It was one of my classsmates who got the whacking from Knocker I mentioned earlier. Apparently someone had been stealing money from his office, although I’ve never been able to fathom out why he was leaving it lying around in there in the first place. He’d marked some of the money and the boy had been caught with it in his pocket.
We gathered vicariously in the Great Hall to watch him get it. Knocker fetched him up on the stage beside him, and gave us a lecture on the evils of stealing and so on, and that he was going to teach the culprit, and thereby everyone else, a lesson. The effect was somewhat dampened by the fact that the boy was at least a foot taller than him, and hulking, while Knocker was tiny and skinny, which kept the boy, and the rest of us, grinning and smirking all the time he was talking.
Finally he was solemnly told to bend over—the moment we’d all been waiting for. This he did, turning his head to slip us a wink while he did so. Then he caught sight of our gym teacher advancing on him, cane in hand. This guy was just about to be called up into the army as a PT instructor, and was built rather on the lines of Mr. Universe.
‘Hey!’ piped the boy in a sudden falsetto, ‘That’s not fair!’
‘Neither is stealing,’ said Knocker. ‘Get over.’
He got six of the best, which raised a considerable amount of dust out of his trousers, but not a peep out of the boy.
Supposed to be in disgrace, he now became the school hero. Everyone wanted to see the marks on his bum. Soon he was, like Doreen, charging a penny a look. The six he got were apparently nothing compared to the thrashings he got regularly from his dad, who was a crane-driver in the foundry at Alfred Herbert’s.
The woodwork teacher was a man named Mr. Gough, pronounced same as cough. He was thickset, with a bright red face that made him look as if he were about to explode at any moment. Mr Gough always wore his shirt tightly buttoned up around his neck. This gave rise to the story that he tried to cut his throat because his wife left him, and the shirt was covering the scar.
He was a very testy individual. If he didn’t like whatever you were doing he would pick up the piece of wood, or drawer, or whatever you were working on, and scale it down the length of the woodwork shop. If you were having a quiet daydream he would creep up behind you and suddenly smash a heavy piece of wood on the bench behind you, making you jump a couple of feet in the air. We were all pretty nervous of Mr. Gough, especially when he stalked around with a chisel in his hand.
One day he asked us if anyone would like to come in on Saturday mornings for a bit of extra tuition. To my surprise, nearly everyone said yes, myself included.
He must have been very pleased at that, because when we turned up the next Saturday he was a changed person. Out of school hours we were his friends, and he gave us such loving attention that the whole process of woodwork became a pleasure, instead of the drag it had been. Everyone benefited from these extra lessons.
One other thing—freed from his obligation of looking like a teacher on these occasions, Mr Gough turned up in a sport coat with an open-necked shirt. During the course of the morning we all took a surreptitious peek. There was no scar. After the lesson his wife, who, of course, had never left him at all, picked him up in their car.
A few days before I was due to leave school and start work in a nearby factory, Derby came over and asked me if I wanted to buy a trumpet from him for a fiver.
My mother had bought me a flute shortly before this, and I’d had very little trouble mastering it. It was a little wooden one with a very simple system, and Mum and I used to play duets, with me reading the treble and the bass clefs from her piano music, wherever the melody was to be found. I learned to read the notes in a couple of hours. It isn’t difficult, anyway, reading music. There are only twelve different notes, and four or five different values of notes. I’ve never been able to understand how it is that some really big famous musicians could never read music. That people like Louis Armstrong, Buddy Rich and Irving Berlin couldn’t read music has never ceased to amaze me.
I don’t know what made my Mum buy that flute. I had never shown any musical talent, not to her at least, and she knew nothing of my short affair with the harmonium. But one of my hobbies had been to go every week to the Coventry Hippodrome, just to watch the orchestra. I was completely overawed by one of the trumpet players, who sat on the outside, nearest the orchestra stalls. It was the way he held the trumpet, tilted up high, playing with a flourish, that fascinated me. I was convinced that he must be one of the best trumpet players in the world.
