David Tall : Life
Some of my stories are funny, some are sad, but they are all true.
As a child attending Victoria School, I could never understand why the King never visited us. After all we used to sing ‘Send him Victorias’.
My mother felt she had not had the benefit of an education because she was a girl. She studied shorthand, typing and book-keeping, but lived her adult life doing everything for us children. She was convinced that, when I was very young, I would go to Oxford to study Medicine. Of course, she never had been to Oxford, but she always supported them in the Boat Race. She recalls me visiting our doctor, Dr Watson, and saying to him, ‘When I grow up, I don’t want to be a gentleman, I want to be a Doctor, like you.’
TALES OF WELLINGBOROUGH GRAMMAR SCHOOL
When I started at the Grammar School I had a short interview with the Headmaster, Mr Wrenn. “What do you want to do when you grow up, Tall?” “A doctor, sir!” Immediately came the reply: “Too many doctors, be a dentist.” In one sentence, he killed my life’s plan. There was still the ambition to go to Oxford, but what for? Only time would tell.
Life at Wellingborough Grammar School was wonderful if you were academically talented, which I was. Spike Jackson, the English Master had a cockney accent and a lisp. I well remember him saying, “Out, out, damned Sschpot!” as he read from Macbeth. He was always telling stories in class. I remember him during a general election telling us how he turned canvassers away by telling them he was a Liberal Buddhist, with his personal mispronunciation of the second word.
Danny Burrell, the French Teacher, was a great old guy. We used old-fashioned pens with ink from inkwells on our desk and Danny had his own slipper with the word SMINK written in mirror writing, so if anyone asked for some ink, he laughed and waved his slipper, asking So you want smink do you?, offering to slipper them to leave the imprint on their backside. It was a humorous threat that was never carried out. He had total control of the class using his sense of fun.
As a teenager, I was a Sunday School teacher and a member of the only school Toc H group in the country, for whom I used to dig old ladies’ gardens, collect jam-jars for charity, take books round the local hospitals, visit the Hinwick Crippled Boys’ Home and all manner of other ‘Good works.’ Then, one day, an older boy, Giles Regis said to me, “David, David, what am I going to do with you? You do all manner of good things, yet you talk so loudly and only ever talk about yourself.” I was mortified with guilt.
For several days, I went around speaking only in whispers. I remember Fred Nutt asking me what was the matter and I wouldn’t tell him. Then suddenly a great anger rose up in me and I thought, “Who the hell is he to tell me what to do?”
That moment I made myself a promise which I have kept for the whole of my life. I will never do anything negative, only positive. I will concentrate on building on good points, not supressing bad ones. I will find things to do where my qualities are valuable. If I talk loudly, I will find a job in which talking loudly is advantageous. So I became a university lecturer who needs to project his voice lecturing to large audiences.
I never had a piano lesson and taught myself to play the piano at around twelve years old by purchasing a Schirmer volume of Chopin Nocturnes and teaching myself to read music. As a violinist I had worked out the treble clef on the piano and got to know about the bass clef by reading the notes that my brother and sister had from their piano teachers. I couldn't understand why playing Chopin was so difficult. I played parts of several of the nocturnes extremely badly, and I couldn’t ever play 17 notes in the right hand against 9 in the left. I felt I should try popular music, so I began to play Gershwin songs which are also quite tricky. I never realised in those early years that there was music easy enough for a learner to play.
At fifteen years old, I fell under the spell of Frederick Delius, reading the biography by Arthur Hutchings and taking piano scores out of the library to struggle through. I even taught myself to pick through full orchestral scores at the keyboard. I was particularly entranced by the rich chromatic harmonies of Delius and the words of Friedrich Nietsche that Delius set in the opening of his Mass of Life: O, Du meine Wille! I believed at that time that I could accomplish anything by my own will-power. It made me determined never to give up at anything.
In the sixth-form, my Pure Mathematics Teacher, Mr Mardell gave us all a copy of Durell and Robson’s book on Calculus and told us to work through it in the next year. I absolutely adored it and did every question, so that when I had finished it, I could not be asked to go back and do any questions I might have missed. I even worked in the holidays, finishing the book at 3.00 on Christmas Day. It was one of the best moments of my life.
