December on the Trent and Mersey

We, by that I mean me and Pete, try to get a narrowboat week out of season, often near Christmas. Seeing as we are moored in Sandbach, we thought we’d go to Runcorn because we’d never been and it’s quite near where my brother and his family live. The Trent and Mersey was shut just beyond Black Prince boats at Acton Bridge so plan B came into play. We would meet my kith in the Leigh Arms at the real Acton Bridge over the river Weaver. My niece's 17 year old boy came with his dad after playing rugby in Altrincham and after accepting congratulations for a game well played, proceeded to consult his phone and disengage himself from family and other matters. Great lad! My sister-in-law left her handbag which we noticed thankfully. One pint later I reconnected her with it at Black Prince boats after a towpath walk guided by torch. We get to meet in the oddest of places.
  We turned round, not in the official winding hole, with some bad grace from live-aboards who were parked opposite the turn. Stopped for a night just down from the Broken Cross which is highly recommended, for a drink at any rate.
  The Kings Lock pub at Middlewich was empty apart from four dead legs. 
  Moored the next night above Church Minshull on the arm. Walked down through the trees for a lunchtime sesh at the Badger. We had the taproom and fire to ourselves. Christmas parties in the body of the pub. One local attached himself to Pete and delivered a tutorial on looking after the fire, the pointlessness of fresh cut wood and the uselessness of the pub staff generally. Pete has such a kind face.
  I sang with New Mill the Saturday night after my return. My chorister colleagues were curious as to why we would travel 24 miles between Middlewich and Acton Bridge in freezing cold weather.


Danny Brough in a kilt

Chris, my son, is a rugby league fan, mostly Rhinos, but when I'm buying he supports anyone, even Fartown. We go back several years to Leeds University and the Friday night game at Headingley. Since then we saw Scotland against New Zealand and taken in a few home games down at the Smith stadium.
  Chris flies for Ryanair and one day recently, whilst changing planes in Dublin, recognised this rough looking wee bloke in a kilt. Danny Brough! Chris was made up and a got his autograph. History does not record what Danny said. They'd played Ireland the night before so he may have been incapable of speech.
  Danny can also been seen at Lockwood Park, home of Huddersfield RUFC. His agent's son is on the staff there.

Don't let your knee and teeth grind you down

I've had an orthopaedic and a dental consultation within the last week. More in my long list of thankfully relatively minor health issues.

  The knee began over 20 years ago with a rugby injury. What was I doing playing over the age of 40 is a reasonable question. Nothing major happened since though I have had intermittent kneecap pain. 12 months ago after a week standing on the back of a narrowboat it swelled, was painful and wouldn't bear weight. It settled within a week. I had the same symptoms after a 5 mile walk. The gp said it was osteoarthritis. Then came some clicking relieved by bending the knee. Back to the gp and on to an orthopod. X-rays confirmed OA. The senior registrar said I was a slim fit guy who would probably get by with simple pain killers. Come back when the pain is unbearable and we'll do a replacement. I hope he'll have his consultant post by then.
  Good advice. The important thing for me was the context within which this chat took place. At the start I spoke to a receptionist. 'Put your details on the screen over there'. An irritant but it happens at the gp's. Back to the receptionist to ask where the clinic was. They are still needed for trivia then. I'm spot on time and wait half an hour before I'm seen. People wander in and out. I'm sent for an Xray. I was away from the clinic so long the staff nurse thought I gone home. The place is overloaded and so are the staff. People in wheelchairs, on trolleys, bandaged, plastered, in pain and can't walk. After two and a half hours I realise I am wasting the man's time. I'm a slim fit kind of a guy - he said it - and there is nothing seriously wrong with me. He's needed for the wheelchairs and the trolleys. I quickly slunk out of the consultation and walked fast and effortlessly to my car, like a slim fit kind of guy. Come to think of it, he gave me just the best treatment as well as good advice.

 I've been losing natural teeth and gaining artificial ones for a couple of years. The lad did his brutal best to fill as many cavities as he could and the lovely hygienist tolerated my refusal to have a deep clean. I hate the injection and I hate the drill. Not a mortal fear but not far off. But you stay with the same people who gradually realise what a wimp you are and smile ever more sympathetically whilst they half kill you. Prevention inevitably came to an end for a half dozen of my teeth, so I joined the denture grumblers, though not for long. I've got my smile back so I'm okay.
  The point of all this is dentures need drilling too. To get them to fit here and there. The first time it happened when the lad went for his drill, I thought hang on, I haven't come for another dose of hell. Then he took out my denture and began to drill that. I had to chuckle. As if life couldn't be so simple. Every time something unpleasant is about to occur, take it out and let it have the hassle instead. He didn't get it right first time, not an exact science in his words. So I have to go again and I did check he wasn't going to bill me any extra. My newfound affability at the dentist does have limits.

What does go on in that crush bar: the Ukulele Band and Sir Willard White

On the 11th October, New Mill Male Voice Choir Ukulele Band received a warm reception following their solo in the middle of Just George, a medley of George Formby numbers (Leaning on a Lampost, My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock and When I'm Cleaning Windows).

