Turning back to meet Alan Hacker

It was by chance, and Bob getting the Guardian daily, that I learned of Alan Hacker’s death. He was a modest 75.

“A conversation with Alan always brought new insights, yet he seemed most interested in what you had to say,” the obituary writer found, and so did I.

I was returning from somewhere and Elm Bank Gardens, Barns, was already full of cars, so I had to park around the corner from where I lived. Annoyed about this inconvenience, I began the walk to number 24. I walked passed a man getting out of a Volvo into a wheel chair. Then, adding to my accumulation of irritability at a conscience pricking and further distracting me from the destination, I turned back and asked

‘Can I help?’

‘Well, I think I’m alright, actually’ said the man considering, ‘but that’s kind of you to offer’ he added looking directly at me smiling. ‘If you like you could carry my case’, he offered.

It was the odd turn around, ‘If you like’, that shifted. I watched as he maneuvered his body using the strength of his strong arms, into the chair, carefully and practiced. When he was settled, he gave me a small case.

‘What’s in here?’ I asked of the small oblong case, that was clearly something he could have handled himself. I was superfluous.

‘My clarinet’

‘Ah so you’re a clarinet player’, I deduced, then extrapolated, ‘One of my favorite pieces of music is Finzi’s clarinet concerto.’ Said with a hint of flourish. Finzi was relatively obscure, and I had only recently come across this piece of music. I was showing off.

‘Finzi, yes’, he said thoughtfully, and went on to remarked on some weakness in the music, the ending perhaps being unsatisfactory, that I with my peacock knowledge I did not know.

‘Do you know Mozart’s clarinet concerto?’ he went on. Shamefully I said I didn’t.

‘I’m playing it tomorrow night. At Roehampton. Why not come along and hear it’, he invited with an open smile.

When I entered the Roehampton hall that night, (I cannot remember any parking problems) sitting at the only space left at the back, I felt suitably humbled. Packed it was, and the applause as Alan Hacker arrived, wheeling himself down the centre aisle, was warm hearted, respectful and welcoming. Some people stood.

Alan both conducted and played the clarinet concerto. It was sublime, all the more so as, chastened, I was opened.

When the final fulsome applause died down, and the orchestra and audience started to disperse, I hung back watching as admirers gathered around him, asking questions, talking and laughing easily. As I picked up my bag to go, he called out

‘Rachel, I’m so glad you came. What did you think of it? The first time hearing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, how was it?’

What is important of my view? I must go, I said. Why, he asked. Are you busy? If you have time we could eat together. If I have time?

We slept together that first night, and then the next. He was staying at a friends ground floor flat, in Elm Bank Mansions, wheel chair friendly, and boxy.

I cannot remember the sequence of my lovers, if Alan was before or after Tim, the polio paraplegic, but I think after. Alan was also paraplegic, but unlike Tim, from high up the body, the chest dagger bone down. As we lay together I traced my finger down that chest bone asking him to let me know when the sensation of touch ended, exactly where it was. It was an embolism on his spine that caused the paralysis. Alan was convinced the surgeons cocked up the operation, rendering him paralised from then. He was young, 28, already a rising star, having been a child prodigy, at the age of 19 teaching at the Royal College of Music and second clarinet at the LPO.

‘It was uncertain if my diaphragm would work, if I could fill my lungs enough to blow into the clarinet, but somehow, and a mystery to everyone including the doctors, I could’ he said.

How did we make love? He had a contraption, he said, to put over his unfeeling penis, but he had not bought it with him on this trip. So, with his gentle guidance, he taught me how to accept and enjoy the pleasure of him making love to me, with his strong and playful clarinet fingers.

Later that year he phoned me up:

‘Would you like to come to Venice?’ he asked. ‘I’m conducting St John’s Passion there, at the La Fenice. I need someone to accompany me, to help me get around.’

‘But how can I help you? Venice is full of cobbled streets.. and bridges… I cannot lift you over bridges…’

He laughed. ‘But you’ll work your magic and find someone who can’.

He was right, of course, that’s exactly what happened. They were glorious days. He worked hard. He was meticulous, in particular with the care of his instruments, spending hours listening to their voices, cleaning them, caring for them, each had a story. Some times I’d sit in the empty opera house, watching him from high up in a plush red velveted box, as he practiced with the orchestra and choir. Other times I searched out wheel chair friendly restaurants where we would eat in the evening, delicious Italian

food. He loved capuccino. I can remember little of Venice, for we were so into ourselves and our little world. We were playful, as light as kittens. The Italians I recall gave us side glances, but always helped us over bridges.

He was married at the time, to an attractive dark haired woman called Karen. My mother must have been alive then, for one Easter when we were visiting her family in Cottingham, I telephoned Alan, and he invited us round to where he lived in York. I had gathered from Alan that Karen was a manic depressive, and their marriage had been over for a while, but he stayed with her, returning after his tours, to support her. He talked freely of their shared disability, but it seemed – once again challenging assumptions – that she needed him more than he needed her.

She welcomed us, without side. I could feel they were strong together, and admired her facing on to the world. Her life, like their house, was converted for Alan, with a lift in the centre for him to ascend to the first floor, and he was childishly proud of this piece of heath robinson machinery.

Years later I saw him at a distance, at a Harrison Birtwistle premier of Hymn to the Sun at the Royal Festival Hall, which Birtwhistle wrote especially for Alan on the basset clarinet. Alan was once again surrounded by admirers but this time I did not go down to greet him.

I last spoke to him a year ago. Google had arrived, and with it the ease of looking up past friends. He’d married again and ran a music business, promoting ancient music on original instruments, with his new wife, but that was all the news I got for he pressed to know what had happened in my life.

I’m listening to his Desert Island discs, hearing his voice, measured, inclusive (‘As you know’, he says to Sue Lawley, ‘Mozart’s quintet starts with an upward arpeggio’) honest, and clear with a voice easily coming to a laugh. One of his chosen records was Bach’s St Johns Passion.

His luxury item was a hovercraft wheelchair with capuccino machine.

Modest, solid and comforting, describes Alan well. They are his words for why he chose Monteverdi, as his single disc to take to his desert island.

May 2012
Alan Hacker died 16th April 2012

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