Perhaps I had ambitions to be an MP - or an undertaker!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008



When you’re old, you wonder how you could be over the hill, when you don’t even remember being on top of it. (Anon)


I’ve already mentioned that when I was young I used to like listening to Henry Hall on the wireless. It must have been the rhythm that appealed to me for at that time I wanted to play the banjo.

Later when I was in my teens this desire had changed and my new desire was the saxophone. For a few weeks one summer a friend gave me a loan of an alto sax, and, with a great deal of energetic blowing and occasional shocks to the neighbours, I succeeded in playing one tune “It’s foolish, but it’s fun”.

Realising that I was quite keen on the instrument, my father took me to a music shop in Glasgow, hoping to pick up a sax for about £5. I can still remember the condescending manner of the salesman when he said to my poor father “You must be mistaken, sir. Alto saxes cost in the region of £40”.

Of course that was out of the question, but shortly after that incident I inherited a banjo from an unexpected quarter. The story went that my Uncle John when a young man had been jilted by a girl, and to compensate for his disappointment had bought a banjo. He hadn’t made much of it, and so it came to me, complete with plectrum, tutor book and banjo case.

I persevered with it for a while without much enthusiasm, for by that time the banjo was no longer fashionable and my tastes were changing again.
Soon I was having lessons on the pipe organ in our church, and a whole new world of music was opening up for me.



It must be difficult for a young person to imagine what it was like to live in a tenement building around 1930.

We had no electricity. Lighting was by gas which gave out a pretty poor light. The gas mantle fitting was usually above the fireplace which meant that the corners of the room were not well lit. On a winter’s night the darkness in the hallway was relieved only by the dim light from the living room/kitchen, shining through the window above the door leading to the hall.

The coal fire in the living room provided for heating and cooking, and the rest of the house was generally unheated, unless there were visitors or perhaps someone was ill.

The kitchen range - the big iron fireplace consisted of a nest for the fire and compartments where the food would be cooked. There were surfaces where pots could rest near the fire and often there was a swivel plate where a kettle could sit to boil up water over the open fire.

The ashes from the fire were removed each morning and the fire re-set and lit. The whole range was cleaned daily, and all the surfaces regularly black-leaded by the diligent housewife.

A sink with one cold water tap was usually located at the window, and at bath time water boiled in kettles was poured into a metal bath placed in front of the fire.

This room of course was the most important room in the house - everything happened there, it was where we lived. There was a bed in the recess where Rita and I slept. There was a big dresser with lots of drawers and a long shelf on the wall above for crockery. There was the big coal bunker, and the coalman would climb the stairs two or three times with a sack on his back to replenish our supply.

We were fortunate in having our own indoor toilet (no bath of course), but in other tenements toilets were out on the landing, and in some cases shared with other families.

So - no central heating, electric heaters, electric kettles, cookers, washing machines, tumble dryers, vacuum cleaners, shavers, hair driers, and of course things like TV and computers hadn’t been invented.

Nevertheless, that was our house - our home. And, despite anything I might say about our strict upbringing, it was indeed a happy home.


As a boy I spent a lot of happy hours drawing with pencil and paper, and I believe the results were quite good. A few years before I retired I thought I’d better prepare for it by trying a new hobby. And so it was that I took up water colour painting. Some of my efforts must have been quite good, for I managed to sell a few at art exhibitions. As time went on however, music again began to take up most of my time.

I said in an earlier blog that I was very keen on the Pre-Raphaelite Painters. Among the Impressionists my favourite must be Renoir (1841-1919). This is his painting of a fellow Impressionist Berthe Morisot and her daughter Julie.


In my EIGHTY PLUS on 26th September, I included the words of a comic song about amateur choirs. Since then I’ve found another one which I’d completely forgotten though I heard it being recited a good few years ago. I have the feeling it may have been done by either Pam Ayres or Joyce Grenfell.

It’s tough to be an alto when you’re singing in the choir,
The sopranos get the twiddly bits that people all admire.
The basses boom like loud trombones, the tenors shout with glee,
But the alto part is on two notes or, if you’re lucky, three.

And when we sing an anthem and we lift our hearts in praises
The men get all the juicy bits and telling little phrases.
Of course the trebles sing in tune, they always come off best,
The altos only get three notes and twenty-two bars rest.

We practise very hard each week from hymn book and the psalter,
But when the conductor looks at us our voices start to falter.
Too high! Too low! Too fast! Too slow - you held that note too long!
It doesn’t matter what we do, it’s certain to be wrong.

Oh, shed a tear for altos, they’re the martyrs and they know
In the ranks of choral singers they’re considered very low.
They are so very humble that a lot of folk forget them.
How they’d like to be sopranos but their vocal chords won’t let them.

And when the final trumpet sounds and we are wafted higher,
Sopranos, basses, tenors - they’ll be in the heavenly choir.
While they sing alleluias to celestial flats and sharps,
The altos will be occupied with polishing the harps.


- is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.

Born in 1926, he has gained a world-wide reputation as a poet/author/teacher and, probably most important of all, as a peace activist.
During the Vietnam war, he founded a relief organisation and set up schools and health clinics.
Exiled from Vietnam by both his own country and the Americans for his pacifist activities, he now lives in the monastery he founded in the Dordogne region in the South of France.

I came across one of his books some years ago, and since then have read quite a number of them.
One of his poems “Call me by my True Names” made a strong impression on me when I first read it some years ago, and I was delighted to find that someone had made a little video of it.


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