MUSIC IN THE AIR
War broke out in the Mayfair Hotel. That's not to say that those genteel diners for whom Ambrose always played "too loudly" on a Saturday night suddenly started hurling bread rolls and table napkins at us, nor was it a throwback to my Glasgow ballroom days where the best form of sanctuary from violence was to be found under the piano (besides, I'd switched to trombone and you try sliding under one of them). What I mean is, we were playing at the Mayfair when Neville Chamberlain, the only man ever to get a round of applause just by holding up a piece of paper (even origami experts have to fiddle about with it first), announced the outbreak of hostilities. As it turned out, they were to be a long time in coming, but we didn't know that then so six of us Ambrosians did the decent thing and volunteered for the Air Force. Now before going any further, I really ought to stress that this seemingly highly patriotic act was in no way connected with bravery. It simply occurred to us that if we joined up early, we might get the chance to play.
The Magnificent Six were, first but not least, myself, Tommy McQuater and Archie Craig on trumpets, Harry Lewis on reeds (clarinet and alto sax), the pianist and singer Jimmy Miller and Sid Colin the singing guitarist, later to become an honest broker of jokes, japes and wheezes in the noble profession of comedy scriptwriting - six characters in search of an orchestra.
Proper bona fide war memoirs always seem to find their heroes stationed at some thrilling overseas location like Anzio or Tobruk. We got posted to Uxbridge. Still, as parts of Middlesex go, it was pretty damn thrilling! Uxbridge was our parent station but for most other people it seemed to be a place you stayed at for a couple of weeks before being sent somewhere else. It was the perfect setting for us because we got ourselves attached to the Central Band of the RAF, conveniently also stationed there.
Because there were only six of us, we had to try and build ourselves up. So any time a trumpeter or saxophonist found themselves in Uxbridge prior to posting, we'd ask if we could keep them there. We carried on collecting stray musicians in this way till we'd amassed a personnel of fourteen. On top of this, the Central Band also had a highly impressive roll call of names from the classical world including Maurice Westerby, Freddie Grinky and David Martin in the string section along with horn players like Norman Del Mar and Dennis Brain. Money couldn't have bought the orchestra that a war brought together but these boys were wasted in the Central Band because their conductor, Wing Commander O'Donnell, had until then been in charge of a military outfit playing what can only be described as yatatatata-ta music. O'Donnell came to be known locally as "Two Gun Rudy" on account of his sideways-on stance on the podium, looking as though he was sporting a couple of revolvers. This seemed appropriate enough since the musicians under him must have felt like they were at gunpoint. He had Dennis Brain and Del Mar and all these great string players knocking out this terrible, hackneyed old stuff and saluting in 4/4 time as though they were performing at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I still have trouble remaining vertical and not collapsing with hysterical laughter whenever I see a band doing that.
Brain was very young then, liked a few pints and was an absolute genius of a horn player. Understandably he used to get very bored with what he was being given to do. All those guys should have been playing Elgar and Bach and Mozart, except I'm not sure Two Gun Rudy knew how any of them went. Occasionally Dennis would tunnel his way out under the music stand and emerge where we were rehearsing in the gents' ablutions - beautiful acoustics in there, it was nice to get a breath of fresh air. He liked the way we were playing, and it soon came about that I was writing jazz choruses for him to perform on the French horn, which he did brilliantly. He used to love that, especially after a non-stop diet of yatatatata-tat
We'd taken to calling ourselves The Squadronaires - unofficially. The Air Council forbade the unqualified use of this commercial sounding name. I can just picture some red-faced, handlebar- moustached Air Vice-Marshal recoiling with a cry of "Ugh! Smacks of trade!" - so, on best behaviour days, we were billed as "The Royal Air Force Dance Orchestra (by permission of the Air Council)"; a snappy little title, you'll agree. By way of a minor concession, in very, very small letters underneath, it said "The Squadronaires". But whenever we got out of town, we were "The Squadronaires" in big letters and all the other rubbish at the bottom.
With an eye to the future, we reasoned that if we lasted the war out and went commercial afterwards (further bouts of recoiling from red-faced Air Marshal), we would need to construct a scale of charges for arrangements. When finalised, the tariff read thus:-
Concert arrangement a la Paul Whiteman: 3s. Od.
Straightforward jazz or commercial chart: 2s. Od.
What a bargain!
