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I seldom visit London these days. Not because I dislike it. In fact, I have a great affection for it, having been being born and having lived most of my life, on the outermost edges of it, first in Ruislip to the west, and now in New Malden to the south-west. No, I seldom visit because the London of the present is not as it was when I was younger.


During my secondary school years, I travelled every weekday to Gunnersbury Avenue, taking the train from Ruislip Manor to Acton Town. Later, during my years teaching at the London College of Music I regularly experienced the often overcrowded underground and buses to transport me to Great Marlborough Street and, when the LCM moved to Ealing, to St Mary’s Road south of the Broadway.

But my earliest memories of London go far back to those drab post-war years c.1949-55 when, every now and again and usually at weekends, I would be taken to visit my aunt (my mother’s sister) and her two daughters who lived in an old house in Camberwell, south of the river. 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 the Thames at 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 we reached Camberwell and 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 old house smelt strongly of damp and when I occasionally smell that odour of ancient dampness, my thoughts go back to that 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.

The London of my earliest years was a city of Londoners, rather than immigrants and transients (no offence intended, but just a fact); of dense fogs in the late Autumn months; of tramcars (up to 1952) which I very vaguely remember seeing and most probably riding on; of wood, bricks and mortar and with practically no high-rise constructions anywhere to interrupt the low-level horizon of tiled roofs punctuated by the occasional church steeple or tower, that one could see from the high points to north and south.

From my diary


A journey can do much to break the monotony of daily existence- even the quite short one we made yesterday to inspect the piano of two acquaintances, an elderly couple in South Norwood.

The drive through the inner suburbs of south London put me in mind of The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher- written 40 years back and now probably very out of date. It struck me that he did not know South London much, as that area is hardly mentioned in his book. But he would-if he were still around- surely enjoy the decrepit Victorian and Edwardian parts of Merton. Streatham, Dulwich etc and the oriental-flavoured Thornton Heath. Our destination was the rather more affluent South Norwood, perched a few hundred feet on hills from which the views to the south are extensive and vertigo-inducing. The house at which we finally stopped was not only high on a hill but approached by three flights of steps- ascending!

A piano was found in the back room of this 100-year-old villa- and not in a good state of repair. I mused on how it was brought up here, and visions of the Laurel and Hardy classic “The Piano Delivery” came to mind.

11/ 7/15

Just a note to record that I attended the latest London Composers Forum event- a concert of members’ works at Schott’s premises in Great Marlborough Street- next door to the former LCM building (listed) and not visited by me since 1992. Arriving at Argyll Street by means of the Bakerloo Line I was unprepared for the dense crowds of pedestrians through which I made rather slow and zigzag progress to my destination. London is loved by me more at a distance- to be in the centre of it especially in summer when it is hot, expensive, overcrowded and not very clean is less pleasant.

17/7/ 15

Two days (14th & 15th) of examining in Hatfield. My route took me through some of the oldest and newest of London cityscapes. My London must be those rows of Victorian or early 20th century shops and houses, often in need of restoration. This is what my earliest memories of London consist of: a city of mainly two or three storeys with anything higher only for the church, government, or aristocracy.  Noted with pleasure were Earlsfield, Tooting, Streatham, Tulse and Herne Hills, Camberwell- and, with much less satisfaction: Elephant*, Blackfriars and the very recent Thameslink. However, I have to say that the newly rebuilt St Pancras station is one of the better examples of modern architecture in the capital- it has managed to retain a traditional “railway” style without merely being a 19th century pastiche.

 (* Only in London, I believe, can one take a train with the cryptic word Elephant on the front to indicate its destination of Elephant & Castle)


To add to my present fixation on jazz, London is now a renewed interest. I guess that everyone’s London is different and mine is probably unique in its way. My London is a city of the living with hopes fulfilled or dashed, a city of dreams and nightmares; a city of the dead in cemeteries, mausoleums, ossuaries, plague-pits or just as bones buried deep underground for a millennium or more and that will probably never see the light of day again. A city of hauntings, ghosts, apparitions; a city of coronations, state-occasions, trials, and executions; a city of immigrants both welcome and otherwise, depending on your point of view – Romans, Huguenots, Jews, Indians, Negroes, Chinese, Koreans, Poles, Rumanians etc.

