I have just finished reading Pianist James Rhodes’ book, Fire on All Sides. It really resonated with me on many levels. One for the childhood abuse he suffered and the self harm he subsequently caused himself but primarily because of the amazing journey he travelled to get to where he is in his life right now. His strength, stamina and courage leapt off the page. Here is Peter Stanford in The Telegraphs’ interview with him.
James Rhodes’ hands are small and his fingers thin and delicate-looking as he runs them over his upper arms. These are not the hands, I can’t help thinking, that you would expect of an internationally-renown pianist who sells out concert halls wherever he goes.
But right now 43-year-old Rhodes isn’t talking about music. Instead he is recalling the years in his thirties when he was addicted to cutting his body with a blade. “Here, and here, and here,” he explains, moving his hands to indicate his arms, his shoulders, his thighs. “It leaves scars,” he says, matter-of-factly, “which are harder for women because they don’t have body hair.”
An earlier generation might have referred to Rhodes as a tortured genius and left it at that, but his life defies such casual, catch-all labels. Between the ages of six and ten, as he described in his best-selling 2015 memoir, Instrumental (now being made into a film), he was repeatedly raped by a male boxing coach at his north London prep school.
The physical damage done was so great that he has now metal pins in his back, while the psychological and emotional trauma he lives with every day is chronicled in his new book, Fire On All Sides. “Fire everywhere,” he begins. “In my brain, behind my eyes, in my chest.”
To add insult to injury, his ex-wife went to court to block publication of Instrumental, on the grounds that its contents might harm their then 12-year-old son. The case made headlines, with household names such as Benedict Cumberbatch (a childhood friend) publicly championing Rhodes’s freedom to speak and write as he chose about what he had suffered. The Supreme Court finally ruled in his favour, but the whole experience, he says, was “the worst thing that has ever happened to me”.
These are words many of us use casually of everyday incidents, but given James Rhodes’ childhood – “being face down on a gym mat aged six” as he chillingly puts it – they convey a suffering much more profound. “The legal battle,” he reflects, “almost killed me”.
We are meeting in a café near his home. His hair is unruly, mostly archetypal mad professor, but in small part Hackney hipster. Once he takes off his outsized glasses, Rhodes’ gentle, mournful face reveals how hard he works to put himself back together.
He has, he tells me, just put his son, who has been over for Christmas, on a plane to the States, where he lives with his mother. Fire On All Sides is dedicated to him.
Rhodes’s second marriage to Hattie – who was at his side during the court battle and whose presence gave Instrumental some semblance of a happy ending – has also recently ended in divorce. “I am trying so goddam hard,” he writes, “to rewire that part of my brain that was so appallingly betrayed when I was a little boy while it was plastic and being formed and now will not, cannot, must not ever, ever trust people”
Self-harm by cutting is one aspect of that on-going struggle. “Cutting is an epidemic among teenagers now,” he says, “and is often associated with girls, but it’s boys as well as girls. It’s millionaires, it’s grandparents, it’s City workers, doing it as a way of dealing the general madness of life today. We aren’t designed to live as we do in 2018 and so we are getting broken. It’s the whole point of the new book.”
He was in his mid-thirties when he started cutting. “Initially, I found out about it from a website that ironically was designed to help people who had been through what I had been through. And, in a slightly perverse way, I thought, ‘I wonder if that would help’. And it did. It was addictive, amazing.”
Odd words to describe attacking your own body. “But it was in so many ways,” he patiently explains. “There is the ritual of it. There is the secrecy of it. There is the idea that you control the pain. No one else controls the pain. There is the endorphin release your body produces to combat pain when you hurt, and you can get slightly high on it. There are the scars that are an outward manifestation of saying f*** you.”
So when he plays in public, he does so in the same jeans and T-shirt that he is wearing today rather than the standard tails. He bans programme notes at his performances and instead talks intimately to his audiences about the pieces he about to playing and their composers, taking them direct to the emotional heart of the work.
And his views on self-harm, as a coping mechanism, are no less challenging to orthodoxy. “It is so misunderstood,” he says, drawing on his own experience. “It is not an indicator of suicidal alienation at all [and Rhodes is typically candid about the several attempts he has made on his own life and the time he has spent time in mental health institutions]. It is the opposite.”
What he describes in Fire On All Sides, writing with the same passion and energy he has when talking, are less destructive, more life-enhancing avenues to cope with anxiety, depression and trauma that he has found effective. The book – ostensibly a diary of his life, kept over a year during various concert tours on Europe – is, he explains, “not about who I am. It’s about how I am.”
First and foremost, what keeps James Rhodes alive is music. “It’s my life raft, my oxygen machine. I cling to it with such need.” If that sounds over-the-top, the book chronicles in detail how many times it rescues him from despair and self-destruction.
“All music is healing,” he insists. “It changes how we feel, whether it is Bach or Brahms or Justin Bieber. Whatever moves you.” And though classical is his thing, he does confess in the book (“like an oversharer on a catastrophic first date,” as he knowingly puts it) to a brief youthful enthusiasm for Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz.
“Music is a natural language and we are born fluent in it. Have you ever seen a child of two or three not respond to it? They think naturally, but gradually that gets beaten out by life.”
He recounts how, after the paralysing anxiety that takes him to the brink before most of his performances, he comes out on stage, starts to play and is transported to a better place. “When you are there and confronted with this immortal masterpiece, it wipes everything else away. That’s the beauty of music. That’s the magic.”
Why do it then? Why be so open, so candid, so courageous? “In the book, I say it is talk or die. What I mean is, if you are self-harming, if you’ve been raped, or abused, if you want to die, sadly there is no other way through it, in my experience, than talking, or you end up dead. Not necessarily suicide, but you end up dead in a drink-driving accident or by taking drugs.”
There is, though, a difference between talking to family members or medical professionals and talking on the pages of a book. “Yes, and I don’t necessarily mean talk in public with a microphone to complete strangers. I’ve chosen to do that for my own reasons, because I feel I am strong enough to do that, with the attendant exposure and shame that comes with it. It feels the right thing to do for me.”
He should, I say, have no shame about what happened to him. He was the child victim of a vicious paedophile, Peter Lee, who died before he could be brought to trial. “Yours is the rational reaction,” he replies. “I know rationally I have nothing to be ashamed about, but it doesn’t stop me being convinced at a cellular level that it was absolutely my fault, and that I should feel totally ashamed. The point is, despite that, it is not a good enough reason not to talk about it.”