This compensated for the fact that the arrangers were tied down orchestrating while the others were out on the equally important assignment of boozing. However, I managed to devise a method whereby I could orchestrate and booze at the same time: it was called having two hands. Eric Breeze and I used to do unison trombone solos as a feature - the only two-man solos in the biz - but I had the benefit of knowing what was coming up because I'd written it. Eric, on the other hand, was having to read and play from sight in my phrasing! Tremendously difficult to do but he did it to perfection every time. I had enormous respect for Eric.
The co-operative status of the Squads was inspired by the way the Bob Crosby band was run and our style was based roughly on their Dixieland sound, only we were bigger. The influence of American orchestras on the British scene was very strong at the time, with the swing era at its peak. In fact, there used to be this great wall of demarcation between American and British musicians in terms of quality but I'm glad to say it no longer exists: now we've got players who are every bit as good as theirs.
America's entry into the war allowed us to experience a lot of their musicians at first hand. Not surprisingly, the Service Orchestra under Major Glenn Miller (he insisted on the "Major") tended to dominate the forces entertainment scene, certainly in the latter days of the war, but I and most of my mates never considered them to be the best. Instead, we all voted for the US Navy Band under Sam Donahue, the band that had come almost lock stock and barrel out of the Artie Shaw Service Band. To our ears, they sounded far more exciting and they outswung the Miller boys every time.
One occasion found us playing at an American soldiers' hostel in Piccadilly. It was a special show for US forces and it had representative bands from all sorts, George Melachrino and the British Expeditionary Forces, Bob Farnon and the Canadian Band, Glenn Miller and the band of the American Air Force as well as the Donahue clan which included a trombonist formerly with Benny Goodman called Dick Lefevre. They wanted us there for rehearsal at the ungodly time of 10a.m. (does anything actually happen at that hour?) and Dick must have sensed a certain fragility about me because he asked if I'd had breakfast. Predictably, the answer was no so he said,
"Would you like to share my breakfast?"
Well, it would have been churlish to refuse, wouldn't it? So we went round the back of the building and from his instrument case he produced a bottle of whisky. We shared his breakfast all right!
The atmosphere in the Donahue band was far less militaristic than others. All right so it was wartime, but why this assumption that you had to be of a certain rank in order to wave a stick? By all accounts, the Miller band was run along pretty regimented lines even in peacetime so maybe they didn't notice much difference. Often a scapegoat principle operated where one member (usually the drummer) became the butt of every barb. In the case of the Miller band, the drummer was Sergeant Ray McKinley whose function it was to keep order. The thinking behind this seemed to be that you can only control a bunch of musicians if you've got three stripes on your arm. We suffered from this mentality as well to the extent that Tommy McQuater was made a corporal and Jimmy Miller a sergeant, presumably on the grounds that Jimmy was out front therefore he must be leadership material. Once - but only once - we made the mistake of introducing the term "Musicians' Union" when addressing a regular. It was met with the response,
"What do you mean, union? There's a bloody war on!"
From the point of view of active military service, we had a quiet war. We were neither fish, fowl nor anything else beginning with "f" (though some may disagree). Every time we appeared at Uxbridge, we were decked out in things they had in the stores but wouldn't issue us with, like monkey jackets. So we'd be wearing cut- price versions, not with brass buttons but the bakelite equivalent that didn't need polishing, usually provoking cries from our superiors of "Where did you get these?!" and "Look at the length of that hair!", swiftly followed by sotto voce instructions to "Post them for God's sake!" - and that was us, away as soon as we arrived, off to somewhere in France usually. We did Europe but we never got out to the Far East. Mind you, we did get to the North-East.
There was a balloon centre station near Newcastle called Longbenton (a good comedy name for starters) which played host to our happy band. As ever, we arrived in style aboard an open-topped truck of the crash-bang-wallop variety. Even now it's a fair drive to Newcastle, but then it was all A roads so we didn't get there till about three in the morning. Naturally, it was pouring with rain, and even more naturally, there was no one on the sentry gate, but we did see an airman coming towards us. We told him we were the band. He didn't know anything about a band. We asked him, where do we sleep? He pointed to a hut in the distance and suggested we try that. We did. The hut was empty but for various mattresses, all of them wringing wet due to the open-plan roof (a chorus of "Hearts And Flowers" can be heard in the background as Chisholm goes for the sympathy vote). Actually, it wasn't too bad because we'd consumed enough liquor for it not to matter that much. Only when we were all bedded down for the night and the hut was alive with snores did it occur to one of us that some lunatic would be bound to come round about 5 a.m. and kick hell out of the door as part of a "wakey wakey" routine. So preventive measures were taken . ...as indeed was the light- bulb, right out of its socket.
