I first conducted a Cornish brass band at the age of three. At the time, I was perched on my father’s shoulders waving my little hands and quite unaware that the bandsmen weren’t looking at me at all but at their own little conductor who, beneath the canopy of a Victorian bandstand edged with scarlet cast-iron roses, was dodging the slides of the trombones.
I date my pleasure in brass bands – and in silver ones, too, for that matter, for I have never been entirely clear of the difference – precisely from that moment, and the joy of their music has never deserted me. Indeed, I have ever counted myself fortunate to have been born in a brass band county, and Cornwall is certainly that.
After my wayward, childish conducting, I sold pro-grammes at no end of Sunday concerts, I became friends with a fellow who played the trombone and who carried the mouthpiece with him everywhere he went and played tunes on it. He told me once that he had almost divorced his wife because he came from work one day and found that she had propped-up a broken sash-window with his trombone. I was keen, but he was a fanatic – and there are more than a few of us around.
And why shouldn’t there be? Some people like classical orchestras, some Glenn Miller, some The Three Tenors: but I have the fancy that in traditionally working-class areas the brass band reigns supreme. Possibly because the people who play in them are at one with the people who listen. Across more years than anyone can recall, brass bands have been part and parcel of Cornish life. Leading carnivals, playing at fetes and village festivals, and within my own rec-ollection I know of times when a number of the best Cornish instrumentalists were recruited, in the manner of football players today, into the best bands in Britain – into Foden’s, Bessies o’ the Barn, Black Dyke Mills – and given, into the bargain, jobs to sustain them.
And I remember, too, the bugle band festivals where after the bands had played the most intricate of test-pieces, they played Deep Harmony, that most evocative of pieces, in the evening shadows with the glistening crystal clay-tips behind them.
But of all Cornish brass band occasions, I doubt that many surpassed the one The West Briton reported on in 1855. It was all part of a Teetotal Rally, rallies much in vogue in those drunken Cornish days, and it set out by train from Truro to go to Penzance: “A train of forty-five carriages, propelled by three engines, was despatched from Truro station on a fine day. The number in the train at starting was 1,016, and at the stations between Truro and Camborne large additions of teetotallers and others were made to the train, which on its arrival at Penzance consisted of eighty-four carriages.”
It must have been an imposing sight, and The West Briton reporter got quite lyrical about it all: “As the train swept round the margin of the bay on approaching Penzance it presented a splendid sight, with a flag fluttering from every open car, and music performed by the bands accompanying the excursionists. On arrival at Penzance, a monster procession was formed, which proceeded through the streets, with flags and banners flying, and accompanied by seven bands of music.”
Well, there won’t be seven bands playing for me as I listen this summer in the Victorian park near where I live, there will be just one. And there will also be, I suspect at least one little boy who will be convinced that he’s conducting it…. I find passing interest, but not much more than that, in the discussions that are going on about a university for Cornwall. All the competing areas for the sitting of it seem to be adducing arguments about the economic benefits it would bring -the spending-power of students, and so on. All of that is all very well and all very understandable; and more and more now in Cornwall, I see developments taking place purely on the basis of whether the odd job will result from them. I’m not against that, per se, but surely in the consideration of a new university, there is only one question that needs to be addressed: and that question is, “Who needs one?”
To suppose that Cornish students from choice would wish to study in a Cornish university, is to live on another planet. All the students I have known have wished, in their choice of universities, to get as far away from their parents as possible – and so they should: and many of them I have known, have come out of universities much dismayed that even the most modest of their aspirations have not been met. The whole business of university education is being much demeaned. Polytechnics become universities almost overnight; the politicians tell the world that a big university population is a measure of their societies. But the fact of the matter is, that many of our young people are being educated in a fashion which is quite beyond their capacity of absorbing it.