And therefore, a city in England but not very English…

But – I am not really a Londoner having lived for much of my life in suburbia and having, as it were, one foot in the city and one foot in the country. It was always “going into” London rather than being surrounded by it. But now I avoid the city centre if possible and prefer the one of my imagination to the actuality.


Let me add to the above that I do not dislike modern architecture. I find much of it aesthetically pleasing when in the right place and let us remember that “modern” will inevitably become “old”. I foresee that in 100 years’ time preservation orders might have to be placed upon some of our newest structures, if they are still standing by then. But, of all artists, it is the architect who has a special duty not to offend the recipient of his work, because we can choose what to listen to or look at as music or art, but once a building is there, we can hardly close our eyes to it without running the risk of being knocked over by some vehicle or other moving object. I do not disapprove of those towering blocks - offspring of the Global Village mentality - of anonymous style in metal, glass and concrete that have taken over from the brick, stone, and wood of earlier epochs, but there must be lots of them and nothing else to really please the eye. In the City of London, I see Roman remains, medieval churches, Victorian offices and 21st century skyscrapers all rubbing shoulders as it were, to dis-harmonious effect, I think. The real problem with modern architecture as it has manifested itself in parts of London is that it just does not look like London, or at least the London that I, and my generation, have been accustomed to for over 70 years. New developments, e.g., Canary Wharf look like any contemporary developments in any big town or city anywhere in the world, i.e., without individuality: once you have seen one of them, you have seen them all.

The name of this city- actually a conglomeration of two separate “cities” and numerous “villages” - is totally insufficient to encompass the reality: London is such a vastness in time and space, in the unwritten histories of its many millions of inhabitants past & present, who have lived and are living in almost complete ignorance of each other. I know my own small part of the south-west corner of it and that just 10 minutes’ drive gets me suddenly out of it – London stops at Tolworth. There are houses and then very suddenly the “green belt” and rural Surrey with its ancient villages and high hills that could be 100 miles from Charing Cross.

My dog sometimes sees things that I do not…I ask myself: “Millions of people have lived and died in this city for nearly 2000 years. Where are they all? Are they around us still, or underground, or in another dimension?” I am intrigued by a sentence quoted in The Lost Rivers of London by Iain Sinclair [2013] that occurs in Swedenborg’s The Last Judgement [pub.1934]: “…there is also another London below, not dissimilar as to the streets.” A London of spirits maybe? A city in another dimension? And consider Shelley’s “O, there are spirits of the air…”  an early poem probably written in 1815 when the poet was living in Bishopsgate in The City.

North & South

For years I lived and worked north of the Thames, moving south in 1999. The visitor to London would probably not notice any difference, but to the native, north, and south have very distinct atmospheres, hard to put into words but nevertheless discernible. My very occasional visits north of the Thames [e.g., since 2000 to Pimlico, Brentford, Ealing, and Highgate] have made this distinction clear. A kind of unease besets me as I cross the river on my way north. I enter a foreign land with less familiar placenames and less well-known streets. Even the climate is different, colder, and more open to the north and west winds than the sheltered southwest where I now reside.


My minimalist work for piano was inspired by the open spaces in and around London and is the first work related to that city to appear in my list of compositions. I must admit that its creation was prompted by viewing the fine series of walks and commentaries by John Rogers, that have much boosted my [and I hope] others’ interest in the city and its environs.

MJR 10/21

 A Matter of Taste…?

For several years now I have been re-evaluating types of music that I rejected when younger, but now take a keen interest in.

Why is this?  I think that when I was a composition student at the old GSMD, back in the late 1960s, I was indoctrinated by my tutors to believe that the only worthwhile music was classical and contemporary “serious” music, and that all other types were, if not actually bad (whatever that may mean), at the best not long-lasting or inventive enough to warrant more than brief scrutiny.

Now (at 75) I find it difficult to make value-judgments, and believe that my former dismissive attitude to jazz, popular, folk etc., was partly because of the indoctrination outlined above and partly cultural snobbery in that I associated certain kinds of music with certain social groups. Another influence is my long-term preoccupation with the ideas of John Cage and especially his aim (in which he was not always successful) of abolishing what he called “personal preferences” and becoming open to diverse music-s and indeed to all sounds both organised and random.

