I came into the world on January 18th, at the beginning of one of the last century’s severest winters- that of 1947. The extreme cold, heavy snow (even the Scilly Isles were covered!) fuel shortages and post war rationing added up to one of the most miserable periods in recent history- but of which I, as an infant, was blissfully unaware.

 My place of birth was Ruislip, originally a village in the county of Middlesex, but by the late 1940s merely another suburb of London. Therefore, my earliest memories are suburban ones- rows of still new semi-detached and terraced houses in quiet tree-lined avenues; front gardens bright with flowering shrubs for most of the year  and rear gardens cluttered  with sheds and  bordered  by wooden fences;  terraces  of shops, bus stops, parks, and two railway stations: Ruislip Manor and South Ruislip, and all of these  relatively new at that time. Remnants of open country were still to be seen as occasional fields and patches of waste land. There was even a small farm not far from the newly built houses and shops of South Ruislip, but I think all these have gone by now- the whole area having been covered in brick and concrete years ago.

During my earliest infancy, I must have had numerous toys, of which only three stand out clearly in my memory, except that two of these were not really toys at all. For both my amusement and education when I was 2 or 3 years old, my mother used to empty the contents of her purse onto the carpet: mirror, scissors, thimble etc. and ask me to point to these objects as she named them, which I invariably did correctly. Then there was my favourite cuddly toy, a brightly coloured androgynous doll that I called Bo-Bo and from whom I was almost inseparable.

The third item was a bull (or more likely a water buffalo) carved from a block of very hard wood and probably brought from India by my grandfather, who was stationed in Hyderabad for several years before I came along.

Fascinated by this monstrosity, I got into the annoying habit of wanting “Bully”, as I called it, to have some of my food before I took each mouthful of it as it was fed to me on a spoon.  

“Give Bully a bit!”  I would cry. “Give Bully a bit; give Bully a bit” and so on. On one occasion when I was probably being more exasperating than usual my demand to “Give Bully a bit” was answered by “Bugger Bully!” followed by angry words to the effect that I was to shut up and eat my food, either from my mother who was not averse to using the milder Anglo Saxon swear words, or maybe my aunt – I do not exactly remember. But I think after that my obsession with Bully subsided considerably.

Amongst our occasional visitors were two great aunts, sisters of my mother’s mother, Auntie Rose, and Auntie Lil, both elderly spinsters. It was in connection with one of these two aunts- I cannot remember exactly which – that a memory of my earliest childhood has persisted to this day. We were on the point of going out and I was eager to leave the house, when to my annoyance one of these aunts delayed everyone by being unable to find her hat, which for some reason she must wear before being seen in public. “Where is my hat?” she repeatedly asked to which question I hastily and thoughtlessly replied “Blow yer old ‘at!” (I had acquired a London accent by that stage, probably from my mother). Rather than being castigated for such an unseemly remark, it was greeted with much amusement, and I was told numerous times about what I said on that occasion, which is probably why I remember it so clearly.

Of Auntie Rose, another memory comes to mind: a dream.  Auntie Rose was very fond of me and would often give me presents. I think I represented to her the child she never had, having never married, although I was told that she was good looking as a young woman.  I have to say that in my teens, when what I am about to relate occurred, I hardly thought about any of my elderly relations, as is perfectly natural at that age. However, one night I had a strange dream. I saw, indistinctly, a bed and two figures near it that I knew were nurses. One said to the other “She’s gone”. The dream faded away. I woke and looked at the clock at my bedside. It was 2.00 am. In the morning I already knew what I would be told, namely that Auntie Rose had died at 2.00 am that night, exactly at the time of my dream. How to explain this? I do not know. But it has made me aware of another reality beyond what we think of as the only reality around us of material things.

Cars do not figure much in my earliest memories, although I suppose there must have been some around, but I do recall my excitement at the arrival of the ice-cream van that announced itself by a jingle of bells, a brief tune played repeatedly, on hearing which my mother would give me some coins and I would run out to buy an ice-lolly. I still recall my favourite flavour- spearmint- and how the pale green chunk of ice splintered delightfully in the mouth when bitten.

Some of my earliest recollections pertain to the, then, recently ended war: I had been aware from as far back as I can remember that shortly before my arrival there had taken place a cataclysmic event, the after-effects of which could still be seen and experienced. When my mother went shopping, she would place me in a push chair and make sure she had her ration book before leaving the house.  What few shops there were nearby had little in them, and some things were still in short supply; a situation which did not completely end until 1954 when rationing was finally ended.

We had a gas mask left over from the war and which was, fortunately, never needed during the conflict. I used to play with it, putting it on and seeing how long I could last before the effort of breathing would force me to remove it. I can still remember its acrid, rubber smell and of looking at myself with it on in a mirror, savouring my inhuman appearance.

We did not acquire a television-set until about 1956, but my parents enjoyed listening to the radio, especially at weekends. Their favourite programmes included several popular items of that period such as Billy Cotton’s Band Show, at the beginning of which a coarse voice would exclaim: “Wakey, wakeeeeeeee!” - the final “e” grotesquely prolonged and distorted, to be followed by an equally coarse, but memorable, signature tune. Then there was Educating Archie -a ventriloquist and his wooden dummy made to talk like a “toff”; and of course, those inimitable comedians, the “Goons” whose programmes often featured that memorable line: “He’s fallen in the watah!”