The band members left the choir to get ready during He Ain't Heavy and got stuck in the crush bar under the stage. They nearly didn't appear for Just George. First Sir Willard fancied an ice cream, 'How much are they? I'll go get my money.' Of course everything stopped whilst the great man got his sweet. Second, whilst he engaged the band in friendly conversation, the members shuffled about and wondered how He Ain't Heavy was going. Just how do you disengage from the great man and make your entrance? Answers please - nice ones.

Ged Faricy, John Senior and Robert Coombes make up the band, now known as Cream.

A New Mill Singer talks with no one in particular

On the 11th of October 2014, New Mill Male Voice Choir and Sir Willard White were given resounding cheers and standing ovations for their performances at Huddersfield Town Hall. One of the choir reflects with his muse.

ANMS was sat in the kitchen looking up at the moor, still in wonder at the volume and length of Saturday night’s applause.

‘I was surprised really, and then pleased obviously. We always sing well at the Town Hall, but had we been something extra-special? The audience was magnificent. Three standing ovations are not to be sniffed at. Admittedly by the end, our admirers were already stood for Jerusalem.
  I remember smiling a lot. Dentures are good for that sort of thing whilst being a bit of a hindrance for singing. I draw the line at waving.
  Sir Willard had something to do with it. The public had actually payed to see him, yet they were cheering us long before he came on. Then they cheered him as well. In fact they cheered all night.
  We finished with a four-item set, possibly be a neat way to bury a piece you’re not sure about. But, no, my fiercest critic, and others, have said In Flanders Fields was epic. Alan was inspired in how he put it all together. A fitting way for a choir to remember.
  Just George was a great opportunity for our usual suspects to go over the top, appropriate in view of the last act. I admit to nothing more than a little theatricality.

  And now a little later - surprised, pleased and ….. proud.’

New Mill Male Voice Choir stall Holmfirth market Sept 2014

Robert and Steve giving chocolate cake to drivers at the lights at the library.
It soon became obvious that talking about the choir and handing over leaflets and beer mats doesn’t work. However giving cake, especially to the children, soon resulted in smiles followed by gratefully receiving choir literature.

Joint venture with Forget-Me-Not trust, our charity for the Willard White concert. They made £78 on tombola. The general view was great product but not enough footfall, even though we got rid of 144 slices of cake and made lots of contact with passers-by.
We are going to explore other sites in Holmfirth and Huddersfield to have a stall.

Brother and Sister Act

Milton and Millie, the major players at Kirklees TV. Milton on ops and Millie his pa.
This is about trying to create a promotional video for New Mill Male Voice Choir. Tom Ashworth was the contact and after a delay, off we went to Highfields to talk about it. Milton is a very proud African Yorkshireman. Competent, enthusiastic, not ‘maybe’ but ‘when can we do it?’ He is an advocate of African heritage, ‘Not that the kids are interested these days. More bothered about their ipads’.
The setting was interesting. Huddersfield College, a boys grammar school which my brother attended and birthplace of the chess magazine. Now Kirkless College and Kirklees TV.

Milton came to rehearsal 20th September. Interviewed Mackie and others and took some shots of rehearsal.

Extract from the website.

Kirklees Local TV is an internet-based TV station, which includes local news for local people.
Our vision is to celebrate and document our local community
We aim to give local people the platform to express their views and opinions on news, events and issues in the region. KLTV will provide an exciting and interactive experience, an excellent service for local information, and an online virtual community that will bring together local residents from all over Kirklees.
  We have been working with a range of partners to develop local media teams and sustainable networks through young people, parents, schools, community-based organisations, faith-based organisations, as well as public, voluntary and third sector organisations.
  Through these teams, we will strive to create fulfilment and enrichment by providing premier local news, views and entertainment for diverse local people in Kirklees.

A year in the life - New Mill Male Voice Choir

Organisations have fixed calendar points. Things to work to. Five year plans that are underpinned by monthly meetings and weekly deadlines. Like music, there is rhythm. New Mill Male Voice Choir is no different. Our overarching rhythm lasts twelve months. It is not a business rhythm, being more in tune with the seasons; the ebb and
Christ Church
New Mill
flow of brown leaves, grey skies, crisp dews and fields of rape seed oil, from which we come up for air every month or so to breathe in the heady atmosphere of performance. Or, prosaically, we leave the shelter of New Mill Club to sing in a concert. 
  Our current fixed points are Christmas, January, Spring Bank, and the Summer break, peaking a the October Town Hall concert with star guests. We have other engagements when we ourselves are the guests. Mostly fund-raisers, these concerts can recur but many do not. 
  Christmas is a convenient start. Our annual pilgrimage to Christ Church is an opportunity for the New Mill community to join with male voice choir in a mix of popular and seasonal musical items. We can all then decant to New Mill Club for eats, drinks and some pretty decent informal singing. That’s shorthand for choir members doing their ‘turns’. These are men who can remember their words and just love the adulation of the mob. It’s our Christmas party. 
  Almost since our inception we have guested in December at Low Moor, Bradford, once Allied Colloids and now BASF. Our members who spent their working lives with the company provided the original link which, despite the inevitable losses with time, feels to get firmer each year. We usually sing at nearby Holy Trinity, but due to structural issues last year, we had to switch to the works canteen. We share the stage with local primary schools so the audience is substantial, and it’s still pretty good after the calls for bedtime. Anyway, these young choirs give our musical director an excuse to wear a silly outfit. There are two lady vicars, jolly and serious, and there always used to be a bloke from the company who sang Home Sweet Home.  

