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Family Of Four: 32 - Prelude To Christmas

...Herbert Thompson, of Leeds, was a striking figure on all counts. Tall, handsome, with thick white hair which had a habit of falling over his forehead, small, twinkling blue eyes, and clear-cut features, he arrived in the dark of the evening. Too young almost, to comprehend, I was dimly aware of his expected arrival, being told that he was my godfather, and brought downstairs early to be ready to greet him.

Running into the hall with Mummy and to the front door, I was suddenly enveloped, and almost stifled, by an enormous figure who wore a wide, red-lined opera cloak which closed about me and hid me in its dark folds. Drawing off his opera hat, Godfather raised me high to kiss me. He seemed a giant, the wide, swinging cloak making him vast. The timbre of his voice was strong, and I drew shyly away from his overwhelming masculinity...

Mrs Vivien Hirst recalls visits from her godfather, who was the Yorkshire Post's music critic for 50 years.

Mrs Hirst's vivid and well-told recollections were gathered into a book, Family Of Four, by her nephew, Raymond Prior.

Christmas ended the year's festivals and was always looked forward to and greatly loved. On the Friday nearest to Christmas Day the Huddersfield Choral Society presented the Messiah in the Town Hall, when well-known artists were engaged to appear. This was, and still is, a cherished annual event, memorable for the tremendous crescendo, and, equally, the delicate pianissimo of the choir, so musical and enthusiastic, and it was truly a thrilling experience to hear this wonderful work so brilliantly rendered.

My godfather, a dear friend of Mummy's, visited us for a meal each year before leaving to be present at the Town Hall, as music critic to the Yorkshire Post.

Herbert Thompson, of Leeds, was a striking figure on all counts. Tall, handsome, with thick white hair which had a habit of falling over his forehead, small, twinkling blue eyes, and clear-cut features, he arrived in the dark of the evening. Too young almost, to comprehend, I was dimly aware of his expected arrival, being told that he was my godfather, and brought downstairs early to be ready to greet him.

Running into the hall with Mummy and to the front door, I was suddenly enveloped, and almost stifled, by an enormous figure who wore a wide, red-lined opera cloak which closed about me and hid me in its dark folds. Drawing off his opera hat, Godfather raised me high to kiss me. He seemed a giant, the wide, swinging cloak making him vast. The timbre of his voice was strong, and I drew shyly away from his overwhelming masculinity.

I followed the grown-ups slowly into the room where the other three were now gathered, and had I then been forgotten all would have been well. Unfortunately, Mummy and Daddy more than once drew me forward, and I was clasped again by this impressive figure. Feeling I ought to be specially friendly, but in reality made very subdued and awkward by this unusual attention, I could not throw off my shyness and as the years went by this never left me, and the visits became something of a strain. It was a long time before I grew socially conscious enough to do my part and I was never entirely at ease. I only hope that poor Godfather, who was all that a godparent should be, affectionate and kind, did not really know that I had to make an effort. I am quite sure the family never guessed.

It was all a great pity for Godfather was really most delightful. Relaxed and happy with Mummy, talking over old times, and of mutual friends; remembering musical evenings when he stayed with the Metcalfes at Malton; and telling little anecdotes about his life at Heidelburg University when, at that time, so many of the students were scarred by duelling, forbidden though it was.

He had studied law at Cambridge and was called to the Bar in 1879, but never cared for it, and by sheer chance he became a music and art critic. A friend of his, who knew of Godfather's great love of music and who was a critic for a newspaper, became suddenly ill and begged Mr. Thompson to take his place. Godfather was a little uneasy about this, but as there was no one else available at this awkward time, he rather diffidently agreed to do his best. He was fascinated by the evening and enjoyed it so much that he threw up his far more lucrative profession, and in 1886 he joined the staff of the Yorkshire Post, serving that newspaper as music and art critic for a full fifty years.

In 1924, the University of Leeds, to his intense pride and pleasure, conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. At the age of eighty he sat to Malcolm Osborne, who made a lifelike and striking study of the grand old man, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The fine head was lovingly drawn, and his beautiful hands, for Godfather was also an artist and a musician and his hands were noticeable.

He took me several times to the Christmas Messiah and I always felt proud to accompany him. He gave me details of the instruments, telling also little stories of the artists, and once Isobel Baillie, whom I admired enormously, caught his eye, gave a fleeting smile and a slight nod, and Godfather responded by a gentle wave of his programme. He told me he had been critical of her on a previous musical occasion, and this was her way of showing there was no ill-will.

Godfather had greatly admired the work of the late Sir Henry Coward, who in past years had done magical things with the Choir, bringing it up to a very high standard, but he told me he had felt that the orchestra was neglected in achieving this. When Dr (now Sir) Malcolm Sargent became the new Conductor, Godfather was interested and delighted to note that now the musicians were also gathered under his capable baton, and improved tremendously, which satisfied his critical ear.

This visit of Godfather's was the prelude to Christmas. We had the joy of the carol singing for the League of Pity, and of collecting and wrapping up the little parcels. These kept appearing in unexpected places, mysterious and remote, for often caught sight of they had to be honourably left untouched.

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