Luke Upward’s Nights With The Stars
Luke Upward had a personal and artistic bond with the nightclub pianist and crooner, Ricky Rubato. Like him, Rubato had a jealous rival, the metronomic but mediocre Johnny Atempo. He saw in Rubato another artist who had shunned the multitude and preferred the appreciation of small audiences of true cognoscenti. (He did not realize that Rubato’s relationship with the multitude was dictated by the multitude rather than Rubato, who continued to dream of the Palladium when performing at Pensioners’ Night at the Pie and Gerbil in Little Parvum.)
Upward tried to persuade Rubato to compose a new work for the zither, but he felt unable to do justice to Upward’s tone-palette of two chords on the instrument. Instead they collaborated on a two-man show, alternating Rubato’s cocktail favourites at the piano with Upward reciting his choice of “apps” through his purloined megaphone. Entitled The Pursuit Of Appiness, the show had a try-out at a converted Essoldo cinema (since demolished) somewhere near Snaresbrook. It fell short of triumph. In Upward’s wry words, “you could have stored meat in the audience.” The performers’ malign rivals, Walter Downer and Johnny Atempo, ostentatiously left early and were followed by a large section of other first- (and last-) nighters. Again in Upward’s wry words: “the rattle of retracting seats was like machine-gun fire. Even the elderly and infirm leapt over each row like young ibex.”
Ricky Rubato (from long practice) ignored this response and resumed his career, eventually ascending to become the accompanist for Beppo the Wonder Dog. However, Luke Upward was for some time a trifle unnerved. Eventually he took “ownership” of the experience with a memorable “app”, namely: “if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same, you must be an accountant.”
Apart from Ricky Rubato, Luke Upward had a long friendship with another celebrated musician, Patrick Moore, the xylophonist who also achieved some distinction as an astronomer. Moore and Upward were intrigued by the alphabetical possibilities of their chosen instruments, the xylophone and the zither. They contemplated forming the XYZ Trio, and even auditioned a number of yodellers. But again a musical project foundered because of Upward’s limited repertoire. Looking back, I now feel that his two exquisitely executed bars of the Harry Lime theme, plunk-plunka-plunk ka-plunk, are an aural metaphor of Upward’s whole œuvre: one immaculate short phrase, with longer passages abandoned and eventually not attempted.
Upward loved to draw out his friend on astronomy, and some of Moore’s finest Skies At Night were polished a deux together. Like Aristotle and other great thinkers before him, Upward had an exaggerated respect for the Universe beyond the Moon. He was deeply disappointed to learn from Moore that it was made from the same chemical elements as those on Earth, and that no astronaut would ever return with a philosopher’s stone or a lump of green kryptonite. In one of his rare spontaneous “apps” he exclaimed to Moore: “it is absurd for the Universe to be so earthbound!” However, he rallied slightly when Moore told him that it was made mostly of hydrogen. It prompted him to suggest that the Universe began not with a Big Bang but with a colossal Squeaky Pop. (The test for hydrogen was one of the few things Upward could remember from chemistry lessons at school between his expulsions.)
With Patrick Moore, a keen cricket-lover, Luke Upward felt no need to conceal his secret devotion to the game. The two used to enjoy speculating on the possibilities of lunar cricket. Would the extra bounce compensate bowlers for the lack of swing? Moorethen sketched out the conditions for cricket on Deimos, the minute Martian moon. Its gravitational pull was so low that a bowler of any pace could throw the ball into independent orbit around Mars, while a thoughtless leap in delivery stride would do the same for the bowler. Moore also entertained his friend with the cricket season on Uranus – 21 years long – but with a matching winter season of 21 years of frozen darkness. “Almost like a novel by Walter Downer,” remarked Upward, unable to resist a dig at his jealous rival.
While enjoying these byways of astronomy, Upward remained disappointed by the dreary chemical menu of the universe and the absence of exciting new elements. Moore and other friends were alarmed to discover him on a clear night shouting insults at Betelgeuse. Eventually he calmed down and composed a memorable “app” as a riposte to J B S Haldane: “the unknown will, almost certainly, turn out to be as boring as the known.”
In his latter years Luke Upward had some lively debates with his friend Patrick Moore about the prospective demotion of Pluto from its status as the ninth planet of the Solar System. Upward was quick to recognize the implications of the move for astrology. All forecasts which had made use of Pluto since its discovery in 1930 would have to be corrected and communicated to anyone who might have placed “detrimental reliance” upon them. He composed an imaginary letter to this effect: “Dear … We regret to inform you of an error in the destiny which you purchased from us on your recent birthday. You will not elope with a tall, dark, handsome stranger to Samarkand. You will instead discover a proficient plumber from Penge at most reasonable rates. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
Upward described astrologers and similar practitioners collectively as “mancers.” He created one of his most mordant “apps” to dismiss their pretensions: “any attempt to make life predictable is predestined to failure.”
Luke Upward was delighted when his friend Patrick Moore informed him of an imminent rare astronomical event: all the naked-eye planets would be appearing in the same night sky. Armed with Moore’s map of where and when to look, he stationed himself on his Bermondsey balcony with some borrowed binoculars and a biography of Brahe, to pass the time in the pauses between the planetary performers. To his fury, his view was obliterated by the glare of local lighting from sodium and neon, which had turned his entire night sky into a dismal chemical glare. With a mighty cry of “Buxtehude!” (his nearest approach to a swear word) Upward sprang to his feet and proclaimed “we are all in the gutter and now we cannot even look at the stars!” Normally indifferent to all crusades and causes, he immediately threw himself into Moore’s campaign against “light pollution” – to such effect as to earn a memorable day in court.