Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Happy Birthday, Great-Grandad?

Every time I set off from our house in London to go to the A40, which is most Sunday mornings these days, I glance right as I pass the postal sorting office, with its long run of iron railings around the corner of Moat Farm Road.

It's funny, because the house next door I remember very little of - but I particularly remember the railings leading up to the house where my Nana and Grandad lived - and where your paternal Great-Grandad died, just before I was born.

If he were alive today, we would have been celebrating his 100th birthday - or perhaps his 25th - or perhaps, if you believe official records, neither?

It was on this day a hundred years ago, so the man himself told us, that Richard and Martha, of Poplar Place, in the small mining village of Coedpoeth, welcomed their son into the world. Reference to their marriage certificate, from Mount Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel in Wrexham ('in the County of Denbighshire' as it was in 1893), tells us that they named their little boy after their own fathers, one a platelayer (presumably for the Great Western) and the other, who had already gone to his reward at the time of their marriage, a collier, whose name we gave to your teddy bear.

So, depending on which source you believe, your Great-Grandad was born either today, yesterday, or tomorrow - in the days before iPhones, it seems that the people keeping the records, told of a little boy born  'last Thursday', forgot it was a leap year!

In fact, it is also recorded as the 27th as well, on his baptism record, but given all the other conflicting sources, by the time he was baptised, at Capel Salem, (just over the road from the cemetery where his parents are now buried) on 17 April, I reckon everyone had lost count and settled for 29 February.

It's funny how I seem to end up following him. When we went to the Army in North Wales, we were a few miles from his birthplace - indeed one lady proudly told me she remembered him going into training, on 12 August 1934, into the 'Awakeners' session. How fortunate he was to get one of the truly memorable sessional songs, from the pen of Eric Ball. I shall have it on in the car later!

Now, after quite enough of life's twists and turns, I end up living five minutes from where he left us, just short of his seventieth birthday; and in the light of the circumstances which brought me here, I think more than I ever did before, I understand now why Big Grandad thinks his Dad's health took a sudden downward turn.

There is one other thing I remember from Moat Farm Road. My tractor and trailer. We bought it on the way to visit Nana, in the time before she too was suddenly taken ill, though not from us. It must have been a reasonably rugged piece of kit, because Big Grandad's building work saw to it that we were very busy shifting actual building materials once we got it home!

Little did I realise it that first day with my tractor, but I was losing part of my family.

Grandma and Big Grandad, with his sister,
and my four cousins. 
There are stories, son, even close to home, which are not mine to tell. Perhaps other members of the family will take the time, whilst they still are with us, to leave their stories for you and your generation.

For my part, what I will say is I don't remember anything of my cousins from the first ten years of my life. I have no recollection of the taking of these pictures, and I whilst I knew my Aunty when I was a boy, I scarcely remember seeing her children in the years before she died, too young, after a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. It's something I am still deeply saddened by.

That was the first time in centuries that family breakdown touched Great-Grandad's immediate family line. Thirty or so years on, it's happened more than once again, and in a bitter twist of irony, one of his seven grandchildren inhabits the same corner of Middlesex he and Nana did, missing children in the same corner of Devon as they did.

Indeed, it's part of what scares me now about the extent to which, if Mummy and Little Grandad get what they want, you will remember me, and the rest of our family, if you don't see us again for many years. I must be about the same age, in those pictures, as you are now. Grandma's father, the one Great-Grandparent on my side who lived to meet you, is already resigned to the likelihood that you will never see him again - and never remember him at all.

Tomorrow, St David's Day, I want to write about the legacy of the Welsh Grandfather I never met.

But a hundred years on from a baby's cry in a mining village in North Wales, I just think about those railings in Northolt, and the years that have passed - and wonder what he would've made of it all.

Love from Daddy

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Terms of reference

A few years back, I was approached by our then corps officer to ask me if I would take the Deputy Songster Leader's job. I told him that to me, the songsters were the most important of our musical sections, because it's the singing of words that convey scriptural truth and develop relationships with Christ, that matter most.

Watch the clip, and afterwards I want you to tell me what went through your head.

OK, so what did you think of?

Did you immediately anticipate the 'conducting' at the end?

Did you think 'I knew I'd seen Carson the butler somewhere before!'?

Does Pete Postlethwaite's character remind you of someone?

Did you think of God?

No, it's not one of those "I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sounds awfully like a giraffe" tales. But this week I played this at an Army band practice. The following is nothing to do with my inability to double-tongue, I promise you!

" must be careful not to over-emphasise its importance [SA band music] or come into bondage to it. Music, in itself, has neither a moral, nor a religious character. This can only be imparted to it by the thoughts or feelings of the soul when under its power. That is to say, if music is to have any holy, any Divine influence on the hearts of those who listen, it must be associated with holy feelings and with Divine thoughts. It is this that makes good singing more important to us than the grandest music the Band can play, unless accompanied by the singing of words calculated to carry home its appeal to our hearts." 
William Booth, March 1900.

Army music, nay, religious music, is inherently referential. Big Grandad has a theory that music has the capability to convey divine inspiration without it, but I believe that even in such circumstances, a response is invoked not just by the music but by some other coincident stimulus.

