A view backstage at Beverley Minster

A blast from the past

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford takes another rambling trip down memory lane.
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, but I beg my younger readers to stick with it – 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 playing with the concept of hanging them upside down from our tread wheel crane with their hair stuck to the floor by a big slab of the smelly stuff. An entertaining image, but not one likely to be approved by the vicar or PCC. So I continued pondering – what would our ancestors have done in these circumstances?
Soon, as the mind does, (or mine does anyway) I was drifting away, wafted on the memories of ancient smells and screams back to my pre-Beverley home, where I used to be a member of the congregation of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. This, like Beverley Minster, is classified as a Greater Church but unlike the Minster, is not in a particularly salubrious part of the world – in fact, right on its doorstep is the parish of Bedminster.
Now Bedminster was designed to be a tatty Victorian slum, built on the cheap to cram in workers and their families serving the coal mines in North Somerset and, frankly, it went downmarket shortly afterwards.
You get the picture. Before the last World War it was a REAL grotty tip – normal street urchins looked down on ‘Bemmie’ boys.
Oh, over the years many people tried to improve it – the Luftwaffe being particularly effective in this regard – and nowadays bits of it are almost acceptable (if you can’t afford anywhere better, that is). However, shall we just say you probably wouldn’t want to swap if you were currently living in North Bar Without.
One of the Bemmie Boys (probably now classifiable as ‘a child with special needs’ but who was termed ‘a right nasty tearaway” by our more robust ancestors), used to break into St Mary Redcliffe after hours.  A skinny so-and-so, he was never caught until, one day, he found himself sitting at the organ and was transported to a new world.
His fumbling fingers forced faint fugues from the finialed fluting of the fabulous f’organ (sorry, the letter ‘f’ is a bit sticky today). 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, as well as enjoying the company of some rough gentlemen at His Majesty’s Pleasure, that well-known chain of hotels and finishing schools. .
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 1975 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.
So, when I see another group of little angels running around the Minster these days and chewing I smile benevolently, wondering if there’s another Russ Conway hidden away inside one of them, or if they’re all a bunch of unreformed Trevor Herbert Stanfords.
Then I remember the hours of childhood torture as I was forced to listen to the jaunty rhythms of “Side Saddle” and “Roulette” and I start looking for a heavy club.
The moral of this tale is: don’t spit out chewing gum in the Minster – you never know how the virger may react.
First published March 2011 


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