New Mill Male Voice Choir (sometimes abbreviated to NMMVC, but for convenience will be referred to as New Mill) make an annual pilgrimage to Llandudno, primarily for some protected rehearsal time to learn a couple of new songs, but also inevitably there is male primeval bonding. I suspect the cliques within the choir stick together and become a little more cliquey, but there are opportunities for a bit of cross-training or pollination. There are moves afoot to change the venue next year, depending if anyone pulls their finger out to organise it. So this has the feel of an obituary.
There were many facets to what was a 24 hour experience. For the first time I avoided traipsing up to Bettws to pay homage at the altar of Cantorian Colin Jones, a Welsh Male Voice of talent and reputation which leaves me and many others cold after two songs. We belong to another musical genre and occupy a different division and whilst there is some self doubt amongst the North Walians there is also arrogance and apart from our senior choir members (especially the musical director who is clearly as well trained and in touch with the the speciality as Colin himself), there is little or no cross-training. We must find our own way.
I have recently discovered my masters programme at college is over prematurely. A blow and a relief, and a little grief from which I am quickly recovering. This opens up an opportunity however to complete a project which has begun in my mind and with 2-3 short chapters already published in the newsletter. Llandudno has given it some energy and focus. It provides the raw material. The choir needs some pr – how do you do it without already being part of the media circus? Is this my next step to work creatively and practically without getting overly stressed and move on from adequate self publication to reaching a wider audience, not just for my sake but also for the choir, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.
It has germinated through conversations with JRR – a character with possibilities. A son of Sheffield, with music probably in the maternity suite or whatever his early experiences were. Mostly his father who sadly died a couple of years ago from dementia. Religion figures large though I’m not sure church is that important. A family of 4 boys – is he the eldest? Mum still in the family home. Married to Delia with a boy and a girl, grandparents on one side, divorce and soon to be remarried on the other. Delia has a stepfather and is from S Yorks village as opposed to the city – is it Worrall? Both health service workers. John was a boy apprentice in NHS management and worked his way up to deputy district level which was a large fish in a small local pool. Then it went pear-shaped. Hard for the outsider to quite follow it and maybe it doesn’t matter. Moved sideways, reapplying for his job, illness and early retirement. Requalifying as as solicitor, regular work with wills. Capitalising on his expertise in NHS personnel matters and a small and successful business built on mouth-to-mouth repute and some advertising.
JRR is the diamond geezer. Flawed yes, but ultra steady. Risk does not appear in his vocabulary. There are no leaps into the void here – if a story needed an epiphany with JRR as the main character it would be about him joining a pop group or it’s equivalent for a 60 year old. He has a passion for detail and will pour over legal papers, insurance documents and account ledgers for hours and come up with a cogent and, dare I say it, interesting summary of what they all mean.
The point is JRR has just become the choir treasurer. I took ill-health retirement at roughly the same time and we have met regularly since, and at some time in the recent past he suggested he come along to the choir to sing.. Since then we have teamed up for trips and gigs. It has trimmed my wings a bit as he is not clubbable at all. A shandy is his pub drink and he likes a glass or two of wine. Otherwise it’s quiet and manageable and well in control.
So off we go to Llandudno, separate from the team bus, because I’m fed up with going to Bettws and fawning over welshmen who sing difficult songs in a language that I cannot understand and is ugly to my ears. I’m irritated by this need to do difficult things because they can and as a result clearly lose touch with a good proportion of their audience. This feels like a super point of tension in the story with great potential for a flashpoint.
During the journey John brings me up to date with the choir administration – the committee. There are influential people outside the committee and they are perhaps some of the more interesting characters for development. Return to Andy Johnson later. The committee is voluntary and very amateur. There is no long term strategy to refer to, though some of the long term members have a few sentences stored away which we think they assume everyone else is aware of. Like ‘we don’t do competitions’. ‘It’s mostly about fellowship’. And that’s as much as I’ve discerned. Andy has said to me that he agrees a direction needs to be written down, but how this becomes a committee objective is difficult to imagine to an outsider like myself who has a coniption fit at the thought of going on a committee.
