Sunday, 15 January 2012

If I weren't the way I am, I shouldn't write my symphonies. [Gustav Mahler] - PART ONE

OK, let's get this out of the way right at the start - I am not a writer nor do I pretend to be. I have turned to expressing my thoughts as prose after almost thirty years of believing that I was incapable of writing thanks to a university lecturer who told me so at every opportunity. I now realise, far too late, that the only way he could make himself feel superior was to make his students feel totally inadequate. Anyway, there it is, my writing style may be a little quirky but will hopefully improve as we travel together on this journey. 

I thought, as a first post, it might be an idea to give a sketch of my early background as this may be relevant to later posts and explain some of my motivations, weaknesses and ghosts.

Port Talbot in the 1960's - Beryl Richards remembers....

A Brief History of Port Talbot

Port Talbot Facebook page with over 5000 photographs


Me - aged 3 or 4
I was born at Port Talbot at an early age, the son of Ron (steelworker) and Caroline (journalist) Painter and was the first person in our family to be born in hospital rather than at home. We lived with my maternal grandparents in the house that my grandfather and my mother had been born in and that my great-grandfather, Thomas Owen David (poet, composer, brass bandsman and steelworker) had purchased from new. I remember very little of our time there (I believe it was difficult as my grandmother - much more about her later - was not an easy woman to live with and took an instant dislike to my father) as we moved to our own house (next door but one!) when I was around 3 or 4 - I am having to guess some of these dates as my Mum has now been dead for 20 years and it upsets my Dad to talk about it.

My mother had a very difficult pregnancy and was advised, more than once, to have a termination (not a straightforward matter in those days) as the doctors were concerned about the strain upon her heart. She steadfastly refused and consequently was confined to bed for months. To pass the time, she listened to records from the local Carnegie library but they only had one set of records - the symphonies of Shostakovich - and she listened to these over and over again. I'm not sure about the power of hearing things in the womb but I'm told that after I was born the easiest way to stop me crying was to put on a Shostakovich recording. I have a lifelong love of his symphonies and often turn to them in times of darkness - if the "Leningrad" symphony goes on in our house then everyone knows things are bad! 

So, my mother's determination guaranteed my existence and, one may argue, drew me to music but it did have far reaching consequences. My mother's health never really recovered (she was left with tachycardia which plagued her all her life) and my parents were told that I was to remain an only child (I've spent my life wishing I had a younger brother and sister, I particularly wanted a sister but can't say why). Also, I was a very sickly child (until I approached my teenage years) with terrible asthma, eczema and joint problems (having callipers fitted briefly to straighten my legs).

Despite the health problems and the other strictures of day-to-day life in post-War Britain I had a a fairly privileged working class upbringing with, to my eyes, a loving family around me. My Mum and Dad adored each other and doted on me whilst I had my Granny and Grampa David next-door-but-one and my Granny and Grampa Painter at the other end of the street (when I was born they moved from Caerau in the Llynfi Valley, where my grandfather had been a coal miner, working, amongst others, in the Caerau Colliery, and bought their first house, a cottage with a garden, the first time they had ever had a garden). 

Slide Show of Caerau / Maesteg 1905 -1977

I think I'll write much more about my grandparents at a later date as I think they deserve a post all to themselves. I will say that both my grandfather's have been a great influence on my life and although they've both been dead for more than 35 years I still miss them.

I think now is a good time, however, to tell you more about my Mum and Dad.


My Mum was born Caroline Miriam David and had a very hard childhood. My grandfather, who I'm very alike in both looks, build and character, worshipped her but my grandmother had no time for her at all. No one ever quite worked out what my grandmother's problem was but her siblings (there were six of them, divided between South Wales and the West Country as my great-grandfather was a sea captain who sailed between the two and often relocated his family on either side depending upon where his ship was based at the time) told me that she had always been difficult and spoilt being the second child and the first girl.

The David family home was a 3 bedroom terraced working man's house in a fairly poor state of repair but it must have been the only house in the area to have had a cook and a lady's maid! My grandfather worked himself towards an early grave to pay for the servants that she thought she deserved. When my grandfather's health declined to the point where he could not earn as much through constant overtime, the servants left and my Mum had to take over the cooking and cleaning - she was nine! 

