Chapter 15 - Back in Bradford

We used to go regularly to the Bradford Parish Church, now the Cathedral.  Even though one or other of us always fainted during the Litany, Mother kept us at it.  I think that a sermon preached by the Vicar on 'Why does not God stop the war?' might have had something to do with our not going any more.  I remember he took out his watch and suggested that the congregation should think of him as God and the watch as the world for a few moments.  Also Father arrived a few minutes late at the church one day and was turned away by the churchwarden.  He came home in a rage and swore there and then that he would never go again. This applied to us too.

Only a few minutes’ walk away was a Congregational chapel.  The resident minister was a young man of gentle poetic appearance who told very witty stories to the children after which the congregation sang a hymn while the children trooped out.  After that came his sermon for the adults.  They were beyond me yet I was fascinated by the change in his manner.  His voice took on a sharper quality and there were dramatic pauses after which he would seize the edge of the pulpit in both hands and throw darting glances into different parts of the congregation and then in beautifully enunciated English would explain the problem he had put to them.  He may have been a bit of an actor but the poses and gestures were never in evidence.  I never felt that embarrassment one feels before a performance which is out of character or insincere.   But the music!  A choir of bovine females facing the congregation doing their best to shout each other down, dressed in hideous garments and hats of all sizes and colours.  It took a long time for the films to make much impression on the Yorkshire housewives and it may have been their daughters who eventually noticed there was something wrong and started to put things to rights.  One of the friends we found at the chapel was a woman who looked at magazines not often seen in the homely north.  She had ideas about house decoration.  On giving instructions to the painter and decorator concerning colours for the exterior of her house she said challengingly 'The front door will be yellow'.   He turned to her and said, 'I suppose you know that that would be a little unusual?'  Forty years ago in sooty Bradford it no doubt was a little unusual.  She also dressed in oranges and yellows of folkweave sort of materials.

The organist was capable, but the organ across the back of the chapel was so harsh I could hardly bear it.  They gave performances of The Messiah and other works.  Once they started practising after a service and as I came downstairs from the gallery I heard one of the men say to a chapel warden 'Whatever’s going on in there?'   The other replied 'Stabat Mater'.  'Stabbin’ Martha!?  Ee, I thowt they were murdering someone' was the jocular answer delivered with a completely expressionless face.

I missed the Church of England service as I had got to love the Te Deum, Psalms and Anthems, but then we also started going to the Friends Meeting House and here there was no music at all unless the sound of digestions working tunefully could pass as such.  They were of great interest to us and we compared notes afterwards.  But there were some lectures and demonstrations on weekdays which Mother went to when she could spare the time, and she took me to one that she thought might interest me.

During my last term at school one of her letters looked ahead as to my future and what I wanted to be and she made the remark that perhaps I should go to an Art School.  I didn’t know there were such institutions but it demonstrated the fact that some talking must have been going on about my future 'and let’s face the facts, he isn’t any good at anything else!'

