I’ve just been demobbed. To prove it I’ve got the ghastly civvy suit – hat,
shirt, tie and socks. More valuable from my point of view is a grant from the
army to cover three years tuition fees at the college of my choice. That was
conscription’s payback, and very much appreciated.
Soon, I was sharing a flat with two Americans, Gene Persico and Gaylord
Cavallaro, on the second floor of a lovely house in Holland Park. The owner,
Mr Dugmore, who seldom seemed to wash or shave, occupied the basement.
In between were rooms for a motley crew.
One tenant, ex RAF, and slightly war wounded, had lost so much sleep
during the recent hostilities that he seemed never to leave his bed. Next door
were Mike and Bernie Winters (later to become a famous pair of comedians).
Not yet famous they were spivs – hustlers selling nylon stockings and other
trash out of a suitcase along Oxford street.
The house had its own ballroom, and during the year I lived there we
threw enough parties to fill a lifetime. This was “the student life” all right, but
I soon had to leave their beguiling company. I wasn’t doing any work, or
practising, and I wanted to get into the Royal College of Music. Later, I found
out that our landlord, Mr Dugmore, to whom we all had been paying our
rents, was a squatter and had no right to be in the building.
I found myself a room where I could work and applied for entry to the
college, but I had left it too late and was therefore not admissible until the
following year. Disappointed, I heard about another possibility, Trinity
College of Music, also in London. Places were available and they would take
me straight away.
I accepted and started my studies there as a piano student. I had acquired a
cheap double bass from a shop in Charing Cross Road. Although the bass was
what is called, an “orange box”, I added it to my study schedule.
The bass teacher was Jack Sylvester. He was the principal bass of the
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the first orchestral player I had met.
Although he was friendly enough, I was in awe of him. When I arrived for my
first lesson he looked thoughtfully at my orange box. “I think we can do better
than that,” he said, and lent me a bass owned by the college.
Jack was a good teacher and by my second term, with a bit of hard
practice, I was able to get into the college orchestra. I was twenty-one and this
was the first time I had ever been in an orchestra. Sitting in the bass section
with two others was a feeling I shall never forget – a mixture of pride and fear
of what might come next.
What came next was twice weekly rehearsals for the concert to be given at
half term, the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro”, Cesar Franck’s
“Symphonic Variations” (with a female student pianist as soloist), and
Borodin’s Second Symphony. I remember how proud and how right it felt to
be a member of what I have always considered man’s greatest invention – not
the wheel, stupid, but the symphony orchestra.
During the remainder of that year, I made dozens of friends. At that time
bass players were in great demand and I played in student and amateur
orchestras all over London. The double bass, being the root of the string
orchestra, has a special advantage as it enables the player to listen to the
musical textures that evolve above it. It is the perfect place from which to
listen to the music, and to discover how music is constructed.
In September 1952, I entered the Royal College of Music, studying
composition, double bass and tuba. The pace and intensity of the work
increased. The RCM is one of the great conservatories, attracting the best
students and teaching staff, so I found myself studying with such as Julian
Bream, Joan Sutherland, Colin Davies Alexander Gibson, Kenneth McKellar
and Hugh Bean, later to become leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He
already led the college first orchestra.
My bass teacher was the colourful Eugene Cruft, principal bass of the
BBC Symphony Orchestra and quite a famous figure, with a terrific sense of
style in both his person and his playing. He was responsible for finding the
orchestra for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, for which he got an OBE.
For composition, my teacher was Alan Bush. And for the tuba I had
Charlie Luxon who, later in life when I was writing scores for movies, I
employed to play for me.
The Director of the College was Sir George Dyson, a distinguished and
remote figure in the musical establishment; but during his military service in
World War One he had written The Manual of Machine Gun Warfare.
The Royal College of Music stands in Prince Consort Rd, directly behind
the Royal Albert Hall, surrounded by museums and departments of London
University, looking like a misplaced French château.
In my day it contained 98 Study rooms. Around the corner, tucked away
in a mews was The Queen’s Head, a pub known to all college students as
‘Room 99’. Since then, the whole place has been vastly up graded: a new
Opera Theatre, the Benjamin Britten; a new music library, one of the finest
anywhere; and lots more study rooms. Yet these rooms are still numbered 96 –
97 – 98 – 100 – 101. And 99 is still the pub in the mews.