Life was tough and my grandmother, who had an addictive personality, was often drunk and abusive. (I've made a pact with myself to be open in this blog so it'll be warts and all). My Mum told me towards the end of her life of her recollection of coming home from school one day to find my grandfather (next to my Dad, the gentlest man I have ever known) lying on the floor, crying, with my grandmother repeatedly kicking him - even in those extreme circumstances he couldn't bring himself to hit or even restrain a woman and just lay there whilst she lashed out. In spite of this, my mother got through school, passed her commercial exams (shorthand, accounts etc) and, after a few secretarial jobs, became a journalist on the local paper. 

She had a successful career, even though she never left Port Talbot, in that she was well respected and became the local correspondent for the Daily Mail (then a decent newspaper not the hate-filled abhoration it is now). Mum worked very hard, often into the early hours of the morning and through weekends, and was desperate to do the right thing and not to let people down. She had been a talented short story writer in her youth but, sadly, this fell by the wayside as the pressures of her job grew and grew.  It was these pressures, in part, coupled with the onset of losing her sight, that led to a serious depression which dogged her for the last 15 years of her life. 

Three years or so before her death, someone started a hate mail campaign against her, sending poison pen letters and a great deal of junk mail that could only have been sent by someone who knew us well as it was always linked to things happening in the family. Not only did this greatly trouble Mum but the resultant stress, panic attacks and depression masked the fact that there was something seriously wrong with her health. After many trips to the GP she was finally taken seriously and, following rounds of tests, she was diagnosed in February 1992 with bowel cancer. I remember sitting with her and Dad when the consultant at Neath General Hospital told her that she had cancer. "Am I going to die?" she asked, the consultant (who must have known the prognosis) flippantly replied "We're all going to die".

Dad was strangely quiet at the hospital and I later found out that he had been told a few days earlier and had been walking around in his own personal hell trying to work out how to tell the only woman he had ever loved that she might soon be dead. Mum came home that day and we settled into a false optimism convincing ourselves that it was curable. I went home for a few weeks to help Dad nurse her while we waited for her to be admitted to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff for specialist treatment. Dad looked after Mum nearly every hour of the day while I did the shopping and cooking - trying to serve up as many vegetables as possible and making her various fruit and vegetable juice concoctions as we had read that these could help. 

At the very end of March, Mum was admitted to the oncology ward at the Heath. Initially the doctors were very positive as bowel cancer, if caught early enough, is curable. Mum was very upbeat (although she was down when she heard that Neil Kinnock had lost the 1992 general election!). Everything was fine until one Sunday night when we were visiting and she suddenly and unexpectedly slipped into a coma. The doctors were summoned and amid much commotion Mum was moved to a side room and stabilised. The next morning, when  Mum was conscious again, an ashen faced registrar entered the room and falteringly said "Mrs Painter, I'm very sorry but the cancer has reached your liver and metastasised throughout your body and there's nothing more we can do. We can make you comfortable but I don't expect you to live for more than five days." Mum was very calm and said "Thank you, now I finally know what I'm dealing with. I appreciate your kindness." I honestly think he was more upset than she was.

Mum was by now in great pain and was put on increasing doses of morphine. This was distressing as she wanted to talk but the action of the drug meant that she mixed up her words and didn't make sense most of the time. Dad and I sat with her 24 hours a day for the two weeks that it took her to die - typically of my Mum she fought it every inch of the way. One of her last lucid comments was "I don't want bowel cancer on my death certificate, anything else but I don't want THAT to have beaten me" - her death certificate says "liver cancer". The nights were particularly distressing as she was delirious and thought that we were keeping her locked in the room - through all this time my Dad kept his composure, it was only months later that he totally collapsed and cried like a baby for hours.

One of the last things I did for my Mum was to drive to Port Talbot and get my Gran so that she could see her one last time. At the hospital my Dad told my Gran that this was her last chance to put things right and that she should go and make her peace with Mum as this was the thing she wanted most of all as her mum (my Gran) had never once in her life told her that she loved her. My Gran went into the room and stood looking out of the window for an hour and didn't say a word. When I drove her home she thanked me for giving her a nice day out and stepped into her house without another word.