JRR lets me into a few well known secrets. He is not indiscrete though skirts on the edge occasionally. The committee rarely finish anything. This has two repercussions. First, the meetings are all the same – it’s the same agenda everytime and the topics are held over and discussed again (sounds like groundhog day). Second, nothing practical gets done. One of the reasons it’s Llandudno every year is because no one does anything to change it, so it’s always a last minute ‘good enough’ event. The holiday/tour to Poland nearly didn’t get off the ground, until JRR and Terry made some concrete proposals out of good ideas. Opportunity here for tension and jeopardy because Andy has been sniping from the wings at JRR since he took over the organisation of the trip. The committee members are well-meaning but have no skills in relating to each other as a committee. As I’ve said there is no long term direction and thus the day to day operational issues have little contribution to an overall purpose. They each stand alone, a bit like the committee members themselves. The chair is ripe for development as a main character – Graham Dawson. So is the secretary – Adam Brown, grandson of David Brown and ex-master of the local hunt. Some of the committee have projects or jobs which feed into meetings, but many don’t. Adam is underused as the secretary, a role which he took on reluctantly (he’d hoped JRR would do it, but JRR is too smart for that). Graham takes on too much and is not standing back as a chair should, checking that all is on course for the long term. So it’s full of committed people not working to their individual potential and not working together effectively. The germ of an idea is coming here. About setup. A choir in disarray. Key members falling out, disastrous gig, loss of musical director. Will it all disband and finish? In comes who? Recruiting the right team – musical director, organisation man etc, jeopardy after jeopardy at all levels and then success/failure.
What else did JRR say? It was a long journey. Yes – the Willard White gig. I asked what turned out to be a very naive question, ‘What did we learn about organising a concert and putting bums on seats? Surely Andy could give us some general tips which could transfer to our bread-and-butter concerts?’ Well word has it, from Dave Marshall, that Andy didn’t do a great deal. He bullied or encouraged the choir members to sell sell sell, but the pr company he employed only made a minor contribution. Then he goes missing when needed most (often to exotic foreign parts). This shouldn’t be a great issue as good managers should have great deputies to whom the work can be delegated. Obviously this did not happen. And there were communication problems with The Town Hall staff. A friend of JRR from Worall rang to order 10 tickets and was turned away with the message that the gig was fully booked. It wasn’t. Who did he ring? Clive Hetherington designed the programme and beautiful it was too. Free copies were given to the ‘muppet seats’, but none were sold to the general public. Who had responsibility for what, when and where? The sub-committee was made of Andy, David, Clive and Steve Davies, the then treasurer, an accountant by trade who had created a monster of an account ledger, a spreasheet that was impossible to get onto one screen, for an organisation with a turnover of less than the average household. JRR couldn’t keep it all in his head. Something must have happened within this small sub-committee to push Steve into resigning and thus giving JRR his chance. JRR said no more, pulling himself back from the brink of indiscretion. Steve has always been a friend of the newsletter – it still has no official recognition – but Steve has paid for it presumably out of petty cash.
On the way to Llandudno, JRR consistently missed our road directions, but didn’t seem to mind my chiding. He got the hang of the hotel labyrinth quicker than I did. Who and where was the minataur?
What else did JRR say? Yes Andy and financial security – very interesting.
Also is the manner in which he says it and the weight he gives it in relation to the other topics he talks about. It was the biggest item and there is quite a lot on his agenda – grandchildren, fishing, watching Sheffield Wednesday, small business, health (he carries a pharmacy around with him in a tart’s toilet bag). Just to say now that I’ve thought of it, some of his personnel business deals with how people can retire successfully despite the machinations of the NHS bureaucracy. This is an invaluable service and he is good at it, scoring consistently against a team which is often poorly prepared and pretty lightweight. It’s a great thing – how much hurt does it heal? Anyway conversations about the choir lead to lots whilst other conversations did not go far. Maybe he was simply putting the issues into space to have a look at them.
What were the events that took place on our short trip? Even before the bus had appeared at New Mill, apparently Jack Bex, otherwise known as ‘whipper-in, don’t you just love ‘im’ was dropped off by his wife and promptly finished up on a passing car bonnet. Thankfully not going too fast, but Jack went pale and quiet for a while which could have been a blessing in other circumstances. Jack runs a football card on Tuesday nights in New Mill club to pay for the sandwiches for the small group that stay after rehearsal. JRR trotted out the account to the penny. It has an income of this, and pays for the prize as well as the food and so the profit is this which over 52 weeks amounts to this. Bugger all, but a small picture of something. Jack also has taken on the role of encouraging men back to rehearsal after the half time break. A tenor. His voice punches well above his slight frame outside singing anyway. He has begun to whip us in on other occasions too – it’s now accepted and expected. Could it ever be missed?