  The Scarborough rehearsal weekend used to be in Llandudno, but it moved some years ago. Whilst they share seaside viewpoints and marauding seagulls, Scarborough has the edge on challenging weather. Cold offshore gale-sized wind to be precise, along with icy pavements and impenetrable fog banks. Thankfully not all at once. As the musical work and fun progress within the safety of the hotel, excursions may be limited to the most hardy. New songs are introduced and older ones are spruced up. Those individuals who love the adulation of the mob get chances to hone their acts, both in reserved slots during rehearsal and as part of a gala night that we put on at the Highlander Hotel on South Cliff. We have occasionally broken the journey home with concert performances, notably at the Riley Smith Hall, Tadcaster and Helmsley Arts Centre. It’s a weekend when the bonds between choir members grow, and, given you can’t know everyone, new bonds are created.              
  Spring Bank is the time when we go on tour. Festivals of music beyond our familiar meadows, during which our sound actually gets better, unlike the performance of your average touring rugby or cricket team. A short list of highlights from our visits include Tintoretto’s church in Venice, world heritage site Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, Pablo Casals museum, Barcelona, Auschwitz and the Chopin Institute in Poland and The Menin Gate in Ypres. Flanders. The guys still talk about the Roman Arena at Verona where we did an impromptu performance of The Anvil Chorus, accompanied by workers on hammers and steel girders who were building the set for the opera Aida.

Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tate St Ives
  Though not a regular competition choir, a recent addition to our touring schedule is the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival, where contesting is shared with more relaxed gigs in great venues such as Tate St Ives and the Eden Project, accompanied by blue cloudless skies and light breezes. Incidentally and proudly, previous forays into competition (2009/10/11) resulted in two wins and a second at the Don Valley Festival held at Elsecar, near Barnsley.

  After the summer break, the lull before the storm, comes the mighty Huddersfield Town Hall concert. Since 2000, firstly every two years, and now every year, we invite a star to share the platform with us. Sir Willard White, Aled Jones, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Alison Balsom have all played and sung with us. Groups also come. Morriston Orpheus, a top Welsh choir, is a high standard to compare yourself against. We gave a poignant welcome to The Band of the Yorkshire Regiment at a time of national and local grief following deaths in The Middle East. Young Opera Venture were simply a delight to help out with the chorus in Bizet’s Carmen. 
  Our other concerts when we are guests often produce great moments in brilliant venues: Royal Albert Hall, Cardiff Arms Park, York Minster, Sheffield Cathedral, Elland Road, Fountains Abbey, Blackpool Winter Gardens, Scarborough Spa and our own Huddersfield Town Hall. And raising not inconsiderable sums for worthy causes. The Winter Gardens concert was for 2500 ladies of Inner Wheel. The Arms Park was full - well Shirley Bassey was the star guest.
  Now forget all the adrenaline and fireworks of the Town Hall. Underneath all the froth of the great venues and star guests, down amongst the muck and bullets is the weekly rehearsal in New Mill Club. You can set your watch by it. Two hours of super coaching to sing in harmony and to perform. Two hours away from your normal duties in the company of Musical Director Allan Brierley and Pianist Emma Binns. Everyone grafts. Drinks and food follow and the bonds continue to grow. We are so lucky to have New Mill Club; a powerful factor supporting the closely knit choir. This weekly foundation is           the fuel for those ultimate moments of performance.
  Another important factor in our choir fellowship is illustrated by Andy’s piece below. The diversity of member’s jobs and interests is considerable. So strong in some cases, small groups actually want to meet between rehearsals to pursue their passions. 
  A final thought about choir health. Our committee meets monthly; a bit of a headache which they gladly suffer to enable the choir to function at the basic level; essential stuff if we are to thrive and triumph on the concert platform.
  Behind the broad sweeping movements of the seasons there is a steady beat. All those beats count.
                                                                                                                                                  Dave Walker

Caravanners, sun-tanners, ex-pats and gym rats, 
Heavy drinkers, heavy thinkers, trumpet players, sooth-sayers, 
Organic bakers, micky-takers, runners and joggers, 
gardeners and loggers, 
Teachers and preachers, straight talkers, fell walkers, 
Writers, right-wingers, folk singers, old swingers, 
Dropouts and artists, sculptors, conductors, 
Ballroom prancers, Morris dancers, computer geeks and techno freaks, 
Lawyers, accountants, political wets, the hunting, shooting and fishing sets ... 
                                                                                                                   Andy Johnston 

Forget-me-not at Ossett Brewery Aug 31st 2014

Live bands, burgers, hot dogs and Yorkshire Blonde at £2.50 per pint. Apart from the decibel levels, where is the pain? Team Sheila on tombola, featuring special guest Sir Willard White on beermats.

Harold Wagstaff

Two Fartown events this week. First we beat Widnes in the league. Always a satisfying thing to do considering the crap that came our way from the Widnes branch of the family when they thought Wembley was a home game.
  Second, we visited Harold's grave, part of a walk to commemorate him and the era of rugby in which he played. It's on cemetery road outside Holmfirth. Pink marble gravestone. A nice thing, albeit overgrown. See for further detail.

