A Young Composer’s Diary Revisited in Maturity
Richard Stoker’s First Visit to London
19th -25th July 1957
DAY ONE (Friday 19th July 1957)
It was my very first visit to London. I was still in my teens at the time I had decided to make the 200 mile journey from Castleford to the Capital to visit the composer of the famous Jamaican Rumba. My father gave me a lift to Westgate Wakefield railway station in the early morning. I was soon on the train for the very first time to Kings Cross. We lived almost half way between Edinburgh and London.
I remember what a thrilling experience it was: the time in the three long, smoky tunnels approaching King’s Cross seemed interminable; then, as the train came suddenly out into the sunlight, the rhythm of the wheels seemed to spell out the name Ar-thur Ben-ja-mn, Ar-thur Ben-ja-min. The anticipation in the last twenty minutes as the train approached the station was overwhelming. At last I stepped off the train onto the platform. My first visit to London had begun.
Leaving the train at Kings Cross I heard an unusual sound coming from the left hand side of the station. Making my way through the many people holding boards up with names of passengers and porters collecting and delivering luggage, I was asked many times if I needed help with my large suitcase containing enough for a month's stay plus the mounting mound of my many compositions, poetry notebooks and sketchpads I thought I might need.
I moved cautiously in the direction of the strange sound coming from the other side of the open arch near the old left luggage area. The sound reminded me of recent films of military manoeuvres. Then in the morning July sunlight I saw a flowing dark red and green kilt above thick hairy legs enclosed in long cream coloured tartan socks. Looking higher I found a Scottish bagpipe player with a very crimson face. After scowling at me once or twice he smiled a little then moved around clockwise to play towards some other arrival. Did I like the sound? I certainly liked the treble part but I soon wearied of the drone.
Leaving Kings Cross I found I had a long walk to Tottenham Court Road so taking the tube for the first time I found the Northern line. Now I really felt at home in London. I was soon at the Tottenham Road stop, then crossing to the old YMCA building.
I soon got used to the unique atmosphere of the old YMCA building, rather dreary and a little chilly - my mounting excitement made me hardly notice. Here the grand piano came in useful - it was in quite good condition really. Only people who could play were allowed to use it for practice, you only were given the precious keys if you answered questions about your years of study and your hands were inspected for traces of ‘northern grime.’
Anyway I passed the tests and was soon trying out the instrument, in other words 'having a tune' with Bartok's Allegro Barbaro - there was no restriction on volume, but I did notice one or two people folding up their newspapers, coughing into pocket handkerchiefs then leaving the room quietly. (I thought if Arthur Benjamin wanted me to play the piano the Bartok would be a good choice). When I was well into something quieter of my own a timid voice near my right elbow said: 'Have you any Chopin?' ‘Of course', I replied taking a folded copy of my party piece out of my back pocket - the Minute Waltz. My companion was timing it! ... '64 seconds, try to get it to 60 by the time I leave on Thursday morning, please'. Not knowing who this person was I put my things in the little room I had been allocated on the first floor, went out again deciding to look around what would later become one of my stamping grounds in future, the South Bank and the Royal Festival Hall.
I was soon down at Charing Cross and across the river footbridge. Here I found the leftovers of the recent Festival of Britain, the many jutting stands which contained seats overhanging the river itself, where the lovers met and sat together at all hours it seemed. I discovered the tea rooms which seemed to float along the river's surface. It was just outside the space made for the National Film Theatre. Here was yet another grand piano (London it seemed would be full of Grands; I hoped they would all be Steinways or Bechsteins). Someone played each morning and early evening, jazz of the 20s - 40s, usually extemporising. I got to know him quite well over the next few days.
Then into the river terrace area of the main Festival Hall for an evening meal. This restaurant was a floor higher than it is now, with wonderful views over the river Thames. I could still see the now floodlit seats and floating tea rooms down below. The Shell building was across the river. Finally I looked at the week's programmes, yawned, and quickly walked back to the old YMCA just before locking up time - about eleven I seem to remember. My very first day in the great metropolis was at last over, and I fell fast asleep quickly.
The young Richard Stoker
DAY TWO (Saturday 20th July 1957)
After a hearty cooked breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and marmalade on toasted muffins and excellent coffee I practised the piano for an hour, and then finished a song I'd been sketching to words by D.H. Lawrence called 'Dream Confused', (No4 of my song cycle Songs of Love and Loss Op.19). Going outside the weather was fine so I crossed the road then walked down to Foyles (my very first visit) and I looked through all the many books on their poetry shelves. I wanted a selection of English Sonnets, which I finally found and paid about 12/6d for it! Taking it out into the sunlight, after a quick browse I slipped it into my pocket, proud that it had a Foyles label on its inside front cover.
Retracing my steps of the previous afternoon I was soon crossing Westminster Bridge. The river was glowing and sparkling diamond-like in its midday brilliance, the views again towards the older Shell building and behind towards the Houses of Parliament a black mass of buildings, half way across I stopped. Feeling for my new book I soon found Wordsworth's very moving Westminster Bridge sonnet then read it aloud as if to the winds as people visiting London passed by. Next, taking out my fountain pen I made a note of my outdoor Thames oratory, then dated it, for the future. The sonnets reminded me of my abiding interest in all types of sonata-form and the various other major textures in music such as counterpoint and fugue. I'd had the idea of attempting to write a sonnet sequence whilst in London.