On the other hand, Mr (Herbie) Sulch, the Mechanics teacher had his life well organised with books of hand-written solutions and loads of extra questions if we finished our exercises too early. I not only learned to work slowly in Mechanics, I got absolutely bored and used to act around with the other boys. One trick was to sit there and hum softly, breathing at will. Herbie knew something was going wrong, but he could never identify where the noise was coming from, because it was coming from all of us.
Another teacher (whom I shall call ‘Mr X’ to protect the innocent) was particularly useless and we used to rag him unmercifully. One day one of the boys arrived intentionally late and told him that the Headmaster wished to see one of the other boys. The two of them went off and the ruse was repeated until the teacher was left with just one student. He seemed too bemused to check with the headmaster as to whether our story was true.
Later on, I went into his classroom during the break and rigged up two long pieces of string, one in a loop on the corner of his desk disguised by surrounding books, the other to the light switch. From my seat at the back of his class I waited until he came in and put his books on the desk, then, simultaneously, his books fell on the floor and the lights came on. I quickly wound up the string and he was none the wiser. The sequel, however, we could not have forseen. The lights in the whole school fused and I had been seen by the Headmaster who asked for me to go to his Office. I came clean as to what I had done. He made it clear that he did not approve of what I had done and warned me not to do it again, but, strangely, he gave me no punishment. Perhaps he recognised what we knew. The teacher moved away shortly after.
When I met Sue, she wrote the occasional letter to me. I had her letter in my top pocket during the school assembly. As we were taking it in turn to walk out in columns, I took my school calendar from my top pocket to see where to go for the first lesson. I pulled out the letter at the same time and my mate Dickenson, who was standing behind me, saw it, and grinned all over his face. Mr Temple, the French Master, who was particularly bitter because he was having difficulty with his wife, was in charge and called out, “Dickenson, ... Headmaster.”
Poor old Dickenson was given the punishment of running round the sportsfield every night for a week. This was a particularly onerous punishment in his case as he travelled to school by bus, and if he missed the school bus he would have to wait some time to catch the regular service.
I went straight to the headmaster and explained what had happened. “Right, Tall, you can run round the field instead.” At this, Dickenson protested, “But sir ...”, whereupon the Headmaster rejoined, “OK, you can both run round the field.”
We did. Strangely enough, we bore no one any grudge. As we ran around, we talked about what had happened and rationalised that Mr Temple had behaved reasonably, given that he had seen a boy behaving in a jocular manner in assembly, and the Headmaster had done his duty in upholding the authority of his teacher. So different from today when no-one seems to take responsibility for their own actions.
In the sixth form we had several free periods and we would often sit in a technicians room off the chemistry lab and play cards. It was useful because it had two doors, one into the chemistry lab, and one on the other side out into the corridor. One day we were having a hilarious time. The chemistry teacher was in a wheelchair and couldnt get to the room, so he shouted Come on out, I know youre in there! As we walked into the main chemistry laboratory, we left by the main door into the corridor and round again through the technicians room. I reckon we got round three times before we were rumbled.
Having a chemistry teacher who was chair-bound gave us certain freedoms. We used to have a permanent experiment on the back desk brewing coffee. The headmaster came in one day and asked what it was and we told him we were studying the chemistry of caffeine!
I became a chemistry teacher in the self-same laboratory during my last term at the school. I taught chemistry to 1c. These boys had some difficulties following instructions. I remember one with a particularly quavering voice who was always getting himself into a stew. They were taught to write out experiments in a sequence, with object, method and conclusion. His weedy voice piped up, “Purleeeeeze Suuur! I’ve put the Meeeethod before the Oooooobject Suur. What should I dooooo?” He had difficulty in spelling. Two of his classics were “coppa sluptate” and “caulium clodide”. You couldn’t do better if you tried.
