26 May, 2011

'A well-waxed paper door slides open......'

I have few memories of my early years in school but I can remember being placed in a class separated from other classes by moveable screens in an area that obviously doubled up as several teaching areas within the school hall. I can also vaguely remember my teacher, who seemed to to be a huge woman with a moustache. And one of the clear memories that I have is that after I had been in the school for  a few weeks my mother visited the teacher to ask why I was not yet able to read! This was very much in the days when parents' evenings and questioning the teacher were unheard of so I assume that it was something that my mother felt strongly about. Whether it bore fruit I have no idea, but by the time I was seven or eight I was an avid reader. I can still remember sitting in class a year or two later speeding through the higher levels of 'Wide Range Readers' – stories about cavemen discovering fire, King Arthur and his knights or Hereward the Wake.

An early read in 1953-54
I don’t know if it was my mother’s influence but as she was an avid reader then I assume it was. We were a very humble, even poor, family. There were  no great shelves of books in the house but mother read everything – the Daily Mirror, books that she borrowed from others or bought cheap on the market and I suppose I picked up the bug. When Christmas came along I always knew that books would feature large in my presents – and I read them. Some of those I still have and occasionally take them down from my bookshelves, look at the scrawly name I wrote inside the cover, smell them , and read what mother had written 'To Tony with love from mummy and daddy Christmas  1954' it says in the front of my copy of 'Children of the New Forest'. I can still remember getting this – I would have been eight or nine – and at the same time I got a copy of 'Treasure Island'. Two thick volumes - one with a rich red binding (now very faded!) and the other with a bright yellow cover - and I can vividly remember sitting under the Christmas tree devouring the words – many which I didn’t really understand – but being transported into a magical world of pirates and roundheads and cavaliers. I can still hear myself saying to my mother, 'What does this word mean: p-r-u-d-e-n-t?' - as I read Captain Marryat’s wonderful story of the New Forest and the Civil war.

I moved onto other children’s favourites – 'Biggles', 'Just William', classics such as 'Oliver Twist' and 'David Copperfield', 'King Soloman’s Mines' and the like and the effect of all of them was that as I read – usually lying with my head hanging over the edge of my bed and the book on the floor, with the landing light providing some light – I was transported to worlds far removed from the drab back street of two up two down houses in which I lived. I was Biggles shooting down the dreaded Red Baron or a jungle explorer  or I was walking along Yarmouth beach with David Copperfield and Peggotty to  her brother ‘s  upturned boat beach house or I was with Sherlock Holmes and Watson solving some dastardly crime!
By the time I became a teenager I had read many of the classics and had moved on – if that is the right description – to more modern stuff. Mother was an avid reader of Dennis Wheatley novels and I followed her – reading tales of black magic and historical novels of the French Revolution. I enjoyed war stories – 'The Dam Busters', 'The Wooden Horse', 'The Colditz Story','A Town Like Alice' and the like. I could spend day after day of the school holidays absorbed rather than going out with friends.
One of the books that
made me what I am

And then, I discovered better stuff! Whilst doing A levels I was given a copy of  'The Grapes of Wrath' and was  immediately hooked – and  for the first time realised that books can not only be enjoyable  escapes but bring powerful messages. 'Germinal', 'Of Mice and Men', 'Animal Farm', 'Brave New World', '1984'............. were raced through with a mixture of enjoyment,  passion and rising anger. I became 'an angry young man' and began thinking of all the inequalities and wrongs that there were and are in the world!

Since then I have read a wide variety of stuff. I am not an expert, no literary genius or critic. I could not easily define what makes a good book or what gives it literary merit. I often read blogs and book reviews by those with greater qualifications  than mine and am impressed by their erudition. But, I simply want a good story – be it fiction or fact – written in a style that I can deal with, which makes me think and which above all transports me to another place. This I suppose is very personal – what might transport me may leave another cold – but what I do know is that it is books rather than films that have the ability to make an impact on me. Few if any films have had an emotional impact on me - many books have.

As a retired primary teacher I have been involved with reading throughout my professional life and I’d like to think that some of my enthusiasm for books and reading rubbed off on some of the kids I taught over the forty years I was in the classroom. One of the great regrets of the latter years of my career was the way that the enjoyment of reading was and has been usurped by the National Curriculum, SATs and the dreaded 'literacy hour' which ensures that young children in the early stages of reading  'study'  literature. Photocopied 'texts' are poured over, studied and analysed for literary merit and style. That seems not to me to be the objective of the exercise. I wanted children to enjoy reading, to be  inspired and see it as a positive and rewarding activity – not a thing to be ‘studied’ and to get right or wrong.

So many times in my career when I read a story to children, one or more of the class would come to me and ask 'Can I borrow that book when you've finished it?' Or, 'Has that author written any more that we can read?' That gave me a real thrill and I would pass the book on - often knowing that I'd never get it back - but that didn't matter. So many times children - especially boys - who were struggling with reading would ask to borrow a book that I had been reading to the class and ask to borrow it. It was clearly too difficult for them to read but somehow they struggled through and often came out at the end as better readers - and more importantly - wanting to read. I took great pleasure in feeling that perhaps I  had kept their enthusiasm going! But, today, in the 'Gradgrind SAT production lines' that are our schools each churning out level 4 SAT results for the use of successive governments and their league tables, enthusiasm, pleasure, inspiration and the like are not valued. You don't get marks for enthusiasm or inspiration or imagination. You only get a mark for getting it (whatever 'it' is) right.

Books and stories, of course, have another dimension than simply telling a story or giving us some facts. They are  wonderful vehicles for inspiring other interests and learning about other people,  places and times. They can help to pass on a culture or provide a moral framework for children and build an understanding  of what makes people act as they do  – indeed that is why the Greeks had their myths, Aesop his fables and Jesus his parables -  but, of course, this requires that the teacher is able to lead the children to the desired understanding.

One of the most memorable, sad and, I suppose, humorous examples of this happened to me just before I retired. One of the young teachers on my staff came to me one day and asked if I could recommend a book that she could use with her literacy lessons that would also fit in with the history (Tudor England)that the children were studying.  I knew immediately what to recommend – 'Cue for Treason' by Geoffrey Trease – an old book but a rattling good yarn of the Tudor period. I had read it many times to children  and they always sat on the edge of their seat and demanded more as each chapter ended. A few weeks passed and one day a bright eleven year old knocked at my office door to proudly display her work. It was a lovely picture she had drawn depicting the inside of a house – table, chairs, fireplace etc. She explained that the task was that she had to draw the room described in the story. As I looked at the picture, my heart sank. We walked along to the classroom where other children were engaged in the same task. I walked around and I knew my worst fears were confirmed. Artistically, the work was super. I praised  the children and the teacher through gritted teeth.
One of Dickens'
wonderful characters
- Peggotty

You see, the story tells of how the hero is awakened in the middle of the night by his father and older brother. They creep around the small house getting ready to go out and do some dastardly deed (read the story if you want to know what it is!!!!). The book describes the room – fire place, fire, table, stone walls, pot boiling on the fire, chairs etc. And, hanging on the wall a pike '.....used by my grandfather in the war against the Scots. I asked my father are we taking the pike with us to protect us......' says the hero.

