Chapter 2: 'A mighty good road'
It was `Family Favourites' which first alerted me to the possibilities of music. When people could afford a Sunday joint, the wireless sets of the nation were tuned each week to the strains of Frank Chacksfield's Orchestra announcing With a song in my heart (a tune which even now conjures up the smell of gravy in my nostrils) the imminent arrival of Sunday Dinner (as we quaintly called it in those days). Each week we were told that `In Britain it's twelve noon and in Germany it's one o'clock but once again at home and abroad ...' After that, and before the reprise of Frank's number, they sandwiched Lay down your arms and surrender to mine, Sugarbush, Truly Fair, She wears red feathers and a huly huly skirt, The railroad runs through the middle of the house, Close the door they're coming through the window and other delights. The best seemed to be Eddie Calvert's Zambesi, but one week my young ears pricked up, like those of a faithful dog at the first distant footfall of master, to those opening guitar chords which announced the arrival of Lonnie Donegan singing the story of the Rock Island Line.
Radio played a major part in our lives then. It (singular) was on for most of my day, tuned almost permanently to the Light Programme, except for news time on the Home Service when Dad was at home. As a result, during the course of a year, I heard Housewives' Choice, Reginald Dixon or Sandy MacPherson on Blackpool Tower organ, the musical bits of Workers' Playtime, Music While You Work (twice a day), and comedy programmes like 'Ray's a laugh' and, at weekends, Beyond Our Ken and The Billy Cotton Band Show - all right, I know it looks like a catalogue, but I'm trying to give it context. There was even a bit of Handel's music after 'It's five to ten'. This was all there was for anyone who liked music at the popular end of the scale. It wasn't as bad as it sounds. I learned tolerance of theatre organs and to actually like some of the Music While You Work bands like Troys and his Banjoliers, who could play things which encouraged my mother to join in singing - it is surely one of the finer things in life to a child (or to a man) to hear someone he loves singing like that.
My Dad sometimes took me out. There was a special opening offer in The Universe (no pun intended) to visit the Planetarium in 1957. I went with Dad and was astounded at sitting under the constellations as they moved through a clear night sky. It had lost none of its magic when I returned in 1970, although by now the presentation was recorded.
In the year of the Munich air disaster, Dad took me to the Science Museum for a birthday treat. It was a dank grey February day and the image of London at that time and in those conditions took a long time to dispel. The buildings were all filthy from years of pollution. We walked past the Natural History Museum and it was black. Years later, even when it had been sand-blasted clean, that image remained. The Science Museum was interesting, but there was too much to take in and many exhibits looked identical to me as a child. As a result of that visit, I have tried only to give a taster of museums and galleries to my kids - they could always return if their appetite were whetted. I remember that day the newspaper billboard saying "Duncan Edwards dies". The crash was memorable for us at school, because one of the survivors who was to lie longest in a coma, was John Berry and he had been a pupil at St Joseph's; you could tell because the inscription 'J Berry 1945' was suddenly discovered on several desks.
My father was a drummer. Prior to `call up' in 1942, he had played with Will Hay's daughter Gladys in her band The Harmonists as part of the Jack Hylton Road Show. Apart from his playing at the audition at the Glasgow Pavilion, what had secured him the job was his ability to imitate the sound of a Fairey Swordfish for the band's set piece Sinking the Bismark. The ability to imitate aircraft must have stood him in good stead, as he was called up in due course to the Royal Air Force. There, apart from doing a proper job, he had played with a number of bands and orchestras. Memories he shared with me included being brought in to play, at short notice and without rehearsal, an orchestral programme which included a comedy version of Suppé's Poet and Peasant Overture He had amazed them by being able instinctively to hit the percussion at the (predictably) 'wrong' (right) moment during the pauses. Later he had recorded a version of Charlie Barnett's Skyliner in Germany. It would be good to hear it, but I never learned if any copies survived.
Dad had continued to drum on a semi-professional basis following demobilisation. The odd rainy afternoon when he had thrust a pair of sticks into my hands and had me tapping out `Mummy Daddy' on a chair, must have had their effect. It didn't seem so at the time, however, and I had given up drums as a bad job, because he'd said that I couldn't have a go on his kit until I was good enough on the chair. At five years of age I lacked the application of a Mozart, but he didn't aspire to be a drummer did he? The year Cherry pink and apple blossom white was a hit, Mum took us to stand by Manor Park and see Dad playing with his band on a float in Aldershot carnival. They were past in a flash, but Jimmy Plume, the trumpeter, was playing that tune and Dad gave us a cheery wave without missing a beat.
The sound of Lonnie Donegan giving of his all, was the high spot of my radio listening for quite some time in the '50s. I used to listen avidly to Family Favourites, eagerly anticipating the opening chords of Rock Island Line and subsequently Cumberland Gap, Putting on the style and The Battle of New Orleans all of which found their way onto the programme. Somewhere in between the issue of those first and last records, we had the distinction of being the second to last family on our street to get a television. This enabled us to see the mighty Lonnie, together with others of his ilk, each week on Six Five Special.
One of the many groups who appeared on the Six Five Special was Somebody or Other and His Skiffle Kings. I regret not remembering the singer's name but it was the name of his group which made me resolve to have a group of my own. This idea held a number of drawbacks, viz a) I couldn't play an instrument b) I didn't have an instrument, having abandoned any pretensions to the drums before now and c) my friends weren't interested in making music. But I had three sisters who, very briefly, sang the chorus to a backing only of rudimentary percussion, as The Skiffle Princesses on "Puttin' on the style".
Copyright © John Scott Cree 2001
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