Very English. I couldn’t imagine anything so flippant at the Paris
The college had two full orchestras and I was in the first orchestra, where
we were occasionally visited by famous conductors who would give us a
master class. We met Maestros, Stowkowski, Kleiber, Haitinck, and even
Koussevitsky, who had been a double bass virtuoso, so we in the bass section
were on our best behaviour when he turned up! Very tall and impressive, he
chose to rehearse the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 5th symphony, which has
some tricky stuff in the fugal trio.
Whilst concentrating, during this passage, a large filling dropped out of a
back tooth which I nearly swallowed. Instinctively I stopped playing and
yelled “Ouch!”, which stopped both the maestro and the orchestra. He fixed
me with such a disapproving look that my only course was to apologise and
quietly sink through the floor. Meanwhile, to further embarrass me, the rest of
the orchestra shuffled their feet quietly along the floor, a sound I shall never
Across the road from the flat I shared with two other students was The
Drayton Arms, our local pub. Two of the regular customers were Peter Parry,
a professional musician, who was second bassoon in the recently formed
Philharmonia Orchestra, and Aubrey Johnson, an oboe player, with whom
he’d played in one of the guards bands during the war.
They were great friends and, to us students, glamorous and amusing
people, inhabiting as they did this world that we wished to become part of.
We tended to seek them out and were a part of a little coterie of regulars that
used the pub whose landlady, Pauline, a very pretty woman, was distantly
related to Charlie Chaplin.
Both Peter and Aubrey were married and their wives, Cecily and Iris
would sometimes join us. Iris was still a model and terribly stylish.
I loved to hear their stories of life in the profession and the ease with
which they spoke of famous conductors and well-known players that they
worked with impressed us. I guess we were “groupies”, but we seemed to get
on well with them. I had been in the army too and Steve Trier, my flatmate,
was a clarinettist and an amusing chap as well, so we could contribute to the
conversation without seeming too much like onlookers.
Aubrey was able to get me some work from time to time and we made
some tours with a little band called the New English Orchestra that made
visits to schools, giving short concerts and lightly spreading culture about the
country. These tours were hilarious as it was an opportunity for the married
men to get away from the cares of married life, children and all that. I have to
admit that drink was often taken too (to help dilute the culture, you understand ).
On one tour we were carrying two oboes who were also playing 18th
century instruments, made from boxwood and lacking most of the modern
instrument’s keywork, making them rather difficult to play. Before the
concert, we had being drinking in a nearby alehouse, so that, by the time we
started the concert, the oboes were not in a fit condition to tackle “The Arrival
of the Queen of Sheba.”
To call it a disaster would be to fail to describe the comic possibilities of
watching two half tight oboe players desperately trying to play seriously a
famous piece that had turned irrevocably into chaos. Of course, the kids loved
it and cheered afterwards.
Another oboist, a student at the RCM and one of my good friends was
Johnny Warrack. We were both studying for a degree and both thought to use
Greece as a base for writing our theses. I had read about the Delphic Hymns
and thought to visit Delphi to gather some local knowledge. John had family
connections in Greece and agreed to come with me and share expenses. I had
a car, a Hillman van, in which we could sleep if necessary. We drove through
France and Italy via Venice where we stopped for a few days as Johnny’s
sister was dancing in a nightclub on the Lido. After Venice we drove to
Trieste, at that time an “open city”, then on to Rijecka and into Yugoslavia.
At that time Yugoslavia was a Communist country and you needed a visa
to enter it. We drove through Lubliana and Zagreb before hitting the
motorway that had been built on General Tito’s orders as a symbol of I’m not
sure what. This motorway was unlike any motorway you’ve ever seen; open to
tractors and cattle trucks and already showing signs of wear being full of
potholes. It ran about 250 miles, as far as Belgrade, but traffic was very light
as there were few cars in the country. About 50 miles from Belgrade we had a
blowout. I had to change a tyre and when I got out to do so I noticed the area
in which we stopped.
Imagine a thick forest of dark trees through which an enormous mower
had been driven; straight through, just like that, making a wide furrow in
which the motorway was laid.
It was late afternoon, hot and utterly still so that my exertions with the
jack and the sound of our voices seemed to ring out in the stillness. It was
only as I was completing the process of changing the wheel that this utter
silence became noticeable and I looked up.