As it was just after Christmas, and as I had already earned the five pounds by working at the post office, I quickly paid over the fiver and took the trumpet home.
That fiver was, incidentally, a hell of a lot of money in those days. It was more than my Dad had ever earned for a week’s work before he went in the army. I had answered a call for volunteer postmen over Christmas and got the job.
When I actually got into the main post office I took on two jobs, those of mail sorting and delivery, so they paid me double money.
I loved the work. There was something romantic about sorting the letters, with their exciting, often exotic stamps, sent from addresses all over the world. I used to get up at five in the morning and trudge all the way into the centre of town to the sorting office, through the snow. In those days we always had a fall of snow just before Christmas.
There were three mail deliveries in England then—early morning, midday and evening. After sorting the mail I had to go out on the rounds with a postman. There were three bulging sacks for us on the first day, and I stood beside them wondering where the hell my postman had got to.
There had been a tiny, hunchbacked, woman standing close by as I finished loading the sacks, but I hadn’t paid much attention to her. She was standing there drinking from a mug of tea and smoking a cigarette. All at once she tossed the cigarette on to the floor, ground it out with the toe of her shoe, grabbed one of the sacks, swung it over her shoulder and said, ‘Are you the helper? I’m Annie, let’s go.’
She was at least sixty, with a face like a walnut, all shrivelled up and weather-beaten from years of pounding the streets. Hunchbacked she was not, just permanently bent from carrying the heavy sacks.
When she swung the mailbag up on to her back it bowed her over so completely that her nose almost touched the ground. All I could see of her from behind was a mailbag supported by a little pair of bandy legs. She scuttled along at a terrific pace. I had to run to keep up with her.
Everyone seemed to know Annie. Bus conductors, shopkeepers, wherever we went it was ‘Hello Annie’ and ‘Merry Christmas, Annie.’
Mixed in with the Christmas mail we had hundreds of Income Tax Demand letters. Annie used to forget that particular sack on purpose and leave it dumped in a corner until the festive season was past.
At this stage of the war most of the centre of Coventry had been flattened in the air raids, but, although over 70,000 houses had been destroyed, the outlying districts didn’t seem to have been so badly hit.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, trudging through the thick snow. As a postman I felt that I was really bringing joy to the people, especially at Christmas. We talked a lot on those rounds, Annie and I, and after only a couple of days I became absolutely devoted to her. The way she spoke, and her opinions on worldly affairs, were similar to my mother’s. They had a lot in common.
On Christmas Morning there was only one early eight-o’clock delivery. There was very little mail that day for us, only one sack.
This time, instead of just shoving the letters through the letterbox, Annie knocked on the doors. To my utter amazement, even at that early hour, doors would be wrenched open, we would be met with hearty greetings, and ushered into warm kitchens with roaring fires burning in the grates. There would be tea and hot mince pies waiting for us, and a glass of punch, or a nip of brandy for Annie.
With all of this conviviality, and the warmth, and the Christmas decorations, it was like stepping straight into a scene from Pickwick Papers.
After we’d visited a few houses under these terms Annie started to sing under her breath. I could make out neither melody nor words properly, but it seemed to be about the love of a yokel and his wench, and there was an endless supply of verses to the song, with plenty of Hey’s and Ho’s and Hey-Nonny-Nonny-No’s. Annie was beginning to stagger a bit, too. By the time we’d been going for half-an-hour or so she was beginning to stagger a lot.
Suddenly, to my surprise, just as I was about to knock on one of the doors, I noticed that the package I was about to deliver was addressed to the trumpet player from the Hippodrome.
As I knocked on the door I heard a grunt and a thud behind me. Just then the door opened and the tousled head of the musician appeared. It was obvious that I had got him out of bed, and he was less than pleased about it.
