by Doug Macari
Photo: Junior Musicians at the Guards Depot, Pirbright, c1965. (l to r): Doug Macari – Grenadier Guards, John Malcolm – Scots Guards, Mick Pierce – Grenadier Guards, Bob Philp – Royal Horse Guards & Phil Henderson – Grenadier Guards.
Chapter one: Bass camp
My first attempts at word-juggling coincided with the time that I first took up playing the tuba. My artless technique for each in those early days spent as a young army musician at the Guards’ depot, Pirbright, was not dissimilar: deep breath, pucker the lips, blow a large raspberry.
If nothing more, I learned that either activity had the potential to grab the attention of others. Some took offence, some were charmed, some laughed pitilessly. At 15 it mattered little to me — I had tapped the fundamental law of applause and effect and it turned me on. I was hooked on the adrenalin of “audience”.
And the Mephistophelian character responsible for my temptation and fall into lifelong addiction? None other than my lifelong friend and creative collaborator, composer Philip Henderson.
It was in early 1965 that 23929403 Junior Musician Henderson P, as he was then — or Hendi, as he’s been to me ever since — first introduced a rather spotty, never-would-be cornet player to the sonorous tones, alluring curves and generally brassy attractions of the tuba.
At that time, 24000305 Jr Mus Macari D was, quite frankly, struggling to make progress with the intricate demands of learning to play the cornet; evidently, far too much puff and demonstrably too little technique to make the damned thing “sing” sweetly as it should. Unlike, it seemed to me at the time, those boys who played as if personal angels had been assigned at birth to sit on their shoulders, pucker their lips into perfect embouchures and breathe raw talent into their lungs and fingers daily for the next 15 years.
The best of them were invariably players from Salvationist family backgrounds. The Salvation Army was, and remains to this day, an admirable organisation, producing fine brass players with a worthy record of saving souls and finding missing persons. But that rather sanctimonious tone, overlaid as it is with lashings of saccharine vibrato, nevertheless grated somewhat on my catholic tastes.
I prefer instead to this day the more ballsy, clash-of-the-Titans declamatory tone of orchestral brass: thick-cut, white sliced every time. None of your wholesome Hovis for me!
With the tuba, however, I began immediately to experience a new rapture wholly my own: the visceral thrill of laying down the bass foundational notes for every chord subsequently built and resonated upon throughout the band, was sheer pleasure.
I was enthused with the zeal of the convert. At 16, my bassist instincts had been aroused. I was growing up. So too, by way of subsequent innumerable conversations with Hendi, I began to discover a whole new perspective on so many things. Not least that the soulless Surrey barrack-scape we inhabited, populated largely by scuttling duty-bound squaddies could, with imagination when perceived through the proscenium of Hut 63’s snow-drifted windows, be seen to offer transport to a higher, lyrical plain.
In time, we came to consider our harsh little world as less khaki hell, more Brueghel in winter. We amused and entertained ourselves with our own creative conceits. Better Brueghel than Bosch, our pretentious teenage souls seemed to chorus in harmony as we bluffed, laughed and wafted our way toward a heightened aesthetic totally at odds with our lowly military status.
For the first year of my two-and-a-half at Pirbright, Hut 63 was my home, shared with an assortment of 20-or-so other burgeoning young musical soldiers. Hut 63, with Huts 64 and 65, formed the living quarters of the junior musicians’ wing (JMW) of the Junior Guardsmen’s Company.
There was inevitably a hierarchical aspect to those war-era accommodation huts. Sixty-three was for rookies and younger boys only, 64 for more seasoned youths, while Hut 65 represented the apogee of hut-bound accommodation, reserved for the Steerforth and Weasley types of the JMW: senior boys — fully-seasoned, popular and generally revered to the point of myth by the rookies who buttonholed each newcomer with apocryphal tales of their many exploits in the cause of getting one over on: squaddies; officers; the band sergeant; the cookhouse sergeant… anyone indeed representing the stiflingly repressive power that held sway over every aspect of our insignificant lives.
The 65ers knew all the ropes and could easily, and with great effect, tie in verbal knots any unsuspecting lesser mortal who had the temerity to appear in their cross-hairs. All good-natured stuff, of course, and for no other reason than to raise a hearty laugh for the benefit of all present.
In such spartan territory, laughter was gold. Ours was an existence caught midway between gaol time and an English boarding school. The boarding element literally comprised the bare floorboarding in our huts which, in preparation for weekly inspections, had to be scrubbed spotless on hands and knees with real vim and vigour, residues of actual Vim being craftily worked into the grain and left to dry, leaving a pristine snow-like appearance. The integrity of this re-virgined territory was then secured from overnight defilement by the laying down of a blanket donated from each young soldier’s bedding allocation.
A barely less bizarre ritual was reserved for the four-foot wide brown linoleum strip that ran centrally the length of the hut between the two ranks of bed spaces. This was buffed vigorously and continuously for hours on end with a long-handled device called a bumper loaded with thick yellow paraffin wax until it gleamed like the Crown Jewels. God help any unfortunate bod who stepped on it between the final buffing session at around midnight and the inspecting officer’s arrival in the morning!
The army establishment’s unique liturgy was founded upon a single living creed that permeated every aspect of military life: If it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t, polish, paint or Blanco it. This strict injunction applied to each and every conceivable article — animal, vegetable or mineral — possessed by the army.
Sixty-five was also the unofficial waiting room for effecting the great escape: a year’s vacation at Kneller Hall. At least, that’s the way we viewed it. The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall was reputed to be a holiday camp compared to Stalag Pirbright. It was looked upon as a kind of gap-year experience before postings to final destinations, one of the seven Guards’ bands stationed in London to carry out public duties. In the case of Hendi and myself, this would be the Grenadiers. In reality, Kneller Hall was the only legitimate route out of Pirbright for an intensive musical education where, for one glorious year in Twickenham, music held the upper hand over military BS — a Shangri-La of the mind where we boys could fantasise the opportunities on offer to venture out to drink beer, meet girls, become men!
My new soul mate at Pirbright, Hendi, was a real spinner of dreams who convinced me that our best long-term chance of salvation from the unrelenting straight-laced conformity of army discipline lay in grasping firmly the Aquarian tail of the ’60s zeitgeist then haunting and taunting us with its multiple freedoms. We should, he declared, become songwriters.
And so it went.
By day, he and I would dutifully play our parts as the JMW military band’s deep and dependable engine room, our twin-turbo tuba-flavoured raspberries now mimicking the quadruple growl of a Lancaster’s Merlin engines, throbbing their way through the splendid Dam Busters March of Eric Coates, now pumping unrefined Tyrolean oom-pah-pah into the Von Trapp Lonely Goatherd as we milked the Sound of Music for all it was worth.
By night, what there was of it, we scribbled and warbled our way aspirationally towards what we assumed to be the general direction of Tin Pan Alley, our efforts achieving a kind of aural confection best described as warmed-over Burt Bacharach, liberally spun into a Jimmy Webb of lyrical obscurantism.
Our goal, always, to somehow “make it” — and make it big! We really didn’t care how long it took to bake the thing, we were just determined to have our own slice of that bloody cake in MacArthur Park before those pesky raindrops, currently falling on our own heads, drenched the life out of us and washed the whole damned dream away.
To be continued… perhaps
About Doug Macari
Doug recently completed writing his first opera – Giacomo’s Muse – (https://www.facebook.com/ GiacomosMuse/) with lifelong friend and creative partner, composer, Philip Henderson. A previous work by the pair for choir, and orchestra – Seventeen poets form lines on the foot of Mt Fuji – premiered in Shanghai in 2014. He is currently working on a suite of seven songs – Spiriti Pompeii – for unaccompanied choir – music again by Philip. Doug also plays darbouka and sings in his band, RAQSONIC – https://www.facebook.com/raqsonic/ – performing Arabic and Turkish songs and dance music. They’re at Sandwich Folk & Ale Festival on July 3rd, 2021. Doug lives in Canterbury.
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