All the children in the class had drawn wonderful pictures of the room – they had completed the set task well – but each had drawn a stuffed fish hanging on the wall – a dead pike! No one questioned it. The teacher had told them that a pike was a fish and everyone completed the task! I didn’t have the heart to disabuse the teacher or the children that it was highly unlikely that in Tudor times people carried dead fish into battles against the Scots  or to help with dastardly deeds in the middle of the night  but I did walk back to my office pondering what I had seen! For several days afterwards I mulled over whether I should have a word with the young teacher and explain that the pike was a weapon rather like a spear - in the end I sadly decided to move on! 

So, what has prompted me to write this blog?
My latest 'discovery'

Well, last night I read the final, wonderful words of a tale that had me riveted from the first. I don’t know if it is 'good literature' – although the author has received many plaudits for this and other novels he has written. All I know is that more than any book I have read for many years – perhaps, with one or two very significant exceptions – it totally  transported me to another world for the five or six days it took to read. Today I read a number of professional reviews of the book – The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Washington Post etc and they all agree on its many qualities – and, to a degree, agreed on its short comings – but I’m not too interested in literary criticism. It just worked for me. Difficult in places – I had to have a short break occasionally and come back to it. Occasionally confusing as the characters changed and the names and language reflected this. Complex plot woven in a complex manner.  But, as the story and characters developed I was entranced. It is a book to keep – not to send to the charity shop as read and finished with and then ultimately forget. Today, although I finished it last night, I kept going back and re-reading the occasional section or checking something that I hadn’t quite understood.

And the book? 'The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet' by David Mitchell. An atmospheric and mysterious tale of  ancient Japan, of the East  India Company, of Dutch merchants  and sailors, of Japanese cultural traditions, of love, of  the hardship of the times, of naval battles and of sinister Japanese practices.  It may  not be everyone’s 'cup of tea' -  and I could understand that – but it was mine. With a loose base in historical fact and events it is a wonderful tale of cultures clashing and of the innermost thoughts in the minds of men and women.

When I reached the end I sighed with the final words and an awful thought struck me. Such a wonderful story, Hollywood will turn it into a film and in doing so will completely destroy the book’s magic which is based in its rich language and pictures in the imagination and the mind. It is more than  simply a story it is multi-layered tapestry of people, places, times, emotions, history, culture, language and belief.  And  this is the beauty and the strength of the written word – whether it be fiction, biography or any other genre it is the words that bring  another world to life  -  a world far more beautiful or frightening or happy or sad or raging or exciting or strange or inviting or mysterious than anything Hollywood could conjure up.
Anne Frank - For children and
 adults it is one of the great books
about being human

 For me – and I suspect that to a degree my work as a teacher has a role here – the books that I have read over the many years have become kind of markers in my life. As a child I was reading books that offered me an insight into  another world – very different from mine – pirates, treasure islands, knights in armour, battles to be won, continents to be explored.  They were building my mental picture of the world, its history, its culture, its geography. They gave me clues as to how people think, about good and bad, right and wrong. And later on, when I moved onto the big classics and the modern classics they gave me a background and perhaps an understanding of how people think, what drives them, what grinds them down or inspires them. How could one  read 'Germinal' and not be overwhelmingly angry. How could one  read 'Crime and Punishment' and not feel the same mental anguish and moral dilemmas faced by Raskolnikov. How could one read 'Jude the Obscure' and not feel for Jude and his aspirations which are so cruelly crushed.  And in school, when I read books like 'Cue for Treason' or 'I am David' or  'The Diary of Anne Frank' or 'The Silver Sword' or 'Elidor' or 'The Fib' or 'The Wheel on the School', or 'The Eighteenth Emergency' or 'The Snow Goose and many more I liked to think that I was opening up a new world for the kids and from which they could learn.  They would learn something of different times and places and hopefully,  relate to the characters and the situations which, although different, from their own would provide them with the opportunity to think, 'What would  I do if it was me?'
I took it to St Petersburg
 and read it there -
it made a memorable
short holiday 

If education and schooling is about anything it must be about opening up new worlds and allowing the learner to go somewhere they have not been before – be it in maths, history, books, geography or whatever – that is what learning is. I remember sitting in a school staff meeting many years ago –  in the very politically correct the late eighties it would have been. The meeting was being lead by a member of the library service and she was advising teachers on suitable books to have in school to encourage children to read. Her message was loud and clear – they should be reading things that they can relate to, that they know about, things that reflect their world. 'Rubbish' I grunted – 'they should be widening their experience. A child living in a dismal block of flats with a single parent should not be having this scenario reinforced any more than a child living in a mansion should be having his or her life style reinforced as the only option in life. Education through reading has to be about opening up experience and showing other options.'  The proverbial lead balloon dropped in the staff room. I was on a roll now, 'I learned to read and learned to  love reading  by reading about cavemen making fire , knights in shining armour and the like – a million miles away from a Lancashire back street. I wanted to read something exciting and new not simply reinforce what I already knew and had!' It was something I felt very strongly about and the meeting tailed off – minds were  not meeting! I felt sorry for the lady – she meant well, and I could see what she was saying – but she had touched a nerve and that nerve was a key part of me!
One of the great 'growing up'
books - should be on every
 child's reading list!

And now, as I have become older  and have more time to read my choice is perhaps more eclectic. I am equally happy with a well written (as I define it!) crime novel such as those written by John Harvey or Graham Hurley  as I am with something which might have more 'meat' – Doris Lessing,  Colin Thubron or Carlos Ruiz Zafron or now, David Mitchell.  And it isn’t only fiction that has this capacity to relate to characters and situations. A well written biography or autobiography can have the same quality. 'Testament of Youth' (Vera Brittain), Richard O Morgan’s biography of Michael Foot, the biography of Lord Longford,  Carl Sandburg’s epic trilogy about Abraham  Lincoln, Duncan Hamilton’s biography of cricketer Harold Larwood and many, many others provide that same quality of allowing us to  see the world from someone else’s point of view – and in doing so, understand and perhaps revise our own perceptions.

