Singing and socialism in an Essex town

THAXTED IS A PICTURESQUE small town in Essex, about six and a half miles northeast of Stansted Airport. Apart from its numerous quaint old buildings, the town has three notable landmarks: an old windmill, a 15th century guildhall, and a large parish church, which was built between 1340 and 1510 during the time when Thaxted was an important centre for the manufacturing cutlery. Also, Thaxted is home to an annual music festival, whose existence derives from the discovery of the town by a composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), creator of “The Planets” and many other musical compositions, who was on a walking tour in Essex during the winter of 1913.

Gustav Holst in Thaxted

Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, was living in London by 1913 and teaching music at St Pauls School for Girls in Hammersmith, James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, and Morley College for adults in Lambeth. At the same time, he was busy composing.

Holst had come to study at The Royal College of Music in London in 1893. Soon after arriving in London, he became acquainted with William Morris (1834-1896) and attended meetings at the latter’s house in Hammersmith, where he would have heard lectures on socialism given by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and others. Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society (‘HSS’), which was led by Morris. Many of the socialists he met including Shaw were vegetarians, as was the composer Wagner, whom Holst greatly admired. As a student and a regular attender of meetings of the HSS, he became a vegetarian and at the same time developed a great interest in Hinduism (www.ivu.org/people/music/holst.html). He began studying Sanskrit at The School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india) and several of his compositions bear Indian-sounding titles, such as “Savitri” and another opera called “Sita”, and songs based on the Rig Veda.

According to Nalini Ghuman:

“In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers.” (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india).

However, Ghuman points out in her article that Holst did incorporate elements of Indian music, including emulating Vedic chanting and a South Indian mode, the namanarayani. You would need to be a serious musician with specialist interest in Indian music to be aware of these features whilst listening to Holst’s Indian inspired compositions.

Returning to his political leanings, major biographies of Holst tend not to focus much on his connections with socialism, but an informative article, “Gustav HoIst, William Morris and the Socialist Movement” by Andrew Heywood (Journal of the William Morris Society, vol 11, no. 4: 1996), shows that his involvement was far from inconsiderable. In addition to attending meetings of the HSS, Holst conducted its socialist choir, played the harmonium on the ‘official socialist’ cart, and was involved in the administration of the society. Heywood wrote that:

“In the light of his clear commitment to the socialist movement through 1896 it would seem likely that his involvement with the musical activity of the society did not stem from a lack of political commitment; rather it was an opportunity to serve the movement in a way which utilised his musical talents and interest.”

It was through the HSS that Gustav met his wife Isobel, who not only sang in the socialist choir but also, according to Heywood, was politically active in the society.

So, it was with a background of involvement with socialism that Holst walked into Thaxted in late 1913 and took such a great liking to the place that he rented a 17th century cottage there (actually, in Monk Street, 1 ½ miles from Thaxted) from its owner, the Jewish author Samuel Levy Bensusan (1872-1958). Thus began Holst’s several year’s association with the town. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Thaxted’s vicar, Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel (1869-1942). After the cottage in Monk Street burnt down, Holst and his family lived in a house, The Manse (formerly known as ‘The Steps’), in the centre of Thaxted. Today, this is marked by a commemorative plaque.

Noel was not a run-of-the-mill country cleric. He was a Christian Socialist and a member of Social Democratic Federation, a founder member of the British Socialist Party, and for some time the Chairman of the Anti-Imperialist League, supporting the struggle for independence both in Ireland and India. Deeply committed to Christian socialism, social justice, and egalitarianism, Noel made sure that what went on in his parish church promoted these ideals. Noel’s biographer, Reg Groves, wrote that Conrad:

“…emphasised always that there was much more to making a new society than the acquisition of political power and the transfer of some property from the rich to the state, from one set of rulers to another. In this as in so many things, he was at one with the wisest of English socialists, William Morris, and much of what Morris said in prose and poetry and in the work of his hand, Noel tried to say in the group life he had developed at Thaxted”.

Noel and Holst shared socialist sympathies and more.

