Margaret Langleben tells Jo Reynolds about what she’d do to bankers and politicians.
When did you move to the area?
Has it changed?
Ha! Back then, some people I know considered this the slums of Hammersmith. It
was all workman’s cottages. We all had outside toilets. Most people had worked
in the Lyon’s cake factory. It was working class. Now, it’s one of the most
desirable places in the country.
Where was home before here?
I was born in New Zealand. My mother was Scottish. Her father was a
Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh. My father came from New Zealand. He was a
(train) stationmaster. I was brought up in the Great Depression in a little
village near Auckland. We were surrounded by farms. Our only exports were lamb
and butter and no one could afford them. I think the Depression hit us even
harder over there. The tramps used to tramp from station to station looking for
work. They’d sit on our step and my mother would give them a cup of tea and a
sandwich or a piece of toast. People said they left a sign on the gate to tell
other tramps we were nice. I studied that gate for hours and never found that
When did you come to the UK?
In 1949. All my musical friends came here.
What stops you going back?
I did go back in 1954 to train as a teacher and to look after my parents, but
when they died in 1966 I came back here.
How long have you been teaching piano?
Why the piano?
One of the local farmers had a daughter and this man would arrive on a motorbike
to teach her the piano. I asked my mother if I could have lessons but she said
we didn’t have the money. So, I taught myself on my grandfather’s old upright.
Some of the keys were missing. When I was 11 I went to a convent to learn
piano. Many girls learnt music in convents – like Kiri Te Kanawa. Anyway, one
day I was going to the dentist and I heard the most wonderful piano playing.
During the war, New Zealand was totally isolated. I’d never been to a concert.
The sign on the door said, Professor Moor-Karoly. He was a colleague of
(Hungarian composer Béla) Bartók and had come to escape from Hungary. I knocked
and said, can you teach me? He was a nice man. He was Jewish. At that time,
apart from the Maoris, people in New Zealand only came from Scotland, Wales and
England, not even Ireland. I’d never heard of Jews. I didn’t even know Jesus
was a Jew.
Does playing the piano make people nicer?
I can’t think of any nasty people who play the piano. If they were busy playing
the piano, they wouldn’t be out killing people. Or assaulting old ladies. Or
trying to rule the world. I’m sure Hitler wasn’t a pianist.
Do you dream of being a concert pianist?
Not now. I did originally. But when I came here first I had some lessons at
the Royal Academy and one day I heard a girl – she was 13 – from Finland, I
think – she was playing a Mozart concerto like an angel. That was genius.
That’s when I realised I’d better be a teacher.
Was that a crushing moment?
Yes, it was.
Have you worked in other fields?
I was a regular teacher. I specialised in reading. When I came back, I taught
in Edinburgh, where they taught children how to read properly. Then I came to
London. It was the sixties and they were experimenting with ideas from
America. For a start, there were no reading books. They didn’t believe in
grading. Children have to be graded. They don’t need to know they’re being
graded. You don’t say, right, clever ones put your hands up. So I graded them
for myself and went to the headmistress and asked for some graded reading
books. She just stared at me. And said, aren’t you old fashioned? Old
fashioned? Coming from her? She spent every Friday assembly telling the
children about Jesus and the miracles. It would have needed a miracle for those
poor children to learn to read from her.
Do you think men are useless?
Men still seem to be the rulers. In my angriest moments, I’ve thought of
shooting them all. But I do know some lovely men. A few should be kept for
Do you have any children?
I have a lovely daughter, but one child should be enough. The planet’s already
over-crowded. I was ahead of the Chinese and their one-child policy. Did you
know that in India a man got a free radio if he had the snip. Snip, snip, I
You’re very keen on TV detectives. Who are your favourites?
Montalbano is lovely. And the original Wallander – not the other two creatures
– he’s a nice person. And Hamish Macbeth. They should all be kept for stud.
Especially Montalbano. He also has such good taste in food.
Would you be a good private detective?
I’d be petrified. Have you seen detective shows? You can get into terrible
situations. I wouldn’t mind hitting a few men on the back of the head with my
cosh. I sometimes take it with me when I’m carrying my purse. If someone
stopped me and demanded my purse, I’d throw it to them and when they were
distracted catching it with both hands, wallop! I’d like to be a bit younger
and have a women’s army and get those men who batter their wives. Mind you, I
imagine they’ve all had a dreadful upbringing. What I’d do is put all violent
men on an uninhabited Scottish island where they could fight each other.
How would you commit a perfect murder?
I think a poisoned umbrella would be best – like the one used to jab that poor
Russian. When I was young there was no television. I lived in a village with
no cinema. I saw my first film when I was 10. It was H.G. Wells’s ‘The
Invisible Man’. It made such an impression on me. I dream of what I could do
if I was invisible and had a poisoned umbrella.
Wouldn’t people notice this umbrella floating along? How would you disguise it?
I’d walk along beside someone so it looked like it was their umbrella. Mind
you, that would mean I could only do it when it was raining. No, I’d need
something smaller. Like a pen. It’s 2014. There must be a poisoned pen. We
must have progressed since poisoned umbrellas.
Wouldn’t your victims still see the pen coming at them?
I’d get behind them. Imagine what I could do in Westminster.
Who would you jab first, a politician or a banker?
I could hardly choose between them. They’re definitely not for stud. Though
they both stud too much if you know what I mean.
Should old women rule the world?
Yes. Old women like me. I haven’t any testosterone. Testosterone rules the
world. It’s awful. When you get old you can see all the failings of humanity
and you want to improve it. The world is in such a shambles but there are a lot
of wonderful young people.
Would you arm these old women?
I think the poisoned umbrella should fix it. Or the pen.
What did you think of Margaret Thatcher?
I thought she was a transvestite.
Are you afraid of dying?
You don’t need to die to go to hell. Growing old is hell. You can’t do what
you used to do. You can’t ride your bike, though I might get mine out and have
Does teaching the piano to children make you feel younger or more aware of your
It makes me feel younger. They’re lovely.
Do you have any regrets?
That bloody train (HS2). Why do we have to spend £52 billion? Who are all
these businessmen? What difference does half an hour make? They should spend
all of it on first class nurseries and kindergartens for those kids who can’t
read and go around with knives. If those unfortunate children went to first
class nurseries and learnt to read… It makes me so angry.
How do you keep smiling?
I try to be cheery and happy and have a laugh. I do try to make a point of
talking to everyone, of making them feel a bit happier. Even traffic wardens.
All I can do is try to be kind.
Thank you, Margaret. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you.