'There was music in our house, and my mother played the piano,' said the composer of the greatest secular Christmas song of all time.
'We lived in this flat, and I had this tiny room, and there was an asbestos wall, and the piano was the other side of the wall, right up against my ear. I was six. And my mother would play the piano after I'd gone to bed, and it was deafening. And I just used to listen. And she played an A minor waltz of Chopin, and I thought, I've got to play that ... I learned to play by ear and read music all in one go. It never seemed difficult. It seemed the obvious thing to do.'
Howard Blake's disarmingly modest explanation of how he came to be a musician nutshells the words of so many artists I have interviewed down the years. Their charm lies in the fact that they kind of don't get it. The truly organic creative rarely perceives anything special in his or her talent. It just was. Is. It is 'obvious'.
How ironic that this mind-blowingly prolific creator of hundreds of ballets, concertos and film scores - including an orchestral score with Queen, for 'Flash Gordon' - is revered the world over for a children's song. But not just any old children's song. We're talking 'Walking in the Air', the nucleus of 1982's 'The Snowman', which generations have grown up on and which resonates to this day. My own three children are adults now, but we still bunch around the telly together every year to revisit it. Because the animation is without dialogue, it is the music that speaks, taking a little boy on a journey which has become every child's dream: for a snowman he has made in his back garden to come to life, and fly him to Lapland to meet Father Christmas. The relatively recent addition of the snow dog has taken the story up a notch. The themes are poignant and tragic. They thrum with heartache. They seize control of our emotions. They speak silently of the gradual, inexorable loss of innocence, and of the beckoning grave.
There are priceless moments to make the journey worthwhile. Such as last night's: Howard Blake on the Sir Peter Blake 'Sgt. Pepper' piano at the Groucho Club, without warning - playing 'Walking in the Air'. I'm still pinching. Howard, in his eightieth year, retains the wide-eyed innocence of the little child in his story. I was thrilled to meet him.