As a school teacher for a term, I was told to “slap ’em down hard,” but soon found it was not in my nature, so I used reason and humour. In 3c, one of the lads was huge and he knew it. He sidled into the class, slammed his school bag on his desk and stood staring me out. “You must think you are very important,” I said to him. “Yup!” he replied. “I am impressed, ” I said, “so impressed that I would like your autograph.” Here I paused, then added quietly, “three hundred times.” The following day I got my three hundred autographs, written in many different hands, of course. I didn’t make any comment other than to thank him for his promptness. He knew that I knew what he had done. Honour was satisfied and we both got on well after that.
There were constant threats to my authority. Even the way a boy might say, “Morning sir,” contained an implied questioning of my status. My response was always a smile followed by, “Morning, madam!” It was not expected, and it threw the attack off balance. I found that humour diverted confrontations, but it made it more difficult to maintain authority.
I remember having problems with Swailes and Green. Swailes was someone who always looked as if he wanted trouble, Green on the other hand looked innocent and slightly dopey. When I had the customary challenge from them in class, I took them to task. Green hung his head and Swailes got belligerent. I took him aside and asked why he led Green astray. He got even angrier. I asked him what the trouble was, and he poured out his resentment that he was always getting blamed when it was Green who was really thinking up all the things to do and pulling him in on it. From then on, I came to sense the subtle dynamic between the two and got to understand the way they worked. Soon both of them couldn’t do enough to help me. I realised that if you truly trust someone and encourage them, then this will be to the benefit of all.
On the other hand, there were very successful boys who were an absolute pain. Griffiths in Class 3A, for example, spent his time in chemistry experiments carefully writing up the experiment in his own book whilst his companion did all the hard work. One day his companion broke a test-tube. It was traditional to charge a small amount for breakages and I suggested sixpence to be shared between them. Griffiths refused to pay because he had not broken the tube. I pointed out that, had he shared the effort, then the accident may not have happened. He stuck to his position. There was an impasse. Then the other pair of boys on the bench volunteered to share the cost between the three of them, without Griffiths, paying two pence each. I accepted their offer and turned to Griffiths. I told him that his kind of behaviour may come out on top in the short run, but there would be occasions when behaving in an unsocial way would lead to his loss.
Little did we realise that four years later I interviewed him for a place at Oxford. I reminded him of his earlier behaviour and remarked how things have a habit of working themselves out. Fortunately, he did not do well enough to get a place. Had he been a borderline case, I would not have held his previous performance against him. But it was still sweet to give him cause for reflection.
Class 4B was the most difficult class of all to handle. There was no 4A. Class 3A jumped a year and moved straight to the fifth form to take their Ordinary Level Examinations a year early. So class 4B felt they were marking time. It wasn’t long before I was challenged. In particular, one lad, who was almost uncontrollable let me know in no uncertain terms that he was not going to cooperate. I looked the whole class in the eye and told them what I did was up to them. I was only a teacher for a term, then I went off to university and if they didn’t want to work, then that was up to them. After all, I would get paid for my work just by putting the hours in and if they didn’t want to cooperate I could easily just do the minimum preparation, give them a lot of work that did not cause me any effort and walk away at the end of the term. Then I turned to one of the boys whose brother had left school the previous year. “What’s your brother doing in the evenings now,” I asked him.“He goes to college.” “Why?” I continued. “To resit the exams he failed at school.”
I seized the moment and told him that if he wanted to play around and fail his exams that was up to him. I couldn’t do anything about it. However, I would far prefer to have a rewarding time, and I could get that by preparing interesting material for the class in ways that would give them satisfaction. That way we could all profit from our time. We only had one life and I did not feel that one second of my life should be wasted without doing something of value. I talked them round.
The impossible boy became my minder. If anyone even motioned to give me a problem he was shut up by my minder. They became a joy to work with. I remember one day as I walked around, I saw a boy with water all over the back of his jacket, clearly squirted from the tap on the bench behind. I swung round and asked the boy behind why he had done it. “He didn’t do it sir, I did,” said a voice from the other end of the bench. I was amazed. When a teacher asked for the culprit to own up after a misdemeanor, it was usually met with silence. The other boys would not ‘tell’ on the miscreant. Yet here was someone owning up who hadn’t even been asked! I told the offender that, as he had done wrong, he would be punished, and was to stay behind to help clear up the laboratory. I also praised him for his honesty and said that his punishment might even be mildly pleasant. From then on he came in before every class lesson to help me set up the experiments.
