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It was unforgivable. To pass the School Certificate with five credits at the age of fifteen and then fail the Higher Certificate three years later! I took my shame for a long walk on my beloved Wimbledon Common, but it did not comfort me. I had already been accepted for Balliol College, but what would they say now? What would my Father say?
Fortunately the Oxford dons made excuses for me. Jon-Jon had been a Cambridge man. If I had had an Oxford man it might have been different. Only Oxford men knew how to teach the Classics. And who corrected my papers? It might have been a Cambridge man. So there was no question of my being turned away from Oxford.
As a young articled clerk my Father had been sent to Oxford and had helped Balliol College in particular to recover some funds that had been lost. It was in Jowetts day - the most famous Master of Balliol, and in return for his help "the Master and Fellows of Balliol College" had presented my Father with a handsome eight-day clock, which I still treasure as one of my most valued possessions. This was undoubtedly why I was sent to Balliol rather than any other Oxford College, and I am glad that my failure at the Higher Certificate did not prevent me from going there.
When one enters Oxford it is as a "man". Only a few months ago one had still been a schoolboy. But now one is a "man! however boyish one may be as a youth of eighteen. I found myself in a very different world from that of Mill Hill. There were a few Old Millhillians, but nothing to be compared with the scores of Etonians or Wykhamists. No doubt it is very different now, but in my day the best known public schools provided the main population of the University, and the large majority were men rather than women.
To pursue my acting career, in which I still thought I had a great gift, I wanted to join the University Dramatic Society as soon as possible. It was surprising how long it took me to become a member of the O.U.D.S. One had to be proposed by a member and I knew no one in the Society. However a friend who had been at school with Robert Speight came to my rescue, and I was able to become a member in time to take part in the Summer production - "Loves Labours Lost" in the gardens of Magdalen.
If one wanted to take part one had to undergo a preliminary test which consisted in reciting a passage from the play before certain judges. It was a somewhat cold affair which gave one little chance to show ones ability - especially before strangers. I remember hoping I wouldnt be saddled with the part of "Dull", which seemed to me a very uninteresting part In the end I was given the part of the Forester who has only two lines - much less than "Dull".
But when I saw what a lot Emlyn Williams made of "Dull", it was a shock to my prestige as an actor and it made me realise that there were much greater acting talents in the world than mine.
Emlyn Williams and myself were thrown together because neither of us belonged to the ruling Etonian-Wykhamist hierarchy. There was an informal concert every term called the O.U.D.S. Smoker at which people like Emlyn Williams had the chance to shine in an informal way. I remember several of his "acts", while the members smoked away, polluting the atmosphere of the little hall. It was before the days when fear of too much smoking entered into our hearts. It was on one of these occasions that Emlyn approached me for the music of a song he had written. Emlyn was something of a Welsh Wizard, who seems to have known that I could write music without ever having been told. It was, of course, a song for a French "tart" whom he was intending to impersonate and I soon discovered that he needed not only the music for his song but also some suitable costume for him to wear. He wondered if my sister had any old dress she could part with that would be suitable. I wrote home about this and although she was most unwilling Phyllis agreed to do something.
So the music was written and the costume provided and Emlyn had only to appear and make eyes at the audience for the whole hall to fall down.
I sat back among the clouds of smoke, glad to have my music played far better than I could have done. It was a great success. Thereafter Emlyn could be awarded some of the best parts in the O.U.D.S. productions. He had proved his prowess.
He had himself photographed in the costume my sister had made for him and sent her a copy - "A ma charmante couturière, Yvette."
I had one other man trying to make me write - pop music to his words, but it wasnt what I wanted to do. Besides the fifth term had arrived during which I had got to retrieve my position as an examinee. It was the term during which I had to take my Honour Mods and I wanted to do as well as I could in them. The O.U.D.S. had decided to do Ibsens Peer Gynt with Griegs music that term. There was no question of my taking part in the play, but I discovered that my exam would be over before it started so I volunteered to act as prompter which meant going every night that week, but Griegs music so enthralled me that I felt I should enjoy the experience. I got so carried away that I failed several times as a prompter.
