Editor-in-Chief and pianist, during which time Wiki and the News of the World leak. Fascinating.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099554745

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I’ve maintained for a long time that I’ll read anything, if it’s well-enough written. So it was with this fascinating memoir, even though it’s a year in the life of an amateur pianist, and I don’t play the piano – or indeed a note of music. I couldn’t even have placed the name Alan Rusbridger in his professional role before I read the book. A quick browse through the first couple of pages on Amazon revealed that the author could indeed tell a clear story: it is his stock-in-trade as Editor of the Guardian. And the book duly held me through a messy, interrupted week of bedtime reading.

By the way, this was a diary for 2011: the year of Wikileaks and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. I don’t suppose the diary would have made it to print without the shenanigans at News International. The Wikileaks story is retold with the drip-feed presentation it received at the time. I was struck by how well the leaks were managed by the international press partners involved. Reading about the events leading up to the Leveson Inquiry, I realised for the first time how unaware, until almost the last chaotic minute, the Guardian remained to the scale of the scandal it had unearthed. The revelations were, for a time, overwhelming. For this insider account alone, the book is well worth reading.

In the summer of 2010, Alan Rusbridger rashly decided to spend a year working up one of the most difficult pieces in a pianist’s repertoire. The Chopin Ballade No 1 in G Minor is more usually learned by a child prodigy, who gives artisitic meaning to its musical intensity in later life. Rusbridger was in his late fifties and pretty intimidated just by the score. He recorded interviews with concert pianists and neuroscientists in his diary, trying to pinpoint how to move himself up a few notches above his ‘mediocre’ start-point.

One of the notions that intrigued him was the line between amateur and professional artists. Tied into the professionalism of his day job, I didn’t feel that he initially appreciated the possibilities of amateur achievement. He found from his discussions, of course, that the boundaries can be blurred.

The essential difference between the two is a question of financial reward, and not necessarily skill level. Condoleeza Rice, for example, whom he interviewed, remains a gifted amateur. In the creative arts there are numerous writers, artists, photographers, actors and craftsmen who aren’t able (or don’t want) to earn a living from their craft. In other cultures, in other times, maybe they would have been able to succeed. Nowadays you need an enormous stroke of good luck to survive professionally, as well as the ability to turn out perfection quickly. Like many another amateur, Rusbridger was able to up his game towards a professional standard with time, patience and perseverance.

As he became more involved, Rusbridger became acutely aware of the positive effects of his musical activities on his daily life. He found that early morning practice set him up for the day. He needed to tune everything else out of his brain, in order to concentrate on learning the Ballade. I marvelled, actually, that someone could describe so accurately and enthusiastically the experience of ‘mindfulness’ without actually mentioning the word. As the media events away from the piano ran amok, he increasingly found it difficult to exclude other thoughts. By July 2011, when he returned to his summer school, I was indeed rooting for the man, though I can’t know from a distance whether this was the real man or an idealised pic. What I did sense was that for a man of his power and influence, learning the Ballade was a humbling experience, which is no bad thing.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions from fellow reviewers, which you might be interested to follow up include:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

A Diary of The Lady: My First Year as Editor by Rachel Johnson

The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin

Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age by George Brock

There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press by Mick Hume.

Buy Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible by Alan Rusbridger is in the Top Ten Autobiographies 2014.

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