Comedians seemed much funnier then than now- or is that just my imagination? Another memory associated with the radio is that of the week in 1952 when all the cheerful programmes were replaced by sombre news bulletins and solemn music on the occurrence of the death of King George VI. Although we had no television set at that time, our next-door neighbours did have one, and I remember watching the coronation of HM Elizabeth II as a small, flickering, black, white, and grey image on a screen about the size of an A4 sheet of paper.

Both of my parents came from quite humble backgrounds. My father was a printer by trade who, at the time of my arrival, worked in a print shop in nearby Ruislip Manor. Later he became his own boss as a director of James Ernest Regan & Co of Hillingdon, printing leaflets for companies including Glaxo, the famous drug manufacturers. I would occasionally have to visit the factory- a huge shed in which were several enormous machines all working at once and making a deafening racket as blank paper went in at one end and printed pages came out at the other. It was all very exciting to watch but was arduous work. My father worked long hours- sometimes all night if a machine broke down and needed attending to - and so I did not see him as much as I saw my mother. I grew up closer to her. It was only when in my teens and dad retired early that I got to know him better. However, I think it was because of his business, and the fact that there was always printed material around the house waiting to be proof-read, that I acquired my life-long attraction to books and magazines.

My paternal grandfather, of whom I have but very dim memories, was a soldier by profession. Hailing originally from either Mayo or Sligo, he became a sergeant-major in the British Army at a time, remember, when Ireland was still “British”.

My mother, a native of one of the poorer parts of Westminster, was a housewife at the time of my birth. But she was never reluctant to point out that during the war years she worked in a nursery caring for infants whose mothers were on war-work and whose fathers were fighting Hitler. Her father was a lamplighter- an occupation which probably requires some explanation today: he was employed to light (and presumably extinguish) gas lamps on a daily round which would start in late evening during the summer months, and of course, get progressively earlier towards mid-winter.  Despite this humble station in life, he had a love of music, especially opera. My mother maintained that my own love of music was inherited from him.

Of the many anecdotes told to me by my mother, two continue to stand out. There was an uncle- her father’s brother, who went through the 1914-18 war without a scratch, only to be killed in 1919 or 1920 when a taxi, returning from a day trip to Southend, overturned with him inside it. And then there is the curious story of the frozen shirt. Now, I cannot remember to which one of my mother’s relations this story refers, but he was a milk-rounds man, and this was way back before 1914. One frosty morning his shirt, which had been washed and hung out overnight drew the comment “Oh, Uncle T-----’s stiff!”. This was said humorously- but how true it was! At that very moment he was indeed “stiff” having been beaten to death in an alley and robbed of his takings.

The first joke I can recall hearing, and one that I like to think helped in a small way to steer me on the path to music, was the “Rimsky-Korsakov Joke”. Now, stop me if you’ve heard it…….You haven’t. Well, it goes something like this:

There was once a man employed by the BBC to announce items on a daily popular request programme. You know- Mrs T from Ashby de la Zouche would very much like to hear that lovely aria from such and such by so and so.  Well, one of the most popular items requested was “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Now, the announcer just could not get that name right. It would come out sounding like “Ritsi-Kormaskov” or “Riski-Mortakov” and so on. Eventually, one evening towards the end of the week, the director of broadcasting stopped the unfortunate announcer on his way out. “Now look here “said the director “That piece is one of our most popular requests. “And indeed, it was, coming up at least once a week and sometimes more often.  The director continued, somewhat more warmly “If you can’t get that Russian bloke’s name right, I’ll have to find someone else who can, understand?  Now go home and practise it over the weekend, and then I’m sure it will be alright next time.”  And that was what the announcer did. Over the weekend he repeated, for one whole hour, very slowly and in front of a mirror, “R-I-M-S-K-Y K-O-R-S-A-K-O-V”, until it was perfect. Monday morning came, and with it the popular request programme. Sure enough, just half an hour into the programme came a request for that piece by you-know-who. Full of newly acquired confidence, the announcer launched into his introduction: “And now, Mrs F---- from Lower G------ would like to hear that old favourite:



(deep breath)

the bum of the flightle bee…….


My earliest recollections of these go back to our annual stay in Bournemouth, in which town my paternal grandmother ran a boarding house. This establishment did not look any different from all the other old houses in one of Bournemouth’s back streets, and here we would lodge for one or two weeks most likely in August and partake of the same activities each year running: trips to the beach, walks in the public gardens, excursions to nearby places of interest such as Branksome, Christchurch and a desolate expanse of clifftop heathland called Hengistbury Head.

At the time of which I write, Bournemouth, already almost a city in size, was brightened by a fleet of yellow trolleybuses (alas, now extinct) that, together with its funicular railways, promenade, and pier made it a colourful and exotic place quite unlike drab and dingy London 100 or so miles to the north.

My parents felt obliged to stay in the boarding house every year for several years running - presumably there was no charge- but one year they decided they had had enough of Bournemouth and took the daring step of changing our summer destination to the West Country, of which more later.

