I don’t think I ever had any discussion with my parents about music as a
profession, but neither of them ever raised any quibbles.
My father loved music and took me to concerts when I was still only
about 6. His family were all musical. His sister, my aunt Kathleen, had
studied piano and organ in Vienna and was only withdrawn from studying
there when a photograph of a dashing young man in hunting outfit, who had
written some mildly affectionate words on it, was discovered among her
Back in London and nothing daunted, she applied for the job of
kapellmeister or music director to a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. Having
secured the job, she later accepted the courtship of the master of the house
and married him. When their castle (Oh yes!) was burnt down by the IRA,
they moved to Ludlow in Shropshire where four girls were born. Quite a
romantic story although the effort of producing all those girls quenched her
ambition as a concert pianist and she settled instead for playing the organ in
the local parish church. Oddly, she never showed much interest in my career
as it began to develop.
My mother could play the piano a bit, although the pieces she played were very sentimental. One was “The Robin’s Return”; another was a sad ballad,
“Let me kiss you, father, kiss you, for I’m very tired of play. I shall have no
one to kiss me when my daddy goes away”. She only had to sing the first four
words to have me in floods of tears. My parents were Mr Chalk and Mrs
Cheese, if you get my drift.
After leaving school, there was an interval, which I treated as a last
summer holiday. I went down to the farm to help with the harvest and music
faded into the background.
Farm work in 1946 was labour intensive and I really had to work, but I
was a fit lad of 18. We had six men as well as me and horses too, great Shires
and Suffolks that weighed over a ton but were so gentle. I just loved those
great animals. I still miss the country and always feel at home there. On
Sundays, when the three horses were out of harness enjoying their day off, I
would take a pocketful of small apples and go into their field for the fun of
feeding them. As I did so, they gathered round, pushing at me with their big
soft noses. An idyll.
The idyll ended soon enough with the arrival of my call-up papers. I was
to report to an address in Hither Green in South London. I had previously
applied for the RAF as I wanted to fly, but with the war over the RAF were
shedding flyers as fast as they could. So along with thousands of other young
conscripts I found myself headed for the Royal Artillery.
I was posted to Budbroke Barracks in Warwick for six weeks basic
training. All the lads up here were from the Midlands. The only southerners
were me and and another boy – just two of us – and on top of that I was a
public schoolboy with a posh accent. I could have been in for a rough time but
two factors saved me.
The first was army life. Most of these young men had never left home
before and were pitifully homesick. The Army welcomed you by treating you
like cattle; yelling at you and making you double about every waking hour.
By the end of the day’s parades the Midland boys were just too weary to set
on the posh southern sod who, anyway, was getting the same treatment.
The other factor was the army’s genius for creating friendships. I quickly
made friends with a lad called Spencer (or “Spanner” as he was known). He
was from Coventry and would have been leader of any group he was in. He
had cheek, speed of mind and knew how to use himself.
I think Spencer found me interesting and a bit of a joke. I was very tall,
six foot three, far taller than any of the other recruits in the unit. And then
there was the accent, which he loved sending up. So we became “muckers”
and went everywhere together, confronting unfriendly situations by making
each other laugh. Our friendship lasted just those six weeks. After basic
training he went off to be an infantryman in the KOYLIS, Kings Own
Yorkshire Light Infantry. I never saw him again but have never forgotten him.
This intense feeling for your mates is something that gives the services
their great appeal.
After basic training I was posted to the School of Artillery on Salisbury
Plain for six months during the coldest winter in living memory. Sleeping in
ill-heated barrack rooms, three young soldiers died of hypothermia and the
CO, badly shaken by this, sent us all off on leave till the weather improved.
Having been picked as potential Officer material, I was posted to a War
Office Selection Board and sent on very tiring exercises involving a group
and a leader (me). I was charged with getting us across a 20-foot imaginary
stream with only a pole, an empty oil drum and some rope, all watched keenly
by the examining officer. There was a lot of scrambling across a course in
competition, climbing rope ladders and crawling through mud filled trenches
all under the cool gaze of these examiners who were usually immaculately
turned out, in contrast to us, dressed in fatigues, sweaty, and bruised in
After this came Officer Cadet Training Unit. Six weeks at Mons Barracks,
Aldershot, under the eagle eyes of a group of senior NCOs, headed by the
senior RSM of the British Army, Regimental Sergeant Major “Beefy”
Brittain. This behemoth, with a shrill voice that could carry for miles, was in
charge of all the big parades, with 1500 Cadets under his orders. Incredibly, I
was still the tallest cadet in the place so I was chosen to be “right marker”.
This beanpole was commanded to start the parade by marching smartly
out from the edge of the parade ground to a point to one side of the centre,
there to execute a flamboyant “A…TTEN…TION!! STANDAT…EESE!”
with a crash of boots, all under the eagle eye of Behemoth Brittain. If this
manoeuvre was completed to his satisfaction, the rest could fall-in into three
ranks to my left. If not: “GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN, YOU HORRIBLE
At the end of our training at Mons Barracks, it was the habit for those
passing out to invite the NCOs, who had been making their lives such hell, for
a drink or two. It was a good party, with us paying the bill and the NCOs
friendly because we were “off parade”. And as the saying goes, drink was
Next morning, 7.30 sharp, the passing-out parade. Brittain, having been a
guest at last night’s party, calls out “RIGHT……MARKER!” And I go
through my routine as described above.