Social Cricket and Musical Meanderings flounder - Aug 2014

Social Cricket
There is no support for social cricket at Thongsbridge and Almondbury Casuals is moribund. There are still teams at Upperthong and Holmbridge.
  It's all very sad, but I'm not being involved from now on.

Musical Meanderings
After making many contacts, the prospect of driving through personally a book project is daunting. It may be a website. Pity, because a second edition of Musical Meanderings would be a great thing.
  It all depends on energy.

Shroppie Aug 2014

              Mooring in Chester

It didn’t start well and the finish wasn’t perfect, but in between it had its moments. The highlight was teaming up with a couple from Wigan to go up the double locks from Chester to Bunbury and then mooring for drinks in the evening.

I didn’t go into Chester itself.

We had a look at the basin down by Telford’s Warehouse. More moorings and good facilities apparently, but not obvious. So progress.


New Mill choir flyer delivery August 2014

Why did five singers, a wife and two sons meet at 10am last Friday morning outside the Carding Shed at Hepworth? Well, we were planning to have coffee and a bun at the cafe there, maybe around lunchtime, but before that we intended to post 1000 flyers around the New Mill district.
  Let’s start at the beginning. A bit more than twelve months ago (March 2013) a group got together to manage the sale of choir merchandise. Pretty soon this group morphed into wider choir promotion: raising the choir’s profile and helping with campaigns to sell concert tickets.
  So this was our latest venture. We were advertising a concert at Christ Church, New Mill, featuring St Buryan Male Voice Choir from Cornwall, friends we made at a music festival in 2013. Equally important will be the ‘afterglow’ at New Mill Club; another way of saying food, drink,  entertainment and a good time to be had by all. 
  Steve Flynn designed and arranged the flyer printing. You can commission companies to do the delivery, but Steve Davies volunteered his two sons. Along came John Middleton, Robert and Liz Coombs and we had a team.
  Amazingly, within two hours we had covered Hepworth, Scholes, Totties and Pule Hill. If 5% turn out on the night, the club will be bursting at the seams. Not too many yappy dogs, just the odd one that banged and crashed in ‘ff’ to get free of its chain. The letterbox on the outside wall is a brilliant and rare beauty. Mostly they are knuckle-grazers as your hand tries to negotiate brushes and internal spring-loaded finger traps. Some houses did not have a letterbox. One of mine was selotaped up. The occupants might not be coming to the concert.
  I have to say that town planning does not take account of the postman. Long drives and awkward steps will certainly keep them fit, but won’t help them meet their time targets. It’s no wonder they all wear shorts, even in deepest winter.

  We finished with coffee and a bun at the Oil Can, pleased and smiling amidst old cars and motoring memorabilia. We may never know the results of our efforts. At least, those that read the flyer will realise they have a local choir and two hours one Friday morning was not a lot of skin off our noses, or knuckles.

Clayton West Line Aug 2014

This was the last Huddersfield branch line to be built, connecting with the Penistone line near Shepley and Shelley station. It opened September 1st, 1879. There is a tunnel 611 yards long at Skelmanthorpe. The line was wide enough for a double track, but it was never required. 
  The website includes ‘With two thriving communities each with a colliery to serve, the railway soon proved its worth. Aside from regular goods and passenger trains the line was also used for excursion trains for workers to travel to places further afield.
  Coal traffic was the backbone of the railway and ensured that it survived Dr Beeching’s modernisation plan of the 1960s which saw many similar lines closed.’
  It did close in 1983.
  Since October 1991 it’s the Kirklees Light Railway. The website explains this development

  ‘Around this time Brian & Doreen Taylor had established a miniature railway at Shibden Park in Halifax. This had become a great success and continues to please many visitors to the park today. Brian however wanted to get his teeth into something bigger and began a search for somewhere to build a 15 inch gauge railway.
  Attention finally fell on the line to Clayton West which had lain dormant for only a short time. After negotiations, and with support from Kirklees Council, a Light Railway Order was applied for and this was granted in September 1991, one of the last to be made under the 1896 Light Railway Act.  
  During this time the Taylors had been busy, with assistance of a small team of paid and voluntary staff, constructing the railway. This opened in stages, firstly to Cuckoo’s Nest in October 1991, Skelmanthorpe in December 1992 and finally Shelley in May 1997, the latter being completed with assistance from the European Union’s coalfield regeneration schemes. 
  In the early 2000s Brian and Doreen decided that they wished to take life a little easier and retire. The railway was acquired in 2006 by Stately Albion, a family owned company that specialises in the manufacture of park and leisure homes. With 6 locomotives, 12 coaches, a new engine shed and station building at Clayton West the Taylors had laid solid foundations. Since purchasing the line Stately Albion have made many improvements these include new carriages, two large play areas and a new tearoom and picnic area at Shelley.’

  We took Jenson. He was frightened to start with, but soon came round. The trip is 25 minutes each way and overlooks farmland with livestock. There are two stations, Skelmanthorpe and Cuckoo’s Nest, but no one got on or off. Seems a well organised set up.