Whether a book be good literature or just a good story to be enjoyed is, for me, a bit of a non-question. If it provides an opportunity for the reader to learn about a world and people and how they operate, think, love, hate, desire  and behave then it is, for me,  a 'good book'. Of course there’s more to it than this – many books are filled with banal plots and stereotyped characters. For example, in my view, the current best sellers by Steig Larsson seem fall into that category – why read Larsson when you could read Joe Nesbo? Why read the dreadfully stereotypical and gratuitous Ian Rankin when you could read John Harvey or Graham, Hurley.  But that aside, a good book provides, it seems to me,  a crucial contribution to humanity – the opportunity to imagine. Not imagine in a fairy tale sense (valuable and enjoyable thought that is) but to imagine what it is like for other people with different circumstances to our own. It might be a Graham Hurley detective solving a terrible murder, or the murderer (like Raskolnikov) committing it. It might be Jude in his desire for the higher education that he cannot access. It might be Anne Frank, fearful  in her hidden garret or the six Dutch children who search for the reasons why storks do not nest in their little village in the 'Wheel on the School' or it might be poor Mouse as he worries about being bullied by the school bully Marv Harmmerman in Betsy Byars’ 'The Eighteenth Emergency'. It might be the tyrannical Captain Ahab and his obsession with the whale in a vast book like 'Moby Dick' or just a very short but clever children’s story by Joan Aiken –    'The Serial Garden'. Who could not feel for poor old Mr Johansen when the packets of breakfast cereals are thrown away and he can no longer meet his love of many years before – Princess Sophia Maria Louisa of Saxe –Hoffenpoffen! When I read this tale to children and got to the final paragraphs where Mark’s mother tidies his bedroom and throws away the cereal packets and in doing so condemns Princess Sophia Maria the dustbin the children as a body exclaimed 'Ohhhhhhhh – no!' And, when at the end,  the distraught  Mr Johansen puts adverts in 'The Times'  in a feverish endeavour to track down any old packets of the cereal and so find his old love, thirty children would be wide eyed and want to know if he ever got any!   Or - it might be Jakob de Zoet as he lives out his life and his love in the strange and unnerving culture of the eighteenth century 'land of a thousand autumns'. A book provides that opportunity to get inside the head and the feelings of others. And in  doing so, I believe, makes us more complete human beings – for then we can perhaps better understand our fellow men.
I read Moby Dick when
I was about fifteen -
 I still have 'mind pictures'
 of the wonderful characters!

There is little doubt in my mind that the written word and the ability to read and write is not only the greatest skill we can pass on to children but it is perhaps  the defining characteristic of humanity over animals. The final words of 'The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet' are: 'A well-waxed paper door slides open.'-  an unwitting  metaphor, I believe, for reading, books and stories.  For they provide  an opening,  a paper doorway that can be passed through to knowledge and understanding. They are the doorway to not only knowledge and facts but to emotions, morals, history, culture, love, hate, anger, sorrow, joy – and any other facet of mankind that you care to mention. The book that I have just completed was, in its very small way such a doorway.

It was once said about Mrs Thatcher that she had no imagination, she could not understand what life was like for others and how they behaved. This, it was suggested, explained her iron lady stance and unswerving policies.  I couldn’t possibly comment on that! – but it seems to me that if you can’t imagine the life of others and the parameters in which they operate then you are missing a significant piece of the human jigsaw and you are a little less human. Books and stories help to provide us all with this piece and in so doing make us more complete beings.

22 May, 2011

Music Makers!

 In the celebrity culture that we have today the 'stars',   be they pop stars, footballers, actors or whatever rule supreme.  Look in any newspaper on a Sunday morning and you will find virtually all the football reports are about the Premiership teams and those that play in them. The rest of the football world is a 'non-world' – even though the majority of the population turn up week after week to watch their local team rather than the twenty Premiership outfits. It is the same in other walks of life – the West End dominates the theatrical life of the nation (or so the media would have you believe), events at the Royal Albert Hall or the Barbican or Covent Garden or wherever are apparently where it is at in terms of the classical music world. And in these worlds, as in the Premiership, it is the big stars, the diva’s, the Berlin Phil and the like who catch the headlines.
David Woodhouse gets them going! 

Don’t get me wrong - to see or hear the top stars is an important element in any activity. It is something to strive for, learn from and aspire to. But it is only the icing on the cake. It is not the substance and it certainly is not a measure of the 'health' of that activity within the nation as a whole. Some years ago, whilst driving, I listened to a radio programme which was considering why it was that in Great Britain we, historically, seem not well off for great composers. Of course, we have many, but compared with Germany or Italy, for example, we are poor relations. The presenter of the programme asked the 'experts'  if   it was that we are intrinsically, as a nation  'less musical.' The panel gave a number of reasons but all agreed it was basically to do with the fact that in countries like Germany and Italy each, historically, had many smaller states or palatinates or city states such as Florence or Venice  comprising  them  and each had its own duke and prince. Each of these had a royal court and employed court musicians. The result, a culture of compositions and performance developed across the nation. In Britain, we had only one royal court – in London – and the result was that there was less opportunity for musicians to ply their trade and develop their skills. Now I don’t know if that theory is true  but, certainly, the evidence that I have seems to suggest that it is so. One only needs to look at the career of Haydn or Mozart to know this. But, whatever, it seems to me that the musical health (or indeed the sporting health) of the nation is much more accurately measured or based in what is happening at the 'grass roots' rather than what is happening in the big stadium or great concert hall.
A few of the deeper voices!

At another level, I have to confess that I also prefer the smaller, more intimate setting for enjoying my music. Too often I find that if I attend a concert in, for example, the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham to see and hear one of the country’s - or perhaps the world’s - great orchestras a different set of factors come into play. I enjoy the concert, of course, but it seems to become more of a social occasion, a place to be seen at and to enjoy a glass of wine rather than a musical event. People have 'got dressed up' to go to the concert or theatre and the impetus seems  to be rather 'I’m going to  hear and see' some great star perform rather than appreciate a piece of music. Added to this is the undeniable fact that, unfortunately, one is largely able to access only a  relatively restricted repertoire. Commercial theatres and concert halls are understandably  anxious to  fill seats so we tend to get the 'big hitters' – whatever is popular at the moment – Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, indeed, local groups and theatres have just the same problem and response – but it is a factor.  But in the big concert hall another factor comes into play which exacerbates the situation: the Beethovens, Mahlers and Brahms et al  were written with the big venue in mind. The nineteenth century was increasingly the age of the concert hall and the paying public rather than the more intimate drawing room or church. It is relatively rare, for example, to hear Bach performed in a great concert hall – it wasn’t written for that setting, may not fill seats and all in all would probably sound ‘wrong’. So all in all my preference is for the local.
And some of the upper octaves!