Sure enough, around two hours later, along comes the Station Warrant Officer, an archetypal "regular" complete with the cropped hair, neanderthal forehead and boils on the back of the neck. He launched into the set routine from which these guys would never deviate, kicked open the door, flicked the light switch and barked "Wakey wakey, feet on the floor, you bunch of..." (you can imagine the rest). Then came a voice from the back in the dark inviting him to push off (or words to that effect), and this bloke was astounded, no one had ever spoken to him like that before,
"Who said that?", he demanded, and I think it was Tommy McQuater who replied,
"Ah yes", he said, "but what's your number?"
At that point, he must have stopped to wonder why the light hadn't gone on. Maybe his brain-cell got as far as deducing that the bulb must have gone. Maybe he thought to himself, "What if they're a bunch of officers on a top secret mission or something?", because after that, he never came near the hut again. We would safely retire there, a bit wet perhaps, but secure in the knowledge that we could sleep till whatever time without ever being discovered. Oh, the luxury of a lie-in in wartime!
Station Warrant Officers weren't known for their towering degrees of intelligence. Some of them found it hard to spell IQ, let alone have one. At Uxbridge, we posed a pronunciation problem for our man because a lot of the names were Italian, Jewish or Scottish. Undaunted, he'd begin by shouting,
"Schrieber. . .Tilt. . .Koblentz. . .Copperman. . .Bogam.. .Boga... Bog.. dismiss!"
It's a shame he never got as far as me, I'm sure he could have managed Chisholm.
* * * *
Our awayday gigs would often involve staying in pubs - a hardship, I know, but somehow we struggled through. When we played Hartlepool, the venue was quite a long way from our licensed digs and on returning at about two in the morning, I discovered that I'd left the key to my room in a very safe place: inside the room. There wasn't an outdoor key and obviously no one was still up at that hour so I looked at the brickwork and saw there were a few little niches I might be able to use as stepping stones up to the toilet window which was just about big enough to get through. It was a daunting prospect but I decided to give it a try because showbiz is all about struggling to reach the top without going down the pan. My incentive was increased by the fact that it had just started raining, so I climbed up with great difficulty and I'd just got one leg over the window sill when I heard a voice from the ground reciting that familiar catch-phrase of "Hallo Hallo Hallo!". Pausing only to think "Oh God!", I looked down at the rather stout beef tomato-faced uniformed figure standing with his hands behind his back.
"What are we up to, then?"
"We" is obviously a term misused by Queens and constables alike. "We" weren't up to anything, at least HE wasn't. I, on the other hand, was up to the apex of my trousers in window ledge, one leg home and dry (no mean feat considering its proximity to the toilet basin) while the other dangled recklessly in the night. Not the ideal position from which to deliver a detailed explanation of my behaviour, but my mammy had brought me up to be polite and always answer policemen when they ask you what the hell you're doing, so I said,
"I've left my key inside and I..." "Why are you out here so late?" "Ah, well I'm in a band, you see, and.. "A band? What's a band?"
"You know, an orchestra. I'm with The Squadronaires."
"Squadronaires? What do you play?"
"Shame it weren't the trumpet. I've got a recording of that Nat Gonella playing the trumpet."
My thoughts were along the lines of "For God's sake, get on with it!" but I heard myself say, "Oh really?"
"Aye. Do you know a piece called 'Troublesome Trumpet'?" A moment ago, he didn't even know what a band was. Now he's throwing Gonella titles at me.
"Er, no I'm afraid not. That's a trumpet piece, not trombone."
I was beginning to giggle by now.
"Oh I've got Nat Gonella playing it. Plays it grand. Lovely, really lovely."
There was a long pause. Then,
And he left me there, straddling! No offer of help, nothing. If only Nat Gonella had played the trombone!
Our penchant for staying in pubs continued when we did a week- long stint in Liverpool, but we thought it'd be good to find a nice, quiet little pub where nobody bothers you. Sure enough, we alighted on this tiny place with just the one room and only one guy behind the bar, cleaning glasses. All fourteen of us descended on him like a bunch of locusts, but ones with a taste for something a little stronger than vegetation. He couldn't pull the pints fast enough, to say nothing of the whisky chasers. So there was a whole week of that and then we left and didn't go back to Liverpool for about another four months. When we did return, we eagerly made our way back to that same quiet little pub only to find a different bloke cleaning glasses behind the counter.