As the term wore on, Form 4B and I got on like a house on fire. Literally. Part of the curriculum involved an experiment that produced a mild explosion. I quadrupled the ingredients and the blast made a black shadow on the ceiling. All the boys hooted in amazement. Then the door opened and in walked the Headmaster. He lectured the boys on good behaviour, told them I was doing my best, and emphasised that he would take action if it happened again. After he had gone, I told the boys that the headmaster was only supporting me as a member of staff and there was no way I could tell him actually what had happened. I had to accept that it seemed as if I needed help so that the Headmaster retained his position of authority. It was only after I left the school at the end of the year that I found that the only other teacher who could cope with 4B was the Physical Education Teacher who took them for games. The other teachers uniformly considered them impossible!
When I went to Oxford, I retained my sense of humour and was fined on three occasions by the College for various misdemeanors. The first occurred when the walls of the college were being resurfaced with stone and the quad was decked out with scaffolding. I always had little respect for arts students. Bill Potts, a classics scholar had a high opinion of his athletic prowess and challenged me to a race to the top of the scaffolding. I declared that I would get to the top well before him. He immediately began climbing, but I just stood and watched him. As he reached second floor level, I suddenly ran a few yards along the quad and ran up a ladder to the top. I beat him easily. It was a success of intellect over crude muscle. But as I savoured my victory, a voice boomed across the quad, “Mr Tall, Mr Potts, my room, 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.” The Dean, Duncan Stewart saw us in his rooms the following morning and we were each fined £2 for climbing the scaffolding. I protested that I was participating in an intellectual challenge which I solved by lateral thinking, but Mr Stewart (note the lack of a doctorate) was an Australian lawyer with no sympathy for the niceties of logical thinking and he refused to budge.
I was often led astray by one Adrian Benjamin (known universally as ‘Ben’), who went on to be a priest. Ben had an incredible sense of humour but he rarely thought of the consequences of his actions. For instance, once he was angry with me for some reason and put butter in my wallet. The wallet was unusable. I returned to my room one night, somewhat the worst for wear and fell into my bed only to find it occupied already by a huge wet sack of straw.
On one occasion I chatted up his girl friend and he took a framed picture from the wall and smashed it over my head. On another occasion, in a religious discussion, he differed on a point of ecclesiastic interpretation and vented his feelings by tipping a cup of coffee over a well-meaning God-squad member. I said to him that he should always think of the consequences, and as a logical mathematician I would always out-think him. I demonstrated this by taking a glass of water and tipping it on his head, showing that, whereas the coffee had stained, the water had not. He erupted in anger and started filling a kettle of water. I left the room. He came after me and came into my room. I was waiting behind the door and as he came through, I pushed the door shut and he fell on the floor with water all over him. He raced away for more liquid amunition. This time as he came through the door I was on a chair with a bucket of water and again he was soaked. He ran away again, clearly thinking of the worst he could do. I had a few seconds for reflection. I realised that gravity came into the motion of water and decided to make for the highest place in the building and ran up to his room on the top floor of the staircase. I went inside and locked the room.
I knew that he was up to something. I could hear him moving around outside and realised he had probably gone higher than me and had climbed through the trap-door into the roof. After a time of reflection I decided that we could not stay in this position for ever, so I took appropriate precautions, opened the door and walked out.
He did his worst. He had gone down where the builders were doing some renovation on the college and got a bucket full of the sludgiest water and cement and threw it all over me. He laughed and laughed at me. Then he realised that I was wearing his best suit ...
My second fine came in my second year. It was a fine of £5 for “having a man in my room overnight”. Lest you wonder about this dear reader, I should explain the long history of this event. My room in college which I occupied had two rooms, a sitting room and a bedroom. It could not be split into two bed-sits at the time because the bed-room had to be approached via the sitting-room. Nevertheless, there was a pull-down bed in the sitting room which could be used on occasion.