When I got back to the hospital, one of the doctors came up to me and said "So, you're a composer - you're Mum has been telling us all about you. She told everyone on the ward how proud she was of you before she became so ill." I knew that my Mum wanted me to do well as she had always pushing me to do better and was very disappointed when I withdrew from an engineering degree to go back to school to do music but she'd never said she was proud of me, one of those things we leave unsaid thinking they don't need to be uttered I suppose. 

Mum passed away at 7am on the 21st April 1992, one minute she was breathing and then she wasn't. Dad still maintains that she hung on until daylight because she didn't want us driving home in the dark. The last thing that we did for her was to lie her down comfortably and Dad brushed her hair. He turned to me and said "My life is over now" and I think a little bit of me died that day too.


William Ronald Painter (all the men in my family have the first name of William, except for me -  I have it as my second name otherwise I would have been WC Painter!) was born in 1930 and is the son of a miner and an ex-confectionery shop owner. My Granny Painter was an ex-shop owner because when she ran her sweet shop she didn't have the heart to charge the poor children for their sweets and eventually went out of business - she was 4' 10" of kindness, far too much so on occasions, who would give you anything.

My Dad had as hard an upbringing as you would imagine from being in the South Wales coalfield in the 1930's. Money was very tight and the living conditions extremely poor but the communities were very close. My Dad's auntie and uncle lived across the road from them in Carmen Street. Caerau and he tells me that he always knew when they had visitors as he would come home from school to find tea chests and bare boards in his house as they had borrowed my Gran's furniture and carpets - apparently this used to send my Grampa Painter into a fury. He never lost his temper with my Gran, he used to walk out of the house and keep walking, having a pint in every pub he passed, until he calmed down, then he would go home and not a word was spoken. 

He kept this up into old age when my Dad would occasionally receive a phone call - "Ronnie, I'm in such and such a pub in Bridgend (having walked from Port Talbot), come and get me" - my Grandad had gotten annoyed and walked out before he lost his temper with my Gran. My Dad is very proud of the fact that, despite living a hard life and working in often extreme circumstances, my Grampa Painter never swore. The worst I ever heard him say was "ddiawl" (the Welsh word for "devil"). Dad will recount the story of how, after someone touched off the explosives that he was planting in the coal face, my Grampa lay there with part of his face blown away and his leg broken in two places and recited "Mary had a little lamb" whilst doctors inserted a two foot pin, without anaesthetic, into his leg. My Grampa died from throat cancer (due to "the dust") but the first we knew of the illness was after he'd died - he went through the whole thing, including radiotherapy, without telling anyone or ever complaining. 

During the war, my Dad must have been one of the very few children who went into the Blitz rather than be evacuated from it. Hearing how bad it was in London and that there was a shortage of food and fuel, my Grampa and my Dad used to go up to the East End of London (my family is from Leytonstone and Chingford) with food and with bags of coal that they had scavenged from the hillsides and railway tracks. Typically of Dad, he hardly ever talks about it, I only found out when we went up to London to celebrate my Auntie Daisy's 90th birthday and the family were treating him like a hero. Similarly, I only found out that Dad had a professional trial as a goalkeeper for Leyton Orient when we got lost on the way to Auntie Daisy's funeral. Having taken a wrong turn I pulled up outside the ground and being in reminiscing mood he told me. "What happened?" I asked, "Oh, they offered me a contract but my Mam didn't want me to move so far away so I said no and went back to work in the Co-op in Caerau." Not a man to blow his own trumpet my Dad.

Leaving school in his early teens, Dad first worked as a milkman, then in the local Co-op before becoming a station porter for GWR at Maesteg Station. 

He served in the RAF in the late 1940's when doing his National Service although I am a little sketchy as to what he did as he rarely talks about it and then only if pressed or talking to someone else who served. He told me that he'd just served as an orderly in the officer's mess but had to change this story slightly when I found an old box with his cap badge and his wings and admitted that he had been aircrew. I have since found out, by piecing together diverse bits of information, that he started out as an orderly but then became aircrew, flying first as a rear gunner and then as a photographer/bomb-aimer in Lancasters

A few years ago we went on a coach trip which included a trip to the Mohne dam and that evening had a few drinks. I overheard Dad talking to another ex-serviceman and telling him that he'd started out serving drinks to officers but had ended up as one of them and had finished his service working in bomb disposal, when he realised I was listening he changed the subject. I have also found out that he got his wings flying a Tiger Moth and subsequently flew Avro Ansons but can't get him to tell me why or when.