Whether he felt that I deserved a good holiday after my exam or not, my Father took us on a cruise in the Mediterranean that Easter. We visited Gibraltar, Messina - where we spent hours in the ancient theatre at Taormina, Naples (for Pompeii), then Malta and Tunis on the way back. One evening in mid-sea came the news by wireless that I had won Second Class Honours in Mods, which meant that I had retrieved my terrible failure in the Higher Certificate. I little thought that the next time I should be visiting Gibraltar and Malta it would be in a warship in the course of a European War and that the next time I should receive an air message in the Mediterranean it would not be a personal one and would come from Winston Churchill: "Well done, Welshman!" We had saved Malta.
After Mods the School of "Literae Humaniores", which I was following, takes a considerable side-turn in its main direction. From being largely interested in the literature of Ancient Rome and Greece, it becomes a School concerned with ancient and modern philosophy. Such philosophy is steeped in Plato and Aristotle, it is true, but as soon as we come to Descartes and Leibnitz we are in the modern world of Europe and not with the Classics any longer. When we reach Hume, Berkley and Kant we have left the world of the ancients for ever. Perhaps it is as well that "Literae Humaniores" seems to end with Kant and mercifully does not proceed to Marx, Schopenhauer or any of the 20th century philosophers.
I learnt a lot from my study of Descartes, Leibnitz etc. What I found summed them all up was that each philosopher in turn was very good at criticising his predecessor, but not so good when it came to proposing an explanation of his own. In other words the most recent philosopher is always best at picking holes in his predecessor rather than in providing an explanation of his own. No explanation of life seemed to come from philosophy, though all workers in the field could provide interesting ideas and I was glad that our study of philosophy seemed to end with Kant whose confusing ideas were not unlike the clouds of smoke at an O.U.D.S. Smoker.
A philosophy was no final guide to life, where was I to look for guidance? The beautiful Ten Services compiled by Sir John McClure had seemed the answer at Mill Hill but as soon as we had left the School they could not be said to exist. No non-conformist Church had anything like them. The Minister always stood in the pulpit and preached or prayed all the time. The nearest approach seemed the two Anglican Services of Matins and Evensong.
I had been christened in the Church of England as my Mother was an Anglican, but going to a non-conformist school had missed confirmation. As the Vicar of Wimbledon, Canon Horace Monroe, became a friend of mine, he persuaded me to become confirmed.
It was at Oxford that I had my first brush with the fair sex. One of my friends, Sam Facey, had a sister who had gone up to Lady Margarets Hall. She had a boy-friend already, Hugh Ashdown who later became a bishop, but although she went around with him, she seemed to be putting off the day of any agreement with him, which gave her other suitors some sort of encouragement. In the end she married my cousin, Adrian Kent which showed at least that she was serious about one of my family, if not about me.
I was not inclined to get married at the time in any case, as my prospects were so uncertain and my way of life so undecided, but there were occasions when I visited L.M.H. to see Kay. One of these was when they were putting on a play, in which Kay had a leading part. I thought I would present her with a bouquet of flowers and bought some mauve tulips for the occasion. I had arranged that my bouquet should be presented when the actresses were taking their last bow at the end of the play.
Unfortunately for me she had been impersonating one of the male characters in the play one presented, so she took my flowers and quickly represented them to one of the ladies of the cast who received them with pleasure which wasnt at all what I had intended. She never thanked me for the flowers and I am not sure that she ever knew who had presented them. The whole thing seemed a terrible fiasco, and I dont think we ever alluded to it again.
When Emlyn Williams brought the Curtain down on my ambitions as an actor I turned to literary work, as I knew that I was an artist of some sort, rather than a barrister. There was a magazine called the "Oxford Outlook" that was published every term. I sent my efforts in to this magazine, but they were always turned down until my last year when they were always accepted. The Editor had been Graham Greene, who was later to become a famous novelist. It was not until he went down in my last year that suddenly my efforts were accepted.
One of these was called "The Profession". It described the experience of a young man who was intending to become a rag and bone man. Somehow my hero was always unsure of himself and had little success, until one day when he happened to see a very fat girl on his round when he immediately knew the cry which he had been searching for:-
which was the French word - Em-bom point! The young rag-and-bone man had found the right call, and he was ever afterwards a great success in his profession. It was obviously a skit on my Fathers insistence on making me a barrister on my coming down from Oxford. I had obediently followed out my Fathers plan. Now there was only one year left during which I was to take the Law exams. I had already been going down from Oxford in order to eat the dinners required by the barristers profession. How was I to persuade my Father that I was determined to be an artist rather than a barrister? It was with much misgiving that I finally left Oxford to face life at home.
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