In my first year, my scout, Mrs Meason, (the lady who cleaned the rooms) was willing to make up the bed for (male) visitors and I used to tip her £2 for looking after the organisation. This was a nice little earner for her as many of my friends knew of the arrangement and we used it whenever it was suitable.
In my second year, Mrs Meason was replaced by a new scout whom we called “Flash”. He was a strange man tiny, well-manicured, very quiet and none of us trusted him. Thus all relationships with him broke down. Nevertheless, when the boyfriend of a pal Jenny (who played 2nd violin in a string quartet with me) wanted a room for the night, we set up the bed for him.
Flash looked in the following morning and immediately reported the visitor to the Steward. I was fined £5 for “defrauding the college of justifiable revenue” because the college guest room was empty. I was flabbergasted. In those days £5 was enormous. I told Flash that I had no objection to him waking me in the morning, but he was not to come into my room just to snoop. A couple of days later I felt a hand on my bed and awoke to found him looking underneath. I was furious.
Things went from bad to worse. My friend Ben was on the top floor of the staircase and he had a narrow balcony outside his bedroom window where there was a small gap between the window and the stonework of the wall. He often had girls stay overnight, sometimes more than one. Flash came snooping round him in the morning and found a handbag on the floor but no sign of the owner who was safely hidden outside the window. From now on Flash was on the rampage.
It was near the end of term and several colleges were having their annual ball. My mate Dave Parkinson had his girlfriend up for a ball at another college and they planned to see the dawn break on the river before breakfast. But it poured with rain. So Dave, ever the gentleman, brought his girlfriend in, let her sleep up in his bedroom and slept on a lower floor where he shared a sitting room with another Dave, Dave Palmer. He awoke early and went up to warn his girl-friend that Flash was likely to show up but he was too late. After the episode with Adrian and the handbag, Flash was out to do his duty. He arrived and found Dave sitting on his bed with his nightgown on, with the girlfriend just waking up. Flash did his darndest. Dave was fined £10 by the Dean. He was lucky. A girl in one of the ladies’ colleges had been sent down for having her boyfriend stay overnight.
We decided to take action. I told Flash to stay out of my room and I would clean and make my own bed. Adrian went further. He borrowed a complete skeleton from the Biology Lab and put it in his wardrobe with a piece of lady's skirt sticking through the crack in the closed door. Flash crept in early next morning, spotted the dress and threw open the door only to shriek when the skeleton fell on him.
Meanwhile, in my room I had carefully placed a trap over my door. This consisted of a plastic milk carton full of clean water (remembering what I had told Ben about not causing permanent damage). It was attached to the door by strong string and to the wall above by tissue paper, so that, when the door was opened, the tissue would silently tear and the water would fall on the intruder. Flash was too clever. He clearly opened the door and saw the carton because the tissue was slightly torn in the morning.
The following evening, I waited until Dave Palmer was in bed in his room off the sitting room he shared with Dave Parkinson and placed the same trap over the inside of his door. I the morning I went to breakfast and waited. Just before breakfast ended a damp Dave Palmer bustled into the hall cursing the idiot who had left a trap over his door. Clearly Flash had seen it and not tripped it, but Dave was in a hurry and he dashed out without seeing the carton that was up above the door where he should have seen it.
Flash did not appear to serve at breakfast. We went back to our rooms and found an expensive painting of an old oil stove by Piper covered in black varnish on the wall of the two Dave’s sitting room. I recognised the varnish. I had bought it to varnish picture frames the previous term and it had gone missing. We went and told the full story to the Steward who was responsible for the staff. Lucky that we did. Flash had admitted himself to hospital, claiming that we had beaten him up. I saw him a little later in the town, getting onto a bus. He pulled the collar up over his face to shield himself in a sad, pathetic manner. When we came back the following term, he was no longer there. We never found out the full story.
The third time I was fined was another piece of reckless stupidity with Adrian Benjamin. It should be understood that Ben was constantly playing japes. One of his more significant ones was to remove the portrait of our Warden, Sir Maurice Bowra from the wall in the Dining Hall and put it on the altar at St Aldates Church. I was peripherally involved, but only because I had a pass key to the side gate of the college. He came to my bedroom at two in the morning, dressed in a large cloak and ‘borrowed’ the key.