I mention all this by way of introduction to my evening last night listening to Mendelssohn’s Elijah sung by the Ruddington and District Choral Society. (www.ruddington-choral.org.uk). The choir is, as its name suggests,  a local choir comprising of about eighty singers and next year (2012) will be its fiftieth anniversary.   During that time it has established itself as a major contributor to the local Nottinghamshire music  scene. It’s remarkable that a number of the original members of fifty years ago are still singing with the choir. Week in week out the choir meet together to rehearse in the local primary school hall for their concerts – usually one each term - and, as with all activities such as this, as the date of a performance looms, panic sets in, extra rehearsals are arranged – but of course, as the well worn phrase oft tells, it’s always 'alright on the night!'
One of the choir's
driving forces!
Brian Head-Rapson

But, of course, it’s not simply a question of rehearsing the music. For a performance to take place a myriad of other jobs have to be done – staging set out on the day (and put away again), programmes written and printed, tickets sold, scores obtained, soloists (if being used) arranged and given opportunities  to practise with the choir, refreshments for the interval considered. The list is endless, and of course underpinning it all is the matter of finance to keep the whole show on the road. Many decisions have to be made many months in advance so committee meetings have to be held, potential soloists contacted and 'booked' and venues arranged.  So not only is it about turning up each week to sing, it’s also about many people giving their time to ensure that the show can go on! My association with non-league football confirms this. As someone who has been a secretary of a local club for a number of years, I know just how difficult it is to get two teams plus match officials onto a pitch for a game, plus the ground ready before a ball is even kicked. These are considerations that Sir Alex Ferguson never has to be bothered with – but they are the critical factors in ultimate success at grassroots.
A young man at the start
of a musical career?
Soloist James Middleton

Of course, I would suggest that few,  if any,  see this as a chore – although I know from experience that occasionally everyone has a moan! The choir, as well as allowing people to enjoy their singing and their music, provides ordinary people with the opportunity to be involved in some capacity and to utilise skills and interests. My wife is publicity officer for the choir so enjoys spending time in this role.  I’m not a choir member but occasionally help her with writing the programme notes – a job I look forward to researching about composers and pieces. As they say, it keeps me busy and out of mischief. And this is an important spin off in local music or sport – it provides a framework for ordinary  people to be involved and to perhaps feel valued as well as enjoy their particular interest. It is about  providing a vehicle for participation and involvement rather than just listening or watching. I can listen to Elijah any time I want  by simply slipping a CD into my audio system – but that is a sedentary (although, of course, hugely enjoyable) activity – the choir’s concert, however,  provides something rather different.  In modern terminology I think we might call it 'interactive'!

And for me that is why groups and teams like this are a far better gauge of the musical or sporting life of the nation than the Royal Opera House or Manchester United where the big stars sweep in, strut their stuff and sweep out again with their bag of swag! And the rest of us? – we simply pay our SKY subscription or buy our ticket and watch – and when the show is over that’s it. In footballing terms it is why we do so badly at international level – we are obsessed with the stars and the top teams rather than the grass roots and the future. Recently, an old footballing friend died. He had given his life to local football and his obituary said  'he can be best summed up by saying that today’s players are yesterday's youngsters and today’s youngsters are tomorrow's players, and they all have one thing in common, they are all playing because of [his] determination and dedication to the club he loved so much.' In music it is the same – local groups and ventures provide the musical life  of tomorrow – be it in the Royal  Albert Hall or in St Giles’ Church.

Half time refreshments!
 So what about Elijah? I must first preface any comments by saying that it is not a favourite of mine. I’m not a Mendelssohn fan but it is undeniably one of the great choral works and retains a huge popularity. This is important, because for a choir like Ruddington it is important that the right balance is struck between popular pieces and introducing new works.   Selecting an annual programme that will attract a good attendance but at the same provide the choir with new challenges and the audience with a wide musical variety is a crucial element in planning. Last night’s concert was well attended – about  a hundred and thirty filled St Giles Church in West Bridgford (a suburb of Nottingham) and as the final  notes died away there were deserved  cries of  'Well done', 'More' and 'Hurrah' from the audience. From the first note, the choir had sounded  confident and on top form. They obviously enjoyed singing the oratorio and it showed. I have, over the years noticed that if a choir is less certain, less confident or unhappy with a piece then one can tell almost with the very first note and how well they 'hit it'. But not last night.  Everyone was smiling and looking confident  when conductor David Woodhouse first raised his baton, and two and a half hours later, when he exhorted the choir to the final uplifting chorus and with a sweep of his baton brought the final note to a close, I think the choir and he must have been well pleased.
Glad I brought my
from Margaret

As I mention, I am not  a huge fan of Elijah – I find it a bit Victorian 'twee' for my taste. Mendelssohn, of course, a hugely gifted musician and composer who in his short life wrote some of the world’s very great music was also the man who brought Bach back to world prominence. When he worked with the Leipzig Gewandhaus in the 1830s he was instrumental in reviving Bach’s music throughout Germany and wider Europe.   Today, the wonderful statue of Bach that stands outside the Thomaskirche in Leipzig is there because of Mendelssohn so although I’m not too fussed about Elijah, as a Bach fan I have to thank Felix Mendelssohn. Indeed, as I sat listening to the wonderful organ accompaniment provided by Philip Millward at last night’s concert I suddenly realised how many little Bach-like phrases there are in the organ accompaniment to the oratorio. Perhaps Mendelssohn was sub-consciously  paying his respect to the master!

The five soloists – including thirteen year old James Middleton, who, having  superbly sung his treble part as 'the youth'  fell asleep at the side of his mum and dad in the audience – were outstanding and certainly from  where I was sitting seemed to bond well with the choir. The soloists, some of them younger people climbing the ladder to a professional career turn up on the day of the concert and practise with the choir during the afternoon of the evening’s performance so there is little room for mistakes. Often they have travelled from London or Manchester or wherever for the concert and might be a graduate of one of the country’s great music schools such as the Royal Northern and their next performance might be at some more august place of music. For example, last night’s tenor, Anthony Gregory will shortly be performing in London’s Cadogan Hall, the alto (Katie Bray)  recently sang at the Wigmore Hall , Soprano Ella Kirkpatrick sings with the English National Opera and bass William Burn whilst holding down a teaching post at Nottingham High School undertakes solo and consort work across the UK and Europe. What is good is that these professional or aspiring professionals work with local choirs like the RDCS and perhaps bring an element of 'professionalism'. They  help to turn a good 'local performance' into a memorable one – and I believe learn something themselves from working with enthusiastic amateurs.

I don’t somehow see Wayne Rooney doing this with local football teams in and around Manchester – but there, perhaps I’m being cynical! Perhaps if he did he might learn a bit more about more about real football and real players!
Nearing the end.
It was good last night to see many of the 'regulars' at the concert – people who attend all the choir’s concerts - but also a number of new faces – attracted perhaps by the fact that they could hear one of the choral greats. At the interval there is a general rush for the cup of coffee and biscuit that is included in the price of the ticket and an opportunity for people to have a word with old friends – perhaps people who they have not seen since the last concert. Indeed, last night my wife and I we able to talk with an old work colleague who we hadn’t seen for many years and to wish him well as he told us of his plans to move away from the area to live nearer his married children 'now I’m old and doddery', he complained. And, amazingly, as my wife stood selling tickets on the door she came face to face with a lady who she recognised from the far past – they had both been schoolgirls together  and travelled to school across south London to school in the late fifties! A small world.  In fact the coincidence didn’t end there as her husband, also an ex-primary teacher like myself, was someone I had worked with and at one time done a job swop with - without ever knowing our lives were linked by our wives’ school days! But, again, all this is part of the local scene and another facet of its intrinsic worth.