"What happened to old Fred?", we asked (not all fourteen of us at once, you understand).
"Oh it's funny about him", the new man replied. "It must have been about three or four months ago. The takings suddenly shot up, then after a week they shot down again. And the brewery thought he was fiddling the till so they gave him the bullet."
The poor sod had lost his job all on account of thirsty Squadronaires!
* * * *
Some jobs took us further afield and I still have a make-shift diary, scribbled on a pad of ruled "Bloc Correspondance Marathon" paper which capture the atmosphere (and anticipation) of an overseas posting in 1944. After recording a series of vaccinations and innoculations that left me more perforated than the average teabag, it went on:-
Friday 17th November
Left Uxbridge. arrived at Vine Street station, hung around for a couple of hours and finally got the train to Paddington. Had to shift about two hundred kit-bags between us (other people's) and all our stuff and instruments. Some officers travelling with us tried to make us lift their stuff and were refused! Finally got on trucks and arrived at Fenchurch Street station, passing down Edgware Road in the process. Same business with kit-bags and instruments, plus the officers' efforts to make us move their stuff. They were still unlucky! Boarded the train and arrived at Purfleet, near Tilbury Docks, where we found we wouldn't travel that night, so we were taken by truck, but not before the officers had another go at us and were told politely but firmly to "---- off!", to Purfleet transit camp, the mud heap of Britain! On our arrival there, amidst mud and rain, at about five o'clock, we were greeted with no civility and about four V2s in twenty minutes. Very naughty! We were eventually led, or rather we struggled through the mud, to a tent which was swimming in water. We then had to draw blankets and fill some palliases (a sort of mattress) with new straw to lie on. I felt very low that night but got over it as everybody was in the same boat. Couldn't sleep for V2s bursting every ten minutes.
Woke up fully expecting to move off, but went through all the same routine of rain, mud and naafi beer. Did a show for the boys at night which went down very well. Went to bed accompanied by.... V2s!!!
Can't believe it: we're moving off!! Left Purfleet and boarded the L.S.T. (Landing Ship, Tanks) all set to go. We moved off and... anchored off Southend pier! Were told we wouldn't sail that night so gave a show for the crew and lads on board. The crew were wonderful guys and real hard workers. Went to bed. Couldn't sleep for intense cold.
Sailed at 3.30 a.m. Woken around 8 o'clock by some lousy sergeant who told me to start getting the place cleaned out. Ha ha! There was Billy Nicholls and I with sweeping brushes and floor mops, cleaning out the "cabin" and washing down the walls. Usual routine until arrival at Ostende at 4 p.m., then by truck to Blankenburghe (Brussels) where we were billeted for the night, which was free. Investigated the town and went to bed.
Travelled to Brussels and everything looked much brighter as there was an officer we knew there who was partly in charge of us. Played at the Malcolm Club for a dance.
Free day! Looked Brussels over, had a few VERY weak cognacs, were stopped by countless old men with cards for admittance to brothels. Finally to bed.
Travelled to Toumain (France) and played a show at Forgennes, just outside. Got to bed (on the floor).
Proceeded to Genech and played at the chateau there. Can't remember much about this. Got to bed on the floor again.
To a hospital voluntarily and played to wounded in the afternoon, then further on to do a show for an R.A.F. station.
Proceeded 200 miles to Eindhoven in Holland via Brussels, Mons and Allemanches. On arrival, found that people were starving and gave away all our- sandwiches to kids and grown-ups. Pitiful state of affairs. Played at the Malcolm Club where nobody knew anything about us until we were finished. Slept in the first decent bed since we started.
Sunday 3rd December
Were instructed to move to Antwerp (Belgium) to play a show. Journey of 180 miles. On arrival there, found they had moved to another station 50 miles back from where we'd come, finally arrived there in the worst rainstorm ever, but too late to do a show. Nice reception here in spite of our failure to arrive on time. Pretty good beds too!
Proceeded to Breda in Holland and played show. Bought Earle's first present here.
Played show outside Breda near Tilbury. Met marvellous Typhoon pilots and got a bit high on scotch and English beer. A VERY rare treat. Back on the floor again.
