One of the few positive things that’s happened to me in this truly appalling year of 2020 is that I’ve become a published author for the first time. So apologies to those of you who don’t like to hear the sound of someone blowing their own trumpet, but this is the story of my book.
When I was a boy, there was a foreigner living in our village. He drank in the local pub but, unlike nearly all the other older men who played bowls with my father, he didn’t speak with a Suffolk accent. They told me Gaby, which was what everyone called him, spoke like that because he was Spanish. They also said he was a musician – a cello player. Sometimes we even got to see him play on the television. I’d love to say that old Gaby (he would have been in his sixties at the time) and young me became friends, he told me his life story and then instilled in me a long-lasting love of classical music, but it didn’t happen like that. I spoke to him a few times, he bought me the occasional drink in the pub, then I left the village and didn’t really think about him for many years.
But a quarter of a century later, and a few years after moving to live in Barcelona, I went to a party at a friend’s flat in the nearby town of Sabadell. There, I got into a conversation with a young woman who asked me the question so many people ask an immigrant from the UK. “Whereabouts in England are you from?” The true answer to this is a little complicated. I was born in one place, I lived most of my childhood in another, and as an adult I moved around quite a bit. So I always match my answer to the places I think the questioner will have heard of. In this case, referring to my childhood home, I told her I had lived in a pretty village about 50 kilometres from Cambridge. Usually, I get either a nod or a blank look and the conversation moves on. But in this case, she came back with “Surely not Cavendish?”
How on earth did this person know my home village? It turned out she had been a volunteer care worker there, in an old people’s home where my mother also worked in the accounts department. But the coincidences didn’t end there. “There was this Catalan guy who lived in the village,” she told me. “He’d been a musician. He came from Sabadell. I used to chat to him in the pub. I think he liked being able to speak Catalan with someone from his home town.” There I was, sitting in Sabadell, talking to someone who knew my Suffolk village and who, while she had been there, had met someone from the same place we were now, her home town. “It’s a small world” didn’t really cover it – it was like the endless reflections you get when you put two mirrors together. Something was drawing me to Gaby.
Over the next few years, when I had a spare moment, I started googling Gaby’s real name, which I knew was Francisco (or Francesc in Catalan) Gabarró. I was astonished at what I found. Because although, like almost everyone, I was very familiar with the string quartet sound on the Beatles’ song Yesterday, until then I had no idea that the cello in that quartet – quite prominent in the overall sound – is played by Gaby himself. I also discovered that his cello appears in the cacophonous crescendo of sound that links the two parts of the celebrated track A Day in the Life, which closes the legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
The next part happened remarkably quickly. There are a great many forums discussing Beatles trivia and on one of these I found a thread where fans were talking about Gaby and his contribution to the band’s recordings. I posted there – just a general comment about having known him and that his story seemed an interesting one, and I soon received a reply from someone who turned out to be his grandson. He put me in touch with his father, Gaby’s son Peter, and before long I had made arrangements to meet both him and Gaby’s Catalan family, headed by his sister Maria. After those two meetings, I had no doubt that I was going to end up writing a book.
Gaby’s sister, who would have been aged around 90, lived in a large, high-ceilinged flat in the Eixample part of Barcelona, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. On the day I visited, members of the family and friends who’d known her brother had also been invited along, so my recording of the interview contains various different voices. But Maria’s own larger than life character predominates. I’d only been there a few minutes when she asked: “Would you like a drink? I’m having a glass of cava. I never drink anything else.”
There I was told of Gaby’s studies with the great Pau Casals, his forays into jazz trombone playing in the early 1930s in Barcelona when he couldn’t make a living with his cello, his flight from conscription into the Spanish Civil War, his ten years in India, his move to London and his visits to Catalonia in his later years. My face must have been a picture. I couldn’t believe the stories I was being told. I had later interviews with Maria and with other members of the Catalan Gabarró family which fleshed out the details, but that first day provided the basis for my book.
Then I went to see Peter Gabarró in his beautiful house with its garden and swimming pool hidden behind a high wall in Alicante. Like his aunt, but in a completely different way, he was a true character. A man of strong opinions, he seemed a little bemused by my interest but happy to go along with me if it meant that something about his father might eventually get into print, as he certainly believed it was a tale worth telling. From Peter I learned a lot more about Gaby’s life in England, about his work with orchestras and in recording studios, about his marriage and about how he came to spend his last years in Cavendish. I even got to hear recordings of him playing.