I have in addition grown increasingly impatient with the apparent elitism of the arbiters of contemporary musical style (that style termed avant-garde still around today but in decline since c.1980) who have so often ignored the fact that audiences never have and, I believe, never will be very enthusiastic about that type of contemporary music that deliberately aims to mystify and alienate them.

The adult population can be divided into three classes where music is concerned. The smallest class is that of the professional musicians. Then we have a probably larger class of amateur musicians and music-lovers. The third and most certainly largest group is that of the non-musicians – the musical illiterates as it were, whose only contact with music is via the latest popular dance-craze or “hit” number and to whom even being able to read and perform from a lead-sheet would likely be regarded as something special and as demanding the kind of expert knowledge that they do not possess.

Of course, the contemporary serious music afficionado will tell you that the simple, commonplace harmonies and rhythms of popular music and jazz are somehow “out of date” and that only constant and rapidly changing dissonance and almost impossible-to-perform rhythms are now worthy of respect. And despite a more consonant style emerging over the past 20 or so years, this attitude is still with us.  But why should this be?  And is this all connected with that other problem of originality?

In contemporary serious music personal originality is highly valued.   The idioms of popular music and jazz are styles that by their natures do not allow for very much personal originality and are, therefore, often downgraded by both the classical musician and the contemporary composer.

But there is no logic that says you must be original. There is always the freedom to work in a pre-existing idiom, as all non-serious composers do, but serious-music composers are wary of, except when writing obvious pastiche for e.g., film or television.

Just a personal preference (at the moment) but I find that, to mention one example out of many, the single chord (variations of C7) in Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground is much more satisfying than the almost painful sounds of some recent works (no names) that I recently heard at a rehearsal of pieces by young and unestablished composers who were, it seemed,  trying to outdo each other in producing the most dissonant harmonies they could devise – and all in the name of “originality”!

The contemporary serious music afficionado will add another hard-to-demolish view that works of art have to be created by long and hard work. I think that this widely held assumption began with the 19th century Romantics. Masterpieces can only be born through slow, painful labour by God-given geniuses of the Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler variety. But what about earlier epochs?  One thinks of a composer such as Telemann who is reputed to have written over 1000 pieces, many of them, if not out and out masterpieces, at least very enjoyable works that are still played 300 years later. He simply could not have produced so much if every piece was the result of long and arduous work.

To return to the title of this meditation, “taste” leads us on to the subject of aesthetics, defined as

“That branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty.”


Now, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we all have our own views on it. The aesthetic pleasure that we each derive from art and music therefore is peculiar to ourselves and cannot be measured objectively. It cannot be said for example that one man’s enjoyment of say “Yesterday” is less or more than that of another man’s enjoyment of a Beethoven symphony. Surely, where there is enjoyment, there is a measure of aesthetic beauty.

In conclusion, I restate my position that I cannot now evaluate in terms of “better” or “worse”.  Although I might not always like what I hear, I am open to every type of music, classical, jazz, contemporary and popular, and music of non-European origin.

And it is my belief that if contemporary music is to continue to have any communication with and relevance to others outside of just composers and their very limited groups of followers, it must, in the words of sculptor and artist Sir Antony Gormley

 “…speak to the whole world”.

Gormley does this by use of an archetype- the human body- that all men can identify with. In music such universally recognisable archetypes are not so easily found, but I would start with the major and minor triads and stepwise melodies, employed in ways not in accordance with tradition, but with whatever degree of freshness the composer can bring to them.

MJR 10/22

London's "Last Tram"

This summer marks 70 years since the last tram ran in London, on July 6th   1952 to be precise.  They were certainly not beautiful. But they were imposing. Imagine 17tons of metal, wood, fabric and glass perched on sets of metal wheels unglamorously termed “bogies”, gliding along metal tracks inset into the roads. And you had to risk life and limb to get on and off because for the most part they stopped in the middle of the road. I think I remember them…  I would have been 5 years old when the last tram ran in South London. And, even if I never actually rode in one, our existences overlapped by a few years. That Last Tram to New Cross Depot  could stand as a symbol of all that has disappeared, altered, and degenerated over the past 70 years and has transformed London from a cosy, tightly knit city of, predominantly, Londoners (i.e., those born and raised in the city and its environs) to the city we now seem to have, largely made up of transients and recent immigrants who probably cannot have that long-standing affection for the place that the locals have.