Rossini was a fine composer. But the final movement from his 'William Tell Overture' does not have any divine influence over me, not least because it is not associated with any religious words, to my knowledge.

In fact, the only words I can think of were Big Grandad singing "To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!" on the way to the council 'tip' when I was a child, and words for a double glazing advert a couple of decades back, which referred, through the basses, to not having to pay 'until they put your windows in'!

I lost count in my youth of the number of times the corps band would play, at the open air, what they considered to be 'God's love is as high as the heavens'. The people in the street, only hearing the tune (because nobody was singing much, and only a small handful of non-bandsmen turned out to the open air), were simply listening to 'My bonnie lies over the ocean', which is rather light on the Gospel, if we're brutally honest.

'In tune with thy divinity', without the words? Same problem. Instead of the deputy bandmaster out of 'Brassed Off' ('It's a b****y Euphonium!') I am now thinking of 'Oh Danny Boy' - and this particular incarnation (if you cheated, you will need to go back and stop 'Grimley Colliery Band' first, unless you are now picturing them outside the hospital in their miner's lamps)

For this reason, except where the original was religious (more of which another time), I am not at all keen on the classical transcriptions in the Army books, which were, in the days of tighter musical stringency, a ruse to allow Army bands to play 'outside' classics purely because a Salvationist composer had arranged them. Dean Goffin was a master of his craft, but regurgitated Rossini doesn't give me the shivers like his Christian works do.

These muddled tune and words combinations have even got to the stage where in some cases, only Army folk know the tune at all. 'Storm the forts of darkness' was a drinking song when, on 26 February 1884, Captain Robert Johnson first sang his new 'song' in Bristol. Like most drinking songs from 128 years ago, it has long been forgotten. Did I enjoy playing it on the march back to the hall on Sunday? You bet. It means something to me.* Did it convey scriptural truth to anyone listening who wasn't in a uniform on Sunday morning? I'll wager not, though in fairness, 'Onward Christian Soldiers' wouldn't be much better known by the average Joe in the street nowadays. It's a strong tune to march to and simply draw attention - which is arguably a primary function of any band on the march.

So we see the proof that music has to have meaning to people, and it has to convey a meaning consistent with our evangelistic aims - and we have the proof, too, that some music that has other meanings (or none) has to be used judiciously.

When words and music combine, the effect, as Booth noted all those years ago, can be stupendous. I am primarily a brass player because I am a Salvationist, and that's what our denomination does. I don't play for any other purpose, neither have I any real interest in doing so. Outside the Army repertoire, I listen mostly to Handel, Bach, and their contemporaries. But, in common with many like me, and many who are not players but who love Army music, there are moments in Army band pieces which mean a lot to many people; I've spoken about this before.

Sat here this morning I think of the piece which accompanied my Christmas video message to you - Eric Ball's 'The Kingdom Triumphant'. The moment in the final recital of the tune, at the second stanza where the Soprano Cornet suddenly soars up an octave, has the power to move me to tears - but, with due respect to both Eric Ball and Soprano players everywhere, only in conjunction with  Wesley's fine words - "Saviour, take the the power and glory, Claim the kingdom for thine own; Hallelujah! Everlasting God, come down!"

I think unsurprisingly, I will never get to the end of 'William Tell' feeling quite the same sense of spiritual connectivity. Musically, one man's meat is another man's poison, but that's not the message of the Gospel.

Perhaps the test of any ecclesiastically-deployed music is to ask:

"Will they see what we see?"

"Do we see Jesus?"

And to prove I'm not immune...

If you ask me what is my favourite Army march, on any given day you might get a slightly different list, but headed by Erik Leidzen's festival march, 'Steadily Onward'.

Could I sing any words to any part of it? No. Do I even know if there are any, or where I could find them? Without the score notes, no again.

We'll have to pick up that dilemma another time!

Love from Daddy

* I remember the then Captain Russell Wyles preaching on 'Storm the forts' at a West Midlands divisional youth councils on it back in the nineties.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


We're home, after a night on the M25.

We decided to reply to a tweet from someone at Radio 5 Live, and I ended up doing interviews for them three times, for BBC World TV (the lady kindly said she would fix us up with a recording for us), who then syndicated our photographs and film footage to the BBC News channel, where they're still showing it! Step Mum had to answer the next call, which came just as we got moving again, and did a super job on BBC Breakfast TV as we picked our way through Stanmore.

Moments later, it was 'Five live' again, and then three local radio stations wanted a piece of us. I managed to get a 'shout out' to Great Grandpa, on the station which covers where he lives.

At that, we are old news, and having arrive home to find the alarm clock just about to go off, we need to catch up on some sleep. More of our tale later, but for now, one of the particularly special pieces of driving from earlier on this evening. The prime cause of the carnage was a lack of judgement and talent on the part of motorists - mainly drivers of lorries, BMWs and a notable prat in a Bentley, but also this crazy pair...

From being the hottest thing on the BBC at four this morning, we are now rapidly turning into televisual chip paper. That's how it goes, and I remarked to one of the editors that I wished we were in such demand for our story on family justice! Apart from keeping us awake on our epic voyage, we got some useful free practice tonight to make the best use of what opportunities do come our way.

Anyway, we're home safe. I'd better get some rest.

Love from Daddy