Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.

They have never had it so good…

ARY 36 HW 60s

To many readers the early 1960s must seem as remote today as the 1860s seemed to me when I was a young boy at school in the 1960s. Between 1960, when I was eight years old, and 1965 I attended a prestigious private preparatory (‘prep’) school near Hampstead in north-west London. For those who are unfamiliar with private schooling in Britain a prep school prepares children for examinations that allow them to gain admission to Public Schools (i.e. private secondary schools).

In British schools today, teachers get into big trouble if they so much as touch one of their pupils. Even an affectionate pat, let alone a punitive slap, can get a teacher into ‘hot water’ both with the parents and with the school authorities. This was not the case at my prep school in the first half of the 1960s. Let me tell you about three of my school teachers.

Mr Rotherham taught us Latin. He was a short, slightly plump man. His face was always bright red. It looked as if he was about to burst yet another blood vessel. He was not a man to mess with. If he thought that a pupil had done something wrong, even a small grammatical mistake, he would race up to the miscreant’s desk, and seize a bunch of the poor boy’s hair. Then tugging at the hair, Mr Rotherham would pull the boy off his chair and drag him around the class room, shouting abuse. This procedure was known as a ‘Rozzie haircut’.

Mr Bathurst, who I quite liked, taught us history. Every year, we would begin with the date that Julius Caesar first landed in England and would end at 1914. The aim of the history, which we were taught at prep school, was to drum into us a series of important dates. What actually happened on those dates and the significance of those occurrences was of no importance. It was important that we could arrange in chronological order a set of items such as for example: Archbishop Laud, Agincourt, The Corn Laws, Waterloo, Magna Carta, and The Armada. Their importance was unimportant. It is no wonder that it took me many years before I realised how exciting it is to study history. On the whole, Bathurst, or ‘Batty, as we referred to him out of his earshot, was a kindly fellow. However, if you annoyed him, there were two possible outcomes. He would have called you up to the front of the class and then gripped one of your ears before twisting it painfully. Alternatively, the victim of his wrath had to lay his palm on the desk in order that Batty could hit the ‘criminal’s’ fingers with the edge of a wooden ruler.

Mr P also taught Latin. His first name was Denzil. This was also our nickname for him. Denzil’s fingers were crooked, distorted perhaps by a joint disorder. His voice was very nasal. In the early 1960s, teachers were not forbidden from smoking in class. Denzil used to hold his chalk in a crooked finger of his right hand, and a lighted cigarette in a curved finger of his other hand. His handwriting on the blackboard was illegible.  Occasionally, he would show off, claiming that he was ambidextrous. He used to let go of the cigarette and replace it with a second piece of chalk, and then write on the blackboard with both hands at the same time. The result was terrible, even more illegible than when he wrote with only one hand. If someone annoyed Denzil, he would come up to the person, and sharp clip an ear with the knuckle of one of his twisted fingers. We called this short, sharp, painful blow the ‘Denzil blip’.

Well, none of this would be tolerated in today’s Britain, and quite rightly so. In the words of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, let me tell today’s school kids that they: “… have never had it so good…”

Olives growing near Portobello Road

Florence (Italy) 1960s and London 2018

 

In the 1960s, my parents, both art-lovers, used to take my sister and me on annual trips to Florence in Italy.

FLORENCE 1

Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Seeing some olives growing near Portobello Road in London reminded me of these trips. Here is what I wrote in my book, “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me”, which is about travels I made during my childhood:

The Oltrarno is the part of Florence on the left bank of the River Arno. It contains major sights such as the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens, the Piazzale Michelangelo, the Belvedere Fortress, and the churches of S Spirito and S Maria degli Carmine. Almost every afternoon included a visit to the Oltrarno. This was made for sartorial rather than cultural reasons. My mother’s dress maker, whose name I can no longer recall, had a small shop near to S Spirito. Maybe, there is a Freudian reason for my amnesia; the visits to his shop filled me with dread. My mother had dresses made in Florence. As I have already hinted, she was a stickler for perfection. The long-suffering dress-maker in the Oltrarno must have valued her custom to have been able to put up with the unending visits we made in order to allow my mother to try the latest version of the garments that he was preparing for her. My father and us two children had to sit in the small narrow shop looking at tatty, well-thumbed magazines full of pictures of dresses whilst my mother and the tailor spent much of the afternoon dealing with the latest stage in the fabrication of her dresses. Our visits to this shop were often prefaced with my mother saying that of course we did need not wait for her there, but we knew better. Our absence would not have been well-regarded.

FLORENCE 60s ARY Sminiato

Adam Yamey at San Miniato, Florence, in the early 1960s

Florence was, and still is, famous for its leather work. My mother was particularly keen on one aspect of this craft: footwear. She liked good shoes, but many of them did not fit her wide feet. So, we tramped around Florence, entering many of its shoe shops and waiting patiently (or impatiently in my case) for her to try on numerous pairs of shoes. Almost all of them were unsuitable for her to wear. One shop whose name still fills me with some dread was that of Salvatore Ferragamo on the Via Tornabuoni. The fact that I remember this high-class shoe store is a testimony to the amount of time that we spent there. As was usual, if any of us showed any signs of impatience, she would tell us that we need not wait for her, but we knew that this was not what she really felt …

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San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

… Florence was not, as you may be beginning to imagine, one long round of paintings, sculptures, shoes, dresses, and brassieres. Many afternoons ended with a trip up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This panoramic platform or terrace, which is really more of a large open space with one side overlooking the hills sloping down to the River Arno, provides a magnificent view of the city. It is a readymade vantage point for postcard makers and other photographers. A little behind the Piazzale a series of staircases flanked by pine trees leads up to a church with a wonderful black and white marble façade. This is S Miniato al Monte and was our main destination when going up into the hills. This peaceful sanctuary high above the bustling city is undoubtedly a great example of unadulterated 13th century Romanesque architecture.

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Cemetery of San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

After admiring this church, we did not return to the city centre by bus, which is how we arrived. Instead, we walked. We used to descend from the raised terrace in front of S Miniato al Monte and start walking away from the Arno along the level Viale Galileo, which follows a gently sinuous contour along the left side of the river valley. After almost a mile, we would then turn right onto the narrower Via S Leonardo. This road descends gradually, passing the walled gardens of well-separated villas. The branches of olive trees in these gardens overhung the road.

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Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Every year, my mother used to break off a small twig bearing greyish green olive leaves and several, usually unripe, olives. She would take it back to London to remind herself of the great pleasure that she derived from being in Florence.”

I remember finding a sprig of desiccated young olives and dried leaves amongst her possessions long after her early death in 1980.

 

Adam Yamey’s book “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVES TO ME” is a collection of tales of journeys made during the author’s childhood.

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