‘What is it then?’ he said crossly. Then he peered past me. ‘Who are you? You’re not the postwoman.’
I looked around. ‘She’s there,’ I said, but she wasn’t. All we could see was the mailbag lying on top of a snowdrift.
‘Good God,’ I said, rushing back, followed closely by the trumpet player, his dressing-gown flapping around him. We pulled off the mailbag. There was Annie, lying on her back in the snowdrift, a look of supreme contentment on her weather-beaten face, stoned right out of her skull. As we lifted the sack one of her eyes opened and rolled around alarmingly. She tried to speak but no words came.
We carried her into the house to thaw out and I finished the rounds on my own.
A couple of days after selling me the trumpet Derby came up to me and asked for it back. He had a black eye, and looked as if he had pains in several other places as well.
I told him to get stuffed, the trumpet now belonged to me. He said that his father had given it to him for Christmas, and had thumped him when he found out that he had sold it. By now we had gathered quite an interested crowd around us.
He pleaded and threatened me alternately, saying that his father was going to beat him up some more if he didn’t get it back, but he couldn’t bully me because I was bigger than him. I saw Goldstraw looking appreciatively at the black eye.
After it was all over Goldstraw shook hands with me vigorously and told me that it had been a pleasure to have known me, and that he was only sorry that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to punch the bugger up as well. I told him not to worry, because someone else, some day, would do the job for him.
So, now I had a trumpet! My career stretched before me.
Buying the trumpet was one thing, learning it was another.
There were no books to be bought, no teachers around to show me the ropes. When I got home I took it out of its case and stared at it. The case smelled of mildew and paraffin oil. The trumpet was filthy.
I gave it a bath in the kitchen sink. My mum gave me some silver polish. When I’d finished rubbing away my hands were black as soot, but the trumpet now gleamed like new.
‘Aren’t you going to try it?’ said my mum.
‘I’m afraid to.’
She started to lay the tea-table. ‘I’m sure you’ll manage,’ she said. And so I did. It was only a question of finding out the fingering the hard way.
In the following weeks I bought as many big band jazz records as my meagre pocket money would allow. I had to practice in the lounge, because that’s where we had the radiogram. I would put on a Woody Herman record and try and play the first trumpet part along with the record. After a while I could play the lead parts on all the records I possessed. I wrote them down by trial and error and just blasted away merrily with the records.
The discs of that period were the thick, easily breakable ten inch wax variety, which ran at a speed of 78 RPM. You could screw in a loud or soft needle, which lasted for one playing only, and regulate the volume by stuffing a duster into the sound box. By the time I’d managed to write down and learn one title the record was usually ready for the scrap heap.
The noise must have been unbelievable, but here is something which I have never been able to understand to this day. We lived in a street of terraced houses. Normally, without listening too hard, you could hear the radio in the house two doors away. Nobody, but absolutely nobody ever complained about the noise while I was learning to play that trumpet. The neighbours never even mentioned it, as if the subject were somehow taboo.
There was one exception to that. While I was blasting away the boy next door applied for, and obtained, a job as pageboy in the Royal Household. The day before he left he was overheard muttering to one of his friends, ‘Thank God I won’t have to listen to that bloody row next door any more.’ Since then he has risen through the ranks and is now a page to the Queen Mother. We saw him on television recently. Billy Tallon, walking her dogs. I like to think that it was I who drove him to enter such noble employment.
I was in the record shop one day, having a look around when the owner’s daughter, a rather pleasant, plump girl who fancied me a bit, slipped me a book wrapped in brown paper when her old man wasn’t watching.
‘It’s a present,’ she whispered, blushing wildly. Girls used to do that in those days.
When I got home I unwrapped it, and it was a trumpet tutor by Nat Gonella. I’d heard Nat’s jazz group on the radio of course, and wasn’t too keen on that type of music, but there was no doubt that he knew how to play the trumpet. At the time he was considered to be Britain’s answer to Louis Armstrong.