As I sat at the back listening and enjoying the music I reflected upon all the hard work and effort that had gone into putting on the concert – and this in turn has given pleasure not only to the audience but to those taking part as well. And for me this is the critical thing. Music, like football or any recreational activity is about taking part in some way and as I mentioned above, in terms of the footballing life of the nation, the Premiership is only a tiny facet of the sport but it gets a disproportionate share of the funding and the fame. So, too, with music – it cannot be about the Royal Opera House or the Royal Albert Hall – it has to be about places like St Giles Church and organisations like Ruddington Choral Society. You will not hear the smooth, digital perfection of the CD performance or the highly honed qualities  of the Berlin Phil but you will hear music being made by highly skilled and motivated enthusiasts – and surely that is where music first came from hundreds or thousands of years ago – from ordinary people who hummed or sang a good tune as they went about their daily work. 
'More' they called!

And, importantly,  it is in places and events like this that aspiring musicians like thirteen year old James Middleton get their early performance  experience and perhaps one day move on to the Royal Opera House.  It is equally, at the same time,  about people like 87 year old Betty Kidd who has sung with the choir and undertaken various roles in the society for most of its fifty year life – and in doing so has made a huge contribution to the musical and cultural life of the locality and perhaps the wider  nation.

18 May, 2011

Hero to Zero!

One of the less likable aspects of the age in which we live is our obsession with the celebrity culture. This will undoubtedly form the focus of another blog but sufficed to say at this point that when the emphasis is upon the person, the celebrity,  rather than  what they stand for, what talent they have or what ideas they promote then their every utterance and behaviour is judged and commented upon. The result is that one day people in the public eye can be a 'hero' and the next after some misjudged comment or action they are, to coin a phrase, 'zero'. This situation it seems to me is fed by an ever more rapacious press who seem to justify all their actions by the public’s 'right to know' or 'human interest'.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn
This week we have had three examples – the French IMF boss  Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man lauded for his financial skill and clout, a man in line to become the next President of France we are told. And yet following the allegations of a sex attack in New York not only is he in trouble with the law, his career in ruins but seems to be vilified throughout the world.  A couple of days later we have the ultimate 'celeb' Arnold Schwarzeneggar filling our front pages  following allegations that he fathered a child with one of his employees. And then today we have Ken Clarke, our Justice Secretary vilified across the board for his comments in relation to rape sentences.

Now I do not hold a banner for any of these people but I do wish we had a bit of consistency. Indeed the first two Strauss-Khan and Schwarzeneggar had high profile reputations as womanisers -  Schwarzeggar was described in this morning’s Guardian as having an 'gargantuan sexual appetite' and Strauss-Khan has apparently for years been known in France for his Casanova like life.  But I do wish we would not suddenly hold up our hands in horror when something like this occurs – these are people who to coin Kipling’s phrase 'walked with Kings'  and they were accepted as such knowing their predilections. But now they have gone too far our sensitivities are aroused and everyone feels the need to pour scorn and be self righteous.

Ken Clarke is a bit different. No Casanova   this (as far as I know!) – but a generally well respected politician – and there are not many of them about!  But he has kicked over the hornet’s nest, not with his involvement with a woman, but rather with his comments on rape and suddenly from a man many respected and who felt he was doing a good job, he suddenly is beyond redemption. How fickle we are.
Arnold Schwarzeneggar

Ken Clarke, is my local MP and the nation’s  Justice Secretary .  In a radio interview today he   appeared to suggest that 'date rape' did not count as a serious offence.   His statement that no one convicted of a 'serious rape' would be released as quickly as those guilty of some 'date rapes' has generated huge amounts of air – hot and otherwise.  And, as always, with this sort of thing – popularism, bandwagons, stereotyping and the like come into play. Few seem to have taken note of the detail of what Clarke said or meant. Leader of the opposition (is that a misnomer at the moment?)Ed Milliband immediately boarded the bandwagon and demanded that Clarke be sacked. Feminists and other women’s groups of course, are up in arms.

But in the clamour and posturing, where everyone has an opinion and is determined to voice it as stridently as possible,  few, if any, are thinking it through and paying attention to the details. In the end Clarke may well be sacked – his job has been in jeopardy for some time since he is viewed even within his own party as a bit of a 'leftie' and a loose cannon. Only  a few weeks ago  he was being praised for his sensible ambitions for shorter sentencing. Even card carrying members of the Labour party were impressed – in December 2010 the Guardian ran an editorial on Clarke entitled 'In Praise of Ken Clarke' and amongst his many qualities they listed  '.....once he is persuaded by the force of an argument, he doesn't give a monkey's for what editors, colleagues or anyone else thinks....... he offer(s) hard-headed pragmatism in place of the dogma Michael Howard bequeathed to a line of New Labour successors.' 

But much of the population and opportunist politicians and commentators aren’t interested in  detail – they just want the headline. What Clarke was, and is, saying is that the  sentencing tariff for a crime – in this case rape -  should reflect the seriousness of the crime and its context . That must be an absolute principle of the law, I would have thought. It is certainly one of the things which underpins our modern concept of justice. The Guardian on Monday in its 'celebration' of the paper’s 190th anniversary printed a report it first published in December 1821 of a public hanging:  'Before daylight on Tuesday morning, a considerable concourse of people were assembled to witness the dreadful scene of the execution of three of our fellow creatures, viz: Ann Norris, for a robbery in a dwelling-house; Samuel Hayward, for a burglary at Somerstown; and Joseph South, for uttering a forged £10 note.......'.  Few if any today would wish to return to that sort of summary justice where no or little note is taken of the seriousness, context and motives in crime.  There was public outcry some years ago when an elderly man was imprisoned after he  shot a burglar who was breaking into his property – a lonely farm house.  The general public rightly or wrongly recognised that the context had to be considered – it wasn’t that the man simply took his shot gun and killed someone. Only a few weeks ago, one of the highest paid young men in the country, Chelsea footballer, Ashley Cole, took an air rifle to work and mistakenly shot a young man. The police investigated but took no significant further action – whatever one thinks about that it is to do with proportional response and weighing up the factors involved -  a basic underpinning of modern justice. In this context I don’t believe that rape can be excepted – context, opportunity, motive and the like must all be considered in sentencing which is what Clarke was suggesting.

There may be all sorts of viewpoints on this many of them not very palatable to certain sections but I find it bizarre and indeed offensive to take the view that rape, wrong and terrible though it is, should be treated differently from any other crime. 
Ken Clarke - MP for Rushcliffe
 & Justice Secretary

The lack of careful thought and posturing  is well highlighted in a couple of posts on the Guardian web site. One contributor wrote:

 'Example A - A young woman goes out clubing wearing next to nothing, gets drunk, dances suggestively with a strange man all night, voluntarily gets in a taxi with him, goes back to his house, drinks more, gets stoned, starts kissing and then the man doesn't take no for an answer.

