“Bet yer can’t get that thing under your chin, mate.”
Anyone who plays, or has played this large member of the string family
will have heard this tired witticism in various forms. On convenience
considerations alone, I admit it can be awkward boarding a train with one and
I don’t think they even let you on a bus. So why the double bass? What can
strike a music student to make him choose “the grandfather of the string
family, with a deep, growling voice”, as I’ve heard it described. To answer
this I must go back to my school days.
The screen goes all wobbly as we dissolve to 1940….
I am 11 or so. I’m riding on a coach along with all the members of my
prep school, Hollingbury Court in Brighton. The school is being evacuated
from its Brighton address to a safer part of the country. In 1940, the southern
coastal towns of England are open to air attack from across the Channel.
Citizens going about their daily lives have been terrified by low flying
Messerschmits and Heinkels attacking with their machine guns. Our
headmaster, Mr Oswald Morgan, has arranged with Daunstey‘s, a public
school in Wiltshire, for the two schools to function from the same address.
Luckily for me both schools considered music an important part of school
life. Mr Morgan was Welsh so we sang a lot. And Mr Olive, the headmaster
of Dauntsey, played the violin in the school orchestra. (I’m still answering
that question about choosing the double bass, I haven’t forgotten.)
In due course, when I moved from prep school to public school, I simply
stayed at the same place and became a pupil of Dauntsey‘s, where music was
in the capable hands of Mr C.L.Nightingale. And was a music teacher ever
more perfectly named?
“Nightie” had actually been a fighter pilot in World War One, but there
was no sign of his warlike past as he took choir practice. I sang baritone next
to Neville Wallis, son of Barnes Wallis, the man who invented the bouncing
bomb that destroyed Germany’s dams in the Second World War.
An odd thing about Dauntsey was its attraction to the top brass of the
RAF. In addition to Barnes Wallis, both Air Marshals Dowding and Teddar
had sent their sons to the school; all three of them, intelligent, charming,
artistic, and above all, peaceable, unlike their parents.
Nightie was ambitious for us. The choir was introduced to the masters of
sacred music – Dowland, Morley, Palestrina, and Handel – as well as more
modern music by Hubert Parry, Walmsley and Vaughan Williams. The choir
sang at daily school services as well as in the parish church in Market
Lavington. I became familiar with Magnificats, Nunc Dimittis, Benedicites
and all the musical repertoire of the Church of England, so even today when I
am in church (rarely), I still know all the words and don’t need a hymn book
to prompt me.
I studied the piano at both schools without conspicuous success but when
we had a concert and there was an orchestra (or what passed for one), I found
myself gazing at the double bass which was played by Mr Tennant (“Tusker”
to the boys because of his prominent front teeth), the head of maths. He
monopolised the instrument so for a time I took up the cello, though again
without conspicuous success.
I had a couple of friends who were capable pianists, Cobham and Strand,
with whom I consorted. But Strand had an extra attraction – he could play jazz
(absolutely forbidden). “The devil’s music”, we were told, like Nazi Germany
in the 30s.
Well, since no two instruments go together better than piano and bass, I
borrowed Tusker’s instrument, took it down to the music cells where we
started Dauntsey’s first ever jam sessions. They rapidly attracted an audience
and despite doing this several times we only got caught once. More
importantly, this was my meeting with my fate. I loved hugging the bass’s big
shiny body and stroking its neck. And by sitting partly behind and to one side
of it, you find yourself in an embrace with it – its a very spiritual thing,
something all bass players are aware of.
My other musical collaborator was Alan Cobham. His tastes were on a
more serious level and we sang a lot, mostly Quilter, Warlock, Vaughan
Williams, and Schubert. We met up in the summer holidays in London to go
to the Promenade Concerts at the Albert Hall. One summer we went to over
twenty, standing on the floor of the hall directly in front of the orchestra. Here
we saw Richard Strauss conduct and Rachmaninoff play, quite something to
have seen and heard.
At Dauntsey the war was far away from us. There were the usual quasi
warlike activities; fire watching, the Cadet Corps, and the Air Training Corps,
which I joined. I was mad on aeroplanes and sometimes we got to fly, invited
to Upavon airfield to be taken up in training planes; my first flying
The only real wartime experience I remember was one morning in the
autumn term in 1944. The school was at its lessons when a low hum started in
the sky which soon became a deep, cosmic throb. Soon it was so loud that
everyone, instinctively ran outside to see the cause. Above us passed an
enormous fleet of Wellington and Stirling bombers towing huge gliders;
hundreds of them; they filled the sky from horizon to horizon. This awesome
sight was the beginning of the ill fated Battle of Arnhem where we hoped to
outflank the German army, cross the Rhine and end the war quickly.
As my time at school was drawing to a close and exams loomed, my piano
teacher, Mr Munday, decided I should take music in Higher School
Certificate as part of the examination. Bad decision. It had been made too late
and I was simply not advanced enough for what turned out to be a very
Failing the exam didn’t put me off. At the conclusion of my school studies
I took stock of my musical achievements. I could sing tenor or baritone
tolerably well and read music a bit. I could play the easier Beethoven sonatas
and accompany the male voice choir without too many dominos. And I was a
self taught double bass player.
My father, because I had often spent school holidays working on a
friend’s farm in Hertfordshire, thought I might take up farming. But I had
already made up my mind.
I was going to be a professional musician.