There was a rumour that Nat had been sentenced to death by Hitler for playing what Adolph regarded as decadent music. I have an actor friend called Manfred Krug who used to work in cabaret in East Berlin. In his act he indulged in some mild political satire, clowned around a little, and sang Georgia on my Mind as a finale. The Communists loved that because they thought Manfred was singing the praises of one of the Soviet republics. On the other hand, Hitler, in those days, was at war with the Russians, and every time he heard the announcement: Nat Gonella and his Georgians on the radio he used to get terribly uptight.
I opened the book eagerly, to be confronted with a photo of Nat. Now I’d never seen the man before, so my first reaction was what the hell is he doing? For there he stood, facing the camera fair and square, with his mouthpiece planted right over on one corner of his mouth and the trumpet pointing somewhere way across to the wings at stage right. Well I’d never seen anyone play trumpet like that before. It was obvious that Hitler, who liked everything four-square, shipshape and Bristol fashion, was going to bite carpet if he saw that, and, when he was shown a photo of Nat by Karl-Heinz Schlock, who was his Dr. Jazz at the time he shouted, ‘Der Mann spielt schräg! Schreib’ ihn auf der Liste. Er muß hängen!’ (The man plays sideways! Put him down on the list. He must hang!) This is probably the only time in the history of mankind that anyone has been given the death sentence for playing the trumpet.
In the preface to his book Nat had written: Don’t try to play the trumpet like me. Aha! Okay to buy the book, spend the money, but just don’t try and get to be too damn much of a trumpet player, and start getting all the work.
Right! This caused me to switch my embouchure at once to the Gonella position, which put the mouthpiece somewhere over near my right ear. Now I couldn’t get a sound out. My mother, used to hearing my feeble efforts, thought that I was having a choking fit, and hurried in, concerned of face, and ready to back-thump. She looked at me doubtfully.
‘Oh dear, I don’t think you have to play it sideways like that. It isn’t a flute, you know.’
‘Look Mum—Nat Gonella plays like that. Louis Armstrong plays like that. Just listen to them. It’s their secret. ’
‘Oh well, if you think so. I’ll just put the kettle on, then.’
I read the book again, and Nat said it had something to do with his teeth, but I didn’t believe that. Anyway my teeth were straight so I threw the book away and started to play normally again..
When I was sixteen Nat came to my local theatre with his band. I went along to see him with one of my schoolmates who played in the Air Training Corps band. I’d tried to join that band to get some experience, but as soon as someone heard me playing high notes a soprano cornet was shoved into my hand, so I walked right through the place and out the back door again.
We sat for a while and marvelled at Nat’s playing. It was only a couple of days after I’d heard the rumour about the death sentence, and I was amazed that he would dare appear in public like that. I whispered the news to my friend right in the middle of a spirited rendering of Limehouse Blues. He jerked up straight at that.
‘No I’m not.’
‘Oh, wow!’ He started peering around.
‘Does he know about this?’
‘Of course he does.’
‘Do you realise what this means? Someone might try to do him in here.’
‘What, in the Coventry Hippodrome? Are you nuts, or something?’
‘They shot Lincoln in a theatre.’
‘Oh, yeah! Right!’
We looked around the balcony. It was difficult to see much in the dim light, but everyone sitting around us looked thoroughly evil. Meanwhile Nat had launched into one of his growling Armstrong-type vocals. Over in the next block of seats I saw a man slowly raise a large black hand gun and point it at the stage.
‘Look out, Nat!’ I shouted.
He looked up at the balcony with a smile. ‘Buzz, Buzz, Buzz, Ohhhh—Yeaaaaaaahhh,’ he groaned huskily. By now the man had reversed the gun and lit it with a match, sending up thick black clouds of smoke.
I had gone straight from school to work in a local factory called Carbodies. Here I was apprenticed as a Machine Tool Maker, which meant, in other words, Odd Job Man. The pay was negligible—eighteen shillings and sixpence a week, from which four shillings tax was deducted.