Upon returning to civilian life, Dad returned to GWR, transferring to Port Talbot station after he had met (at a dance in Porthcawl Pavilion) and married my Mum. He was offered the station master's job at Swindon (a major promotion) but had to turn it down and leave GWR when my Mum's mother insisted that my parents stay in Port Talbot otherwise she would make my grandad's life hell (I had this directly from my mother). 

Film about the 5 major ports of South Wales in the 1970's

Dad left the railway and started to work for what was then the Steel Company of Wales and was involved in the design of the new harbour and iron ore handling systems. He enjoyed his time in the draughtsman's office but this came to an end and with various job cuts taking place Dad was pushed from one dismal job to another until he ended up in the stores as a stocktaker, a job he hated. With his health already deteriorating - he had been diagnosed with spondylosis - an accident at work finally forced him to take early retirement at 58. Sadly, this coincided with the onset of my Mum's illness so they never managed to spend any time doing all the things that they had once planned.

Dad has always been a quiet, gentle man and since my Mum's death has lived a simple life without the wish to really do anything. With the exceptions of holidays (he loves the caravan where he can sit in the open air and read) and illnesses, he has gone to my Mum's grave on the same day every week for the past 20 years.

Dad has been extremely supportive of me and I know he is very proud but, I think, deep down he doesn't see it as a proper job and worries how I'll survive when he's gone.


Family life was great and although both my parents were only-children I had a number of older second cousins, great aunties and uncles and friends of my parents who more than took the place of the missing aunties and uncles. Despite this though, I was a very lonely child. I have always been painfully shy (something I think I manage to cover up very well now) and, up to my thirties, had a terrible stammer. These things, coupled with being far too sensitive, meant I tended to be the outsider - always the last to be picked for teams, not invited to parties, bullied at school (by both teachers and pupils) and spending hours on end either riding my bike up and down the back lane or standing at the back gate waiting for someone (who never came) to ask me to go out and play. This has left me with deep scars and quite often I will react with what seems irrationally over the top pain or distress to events that to others seem trivial.

I did have one good friend, Philip, who lived just across the lane from us but he went to the Welsh school so I only saw him on weekends and at holiday time. His parents moved back to Maesteg before we moved to Comprehensive School and I didn't see much of him after that.

My mother fought for me to start school early, 5 was the norm then but she got me into the reception class at Central Infants School before my 5th birthday. The school is still there today, much the same, forty five years on.

I had a problem starting school as English is actually my third language. I had grown up in a family where although my parents and grandparents spoke English there was also Welsh and Italian (I have some Italian relatives although I'm not too sure of the connection save that I had an Italian "uncle" from Sicily!) spoken by various members who looked after me when I was a baby. Funnily enough, my Grampa Painter spoke Welsh (something he had learnt in the mines) even though he was from the East End of London (he had been a printer, the family trade, but had come to South Wales on holiday with a Welsh friend, met my grandmother, got married and never went back) whilst my Granny Painter didn't, it having been caned out of her in school when she was growing up in Llangynwyd. I can remember sitting with my mother for hours on end whilst she used flash cards to build up my English vocabulary and practised putting the words into sentences. I also remember working my way through the "Janet and John" books and the great pride whenever I was allowed to move on to the next one. One consequence of winning my battle with English is that my Welsh is now, despite several attempts to revive it, very poor and my Italian is non-existent. I struggle to learn languages and although I have a smattering of both French and German I am nowhere near even basic fluency as I just can't think fast enough and have to translate everything back and forth from English - I wonder if this is the source of my stammering?

