If you have read James Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental, you will not have forgotten it. If you have not, do so now. I cannot write anything about Rhodes more affecting than he has written himself.
Instrumental is his harrowing account of the horrendous sexual abuse he suffered for years as a child, at the hands of a PE teacher at his north London prep school. The book never shies away from discussing the graphic physical and mental fallout: the serious spinal injury it left Rhodes with, requiring three bouts of surgery; his depression, OCD, self-harm, alcoholism, breakdown, drug addiction and suicide attempt in a psychiatric hospital. It is a book filled with anger, sadness and torment, yet also, wonderfully, it is the story of how Rhodes transcended trauma through a profound love of classical music.
Shortly after Rhodes’s ordeal began, aged six, he heard Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor and was transported: “It was like magic. It suddenly made sense of things.” Later, this passion led him to carve out a career as a concert pianist, despite having no formal academic musical education. The first classical pianist to be signed by Warner, his unpretentious style has seen him called the “Jamie Oliver of the grand piano”. Alongside six albums, he also produced a campaigning Channel 4 series, Don’t Stop the Music, addressing the importance of music education in schools.
Instrumental sold more than 150,000 copies and found Rhodes legions of fans (75,100 on Twitter). After his first wife tried to get the book banned, it also landed him a £2m court case that cost him his second marriage and almost his sanity. His new book, Fire on All Sides, chronicles his mental state since. The title, a stage direction from Don Giovanni, describes Rhodes’s feelings about life most of the time. That it is “hot and dangerous and my world is either about to melt or collapse”. Yet rather than let those thoughts consume him, the book explores his struggle to change, ricocheting between optimism and crippling self-doubt. At times, Fire can feel self-indulgent — not to mention foul-mouthed. (It opens with Rhodes saying if he met Bach, “I don’t know if I’d punch him or blow him”.) Yet it’s also a brilliant, jangling opus to Rhodes’s frantic mind, his writing more powerful because men are rarely so emotionally candid.
Given the turmoil of Rhodes’s internal life, he seems surprisingly chipper in the flesh, springing along the street to the Ivy Cafe, ordering a hearty shepherd’s pie. His hair is wiry and wild, as if he’s been electrocuted, which suits his frenetic personality. He’s fun company: in scruffy jeans, a grey hoodie and a coat, when the photographer asks him to unbutton it, he quips: “Aren’t you at least going to buy me a drink?” But as we eat, I realise he’s checking himself out in a mirror over my shoulder — he is a self-confessed narcissist.
He appears to have a wonderful life — shuttling between London’s Maida Vale and Madrid: “f****** paradise”. He’s dating a beautiful Argentinian actress, Micaela Breque, who is “gentle, calm, kind” and, at 28, 14 years younger than him. (Like all complicated men, women throw themselves at him. He gets through two wives and two girlfriends over the course of the books.) She’s a fan he met via Instagram a few months ago. He’s shortly off to Argentina to meet her parents.