The idea behind the apprenticeship was that I would contract to work for the factory, doing a man’s job for a starvation wage, in return for which they would give me my indentures at age twenty-one, plus the key to the city, and then throw me out. The steady stream of school-leavers ensured low overheads for factories adopting this scheme, which was Government approved.
The atmosphere in the workshop was friendly, so much so that, when my work mates heard that I could play the trumpet, I was asked to bring it along, to serenade them in the interval.
This I did, but, instead of playing tunes that they knew, and could perhaps enjoy listening to, I played my bits of big band arrangements. Without the band roaring along in the background on playback, these fits and bursts of first trumpet parts, which mostly consisted of staccato figures, must have sounded utterly ridiculous.
Still no one complained. There they all sat, munching their sandwiches, and listening with appreciation. This, like the silence of the neighbours, is something which I to this day have not been able to understand. For me it was the ultimate in encouragement.
The job I was on mostly was trying to shape a certain piece of iron with a hand grindstone to fit a wooden pattern. The object was about eighteen inches in length, with many mysterious contours. The finished product was then supposed to be case-hardened for use in an automatic press, where it would, presumably, punch out some weird sheet metal shape which was essential to the war effort.
As I never quite got the hang of this I spent most of my time in the factory working on this one object, thus, as I found out later, interminably holding back Montgomery from his planned attack on El Alamein.
Thirty-five years later, as I was negotiating to have my house built in Spain, the contractor drove up in a battered old army jeep.
‘Look at this,’ he said proudly, throwing up the hood. ‘It’s got a Rolls-Royce engine.’
But I had no eyes for the gleaming motor, for there, bolted on one side of the engine block, was my creation, or one of them, at any rate. Exhaust manifold. Now I remembered!
‘What kind of car is this, anyway?’
‘It’s a generals’ jeep. They only made a few of them during the war.’
The man in charge of tools in our workshop was an Italian named Guiseppe de Basso. How he managed to be in such a commanding position on what was, for him, enemy territory, I never found out. Guiseppe ruled the tool-room with a rod of iron. Trying to get a new diamond bit out of him to clean up the grindstone was like trying to prise a stone out of the Crown Jewels.
‘Wassa madder? Dissa one notta worn out yet!’ he would shout, brandishing your old one. ‘You try roon us! You wanna war go on forever?’
After nearly a year in this place I realised that, at the rate I was going, I was going to learn absolutely nothing about engineering, and so I moved jobs to another factory.
This was the famous Alfred Herbert Ltd., maker of machine tools, lathes, grinders etc. I felt sure that here I could make more progress.
My new workplace was in a machine hall roughly the size of an aircraft hangar. High above, the glass roof had been painted over in black. It was clear that a bomb coming through the roof would have caused mayhem, even if it failed to explode.
The grinding machines were powered by a system of overhead belts. Periodically one of these belts would come off the pulleys and sweep down to cut off your head. I spent half my time at Herbert’s wincing in anticipation of imminent decapitation, and the other half trying to stop my work mates from stealing my personal possessions.
I can honestly say that I have never met such a collection of cretins as the people in that workshop. They were the exact opposite of my previous work mates. To make matters worse—I was expected to work nights. This involved clocking on at seven in the evening and off again at seven in the morning. Because of the war it seemed as if all child labour restrictions had been lifted.
I set to work with a will, and was visited at once by the Rate Fixer. This was a union representative who came around to make sure that no one worked too hard and turned out the jobs too quickly. If the going rate for a certain piece of work was ten finished products a day, and you started to turn out eleven, this man would appear, together with several of his mates, and tell you in no uncertain terms to slow down, or else risk being battered senseless.
In this way the great British working public made sure that the war would be finished in strict accordance with union rules.
