In 1948, doing two years National Service in his Majesty’s Royal Air Force, I volunteered for overseas, expecting to be sent to Germany. At RAF Burtonwood Transit Camp a hundred of us paraded and numbered off. After a moment’s consultation with a clipboard, the NCO ordered numbers one to fifty to do a left turn. As he marched them away he announced they were going to Germany. The rest of us went to Singapore.
After a six week voyage aboard the troopship S.S. Dunera, two thousand of us arrived on the island of Singapore. I was posted to RAF Tengah, fifty-three miles north of the equator. The city of Singapore was two hours away by bus. Apart from ninety degree heat and ninety percent humidity, life in camp was tolerable. In the monsoon season, of course, the humidity rose to one hundred percent.
I spent much of my spare time in Padre Gibson’s social centre. The fact that I never once attended his church services didn’t bother the Padre; he was content that anybody used his facilities. He had furnished the place quite nicely, including a piano that I often played. There were good magazines, a well stocked library, rattan easy chairs, and general peace and quiet. There was no bar, so not many servicemen went there.
Squadron Leader Padre Gibson was a handsome man about six feet tall, not yet middle aged, with a spare frame, angular ascetic features, and an air of vagueness. I enjoyed his company. In conversation he would languidly wave a hand in the air to emphasize a point. He certainly was not a typical purveyor of Victorian morals and platitudes he had no cant whatsoever. Nor did he try to ingratiate himself by backslapping attempts to be one of the boys. On rare occasions, when relevant, his barrack room vocabulary could be the equal of anyone else’s, and he knew a wealth of scatological stories and scurrilous limericks. It was a new experience for me to hear them retailed in an Oxford accent by a man of the cloth.
I was playing his piano one Sunday morning around Christmas 1948 when he dashed in.
“I say, Gregson old chap, could you possibly do me a favour?”
“Certainly sir, what’s the problem?”
“Our organist is sick and the choir is about to leave to give a Carol Service over in Seletar. Can you come and play the organ for us?”
I hesitated. I am only an amateur musician, but as it happens I had on previous occasions accompanied choirs and solo singers for carols and hymns on various pianos and organs. The music was slow and easy, in simple keys like G and B flat. Unfamiliar melodies would be no trouble to sight read. I would have declined to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in public, but this sounded fairly straightforward.
“I’ll need the music, Padre”.
“I have it here.” He waved a sheaf of papers at me.
“You’ll do it then?”
“Thank God. Grab your jacket and come along now. The choir’s already in the lorry waiting to go.”
The ten ton lorry contained thirty odd members of the Tengah church choir. I knew only one or two of them, but willing hands reached over the tailgate, hauled me aboard and made me welcome. It was nine in the morning. Seletar was twenty miles away, perhaps a forty minute journey across the island over good wide roads. Padre Gibson sat up front with the driver. Ten minutes after leaving we entered a village, pulled off the road, and stopped in a cloud of dust in front of a bar. The canvas flap lifted up front and the Padre’s face appeared.
“Who’d like to wet their whistle, lads?”
Cheers from the choir and cries of: “we would.” Once inside the bar, Chinese boys scurried to fill Padre Gibson’s demand for “Beer for everybody please.”
No use protesting that I didn’t drink. An imperial quart bottle of Tiger beer from a Singapore brewery appeared in front of me. It would have seemed impolite to refuse the Padre’s hospitality. This was the only reward the choir received, and quite possibly the incentive for such a good turnout. I felt discretion was the better part of valour. Besides, it was Christmas.
“All aboard, we have to be going.” I looked around. I was the last; everybody was getting up to go. I hastily drank my beer and joined them. Ten minutes later we pulled over again in another village.
“Still thirsty chaps?”
More cheers. Another imperial quart before I could say no. Powerful strong stuff. Members of English church choirs and bell ringing societies have a capacity for beer that far exceeds mine. I have never really acquired a taste for the stuff. If half a dozen Englishmen enter an pub for the purpose of drinking beer (and there’s practically no other reason), it’s a matter of honour to be the first one up at the bar ordering the necessary. The pints are quickly downed. Number one sits back and number two elbows the others aside to get to the bar and order six more. You are morally obliged to consume as many beers as there are drinkers in your party. You cannot decline. If you’ve all just come from the village hop or have just got out of the pictures, you only have about half an hour to do all this before the landlord calls “Time, Gentlemen, Please.” Then you stagger home.
This lot was no exception. They were hard bitten long term servicemen, stalwart English yeomen topers, all with hollow legs. They couldn’t understand why I was so slow. Back into the lorry and on the road. Now the choir began to sing, but I don’t remember what. My head was going round and my vision began to blur. Heaven help me if the lorry didn’t pull over again at the next village.
“There’s just time if we’re quick, chaps.”
Yet another quart of Tiger beer. By now I was beyond caring. I attacked it desperately, swallowing foaming draughts and wiping the dribbles off my chin. No time for polite conversation, get it down. Unthinkable to leave any.
Back in the lorry and on the road. The choir was now in very good voice. We arrived at the church and lowered the tailgate. Strong arms helped me out. Conversation ceased. I flowed with the tide. The congregation rose as the choir followed the Padre up the aisle and divided neatly in two in front of the altar. Each half faced the other with raised hymn books, and angelic expressions on their shining faces. Padre Gibson passed me the sheaf of music and vanished to don his vestments.
The church was packed, all pews occupied. Colonial memsahibs were there with husbands in tow, dressed in their Sunday best and the usual token veils on the seldom worn hats. The husbands were pukka sahibs in tweeds, white moustaches and ramrod bearing. It would have been a breach of social duty for them not to attend. Besides, the prospect of Christmas carols brought promise of remembrance of the old days in The Mother Country, of friends and relatives not seen for years. Pocket handkerchiefs were ready to dab away both tears and perspiration.