Every now and again and usually at weekends, we would visit my aunt, (my mother’s sister) and her two daughters who lived in an old house in Camberwell, South London.  My father would dutifully drive there through the London traffic, which seemed as  congested then as it is now, along the Western Avenue, through the West End and then south-eastwards towards what was for me the most exciting part of the otherwise rather tedious journey, where, just after crossing Vauxhall bridge, the road went for what seemed to my youthful eyes to be a long way under the railway lines at Vauxhall station, so long that it actually got dark halfway in. After that the streets got poorer and shabbier until Camberwell was reached, and we stopped outside an old house in Albany Road. This house, built c.1840 and now probably demolished, was constructed in such a way that no two ground floors were on the same level. At the back was a small plain garden and beyond that and behind a high brick wall were the premises of White’s the soft-drink manufacturers. There was also a ghost – or so my grandmother believed. She told us that she saw, approaching her bed one night, a small girl, and not one of my cousins. This apparition, if such it was, just seems to have disappeared when my grandmother looked again more alertly…

Parts of this house smelt strongly of damp and when I occasionally smell that odour of ancient dampness, my thoughts go back to that old house and its occupants. I think that nearly all the old buildings in the Albany Road of my childhood have long been demolished and replaced by characterless apartment blocks.


Of my first school, Sacred Heart Primary in Ruislip Gardens, I remember little except that the headmaster often tried to convert my mother, a life-long Anglican, to Roman Catholicism, and that she would listen respectfully but always decline the offer.

Of my second school, Gunnersbury Catholic Grammar, I have more concrete but rather mixed recollections. It was staffed by priests who, far from rejecting the world and all its temptations, seemed to live life to the full, judging by the crates of empty beer bottles (or was it altar wine?)  stacked up behind the priests’ house next to the school.

 Masters were divided into two categories: There were those whom you could twist around your little finger and who could never keep an orderly class, no matter how much they threatened corporal punishment. An elderly mathematics master was a typical specimen. He would glare at a troublesome boy and murmur “I don’t like your attitude. Go to the head after class for the whack “(a hard leather cosh used on the posteriors of offenders). But then at the end of the lesson he would relent and say to the same boy “Oh well, try to behave better next time”.

And then there were those who inspired fear and inflicted pain. The most-feared master was Mr H., teacher of English language and literature, a hint of whose approach would instantly silence and petrify a whole class. A lesson with Mr H.  seldom passed without violence. One of his favourite tricks would be to write on the blackboard with his back to the class, and suddenly, sensing some forbidden movement or sound, turn round and fling the wooden chalk-duster in the direction of the suspected miscreant, usually scoring a full-face hit. If by chance he hit the wrong boy, so much the worse for him, he was still guilty- by proximity.

It was from Mr H. that I first encountered that anti-American sentiment which has been such a permanent feature in sections of British society. According to Mr H., Americans could not speak or spell correctly, and that although as individuals they could be fine, as a mass they were obnoxious. Looking back, it seems incredible to me that a man who taught, and presumably loved, English literature should have thought so little of the nation that produced Melville, Emerson, Whitman, James, and scores of other great writers. My mother spoke more sense: “Never run down the Yanks; without them we would all be under the Nazis”.

I cannot say that I was very enthusiastic about any of the subjects taught at Gunnersbury at that time. Mathematics, French, Latin etc. were tolerable, but sports and so-called “PE” were my particular dreads then as now. I still cannot believe that men (and women these days, I believe) enjoy rolling around in mud in sometimes freezing weather, playing Rugby Football. To me it was almost unendurable, and I always aimed to stay as far from the ball as possible. Cross country running was another source of anxiety. Once a month nearly the whole school trooped to nearby Gunnersbury Park and were made to run around its extensive perimeter. I can say with some pride that I was never last, but always in the last few stragglers, mostly the overweight brigade, who would end up exhaustedly walking or limping to the gates. The only game that I found mildly pleasant was cricket, although I was no good at it, but at least it took place in warmer weather.

During my secondary school years and maybe just before, I was obsessed by model railways and indeed by all mechanical things. I had been given a Meccano set around the age of ten and subscribed to “Meccano Magazine” for some years. I do not remember actually constructing anything workable- except maybe a “lever locking device” the plans of which were in one issue of the magazine.  Similarly with the train set, it never seemed to progress beyond a circle of track, a couple of locomotives and a few trucks and coaches. The power would often fail leaving my engines unable to move, and my pitifully scant layout never looked anything like the opulent and realistic examples shown in magazines such as “Railway Modeller” and so on. By the time I had gone into about the 3rd form at Gunnersbury, my interest in model railways had considerably faded. However, very recently and for some inexplicable reason, I have become obsessed by trams – those of the double-deck variety that used to sedately trundle their way through London’s streets, mainly to the south of the city, and that were all quietly done away with by 1952. It is with a sense of acute nostalgia that I think of these vehicles that 100 years ago were to be seen in our local main roads in New Malden and Kingston. Alas, to be replaced by buses in the 1930s!