This restriction made it possible for me to finish everything that I had to do on my machine by midnight and then go and sleep under a filthy workbench somewhere until it was time to go home.
As I was using a grinding machine I received one free bottle of milk each day. It didn’t take much intelligence to reason that if the company was going to fork out money for free milk for all of us every day, then the job must have been dangerous, health-wise, which it most certainly was.
The safety precautions in war-time factories were non-existent. Although I was working on a machine that hurled sparks and pieces of red-hot metal in all directions I was issued with no goggles.
Cranes moved ceaselessly above my head carrying heavy metal loads, but no one wore, or even possessed, protective headgear or boots.
Guards on machines had either been broken off or removed for easier working. Fingers were chopped off in the giant guillotines, or crushed and mangled in the presses. I lived in constant fear of my grindstone, which could, and sometimes did, disintegrate at high speed while it was being trimmed by the diamond-tipped bit.
An extremely pretty girl working in the drawing office wore a turban at all times. She had previously been a lathe operator, and had all her hair ripped out when it caught in the spindle.
Working with idiots, there was also the very great danger of injury through a practical joke. One man in the factory had already had his entire guts blown out through his mouth when one of his mates rammed a compressed air nozzle up his backside for a laugh.
If you had friends like that you needed no enemies. If you had real enemies in there then you were a dead man.
Such was life in the factories. There seemed to be no question of a war effort. It was work to rule, more or less, or get beaten up by the trade unionists.
Once again I was learning nothing, the job was easy, repetitive—like working on a conveyor belt.
One day, my mother showed me something she had cut out of the local paper. Somebody was looking for a trumpet player at the workers’ hostel just down the road.
When I got there I wound up in a tiny pre-fabricated bedroom jammed together with the bandleader. He told me that he already had a trumpet player, but that he wasn’t good enough and he was looking for a better player. He spread out some printed trumpet parts on the bed and asked me to play through them.
Of course, I’d never seen anything like a properly written trumpet part before, and, although I could play all the phrasing, I’d never actually seen the way it was written down. Shaking with nerves, plus a considerable amount of claustrophobia, I was an absolute failure, but the guy must have spotted some potential in me, because he asked me to come to the dance on Saturday night and listen to the band.
When I got there, lo and behold, the trumpet player was the boy who, with a little help from his friends, had shoved the cream cake in my face, back at good old Captain Guthrie’s party.
I began turning up every Saturday night and stood in the wings like a vulture, shuffling forward, ruffling my feathers, and cackling when he made a mistake, which was frequently. All the time I was learning how to read the phrasing by rushing over in the interval and studying the parts on his music stand. Every time the boy looked over he could see me standing there, flexing my claws and waiting. Slowly but surely I was getting on his nerves.
One night I arrived there and the other boy just didn’t turn up. I had completely psyched him out. I was asked to play, and did so. I was awful, but I was learning, and I got better and better. After a few weeks they told me that I could have the job.
For this one four-hour dance, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing, I got paid one pound, tax free. In the factory, working a sixty hour week, and coming home exhausted and filthy, I was getting fifteen shillings net. Soon I was playing regular dances with other local bands.
I started coming in late to the factory. Finishing a dance at midnight, I would turn up at the factory gates at one in the morning, still dressed in my dad’s tuxedo, six hours late. When I arrived, everyone there began hammering on the benches. It was impossible to keep it a secret.
Finally I managed to get released from my apprenticeship. The factory manager’s solemn last words to me were, ‘You have given up an honest job, and chosen the life of a musician. This is a choice which you will regret to your dying day.’
After that there was no holding me. I improved daily. People heard of me and booked me in their bands. In those days there were dance halls all over the place. I began earning money hand over fist.
I wound up finally in the biggest band, in Neale’s Ballroom, the best ballroom in town.
The bandleader’s name was Jack Owens. He was a small, non-musical, self-opinionated twit, but to me it was the best band in the world, and, for the first time, I was playing in a section of three trumpets and one trombone. Luxury indeed.
