A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The Blast from the Past

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes,” – apparently. But what if the lessons are ambiguous?
This is a tale that will probably have most redolence amongst any of my female readers who are, shall we say, enjoying their second youth.
Granted, this is not the typical demographic of a blog reader, but stick with it kids – you might find it interesting.
I was having a quiet afternoon, scraping chewing gum from the Minster floor and pondering suitable forms of punishment.
One mild-mannered visitor had just suggested hanging, drawing and quartering, on the grounds that ‘whipping is too good for them.”
A saintly former workmate of mine once seriously proposed making them chew curried chilli peppers while their mouths were taped shut, but I was currently enjoying the image of them hanging upside down with their hair trailing in a big slab of the smelly stuff.
Then my mind drifted back to my pre-Beverley home, in the parish of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol which, like Beverley Minster, is classified as a Greater Church.
Unlike the Minster, however, it is not in a particularly salubrious part of the world – in fact, right on its doorstep is the parish of Bedminster.
Now Bedminster started as a Victorian slum, built on the cheap to cram in workers and their families for the coal mines in North Somerset and, frankly, it hasn’t improved much.
Even at the peak of the most recent property boom any estate agent who tried to make Bedminster sound up-market was laughed at – especially by other estate agents – and now that prices are dropping again you can probably buy an entire terrace for the same price as a garden shed in North Bar Without.
However, before the last World War it was a REAL grotty tip – street urchins were regarded as posh locally – even the dregs of society looked down on Bedminster kids.
One of these Bemmie Boys, as they were called, (probably now classifiable as ‘a child with special needs’ but who was politely called a ‘right nasty tearaway” by our robust ancestors), used to break into St Mary Redcliffe after hours.  A skinny so-and-so, he always managed to escape until, one day, he found himself sitting at the organ and he was transported to a new world.
His fumbling fingers forced faint  fugues from the finialed fluting of the fabulous instrument (sorry, the letter ‘f’ is a bit sticky at times). Before he knew it a half hour had passed and he was roused by a firm hand clamping itself onto his shoulder and shaking him (vibrato).
The church organist (for it was he) then explained, in a muscular Christian way (furioso) that the young lad was caught bang to rights and would soon be expelled (volante) from the building into the tender arms of the local constabulary (Sweeney Todd).
The lad, however, pleaded (lacrimoso) that he had found a new calling in life and that the organ called to him (appassionato).
The man gave him a choice – if he was serious then he, the organist, would give him some lessons. If not, then the lad would be singing falsetto for many years to come.
The boy WAS serious, he learned to play and, 30 years later under the assumed name Russ Conway, he was the biggest-selling musician in Britain with two number one hits in 1959 alone.
Britain’s answer to Liberace – in more ways than one – he was a hugely popular performer throughout the 1960s and a mainstay on Saturday night TV until the BBC finally caught up with the times and started broadcasting guitar-based music (some time in late 1967 I seem to remember).
Many women now collecting their pensions will have danced to his swinging piano tunes, swooned to his charming smile and sighed at his dashing good looks, never once realising that, if it hadn’t been for the exceptional kindness of one church organist, their fave rave might have had a very different life, starting with a spell in one of Her Majesty’s more secure properties.
So, when I see a group of little angels running around the Minster these days I smile benevolently while wondering if there’s another Russ Conway tucked away inside one of them, or if they’re all a bunch of unreformed Trevor Herbert Stanfords.
Then I remember the hours I was forced to listen to the jaunty rhythms of “Side Saddle” and “Roulette” and I start looking for a heavy club.

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