During Holst’s sojourn’s in Thaxted in between his heavy teaching and other musical commitments, he attended services led by Noel. It was after one of these held at Whitsun in 1915, that Holst, having heard the great potential of singers in the church, approached Noel and offered to give the choir the benefit of his professional skills as a trainer of vocalists. Noel, recognizing the splendid opportunity, soon had Holst become his church’s ‘master of music.’

Heywood explains that Holst’s:

“…first job was to train the choir for the church. Its members were drawn from the local population, and they achieved high standards with Holst. One member, Lily Harvey from the local sweet factory, was sent to London for professional training because of her exceptional vocal talents. In addition to his activities with the choir and playing the organ, Holst organised three major music festivals in Thaxted between 1916 and 1918.”

Lily was not the only person sent to London for musical training. The then young curate Jack Putterill, who was politically turbulent and played the organ, became one of Holst’s students at Morley College. Jack, who married Noel’s daughter, succeeded Noel as Vicar in 1942.

The festivals organised by Holst involved not only performers from Thaxted but also some of his students from Morley College and St Pauls as well as other musicians from outside the town. Each festival lasted several days, on each of which there were many hours of music making, both rehearsed concert pieces and much spontaneous music.

Holst not only helped make music in Thaxted but also composed there. The plaque on the The Manse, where he lived, is positioned on the outside of the wall of the room in which he composed. While living at Monk Street, he composed much of what was to become the well-known piece, “The Planets”. The “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” contains a tune or theme that Holst named “Thaxted” (you can listen to this familiar tune here: https://youtu.be/GdTpBSg7_8E). In 1921, “Thaxted” was used as the tune for the patriotic song “I vow to Thee, My Country”, whose words were written by the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). Holst also composed pieces specially for Thaxted and its people. These works include a special version of Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices”, “Three Hymns for Thaxted” (later known as “Three Festival Choruses”), and a setting of the Cornish carol “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day” (hear it on https://youtu.be/Cz_0j__FDuc).

Although the last festival in Thaxted with which Holst was intimately involved was in 1918, he never lost touch with music making in the town, even after he moved from it to nearby Little Easton in 1925. Holst’s pupil Jack Putterill, an accomplished musician who was Thaxted’s assistant curate from 1925 to 1937 and its vicar from 1942 until 1973, helped keep the town’s musical life alive and vibrant. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerts with great orchestras such as The London Philharmonic and audiences in excess of 1000 were held in the parish church. In 1974, the hundredth anniversary of Holst’s birth, the first of what was eventually to become an annual music festival was held in Thaxted. By the 1980s, the Thaxted Festival had become a regular and respected part of the British musical calendar (www.thaxtedfestival.co.uk/).

Apart from the Festival and the house with the plaque in Thaxted, most souvenirs of Holst’s time in the town can be found within the cathedral-like parish church, which, incidentally, was once a candidate for becoming Essex’s cathedral (this honour was granted to the parish church in the centre of much larger Chelmsford). The church in Thaxted contains a photograph of Holst with singers and musicians at the Whitsuntide Festival held in 1916. Near this, there is some calligraphy with the words of “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day”. The church’s Lincoln organ built in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln (who worked between c1810 and c1855) was played by Gustav Holst and has been recently restored. Not far from the organ is a cloth banner, sewn by Conrad Noel’s wife, which was used in the 1917 Whitsuntide Festival. It bears the words “The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation”. These words were written by the composer JS Bach (1685-1750) and were chosen for use on the banner by Holst. Near this banner, there is a bust of Holst’s friend and collaborator, Conrad Noel.

Both Holst and his student Putterill fell in love with Thaxted at first sight and were so strongly drawn to it that the town came to occupy important places in their hearts and minds. We first visited Thaxted in the early summer of 2020 soon after covid19 restrictions began to be relaxed sufficiently to permit travelling out of one’s immediate neighbourhood. Like Holst and Putterill, Thaxted made a special impression on us, so much so that we have visited it at least twice since our first encounter with it. Next year, we hope to be able to attend concert(s) at the Thaxted Festival inside a church that we have grown to love.       