Example B - A young woman is walking home from work and a complete stranger drags her into the bushes at knife point and brutally rapes her.
Both are rape. Both are wrong however, rightly or wrongly many people (men and women) might have more sympathy with the woman in the second scenario.'
But in reply another contributor wrote:  

'But in both circumstances, a woman has been raped by a rapist.

Woman A wearing a short skirt, going out and having fun did not consent to sex and was therefore raped. It isn't a lesser crime for the fact that she was drunk and kissing him - if anything, that violation of trust could be said to make it *even worse*.'
Of course the second contributor was making a fool of him/herself – in suggesting that the 'violation of trust could be said to make it even worse' they were actually agreeing with the first contributor or perhaps even Clarke that there are indeed 'gradations' of rape!

I don’t have any particular support for Clark as a politician. I didn’t vote for him in the last election (and have never voted for him) but I do have a huge amount of respect for him as my MP. On the occasions when I have written to him he has replied honestly and honourably and is a well respected local man who has served his constituents well over many years. He may have expressed himself badly on the rape issue but the scorn poured upon him in the last 24 hours  is unpleasant – although I suspect his shoulders can take it. It is, however, very sad that the  baying mob – be they in Westminster or in the local street – can turn on someone quite so quickly. Hero to zero!

09 May, 2011

A Night Alone With 'Klever Kaff'

I have always been surprised and intrigued at how small, often at the time meaningless, events can become etched on our memory. Years later one can remember them and picture, smell or hear what you were part of twenty, thirty or forty years before. As I have become older and begun to look back on my life I am even more  intrigued with this  - especially as, with hindsight,  I have realised that these small events  can not only be remembered with absolute clarity but,  in the great scheme of things,  can often  have had a huge impact upon one’s life, interests and beliefs which were never envisaged at the time.

My Monday night with Kathleen!
I often think of this each Monday night! You see, tonight my wife Pat has gone to her choir rehearsal, as she does each Monday, and I am left alone to enjoy the pleasures of solitude – no television on and few, if any, phone calls. Just me, my Guardian, a book and, usually, Kathleen! My wife is quite aware that I often spend each Monday  evening with Kathleen and being the liberated woman that she is she is quite understanding. She  isn’t too keen about Kathleen herself so I can only enjoy Kathleen's charms when  my wife is out! I should explain before  you get the wrong idea that Kathleen is not my secret lover, nor is she my mistress, my floozy or my fancy woman - she isn't  even a blow up doll! She is a singer – the great Kathleen Ferrier and as I listen, in the quietness of the empty house, to her wonderful contralto voice I muse on how my love affair with her began over fifty years ago.

My great love is the music of JS Bach – from a teenager I began my love affair with him – he will be the subject of future blogs. Sufficient to say at this point  that I have absolutely no hesitation in agreeing with the many Bach worshippers who suggest that his work, and in particular  compositions such as the B Minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations or the St Matthew Passion, represent  some, if not  the greatest achievements of mankind. But more widely I love music and especially Baroque music of all kinds – from the earliest to the latest. I certainly did not grow up in a musical household. We had an old piano which my mother could play a simple tune on and I was sent to music lessons for a few years to learn to play the thing. I hated every minute of it and, to my eternal shame and later deep regret, gave up at the first opportunity. Two incidents from my childhood, however, stand out head and shoulders above the rest in relation to music and these were the undoubted sparks to my later love of classical music in general and Bach in  particular. These are those events that I mentioned at the top of this blog. Events which at the time were just things that happened to me – no different  or more important than a million others - but still remembered exactly and, I believe, fundamental in  making me what I am.

Nenny and me - at about the same
 time we went on our day out!
The first happened when I was about eleven or twelve. I lived in Preston, Lancashire.  I loved my aunt – 'Auntie Edna', or 'Nenny', as I called her and still did until the day she died a few years ago. She always had time, her love was unconditional.  She  married late in life and  was a second mother to me. She had spent her life working in the cotton mills of Preston as a weaver.  I spent a lot of time at her house as a child and there was always a little treat, or a bit of shopping for me to do which always brought me a few coppers. Nenny was not well read, I don’t think she ever had any great expectations in life, she would have never described herself as bright or clever or intelligent or cultured  – indeed she wasn’t. She was just an honest, hard working Lancashire lass – a weaver, no more no less. A salt of the earth person. What you saw was what you got with Nenny - she wore her heart on her sleeve and would give you her last penny if she thought it would help you.

One day in the mid fifities (it would have been a Saturday when she wasn’t at work) Nenny announced that she would take me out for half a day.  It didn’t seem very exciting to my young eyes, we were going to catch the bus to Higher Walton, a small village just outside Preston – almost walking distance from where Nenny lived.  The reason was that we were going, she told me, was to see the house of Kathleen Ferrier who had been born in Higher Walton – between Preston and Blackburn - in 1912. Ferrier had died a year or two previously in 1953 and the house of her birth  had recently had a plaque erected outside commemorating this event and a memorial garden had been newly constructed. I had no idea who Kathleen Ferrier was and I don’t  think that Nenny had much more. Nenny certainly wasn’t an opera buff – Doris Day,  Vera Lynn, Frankie Lane,  and Ann Shelton and the like were the 78 records Nenny used to buy for her wind up gramophone. But I can remember her telling me that Kathleen Ferrier was a Lancashire lass  – just like her – and  that she was something for Preston folk to be proud of. Nenny didn’t know anything about opera but at the same time, like so many working class folk in those days, she respected these "cultured things" and saw them as something for lesser mortals such as her to aspire to and value. And, in Nenny's eyes,  Ferrier, the working class girl who became a star was someone to look up to and value. There was also, I think, something else that appealed to Nenny.  Ferrier had had such a short but brilliant life, ending in the sort of tragedy that might easily form the plot of grand opera. It was just the sort of stuff that Nenny loved, like a magazine story! It was the stuff of fairy tales – humble girl wins fame and acclaim, never forgets her roots but is then struck down by tragedy. Nenny would often hum popular songs or hymn tunes and many years later, as I listened to the old scratchy recordings of Ferrier, I recognised some of the tunes I used to hear  as my auntie cooked dinner or  played  her wind up  gramophone. Now, if I listen to Ferrier singing 'O rest in the  Lord' from Mendelssohn’s 'Elijah' or Handel's 'Art Thou Troubled'  I can still hear Nenny humming them away to herself as she dusted or cooked tea. She didn’t know many of the words or the opera/oratorio from which they came – it was just a tune that she liked - and which, unknowingly, she imprinted on my young mind.  
The house of her birth at Higher Walton

So,  we went for our trip out  and  that half day became etched in my consciousness. I  still remember clearly standing outside the house and looking at the plaque by the front door. Other people also stood, in silent homage, outside. And I can remember standing looking at the nearby memorial garden to this woman, who died young but in her short career, as I subsequently discovered,  had  a huge impact upon the classical music world – and ultimately on my own.