 The Wild Places

From as early as I can remember I have been attracted to certain types of landscape: woods, hills, mountains, and moors. I think it started with holidays in the West Country spent with my parents from about the age of eight or so, and which continued until my teens. It is often averred that small children have no “eye” for scenery and are bored by it, but on the contrary, I was, from a very early age, thrilled by seeing bleak moors, devoid of human habitation, and, to me, menacing in their emptiness and silence. I loved to run free, savouring the windy heights of Exmoor, Dartmoor, and the great grassy cliff tops of Devon and Cornwall along which I would joyously run -much to the anxiety of my mother whose cry of “Don’t go too near the edge!” would always accompany such boyish displays of daring.

It is to the last-named county that some of my fondest holiday memories pertain, when we would drive down - a two-day journey in those days, if you could not get over Dartmoor before nightfall- and stay for a fortnight in the small fishing village of Porthleven. We stayed for several consecutive years with a Cornish family- there were three delightful girls, one younger than me, one a little older and the third in her early teens. Their mother was a typical dark-haired and dark-eyed Cornish beauty, so different from the blonde Anglo-Saxon females that I was more used to seeing.  It is a fact of old age, which I must acknowledge is just beginning for me, that one’s early memories return in a heightened form and are much more sharply focussed than more recent ones- including those of even the last few days! Thus, if I close my eyes, I can still see a little boy playing happily on the sun-warmed sands of Marazion beach in the company of two small girls, while his parents and the girls’ mother sit nearby in deckchairs; can still feel the gentle motion of the boat as it took us on the short journey to St Michael’s Mount where we disembarked and wandered around that tiny island. And all this was 50 years in the past. Why- those girls are now, incredibly, in their seventies! But I still can only picture them as children and to me they will always remain so.

And then, there was “Fisherman’s Cottage” – a boarding house in the remote village of Lee Bay on the North Devon coast.

My memories get a little confused as to whether Lee Bay came before or after Porthleven and whether we went there once, twice, or more times in succession. However, I certainly can remember a sound: the most mournful, eerie, distant, tenor voice of the foghorn, known to the locals as “Moaning Minnie”, located either at Bull Point or Morte Point, that would sometimes go on all night and into the day. Just how the sound of this instrument could warn mariners of the dangers of this most dangerous and deadly of coasts, I have no idea. Possibly by the volume of sound they could tell how near to the rocks they were?

Near Lee Bay was a ruined manor house. The story told locally was that it was burned out one night by a careless vagrant. I know that my mother and myself on one occasion tried to reach it along a steep and very overgrown footpath, but that we turned back because of the increasingly sinister atmosphere around us that made progress less and less inviting.

Sitting alone in a room in a hotel in some great city, I take refuge in memories of how, as a boy, I used to wander through the woods adjoining the bungalow that we moved to when the end-of- terrace house in South Ruislip was deemed to be too small for a company director and his family.

These woods were and, mercifully, still are, quite extensive and in three sections, called Park, Copse and Mad Bess Woods. A fourth area, Bayhurst Wood, was somewhat further away. Park Wood could be entered from our rear garden and hardly a week passed (and often much less than that) when I would not take an hour or so to stroll through one or more areas of woodland. The trees were mostly oak and hornbeam with some chestnut and holly and I got to know the woods in all seasons from the hottest midsummer days of full and radiant foliage, deep black shadows and the blinding light of clearings in full sunshine in which the dust from the paths danced in the sunbeams, to those foggy late Autumn afternoons when dusk comes on early and the trees become dark poles against a grey background; from freezing but fine winter mornings of gold and pale blue, to the first, fresh verdure of early Spring with its drumming of woodpeckers echoing through a revitalised landscape.

I think it was my experience of, and empathy with, these woods that replaced religious belief in my teens. I began to doubt the existence of God, and the teachings of Christianity, and my readings and love of the Greek myths had, by then, turned me rather pagan. All I knew was that these woods were ALIVE with a life not human, and which long predated my own life, and that it was mysterious and somehow eternal. Even in the darkest and most stormy days of winter the life persisted just under the surface, waiting to reassert itself with the coming of Spring. 

Some of this joy in wild and lonely places has occasionally returned later in my life, when I have been able to get away from  the all-consuming activities of home and work: the  great jungle-clad peaks visible from the ancient city of Machu Picchu  in Peru, which gave me a strong awareness of the spirit world and the presence of God, and nearer home,  the rocky outcrops on the Long Mynd in Shropshire, on which I sat one summer’s day years ago- but it seems like yesterday- the warm coarseness of some of the earth’s oldest rocks under my fingers. A few moments of keenest bliss- a fragment of eternity.

 My work compels me to live in a city, but I chose the greenest quarter of London- the south-west-with its great parks of Richmond, Bushy, Wimbledon Common and Hampton Court. From the first floor of our house may be seen the North Downs upon which I can, in imagination, roam along their breezy summits and view in my mind’s eye the great expanse of the Weald to the south with its hills and wooded valleys, and farther off, the South Downs and finally, the sea.

