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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 14

When Ronnie Bray tried to play the clarinet he was greeted by the cry of “Will you stop blowing that bloody whistle!”

I have to blame Monty Sunshine. No, I didn’t make up that name - Monty Sunshine was the clarinettist in Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. Nobody played clarinet like Monty played clarinet. The clarinettist who painted melodies on the wind with his virtuoso playing entranced me so much that I could listen to him for hours.

He so moved me that I had to become a clarinettist just like him. As Mrs Beeton would have said, “First, get a clarinet!” Southbourne, in Hampshire, sported a large shop that sold items on behalf of people and charged them a small commission. One day, whilst home on leave, I looked in the huge window and saw a clarinet going cheap. I bought it, took it back to barracks in Catterick, North Yorkshire, and began practising with my “Tune-a-Day” beginner’s manual.

My feeble attempts at divine melodies soon attracted the attention of a member of the band of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. He looked at my clarinet, adjusted the reed, then put it to his lips and blew whilst his fingers did things with the shiny metal tabs along its shiny black length. I knew right then that there was nothing wrong with the instrument. I couldn’t play it. He offered to teach me to play and I accepted with indecent haste. However, when he suggested payment I had to decline just as quickly. Army pay wasn’t too great and he was out of my price league. He never spoke to me again.

Discouraged, but persistent, I kept up the practising although I never got very far. I did manage to squeeze a simple tune out of it that I thought would make a nice party piece. I had no plans for an encore number, because I felt quite certain that I would not be asked for a further performance.

I took the clarinet home on leave with me. Esmé and the children were staying with her parents at Castlemaine Avenue at this time. My attempts to practice were not appreciated and I decided that it would be diplomatic if I removed my activities to the shed at the bottom of the garden. The shed was far enough away from the house to nullify the worst and most painful aspects of my playing.

I assembled the clarinet, moistened the reed – I had seen others do that – then put it between my lips, blew out my cheeks, and pushed air past the reed into the wooden tube. Monty Sunshine would have died. Not from joy or musical elation, but from pure shock-horror at the sound that issued from the flared end. It was a high-pitched screech of such volume that, had the shed been supplied with a crystal chandelier, it would have shattered into tiny fragments.

“Teething troubles.” I muttered to myself and prepared to make golden melodies. Another shriek! This one seemed louder than the first. Then, with Titanic effort I really went for it, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the noise turned into music. This screech registered 9.5 on the Richter Scale and brought a man running out of a nearby house. He quickly identified the locus of the noise and banging violently on the wooden wall of the shed demanded,

“Will you stop blowing that bloody whistle!”

I was shocked into silence. My bulbous cheeks returned to normal with a long sighing sound as they let go of the week’s supply of air they had been holding. My hands and arms collapsed limply in front of me, in a gesture of resignation, and the clarinet fell forever silent. I stopped blowing the ‘whistle’ right there and then, and never took it up again.

I don’t listen to Trad Jazz any more. It is too painful. I have even forgotten Monty Sunshine’s name. It just came into my mind the other day and I don’t know why. It made me sad. Not sad because I didn’t become as good as Monty Sunshine – few people made it to his level. I was sad because I recognised the death of another fondly held dream, and sadder still that I had forgotten that I ever had such a dream.

Of course, it was a lifetime ago. Yet, with the months and days galloping by, one’s mind is often turned to yesterday and the bright promises of youth. It is one of the blessings of old age to be able to turn back the pages of memory and see ourselves as we were then. It is one of the curses of age to remember how many of our dreams and hopes lie broken, submerging in our wake like cargo jettisoned from ship that has sprung a leak and must discharge some of its precious cargo to remain afloat.

Do I remain saddened by remembrances of things past? Not very much. When my memory backwards turns to those far-off days, I see more of sunshine, more of happy joyful faces, and feel, not disappointment, but gratitude that, as bad as it often was, there were good and blessed moments scattered among the heartbreak, and that honest tears shed for our disappointments will eventually bring a sweetness and peace to the soul that no amount of triumph could ever furnish.

And the clarinet; do I miss it? Clarinet, schmarinet! I have had better and more substantial dreams that no amount of tumbling notes, no matter how they thrill the heart for the moment’s pleasure, could equal. I have known, and do know, the gentle touch of love on my soul; felt, and do feel, the love of innocent children; seen, and do see, blessings tumbling earthwards from my gentle loving Father as he answers my unspoken prayers. Even Monty Sunshine couldn’t get those out of a wooden tube.

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