Destroying statues

NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed.  Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

STAT BLOG

Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.

Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.

Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.

So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902:
“What is to be done?”
What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.

It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.

Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

DINNER WITH THE NIZAM

During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.

Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?

The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.

The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.

I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.

CLUBS AND GOLF CLUBS

WHEN THE BRITISH RULED INDIA, they established clubs in India that were based on the sort of clubs frequented by upper class gentlemen in London (e.g. the Reform Club, the Athenaeum, and military sporting clubs). Like their counterparts back in the UK, the clubs in British India were subject to rules and strict dress codes. And, apart from servants, Indians were not admitted. There were a few exceptions. The Bangalore Club allowed some high ranking Indian military men as members, and also the Maharaja of Mysore.

Even after India became independent in August 1947, some of the British colonial clubs in India denied membership to Indians, a few of them until the late 1960s or after.

The Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta, founded in 1895, was one of the institutions that ddidnot admit Indian members until long after 1947. When my late father in law, an Indian and distinguished professional, was offered membership of this club in the 1960s because they needed to replace the dwindling number of ‘white’ members with Indians in order to remain solvent, he turned it down because he felt it wrong that he should join a club that had refused membership to him long after his country became independent.

It may seem surprising that the Indian authorities tolerated the continuation of this racial exclusivity long after independence. It was not only these clubs that denied access to Indians even after 1947, but also some hospitals and schools. This illustrates a certain tolerance amongst Indians to their foreign invaders. Remember, the Taj Mahal and the Victoria Memorial remain unscathed long after their foreign builders left the country.

The Tollygunge Club has its own golf course, a magnificent stretch of parkland where there is much wildlife including jackals, who watch the golfers seemingly unconcerned by them.

While staying at the Club, we noticed large boards on which the names of high achieving golfers are listed. For example, there is a board listing the Club members who have achieved a ‘hole in one’.

What particularly caught our attention was a board listing winners of The Public School Competition. A public school in the UK is actually a private, somewhat elitist, school. The winners of the Public School Competition on the list are not names of individual players but names of British public schools listed alongside the dates of their achievement for example: Rugby, Fettes, Felsted, Winchester, Eton, Marlborough, and many others. The competition continued until the late 1960s, by which time most of the European members of the Club had returned to the UK or elsewhere.

It would seem, although nobody has confirmed this to me, that during the Public School Competition teams of players who had all attended the same public school would compete against teams of other players each containing men who had attended this or that public school. It was a competition between school alumni teams and the winning school was listed on the board of honour.

The colonial clubs continue to thrive in India, the vast majority of their members being Indian. These pleasant establishments, often housed in colonial era buildings and set in lovely grounds are still elitist and retain some of the rules and traditions that were formulated by their British founders.

Like the gated residential communities that are springing up all over India, the formerly colonial clubs are havens where the better-off can relax, separated from the ‘madding crowds’.

From Norway to Bengal

Doll hse

 

We were attracted to the latest theatrical production at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith (West London) because it was a play set in Calcuttta (Kolkata) in the late 1870s. It was not any old play set in Victorian Bengal, but a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s the Dolls House (first performed 1879), which was originally set in a Norwegian town in the 19th century.

What we saw at the Lyric was a new version of Ibsen’s play created by the playwright Tanika Gupta. In Ibsen’s play the main protagonists are Nora Helmer, her husband Torwald Helmer, Dr Rank, Nora’s school friend Kristine Linde, and one of  the employees in Torwald’s bank, a desperate widowed father, Nils Krogstad. In Gupta’s play Torwald becomes Tom Helmer, an Englishman, who has married Niru,  a Bengali beauty, and has become a senior official in the British administration of India. Dr Rank remains Dr Rank, but is also an Englishman. Kristine becomes Krishna Lahiri, an impoverished widow and schoolfriend of Niru. Nils Krogstad is transformed into Mr Kaushik Das, a widowed Bengali father of four children and a lowly employee in Tom’s office.