With his long mane of hair and woolly beard, Ben looked like a creature from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Apparently, as he walked through the centre of the town, he was accosted by a posse of policemen returning to the police station. They stopped him and asked what he had under his cloak. He claimed that he told them it was the portrait of the Duke of Wellington that had been stolen the previous week from the National Gallery in London. They laughed at him and apparently let him go without searching him.
The following day, in my capacity as President of the College Music Society, I was attending a reception party for the Society with sherry, salmon and caviar, in the rooms of the then Dean, Tom Stinton. The phone range. Tom was obviously put out. He came over to me and asked me to take over as host as he had an urgent matter to attend to. When he returned, he told me about the finding of the Warden’s portrait in St Aldates. I listened, shocked and horrified that anyone could commit such a heinous crime.
Not long after, Ben started another of his water battles. This time he was sensible enough to climb to a high room up one of the staircases. Here he battened himself into the room of Dai Mendus, a young oboe-playing mathematician from South Wales. When he finally left, Dai found that Ben had tied the sheets of his bed together and hung them out of the window. This provided a possible route of escape, but it was highly unsafe and did not reach the ground outside, so Ben had left it. However, a passerby was able to leap up and grab it to pull down some of the sheets. Dai went wild. Ben took my pass key and let Dai out of the side gate to retrieve his sheets, but Dai could not find them. He returned to find that Ben had locked the gate and he was stuck outside. He started shaking the gate, saying in agitated Welsh tones, Open up you buggers. As he got more annoyed, he did not see the police officer walking up behind him who asked him politely what he was doing. Dai looked him straight in the eye and said is a sing-song Welsh accent, Well, actually, officer, I am looking for my be-dding.
Another night Ben was sitting in the room he moved into for his second year, on the first floor, overlooking the street. His New Zealand mate Ramsey had a hugely powerful hi-fi system. Ben opened the windows wide and played Ride of the Valkyries at full pelt at 2.00 in the morning. It seemed to resound around the whole of the centre of Oxford.
Not long after, a policeman was patrolling outside at night. Ben started dropping coins down to him and encouraged other students to do the same. The following morning the officer went to the College Porters Lodge and handed over the money, commenting, “I think some of your gentlemen have mislaid one and eightpence ha’penny.”
Ben’s greatest jape, in which, regrettably, I was also involved, occurred after a Junior Common Room Dinner. These events were rather self-congratulatory affairs. The President of the Junior Common Room (elected by the students of the college) had the privilege of hosting a dinner in hall to which he invited the college ‘stars’. I was there as President of the College Music Society and Ben as Director of the College Dramatic Society.
The problem with this arrangement was that the total cost was added up and divided equally amongst those present. This meant that everyone tried to drink more than average so that they got their money’s worth. In practice half of those drank too much and were ill, the other half didn’t drink so much but paid for the privilege of watching the others overindulge themselves at their expense. Ben was separate from this (although he paid his unfair share) because he was tee-total. But he is one of the few people I have ever seen get high on a bottle of milk.
After the dinner, to use up some excess energy, he moved a great number of library books into the squash court. Then he suggested we take the oil paintings of our founders Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham and move them around. The picture of Dorothy in the Hall was swapped with Nicholas in the Library, giving two Nics in the Hall and two Dots in the Library, or, as Ben gleefully announced, “homos in the hall, lesbians in the library.”
The following morning at breakfast in hall the swap was self-evident, if only for the fact that the pictures were very different sizes and the small library copy of Dorothy sat in the middle of a clean area of the wall previously filled by the larger picture of Nicholas.
The Dean, Mr Stinton issued an ultimatum to the President of the Union. He said that he was sure the culprits must have been present at the JCR Dinner and they had until four oclock in the afternoon to own up, or the whole college student body would be fined £2 apiece.
Duly contrite, in our long scholars’ gowns, Ben and I admitted our guilt and stood awaiting our punishment. We received a lecture on the evident danger of handling delicate old college artefacts whilst in a state of inebriation and were then told of the infamous time when even the Warden’s picture had been taken out of the college. For this reason, he would fine us £5 each. We stood there without batting an eyelid.