I have to say that, for the most part, I didn't really enjoy school. In the 60's and 70's corporal punishment was still the order of the day and some teachers saw it as their privilege to hand out a caning as and when they felt like it  so the shadow of the cane hung over us for most of the time. To be fair, there were also strict teachers whose only aim was to give us the best education that they could - I remember well Mrs Rolls, Mr Perkins and Mr Rees from my junior school (built in 1899) and how petrified I was of them but without the knowledge that they drilled into us I certainly would not have coped with secondary school. 

There were also inspirational teachers such as Mr Lucas who, on a Friday afternoon or if covering for an absent teacher, would tell us to put our books away and to close our eyes while he told us a story. Mr Lucas had been writing a children's book and I still remember him telling us about "Charlie and the Magic Green Bottle" and how my imagination ran wild on those wonderful afternoons when we listened to him. He's long dead now, I wonder if he ever got his book published? There was also Mrs Southcombe, a young teacher who encouraged us to be creative and didn't treat us like factory fodder as so many teachers did. (Please forgive me if any of these names are wrong - I am struggling to remember after all these years, I've always been bad with names having a more visual memory).

My generation passed through junior school when the memories of both grammar and secondary schools were still fresh (I had to take the 11+ even though it no longer had any standing) and streaming was all the rage. Looking back, how on earth can anyone decide  that at age 11 a child is either going to be academically inclined or not - it's a nonsense. I've always believed passionately in the comprehensive system but also believe that it was flawed from its inception. It has ALWAYS been underfunded and, despite the best efforts of the teachers, has, generally, served to bring standards down to a common level rather than raise them. 

My Mum and Dad, while being very supportive and proud, always wanted me to do better. My Dad always said that my Grandad wanted better for him than the mines and that he wanted better for me than the steelworks. There was always the gentle push to succeed (I should emphasise "gentle" as it was never aggressive) and what ever I accomplished I was expected to build upon. We used to have a class table at the end of each term and I regularly came in the top ten. I remember coming fourth one year and  proudly telling Mum and Dad, the response was something along the lines of "Well done, now, who were the three better than you and how many marks did they get?" - there was still the regulation trip to the local Berni Inn (very fashionable at the time and seen as a posh night out) for steak and chips to celebrate.  

A girl called Susan Griffiths (I had such a crush on her at age 10!) came top of the class every term and I remember the time when our marks were being read out and as we approached the end of the list, in Top of the Pops fashion, there was just myself and Susan left. There was a feeling of total elation when Susan's name was read out as being second! I rushed home, so pleased with myself and Mum and Dad were equally pleased, a table was booked at the local "Grand Hotel", grandparents were told and then my Dad said "Mind you, you'll have to make sure you do the same next time to prove it wasn't a fluke!" 

Please don't mistake me here, this was not pressurising or over-bearing parents - they had both missed out on education and, like most Welsh parents, knew the value of it and wanted their offspring to do better. Being naturally lazy, I would never have achieved anything without them. It has, however, left me with a lifelong need for approval and a sense that I've never done quite well enough and could do more. Perhaps that is why performance is so important to me and also so terrifying. It's not so much an ego boost to hear my music and the applause but the need to be accepted and told that I'm doing OK to quell the constant feeling that I'm conning everyone and what I do is really rubbish. That's probably something to go into in a later blog.

Once again, I was very fortunate to have some inspirational teachers at Dyffryn Comprehensive although my time there was very much a mixed bag. I found the time prior to going into the Sixth Form fairly dismal and, whilst I wasn't able to study music for 'O' level because of timetable clashes, the only ray of sunshine was being able to retreat to the music block to either practice (I was playing trumpet at this time) or compose simple brass pieces to play in the lunch hour. I enjoyed playing sport - rugby in the winter and, my particular love, cricket in the summer. Being tall for my age I always seemed to be the one who got injured first when playing rugby and my Mum got so sick of me coming home with injuries that she even tried to hide my boots once! I also played hockey for a while and although not very good at it I found it great fun - until we played the girl's hockey team and then I discovered what real pain was and how a hockey stick may be used as an offensive weapon!

Black Dyke Mills Band playing Bach's Toccata in D minor
(This will annoy the hell out of some of my friends!)