Once in position, standing at ease I must wait while everyone falls in.
Standing, legs apart, looking straight ahead, I am staring straight into the fiery
ball of the rising sun, and, after a few moments, I begin to feel faint. Panic!
What’s the drill in this situation? I decide to do something which seems
military; I take two paces forward, turn to the right, and fall out.
As I totter off the parade ground to the grass verge I remember only one
thing. It is the voice of RSM Brittain screaming, “What’s that cadet in the
Royal Artillery doing? Has he gone MAAAD?”, followed by the sound of
heavy boots as the NCOs run to check this madman who has now reached the
edge on the parade ground and has fallen backwards on the grass in a fainting
fit. As my eyes close, I see a ring of faces fade above me as one NCO mutters,
“Well, you’re for the high jump now, my lad, and NO mistake!”
Years later, in 1954, when I was a member of the LSO, I was a customer
of Brittain’s. He had started an outfitters called “High and Mighty”. As the
word “High” implies, it catered for unusually tall people. But “Mighty”
simply meant fat. It was a big success and still goes on.
I was in the store, trying on a jacket when in comes Brittain, now dressed
in civvies, of course. I caught his eye, “Good morning, Saa’nt Major”, I
caroled out boldly. (“Not afraid of you any more, Saa’nt Major,” I thought to
myself.) Then added cheekily, “Do you remember me?”
As I have said before, I am quite tall, but Brittain towered over me. He
turned to face me and once more the eagle eye fell on my face. Then a quick
look up and down, as if checking my whole turnout. Then, “ASHMORE.
It had been eight years, during which he had trained half the officer cadets
in the British Army! Perhaps it was the incident of the mad right marker that
prompted his memory.
After these six weeks I was sent on to regimental training at Deepcut, a
military enclave near Aldershot where we were finally trained in the finer
points of gunnery. At the end of the course, yet another passing-out parade in
our new uniforms. This time I wasn’t the right marker and everything went
I was posted to a holding unit in Woolwich for a short time while they
found me something to do. As I had persisted in my longing to fly, I had
applied for Air OP, that is a pilot spotter for the guns. In the hope of getting
the job I had studied maps and aerial topography. But no luck. However, the
army, noting my mapping experience, sent me to Western Germany for
several months to do some surveying.
Stationed near Hanover I saw a lot of Germany at the worst time, as the
bomb damage was everywhere, especially in Hamburg, which had square
miles of total devastation. The people were utterly crushed; I didn’t speak
German and we were not encouraged to fraternise, so I didn’t make any
German friends. The weather was bitter and when the assignment came to an
end I was glad to get back to England.
As for music, in Germany, I never heard a note except in the Naafi where
British Forces Radio played popular music of the day. The most memorable
of those was “Three Little Fishes”. Like the hymns I learnt while I was at
school, every word still sticks in my mind…
Down in the meadow in a little bitty pool
swam three little fishies and a mama fishie too.
“Swim” said the mama fishie, “Swim if you can”
And they swam and they swam all over the dam.
The remaining two years of my conscription passed slowly and
uneventfully. I was posted to an anti-aircraft regiment near Rhyl in North
Wales. The only thing that I remember was the installation of the “584
ranging equipment”. This was the first computer controlled gun layer. Hitting
moving targets, like fighters and bombers, had always been a bit of glorified
guesswork until this baby arrived. I say “baby”, but the 584 was the size of a
London bus, packed with strange electronic equipment that winked and
clicked. This was a world away from gunnery as we had practised it, and the
army realised this. So this massive box of tricks was operated by members of
REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
These REME personnel were not military in bearing. They were greasy,
untidy and spoke a language full of jargon that none of us gunners
understood. Nowadays we’d call them “nerds”. They never seemed to gel
with the gunners and, speaking for myself, I never had more than the merest
suspicion of how all this was supposed to work. We went to gunnery practice
from time to time, but did we hit anything? I doubt it.
The high spot of this period was my only musical experience during my
time in the army. Mess nights.
We would all get a bit tight, though none of us more so than the
commanding officer, Col Smith, who always demanded music. I provided it
by going to the piano (very out of tune) and playing the Royal Artillery’s slow
march and march-past. The slow march was from “Saul” by Handel, and the
march-past was the finale of Act 1 of “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart.
While I busked both of these, the colonel would heave himself onto the mess
table and imitate a horse (he was an ex-cavalry officer), following the music,
scattering crockery and glassware as he galloped the length of the table, and
often back again. After which we would usually cart him off to bed.
The only music I wrote during my service was a wedding march for the
adjutant, Captain Dick Pugh, in which I inserted a single 5/4 bar so that the
bridal couple would be leaving the church, not left, right, but right, left. Once
the technical aspect was explained to them, the army thought this was very
Looking back now, it’s clear that my army service had little bearing on my
subsequent musical life apart from one thing – it taught me the importance of
self-discipline when you need to get something done.