With this love of the wilds has developed a corresponding interest in the literature of rural rather than urban life and especially that of two writers, both of whose poems I have attempted to set to music and whose depictions of rural settings cannot be surpassed. Thomas Hardy was an author with an extraordinary insight into both human and natural life, and whose work can be read on a number of levels: as exact and detailed depictions of the human condition, as romances, and as including some of the finest portrayals ever made of the rural world which he so much loved and could see being overwhelmed by that creeping urbanisation, which was already well underway, even in the 19th century.

And in Yeats I have found some of the most evocative nature-writing, and startlingly exact in a poet generally considered to be concerned more with spiritual matters. For an example read “Coole and Ballylee 1931” in which with a minimal number of expertly chosen words Yeats paints a winter landscape as surely as any artist could do with oils or pastels:

Upon the border of that lake’s a wood

Now all dry sticks under a wintry sun,

And in a copse of beeches there I stood,

For Nature’s pulled her tragic buskin on…

 Early musical experiences

I am sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned room, in some great Southeast Asian city. The room is furnished with an upright piano and one or two chairs. A few books are on view in display cabinets along one wall. From 9.00 a.m. until after 4.00 in the afternoon, a stream of girls and boys (mostly girls) enter the room in various stages of apprehension, nervously come to my desk to hand me their mark-papers, sit in front of the piano and, at my request, play a few scales, three pieces, attempt the sight-reading, answer one or two questions and undergo aural tests, finally to leave with a polite “thank you, goodbye”.

How did I get here? How did the small boy who loved to make up tunes on the black keys of an old piano end up spending months of his life in exotic places such as Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bandung, Kuching, Singapore and Medan, listening, judging, writing reports, dealing with “reps”, living in hotels and maybe even influencing the future courses of the lives of at least a fraction of the children who are required to hold his attention and gain approval for their allotted few minutes. It was the attempt to answer this question that led me to write this memoir and to try to unravel the convoluted but unbroken thread that has run through my life. This thread is, as the reader may now have realised, music.

The old piano was my mother’s, and I cannot recall where she got it from; but, from an early age I was drawn to it.  When I was nine years old my mother, getting tired of hearing my endless doodles (mainly on the black keys) suggested that I have piano lessons, to which I readily agreed.  My first teacher was an elderly lady called Miss Street, who lived a few roads away. I do not remember much about the lessons, but I must have been a quick learner because by the age of twelve I was trying out the “Visions Fugitives” by Prokofieff, which I had heard on the radio, acquired a copy of and taken to Miss Street for her inspection. I can still hear her response after I played one of the “Visions” - “Well, it’s very clever. But it’s not music”.

In 1960, the end-of-terrace house in Exmouth Road, where I had lived the first 13 years of my life, was deemed to be too small and insignificant for a company director (as my father was by this time) and so we all moved to a large bungalow in North Ruislip. As a result of the move came a new piano teacher, Martin David, a former concert pianist, who lived a few streets away with his young Spanish wife. His teaching style was unique: throughout each lesson he would sit, sideways on, and smoke a large cigar, listening and occasionally removing the cigar from his mouth to pass judgment, and comment on what was happening at the piano. His favourite composers were Faure and Granados, and he introduced me to a wider range of music than I would ever have got from Miss Street, who only seemed to like Chopin.

Martin David detected musical talent in me and encouraged it to develop. He suggested that I apply for entry to one of the London conservatoires, which I duly did.

I was accepted at the old Guildhall School of Music & Drama (then situated in a large Victorian office building in Blackfriars) at the age of 17, and thus began what was to be an almost unbroken life of studying and teaching music, and of being part of the musical educational establishment, first as a student, then as a teacher, then as a student again and finally as an examiner.


Music has determined the whole course of my life: listening to it, teaching both the practical and theoretical aspects of it, composing it and even at times trying to escape from it.  Music has been the “thorough bass” upon which my life has played out its melodies of sometimes joyful and sometimes dolorous notes. Music has brought the keenest pleasures, has earned me a living, found me a wife, and sent me half-way around the world.

I regret to say that I was probably not the most brilliant or industrious student to have studied at the GSMD. I must have seemed pretty immature and indecisive to my teachers and indeed I left after three years with just the licentiate diploma, having decided to avoid class teaching (no doubt prompted by memories of seeing the music master at Gunnersbury in tears on occasions after particularly harrowing experiences with tone-deaf pupils).

My teachers at the GSMD were Dennis Dance, for piano, elderly and given to digressing on his experiences in “the war” (it must, I think, have been the 1914-18 one). I remember the ritual that I was persuaded to perform before his lessons- of obtaining the key to his locker, removing from it an old and faded red cushion, going to his studio, and placing this item on his chair- (I was the first student of the day). Of his teaching, I remember little except that he often went on about his “ops” and about the war- “Dreadful, dear boy, absolutely awful! You’re lucky to have missed it.”

My first composition teacher was Buxton Orr, a Scottish ex-doctor, a few of whose works, notably “A John Gay Suite” for wind ensemble, are still occasionally performed. His language was colourful. I remember one occasion when he sat next to me during a piano recital given by a senior student. Her final piece, by Villa Lobos was summed up by Buxton in one concise, unprintable, four-letter word, much to my amazement, as I thought it was harmless enough and quite likeable.

