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  Founder: Len Mullenger


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 14:  "WHO'S STOLEN ME GARNI?"

Some time in the summer of 1960 I was introduced by Reggie Smith in the George pub to an attractive dark-haired girl, called Fiona Nicholson. She was a Scottish actress who had worked both in Britain and South Africa and had recently returned from Spain, where she had been living for some months. She said that an actor colleague of hers had arranged to meet her at a club off Charing Cross Road in order to introduce her to his agent; as I was going in that direction myself, to renew my subscription to the Arts Theatre, I offered her a lift. Since she apparently wanted to get away from her colleague after the interview, I suggested that we meet at the Salisbury pub at 5.30. When she arrived she was starving, having had no lunch, and so I bought her a Scotch egg for which the woman behind the snack-bar charged 2/6d, an exorbitant price for those days. Feeling outraged, Fiona helped herself to a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato, whereupon the woman shouted: -"Who's stolen me garni?" I felt that Fiona was a girl of spirit and, after that, we saw each other several times. On one occasion I took, her to a performance of the Berlioz Requiem at a Prom concert in the Albert Hall, and she told me afterwards that, after hearing the four brass bands entering, much to her astonishment, in the "Tuba Mirum", she suddenly realised that I was the man she was going to marry. In fact, we were married on November 5th that year in the Catholic Church in Cheyne Row, Chelsea.

Fiona's father, Jack Nicholson, had died in 1949 and her mother Mollie had married again. She and Fiona' s stepfather, Albert Maginess, were on a visit from South Africa and came to my studio several times before the marriage; on one occasion Mollie saw to her surprise that I had a small bronze plaque of my Grandfather Schlich. It transpired that Fiona's father had been a pupil of my grandfather's at Oxford shortly after the First World War, and her mother had kept a letter from him to her late husband advising him to make a career as a Forestry Officer in India, which he did, staying there for over 25 years before retiring in 1947 when the country was partitioned. But neither Fiona nor I know anything about forestry!

As she was a Catholic at the time - although she has changed her beliefs since - and I am not, I had to have instruction in the Catholic faith from the Chelsea parish priest, Father Alfonso de Zulueta. I had previously known a cousin of his with the same name, who was Professor of Roman Law at New College. Father de Zulueta, a very intelligent man and a Jesuit, realised that he was unlikely to make a convert of me, but had to do his duty as a priest. I listened politely, I hope, to what he had to say, but I couldn't agree with his arguments. At our last session we were joined by a friend, Christopher Saltmarshe, who was going to give Fiona away at the ceremony. Kit had been a friend and contemporary of John Davenport's at Cambridge; he was a brilliant poet and writer who was at one time the editor of the ill-fated magazine "Night and Day" (readers may remember that this marvellous publication was brought to an untimely end by the damages awarded against it for an article by Graham Greene on Shirley Temple, then a child star). Kit had somehow been sidetracked into a fairly lowly job in the BBC Overseas Service at Bush House; he had known Fiona for some years, and remained a loyal friend of ours until his early death. He was small in stature and had a waspish sense of humour which is illustrated by the following incident. A very tall, thin writer with a pallid and somewhat sinister appearance had married an equally tall, thin woman. They had a baby which was frequently left in a pram on the pavement outside the George pub. When one of our friends remarked that this was a scandalous way to treat a baby, Kit replied, with his slight stutter: "On the c-contrary, I'm d-delighted to see that its n-not been eaten". We all miss him very much.

Our wedding was attended by a large number of friends, including Louis MacNeice - it was unusual to see the son of a Protestant Archbishop of Northern Ireland at a Catholic service. Afterwards we had a party in the studio at Ordnance Hill and then flew off to Paris for two nights. We spent most of our honeymoon in Greece, Crete and Rhodes, and I was able to see much more of the country than on my previous visit. After a few days in Athens - which is all one needs to spend there - we hired a car and drove to Delphi, which was as marvellous as ever, and then took the ferry to Patra, returning to Athens via Olympia, Nauplion and Mycenae. Next we flew to Heraklion in Crete; Knossos was impressive, whatever one may think of Sir Arthur Evan's restorations - personally I like them - but the island as a whole disappointed us and the weather was not too good. We took a boat to Rhodes which we very much enjoyed, with its extraordinary mixture of cultures; Lindos is particularly beautiful. (In a restaurant there, when the main course was served half cold on a very cold plate and I wanted it heated up, but failed to make the waiter understand this by speaking in various modern languages, I thought I would try Ancient Greek and said "poli thermo". The waiter nodded and smiled and took the plate away; after half an hour it was returned stone cold. It seems that the word for "hot" in modern Greek has been "zesto" for hundreds of years).