London then was grimy, smoky, prone to dense late autumn and winter fogs; much was decayed, crumbling away; the predominant hues were grey, brown, black and that singular shade of beige of London brick. Most of it was no more than three or four storeys high. The tower blocks, often shoddily built and now too often today’s slums, were not to come until the ‘60s.

In what was surely one of the most mistaken decisions ever made by the overseers of public transport in Britain, the trams were gradually replaced by motorbuses and electrically powered Trolleybuses – and I well remember riding on the latter on holidays in Bournemouth (they were a lovely warm yellow with brown trimmings). From my secondary school on Gunnersbury Avenue, I used to see London Transport trolleybuses running along the Great West Road at about the time when the Chiswick Flyover was under construction (c. 1960) and a couple of years before all London trolleybuses were withdrawn. Alas!

My earliest memories coincide with what were termed the “austerity years” (c. 1945-60) when, after a most expensive and debilitating war, the cost of reconstruction meant that goods, and especially luxury goods, were in short supply. The motor car was available to middle- and upper-class earners only, and our first one was an old Austin (or maybe a Morris) built about 1930 or so. Colours of cars during my childhood years were various shades of black, brighter hues being seen only on buses, trams, and delivery vehicles. Our earliest cars had the unfortunate habit of breaking down, usually in the most awkward places, and often necessitating being pushed manually out of the way of other traffic. Once, when my father was driving me the short journey to my primary school, a front wheel came loose and shot off down the road ahead of us, to the amazement of passers-by.

Austerity clothing for men was suits, jackets, and trousers in various shades of grey, brown, or black. Some sort of outdoor headgear was expected of all males of the lower middle class and upwards. My dad wore a flat cap, although he was lower-middle- rather than working-class.

Bright colours were worn only by madmen or poets, until the “swinging ‘60s” arrived in their multicoloured splendour and sudden fashionable casualness of attire. But that is another story.

Holidays (Continued)

4th – 12th August 2022

In old age, every day, I try to achieve something, even just posting comments on my activities in the hope that someone else might find them of interest. Who knows?

Our yearly holiday - and this year, at the request of my daughter, we visited the Yorkshire Dales, a region of England that she has become very attached to, having visited twice before this, and fallen in love with.

 The North. Stone everywhere you look.  Sheep on bare, green, rounded hills, and, as a backdrop, ranges of low mountains, part of the Pennines. Several flat-topped peaks looking for all the world like much higher mountains whose summits have been neatly sliced off, which, geologically speaking, is pretty much what has occurred over millennia as the limestone of which these mountains are made has been eroded.

A long drive on overcrowded roads, and thoughts on how mankind must in future take to the air for private travel and say goodbye to this traffic-madness.  On arriving at the village of Askrigg, after about seven hours of sitting in a car, two unfamiliar sensations: cold, and rain (not felt down south for weeks!)

6th A.m., to the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest inn. Cool and windy but not actually cold – c. 12C. A good lunch here. The narrow winding roads become tiring to drive along as one must keep a constant watch for oncoming vehicles. Impatient locals just can’t wait for an opportunity to overtake at 60 mph!

P.m., Waterfalls reached by steps- tiring to negotiate. Thoughts on next year’s holiday: somewhere flat and warmer, and near a beach!

7th A.m., Hawes. A fine stone-built sprawling village, but not much of it visible beyond the huge number of cars, vans and motorcycles cluttering every available space! Bought sweets & Wensleydale cheeses.

P.m., Bolton Castle. Still just able to climb up & down its spiral staircases – but doggedly clinging to the handrails with both hands. The castle is well-preserved, and the stone flights of steps and landings just need Errol Flynn sword-fighting a few villains for completeness.

In the grounds a display of birds of prey (an owl from India and a local [?] falcon). The windy weather prevented them from flying, so we were given adequate and interesting verbal information instead. 

8th A.m., Middleham Castle. About 50% complete but much has been removed. Our dog did not like this place AT ALL!  She kept close to the ground and refused to go forward. Ghosts perhaps…?