The final important piece in the jigsaw came a few months later, when Peter arranged for me to see his father’s old friend and colleague Pat Halling at his home beside the Thames. A straight-talking Aussie, Pat provided me with all kinds of details and anecdotes from his time with Gaby in string quartets and the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as working on the London session music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, recording music for films and television as well as commercial release.
There was a lot more research to be done, of course, mostly by e-mail, telephone and on the internet, through which I discovered more about Gaby’s musical life: his appearances on the same bill as jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli in Barcelona before the Spanish Civil War, his recordings with Frank Sinatra, and the time he appeared playing a number one tune on Top of the Pops. There was also background reading to be done, not to mention transcribing hours of interviews and, of course, actually writing the whole story. When I started the research in 2011, it was the middle of a recession in Spain and I really thought I might be short of translation work and in need of something else to occupy my time. As it turned out, my prediction was entirely wrong. Work actually picked up and I became very interested in improving as a translator, joining professional associations, going to conferences and starting this website and blog. All that meant the writing process took a good deal longer than I had anticipated as I worked away long into the night.
Eventually, I had my book in English, but this was only half the battle. I was well aware that the real market for it was in Catalonia and Spain, not really in the UK. And that meant I needed to have versions in Catalan and Spanish. I couldn’t really afford a translator, because I had no idea whether the book would make any money (and I suspected it wouldn’t), so I was looking for a collaborator, prepared to help me with the Catalan and Spanish versions in exchange for a share of the profits. Understandably, this proved difficult, and I had several false starts, to the point that I eventually despaired of ever getting the version I wanted to offer publishers. I even wrote a couple of chapters in Catalan myself, but found it completely draining. Some half interest from a publisher came to nothing. The book languished in my computer’s equivalent of a bottom drawer.
That was until Miquel Bernadó came along. Miquel, a retired teacher and amateur cello player, had heard about Gaby and started on the same internet research path as I had. Then, someone told him about the work I’d been doing. He contacted me at a time when I was extremely busy and had more or less given up hope of getting it published, so I wasn’t falling over myself to take the time to meet him. But Miquel isn’t a man to give up. He more or less pestered me, in the nicest possible way, until I agreed to see him. I explained the problem with having a book written in English but knowing that its best market would be in Catalan or Spanish. He just looked at me. “But I can help with that. I’m retired so I’ve got loads of time. I can translate it and then we can work together on finalising the Catalan version.” He made it sound that easy. So, I sent Miquel my manuscript and he spent months working on his translation and then perfecting it with my help. In this particular case, because of Miquel’s musical knowledge and his interest in the subject, as well as his good knowledge of English, I believe the result is at least as good as if I had asked any translator I know to work on it, and quite possibly better. And towards the end of the process Miquel announced one day: “I think I’ve got a publisher for us.”
Editorial Arpegio is just about ideal for a small project such as ours, which, let’s be honest, is never going to be a best-seller. Specialising in books about music, it ploughs back any profits it makes into publishing new titles, but only after authors and translators have been paid under contract. My book, or Miquel’s Catalan version of it, and the Spanish version developed from it, were put through a rigorous revision process, which saw me frantically writing footnotes and having to find justifications for things I’d written all the way through. Eventually, the exercise was complete and the book was ready for publication.
July 2020, however, was not the most auspicious month for my book to come out. Not only was it the year of COVID-19, making it difficult to do very much to promote it, publication day found me in England where I’d gone to help look my brother and sister look after my terminally ill mother. With summer holidays in the middle, any events, which will probably have to be virtual anyway because of the wretched virus, are going to have to wait until mid-September. Encouraged by interest from friends and acquaintances, my next step will be to see if I can find a publisher to take on an English version after all.
Will I ever write another book? Perhaps. But if I do I’m not planning to take the best part of ten years about it. And I would have to be inspired again by something or someone. It’s certainly been an interesting exercise and, I have to be honest, a great source of pride to see something of my own in print. So I hope you’ll forgive all this trumpet blowing. For my next post I’ll stick to translation, I promise.
If you are interested in buying the book, available in Catalan and Spanish, you can find more information here. You can also read a review of it here (in Spanish, click the language button if you want the Catalan version) and listen to some Catalan radio programmes about it here and here.