Kevin and Dalgetty ?spelling and first name, last names, is a team of tenors thrown together as the joined around the same time. Kevin has a psychiatric nurse background and I think owns one or more nursing homes. He is well off. Dalgetty has a history of life changing experience, hinted at here and there, like drops into a pool. RAF? certainly flying (he has a microlight type of craft at the local air strip). Divorce maybe whatever. Don’t know what he does now for a living, but he says he is a Buddhist. He and Kevin are consistent and heavy drinkers, with bodies to match. Saturday morning after the night before, mid rehearsal, Kevin lounges at the back on a sofa, absolutely and totally fast asleep. He was on the phone the night before in the hotel foyer, nearly screaming instructions to a poor unfortunate ‘You can’t do that!’. My imagination can go in several directions with that one.
The informal singing on Friday night in the bar was surprisingly good.
Our new songs are ‘The anthem from Chess’ and ‘Londonderry Air’. I got on the net at lunchtime and gleaned some information on the musical, it’s plot and other things. Elizabeth asked me to present the information which I did, but not happily – my days of speaking to audiences are over, even small ones. I’m sad to say that emotionally they simply mean opportunities for others to knock you down – nonsense logically, or is it? And why do I care? I realise I don’t and I could do it again. In terms of the strategic direction for our music, I’m more than a willing follower – Danny Boy may be a dying song, but it’ll do me. There’s a subplot here – the bloke who hates speaking in public who goes on to present the concerts, bit like the guy in Shakespeare in Love – the chorus?
‘The Cottage’ for lunch and the best pub I’ve been in – In Llandudno. Eric Gowling is there with Rod Gooch and David Haigh (appear to be joined at the hip sometimes – a great duo for the Everlies – their wives are great pals. Were they at school together?) Also Paul Morgan, JRR and forget his name tenor with spiky hair married to the ex-secretary at Andrew’s approved school, no not really – Lydgate (next door to our old rehearsal rooms). He didn’t want to hear me and JRR describe the foibles of our ex-colleagues, particularly orthopaedic surgeons, and particularly when his hip was feeling a bit sore. Two men joined at the hip, could be gay. Eric is a retired university chemistry lecturer, originally from Penrith in Cumbria. He is on medication for bi-polar affective disorder which sometimes clearly isn’t working. His wife, Jean has just died, after as they say a long fight with cancer. A remission the first time, but not the second. She planned a natural burial in Settle for family only. Rod and Dave and wives went and it passed successfully, with a tune from them at the tea, something they had doubts about, but pulled off. At the graveside Eric’s mobile rang, ‘It’s Jean,’ he said. How bizarrely wonderful was that? It was a relief in the end and he hurts. His daughter spoke to Rod afterwards, ‘Mum will haunt him for that and for having people from outside the family.’
The last entry before lunch. Apparently the subcommittee for the WW gig did have some concerns for covering cost – the big man is expensive – and these did get aired by other choir members. Andy promptly came up with the notion that there are many retired wealthy men and we could stand the loss. Two things, one up front and one hidden. First it put some or a lot of members’ backs up, especially those who were not wealthy and retired. Second there would be a danger of a small number of members owning the choir, with all that implies. It’s most unlikely it would happen but what a good idea for a subplot.
So what have I learned?
There’s plenty of scope for a piece of work.
More planning and thought is needed.
This means help and advice from key people and I don’t know who they are – Duncan Kenworthy comes to mind, but really could I? He could only say no. Curtis would write a great script. I’d like it to be a book first.
Some more thoughts overnight. Dilwyn has a tragedy (wife ill, cancer and dies for example) and this is the precipitating event that is leading to his behaviour. All becomes intolerable and despite all best efforts of choir he goes totally OTT and can no longer stay in his current role. Strong sense of fellowship and support gives him time off, but the suggestion he return as the pianist and have some time off as the musical director. ?New director or does he do a swap with the current pianist – a woman. Change and growth for both of them.
Dyce grows through his development as a soloist, overcoming shyness. Working towards the WW concert.
The gay duette – Ron and Bill
Back in the days at The Royal Oak, the landlord and lady were invited to Italy as part of the first choir tour. They gave backword and claimed their money back. Eric Gowling was treasurer at the time and had no record of receiving their money. Andy Johnson was secretary and was not well disposed to giving something back they may not have donated in the first place. The then chair, Ian Lister, gave in to have a quiet life. Andy resigned, though in later years he would deny that was the reason.
Ian Lister got married a second time (there were teenage twin girls to the relationship) and within 6 months or so had left her for another woman. He’s rarely seen at the choir now.