Someone guided me to the organ. It was a large imposing instrument, installed in this far flung outpost of the Empire somewhere around the turn of the century. I searched in vain for the electric switch to build up the air pressure. Somebody appeared at my side and whispered: the pressure would come from hand pumped bellows. Behind him were two members of our party, Alf and Bert. He led them to the loft behind the organ, hidden from the congregation, where they were to operate two long wooden handles. I arranged my music, folded my hands in my lap, burped, and waited.
Five hundred people preparing for devotions don’t make much noise. Coughs, rustling pages of prayer books, shuffling late arrivals: it rises and is lost in the towering vastness. We waited for the service to begin. Padre Gibson reappeared and the service got under way.
A Church of England Carol Service is just what the name implies. The congregation follows the choir in singing about a dozen Christmas carols. I don’t think lessons are read and I don’t remember any sermon, but I do remember the carols. Perhaps you’ve never attended a carol service. Whether you have or not, think for a minute. The hymn book gives the first verse, the chorus, then the remaining seventeen verses, or however many there may be. No one ever sings every verse and chorus that is printed. No, the minister makes an announcement:
“We will now sing hymn number 334: ‘From Iceland’s Greasy Mountains’ (or something like that), verses 1, 3, 7, and 9, omitting verse 2, verses 4 through 6, and verse 8”, (or something like that).
Consider the organist. He now understands, if he didn’t already, that he has to play verse and chorus four times each, then stop. Simple enough. Especially if minister and organist have been on the boards together for years, and the minister has tipped off his friend in advance. No great strain on the faculties of any organist who is reasonably sober.
Padre Gibson had failed to let me have these vital pieces of information, and it had not occurred to me to ask him. Normally it would be a trivial problem even for children in Sunday School: “Quick, children, how many times does the organist play the chorus? How many verses does he play? You in the front pew, you had your hand up first ...”
No time to think. I was having trouble focussing my eyes. Search among the pile for the right music, prop it on the stand, it slides off onto the floor, pick it all up again, establish the appropriate chord, strike and hold it to give them the pitch, and off we go into the first verse. Not too fast now Gregson, listen carefully and follow their tempo.
I was not at my best. I was drunk in charge of a pipe organ. My brain was overloaded with unfamiliar stimuli. I could hear Alf and Bert back in the organ loft having an argument in muffled tones as they seesawed up and down on the bellows handles. The argument was about the previous day’s soccer match. Each supported one of the teams and there was disagreement over the validity of the result and the merits of the participants. As my befuddled mind went over the Padre’s announcement, trying to calculate how often to play what, I heard a scornful rejoinder of
“Well, what do you expect? The referee is obviously blind.”
At the same time I was interpreting the unfamiliar music, (it’s called ‘sight-reading’), turning my own pages, praying that I wouldn’t turn over two pages at once and totally confuse a hundred or so innocent people by switching hymns in mid-stream.
I fought a losing battle. I did, however, play the music correctly; verse and chorus always correctly alternated. The worshippers, all of whom could count better than I could, raised their voices and filled the church with paeans of praise. But inevitably, at the end of every carol I found myself all alone, playing a private round of hosannahs. There was only one avenue of escape. Just as at the beginning of each carol I supplied the dominant note, in the debacle at the end I tried to make it look as if it was the normal thing in my part of the world to add a little twiddly bit. This is the test of true musical improvisation: to round it off, musically dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s so to speak, nonchalantly closing with an appropriate chord.
As the service progressed it wasn’t just my mind that was ill at ease, my body had problems. I had consumed three imperial quarts of beer in less than an hour. Ninety six ounces of powerful diuretic were sloshing around my system. I had three Tigers in my tank, all scrambling to find the exit. I gritted my teeth to restrain them and looked for spiritual guidance from our leader, blurred as he was around the edges and serenely oblivious to my predicament.
“We will now sing hymn number 186, ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’: all verses except alternating odd numbers” (or something like that), intoned the Padre.
A rustle as the pages of the hymn books turned. The opening chord, sostenuto. Umpteen verses and refrains. The desperate attempt at cover up. Would my torments never end?
My neck was hot under the imagined stares coming from batteries of pince nez and steel rimmed glasses looking daggers at me. In my mind’s eye I saw dowager eyebrows arched in horror, heard imaginary quizzical asides:
“Dicky dear! Do you think what I think?”
White bristling military moustaches. Apoplectic eyeballs popping in disbelief. The choleric answer:
“Egad! The scoundrel should be lashed to a gun carriage and horsewhipped!”
On the last carol I got it right; I figured out the numbers. In my relief I succumbed to the power of the magnificent instrument. I became Giuseppe Verdi leading the lost peoples out of bondage in the chorus from Nabucco, the orchestra and cast of the Milan Opera House at my fingertips. I pulled out a couple more stops and away we went. The increased volume affected Alf and Bert in the organ loft: they had to speed up the strokes like galley slaves obeying the drum, and were yelling at each other over the crescendo. Came the final chorus. We rounded the turn and went neck and neck down the home stretch with the choir, the Padre, Alf, Bert, and the entire congregation valiantly keeping up with me.
I crashed down on the last triumphant chord. I filled the church with sound. The thunder rolled from the nave to the transept and back again. I held it until their lungs were empty, their red faces turned blue and my knuckles were white. I released the keys and gratefully listened to the echoes winging their way up to Heaven.
At that very instant the silence was shattered by a bellow from Alf in the organ loft. It rang clearly around the church and turned us all to stone:
“And I can f***ing well prove it to yer.”
We slunk away. We climbed back in our lorry and returned to Tengah. Not once did we stop for beer.