I cannot say that Buxton taught me much, but then I was not writing much at that stage, and what little I started I could not finish. However, we were getting along quite nicely, and I was even being invited to his home for lessons because ill health prevented him from travelling until, foolish youth that I was, I made some joking remark about one of his favourite composers. Well, that was the end. From then on, I did not exist for him, and I do not think we ever met again. I regret now that I was estranged from him. I doubt that he was ever happy, being twice married and twice divorced. He died in 1997. By way of atonement for my disastrous gaffe I dedicated my “Four Scots Songs” of 2007 to his memory.

Peter Wishart, my teacher of harmony and counterpoint, I recall only with pleasure. Again, of his teaching little trace is left in my memory, but his classes were always enjoyable and consisted mostly of Peter, Gauloise on lip and filling the studio with a pungent and delicious aroma, enthusiastically playing through Haydn quartet movements, sometimes pausing to point out interesting features. It was usually Haydn, but occasionally one of the “moderns” of the time like Milhaud, or Kodaly. On one occasion he asked each member of the group to play something. When my turn came, I played Liszt’s “St Francis Walking on the Waters” which I was studying at the time. When I had finished a fellow student commented approvingly “Wow, they don’t make films like that anymore!” Peter, however, while liking the performance, expressed his view that Liszt was not among the greatest composers, with which judgment I would agree today, although at that time I was completely overawed by his music and even became a member of the Liszt Society for a few years.

My time at the GSMD coincided with the great “Mahler revival “. In the UK it was more like an introduction, as Mahler had never been well-known here. I was as bowled-over as anyone else - at the time- and revelled in the symphonies, listening to as many as I could and buying scores of the gigantic 2nd and more classically proportioned 4th with its delightful song-finale. My interest waned after a few years. Today I still occasionally listen to a Mahler symphony- my favourite is the 7th with its exquisite Nachtmusik movements, but he is, I think, primarily a composer for the young- they have more time to listen to his extended utterances and to react with more empathy to his often-histrionic emotional sound-world.  Also, when under his spell, I did not really know any Brahms (apart from a few piano pieces). Now my intimate knowledge and love of Brahms has made me see the faults of lesser composers.

However, Mahler was just one of a whole series of composers, writers, and artists whose work has, sometimes fleetingly and sometimes lastingly held my attention over the years. The list includes: Prokofieff, Liszt, Britten, Tippett, Debussy, Stravinsky, Henze, Brahms and Palestrina, Klee, Miro and Moholy-Nagy, Melville, Mann, Axel Munthe, Yeats, Hardy and Cage. In some moods they all seem to me to be like giants, like immortals- but sooner or later, I find myself contemplating some great natural wonder or convulsion (of which latter there have been so many lately) and then all the works of man seem trivial, fleeting and dream-like.


After leaving the GSMD with my newly acquired LGSM diploma, I immediately began to teach piano and theory in private practice- an occupation which has lasted for more than 40 years and never failed to provide some sort of income. Students come in all sizes, ages, and levels of natural ability from the gifted (rare) to the hopeless (mercifully few). Most are somewhere in between, i.e., they have some interest and some talent but usually lack the willpower to do anything between lessons.

I have learned more through teaching than I ever learned at the GSMD. All conservatoires are only nurseries; they start you off, and give you a qualification, but the real learning process begins with your first lesson as a teacher.

The biggest danger for a music-teacher is staleness- boring students instead of interesting them. It happened to me. I was getting heartily tired of teaching and students were leaving. A refresher course given by the Associated Board helped. I realized that it was time for a fresh approach to lessons. I began to change my teaching methods: to ask more questions to engage the students’ attention, not to spend too long on any single topic, to introduce popular music and jazz pieces. Also, I began to adopt a friendlier stance, conversing more with adult students to put them at ease, asking the older children about their schools, not being afraid to address little girls as “dear” or “love” to make them less nervous. To be, in a word, more human and less like the stuffy, elderly pedagogue that I was in danger of becoming.

 Since then, my work as an instrumental teacher has been guided by two over-arching principles that I try to maintain in every lesson. One is that all lessons should be enjoyable: I want my students to look forward to their appointments with me with pleasurable anticipation and not with apprehension. Then, there should be something achieved at every lesson if possible. This could be starting a new piece, smoothing out imperfections in existing pieces, overcoming some technical difficulty, etc. The cost of putting these two principles into practice is keeping very patient with even the most apparently hopeless cases!  In this respect my recent experiences of trying to master certain dance steps that my fellow students manage with ease has made me much more patient when my pupils seem to be unable to get the simplest manoeuvres right.

But let me go back to the point at which I had just left the GSMD and embarked on a career as a music-teacher in private practice. As I soon discovered, music teaching at home is a rather lonely occupation- when your last student of the evening has departed, it is too late to go out and seek society, and I craved companionship at that time of my life. I met up with one or two friends at weekends, and that was some compensation for the lonely weekdays, but I had other ambitions. My three years of study at the GSMD had left me still feeling somewhat unfulfilled. For a while I seriously contemplated becoming a concert pianist. With this aim in mind, I took lessons with an elderly Russian lady for about two years, assiduously attending her master classes and practising for 2-3 hours a day. It was during these years that I got to know much of the mainstream piano literature- the Bach Preludes and Fugues, with which I would invariably begin each practice session, and much of the piano music of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, and Debussy, together with lesser portions of Brahms, Prokofieff, Bartok and Stravinsky.

