Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir

A Chorister at War

Grayston Burgess looks back to Canterbury and Cornwall

Grayston Burgess in chorister garb
I was brought up by my grandparents in the back streets of Canterbury under the watchful eye of the Cathedral's Bell Harry Tower, my father having died of the then dreaded TB when my brother was four and I was only two. My mother, who inherited nothing but debts from my father's Music Shop, then ran the gift shop attached to the original Court's department store in Burgate Street. The great Alfred Deller worked as an assistant in the fabrics department of Court's at the same time - a fact not many people will know! To make both ends meet my mother sang in concerts around Kent until Burgate Street was flattened by bombing at the beginning of the war. My brother was already a cathedral chorister. When it was decided to evacuate the Choir School alongside the King's School, Junior King's School and St Edmund's, I joined it at the tender age of eight and we all found ourselves, my mother included, suddenly transported to Cornwall.

By an amazing act of courage and duty the remnants of the Cathedral Choir, led by the day-boys who remained behind, were directed by Joseph Poole (later Provost of Coventry, and a fine musician) and, aided by Mr Harvey, the assistant organist, carried on the daily services throughout the entire war in the crypt, prevented only once when a bomb demolished the Cathedral Library and blew out most of the crypt windows! I remember going back to visit my grandparents during holiday times only to spend most nights in the nearest air raid shelter during the 'red alerts' as German bombers made their way to London and back, occasionally unloading their lethal cargoes on us! At the same time I helped out in the choir and so got to know the day-boys well. As a small boy I watched the dog-fights and V1 'doodlebugs' lighting up the sky through the entrance to the shelter. My grandfather, a veteran of the front line in the first World War, 'commanded' the street, making certain everyone was safe and giving a running commentary on the events above, from outside, arms akimbo, defying the enemy! He came through both world wars without a scratch - a hero indeed!

The Choir School, under the watchful and resourceful eye of the Headmaster, the Rev Clive Pare (who also sang alto) and the Organist, Dr Gerald Knight (who also sang tenor), was housed in the Carne Hotel at St Blazey; the King's School and the other schools were boarded at the Carlyon Bay and the Bayfordbury Hotels on the coast nearby. By chance, Gerald had been brought up in the next village to St Blazey, where his mother still lived at that time, and I suspect it was through his local knowledge and organising skills that the whole campaign of re-allocation of the Canterbury schools so swiftly and expertly carried out. The name Carne Hotel was perhaps an overstatement of its importance, since it was in fact a shop-cum-bakery owned and run by a Mr and Mrs Inkerman Carne, an enormously buxom and loveable Cornish lady and her tiny bald-headed husband, with about fourteen rooms above the shop into which we 24 boys, Clive Pare, the matron and the cook, managed to squeeze. The erstwhile 'Tea Rooms' now doubled (or trebled) as dining room, practice-room, and general games-room. Being short of time and space for practising the piano and other instruments, it was not uncommon for us to line up for meals to the tune of some simple Adam Carse piece being learnt by some unfortunate probationer. Not infrequently we joined in by singing the tune at the same time as his practice, and woe betide him when he got it wrong!

Every morning we were picked up by the 'Puckey Bus' driven by a local hero (Mr Puckey) who had to put up with our antics when we stormed in with excited chatter, satchels, books and general brouhaha. We were then taken to Carlyon Bay, where we joined the other schools for academic lessons and were brought back again to St Blazey in time for Evensong at the local church. While the day-boys were gallantly keeping the flag flying in Canterbury we, in Cornwall, were singing a Boys' Voices Evensong every weekday. On Saturdays we joined a select volunteer force of altos, tenors and basses from the Senior King's School (mostly ex-choristers) and sang Evensong at the Church of the Good Shepherd at Par, a thriving china clay port.

Most Sundays were spent travelling in the valiant Puckey Bus to far off destinations in the Cornish countryside, where we gave recitals, much to the joy and excitement of the locals who came out in force to hear the famous choir. Our hosts on these occasions vied with each other to give us enormous Cornish cream teas, which we tucked into with enormous relish known only to ravenous young choristers - and all during wartime when eggs, cream, sweets and cake were at a premium! To save money, Clive learned to cut the boys' hair, an occasion for chatting about schoolwork, behaviour, games and problems. Clive also got his bus-driver's licence and took over driving the Puckey Bus. By this time Mr Puckey had done so well from his daily routine that he was able to buy another bus and so fulfil his other duties. Thus it was out of this highly improbable circumstance that we were able to maintain the choral discipline and the cathedral repertoire which has helped to sustain that great tradition of which we were privileged to be part.

It was when I arrived back in Canterbury in 1945, as head chorister, that I really began to appreciate the sheer beauty of the cathedral itself; the liturgy, the processions, and above all, the music, now enhanced by a refurbished organ accompaniment and six professional male singers - including Alfred Deller, Reginald Tophill, Stanley Reid, and David Clegg - all superb musicians. Above all, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was taking part in the glorification of God, and I felt blissfully happy to sing His praise. This feeling has never left me even though, after I had been a Choral Scholar at King's, Cambridge, I went eventually into the competitive and hard-headed music profession. Of course, I am not alone. England owes a great debt of gratitude to the many famous musicians who have gained their early experience in cathedral choirs - Christopher Seaman, Mark Elder, Harry Christophers, Trevor Pinnock, Roger Vignoles, to name but a few from Canterbury. The likelihood of the Church now breaking the ancient tradition of boys' choirs for the sake of 'political correctness', breaks my heart.

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