Belgium - stepping into the past

New Mill Male Voice Choir toured Flanders in May 2014. The Flanders towns Ypres, Bruges and Ghent were the principle destinations, both to take in the sites, to sing and to search for connections with the West Riding. Wool was king here long before Huddersfield, Leeds and Bradford took centre stage during the industrial revolution. Sadly, many Yorkshire men lost their lives here, during WW1. 

In the early middle ages, Flanders was an important trading centre. Merchants, becoming very rich in the process, bought raw wool from England and employed artisans to make highly desirable cloth for export. Canals,  fine merchants’ houses and large cloth halls were impressive, though the Ypres buildings were modern reconstructions of structures razed in WW1 by the Germans. Ghent also had factory remains from a 19th century textile revival. These reminders fitted snugly with 21st century bars and bistros. 

Two cathedrals, Bruges and Ghent, hosted the choir on successive days. Bruges’ Sint-Salvator, whilst built in the 10th century, obtained cathedral status after Belgium’s independence in the 1830s. The organ was massive, expanded and rebuilt three times in the 20th century. Saint Bavo of Ghent was consecrated in 942, completed in 1569, becoming a cathedral in 1559. It houses the masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Bruges was the more intimate space, but both had exceptional acoustics.

We spent a day with a guide, exploring Ypres and Passchendaele; the battlefield and the cemeteries. At Essex Farm, the cemetery was next to a dressing station, manned by a Canadian surgeon called Lt Col John McCrae who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. One of the poignant moments here was at the graveside of a sixteen year old. At Tyne Cot we were reminded of the 100 days it took to advance 5 miles prior to the third battle of Passchendaele when over 250,000 British lives were lost. We were told about excess rain, artillery bombardment, mud and murderous machine guns. And executions for cowardice. Beyond our experience, hard to imagine. It’s a peaceful place now.   
We sang Let There Be Peace On Earth and Abide With Me at the Menin Gate, which with Tyne Cot, are memorials to those who have no known grave. Adam, our chairman, read an extract from Robert Binyon’s poem. The names of soldiers from The Duke Of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) appeared regularly on the memorials.

Everything we reflect on in the present is already history. Making sense of personal history depends on our first memories and the memories of relatives, personally known to us or known to the generations we grew up alongside. This living history goes back maybe to grandparents and their siblings, many of whom died in Flanders. Most of us abhor violent conflict on any scale and the heartbreaking loss of young lives. Yet there was dignity here in Flanders, in the white symmetrical stones and the neat names carved on walls. Row on row, just on the edge of our personal histories, still not a remote date in a history textbook. 

Flanders was a great place to visit, and to sing, and to catch up on history some of us might not know a lot about, until now.

New Mill Male Voice Choir visit Lowerhouses Primary School

It was a partnership, two parties cooperating and giving something to each other through music.
  On Wednesday May 21st, after school, twenty or so choir members arrived in dribs and drabs to be electronically signed in at reception by their chairman, Adam Brown. There were several spelling mistakes, not by Adam. 
  We were greeted by Mrs Tracey, choir mistress, who explained how the action-packed session would go.
  The juniors, some really small, began with Music Memories illustrated by elegant choreography. Then You Raise Me Up complete with signing for the hearing impaired.
  The men did their set unaccompanied. First Let it be me, the most popular version of which was released in 1960 by The Everly Brothers. Second African Trilogy which was a tad rusty it has to be said. Two traditional Zulu melodies are combined with the South African national anthem. The first song, Siyahamba, is now well-known as the hymn ‘We are marching in the light of God’. The second item, Shosholoza, is a road gang work song. The trilogy concludes with the anthem Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika, sung in English. We were due to do it again as a joint item, but the two very different versions couldn’t sing to each other.
  Drumming was next and each choir member received an instrument. ‘Quieten down children,’ did not always apply to the children. There were three drumming sections, in a round, alternating with singing. The children then sang their favourite song about Mr Miller and his band. Some great trombones and saxophones. The choir is usually unable to perform with added movement or action, but the men gladly joined in, some better than others.
   You raise me up came again, this time with a tutorial for the men on signing by Mrs Thomas. Again we had no option but to multitask and sing and sign together. It was hard. Confusingly, whilst the actions and sounds are performed at the same time, signing and singing don’t necessarily use the same words. Recorded by more than one hundred artists, You Raise Me Up was originally composed by the duo, Secret Garden. In 2005, it was popularised in the UK by Westlife. Today, it is also a church hymn.
  The men finished with Let there be Peace on Earth.

  The partnership was between children, starting out on life’s journey, and men in their fifties and sixties with something left in the tank. The children, and the teachers, received somewhere that deep soulful sound that men can make together. The men, uncoordinated granddads, smiled a lot. It was fun, and moving.

