Confessions of a Reluctant Organist

When he opened the Bannaventa pub, David Steele hoped it would become a magnet for discriminating diners. He equipped the upstairs banqueting hall with a good stage and a sound system, and purchased an expensive Japanese-made piano.

This acquisition was the first of a chain of events that led to me, a confirmed atheist, attending church without fail every Sunday morning for the next 17 years.

It was the best piano I had ever played – and I had been playing for many years, entirely by ear, for pub singsongs and amateur jazz groups. There I sat, banging out some boogie-woogie, a cigarette hanging from the side of my mouth, when I became aware of a very interested listener, a small rosy-cheeked little woman.

She was Jessie Allibone, who lived at the Laundry Cottage down the slip road leading from the Locks to the A5. The only reason she would ever have ventured into any pub was that she was the local distributor of poppies and collecting boxes for the British Legion, and she had come to persuade the licensee to support the forthcoming poppy day appeal.

“Can you play any hymns?” she asked.

I confessed that I had often played Bread of Heaven and other well-known golden oldies to football and rugger fans in sundry drinking holes. I demonstrated my skill by thumping out a slow-rock version of Amazing Grace.

“Just what we’re looking for,” exclaimed Jessie. She revealed that the parish church at Norton would soon be desperate for an organist, as the current holder of the office, young Philip Shepherd, was giving it up.

She thought I would be ideal for the job, in spite of my protests that I could barely read a note of music, had never played a church organ, and was a militant opponent of religion.

Her remarkable persuasive power was so great that after a brief inspection I fell completely in love with the pure baroque sound of the Norton organ. In spite of being advised “don’t do it!” by Whilton church’s organist Betty Pride, who taught piano and held regular “Sings” for church folk in the deanery, I soon became Norton’s official village organist – and was launched into the steepest learning curve of my life.

From start to finish of my new career I struggled to master the dots of the written music. And I never overcame the nervous sweats that assailed me high up in the organ loft at the back of the church. Miss Pride gave a smug grin when I told her of my terror of coping with an impossible jump up the keyboard in Mendelssohn’s wedding march. She said it served me right, and that the only answer was practice and more practice. “Rubbing your hands in olive oil will make the fingers more supple.” she added.

I gave up trying to play the ancient tunes for the psalms; they seemed to originate from a mysterious foreign culture. But after weeks of practice under Father Knibbs’s guidance I managed to get through the complex (to me) sung service by Rutter, used for Holy Communion. A four-day course at the Royal School of Church Music in Croydon helped. There I met other so-called “reluctant” organists who were in much the same boat. One of our main tutors was Janet Cooper, from Roedean Girls’ College, who later gave a memorable recital on my little organ at Norton.

When playing a hymn I had to concentrate on reading the notes to such an extent that I invariably forgot how many verses I had played. The only way out of this was to have someone sitting by me to give me a nudge and to whisper “one more verse” at the right moment. My wife and daughters and young Valerie Luck from the village very kindly took on this role, and also pumped the organ with a lever during the odd times when the electric motor providing air to the pipes conked out.

I never really got to grips with the foot pedals of the organ, in spite of much practice. One winter I developed an excruciating pain in the sole of one of my feet, where a small red spot appeared. I had to pay a visit to Doctor How, who delightedly announced: “This is the first actual case I have ever encountered of trench foot.” He diagnosed its cause to be a cold spell, exacerbated by my nervousness and the sharp edge of the wooden seat restricting the blood supply to the legs.

At that time I was a heavy smoker, and often lit up during Father Knobs’ sermon. One morning for some reason the normal draughtiness of the venerable old building did not function, and I was unaware that the smoke was wreathing around the organ pipes like a rising ghostly mist.

The vicar suddenly paused in his discourse and looked up at my eyrie in alarm – but for only a second or two, until he realized what was going on. He told me afterward, with a dry smile: “I almost ordered an evacuation and the fire brigade.”

Over the years I got to play the organs at other local villages, and heard some excellent local organists including John Townley senior, who still plays at Brington. I performed for weddings, funerals and baptisms and grew to love the old church and its organ, the wonderful old hymns and other sacred music – and especially the vicar and his wife (Betty, who now lives in Long Buckby) and his small regular congregation of mostly women. They were all good sorts and a credit to the community. I am sure I learnt other lessons as well as those of the job in hand.

Sometimes, I would let myself into the empty church for a practice session that would most likely end with a blast of a good old jazz favourite… perhaps a chorus or two of my own transcription of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

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