Kathleen Ferrier was (and still is) one of the world’s very greatest singers. She was born in 1912 on 22 April (the same day as me!).  She died in London on 8 October 1953. During her short career she went from one triumph to another, received the adulation of her peers, of critics and of audiences all over the world and still retained her 'Lancashire lass' background and outlook.

She  did not begin her career as a singer. She was a member of the school choir where she was usually asked just to stand at the back and sing quietly! Her mother  arranged piano lessons for her and, as a talented young pianist of only 14 she passed the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. A local newspaper of the time called this ‘an unprecedented success for so youthful a student.’ Kathleen left school at 14 and went to work for the GPO in Blackburn, first in the telegrams department and then as a switchboard operator.  In July 1930, at the age of 18, she took part in her first concert as a pianist, which was broadcast from Manchester and began to accompany many local singers in the  musical scene.

The memorial garden
By the time she was 23 she was married  and giving piano lessons to local children. Then in 1937 came her big moment.  She entered the Carlisle Festival as a pianist and her husband bet her a shilling that she dare not enter for the singing contest as well. She did -  entering the contralto solo class - and  carried off the  trophies for singing and piano. And to crown it, she  won the first prize for the best singer at the Festival.  She was suddenly  in great demand. In 1939 she made her first radio broadcast as a singer.

It was  wartime and her first years were spent bringing music to people as part of the war effort. She sang in church halls, cinemas, schools and factories – in fact anywhere an audience could be got together.  But then, in 1942 she sang for Sir Malcolm Sargent  and from then on  became something akin to a modern day superstar  well known on the concert platform and in all the great oratorio works, particularly the Messiah.  Benjamin Britten wrote his second opera, "The Rape of Lucretia", with her in mind for the title role. In 1948 Kathleen sang for the first time in New York, to great acclaim, and then began tours of  the Americas and Europe. Such was the impact of her voice on the operatic world that  it is said that even the heartless Herbert von Karajan was seen to weep as he conducted her in Bach's 'St Matthew Passion'.

In 1951, however,  breast  cancer was diagnosed and she had an operation. Initially, it seemed successful  but  throughout 1952 she was dogged by problems  and it was found that further treatment was necessary. She fulfilled as many of her commitments as she could but eventually was unable to meet the travel demands.  Her final role was in Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridice' at Covent Garden in February 1953.  Already seriously ill, the cancer had spread to her bones, she got through the opening night  successfully, but at the second performance the femur in her left leg snapped. She vomited in the wings,  but despite this carried on and with the aid of morphine she took several curtain calls.  The audience did not realise that anything unusual had happened. She left the theatre on a stretcher. It was her final performance.  Kathleen  was forty-one years old when she died in October 1953. In the ten years or so of fame which were granted her she achieved more than most singers achieve in a lifetime. In tribute the great German conductor Bruno Walter said that the two greatest privileges in his life were "to have known and worked with Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order!"

When she died, her death  quite literally shattered the euphoria of the recent  Coronation.  Many newspapers had black edges to their headline.  Editorials referred to her  as 'the most celebrated woman in Britain after the newly crowned Queen'.  The way that Kathleen fought her illness became the stuff of legends. Soon after her death the story soon emerged that in July 1952 the new Queen was staying with her uncle, David Bowes-Lyon, and she heard that Kathleen  was spending the weekend nearby. The Queen  invited Ferrier to sing for her.  After the recital, the Queen sat next to her on a sofa and  asked her how she was. 'Just the odd ache, Ma'am', was the reply. 'You have to expect these things.' Her English rose beauty was as familiar as that of any film star of the day, and her record sales were phenomenal - her version of 'What is life?' from 'Orfeo ed Euridice' outsold Frank Sinatra and Vera Lynn. Most famous of all was the haunting, plaintive sound of 'Blow the Wind Southerly' - a kind of anthem for a post-war generation for whom the song's theme, of patient waiting for a beloved's return from over the water, was all too poignantly immediate.

Kathleen as a young woman
But despite her stardom she never forgot her roots – and perhaps in a way this was part of her appeal to the ordinary men and women like Nenny. She was one of them and not a far removed opera  diva. She was a Lancashire lass who made good in the great world of music and opera. As the Daily Telegraph commented at the time of her death  'without a hint of vulgarity, she had the common touch. Or, at least, she was the perfect lady, never deemed snooty or stuck-up'. She often mockingly called herself 'Klever Kaff' and was hugely sociable, she could down 'a dirty big pint' and enjoyed untipped cigarettes, too. Visiting New York, she was 'thrilled to bits every minute of the day', 'Ain't I a lucky ole twerp?' she would comment - unable to believe her good fortune - that someone like her should achieve all this. She had a tremendous earthy sense of humour. Anything but prim and proper and a taste for the slightly risqué . The letters to her father and sister are full of 'going to the lav' and the marvels of 'nylon knickers' -  a novelty of the era!

And what of her voice? Fifty years on, styles have changed. She was blessed with a wide open throat (her singing teacher claimed that he could 'have lobbed an apple down it without meeting obstruction')  but today she wouldn't really do. Low-lying voices – contraltos - now sound rather 'old hat' and 'headmistressy'.  Kathleen was a singer of her time - a time of grief and weariness in the war and just after. To the ordinary man and woman, like my auntie,  she represented  respect and a belief in the national identity – something to aspire to upright, austere, unfussy, honest  and sincere  in the dark days of war and rationing. In short, someone to look up to.

One of my treasured possessions is a CD of Ferrier. It is music to listen to quietly - her beautifully, distinctive  contralto  voice with its  wonderful diction is of a different age, but at the same time timeless. Although she sings pieces from many composers and traditions  – Bach, Handel, Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms -   there is, it seems to me, something  gentle quintessentially English about her voice and  her phrasing.  And listening to it, as I do, often when the house is quiet and I am alone, I am transported back to that day in the mid fifties when I went with my aunt to pay respects to the woman and her music. A woman, who, at that point I did not know, but who has since become such an important part of my life. Every single time I listen to Ferrier sing Mendolssohn's "O Rest in the Lord" I get a lump in my throat, partly because of the beautiful music and wonderful voice of Ferrier but also because it recalls a much loved woman - Nenny. As Ferrier sings I can hear Nenny humming along and joining in with the odd few words that she knew and I picture in my mind's eye a cheap little picture that hung in Nenny's dining room wall. It was a picture of Jesus knocking on a door - not a great work of art but the sort of sentimental thing that appealed to my auntie and which, like her humming along to a great piece of music from Elijah (a work that she would never see or hear) spoke of Nenny's simple humility and acceptance of her life as a Lancashire lass, a weaver. She didn't understand opera or great music, she wasn't overly religious but had a simple Christianity.  She was much happier having  her weekly bottle of Dutton's "OBJ" (Oh Be Joyful) ale in the New hall Lane Tavern and singing a popular song, but at the same time she knew that what Ferrier and others like her sang about was good and worthwhile and something for lesser mortals like her to value and aspire to. This combined with her simple religious faith was passed on to me - and it something for which I will be forever grateful. Listening to these old recordings, when the house is quiet and Pat is at choir practice on Monday night is an occasion to actually touch the past  to hear exactly the same things that people half a century ago heard. When I listen to Ferrier singing the great baroque arias such as 'Ombra mai fu' from Handel’s ‘Serse’ or  the achingly sad 'What is life? from 'Orfeo ed Euridice' – her final role - I am reminded of  how this woman unknowingly, with my auntie opened a door for me to a lifetime love of music.