All the great big bands of the day came to Neale’s Ballroom. They came Saturday nights—Ted Heath, Geraldo, The Skyrockets, Squadronaires. Each of those bands had a fabulous, famous, God-like first trumpet player. They streamlined their way through the intricate, complicated, dangerous trumpet parts with a silky, almost careless arrogance. I was so overawed that I never once managed to pluck up the courage to speak to any of them.
We had a couple of guys from London in our band and the Geraldo orchestra stayed overnight in their hotel. When I went down there the next day with my mate, the pianist, Geraldo’s musicians were all crammed into the breakfast room. Someone had a gramophone down there and they were playing some loud Les Brown records.
Over in one corner, the second alto player, Wally Stott, was writing an arrangement. I couldn’t imagine how he could do that, with all the noise that was going on. I sat around listening to the music, and the conversation. Still I was too shy to speak to any of them. After a while Eddie Calvert and Freddy Clayton took pity on me and came over for a chat. Years later Freddy became one of my greatest friends.
Meanwhile, I was having trouble finding the right mouthpiece. This is the most important part of the instrument, and all young players go through this problem stage. Indeed, some players go through their whole career without ever finding the perfect mouthpiece to fit their needs. Cyril Narbeth, the first trumpet player in my new band, tried to help me, but a good mouthpiece for one player is not necessarily good for another. American mouthpieces were just not to be found, even in London.
There was a music shop on the outskirts of town which hadn’t been flattened in the Blitz. The owner was an extremely large, friendly clarinet player. When I approached him for mouthpiece advice he came around the counter and took me by the arm.
‘Look,’ he said earnestly, ‘You haven’t been playing long enough to know what kind of mouthpiece you need, OK?’
‘But I can hardly play on this one at all.’
He made a gesture of impatience. ‘Of course you can. You’re doing all right. What you need is a bit of psychological encouragement.’
I looked at him sarcastically. ‘And you’re just the man to give it to me, right?’
‘Wrong.’ He took a book down from the rack on the wall. ‘This is what you need.’
I looked at it. It was a book by an American called Charles Colin. The name meant nothing to me. I opened it. There were no music staves to be seen in the book, only words. But what words!
After I read a few paragraphs at random I realised that what I was holding in my hands was pure dynamite. I paid quickly and rushed home.
For the rest of the day I devoured that book. Instead of merely listing boring repetitive scales, to be repeated ad nauseam day in, day out, a practice more likely to deaden any enthusiasm one might have for the instrument, this book was one gigantic pep-talk, from cover to cover.
‘Don’t let the instrument be your master!’ it said, ‘Stand up and fight! Push the trumpet away from you with your lips aggressively.’ Oh Boy! This was for me—how to play the trumpet without even practising! I drank it all in greedily.
That evening, to the amazement of everyone, including myself, I played superbly. There was absolutely nothing that I couldn’t do that night. A screaming high note? BANG! There it was, right on the nose. A sweet, sultry, sensuous solo? No trouble at all. For me it was an evening of glorious rapport with my instrument.
In the wee small hours of the morning, after we had all gone home, the ballroom burned down, mysteriously. There had been no air raid. When I got there next morning all I could find of my trumpet was a blackened bit of melted brass tubing. The book was a wet mess of charred ash.
I went back to the music shop to borrow a trumpet. There was another copy of the book in the rack. I pointed to it.
‘You want to get rid of that. It’s bad luck.’
‘Rubbish,’ said the owner, handing me over the trumpet.
That night there was an air raid. The Rex cinema in the town centre was hit by several bombs and partly demolished. It was showing Gone With the Wind. ‘Have you heard about the Rex?’ asked my neighbour. ‘It’s gone with the wind.’ This joke went the rounds for quite some time afterwards. The music shop, that had been opposite, disappeared without trace, but there were no jokes about that.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved