The man who refused to sew up his trouser pocket

Nicholas Spice

  • Daring to Excel: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain by Ruth Railton
    Secker, 466 pp, £20.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 436 23359 2

‘Ruth gave the Prime Minister as a Christmas card an old map of the Broadstairs area of Kent.’ The Prime Minister thanked her for it, writing from Chequers ‘in his own hand’. In his 1970-74 diaries Cecil King records a warm relationship between his wife, Dame Ruth Railton, and Edward Heath. ‘I think he is fond of her,’ he wrote on 6 March 1971 after Ted had been round for tea, ‘and finds the friendship of an intelligent and musical woman, with no possible axe to grind, very welcome.’

Daring to Excel is not the book of someone who has no axes to grind. On the contrary, it tells the story of how an intelligent and musical woman ground one particular axe exceedingly fine, honing it into a lethal weapon for splitting and dividing, for cleaving the hearts of children in the service of her ideal. The book also explains why it wouldn’t have been necessary for Railton to grind her axes with Edward Heath. When they had tea together in March 1971, Mr Heath had long been a fan of the National Youth Orchestra. In 1963, as Secretary of State for Industry and a VIP with musical credentials, he had been made an honorary NYO member and awarded its badge. When Railton retired as Musical Director in 1965 and the orchestra temporarily suspended its activities, Edward Heath spoke up for it in the House of Commons. In 1969, it was natural that Peter McLachlan, at the time administrator of the NYO and later active at Conservative Central Office, should invite the then Leader of the Opposition to visit the orchestra on its Easter holiday course at a minor public school in Ramsgate, just down the road from Broadstairs, where Mr Heath lived. On that occasion, after listening to the orchestra play, Mr Heath mounted the podium to speak. From my position at the rear of the orchestra I thought he looked surprisingly small for a major politician. As to what he said, I remember little of it, except that he made one priceless slip of the tongue. How hard it had been, he said gravely, to choose between setting out on a career in public life and becoming ‘a professional museum’.

I doubt whether there was anyone among the hundred and fifty or so teenagers in Mr Heath’s audience for whom that ‘imaginary museum of musical works’, as Lydia Goehr calls it in the title of a recent book, was not the centre of life. We virtually lived there, and in most cases had done so for years. My own love of the museum had begun when I was nine and ill in bed. Previous visits, under the guidance of my father, had left me curious. But now – perhaps it was the temperature or the rather unhappy state of mind I was in at the time – I suddenly saw the point and sat for hours propped up against my pillows learning the first names of composers from a 1938 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, while listening to a record of the Eroica which I wore out within a week.

By the time I was 16 and sitting at the back of the horn section of the NYO half-listening to Mr Heath, I had penetrated quite deeply into the labyrinth of the museum. Like my colleagues in the orchestra I had early discovered the wonderful fact that you could work the museum exhibits yourself, step inside them, even in a way become them. The intensity of these experiences beat everything else on offer, until, perhaps, falling in love for the first time, but even then the music rose to the occasion, providing a whole repertoire of voices in which to articulate the inarticulacy of feeling. The more proficient I became at playing, the greater the rewards of ventriloquism. Playing the piano offered ways to impersonate genius: playing in an orchestra group ecstasy. At a local level the height of these experiences came for me in a performance of the Verdi Requiem in Winchester Cathedral. Playing the horn in the Tuba Mirum, I seemed temporarily to lose all physical boundary in the sea of sound. But it was the National Youth Orchestra that provided the ultimate highs. Could anything equal the feelings of reverence and awe that came from playing the climax of Elgar’s Nimrod in an orchestra of one hundred and fifty players in the Festival Hall? What sensual experience could approach playing the final pages of Scheherazade? Where would one feel closer to a sense of a vengeful god than in contributing to the opening bars of the last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony? ‘Not one child had ever experienced or imagined music-making of that level,’ Ruth Railton says of an occasion early in the orchestra’s history when the players had been rehearsing with Walter Susskind.

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