As I did so, a huge black bird launched itself from the dark trees at one
side and flew slowly across the road. As I followed it wth my eyes the hair on
the back of my neck stood on end. I was conscious of an indefinable evil
presence which I couldn’t explain.
I hurriedly replaced the tyre and tools in the boot, leapt back into the car,
started the engine and left. I looked at Johnny whose face was as white as
mine. No one spoke.
That was my first occult encounter. Worse, much worse, was to follow.
We arrived in Greece eventually and started our tour in Athens where
Johnny had contacted Taki, a guide who was expecting Johnny to meet him.
We began by going into the Peloponnese to see Olympia and Mycenae. Later
we drove back around the gulf of Corinth and up to Delphi without anything
untoward happening, despite Delphi’s reputation.
It was on the way back, nearing Athens, that it happened. We were on the
coast road when we noticed this small semi-circular bay with a rough road
leading down to the beach where there was a bar at which we could buy
drinks. The beach was wooded down to the high tide line, where the trees
were small like saplings; further up they grew taller and thicker.
As the sun set we noticed the bar had closed and the owners had left. We
were on our own as we made a meal with our paraffin stove. After a swim, we
settled down under a bivouac that we used to keep off the night dew and went
to sleep among the saplings. About forty-five minutes later I awoke and sat up
so violently that I half put my shoulder out, though I didn’t notice it at the
time. One of these saplings had bent over and was brushing my face with its
upper branches. And as I sat up it recoiled with a sound I shall never forget….
Johnny woke up and I told him what had just happened. “Are you sure?”
he said, “it sounds more like a bad dream you were having”.
He calmed me down and eventually we went back to sleep. Only to have
the same thing happen again…
“That’s it, Johnny,” I yelled, “I’m getting off this beach now!”
We hurriedly packed up and drove back into Athens and slept on a car
park for what was left of the night.
The next morning we met Taki for coffee and told him our experiences on
the beach. He was very calm. “Describe this beach to me,” he said.
We did so. “Ah yes, this is 15 kilometre beach. Did you notice everyone
had left? Well, the tourist board will tell you that during the day the rocks get
so hot, but after the sun goes down they cool and give off a narcotic gas that
causes these hallucinations. But all Greeks know; that beach is haunted”.
I remained at the RCM until 1954, studying for the associate RCM
syllabus. And although music colleges are sometimes accused of being out of
touch with the profession they serve, the RCM certainly helped me with some
of the first proper engagements I received. These jobs were usually handed
out by the secretary, Percy Showan, one of the merriest men I have ever
known. He was an absolute hero among college students, to thousands of
whom he gave their first-ever paid work. He sent me off to Stratford-on-Avon
for a Christmas season of “Wind in the Willows” at the Royal Shakespeare
I have always loved the company of actors, they seem to be even further
out on the edges of society than musicians. I envy their “company sense” of
being close to their fellow actors, a characteristic that musicians have whilst
playing but which often disappears afterwards. I tended to seek out the actors’
There is something that differentiates actors and musicians. They respect
each other’s art, but neither can quite grasp the other’s mystery. Actors
inhabit a world of speech whilst musicians mostly make their mystery by
remaining silent. But sometimes I have worked alongside actors when we
combine in doing something identical: singing. It is lovely to see, as almost
everyone can sing and thus for a while the two parties can inhabit the same
mystery, the mystery of song.
One of the actors I met during that time at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
was Peter Halliday. After Stratford our ways parted for years and we didn’t
meet again until I moved to Battersea in 1973 and ran into him in the local
pub by which time we’d both got married and had kids. Pete lived close by in
Battersea and we became the greatest of friends.
I ran an occasional band called, The Duke of Cambridge Taverners,
named after our local pub where we would play two or three times a year.
One of the items would be a dramatic recitation such as “The Green Eye of
the Little Yellow God”, or “She Was Poor But She Was Honest”.
Peter would recite and the band would accompany with one of my
arrangements. The band played for free beer and included some of the best
players in the profession mixed with some amateurs. We won the Easter
Parade in Battersea Park and the Evening Standard dubbed us “The loudest
small band in the country”.
I still see Peter today, age 85. He lives in retirement at Denville Hall, the
Actors’ Home in Ruislip.
