Musical Opportunities

by Ray Huckle .. 

…in which the theory is tested that the sad decline in musical standards is due to the demise of the annual bus trip to the seaside, once regularly undertaken by the pit villages of North East Derbyshire .. !


I have noticed and been mystified by the fact that in spite of being perpetually plugged into the ‘Cyberverse’ and receiving the latest pop hits from ‘Beyond’ played at Volume Eleven., only a few of today’s young aspiring musicians appear to be capable of making music themselves.

Even singing seems to have gone out of fashion, although having listened to a lot of the modern  music maybe we should be thankful for that small mercy. I don’t think it is lack of access to musical instruments either as I have seen good second hand (Sorry! Preloved)  guitars etc. for less than the price of a rock concert ticket.
I have a theory that this dearth of performers may be caused by the lack of an early grounding in the rudiments of amateur music making,  and by the change in hairstyles, the decline of workingmen’s club excursions and the spread of gentility to the smallest room. This is a strange combination I know, so what binds these disparate elements into my grand theory? In a phrase it is the comb and paper band.

Let us first take the comb. Hairstyles today seem to consist of either deadlocked dreadlocks upon which no comb could ever hope to make the slightes impression or a scalping so near the bone as to render  any form of hair tool redundant.  There is a third fashion which is a spiky concoction cemented in place with hair gel. These works of art are of course constucted before the bathroom mirror over the period of at least an hour, probably to some secret blueprint stored under teenage beds with the odd escaped socks and the naughty magazines. Such styles as these are never tampered with once the grand design is achieved, but were they to be manipulated by the hip pocket comb then that implement would be so gummy as to be useless as a grid for producing a musical struzz from the paper membrane (quite apart from the distaste of bringing such a thing near to ones lips).

Now to the decline of the other element neccessary for a sound musical instrument, the paper. In the golden era of the comb and paper, all schools and institutions were equipped with rolls of stiff semi transparent toilet paper with a texture similar to legal documents and a slightly sinister smell of hospitals. This stuff used to hang there on the inside of the closet door just daring you to apply it to your nether regions. The more affluent members of society may have blenched at this but we lads from the pit village found this stuff a positive improvement on the squares of newsprint hung on the nail in our home outhouses, although my literary skills were no doubt much improved by reading in these the saucy bits out of the ‘Sunday Scandal.’ Unfortunately, ripping up the ‘Scandal’ into bum sized pieces was a poor editorial method. Today even schools and no doubt places of correction have gone soft. This stuff is better for its declared function with more absorbtion and less smear but is useless for a musical instrument.

On then to the Workingmen’s Institute excursion or the Club Trip as it was popularly known. These free annual excursions were paid for out of the profits accrued from the sale of beer during the previous year and provided a day at the seaside for the whole family, including both a stage for the virtuoso and a master class for the novice comb and paper players. On the big Sunday the buses that on weekdays carried miners and mill workers to their toil would be hired to carry them and their families to a coastal resort. Instead of destination boards declaring ‘Staveley Works’ and ‘Barker Lane pottery’ or ‘Markham Colliery’ they would sport stickers proclaming  ‘EXCURSION COACH No. ?’  I bet I was not the only newly literate kid who boarded such a bus with trepidation wondering why we were bound for this strange place called ‘Excursion’ when I had been told we were going to Skegness.

We kids scrambled on first and headed to the back of the bus. Our parents filled the front seats and our grandparents filled the centre and acted as a buffer zone.  The very front seat would be occupied by a couple of Committee members who would supervise the important task of distributing labels to be tied to the children proclaiming just which excursion they were with, and the even more important task of issuing  goodies to the same kids. This generally consisted of an apple or an orange, a packet of potato crisps and a bottle of fizzy pop. There was also half a crown spending money, the purchasing power of which would be equivalent to five or six pounds today. The committee’s  most important task though was ensuring that the crates of bottled beer were loaded. These would be issued to the grown ups when certain important markers on the journey were reached.

“It runs to two bottles each.” The committee man would bellow down the bus. “It would have been three but we held an extraordinary committee meeting last night.”  Thereby doing a preemptive strike against the inevitable shouts and leg pulling from the crowd.

“We will issue the first of these when we cross the Trent,” he continued as though crossing that river was a journey into foreign territory, as in a way it was to us kids. The steady movement of the line of traffic over the river toll bridge allowed us to peer at what seemed a mighty river with us all hoping to see a boat.

The grown ups would be calling out to each other and then gales of laughter would be heard. We knew then that someone had said something not for our ears. We kids were astounded at our parents behaving in this way. Our mums drinking beer and our dads laughing and joking and behaving just like us kids in fact. Then someone would start off the singing and maybe a harmonica would be produced and it seemed the whole bus would join in, grease proof paper would be torn from sandwich wrapping and combs produced. The struzz and buzz of comb and paper would harmonise and improvise with the voices as the bus trundled along towards the coast. The eighty mile journey would take about four hours but it passed well enough in the good company.
It was on such journeys  that I learned the joy of singing with others and how to play comb and paper. I was also inspired to learn to play harmonica.

My memories of these journeys are of a warm sense of belonging to an extended family. My memories of the seaside are of cold grey skies, a grey/brown sullen sea and of penny arcade machines that swallowed my money far to quickly.
Perhaps it is better just to travel. In hope.

Copyright 2015 Ray Huckle All Rights Reserved