Two Events in Two Days

On Friday 11th April, New Mill Male Voice Choir sang at the funeral of one of its members, Derek Haigh, who died suddenly on holiday in Cyprus. He was a sunny character who’d a great business career and who loved his music. In 2003, he and his wife, Jocelyne, were responsible for inviting the choir to two big concerts in aid of Rotary and Inner Wheel at The Winter Gardens, Blackpool and The Spa, Scarborough.
  Over 300 attended the service at Kirkheaton Parish Church. Tributes came from Mirfield Rotarian, Paul Cusworth and Graham Dawson, representing the choir. The congregation progressed to Woodsome GC for refreshments, golf being another of Derek’s passions.
  The following day, the choir sang at The Salvation Army Citadel, Scarborough with Manhattan Voices, a dozen or so ladies linked to the choir by a long-standing friendship between their musical director and Ray Thompson, the choir's music committee chair. They smiled a lot and their repertoire was popular and well sung, an excellent foil for the choir’s mostly traditional male voice pieces. Sadly, for a great venue with great singing, the audience, mostly camp-followers and Jocelyne, numbered little more than 40. The afterglow was enjoyed at The Red Lea Hotel, prior to an eleventh hour departure on the coach.
  Two events in two days. Unusual for the choir, and well supported. Two sacred venues, one for a solemn celebration of a life, the other secular and joyful. Two strong singing spaces, ideal for the male voice genre. Pity about the unequal audience sizes.

  Two contrasting experiences, brought together by Jocelyne and Derek.

Is suffering good for you?

