Wednesday, 7 January 2015

People I Wish I Could Thank

I was thinking about the people who made a difference. People who did things for me at key moments of my formative years. These are people who were doing so much more than ‘just their job’. The things they did were probably small things to them but, looking back, they were massive to me. They changed me. These are people who are no longer around, and I wish they still were, so that I could thank them.

Mrs King was my English teacher at Woodchurch High School. She was one of several teachers but she is the one I remember. When a friend, Philip Renshaw, suggested (or I suggested - I can’t remember the details, it was forty years ago) that we write a radio play together, it was Mrs King who obtained a tape recorder. This was the late sixties. No digital. No cassettes. Recording needed serious kit, and this machine was a beast of a thing - a reel-to-reel, all brown Bakelite and hot valves, and it came on wheels because it was one heavy piece of work. Mrs King said we should recruit ‘actors’ from our class and record the play. She looked at our early drafts, which were terrible and should have been shredded, and she encouraged and made small editorial suggestions without destroying any of the naivety or ownership. She facilitated the use of a classroom for our ad hoc drama club, and this kept us off the playground, where February winds were cutting through our classmates, outside, like band saws. If I remember, the rehearsal process took several weeks and often erupted into fist-fights amongst our theatrical troupe. (‘Woody’ was a tough, council-estate comp’. We were certainly not thespians of the ‘luvvies’ variety.)
Our play was called “The Time Machine” and Mrs King suggested that we read the HG Wells version to appreciate another treatment of the theme. I will concede that the Wells version was a tad better. But I still felt proud of what we had done. I wish I had kept a copy of that original script, all covered in stains of something red - probably, but not necessarily, jam. The big moment came when Mrs King wheeled the beast into our regular English class, threaded the tapes, and played our creation to the class. I can’t remember what the reaction was, so it can’t have been too bad or we’d have been murdered. What I do remember is that feeling of having something I’d taken a share in writing, that wasn’t just homework, wasn’t for marks, and having it performed to an audience. There was, and is, nothing quite like it, and it set something loose inside.

So, Mrs King. Thank you.

I was learning music. Clarinet and saxophone. Also I had a theory teacher who came to my home one evening each week. His name was Mr Shaw. He was old. He chain smoked. He sometimes folded in on himself to engage in epic bouts of coughing, and I would wait, pen in hand, for the coughing, or his life, to end. Then the lesson would continue. Mr Shaw didn’t teach about tonic, dominant, sub-dominant; he told stories about a royal-family parlour-game involving kings, queens, knights, courtiers… each with team badges, I, V, IV etc. The games had rules, and for the life of me I could not see what any of it had to do with music. I learnt nothing. Until I saw these roman numerals appearing in music theory texts, and I realised that what seemed complicated in musical terms to some, I now knew and it was easy. I still think of a perfect cadence as the queen asking the king to end a sequence of eight games. Brilliant.
Mr Shaw would never flick the ash off the end of his cigarette. It would grow longer and longer through the lesson, and I would get distracted wondering where it would go when it broke free at last. Usually it went down his jacket and shirt. Now and again there was a small fire somewhere about his person.
The lessons started at eight in the evening and ran on until ten or even ten-thirty. He loved his subject and it showed. After the lesson my mum would provide sandwiches and Mr Shaw would stay for another two hours talking about his life and his music and all kinds of fascinating things. Then he would climb into his knackered old Mk II Cortina and try to get it started, and this often took another half hour.
One week he was late. About half an hour. I worried. 
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Not been so well. I’ve had a stroke.” To make up for being late the lesson ran until after eleven. Then he ate the sandwiches and chatted until one in the morning. The stroke left him with a limp and a floppy arm for a while. But he ignored them and still gave me a full lesson every week.
When my course of lessons ended we remained friends, and kept in touch on an occasional basis. I invited Mr Shaw to my wedding and was really pleased that he came. Our contact became more and more infrequent after that, though, and then just seemed to stop. I learned, later that he’d passed away. I hadn’t known. He left me with a love for music theory and a unique way of thinking about the inner workings of harmony. I thanked him after each lesson, you know, thanks Mr Shaw, see you next week. But I never really thanked him.

So, Mr Shaw. Thank you.

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