As a lad, one of my heroes was Roy Castle. Back when the entire world was a sunny place (before my cynicism hormones kicked in), I could tell that the terpsichorean trumpeter was a bit special.
Part of his appeal to me were the glasses. As a spec-wearer - and recipient of the playground taunts - I'd seen Roy in one of the 'Carry On' films. with a pair of jam jars strapped to his face: myopics could make it in the movies, even if he didn't get the girl.
Drumming, tap-dancing, singing, the world's best impression of Stan Laurel - Castle was a human Tigger, a one-man advert for Duracell who was forever 'on'. Even at the end of his life, during his treatment for cancer, and having lost all his hair, he undertook a 'Tour of Hope' to raise funds for the study of Lung Cancer and the building of a specialist centre.
But his greatest mark on the psyche of my generation was, of course, 'Record Breakers', a TV version of the Guinness Book of World Records. Each week, Castle and the McWhirter twins (editors of the book) would host a variety of the weird and wonderful, the brilliant and the bizarre. Fastest, tallest, smallest, slowest, richest, poorest, bravest, strongest - all human life was here, at least from the extreme ends of the spectrum.
(Not content with just hosting, Castle also broke three records himself: fastest tap dancer, longest wing walk, and most instruments played in a single piece of music.)
More than anything else, it's the closing song that sticks with me from that childhood viewing:
Dedication, dedication, that's what you need
If you want to beat the rest
If you want to be the best
Dedication's what you need.
Castle's lyrics came up in conversation over dinner on Saturday (my, what lofty intellectual circles I inhabit). One of our fellow diners had been to see pianist Murray Perahia at the Barbican, and was overcome by the quality of his playing:
"Almost two hours, Paul, of the most beautiful playing I've ever heard. I'm usually hypercritical, but he was perfect; didn't play a wrong note all night. No sheet music, no faults. Can you imagine the time and the dedication to practice to be THAT good?"
The comment prompted thoughts about others who have excelled in their fields:
The artist James Whistler who when asked to draw a sketch on a napkin, produced a beautiful image then asked for payment. "It only took few a few moments!" exclaimed the incredulous subject. "A few moments to draw; a lifetime to learn";
Writer Anthony Trollope, who wrote for three hours every day. After he's finished his work as a civil servant at the Post Office, he would sit for his allotted time to 'write as much as a man ought to write'. What was incredible about his practice was that even if he finished a novel in the middle of his 180 minutes, he would just turn the page and start the next one;
The golfer Greg Norman, whose coach once told me that he practiced putting in the following way: at the end of a coaching session, Norman would take a bucket of 30 balls, place them 10 feet from a putting hole, and sink the lot. He'd them move to 20ft, and repeat. Then 30ft. And if he missed a single ball, he'd go back to the beginning of the practice - and wouldn't go home until he'd sunk all 90.
At a time when fame no longer lasts 15 minutes, but takes just 15 minutes to achieve, I find these stories - and other examples of dedication - to be joyous. That a fellow human being can give that much to perfecting his/her craft in order to build something that will last. There are plenty of examples in Malcolm Gladwell's latest book 'The Outliers' to illustrate his 10,000 hour rule - that's what it takes to be any good.
So why am I blogging about this today? Well, aside from the dinner at conversation, after a week of whinging about the standards in public discourse, I just needed to remind myself that it's not all bad.
Indeed, excellence is all around us. We just need to dedicate ourselves to finding it.
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