There comes a time when normally sane middle aged men take up some cause, and on its behalf, run, swim, walk or bike a silly distance, preferably up and over equally silly obstacles, and, inexplicably, compete against each other by trying to do it in the fastest time. Now what is that all about?
  I’ve done it myself on several occasions, the latest of which was The Yorkshire Rider Mountain Bike Challenge, September 2001.
  A fellow choir member comes up to me after practice, one night in June, and says would I like to do a bike ride. It’s for ‘Sightsavers’, you know, those guys who do a hundred eye operations in an afternoon, in a tent in the middle of the Indian desert, for five quid. I’d never heard of them and I’m allergic to collecting money anyway. But and I’m 54, and can ride a bike for about an hour on the road, and up hills too, so I says yes, but don’t expect too much dosh. This was my first impetuous decision. The topic isn’t discussed again, and I forget about it. It’s not a steamy long hot summer of your romantic novelist, but the reassuring seasonal rituals recur reassuringly and, between the numerous dot balls, my steady opening bat snicks and tickles ones and twos to fine leg and third man, decorated by the occasional rush of blood to the head, which usually results in either the maximum or LBW. Two weeks before the event, up comes my fellow choir member. Let’s have some practice rides – oh, yes, what a good idea. The following day a pal pops round to put some sticking plaster on my decaying pile; he replaces my bedroom window. We talk over coffee, lunch, tea and any other excuse to talk and drink. ‘Oh, aye, we did that. It were easy. I could’ve gone round again.’
  Can’t be all bad I thought, but why is he limping?
  The choir is at its most gloriously inept when organising the sporting event. I’ll ring you. Well you forgot. You weren’t in. I definitely said 7.30. He forgot to book it. The list of why we didn’t play, run or whatever is endless. And the things that can go wrong. My own list includes pulled calf muscle, tennis elbow, broken rear mech, ruptured chain and bruised ego.
  So we practise. My fellow choir member, who has now become our leader, organises the route. I remind him of my poor record with money, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried. It’s only a charity, he says. I’ve got £200 do far, he says, but its what I like doing.  Ah, I recognise the inveterate organiser. He can’t stop himself from running something. Mobilising the troops. Geoff’s a cyclist, he’ll come. What about Barry?  Dave will do it. The hell I will, and yet I did. I bet he cuddles his mobile phone.Does he ever wonder why people don’t love him?
The training rides were to be on mountain bikes, and there I was on my Claude Butler, a decent enough road bike. I’d only been on a track for five minutes when the chain broke. A long walk home and the expense of a chain repair kit – a worthwhile investment as it happens. It was the second ride that proved I couldn’t do it. The bike wasn’t appropriate and it would die, and me with it. After a two minutes on a mildly undulating strip of mud and rocks, I’d lost my grip and fallen off, injuring my elbow and busting a toestrap. I remounted and my heart and several other internal organs sank as I heard the sound of ominous rattles and scraping noises. My rear mech was engaging with the rear wheel spokes. Haven’t you got a mountain bike our leader asks?  Isn’t that the daftest question? Do I hit him now or shall I savour the moment?
  I wasn’t going to do it.This was my second decision. But, I’d already got thirty quids worth of sponsorship. Sheila, my child bride, had baked a cake for work. Have a piece and sponsor this idiot. Can’t you hear their chuckling staff room sense of fun? ‘They’ll want to know if you’ve done it,’ she says. It was a double-edged sword upon which I was about to fall. On the one hand, this was money in the bank. I can’t bear getting sponsorship; its as bad as selling raffle tickets – I usually end up buying them all myself. On the other hand, if I didn’t ride, what’ll I do with the money. I know, I’ll give it back. No, I’ll do half and give half back. Oh, shoot,   I’ll have to do it. My third and final decision.
  I needed a mountain bike? Maybe I can’t do it after all. Geoff, bless him, the eternal optimist and good samaritan, offered me his machine. He received the benefit of one of my long and very old fashioned looks. The rear brake was a bit sticky and the chain slips so I’ve borrowed this other one from a mate, he says. ‘Well if you’re not riding it, neither am I.’
  ‘It only needs a bit doing to it.’
  ‘What makes you think I can do it?’ Our first tiff. I think I was actually shouting at our leader, who was blissfully ignorant over in the bass section. We baritones are a feisty lot. Now, I was emotionally as well as financially up the creek. Geoff’s charity had tied me in for the duration.
  There is only one shop in Huddersfield that hires mountain bikes, and that’s in Scisset which is not really in Huddersfield. I give them a ring. You can have a twenty inch something, cost you £20. I’d already paid £12 to enter the ride and £7.50 for a chain repair kit, more than the sponsorship I’d been promised. Shows how pathetic I am.  Collect it Saturday. I take my wrecked road bike in for repair on the way. Two lads, neither more than thirty, and both with a developmental need for conversational skills are serving on. Two terms at a charm school, perhaps? Maybe some sessions in the child bride’s staff room? They soon discover I’m harmless and warm to me. That’ll be £50 deposit and one of them swipes my card.  I’m now down £89.50. Still it’s a brand new mountain bike. The other one gives me a tutorial how to take the wheels off – why should I need to know that? Here’s the repair kit, tyre levers and a spare inner tube – oh, dear, what have I done? I’m confused. Was my fifty quid deposit safe?  I’m beginning to sense my second decision – not to do it – was the right one. I have a trial ride on the road in front of the house. Easy this, gears here, yes the brakes work, seat’s a bit low, needs adjusting. Five minutes and I’ve got it; ha, that’s what you think?
  The child bride gets me to the start, armed with Mars bars and water. I don’t look too out of place, the bike and my clothing seem in keeping with the occasion. All ages, not a lot of women. Where’s your front brake, Dave? Shit I’m sure I had one yesterday. No cantilevers. How am I stopping then? I see the cable to the front wheel hub; ah, a disc brake, now we’re cooking. We’ll set off from the second row says our leader. The third row was past me before I’d got to the end of the start. Right, up the first track and I’m slowly sinking – the saddle’s loose and dropping. I get off and tighten it. I can’t get going again. The gear I’m in is too low and I can’t get any purchase on the pedal, it just keeps going round and I keep falling off.  Its a Yossarian moment. Until I get on I can’t change gear. By the time I’m back on, all the women and children on the fourth row have overtaken me.
The next track I know and enjoy, until the downhill bit that is. I feel as though I’m in a fight: with the bike, with the stones, with the steepness. Every muscle in my arms is engaged in the struggle. The reason for needing the repair kit began to dawn on me and just to prove it, round the next corner, frantic repairs. It was a sight that was to be repeated every two or three miles. A small group bunched around an upended bike, tools and grease everywhere. There was even a guy with a broken chain. Now I was an expert at that.
  A second tenor and a bass are waiting at the top of Holme Moss and I’m grateful. The view’s lovely and the weather fine sunny and windy. As I’m climbing, my saddle suddenly lurches forward; not only is it getting lower, its loose. I’m riding a sea-saw.  Half way up, our leader passes me coming down and I think he shouts something encouraging. He’s been reading the management textbooks again.  On the top of Holme Moss, Barry has the right screw driver and fixes the saddle. He has a large rucksack full of tools, what a man. He also has his own personal fan club, which lurks round corners, but we know they are there, because they keep shouting, ‘Come on Barry,’ at the tops of their voices. I feel I’m in an episode of “Last of the Summer Wine”.
