I grew up in Chester, in the North West of England. A city with a history going back 2000 years, right back to the time the Romans established a border fortress town (Deva) to repel the Celtic hordes. A city so full of history it burst out of every nook and cranny. Even today I find it hard to get excited about Roman remains, baths, hypocausts and amphitheatres because they were always there, around us, a visible and dominating presence defining the city and its sense of self.
During my student years I qualified as a certified North West England tourist guide, and conducted tours round my town with pride and a fount of stories both mythical and founded in fact. Sometimes the line between myth and fact became very blurry indeed. A childhood spent scampering around the ancient City walls, banging on ancient tower doors then running away from ghosts and evil spirits had given me a romantic view of my home town which later acquisition of ‘real’ historical fact did little to dispel, and made for some exciting narratives for visitors from overseas.
But despite its extraordinary historical heritage, Chester in the 60s and 70s was a cultural desert. For all I know, the whole of provincial Britain was a cultural desert during those years. I could only speculate. We rarely travelled outside home territory, but neither did anyone else we knew. Liverpool, the epicentre of seismic global cultural upheaval in the early sixties, was a mere 15.35 miles away and we went there twice a year with great excitement; once on my sister’s birthday, and once on mine. But our experience of Liverpool was a very provincial one. The highlight of each trip was either the Mersey tunnel or the ferry across the Mersey, and then tea in Lewis’s department store.
I had piano lessons, but didn’t get to see an orchestra or any live music until the momentous occasion my aunt took us on a trip to see the Hallé in Manchester when I was 13. A few other people had piano lessons, but hardly anyone was still having them after the age of 11. We taught ourselves guitar and recorder, but I didn’t know anyone who played violin, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, drums or indeed any other musical instrument of any sort during my entire childhood. I really don’t know how typical this was for the time, but I do know it is a very different story today in Leeds at least.
About 15 years ago, I attended a textile workshop in a local state primary school. Someone was looking for scissors, opened a cupboard door, and about 25 violins fell out. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What on earth were they doing with so many violins? Were classes being taught en masse? I still don’t know, but it was my first inkling of the wealth of musical opportunities available for children across the city regardless of means. It is only much more recently though that I have seen the outcome of this level of investment and resource. I have two children playing this year with the City of Leeds Youth Orchestra, and consequently a couple of nights ago I was privileged to attend a concert by the CLYO at Leeds Town Hall conducted by Douglas Scarfe. The orchestra was amazing, and there was a wonderful oboe soloist, Katie McLeish. I don’t know why I was so surprised at the standard, but I was. They only have a couple of hours to practice each week, but there was not only technical accomplishment but a spirit and generosity in the performance which was wonderful to hear.
However, as with nearly all the Town Hall concerts, kids in the audience were thin on the ground. Where were the siblings and friends? Didn’t they realise what they were missing? It’s not the first time I’ve speculated on the mismatch between active participation and audience when it comes to youth music, but with all the opportunities available today it seems such a shame.