P.m., Richmond, and the superb Green Howards Museum. I sympathise with pacificists, but I can also see the attraction that the military life has for some men (and women). The excitement, camaraderie and possible honours achieved for valour in battle are incentives for becoming a professional soldier (as was my paternal grandfather). Armies for defence are fine. For aggression- not so fine.

9th A quiet, relaxed day at home.

10th To Semmerwater, a natural lake surrounded by the Pennine Mountains. A gentle breeze coaxed ripples on the surface of cobalt blue waters reflecting a cloudless sky.

Then – Cotter Falls, a little-known waterfall gained by walking a long way. And in high temperatures. Probably about as warm as it gets in Yorkshire (c. 27C)

11th Our final day here. The famous and much-photographed viaduct. Hot!  Then to Malham Cove and Gordalea Scar, both well-known tourist attractions, but not very crowded today.

12th Returned along those overcrowded motor roads. Visions of transport of the future: personal aircraft / air taxis / a much improved public transport system using trams in cities and more use of the air between cities…  maybe?

My own very personal reflections: as a Southerner, I feel that north of Birmingham is a foreign land, good to visit, but I would not want to settle there. I would miss the warmth and gentle topography of the Southlands.

(This was the 1st holiday when I felt the pangs of old age: too much walking; too much driving a car; and young ones sometimes impatient of my slowness.)

MJR 08/22


The season of holidays has passed for most of us, leaving only memories.

Holidays -holy days- should be days during which to recover wholeness. Casting off the fragmented life of work and daily routine, we do something different. We try to achieve that wholeness of purpose that in ordinary circumstances we find almost impossible to accomplish, divided as we are between so many conflicting chores and duties of varying degrees of urgency.

My own singular purpose on holiday is to focus entirely on spending time with the family [not forgetting the dog]. I do not write music or bother about students for the one week in the year when I can be free from all that.

My holiday routine is to wake early, usually before 6.00 am and stumble my unfamiliar way to the kitchen [of our rented holiday cottage] to make a much-needed cup of coffee. Then, return to bed and allow my brain to thaw out from the chill of early dawn, helped by the coffee, of course.

I idly plan the day ahead – or at least imagine what it could be like…

Then, breakfast of egg and bacon, more coffee, and a glass of red wine [it’s never too early, and the next one will not be until evening]. Then wait for the other members of the family to emerge gradually from their respective rooms, while I check the weather, map, places to see etc. and maybe catch up on my reading.

Finally, and only after some considerable fussing about do we all head off to wherever we might have decided on.

Choosing a warm day, and on a spread towel, weighted down with pebbles at each corner to stop it blowing away in the wind, I lie with one ear to the beach.

Passers-by seem to move vertically, the crunching sound of their footsteps magnified by the expanse of pebbles. The sea, a long way off and separated from the pebble beach by 100 or more yards of damp sand, murmurs lazily. Occasional voices, children, dogs, seagulls, break the calm. An incessant wind cools the air but is less noticeable at ground level. Brightly coloured kites soar above, straining to break away from their tautly stretched cords.

Each year that this long-awaited one-week event happens, we focus our attention on a town. Last year [2020] it was Westward-Ho in Devon. This year it was Rye in East Sussex, one of England’s best-preserved medieval towns and justly popular with visitors.  I think we all fell in love with this much-lauded ancient Cinque Port that still has a vestige of its original harbour and is a maze of narrow streets and narrower pavements, almost every street inclined. Architecture from several centuries [medieval to modern]. Cobblestones in the backstreets and alleyways.  A hill town overlooking the flat land of the great Romney Marsh. But- it has too much traffic, being on the main road to Hastings. Needs a bypass! 

We also spent one rather damp and cloudy day at Dungeness, one of Britain’s oddest landscapes and “our only desert”. Flat as the proverbial pancake. A flat-earther’s vindication perhaps. This vast expanse of shingle, much of it covered with a scrub of maritime flora, appears on the map as a blank space, but once there you see a scattering of wooden huts and more substantial structures including a disused power station, two lighthouses, odds and ends of industry, stranded boats in various stages of seaworthiness, and the Pilot Inn, described by Derek Jarman [one of the area’s more famous inhabitants] as providing the best fish and chips in Kent!


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