In due course, Percy Showan sent me on some other jobs, one of which
led me to meet a man who would affect my life. This was the composer,
This vital, energetic and most human of men, liked to make as well as
write music. He had founded a small orchestra, The Newbury String Players,
composed partly of professional and partly good amateur players, which I
joined. There were about sixteen of us under Gerald’s baton and we would
play several times a year around Berkshire and Oxfordshire, giving concerts,
usually in small towns and villages. It was Middle England, but so gentle and
of such a high standard that it became very popular in those areas where live
music was not so common.
Gerald was an authority on English music and so highly regarded by his
peers that there would often be someone such as Edmund Rubbra or Vaughan
Williams himself in the audience. We played a lot of English Music,
including early Britten, but not exclusively. Bach, Mozart, and Grieg were
This was the last time for a generation that this sort of music, now called
“Pastoral”, was to be generally heard. There was a slightly wary feeling for
such composers as Shostakovitch or Prokofieff. As for Schoenberg and the
Second Viennese School, they were avoided. As I loved Shostakovitch, and
especially Prokofieff and Stravinsky, I kept my preferences to myself.
Music seems to go in fashions. At this time, about 1954, the English
musical scene was changing under the influence of various music critics and
“special pleaders”, particularly William Glock, Controller of Music at the
BBC, and Erwin Stein, who was the principal music editor at Boosey &
Hawkes and a personal friend of Mahler, Schoenberg and Britten. A long
period of music that was neither easy to understand or love began to take
over, Stockhausen and Schoenberg being two excellent examples. This was to
last for twenty or more years until it finally seemed to right itself and many of
the styles and “squeaky door” mannerisms were dropped and a new kind of
modern music began to emerge.
It was then that such composers as William Alwyn, William Walton, and
even Vaughan Williams himself began to recover from being overlooked.
Gerald Finzi was one such composer, at that time largely ignored, but
nowadays regarded as a quintessential composer of the English Pastoral
I sometimes stayed with him and his beautiful wife, Joy, at their home
near Newbury and we often had talks about music which I realised in
retrospect were master classes as I learned so much from him.
Slowly I began to realise he was my guru and I tried to follow his example
of simplicity, truth and even restraint. But unfortunately only with regards to
music. Otherwise, as you can see, my life has been anything but simple and
At this time I was offered an occasional date with the Boyd Neel String
Orchestra, the foremost chamber orchestra in the country, for which Benjamin
Britten wrote “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge”. After having played
for them several times, I was invited to go with them on a tour of Eastern
Canada and the United States. Foreign touring was still quite unusual, so I
was really excited to accept.
It was the end of 1954. Crossing the Atlantic in those days meant leaving
London, stopping off in Glasgow to refuel, then on to Reykjavik in Iceland
for more refuelling (arriving there at night to behold the Northern Lights in
their mysterious glory, the only time I have seen them), then on to Gander in
Newfoundland. From there we caught a train to St Johns, the capital, where
the streets all ran down directly into the harbour, so if your brakes were to fail
there was nothing between you and a ducking. In this pretty port city of
painted wooden houses, we gave several concerts. The local people were
delightful; simple and rural and very impressed to have such a distinguished
group of players visit them first.
After St Johns we flew to the mainland at Halifax to begin the tour.
Canada was still emerging from a sort of prohibition. Drinking in public was
restricted to “taverns”, as they were called. Ugly and bare with tables covered
in puddles of spilt beer, each table with its own salt cellar which you shook
into your beer to get rid of the gas.
Buying liquor was also primitive. If you wanted to be sure of a drink, the
best method was to buy a gallon of wine (though it was more like red biddy),
and carry it around with you. We made an odd sight arriving at our hotel with
a violin case in one hand and a gallon jug in the other. We travelled by
Greyhound bus, driven by Jack Jackson from Jacksonville, Florida (honestly).
He and I became buddies and even shared rooms at times, when he would
make long distance calls to his wife and talk dirty and luridly to her, telling
her what he would do to her when he got back. I blush to tell you that I
blushed to hear him, leering evilly down the phone.
The tour continued, taking in Montreal, then north to Sudbury, Ontario, an
aluminium smelting town, where the pollution was so dreadful from the
smelters that all vegetation for miles around had died.
In the centre of Sudbury stood a lone tree, the only live one for miles. Our
hotel had hitching posts for horses outside. Their riders were in the bar
shaking salt into their beer. It was like a John Ford western where the prairie
had died. I loved it. Clad in my army greatcoat, which had been dyed navy
blue, and wearing my navy blue Homburg hat – and with my beard –
everywhere we went people kept calling me “rabbi”.