But we change! Like hills which seem so near when viewed from a valley, but which seem to recede as we set off to approach them, the goal of becoming a concert pianist seemed to move farther and farther away. The more I practised, the more I realized my technical limitations, and besides, I really wanted to write my own music, not spend valuable time practising that of others.

Hence the piano lessons stopped, and I did two things which proved to be of lasting significance in my life: I decided to study for a B. Mus. Degree, and I returned to the Guildhall School to study composition with Patric Standford. I chose Patric on the recommendation of a friend, Malcolm Dedman, who had previously studied with him, and he proved to be a superb teacher- just what I needed to cure the “composer’s block” which was afflicting me at that time- able to begin works (I had ideas) but unable to get very far with them. Without imposing any sort of stylistic idiom, Patric got straight away to the root of my problem which was that I was not making full use of my ideas but introducing new ones when I got stuck on how to continue. I cannot comment on the quality of my music, but from that year’s study onwards I have nearly always been able to finish a work.


I gained the Durham B. Mus. Degree in 1973, when degrees, even 1st degrees, were still attained by hard work and long years of study. (The Durham degree included a six-hour fugue paper(!) and one of the set works was the entire final act of “Otello”). Being armed, as it were, with a substantial qualification, I decided it was time to search for work outside of home, and so I duly wrote to all the music colleges in London to seek a teaching position. Nothing happened. I wrote again a year later- and this time I received a letter from Dr W. Lloyd Webber, the principal of the London College of Music, requesting that I come to his office for a short interview. Dr Webber (or Bill as he was affectionately known), father of the more famous Andrew, was a man of few words. All that I can recall of the interview was Bill asking me when I could start.

The LCM years

My first term at the LCM was in the Autumn of 1975. I was assigned to teach harmony and counterpoint to small groups of students on the Graduate Course. The coursework was solidly conservative in content: 2- and 3-part counterpoint, chorale-type harmony, string quartet writing “a la Haydn” and fugal exposition. There was a bit of modernism in the 3rd year work- how to write impressionistic piano pieces and the elementary use of a 12-note series. Remembering my experiences with Peter Wishart, I would often end classes by playing works on the piano for the students to listen to. Some of them later testified that this was the best part of the class.

During my 22 years at the LCM, I got roped in to teach a variety of subjects: keyboard harmony, aural training, composition, and even at one time, I think, 2nd study piano. The quality of students was of course, always variable but over the years they got worse. I do not mean that in any moral sense- they were all nice enough, polite, and so on. But something happened from about 1990 which affected the type of young person coming into music colleges. I think it was the relegation of “serious” music at secondary level to just one part of a plethora of “world music-s” which started to creep into education at about this time, and which had (and still has) a negative effect on the young people I was trying to teach.  Put briefly, they were mostly surprisingly ignorant of the subject that they intended to study. It is no exaggeration to say that I was getting B. Mus. course students who found it hard to recognize a perfect cadence in a string quartet movement, and who indeed, did not even know what a string quartet was!

Now, I do not want to sound like an old “fuddy-duddy”, but I have to say what I believe: that if you downgrade the classics, and by putting them on an equal footing with popular music, jazz, folksong etc., you are downgrading them, what you are in fact doing is making yourself look foolish in the eyes of posterity. The reason is the extraordinary resilience of the classical tradition in music (i.e., roughly from Monteverdi to Maxwell Davies) which will ensure that it will survive and be listened to for its depth of expression and complexity of structure when today’s popular, jazz, and ethnic music has been long forgotten. Do not misunderstand me. I enjoy much of the more popular types of music as much as the next man, I am sometimes moved by it, and it has influenced my own work. But, compared to classical music it lacks depth. I mean that you cannot dig deep into it. It is shallow- usually a catchy melody over well-worn chord progressions. I remember having to teach the popular music course for one term to groups of B. Mus. students at what became the new LCM, (see below). I dutifully played recordings and analysed popular songs from various decades of the 20th century. Usually after about 10 minutes of “analysis” there was little left to say, so meagre were the materials. I can compare that to the experience of spending an hour looking at a section of a Brahms piano piece. So rich was the material, and so full of references outside itself that one discovery led to another and another and so on. That is what I mean by “depth “- where you can go on digging down into the musical substance, seeing oddities, explaining relationships, references to other works, and how the composer has sought to express moods and emotions.

Life at the old LCM during the Lloyd Webber years was happy and comfortable, if unexciting. Bill, as I have mentioned earlier, was not by nature talkative, but he did from time to time tell, not exactly jokes, but humorous anecdotes. I remember his comment on the malfunctioning lift in his apartment building- “Yes” he remarked, “It has its ups and downs”. He also had his favourite and less favourite composers, one of the latter being Nielsen, whose 4th symphony The Inextinguishable, Bill renamed The Interminable.

