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Interview: Lawrence Estrey, musician and novelist  

07 September 2018

‘When someone’s backed in a corner, it makes them fight to do what they want to do in life’

I learnt to play by ear initially. I sat down at a piano in a relative’s home and began to play, which amazed my parents. Later, at high school, the headmaster arranged formal piano tuition for me, and I went on to take a degree course at Dartington College of Arts. I came to London and won the Fritz Gottlieb Memorial Scholarship for Piano, enabling me to study with Vera Yelverton. The patron of the award was Vladimir Ashkenazy, although we never met.

In the early days, I did lunchtime recital series; sometimes as many as three or four concerts a week in central London and at Edinburgh Fringe; and also the international lunchtime recital series at Central Baptist Hall.

More recently, I’ve concentrated on recording and writing, and at the start of 2016, I released my first CD as an indie. I also released many of the recordings as YouTube videos, and they’re available to listen for free via my blog. For me, recognition of talent is more important than huge monetary returns.

I particularly enjoy playing the repertoire of the Romantic composers, especially the turbulent pieces, such as Chopin and Liszt; but I’ve also performed many Beethoven sonatas, such as the Pathétique, Moonlight, Appassionata, and Waldstein. I always perform from memory, and don’t really worry about memory lapses.

I’ve always loved getting lost in a good story, and, about 15 years ago, I started to write one, going down the psychological-thriller route. My first semi-autobiographical novel, Secrets, took the theme of five boys going off to play in Lancashire mill-town surroundings. Only four returned.

I spent several years living close to the Lancashire-Yorkshire borders, where I felt very much included in society and the neighbourhood. I feel that the break-up of the boys’ community in Secrets somehow mirrors the later break-up of my nuclear family, and the loss of childhood idealism that later turned into cynicism and anger.

My second book, EggHead, was also set in the north. It deals with teen issues and bullying. Earlier this year, I released My Musical Journey, an autobiography that covers autobiographical information in more detail.

The writing doesn’t pay the bills, but I’ve been a self-employed musician for nearly 15 years, performing recitals and running after-school activities.

I grew up in a semi-Orthodox Jewish family in north Manchester. For a short time, I attended a Church of England primary school in Royton, Lancashire. There, I encountered a strong sense of friendship and acceptance, along with the love of music and writing and the overall feeling of God’s presence.

My family moved, though, and I witnessed a great deal of violence at home. At the new school, I experienced unrelenting and severe bullying from older boys. It involved things like being instructed to accept powerful punches to the face without flinching, and another incident where a trio of boys poured lighter fuel on my jacket and over my hair and set them alight, then burst out laughing at my panicked attempts to put the flames out.

My mother just said that I deserved what I got. I think it was because she was abused by her parents, and my family thought that violence was perfectly normal. They believed in corporal punishment. My parents divorced eventually, one of my brothers died, and my family rejected me when I converted. My grandfather came from Russia, from a very Orthodox family where, if anyone married out, they shaved their heads and held a funeral for them.

My own anger growing up caused me a lot of trouble, keeping calm under such provocation. It was music that helped me get over it, and friendship with some younger men in the same church and Bible group, and times joking with them, a bit like a group of brothers. It did cause a rift, because some Christians were telling me: “Get over it. You’ve got to forgive your mother;” and others were advising me to cut my contact with her.

Eventually, I left Manchester to study music in Devon, and later made the decision to cut off contact with my family and the Jewish community; but I suffer with a post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], and haven’t been able to settle down, marry a Christian woman, and have a family of my own, although I still hope for these things to happen.

I became a Christian at Dartington College of Arts. At first, I just met up with some older Christians for a coffee and chat at the church in Totnes. I used to argue back a lot — in a friendly manner — and state that I was an atheist.

Then, on a short visit to Manchester during Easter vacation, I encountered the bullies by chance. They pursued me down the main road, to a deserted path, making threats to kill me. Astonishingly, an old lady heard the commotion and came to my defence just as one of the men cornered me by a cluster of trees. That final encounter with bullies changed my whole life. I knew I could never be truly safe ever again, and, about four weeks later and still shaken up, I gave my life to God and became a Christian at the church in Totnes.

I’ve since encountered the Holy Spirit in a powerful and tangible manner, and for a number of years I was involved in the Charismatic movement. I’ve always felt that the Gospels were Jewish: there’s no difference between Jesus saying: “All these things will be given to you,” and God telling Solomon that, because he asks for wisdom, he’ll be given riches and all things There are strong links between rabbinical thought and the Gospels.

“His power is made perfect in my weakness.” I’ve fought so much against the PTSD. I’ve managed to send music across the world, and my limitations also propel me forward in other ways. I think that when someone’s backed in a corner, it makes them fight to do what they want to do in life. I don’t like going on motorways or tubes, but that makes my working life more interesting because I find other ways to get around, or I use CBT methods to face the journey.

For me, friendship, comradeship, and fun is better than drugs or healing meetings or therapy. I knew a few guys from Lancashire in London who totally accepted me, and their friendship helped me to heal. I refused to go to deliverance ministries or prayer meetings, to go down the demon route. Healing is about having a glass of wine with some mates. Friendship heals.

My favourite sound is the piano.

I love foreign-language studies. I’m currently studying French, German, Russian, and modern Hebrew. As a musician, it’s good to have a load of languages, and I’m hoping I could really communicate the gospel to people in London in all five languages one day. It’s good fun — better than having the TV on.

It makes me angry when I’m being misunderstood. Or when someone walks slowly in front of me. Technology going wrong, as well.

I’m happiest when I’m getting on with life, working with music, writing or socialising. I hope to release further piano recordings of Chopin and Beethoven, and I have a current novel on the go.

My greatest courage was needed to overcome the acute anxiety that results from PTSD and going on stage to perform complex musical works from memory. Also, choosing to face an almost out-of-control phobia of needles and dentists. I managed these without fainting or going crazy.

My strong belief in God watching over my life and steering me along a path gives me hope.

I pray most for God’s mercy and protection. I avoid praying for material things, partly because I feel God wouldn’t grant the request, and partly because I think praying along those lines could become demanding. I also pray for God’s presence and for peace of mind.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, meeting a well-known Christian personality wouldn’t appeal to me. I’d want to hang out with my Christian buddies and have fun. Christian friendship matters most to me.

Lawrence Estrey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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