In its new guise, Gupta’s Dolls House sticks to the spirit and main ideas in Ibsen’s plot but causes it to be played out in the steamy tropical climate of Calcutta. Gupta explores the relationship between the representative of British imperialism and his very sweet Indian wife. The arrival of Krishna and then Mr Das on the scene soon unsettles the happy home life that the Helmers had been enjoying. Without giving the story away, Mr Das, whom Tom does not like, holds a secret that could bring about Tom’s downfall if revealed. Tom is blisfully ignorant of the threat that Das poses, but the opposite is the case for Niru, whose great anxiety Das stimulates.

Although I had some reservations about the new version of the play, I enjoyed it and the often excellent performances of the actors. What fascinated me was how successfully Ibsen’s play had been ‘relocated’ from the gloom of Norway to the colourfulness of Bengal without losing the feeling that it was a play inspired by Ibsen. By translating the play from one cultural milieu to another, Gupta has preserved and enhanced Ibsen’s messages about the role of women and social class. She has added another fascinating ingredient: the portrayal of British racism towards Indians in pre-independence India. I feel that many of the Anglo-Saxon members of the audience might have been blissfully unaware of their ancestors’ unpalatable attitude to Indians they ruled. They would have left the theatre better informed about this blot on Britain’s history.

 

The play is on at the Lyric until 5th October 2019.

See: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/a-dolls-house/

 

Image adapted from lovetheatre.com

Revolution in north London

65 ca

 

Between 1965 and 1970, I studied at Highgate School (founded 1565). Its main Victorian gothic building perches on the summit of Highgate Hill. About two fifths of a mile south east of the school, an architecturally unexceptional late Victorian residential building stands on Cromwell Avenue (number 65). Although this brick edifice may not look special, it harbours the ghosts of a lesser-known episode in the history of India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. The only thing that hints at the interesting history of number 65 is a blue plaque commemorating the fact that the Indian patriot and philosopher Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindu nationalism, lived there once.

In 1905, a wealthy barrister and scholar of Sanskrit, Shyamji Krishnavarma, bought number 65 Cromwell Avenue and named it ‘India House’. He intended it to be a home away from home for Indian students studying in England. However, it became more than that. It became a centre where Indian politics was discussed and acted upon.

Very soon, India House became the nucleus for Indians who wanted India to break free from the British Empire by any means possible. These included: sending propaganda and literature (including bomb-making manuals) regarded as ‘subversive’ and ‘treasonable’ by the British to India; smuggling weapons and ammunition into India; and political assassinations both in England and India. Valentine Chirol, the Foreign Editor of the Times newspaper wrote that India House was “…the most dangerous organisation outside India…”. As such, India House was under the constant vigilance of Scotland Yard, but despite this, its members were able to carry out real-life exploits that rivalled the derring-do of characters in John Buchan’s fiction.

Apart from Krishnavarma, those who congregated or lived at India House included well-known Indian patriots and freedom fighters, such as Madame Bhikaiji Cama, VVS Aiyar, VD Savarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Lal Dhingra, and Har Dayal. The place was also visited by MK Gandhi (the future ‘Mahatma’), Charlotte Despard, David Garnett, Dadabhai Naoroji, and VI Lenin.

India House thrived until late 1909. During that year, one of its members carried out an assassination in London. After that deadly deed, activities at India House declined rapidly, and it was closed for ever by the beginning of 1910.

My new book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, describes the history of Highgate’s India House and the activities that originated there. In addition, it explores the ideas that led Krishnavarma to ‘create’ India House and the lives led by people who lived in, or congregated, at the place. Also, it contains the background to the replica of 65 Cromwell Road that can now be viewed and entered by visitors to Kutch, an arid part of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Until I visited Kutch in 2018, forty-eight years after leaving Highgate School, I had not known that my alma-mater is situated so close to the site of such an exciting short episode in the history of anti-colonialism. Boldly, I suggest that this story is also unknown to most pupils, who have attended Highgate School since 1905. Furthermore, Highgate’s India House and Shyamji Krishnavarma are practically unknown amongst many educated Indians, with whom I have spoken. I hope that “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” will help to make the exploits and aspirations of the members of India House more widely known.

 

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