Of my colleagues at the LCM during my years there, a few stand out in my mind. There was John Vallier, tutor of piano and also a minor composer; Jonathan Melling, organist and teacher of General Musicianship, who once quipped at the time that the Royal Academy of Music advertised itself to the world as a “Centre of Excellence”, that the LCM should style itself a “Centre of Mediocrity”; Stephen Pierce, tutor of clarinet who once said that he could tell how much the female students had practised by what they were wearing (or maybe not wearing) at the lessons.

Three times a year there occurred what were known as Theory Boards at which piles of grade and diploma papers were marked by a team of professors, presided over by Bill. I was invited to join from my first term. The other regular members were Martyn Williams, a genial Welshman, Charles Collins- professor of piano, Brian Trueman, the Schumann expert, Jonathan Melling, Dr John Burn the assistant director, and Dr William Pasfield, former head of the graduate course until his retirement in about 1985. These were all men of character, all with their opinions and mannerisms. But we were an amicable team, and more so after midday when the “refreshment” was served.  Bill could not abide teetotallers, but unfortunately because of a medical condition, Dr Burn was forbidden alcohol. Therefore, to please Bill, he would drink chrysanthemum tea, the appearance of which vaguely resembled something alcoholic- although it was said that it looked more like a specimen!

There were occasional extra members at these meetings. One of these, who managed to mark one paper to everyone else’s ten was only invited once, and another, the resident flute tutor at LCM, and who was known rather dubiously, as “an expert on wind” joined us for a few sessions.

Dr Pasfield was for many years a familiar face at the LCM, and even after his retirement he would often come in for a chat. He became a particular friend of mine and we often had lunch together in a cosy Italian restaurant on the corner of Carnaby Street.  He seemed to live on a different plane from most of the rest of humanity. A typical opening from Dr P.  would be, after inhaling the air deeply, “You know, as Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil…………. “But, of course, few of us did know, but we listened respectfully, paying due homage to Dr P.’s age and erudition.  He was very active in old age- being well over 70 when I knew him. I can still see the way he would stride along Great Marlborough Street, like a country gent walking around his estate, sniffing the air, and smiling to himself, no doubt about some philosophical point in Nietzsche - or Sartre.

There were some amusing characters amongst the students at the old LCM, including the diminutive fellow who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Chopin, and dressed the part with black cape and silver topped walking-stick; and the disabled girl who, during hot weather, was seen to remove her wooden leg and fan herself with it.  There was also a sizable number of overseas students, especially from the Far East, one of whom I got to know very well and who later became my wife.

I believe that nothing in one’s life is ever accidental. Things grow out of each other. Thus, it is possible to trace a course of cause and effect backwards from the point when I met my wife back to when I was that small boy idly fingering the keys of an old piano. Looking forward: from that same point originates my long involvement with the Far East and especially Malaysia. But more on that later.

To return to my years at the LCM, those halcyon days under Lloyd Webber did not, of course, last. With his quite unexpected demise the running of the college passed into other, less capable, hands. There was eventually a financial crisis which resulted in the LCM having to move from Great Marlborough Street and take refuge in a new university- at that time known as Thames Valley University, in the west London suburb of Ealing. It was a move from which the College never really recovered, becoming just another university department with a depleted intake of ill-prepared music students, and mixing itself up with “media” - music technology, film, video and so on.

On the other hand, the LCM examinations department continued to flourish and has steadily increased its activities and reputation as one of the best alternative boards to the Associated Board.


I first knew that I wanted to be a composer from my early teens. I recall struggling to get beyond the first bar or so of a piano piece at about the age of 13, but it was not until just before I entered the GSMD that I did complete a few pieces, which I believe I still have filed away somewhere. They were immature of course, but nevertheless sufficiently promising to persuade my interviewers that I could go ahead and study composition. However, it was only after my year with Patric Standford that I acquired any real fluency. This year was well rewarded by the appearance of my first published works: solos, duos and a trio for guitars published by Schott, but now for many years out of print.

Marriage, Children & Old Age

The simple facts are that I married one of my students, Sonia Jong, in 1987 at the rather late age of 40 (the “right woman” - if there is such a person! - had not previously appeared).   We now (c. 2010) have two children, Zoe (b. 1996) and Ambrose (b. 1998), and two ancient cats, both older than the children. But from this point the personal part of my life is overtaken by another life, that of husband and father, which is shared with others and hence not really my own.

Therefore, I will not say more about it as I am sure that my married life in its blend of joys, woes, harmony, and discord is much the same as everyone else’s.

What I will conclude by saying is that as old age approaches, I am aware of its advantages as well as its problems. I do not yet feel age as a bleak winter but more as a ripe autumn in which I can look back on the summer of a largely fulfilled life- work that has also been a keen interest, family, a few friends, travel to distant and inspiring places, and encountering and being uplifted by great art and literature. I realised recently that I must appear to be old when, having to travel on the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit system, which is invariably overcrowded, several young ladies offered their seats to me. I politely declined the offers and just hung on more tightly to the handrails and with a more erect and, hopefully, youthful-looking posture. The resultant backache was a small price to pay for the preservation of my self-respect.

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