Band Room on Fire

Three men in a tub,

And who do you think they were?

The butcher, the baker,
 The candlestick-maker,

They all sailed out to sea,

‘Twas enough to make a man stare.

This ancient but well known rhyme is believed to originate from a children’s annual called ‘Christmas Box’, published in London in 1798 – ‘Bagatelles for Juvenile Amusement’

‘The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker’ is often used to describe a multitude of professions and is very apt for Brass Bands.  Every band I have been in has had a melting pot of teachers, scholars, office, shop and factory workers, emergency service and army personnel and those unemployed or retired, to name but a few.  In fact the ‘Full Monty’ of working and non-working life.

Brass Banding is such a great leveler, as social standing, wealth or academic prowess have no hierarchical advantage.  I have sat next to some of the most stinking rich, upstanding pillars of the community who wouldn’t know a crotchet from a hatchet! 

This is brilliant, as everyone is on a level playing field and without social or academic stigma, which allows the process of team building and working in harmony to get on with its musical business.  However there are times when professions impinge on the hobby with some unwelcome or unusual side effects.

The one that always springs to mind is the teaching profession, which on the one hand is vital as we need music teachers.  On the other hand it’s a nightmare for those in the profession to get a few hours off.  I lost count of the number of times the band bus would leave for a major contest at ‘stupid O’clock’ on a Friday afternoon to accommodate the teaching element.  Arriving just in time for the motorway rush hour near junction 4 of the M4 (for the Nationals) or in the olden days, just outside Manchester on the M6 for the British Open or Grand Shield.  Oh! What fun we had rehearsing at 11pm and then gorging a massive curry at midnight like rabid dogs!   

I have seen a sprinkling of players in the armed forces being called up at the last minute and also the ‘on call’ workers  –  one minute going hell for leather through ‘Carnival Overture’,  and the next driving hell for leather to a medical emergency, on a lifeboat, or in a fire engine.

The latter was me.  I was a serving fire officer in South Wales for over thirty years, and on call on many occasions while in the band room, with my bleeper on vibrate as I hadn’t a cat’s chance in hell of hearing it.  Mind you, after all those years in banding and sitting in front of a certain bass trombonist who could shot blast granite with his 200db of ear seismology, I was half deaf anyway.

Bandroom-Fire-149x300The worst instance of profession and band collision you could possibly imagine occurred in the very early 80s.  At that time I was on the front row for Ebbw Vale Municipal Band and was also the self-appointed librarian.  I got so fed up with the lack of new music and zilch funds to buy any new stuff that I dug into my hard earned cash to purchase something that didn’t have the old crocks in the band going all doe eyed about Vera Lynn. 

Us ‘young uns’ had suffered a long and drawn out overdose of ‘Pack up your troubles’…’Hang out your washing on the Siegfried Line’ and other gems from the cupboard of hell.  I spent a fair few quid and built a new concert programme which had Dad’s Army sulking and the young banders smiling.

I was reliably informed by the band treasurer that as long as I kept the receipts I would be reimbursed at the next band committee meeting in three weeks time – which was a good thing as I hadn’t a brass razoo to my name having spent nearly a month’s wages on music.   Just as we were enjoying the merits of  ‘Cortège from Mlada’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, my profession took an unwelcome visit to the band room – the Grim Reaper with wellies!

I was on duty in Ebbw Vale fire station on that fateful day, and at parade that morning was designated the job of driver of the first turnout i.e. sitting behind the steering wheel of the big red shiny wagon and legally able to break the land speed record without being nabbed by the FEDS! 

All was calm on the western front until the bells went off in the afternoon and I leapt on the wagon, started it up and waited for the Sub Officer to tell me where I had to point the wagon to.  He looked at me and said those fateful words. ‘You’ll know where this is Nezzy – Ebbw Vale Brass Band room on  fire’.  My heart started racing faster than usual but I inwardly told myself that it would be a false alarm or something minor like a skip outside…WRONG!

The radio on the wagon crackled and announced that there had been several more 999 calls, and went further to cheerfully inform us that it was  ‘going through the roof’.  Never has a fire engine managed to go so fast on two wheels (sometimes just the one) to a fire. 

The whole crew had gone silent in the back before the white-knuckled Sub Officer advised me in the nicest possible (unprintable) way to slow down.  You could see the volcanic plume of smoke for miles and as I screeched to a halt outside it was indeed going very nicely thank you very much.

On a fire engine you have a driver (me) a boss (the Sub Officer sat next to me) and four crew members in the back.  It’s the Sub Officer’s job to instruct the crew on fire fighting tactics.  On this occasion, I hijacked his role and told the crew to save the music cupboard and sod the band room. 

Alas it was too late and the whole history of the band including a large proportion of instruments and a month’s worth of my wages headed skyward (including all the receipts for the music I had bought).  Most of the band’s instruments had been lost, including the whole bass section as the four bass end players, with a cumulative age of around 325 years,  never, ever (ever!) did any home practise.

Ebbw Vale Brass Band Room on Fire 1982
Ebbw Vale band room on fire 1982. That’s me in the middle working the pump and barking orders at the rest of the crew to save my music!

I wouldn’t wish a fire on any band as it is heartbreaking to see your history disappear.  I remember sitting in Cory’s old band room over thirty years ago listening to an open rehearsal with Arthur Kenny polishing ‘Ballet for Band’ for the National finals of 1983.  It was like an Aladdin’s Cave of past victories, photos, plaques, certificates and banners displayed all around and absolutely gut wrenching when a fire destroyed 106 years of banding history in 1990.  However, like the phoenix, Cory has risen from the ashes in fine style.

Back to Ebbw Vale Municipal Band…Thankfully the band had a reasonable insurance policy and managed to buy a new set of instruments.  I on the other hand had no receipts, no proof and no refund!   Out of all the fires I ever attended in thirty years as a fire fighter that one sticks out the most, for all the wrong reasons!

‘Good music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty!’ (Sir Thomas Beecham – 1950)

 ‘Good music is that which penetrates the wallet with facility and quits the memory with difficulty!’ (Nezzy – 1982)