So Mother started by taking me to a lecture demonstration on teaching painting in schools by a middle aged man like a commercial traveller.  His manner was snappy; he was selling something.  He stood behind a desk covered with saucers and tins and tubes and bunches of brushes.  There was a very homely household article of considerable size with floral decorations, which he must have borrowed from the caretaker.  Anyway it was full of water and his methods needed it.  A blackboard on an easel which wasn’t used to the kind of treatment it suffered during the next hour, served him for pinning huge sheets of paper up which he lacerated with charcoal.  But he talked or rather pattered.  His patter was marvellous.  He knew he could sell anything to these homely women (I think I was the only ‘man’ present) and he was active all the time like an engineer, but not in neat precise movements but in great slashes and stabs.  The charcoal and white chalk flew in all directions which he trod under foot.  The paper was bruised and battered and torn.  He produced a roll of it which hung down over the blackboard held down with one great pin, the paper being torn ruthlessly off like toilet roll and it too was trampled underfoot where a sodden pile began to grow in bulk. The women began to look at this stock of masterpieces with misgiving and when the easel collapsed under a particularly savage attack there was a general rush of helping hands. I noticed one or two of them lift a sodden masterpiece up, holding their skirts well away, a little regretful.  But as the whirlwind continued and the tearing of paper became a noble gesture, a semi-circle of willing hands relieved him of masterpiece after masterpiece on which sponges and ink and white chalk and a penknife had been used with dramatic effect.  And so at last it ended, his collar a little awry and his hair dishevelled, chalk and paint on his natty suit and himself a little breathless.  Around him was a veritable battlefield with stooping hushed figures picking out the wounded from the dead; even their monstrous hats appeared to be at rakish angles and their faces were flushed as though slightly intoxicated.  It hardly seemed right to ask him any questions and quite plainly he didn’t expect them.  He was a voice crying in the wilderness, a forerunner.  'We live in strenuous times. There is no occasion to paint as the old masters.  Their methods are superseded; we move on; they are out of date'.  I don’t think Mother and I as we walked home were really taken in but we had definitely witnessed a performance of outstanding virtuosity and felt the better for it.

Mother was keen on all of us having extra treatment out of school.  I was put into the hands of a Swedish lady in black stockings and a gym tunic.  I had never seen any female in such an abbreviated skirt outside a pantomime and she was massive and muscular.  She bent me about and made me do strange exercises putting my toe down first instead of my heel.

We had French lessons from a Monsieur 'Messy-yang'. I still don’t know what his name really was. He had a little tiny beard and a moustache.  Mother sat and knitted while he asked us questions and answered them all himself with delightful little gestures with his hands and we gaped open mouthed but unfortunately did not retain anything taken in by the ears.  A gallant lady came and gave us lessons in basket making.  The bath was full of cane soaking for days and a hay cart might have forced its way through the house judging by the wisps of bast hanging everywhere.  We made some shapeless paper baskets which we gave away as Christmas presents and I became quite good at raffia work, making strange little receptacles which I was told were 'hair tidies'.

© Robin Maggs / Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Study of Butterflies, Feather and Beetle (1918)
This study of butterflies, a feather and a beetle, done when he was 15, is the result of extracurricular lessons in watercolour

An elderly lady water-colourist came and taught me how to paint butterflies and feathers, and a widow with two young and talented daughters taught me the violin.  She talked of Batch (perhaps it was more patriotic than Bach) and the wonderful performances of her gifted daughters made my lessons shorter and the possibility of my emulating them doubtful.  But a new figure was to come on to the scene of out of school activities which was to put all the others in the shade.

Father had enquired whether Charles Stott the celebrated organist, would give me organ lessons.  I had admired Mr Stott at a distance many a time. He was city organist and accompanist.  Even Father, who rather despised organists as a race, conceded that his delicate piano playing and accompanying was masterly.  Mr. Stott was very tall.  He had magnificent hands and as he sat at the organ console he hardly had to raise his elbows from his side to reach any stop and his legs were so long that his knees pointed outwards when playing the pedals.  He would play while I sat by him.  He talked all the time about all manner of things, some of it scandal in the church, and then the wind would give out and we would find Daft Willie grinning at us behind our backs.  It was unfortunate from my point of view that this organ was hand blown as having to find a blower made practice difficult.   Daft Willie was a regular blower and Mr. Stott didn’t mind these little lapses as long as they didn’t occur during a service or a recital.  He only wanted to tell some little joke he had remembered!  I found it difficult to understand what he said but Mr. Stott had had plenty of practice.

Alas, my self-taught piano playing was not nearly good enough but I was keen and my teacher became highly entertained at my unorthodox fingering and while I was struggling with some passage he would draw funny men on my music pages.  These lessons were a very great joy to me and I seriously thought I might have become an organ builder and organist.  But Mr. Stott was suddenly called up and the bottom of things seemed to have been knocked out of things for me.