By the time he was four, Robert Walker could play by ear the Chopin waltzes his elder sister was learning. This lead to his mother ambitiously insisting he had piano lessons at the age of five. The teacher’s ruler smashed over his knuckles every time he made a mistake put him off practising for life. By the time he was eight it seemed perfectly normal to be able to tune his elder brother’s guitar without using the piano. No-one knew what perfect pitch was in his family, so he didn’t know he had it. Later, at his grammar school in Northampton, the disenchanted music master made it sound like a disease. Organ lessons with the village organist in Northamptonshire were a disaster, but with great self-effacement his organ teacher recognised Robert’s need for someone with greater skills; and he was introduced to the choir and organist at St. Matthew’s Church Northampton. At the age of 13 he knew nothing about Mozart or Beethoven but through the extraordinary music which came out of this church he was introduced to Britten, Tippett, Messiaen, William Byrd and Henry Purcell. There, too, was a large stone sculpture by Henry Moore and a huge crucifixion by the painter Graham Sutherland. Contemporary art and music were normal, everyday occurrences.
At Cambridge, as organ scholar of Jesus College, he was introduced to the Beach Boys, Chinese Court Music of the Tang Dynasty, Medieval counterpoint, Kurt Weill and Wagner. He still knew nothing about Mozart and Beethoven. After five years as Director of Music at Grimsby Parish Church (which still, uniquely, has a choir school) he decided to make a career as a composer. For 15 years he lived and composed at ‘Brinkwells’, the magical cottage in Sussex where Elgar had written his cello concerto. He discovered Mozart eventually, but to this day finds Beethoven a bit too much. Commissions from festivals, films, the BBC and individuals, as well as teaching, broadcasting and examining kept Robert very busy.
Long before reality TV programmes were thought of, he gave it all up and went to live on the island of Bali, where he built a house, grew bananas and played the jegogan in his village gamelan band. When the bombs went off in the Sari club, Robert sadly decided it was time to leave, and he moved to Thailand where he lectured at Silpakorn University, wrote for The Bangkok Post and played continuo for the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra.
But Bangkok was not a likeable place, so he decided to come home and resettle in his native Northamptonshire; forty years after he had left it. Here he sits and thinks; and sometimes he just sits, contemplating Gustav Holst’s maxim: ‘Never compose anything unless not composing it becomes a positive nuisance to you.’