Captain Corelli's Banjo - Saturday Telegraph 30th July 2005
'We who are about to die salute you', says Louis de Bernières, grimacing. It's a sweltering summer evening. As he lifts a gleaming mandolin off its stand, perspiration pricks his linen shirt. 'Let's hope the sweat doesn't make my fingers slip' he adds. This is de Bernières's second appearance of the day at the Ways with Words literary festival at Dartington Hall in Devon, earlier this month. At his first he was in writer mode, discussing his latest novel Birds Without Wings (just out in paperback). But now he is a troubadour, taking the stage to play the mandolin, the banjo and a variety of other instruments.
Two women hover behind him. De Bernières explains: "Behind me you see England's only professional flute trio. Unfortunately, one couldn't come." Together, they are the Antonius Players, an ensemble of flautists (plus de Bernières) who play classical music, ballads, folk songs and new tunes. Their eclectic repertoire includes stalwarts such as Greensleeves as well as Latin American ditties. You can catch them in Edinburgh during week one of the Fringe.
"I'm just a happy basher," says de Bernières when we meet the following morning. "I know I'm not as good as the others, so I make a joke of it. The others are fantastic flautists. I'm a good backing track." He tires of the association today, but de Bernières, now 50, made his name in the mid-1990s, following the word-of-mouth success of his bestselling novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which was turned into a mediocre film in 2001, starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz. "I'm a bit fed up with the mandolin stereotype," he says. "It's like being banged on the head repeatedly with a foam rubber mallet. But I do play." The instrument continues to crop up in his writing as well: there's a line about "the enchanting and enspiriting sound of mandolins" in Birds Without Wings.
De Bernières has been a member of the Antonius Players for a couple of years. He met the group's founder, Ilone Antonius-Jones, at a comprehensive school in south-west London, where they were both supply teachers in the early 1990s. ("I don't know if teaching is the right word," de Bernières recalls. "It was more like babysitting for lunatics.") They lost touch, but bumped into each other by chance at a gig two years ago. Antonius-Jones invited de Bernières to join the group.
To begin with, he only read poetry, including his own. He wouldn't do any music, even though he'd played the guitar for years. "I didn't feel qualified to play with them." Gradually, this changed. "I started to get more involved in the music until I was on almost every number. I still feel incredibly stressed the morning before a performance. But, as the day goes by, I get more and more excited until the performance comes and I'm really pleased to be up there."
De Bernières isn't the most mellifluous musician: tackling Greensleeves on the mandolin proved particularly tricky the night I saw him. But he loves to play. Even the pre-concert slog - practising for weeks on end - doesn't put him off. "I enjoy it enormously," he says. "I like to feel that I'm in the arts rather than in just one branch of the arts. I'm no good at drawing or painting, so that's out. And I'm never going to be a dancer, am I? Music is something that I can do."
Today, as well as the mandolin, he plays the acoustic guitar, the banjo, the clarinet and a tambourine-like instrument made from goats' hooves that clack together on a string. "As the years have gone by, I've taken up more and more instruments," he says. "I don't have to go in to an office, so, if I've got a spare half hour, I can pick up a flute or a clarinet and have a tootle." He also likes to restore instruments, rootling around junk shops in the hope of picking up a broken bassoon or a cracked kettledrum. "A lot of writers are virtually mentally ill because they just live inside their own heads," he says. "I find that unless I'm doing things with my hands - like digging the garden or mending an instrument - I start to get bad-tempered. I need to keep myself rooted."
Music helps his writing, too. "I put on the great spurt that finished Birds Without Wings in the last couple of years when I've been with the Antonius Players. If you get in the habit of being creative, it rolls over into everything else that you do."
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