Friday, 27 April 2012


Recently I went back once more to my old school, Wymondham College, to attend one of their annual musical productions. As part of the school's 60th anniversary celebrations the senior school staged Schoenberg & Bublil's Les Miserables - fabulous choice and triumphant production! Mingling with other old-timers who'd never done anything more exciting than Savoy operettas set me thinking about what music has meant to me over the years.

As far as I'm aware neither of my parents played a musical instrument. But my mother often recalled her days singing at school, and the role of Yum-yum that she played in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. My father encouraged me to learn the descant recorder in primary school. I suppose they were aspirational rather than performers. But there was always music somewhere providing a context to my upbringing. There was an old wind-up HMV gramophone with a collection of fragile 78s: Beniamino Gigli or Enrico Caruso sobbing extracts from Pagliacci; Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee; Kathleen Ferrier's amazing contralto giving us Blow the wind southerly - just a few I remember. The wireless was a constant companion to family life, and we listened to Sing something simple, or Your 100 best tunes. My brother Christopher, as a toddler, cuddled an ornamental cat with a music box inside to help him drop off to sleep. And now I recall his harmonica, or "comp" as he christened it, that he played furiously but tunelessly.

I remember pompously arguing the case for classical music over rock 'n roll in a very early piece of school composition (what we called "essays" back in the 1950s). And, when anyone asked what I'd like to be when I grew up, I'd unselfconsciously reply, "An opera singer!", without giving much thought as to what such a career might entail or even if I had the talent! Nevertheless, by the time I was due to go to grammar school, I had been seduced by Elvis Presley and Tommy Steele, in a manner of speaking.

At Wymondham College, that self-same grammar school, I signed up for violin and viola lessons, became a (not very good) member of the school orchestra, and joined three different choirs - junior, senior and girls - over my 6 year stay. The opera singer in me began to wake up to the realisation that I seemed to perform better as part of a team. Since I was also now a "boarder" the influence of my peers expanded, and I learned to appreciate a much wider range of music. Eventually I became a tearful, emotional Beatles fan: it helped that they were good to look at, but their music was so tuneful, and they were not stereotypical "pop" singers as the world was soon to acknowledge.

My old school has produced some well-known characters in many fields, but one that I knew personally was Russell Stone. I was  blushingly flattered one day in the school coffee bar when he complimented me on my taste in jazz - was that my copy of Stan Getz's Girl from Ipanema on the turntable? - great stuff! Later I shared a musical stage with him in the school production of G & S's The Sorceror - though he was the curate, and myself a mere village maiden, i.e. in the chorus. He went on to become a "Black & White Minstrel" and one half of the 70s duo, R & J Stone; I went to work in the Trustee Savings Bank.

My eldest son, Roberto, seems to have inherited whatever rhythmic genes I carry. He became a drummer at school and in a few bands. His occasional DJaying developed into presenting a show on a local radio station - all amateur however. You can read about his musical passions on his blog, Failed Muso. As for me, although I continued to make choral music for a few years after leaving school, I eventually gave up. Nowadays mine is the enthusiastic but dominating voice you hear from the congregation at otherwise sombre funerals, or accompanying Queen on Bohemian Rhapsody, for example. My grandchildren, Sofia and Gian-luca, are making music at school, supported by their musical dad, and have taken up playing the recorder too. What a brilliant introduction to music-making and musical appreciation that little instrument is! Listen to Michala Petri to realise why it's not just a children's toy.

Returning to the beginning, I persuaded my youngest, Gavin, to drive me up to Norfolk to hear Wycol's version of Les Miserables, and what a night that was! I think he thought he would be bored, although he has been tutored by his girlfriend's taste for big stage musicals. We were both blown away by the energy and skill we not only witnessed but were immersed in. Tell your friends you read these names here first - John James Weatherstone as Valjean; Flo Taylor as Cosette; Marland Barsby as Gavroche; and the magical Ellie Isherwood as Eponine! All right, all right, so the audience of parents and Old Wymondhamians was a bit biased, but my musical soul was thrilled and proud and full of happy memories.


  1. Tommy Steele! I went to see him at the Liverpool Empire with a party from my Guide group, and got into trouble for slipping away to hand about the stage door for an autograph. No one knows who he is these days. Nostalgia's not what it used to be.

  2. Should've checked my spelling. I meant I went to hang about the stage door - duh!