Tuesday, 12 May 2009

8 August 1942

Woke up in the small hours of the morning with pain of my old kidney trouble.  Passing water very painful.  Probably caused by unaccustomed exertion in ball game.  Very worried but reassured later in day by cessation of pain.  Perhaps only small gravel which has  now passed.  Washed khaki shorts and darned two pairs of socks.  Very pleasant outing from 3 to 5.15pm.  Races of 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,000 metres with prizes.  Wish I could have taken part but toe not up to it.  Freddy Harper, first in 1,000 metres won a sponge cake.  Other prizes were a tin of sausages (Jimmy Irens), bottles of lemonade, bananas and cigs.  Everybody very cheerful, our two officers fine chaps.  Hope they stay a long time.

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When the wireless station 2 BD was opened in Aberdeen I was one of the first soloists to broadcast.  The then BBC seemed to spend money like water and I, for one, was paid much more than I was worth.  For a 20 minute programme of 6 songs the usual fee was 2 guineas.  I always sang songs which I already possessed and the bulk of them had been picked up at Low’s bookstall in the Market Gallery for about two pence each.  I have always been a quick sight reader and never really studied or practiced my programmes.  This had the result that I could not render my songs without words and music in my hands.  But I got over that difficulty by persuading my friend, old Mr Dudgeon of Marr Woods Limited, the music sellers, to let me have copies of the same songs on sight and these I used to hold carefully while singing, giving my own mostly worse for wear copies to the accompanist.  Very often I sang in the afternoons from 4 to 4.30 –5 and particularly then this method used to work like clockwork.  Free of the Bank shortly after 3pm, I adjourned to Marr Woods, procured the necessary duplicates, strolled along to the studio in Belmont Street, sang my programme and immediately afterwards returned the music to the shop before going home.  One afternoon I had the honour of appearing on the same programme as Constance Willis, one of the contraltos of the Carl Rosa Opera Company (1).  When I arrived, Miss Willis (2) was presumably having a snack with Simpson, one of the announcers in his room because when the buzzer went for her call she dashed out and down the stairs leading to the studio crying, ‘Good Lord – I’m full of fish and chips!’  The next moment, in spite of that, her beautiful voice, through the loudspeaker was filling the waiting room in which I sat.  This little incident persuaded me more than anything else could have done that opera stars were just ordinary human beings.  On another occasion the permanent 2 BD choir, of which I was a member, performed the first act of Faust assisted by a tenor and a bass, also of the Carl Rosa Opera Company.  Believer it or not, Faust and Mephistopheles turned up at the studio so drunk that they could hardly stand and able to articulate only with difficulty.  Under the circumstances, it sounded like a miracle when they sailed through the whole act in perfect voice and without a hitch, although they were both clearly very happy at having the piano and occasionally each other to hang on to.  The 2 BD choir consisted of 16 members, four of each sopranos, altos, tenors and basses but strangely enough I cannot recall a single individual of the other 15.  We were paid, I believe, a monthly fee of 3 guineas (just under $5) and were liable to be called upon at any time.  Some months we would perform as many as 5 times, in other months there were no more than two calls upon us.  I cannot recall but one other work we produced.  That was the operetta ‘The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein’ in which I had the minor part of Prince Paul.  We also rendered many part songs and at Christmas time sang carols at midnight.  One day, before the choir was formed, I received an urgent telegram requesting my immediate attendance at the studio.  I rushed down to Belmont Street where I found seven other male singers assembled and the 2 BD staff in a state of great anxiety and excitement.  it transpired that that day was the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and presumably they had had instructions to commemorate the event in due form and had forgotten all about it.  Anyhow the eight of us, forming a double male quartette were given each a 16 page part song bearing on Trafalgar and hustled down to the basement of the building where we rehearsed without a stop from 5pm until going before the microphone at 8pm.  We made a very good job of it too, and a few days later I received a cheque for 4 guineas (just under $6).  Easy money and no mistake.  And to think that I had the cheek to rank myself among the many vocalists of local fame at the time.  But I was a conceited pup in those days and often wish that I could meet the young man I was then and five him a well deserved lesson.  On of the best, in fact the very best, of engagements which my gift of song brought me in those years was that of tenor of quartette engaged by Lord Glentanar (3) to lead the singing at St Thomas Church, Aboyne,  during the summer months of 1925.  This came about in a rather roundabout fashion.  William Swainson, at that time the leading organist and choirmaster in Aberdeen had formed a select octet, of which I was a member, for the purpose of making a special study and giving performances of old English part songs.  At one rehearsal, Mr Swainson informed us that he had been approached by Mr Ian D Whyte (now a prominent BBC conductor) organist at St Thomas’ Church, Aboyne, on behalf of his patron, Lord Glentanar, with the request that the octet should form the choir each Sunday at that church for so long as the family and house party should be in residence at Glentanar during the summer and autumn.  Acceptance was unanimous and a week or two later we commenced our duties.  The terms were, in my opinion, generous and conditions regarding transport and accommodation while in Aboyne left nothing to be desired.  Each of us received a fee of £1 per Sunday.  The first service was at 11am and the second at 6pm and both lasted no longer than one hour.  A special couple of taxis were engaged and we were fetched, each from his or her home at 9am every Sunday.  There was the lovely drive up Deeside to Aboyne, arriving at the church in time for a quick rehearsal of the psalms and anthem before the service commenced.  After church, we were accommodated at the Huntley Arms, the best hotel in Aboyne, and provided with a splendid lunch.  The afternoons were free and could be spent dozing in the lovely garden or in walking about the beautiful environs of Aboyne.  At 4pm a substantial tea was served and at 5pm we repaired to church for rehearsal of the evening music and arranging of that for the following Sunday.  After the service, the cars picked us up and another lovely run, now in the twilight, brought us back to our homes.  What better treatment could any reasonable individual desire for such trifling service?  And yet, strange as it may seem, only three weeks had passed when the majority began to grumble about being underpaid and issued an ultimatum to Mr Whyte in the form of a demand for £5 per Sunday or no play.  I refused to subscribe to such a demand and said so.  Mr Whyte, however, replied that he would consult Lord Glentanar and let the vocalists know his decision the following week.  Next Sunday, he informed them that Glentanar refused to consider the demanded increase and that if they were not satisfied the engagement could be regarded as cancelled.

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A note from Pat O’Neill:

(1,2) The Carl Rosa Opera Company has an amazing history.  If you are interested do follow the link to find out more. Regarding Constance Willis, this is the only record I could find referring to her performances.  Note further down that same page the description about how ‘Miss Willis is too inclined to "slither" down from note to note when a clean scale is absolutely essential.’

(3) Lord Glentanar follow this link to find out a little of the history of this gentleman and his family.

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