It is spring 1966 and I am studying in Amsterdam. Quite by chance I pass by a shop that sells musical instruments and see a lute in the window. Not the pukka article, but a ‘light’ version – shaped like a lute, but with only six strings. Tune the G string down to F# and you’re away. In theory. I persuade the man to write me a receipt that says second-hand lute, so I can avoid customs. Lute d’occasion ƒ65, he writes in an elegant hand.
I inquire about lute music. ‘What you really want is Robert Dowland’s A varietie of lute lessons from 1610 in facsimile,’ he tells me. He produces it. Beautifully done, with a highly detailed introduction on lute technique. I buy it. First-hand.
Unfortunately, lute notation was not done in notes in 1610, it was done in letters of the alphabet, one for each string. an open string is a, the first fret b, etc. etc. It takes me an age to learn to play anything. But Prince of Denmark, His Galliard I eventually manage more or less to master.
On my return to Britain, I arrive at the barn of a customs building complete with lute and my receipt. The customs officer, completely stumped by the ‘lute dokayzen, you say, sir?’, eyes me suspiciously. ‘This is your lute sir, is it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘For your personal use?’ ‘Yes.’ I watch the crowds filing past – many look at my strange lute with interest. ‘You play the lute do you, sir?’ ‘A bit.’ ‘Give us a tune, then.’
So I sit down on the customs desk and regale all and sundry with the Prince of Denmark.
Last week I took the lute with me to the municipal recycling station, along with four winter tyres and various chairs, as I am clearing out the attic. With my car boot open, I was greeted by a man in his early 30s: ‘Are those chairs to be dumped? If not, I’d like them very much.’ (Danes are direct.) ‘Help yourself – You wouldn’t like a lute too, while you’re at it?’ ‘Oh yes, I love instruments – got a bazouki at home.’ He picks up the lute, five of its strings intact, and gets a tune out of it at once.
‘Goodnight, sweet prince,’ I murmur to myself.