My piano sonata was due to be performed at a concert given by an Italian pianist at the British Council in Athens; we arranged to fly back there on the day before the performance but, when we arrived at the air terminal at some unearthly hour in the morning, a little man walked in and said to the assembled passengers: "The plane it do not fly today" and walked straight out again. In desperation we caught a boat which took 24 hours to reach Athens, and arrived there just in time for the concert. The next day we flew to Rome where we had dinner with the writers Eduardo and Vera Cacciatore who live in a flat above the Keats-Shelley House in the Piazza di Spagna; then we flew to Madrid, where we were greeted by Bernard Spencer, the poet who was a friend and schoolfellow of Louis MacNeice and was then the British Council representative in the capital. Bernard showed us around Madrid, including a number of places which are well off the tourist beat. He was a very interesting man and a congenial companion and we were extremely sorry to hear of his untimely death only three years later.

After spending Christmas 1960 with Fiona's mother and stepfather at Palma in Majorca (where they were then living) we flew back to London. "The Diary of a Madman" was due to be performed in a public concert by the French Radio, but we were unable to get a flight which would reach Paris in time. However it was performed there on stage a few months later by the Berlin Studio Company in the Theatre des Nations series, and we went over for this performance. We also saw the Berlin production of Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron", conducted by Scherchen; I found it most impressive and exciting, which seems all the more remarkable when one remembers that it is a philosophical work about the nature of God.

In the summer of 1961 we went to Portugal and Spain, putting our car on a cargo boat to Lisbon which carried twelve passengers; our companions were highly respectable and deadly dull, so that the four-day journey seemed endless. In Lisbon we met the Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes Graca whom I had known from the ISCM; he was at odds with the Salazar regime and the only official activity he was permitted was to conduct a choir in performances of folk song arrangements on the radio. He showed us some of the less well-known parts of Lisbon and was generally very helpful. Then, after a few days visiting the magnificent palaces of Cintra and Queluz, we drove south to Praia da Luz in the Algarve in blazing sunshine in my open sports car, getting severely sunburnt on the way. We had an introduction to two young men there, a Scottish writer and an American painter, who took in paying guests for the princely sum of £1 a day for full board; in a magnificent house with a large garden right on the seashore. We stayed there for a week and then drove on into Spain across the river ferry at Santo Antonio. The contrast between the people of the two countries was startling; the Portuguese spoke in low voices and seemed cowed and sad, like their fado songs, whereas the Spaniards were always excitable, voluble and full of life - yet both countries were then ruled by very similar dictatorships.

In Spain we drove on past Cadiz and through La Linea to Gibraltar; this was many years before the frontier was closed by the Spanish. We stayed at the Rock Hotel for a few days, and I made friends with the Spanish lady who played the piano in the bar in the evenings; she kindly offered to let me use her piano in her flat in La Linea in the mornings while she was out. This was extremely useful, as I had started work on a 4th symphony, which was of a rather different character from the others. I had been asked to report the Granada Festival for The Times and was very glad to have an opportunity of visiting this beautiful and exotic city. We went to an orchestral concert in the circular roofless Theatre of Charles V, to a ballet in the Gardens of the Generalife, marvelously depicted by Manuel de Falla in his Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and to a song recital by Victoria de los Angeles in one of the open courts of the Alhambra. The last was the scene of a slight contretemps; in the middle of one song, a few drops of rain began to fall, not enough to disturb the most elaborate toilette at Ascot , as I wrote at the time, but the Spanish audience stampeded for shelter, leaving only the British visitors stoically sitting with newspapers over their heads. Mme. de los Angeles and her pianist were under cover; she was clearly annoyed at the audience's reaction and carried on bravely with the recital. The rain stopped and the audience returned; but when further drops of rain caused yet another noisy exodus the diva lost patience and marched off the stage, never to return.

On the way back from Granada, we stopped at Malaga where Fiona was bitten by an extremely virulent type of insect, which caused a large and very painful swelling on her arm. We drove to Gibraltar and located a doctor with a surgery in the Main Street, and she called on him for treatment. He informed her with pride that at the age of 84 he was the oldest practitioner on the Rock, and produced his late mother's gallstones preserved in a glass jar for Fiona to admire. Apparently she was not over-impressed and drew attention to her own problem. He reacted, she told me later, with unseeming agility for a man of his years, by chasing her around his surgery. She finally escaped, but not before he had charged her £2 for a prescription. This turned out to be for calamine lotion, which was completely useless to her. A Spanish doctor in Algeciras eventually got rid of the infection with anti-biotics.