The picture that hung in
Nenny's house
The second event that I believe shaped my interest and love of music came a year or two later.When I was 15 I had what I suppose one might term a 'road to Damascus experience'.   I had 'failed' my 11+ and spent my secondary education at Fishwick Secondary Modern School. At the end of the fourth year – the traditional  point at which, in those days secondary modern children left school to find work - the school suddenly decided to have a fifth year. And it was my class that were offered the opportunity to 'stay on' and spend another year to do GCEs. About twenty of us did so - the rest of the year group left and found work in the mills and the factories of Preston's industrial landscape.  One afternoon in the middle of that winter a young woman geography teacher  (I think straight from teacher training college) kept me and one of the girls - I seem to remember her name was Ann Pilborough – back after lessons. At first we thought we were in trouble but no! She asked would we like to go to a concert that very night. The concert was at Preston Grammar School – we should be smart, wear school uniform and not be late. We were going to see 'The Messiah'. I had no idea what 'The Messiah' was. I didn’t even  really know what a concert was but the prospect of going out at night with a teacher and going to Preston Grammar School was overwhelming. I never knew why this young teacher chose Ann and me - obviously she thought it would appeal and that we might benefit - but whatever the reason I am eternally grateful to this woman. Little did I know when I agreed to go that it would become one of the defining nights of my life! So I called for Ann and the two of us walked through dark December Preston back streets to the Grammar School. It was brightly lit and very busy. We met the teacher outside and went into the Hall which was already full. I was all eyes - it was so very grand. Not at all like the bleak Hall at my own school; polished boards with gold lettering filled the walls - filled with the names of ex-pupils of distinction, masters scurried around in gowns and mortar boards, and everyone looked very grand to my eyes. At the front sat the choir and a small orchestra. There were also lots of Grammar school boys  – one or two of whom I recognised from my  Junior school  of years before . Then, (as if by magic it seemed to me!) the Hall fell silent and 'The Messiah' began and from the first bars of the Overture I was transported and transfixed, open mouthed, I think. I sat for the rest of the evening totally engrossed – mesmerised by the music and the glorious sounds coming from the choir. I quickly learned  how to behave at a concert and when to clap but most of all I loved sitting in this atmosphere, surrounded by well heeled people, people to aspire to, people who knew things that I didn’t, people who clearly had interests and things that were quite unknown to me and that I wanted to be part of. I knew that if I wanted to improve myself I had to learn about the things that these people  knew about. They had something and some knowledge and interests that I wanted and needed.  At the end of the performance I went home breathless and overwhelmed at where I had been and, more importantly, what I had heard and seen. I also clutched in my pocket a small beige card with my name handwritten on it (I still have it, now faded and crumpled). Printed on the card it said  'Preston T Club: Junior Member' and underneath in a neat script "Tony Beale". Our teacher had taken Ann and myself to the Membership Secretary at the interval and got membership cards for us. We could now attend any event organised by the Club. For days afterwards I could hear the ringing sound of 'For Unto Us A Child is Born' and the mighty 'Amen' – a piece that I still regard as one of the great pieces of musical composition. And for five or six years afterwards until I came to Nottingham to train to be a teacher I would regularly attend the talks, concerts and other events at the "T Club". It became my path way to adulthood, understanding and widening my horizons
Kathleen Ferrier OBE - a singer of international fame....

In the ensuing years I have seen the Messiah more times than I care to remember in a huge number of different settings. It still brings a huge thrill and I am still taken back to that first hearing. Each year, December 1st – Advent – heralds my putting on the Messiah on the CD player; Christmas has begun in our house. My wife’s choir, The Ruddington & District Choral Society, usually do a performance each year which is again a sign that Christmas is with us. I remember a wonderful concert that I attended on New Year’s Day 2000 – to celebrate the new millennium. It was held in Southwell Minster with choirs from across Nottinghamshire. My wife was singing and I can still hear the ringing tones of the 'Amen' – from where I sat I could not see the choir, but to hear was enough. And one performance my wife and I remember with affection occurred some years ago when we were in Florence at Easter. A performance was taking place in one of the churches near to our hotel. We were too late to get seats but anyone could drop in and listen whilst standing or sitting at the back. And they did. Locals dropped in – many with their dogs out for their evening stroll! Others sat, like us, on the stone steps leading to some of the side chapels – a constant stream of music lovers. It was very different sitting listening surrounded by some of the world’s great works of art that are so taken for granted in the churches of Florence. But the 'high spot' of the evening was when the little orchestra struck up the opening bars of the 'Hallelujah Chorus'  and suddenly all the 'Brits' in the audience immediately  showed themselves by standing. The many Italians present all looked slightly confused – but it made a great memory to a wonderful evening.

The great Kathleen Ferrier at the height of
her fame - but she remained, like my auntie,
 a Lancashire lass
Of course, greater minds than mine might have perfectly rational explanations for why one develops an interest or a love of anything. It might well be argued - indeed it is true - that my love of Kathleen Ferrier is tinged with memories of a much loved auntie rather than the intrinsic love of the music. It can also clearly be true that everyone has experiences throughout their life – like my first hearing of the Messiah – which become part and parcel of what they are. I would not disagree with either of these propositions. But for me it still doesn’t explain or lessen my view that these,  perhaps  at the time insignificant events from my childhood and youth,  have somehow forged their way ahead of all others  to the top of my consciousness and given me an interest and love that is a huge part of my life. That’s what I find both wonderful and, at the same time, inexplicable and slightly humbling. It also makes me eternally grateful to the people - Nenny, and a young teacher who I met only briefly in my last year at secondary school, and yes, Kathleen Ferrier, who, quite unknowingly helped to make me what I am. And I often reflect that Nenny, who never had children of her own, and that long past young teacher would, I think, be quietly pleased that our little trip out on that Saturday morning or that visit to Preston Grammar School one dark December night opened up a world that changed me forever and allowed me to enter a place that these two women both valued so highly and saw as worthy and good.