It’s Barry’s turn to share a tale or two about music and musical instruments. Well, one instrument really – a Flügelhorn. In fact, this will be the first of two stories about Flügelhorns. We are told the second story took place in Oz., whilst this one took place at the Michelin Tyre Works, Stoke-on-Trent.
When I was twelve I became a chorister in Bucknall St Mary’s Church of England. As a chorister I visited Lichfield and St Paul’s Cathedrals plus Westminster Abbey – performing in each with Bucknall St Mary’s under the leadership of a Mr Donald Cartwright.
I come from a large extended family – a blend of Staffordshire folk with strong Irish/Welsh connections. With the exception of one or two, my ‘family’ simply bristled with musical talent, and nearly all of them had a flare for dancing. Several of my uncles played at least one brass instrument. One or two played the guitar. My aunts too were just as talented with one or two playing the piano.
My dad played the banjo – often referred to as his shovel.
Singing was standard in their respective repertoires. For instance: my mum loved Gracie Field’s style; my dad was a mad keen Nat King Cole fan; whilst my eldest brother gave great renditions of the songs sung by Josef Locke – especially ‘Goodbye’ from The White Horse Inn.
Me? I love music full stop – whether classical, jazz, rock’n’roll, whatever – I just love music. But don’t ask me to sing or to play a musical instrument because I’m one of the exceptions mentioned above. Oh, I dance – after a fashion.
In January 1957 I started work at the Michelin. My job as a postal clerk included the responsibility of keeping the incoming, internal and external mail flowing between the various departments of the Michelin. Most of my day would be spent riding a bicycle in and around the large complex and it’s buildings – dropping off and picking up mail in a never-ending circle. But each Thursday afternoon I was required to attend apprentice school in the ‘Company’s tool and machine department which, I hasten to add, was not my preferred choice.
As a potential employee my interview consisted of a short chat between…no, a lecture given by a gentlemen who listed some of the ‘Company’s expectations should my application be successful. Such as: promptness at all times; suit and tie to worn without exception; speak only when spoken to; and so on.
A very austere beginning to say the least.
Then I was sent over to the corner of the room with a pencil and a sheet of paper containing several math and english questions. When answered, I handed in the completed assignment and was told to sit in the outside office pending ‘their’ decision.
I must have been daydreaming when what seemed a distance voice brought me back to Michelin reality. A lady asked me to follow her to the room where I had started my employment journey.
After being informed I was successful, and that I should present the following morning to the front gate at the end of Sideway Road, I was asked what trade interested me. My immediate and excited response was one of joining the paint and sign-writing shop. Yes, well, what can I say? Tool and machine training indeed.
Despite my protestations that I wanted to be a painter and sign-writer, I was hustled out of the room with the reminder to be punctual and to wear a suit a tie.
Not once did I enjoy those tool and machine training sojourns.
For those of you familiar with the Michelin, with its boundaries of Campbell, London, Stone and Sideway Roads, the place where I would spend all of my spare time was in and around the paint department. It was located across from the canteen and social club and grid referenced between London and Sideway Roads. The sign-writers were my favourites to watch. It was one such occasion that I thought I was for the high jump.
Perhaps on that particular day I was closer to the painters than permitted. From the corner of my eye I saw a small, stocky man coming towards me with pace in his step. Fearing the worst I began to walk away. But he was on my shoulder quick time. When explaining my reason for being there in the first place the man just nodded his head. Then, changing the subject completely, he asked if I could play an instrument. My response was one of being in a church choir.
It was then he told me that he was the Michelin’s bandleader, and before I knew what was happening he was marching me across to the social club storeroom whilst, at the same time, talking incessantly about brass bands, marching music, public performances, and can I play a Flügelhorn.
‘A Flügelhorn’, he said. ‘You know, a brass wind instrument whose valves and shape resemble a cornet’. Oh, A cornet! I thought. Now I knew exactly what he was on about because my Uncle Oswald played a similar instrument.
Before I could say anything about my lack of ability to play any sort of musical instrument, or that I wasn’t too keen to join a brass band, he was handing over the Flügelhorn with some sheet music, and could I practice the national anthem before Friday. With that he took off across the lawn toward the paint department.
As a chorister all I had to worry about was coming to terms with such musical questions as ‘When do major intervals become minor?’ Or was that ‘When do minor intervals become major?’ It was such a long time ago. Anyway, there I was holding a Flügelhorn in one hand and sheet music in the other.
Sigh, what to do? Give it a go I suppose.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the brightest of ideas to practice in the basement of the main administration building. But I did. I chose a giant linen airing room to huff and puff in trying to come to terms with that blasted instrument. The room had several levels of horizontal water piping on each wall with the top layer rising vertical at one end and through the ceiling to the floor above.
The location of the airing room was ideal because it was just a few yards down the corridor from the ‘Company’s postal and teleprinter office where I worked. It was a small, crowded room with all our desks facing the ‘post master who, in turn, sat facing us from behind his desk which was raised approximately eighteen inches on a small plinth. Although the teleprinters were behind a wooden and glass partition, you could still hear the rattle of those machines. Goodness knows what it must have been like for the girls who operated them.
There is no doubt I probably destroyed any resemblance to the national anthem. Sure, I had sung it many times at scout meetings and other important occasions. But there I was annihilating a composer’s proud work. Quavers were definitely quivering, long notes most certainly shortened. It was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Then there was the water piping plus postal and teleprinter office.
Did I give any thought as to whether or not the excruciating sound would travel to the floors above via those pipes? What about the already very noisy postal and teleprinter office just down the corridor? Quite obviously, I did not. To the chagrin of several managers and other important staffers my first reprimand was awaiting when I returned to my duties. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to practice at home.
So practice at home I did, in our garage and in the back seat of my dad’s Rover 10. Sadly, there was no improvement, nor ever likely to be in my lifetime. Friday came around all too quickly.
As previously instructed I met the bandleader outside the social club after work at 5pm. The whole band was there. So too was a PMT single decker bus. It seems they were off to do a performance in Trentham Gardens. Did the bandleader expect me to join them? Yes, he did.
After explaining my miserable attempts to get the better of the Flügelhorn he just nodded his head and told me to keep trying. Then he was on the bus and they were gone in a flash.
Before I went home I left the instrument and sheet music in the social club, and was never again tempted to try my luck in that regard.
Two months later I was working for the Co-operative Dairy in Sneyd Green.
Now…where did I put my paper and comb?
See you later…