Moved to Halle where we played a show, the audience consisting of mostly Belgian people. Were informed that four Russian officers were also present. After the show, went to the bar and sorted the Russian guys out. Had a marvellous night with them. Great experience. One was a political commissar! Went to bed on the good old floor again.
Moved to Ghent where we were lumbered with the corniest acts yet ever seen on ANY stage!!! Cold floor a blessed relief.
Travelled to Brussels. Sent to wrong station again and just made the show. Bloody cold in hangar where the show was held. Big row about our being messed around. We won!
Played big charity show at the ENSA Garrison Theatre (very beautiful theatre) in front of Lord and Lady Cunningham. Big success. Back to barracks to sleep on bed (yes, Bed!!)
Returned voluntarily to place where we missed the show before, did two to make up for our lack of shows here previously. Very well received and Frank Engleman brought the BBC van up. We recorded part of the show from here. Bought presents today.
Residents Palace Officers Clubs. Played show. Very stiff "do", had another go at London. Met the alleged Wing-Commander in charge of charge of Air Movements and "confirmed" our departure by air for the following day.
Due to leave Belgium by air and be in England by lunch time, but fog prevented this and we had to return to barracks, Brussels.
Reported this morning at the airport and, after various promises, ended up at 6.30 in the evening still not departed. Waited around for mail plane leaving at eight but it didn't go. Hoping against hope to leave Belgium tomorrow as we've been told to come back Sat. morning for this same mail plane. Back to barracks where I started writing this diary.
Reported to aerodrome again and got pushed around by high-ranking officers getting in first. Sat around and were finally told to go by sea. We rushed by truck to Ostende where an Air Sea Rescue launch awaited us. Loaded all stuff on, then captain told us to take it off again as he wasn't sailing that day!! Were taken to Blankenburghe where we slept.
Got up early and reported to the embarkation office where the officer told us there was nothing at all today. All went to the films and, on coming out, were told that a boat had been and left and they couldn't find us!!! Luckily enough the boat developed boiler trouble and didn't leave. That was one disappointment we missed.
At last!!! Got down to Ostende and eventually got on board ship. Met Joe Loss and boys on same ship. Could have been home tonight but ship anchored off Folkestone to catch the tide into harbour. Disembarked at midnight and were put into billets.
Set off by train at 6.40 am and finally arrived in London. The whole tour was a shocking farce as far as organisation was concerned.
Those pages require one or two footnotes of explanation. To anyone young and lucky enough not to know the horror of the V2, I should point out that, unlike the doodlebug, it had a charming little habit of dropping on you without any prior warning, no whistling noise as it fell from the sky, nothing. The explosion itself was the first you knew about it. Sneaky, huh? I mean even the VAT inspector tells you when he's going to call!
The reference to a first present for Earle (Monday 4th December) reminds me that by this time Ella and I had a new-born son, our first and only child together. In later years, Earle was to prove a very resourceful young man, opening a hairdressing salon with a friend in Florida and eventually taking it over as his own concern. Currently, he's a mortgage banker (am I in the wrong business?).
Our drinking session with the Russians may not seem quite so remarkable these days, now that it's quite possible to get smashed with a few comrades and all end up singing "I Belong To G1asnost", but then our Western eyes saw the Soviets as an extremely dour bunch not at all prone to high jinks. Happily, the political commissar and his chums confounded our preconceptions!
Clearly I had a fair command of the English language in 1944, describing that doyen of Reithian broadcasters Franklyn Engleman as having "brought the BBC van up" as if he were same kind of lorry driver!
* * * *
1945 was significant for two events: the war ended and the Squadronaires didn't. As soon as we were demobbed (I still wear the suit!), we were able to turn the band into the successful venture we'd envisaged at Uxbridge without having to worry about any outbreaks of apoplexy from red-faced Air Vice-Marshals. We continued to appear in uniform and the RAF couldn't really object to that, especially as we did umpteen concerts whose proceeds went to the British Legion or the RAF Benevolent Fund, a matter of literally thousands of pounds. There's one little gripe I have about that. After the war, I was skint myself with a wife and baby to support on 7/6 a day and when I applied to these two organisations to help me out, they wouldn't loan me a penny.
"Oh no, it's not wartime now" was the somewhat irrelevant explanation. What were we supposed to do, sleep in the street? I found myself resorting to the line
'Do you realise I'm a Squadronaire?"
Sounds so shallow on reflection, doesn't it? "What did you do in the war, daddy?"
'l was a Squadronaire!"
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