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A Shout From The Attic: Youth And Confusion - 10

"Music has been for me an escape: a sky-brushing thermal, lifting me on eagle wings above the din and discontent of life, to realms of joy and beauty unspoiled by harshness of word, or meanness of spirit,'' declares Ronnie Bray.

In Praise Of Harmony

Its first expression was borne to me on the warm winds of summer days, wafting through my attic bedroom window from the bandstand in Greenhead Park.

Denied access to music in the home I found some ancient records made by Zonophone, some of them one-sided, when I bought my bits-and-pieces gramophone. The machine that preceded this was the tin plate child’s toy that provided my first taste of in-house music. All such sounds were a joy to me. I was not eclectic; I listened to and loved everything I could get hold of. After the set I bought from Armitage’s second hand shop in Trinity Street when I was thirteen, I got hold of a boxed wind up gramophone.

My time had come. I had a couple of military band records by his time, one of them, the Middy March, becoming a favourite. One day I took the machine to school along with my collection of two records (my collection went unaccountably up and down). Mr Brummitt inquired of me why I had brought it. I did not know then, but had I the wit and the vocabulary I would have answered, “because I’ve got it,” a sort of ‘because it’s there’ reason. Joy was to be shared, and the reception the music got in the playground at playtime was worth the disapproval evident in the teacher's mien.

It seemed so unjust that a house in which there was a piano belonging to my step father, that was kept in the Manton’s room, and a player piano, that graced grandmother’s holy of holies, alongside a radio and a gramophone, should have no music in it. Perhaps my love of music had something to do with the many Hollywood musicals I saw, as well as the beautiful, harmonious brass bands in the park.

I loved to sing and longed to play the piano. On Bow Street lived a Miss Moss whose brass plate identified her as a teacher of the pianoforte. Miss Moss had suffered facial burns, and her face was extensively scarred. She covered the scars as best she could with overstated make up. She was a kind, good, and gentle person and her fees were low. She charged half a crown for a half-hour lesson. I enrolled for a lesson each Saturday morning to be paid for by my spending money.

I told my father, then living in a hovel down Spring Street, that I was going to have piano lessons. His advice was, “Remember, when you go to your teacher, you know nothing.” That would not be hard because I knew nothing. The first lesson was a two-handed exercise played with the fingers resident on certain keys. I can still play it.

When I got home, Evelyn Manton with customary kindness let me into her room so that I could practise on my Dad’s piano that was lodged there. The next day when I went to practise, I found the piano lid locked. Nothing was said, no one mentioned it – ever - and I dare not ask about it.

When I went for my next lesson I did not tell Miss Moss that I was unable to practise. I learned another rudimentary tune that week and some finger exercises. Unable to practise and not daring to ask my Nan if I could use her precious Pianola I returned a week later and played the piece as I had learned it.

Next door to us at 123 lived a middle-aged couple, the Barretts, from the Channel Islands who were taking refuge well into the mainland from, the Nazi occupation. Somehow, they became aware of my plight, I never discovered how, Perhaps Evelyn had complained to them in passing. They invited me to use their piano.

I had four more lessons but practising at the Barretts, for all their kindness, was not always convenient for them, and as the pieces became progressively harder, it was soon impossible for me to remember them for a week without practise, and so I abandoned my career as a concert pianist. Few events in my life have been attended with so much weight of disappointment.

The gift of the crystal set and the later acquisition of the radio brought music whenever I wanted it. The gramophone enabled me to play some of my favourites from a growing collection that included songs by George Formby and Al Jolson. If I could not make music, I could enfold myself in it.

Furthermore, nothing could stop me singing. I sang my way through life on good days and bad days, copying the styles and songs of the masters. Harry Roy’s recording of “So Tired” haunts me yet with its evocative melody line and the unique sound of a master trumpet player.

I wrote of the sound of the bands in the park playing on the warm summer evenings as my happiest childhood memory, and so it was. Music has never let me down, never failed to lift me; never disappointed me, only soothed, inspired and nourished my tender soul, and at times surprised me with its joy and its depth of emotion. My love affair with it shall never end.

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