DAY THREE (Sunday 21st July 1957)
Next day after visiting the South Bank tea rooms over the river and again speaking to the pianist he invited me to play some pieces on the grand piano, I played some of my own lighter pieces, and Autumn Leaves, it was good to have a small select captive audience, even though a few of the women were knitting, strange thoughts of the guillotine sprang into my mind.
Saying goodbye to my new friend, I went to stand reverently in front of the almost forgotten commemorative stone where the National Theatre would one day in the distant future be built. I saw names on it like Bernard Shaw, Sybil Thorndyke plus a leading Royal.
Then walking down the Thames I called at the Tate Gallery for lunch, admiring the Rex Whistler murals around the restaurant walls, then I took in some of Henry Moore's sculptures which made me just a little homesick. It was in the entrance I noticed a young woman gazing at a bronze piece of sculpture standing proudly there. Being so moved by her concentrated gaze, on the spot I wrote a poem inspired by the Epstein sculpture called "The Visitation":
I took a long walk on to Battersea Park, where two silhouettes were made by a woman artist of my head and shoulders which were really excellent.
DAY FOUR (Monday 22nd July 1957)
Back at the Picasso restaurant Kings Road. Then sketching in Sloane Square. Sir Lawrence Olivier walked by wearing a grey trilby and walking to the theatre to rehearse the lead part in John Osborne's 'The Entertainer'. I was still there sketching when he walked back towards his flat near the river. Then I moved on to meet a friend stationed at the barracks to see a film at the Kings Road cinema, a Norman Wisdom classic about the window cleaner. I never imagined that I would be teaching his leading lady's daughter at the RAM in only ten years time.
The sun was still shining brightly as I was drawn back to the South Bank. Passing the Barbara Hepworth sculpture [near where the Nelson Mandela bust is now] I looked out onto the shining Thames. Howls of laughter suddenly came from three naval ratings in white uniforms carrying their caps with arms around three girls dressed in bikini tops red, yellow and blue. All three wore very short skirts hardly covering long bare legs; each wore a thin gold chain around an ankle, below were what looked like very high-heeled stiletto shoes which clicked the pavement as they walked by. Aged under twenty they looked so happy in the early evening sunshine which glinted on their gold chains. All six figures were about the same height. I was reminded of an opera or film set for 'Butterfly'. Then into the Festival Hall restaurant again where a large salad bowl welcomed me with a notice "take as much as you want"... so I did. That night I went to see the radio play 'Under Milk Wood' in a stage version with the Richard Burton as the ‘First Voice.’
DAY FIVE (Tuesday 23rd July 1957)
I'd planned a visit to the ballet that night, but in the morning I had a long practice on the old YMCA piano. After an hour my friend arrived to ask me for a repeat performance of the Minute Waltz for him as he was returning to Poland early the next morning. After two attempts I made it in 60 seconds flat. (Third time lucky). Then someone asked for something Irish so I played the song Galway Bay, recently made famous by Joseph Locke.
Before the ballet I called at a men's clothes store on Burlington Arcade to buy a red polka dot silk tie to match a red silk handkerchief my father had given me. Suddenly a screech of brakes outside, looking round I saw a passenger jumping out of a sports car and the bell rang at the shop I'm in. I see a youngish man well dressed he picked up a new red silk polka dot dressing gown in the same style as my new tie. He wrote a cheque for about £20, looking up I recognized Dirk Bogarde. After thanking the shopkeeper he dashed out, jumping into the back seat of the car and he and three others drove away up Piccadilly at great speed.
On the way home from the ballet, I seem to remember it to be Benjamin’s Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas at Covent Garden, where the castors on the pagodas moving around the stage had drowned out the quiet passages of the beautiful music. I began to feel nervous as the great day to visit Arthur Benjamin was approaching, in fact the next day. I fell asleep that night whilst planning what to show to him of my many manuscripts he'd asked me to bring down from Yorkshire.
DAY SIX (Wednesday 24th July 1957)
Arthur Benjamin had received seven curtain calls for his opera A Tale of Two Cities.
[For The Visit to the composer Arthur Benjamin. See article on Richard Stoker Website.]
DAY SEVEN (Thursday 25th July 1957)
My visit had ended I was elated by what I'd learned. The weather had been perfect. My train was on time at Kings Cross, it had been a memorable week for me. I'd finally met Arthur Benjamin who that day had been experiencing a triumphant "afterglow" of his three act opera's stage premiere. He'd shared his experiences, wine and food, above all his valuable time with me. All I could think of was returning there, but this wouldn't be for fourteen more long months in the North of England, intensive study with another special teacher and scholar Harold Truscott.
As the train moved swiftly northwards I thought that the really dramatic opera composer can be recognised in his music even before the curtain rises: I thought of Meistersinger, Traviata, Boheme, but especially of Mozart's Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. As Wakefield Westgate approached, the chant of the train's wheels the week before began again, but this time it was no longer 'Ar-Thur Ben-Ja-Min', this had changed to become: 'Se-Ven-Cur-Tain-Calls', 'Se-Ven-Cur-Tain-Calls', crescendoing in my head as the train's brakes squeaked to a sudden stop.
It had been only my third stay away from home and my very first visit to London. My next hope, as Benjamin didn't teach composition would be to hear from Britten, then possibly meet him too, perhaps even hearing from the highly recommended Lennox Berkeley, thus moving through the musical hierarchy completing the triumvirate of our great B's.
NB [Part of the above first appeared in the RCM Magazine, Spring 1994]
Edited by John France April 2004.