One of the curiosities of Canadian touring was the style of hospitality
shown to us in each town we played. After the concert we would be bussed to
someone’s house, or in some places to the local golf club. Here would be laid
on all manner of good things to eat but only coffee or tea and soft drinks to
Now I don’t wish to give the impression that the Boyd Neel orchestra
were all alcoholics but after a long day’s travel and a concert at the end of it
who would deny a thirsty player a well deserved drink. I observed to one of
our hosts at his golf club that, back in England, drinking ran the actual golf a
close second in the reasons for a club’s existence, and that the bar was the
main social centre.
“Waal,” he replied, “if you really need a drink, there’s a hatchway down
in the men’s changing room. If you knock on the hatch, one of our staff will
give you a bottle of beer, I guess”.
The effect of his words was profound. Within a couple of minutes the
room had emptied and all the Boyd Neelers were in a noisy queue, knocking
on that hatchway. And the changing room was where the remainder of the
reception was held.
After Niagara we crossed over into the States and began the second part of
our tour; New England and the North-East, ending up in New York, where we
were to play two concerts, one at the town hall and one at the Waldorf
For the US part of the tour tour Boyd had increased the size of the band
by including two oboes and two horns which enabled us to perform a wider
repertoire. Our last concert, the one at the Waldorf, was a social afternoon
affair. The audience was obviously old money, with lots of heavy jewellery to
be seen (and heard too). One of the pieces was Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor,
Horn and Strings” featuring an American tenor as guest soloist, and our own
first horn, John Burden. After the concert there was a reception to allow
members of the audience to mingle with the orchestra. One of those mingling
was a large, effusive lady who headed straight for John Burden. “Oh, Mr
Horn Player, I did so enjoy your beautiful playing. Why, I just let myself drift
off and let you emote all over me”.
The tour was now over. I had performed several functions apart from
playing, setting up the stage and supervising the music and so on – so the
orchestra decided to tip me, and very handsomely too. I can’t remember how
much except it enabled me to join with Wynne Godley, the second oboe, and
rent a nice double-room in a hotel on Broadway and take a short holiday in
Wynne was a fascinating character. A brilliant student, he got a double
first at Oxbridge. In fact it might have been a triple, because the prize he won
was a year’s study at whatever European university he wished. He chose the
Paris Conservatoire and studied the oboe, eventually earning his living with it
for several years. Later he became head of a government think-tank that
specialised in taxation. He married Jacob Epstein’s daughter, Kitty, and
modelled for the beautiful statue of the Angel Gabriel that hangs over the
entrance to Coventry Cathedral.
I didn’t see much of Wynne during our stay but one evening we got
together to go to Birdland and hear Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and other
great jazzmen. I have never been a jazz expert. It was just the thrill on that
one evening to be at Birdland knowing that Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald
might be standing next to you.
Another evening I visited the parents of Gaylord, my old boarding house
buddy, and stayed for a marvellous Italian dinner. Gay’s father was the chief
engineer for the New York Bus Company and I knew that Gay had trained as
an engineer before deciding to become an actor. I think his father didn’t
Another landmark event I attended that week in New York was a
rehearsal. With the help of Mike Walther, principal bass of the NBC
orchestra, someone I’d met at our Town Hall concert, I was able to see and
hear Arturo Toscanini rehearsing the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie
Although I didn’t like much of what he recorded and hated his
performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, I’d never seen inside Carnegie
Hall. Besides, Toscanini was the most famous conductor of his time.
He was also short sighted. But because he refused to wear glasses he saw
nothing clearly beyond six feet. All the double basses had left the rehearsal to
collect their mutes for the piece they were to play next, leaving their
instruments leaning on their high stools. Suddenly Toscanini called to them to
play something, flinging out an arm in their direction and calling, “Bassi, play
such and such”. But only received total silence.
“Bassi bassi, why do you not play?” called the Maestro again, getting
angry and about to fly into one of his celebrated tantrums.
The leader laid his hand on the maestro’s arm and explained, “There’s no
one there, Maestro”.
Soon afterwards, Toscanini retired and this great orchestra was broken up.
These were really special occasions, things I shall always remember from
that marvellous week in the Big Apple.