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A Shout From The Attic: Almost Caruso

...He was a small, sort of handsome man, getting along in years, dapper enough but getting just a little untidy around the edges – but that voice!...

Ronnie Bray recalls competitive singing.

George had a startling voice reminiscent of the great Enrico Caruso. A powerful, if slightly nasal, tenor with a thrilling range clarity, and expression. He never failed to please the audiences gathered at either charity concerts or talent shows. In my opinion, George had a much better voice than mine with the exception that he had a telling weakness.

I liked George, except when he was pitched against me for the measly few pounds that were offered as first prize in the West Riding of Yorkshire's working men’s clubs concert circuit. Traditionally tight with their money, clubs boosted their bar takings by putting on talent concerts and charity concerts from time to time which means that they had only to spend a small amount of cash as prizes or, in the case of a charity, they spent nothing, the artistes graciously donating their time and talent to a worthy cause. Anyway, to a struggling artiste, a small amount of cash – plus the kudos of winning the contest – was better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick.

I knew that if George put in an appearance, that I would have a contest on my hands, so I always sang my very best. He was a small, sort of handsome man, getting along in years, dapper enough but getting just a little untidy around the edges – but that voice! George’s weakness was that he was addicted to Woodbine cigarettes and smoked like a fish! He lit the next one off the last one with the frenzy of a man about to lose a million pounds if he did not complete the manoeuvre in two seconds flat!

If George sang first, I would try to outshine him. If I sang first, George saluted my voice by trying even harder to out-sing me. In talent shows, the only way I could beat George was if they asked us for three numbers. His first number would be flawless, his second number would be excellent, but his third was always a mess. George had smoked his lungs into dry leather and his stamina was gone, sacrificed thoughtlessly to Will’s Woodbines, but I had no such problem.

I think of George when I see someone prevented from achieving his or her full potential because of some trifling habit. It is saddening to realise that without his tobacco habit George would have been a singer of superior talent, but that which robbed him of his health, also cost him dearly when he did what he loved to do best – sing.

Thinking of George provokes me to look more carefully at my own life to see what habits and tendencies prevent me from reaching my potential. Not being a smoker or a drinker, I can not abandon those obvious habits. However, there are more insidious habits that cause greater damage to my inner spirit and expand the distance between my Father in Heaven and me. Tendencies to selfishness, or neglect of the welfare of others are far more damaging than puffing on a cigarette or supping a glass of ale.

It is easy to denigrate a man drunk in the street; too easy to scoff at a man who risks his own physical health and endangers those around him who have to breathe his noxious fumes, but as destructive and socially disagreeable as these habits are, they are not as vile as the sins of selfishness and disregard of the needs of others.

As the Gospel song says,
“Almost does not avail,
Almost is but to fail.“

George was almost Caruso, of that, I am sure. But then I get to wondering who I almost am!


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