  Life is not too unpleasant for the first fourteen miles. There are regular chocolate bar and water stations, where they they tick you off as having arrived, and then wish you well as you remount. I even take a risk on the downhills and release the brakes a fraction. I pass our house. I pass a Holmfirth Harriers road race. They are the only things I pass, apart from expletives and the checkpoints.
  At sixteen miles, I simply run out of gas. The last ten miles is a blur. Walking up the hills, in fear of my life down the tracks, wobbling up and down on the saddle, legs and arms aching, bum sore. Getting angrier by the mile. I’m speechless at the finish and ignore our leader who is trying to say all the right things. A marshal loses one of my checkpoint ticks and tries to blame me. He won’t do it again. The winner is over 50 and does it in two hours, eight minutes – obscene. It was four hours, forty minutes since I’d lined up on the second row of the grid.  If he’d’ve gone round again, he’d’ve lapped me.
  I have to get home and play cricket at 2.30. It’s 1.30. The child bride is busy. Geoff is going to me a lift, lovely boy. There are two fliers under the windscreen wipers inviting us to take part in races the following month. I tear them up. Apart from something rude and incomprehensible I said to the marshal I still haven’t spoken. Our leader comes over. ‘Can I put you down for next year?’
  ‘Ooo, let me think . . . ‘  Even the most irrepressible of do-gooders would have known to give it a rest and quietly walk away.
  Geoff drives off. I turn to him, ‘Do you know I could be in Philadephia this time next year.’
  The eloquent and literary bike shop owners give me back my £50. One of them engages me in friendly banter, ‘My mate did it last year, came seventh and in fixed gear, takes some doing that.’ I bet it did. My face felt stiff as a tried to contort it into some sort of smile. I think rictus is the word.
  Is all this suffering good for you? Are there any good reasons for walking, running, biking or swimming long distances in the quickest times? And what has it got to do with male voice choirs?
  Exercise is, as yet, one of the few things not contained in the medical or new labour list of banned activities and substances. It’s actually one of those rare items that is positively recommended. But, forgive me for not assuming that this means its good for you. It’s simply that the risk of litigation or appearing in the tabloids is acceptably low if exercise results in death and disability. But watch this space, ‘Yuppie gym instructor sued. She did not tell me I would get addicted, says young executive. I’ve lost my girlfriend, my free time, everything’, or ‘Minister resigns. Outed as couch potato’.
  So what are the benefits? An increase in feeling tone, which, after a long session, like Yorkshire Rider, tends to be suppressed by pain. Short and regular exercise is probably better if its feel-good you want. There are social spin-offs when the activity is done in pairs or groups – a matey shared adversity. Then there’s the pride in still being in control of certain parts of your body. Aging is no friend of toning and fitness.  What about those cognitive behavioural middle managers? Don’t they love their targets and outcomes? Walking and running is ideal for the elderly filofax devotee. I’ve yet to see someone answer their mobile whilst cycling, but it’s only a matter of time.
  There are corners of me that appreciate all these benefits. But, I have a slightly different spin on it. I value moderate to severe exercise mostly because I’m not doing anything else. The preoccupation with effort stops me from thinking. My working memory gets emptied and my mind becomes uncluttered.
  I once joined a local stress management group run by a bald and fat Asian, who must have been a psychiatric nurse by profession. He seemed rather anxious to know whether there were any medics or PhD’s in the group. He ran it as a night class, teaching us breathing and healing techniques with a view ultimately to meditation. He also talked a lot, about two thirds of the time available. He once referred to the mind as the ‘frisky monkey’ which struck a cord. It’s the one thing I remember from him. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t go the distance. I couldn’t cope with the relaxation technique for interview nerves. You had to close one nostril to breathe in and then breathe out through the other, using your fingers, somehow cocked up in front of your eyes. It looked as though you were about to blow your nose but without the tissue. I lost it right there.
  A short while later, on a counselling course, I met a buddhist. He’d done his time in meditation, in Thailand, usually at the mouth of batcaves. He’d regale us with stories of millions of bats flying out of the cave at dusk, and then back the following morning, and all the while he’s sitting there thinking, contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. It sounds pretty focused. Excluding all the things you don’t need at that moment. Sports people call it being in ‘the zone’. A heightened awareness of the immediate. What do I need to do now, this second? Sometimes it’s hanging on – defensive survival tactics. A sense of absorbing pressure through technique. At other times its taking those few chances that come your way in a burst of brilliance and talent. I won a 5K road race once, on handicap. I came last, twenty minutes behind the winner. I’ve been fitter, but that night I didn’t just run, I performed and it was a proud moment when I picked up the cup. I was 5 to 1 after that and never won a thing.
We all have potential in something – the great american dream. We’ve all done games and sung at school, but only a handful of us will play at Cardiff Arms Park or Carnegie Hall. There is a wide range of innate talent which fate may or not allow to be converted into sublime performance. It’s a chancy business. Genes, parents, role models, training and experience, determination and persistence are some of the variables. So a natural doesn’t  always compete and an awkward, skinny bespectacled youth can, through application, become a world class opening test match batsman.
  And there’s age. Our interests and abilities differ at different times of our lives. There is transition and regret, ‘I could have been a contender’ is the often quoted taxi scene line from ‘On the Waterfront’. We review those pressures that got in the way of our dreams; daily tasks, work and family. When time is on our side, there’s never enough.  And then we leave things behind, but what carries on?  What can we take with us into the second half, the last five minutes, with extra time and penalties looming?
  Our choir is mostly over 45, veterans in sporting terms. Anyone under that is the youth policy. Some, our soloists, have always sung. We occasionally draft in others who maybe aspire to singing professionally but who still have the day job. Then there is our musical director who is a retired Welsh National Opera tenor with attitude.  Don’t be late for practice or its humiliation. The rest of us are hanging on, trying to remember the words. Have you ever really listened to any of those old hymns? They don’t make sense. How does an aging brain memorise the incomprehensible? Our choristers are also plumbers, electricians, salesmen, doctors, college lecturers, teachers, business men, public service managers, accountants, retired, part-time or still in work. Whatever our backgrounds we have a part share in life’s ups and downs: redundancy, illness and burnout, or simply fed up. Then there’s the odd happy chappie. Us hangers-on might hope to be the best we can be, but mostly we are resigned to being good enough. Talent, training and experience are against us. How late can you start another career, and still make the zone? What we have lost in raw energy we have gained in wisdom and we know how much effort it takes to produce a minimum return. When we struggle for the line or we can’t quite make the pitch we listen to those around us. Concerts are our match days. Attendance figures and newspaper reviews keep the score. And here’s the difference for me. Being the best you can be is a personal process. The outcomes, cups and titles, compare you with others but deep inside you know if you’ve performed or not. The personal is paramount. If you’ve been the best you can be the mind is empty, refreshed and cleansed. Being good enough is a personal compromise. The process is not the thing.  It’s what you can get away with. There just aren’t the resources for anything else.
  But some of us are still doing those silly walks, runs and bike rides.