At this time I also joined the BSC (Port Talbot) Brass Band and found it both rewarding and tremendous fun. Having never heard an orchestra (I didn't hear an orchestra live until I was 19 - Tippett's "Concerto for Double String Orchestra" played by the Swansea Sound Sinfonia conducted by the recently deceased and much mourned John Jenkins, to whom so many of us owe so much) it introduced me to many classics (and also to beer!) by way of transcriptions for band and it was years before I realised it was violins that normally played all those busy cornet lines! It has, I fear, made me a little unsympathetic to string players - "What's your problem, at least you've got a bow - you should try playing all those notes with just breath control and your tongue!"

The Cory Band play the Finale of Saint Saens Symphony No.3 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw 

The Cory Band play Wilfred Heaton's "Contest Music" at the National Brass Band Finals at the Royal Albert Hall in 1982 (I was there!)

In fact, with the exception of the university orchestra, the first times I heard a full symphony orchestra live was when Solti brought the LSO (probably the LSO "B" team) to Cardiff in 1982 with an all Beethoven programme and then later that year when Guilini brought the Philharmonia to play all the Brahms symphonies.

After my 'O' levels I returned to study Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics at 'A' level.  This was a bad mistake - I should have followed the humanities with English and History being my best subjects - but at least I was able to sit 'O' level Music in my first year of 'A' levels. 

Our school had it's sights set on Oxbridge entries in the sciences so those of us who didn't come up to scratch rather fell behind. We had two possible Oxbridge candidates in our maths class and the bar was set at their level and I floundered several fathoms below them. I scraped passes in all three subjects, having been told by my Head of Maths that I was in no way intelligent enough to ever consider going to university (how I loved it when I not only got a place at university but, years later, was teaching at one), and was offered a place to study engineering (materials science) at Swansea University

Whilst not Oxbridge material, I did sit the scholarship examination for a place to study electrical engineering at Imperial College, London. I didn't get in but my Head of Maths was astounded that I made it in to the top 100 - shut him up for a bit! Coincidentally, I discovered years later that my cousin (by marriage) Peter (who was like a big brother to me) had studied electrical engineering at Imperial, gaining his doctorate there and going back to lecture after a very successful career in industry. Sadly, Peter died two weeks after Alun Hoddinott, an irreplacable loss.

Before taking up my place at Swansea, two things happened to change my mind. First, my economics master called me to one side in the corridor one day and said "My father said that music was no career for me and that I should study and then teach economics. I followed his advice, I've always been in work and have risen to be Head of Department. Do you know what? I've hated every day of it. If you've got any sense you'll come back, get your music 'A' level and go and study music." A few weeks later I attended the Sounding Brass Summer School in Marlborough College (during which time I was part of a group that performed Bliss's Antiphonal Fanfares whilst standing on the rooftops around the Quad - Health & Safety would never allow that now) where I had a long chat with the composer Edward Gregson who very kindly looked at some of my pieces. Following this I decided to return to school to study for my music 'A' level and to study music at university.

Walter White c. 1980
Once again, fate took a hand - my music teacher was the wonderful, inspirational Walter White of Ystradgynlais.  Walter White had been a professional trumpet player in London before returning to Wales to teach and to take over from his father as conductor of the Ystradgynlais Town Band. Walter had taught me trumpet when I first started to learn and had subsequently qualified as a classroom teacher and was now Head of Music at my school. I had a wonderful year with him where we not only covered the curriculum at a sprint but with Walter introducing me to new ideas and to things he thought would benefit me at university. Walter encouraged my composition and also got me to conduct the school orchestra and brass ensemble to give me experience of standing in front of an audience. 

A recording of "Bugler's Holiday" (Leroy Anderson) by the Canadian Brass
Just to remind myself of playing it in a concert at school conducted by Walter White
(The first time I realised that it was possible to impress the girls by being a musician!)

Walter White is one of the towering figures in my life - he not only encouraged me to fly higher than I ever thought I could and gave me the tools to do it, he also said the most prophetic thing - "you should apply to study at Cardiff, Alun Hoddinott is there and he'll be good for you."

In Parts Two and Three I shall talk more about life in the Sixth Form, my seven wonderful years at University College Cardiff, the fantastic musical journey, the interesting people that I met, the friends that I made, some of the not so good things and, of course, Alun Hoddinott.

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