How a former bandsman made his comeback… at 76
By Colin Scholes
It was a lovely sunny day in June, 2014 – but, just for once, there was no gardening for me. I was too excited about the following day when I hoped to fulfil a boyhood dream.
Aged 76, I was to play my cornet in the Saddleworth Brass Band Marching Festival. It was not just a dream come true, it was pretty well a miracle. As a lad I played in the now defunct Cliviger Prize Band, located on the outskirts of Burnley.
It was there that I was told of the marching contests held annually in the Saddleworth area of Lancashire.
“If tha ever gets chance, lad, tha mun (must) go and listen,” I was told by many seasoned bandsmen in the 1950s. But Saddleworth might as well have been at the other end of the world as far as I was concerned.
I have, however, in retirement managed to visit the area on a couple of occasions and enjoyed the entertainment as a spectator, watching with delight as bands marched into different towns in the area playing a marching tune, and then performed other pieces from a static position, always being judged by a hidden expert who marked the bands by number without knowing which was which.
But as I watched I never thought that the opportunity would come to play in such company.
I loved playing in the band as a young man, despite the hours of practice for public performances during the year.
I felt smart in the green uniform and appreciated the camaraderie of my fellow musicians. We would play in local parks, concert halls and churches; in fact anywhere we were invited.
Christmas Day was a particularly busy time. As a teenager I was up early – not to check on my presents, but to have a hurried breakfast, dress in my uniform, grab my cornet and hurry off to meet the other members of the band. We would assemble at The Holme – devastated by fire in 2004 – and play a selection of pieces, mostly carols. After playing in the chapel the band walked to Walk Mill at the other end of the village, stopping and playing carols to the delight of local residents at different points en route.
It was only by late afternoon that I was able to relax and see what Father Christmas had brought me, and swap gifts with the family.
As I got older, however, I gave it up to pursue my preference – preaching in local churches. By then I was the head teacher at Worsthorne Primary School and was one of the leaders in the lively Mount Zion Independent Methodist Church in Cliviger.
My Christian activities began to take up more of my spare time and visiting different churches each weekend to preach became a delight which I preferred to the enjoyment of cornet playing. It was, admittedly, a very difficult decision to make, but one I have never regretted.
Only recently did the cornet come out of retirement and me with it. I joined the Burnley-based Northern Central Friendship Band – mainly Salvation Army bandsmen – and made friends with David. I enjoyed returning to my musical roots – even after 55 years – and it was David who told me that another band in which he played, Bradley Brass, from the former mining village of that name near Wrexham, North Wales, wanted me to join him in the experience of playing in the Saddleworth contests.
I accepted with alacrity and had soon been sent a copy of the items of music to practise.
As my cornet responded to my attempts to get to grips with one my wife pointed out: “That sounds a very drab piece of music.” I didn’t explain that I was playing a second cornet part and that the livelier elements in the tune would be played by others.
So the night before my debut performance with Bradley Brass – sometimes called the Wishy-washy band because they practise in rooms above a launderette – I dreamed of places such as Delph, Dobcross and Diggle, some of the towns which I had visited to see the marching band contest.
My white shirt and black trousers were washed and pressed, waiting to be put on for the performances. I sat in the summerhouse in my garden, overlooking the south Pennines and contemplating, with a little nervousness, the following day.
I did have a quick practice, marching up and down the lawn, having first checked that the neighbours were not around.
I was worried that my valve finger – the one that controls the playing – might be injured and, like a hapless English footballer, I would be unfit for the coming performance.
I also worried about the weather. Would it be raining, or even worse, bearing in mind this is the North of England, should I dig out my winter Damart undies as extra cover?
To an old man just four months off his 77th birthday this was to be one of those one-off experiences that we call the Opportunity of a Lifetime.
The Whit Friday Marching Bands are something special in that area of Lancashire, with church parades in the morning followed by the great free show in the evening; the Marching Band Contest.
I met my new colleagues for the first time at Hyde in the afternoon and got to know them, before we boarded a coach and set off to play at six locations in Tameside; Aldwinians, Denton, Stalybridge Celtic, Stalybridge Labour Club, Broadoak and Tame Valley (Dukinfield). In each place we played one piece as we marched into the village and then assembled in a central focal location to play a march pre-selected by the organisers.
We won no prizes – the highest we were placed was 30th – but every member of the band enjoyed the day and for me, in particular, it was a marvellous occasion. My wife and eldest son managed to track us down and get to the final performance in Broadoak Hotel which was an extra thrill.
I might not have played in Dobcross or Delph, or any of the major venues, but just to be part of the Brass Band Marching Festival was a night I shall remember with extreme happiness. After all, you don’t expect to fulfil at boyhood dream aty age.