Not long after, I took my finals examinations. The college dinner for the examinees followed and we mathematicians celebrated the end of our undergraduate course. In those days there was a beautiful copper beech tree, very tall and wide, in the garden. I climbed more than half way up it with a lighted candle in my hand. Sadly the tree became unsafe and is no longer there, though one of its offspring is round the back of the chapel.
[BACK TO OXFORD AS A GRADUATE]
As I grew older (and wiser) I learned the benefit of knowing what I was good at and never straying beyond my competence to make a fool of myself. I realised both sides of this commonsense approach to my benefit, and cost, on a trip to Australia in 1982 to celebrate the Percy Grainger Centenary.
First I went to Melbourne to visit the Percy Grainger Museum. Here, I had a cassette recording of Grainger’s Train Music which had been performed for the first time in London the previous week conducted by Simon Rattle. As I entered the Grainger Museum, I held my cassette recorder on high and played the cassette at full volume for the benefit of Grainger’s ghost, which I was sure inhabited these portals.
“Turn that bloody row off,” came a voice from the inner chambers. It was Kay Dreyfus, the curator of the Museum who later produced a magnificent book of Grainger letters and a scholarly listing of his music. She clearly had no appreciation of Grainger’s experimental composition. Nevertheless she welcomed me and helped me to research some of the more obscure manuscripts in the collection. She even allowed me to play on Grainger’s own piano. It was kept in beautiful condition.
On one occasion I took out one of the uncatalogued manuscripts and saw that it was a version of one of Grainger’s Danish folk-music settings for cello and piano. I said to her with amazement, “Don’t you know what this is?” I leapt to the piano and played the piano part while singing the cello melody. She didn’t recognise it.
It was only then I realised that her expertise lay in archival matters: preserving and cataloguing manuscript and that she wasn’t able to read music. Nevertheless, she was able to produce wonderful publications including the most marvellous book of letters: The Farthest North of Humanness that remains the most insightful testament to Grainger’s complex personality that has ever been produced.
In my own case, I knew that I had certain talents, but also grave weaknesses. I could sing a little but had no technique, play simple pieces on the piano but failed with anything that required me to play scales, and had some special recordings of my amateur choir singing certain pieces of Grainger.
I went to the University of Western Australia in Perth to take part in the Percy Grainger Centenary Festival organized by the resourceful Professor Sir Frank Callaway. Knowing that I had expertise in Mathematics and in Education and was the Chairman of the Percy Grainger Society, he invited me to take part in the Festival and secured funding not only from the festival, but from other departments in the university that could make use of my other talents.
The only problem was ... What could I do? This was no problem for Frank. Not only did I give lectures in Mathematics and Mathematics Education, he set me to work on the Festival. The opening event was to consist of a celebratory lecture, which I was to give, followed by a recital by the Scottish pianist, Ronald Stevenson. Later I was to give a lecture on Grainger and Folksong. I had several days with Ronald before the event and we often walked through King’s Park talking about music. I told him I intended to sing the folk-song Rufford Park Poachers, which had easy speech rhythms but was transcribed by Grainger with varied bar-lengths that made it natural to sing but difficult to read. I intended to introduce the talk and then sing the folk-song. “No!,” said Ronald, “Don’t do that. ... Sing it without saying anything first.” So that is what I did.
At the opening of the Grainger Festival in front of a theatre packed full, I stood on the rostrum, looked the audience in the eye, and waited until there was absolute silence. Then I sang: .
The result was amazing. The audience were so gob-smacked, I had them in the palm of my hand. I told them how that was a folk-song from Lincolnshire as taken down by Grainger, which I was singing in a local accent not dissimilar to the original. I told them how an Australian had recorded the heritage of British folk-song on Edison cylinders to record them scientifically, not like the English Folk-song collectors such as Cecil Sharp who had turned them into regular-rhythms that took away their originality and freshness. I sang a few bars in regular rhythm:
. This established the difference between Grainger’s insight and the misguided efforts of the English in attempting to record their own heritage.