We then settled in an hotel on the Spanish coast a few miles east of Gibraltar. I was able to drive into La Linea every day to work on my 4th symphony in the pianist lady's flat and go on from there to Gibraltar to collect mail and do shopping. In the evenings we usually drove to one of the cafes nearby; at one of these we were approached by an English party who had apparently run out of petrol and were looking for help from the nearest British car driver. The party consisted of a middle-aged lady, her grown-up son and a youngish family friend. It turned out that the lady had been building cottages at a seaside village between Gibraltar and Algeciras where she herself had a large house. She proposed to let these to friends and acquaintances at £5 a week, and asked if we were interested in taking one. This seemed a good idea at the time; neither Fiona nor I like the English climate, and we thought it would be nice to have a place to escape to when conditions became too unpleasant at home. Also the rent of Ordnance Hill was low in those days (it certainly isn't now) and Spain was incredibly cheap; this was long before the present-day tourist invasion, and one could get a glass of sherry, for instance, for 4 old pence. So we accepted the lady's offer and signed a contract with her at a lawyer's office in Gibraltar. After she had left, the lawyer called me back and pointed out that the lessors of the cottage were described as a waiter, a fisherman and a carpenter; our landlady being a British subject, was not allowed to assign a lease for what was Spanish property. I asked the lawyer's advice on the deal; he did not think that there was anything radically wrong, and as my financial dealings with the lady were conducted in sterling, I signed the lease.

We moved into the cottage for a few weeks in August. We bought some cheap furniture, and also had the services of a local girl who acted as a maid, for very little money, and of her husband as a gardener and factotum. The cottage was right on the beach and, though small, it was picturesque; to start a garden we bought some cuttings of bougainvillea and other exotic plants from the British cemetery in Malaga, where we were alarmed by the number of memorial tablets to British citizens who had apparently died of alcoholism. Indeed alcohol was extremely cheap in Spain at that time; we bought some empty garafons (large wicker-covered glass containers) and visited an old gentleman of 90 who had been Mayor of Algeciras in 1902. From his store we filled our garafons with red and white wine, sherry, brandy, and anis for an incredibly low price, but we drew the line at Spanish gin; British gin and whisky were easily available in Gibraltar. The arrangements at the cottage were somewhat primitive; the water pump worked only intermittently, cooking and heating were by butane gas and, as there was no electricity, we had to rely on oil lamps. Luckily we had some of the Aladdin variety which I remembered from my days in Sussex; the village of Beckley, although only six miles from Rye, had no electricity until the late 1920s.

We returned to London in September; I had to write music for a radio programme, "Artists in Orbit", with a text by Donald Cotton with whom I collaborated on several subsequent occasions. This was an experimental programme, produced by the enterprising Douglas Cleverdon, and it was probably the first one ever made in stereo. It also contained some unusual effects, such as bird-song being gradually slowed down until it turned into woodwind phrases - not an easy assignment for me! I finished the music (or thought I had) and then went off to Warsaw, where Fiona and I had been invited to the 1961 Contemporary Music Festival. I had previously gone there in 1959 on my own at the invitation of Serocki; this time he met us at the airport and greeted us with great enthusiasm. Polish composers had been free to write what they wished ever since Gomulka came to power in 1956, although they still received numerous State commissions which brought in fees and royalties. In most other Communist countries, except Yugoslavia, the State piper still called the tune, which usually meant that composers had to follow the ideals of "socialist realism" and write fairly diatonic works on patriotic themes. Later the position eased considerably in Hungary, and to some extent in Czechoslovakia, although the crushing of the Dubcek government in 1968 led to a similar repression of the arts. But in the Soviet Union to this day (1976 - Ed.)  composers may not have twelve-note or avant-garde music performed in their own country, although they do write such music in secret and are allowed to have it performed in the West. The Warsaw Festival is an excellent example of fairness in that it gives hearings to works of all kinds from all countries, including electronic and experimental works from Western Europe and America as well as enormous patriotic symphonies from Bulgaria and Romania.

Among old friends at the Festival were Luigi Nono and his wife Nuria, Schoenberg's daughter - I had visited them in their handsome apartment on the Giudecca in Venice while staying with the Becketts in 1959. Nono's "Il Canto Sospeso", a cantata on texts written by victims of concentration camps, created a considerable impression. Among the Russian musicians present was Shostakovitch, who did not appear to enjoy the electronic music very much. Some of his quartets were played by the (then) young Borodin Quartet from Moscow, excellent and charming musicians who quietly proceeded to drink the Poles under the table - and the Poles are no mean drinkers! After the concerts, which were usually long and sometimes dreary, a party of us used to repair to the one night-spot in Warsaw, the Krokodil in the old city Here we ate, and drank vodka; the usual toast was "Nazdrowie ex!", which meant that the drink had to be knocked back in one gulp. After several of these toasts some of us began to feel a bit wobbly; we were provided with glasses of water as well as vodka, which were indistinguishable from each other. Fiona, who was pregnant at the time, switched her vodka glass for a glass of water; unfortunately the final toast required each of us to exchange glasses with the person sitting opposite, and Serocki was disgusted to find himself drinking pure water! Nevertheless we remained good friends as always; the Poles are kind people and generous hosts, but it is difficult to disguise the drabness of their capital. However when one remembers that the city was completely destroyed in 1945, so much so that the Poles even considered resiting it elsewhere, one can only admire them for rebuilding the city including the medieval old town in facsimile.

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