Friday, 8 November 2013

A Time There Was

One of the iconic music films is Ken Russell's 1962 "Elgar" which has as one of its central themes the composer's relationship with the rural part of the Worcestershire and Herefordshire boundary and centring on The Malvern Hills.  He was part of it as child and man and walked and cycled around the parishes and villages.

Tony Palmer, another maker of striking films about music makers made his "A Time There Was" about Benjamin Britten in 1980.  Apart from the English setting and backgrounds there seems to be little connection between the two other than music.

What is striking in the Palmer film is that he was able to interview Britten's sisters and brothers who survived him.  One feature is their voices, very much the received pronunciation now assumed to be and deemed "posh" or "elitist" or upper class.

But when you start to dig in the documents now available there is another story entirely.  Because Britten was just as much a man of the area of The Malverns as Elgar, indeed more so in terms of his family history.

Elgar's father was a Man of Kent, born in East Kent who moved to Worcester and married a local girl.  Involved in local music and running a music shop his younger son Edward was drawn into this local world.  It was from these lower middle class beginnings that Elgar had to make his way.

In the earlier generations those of the Elgar family who can be traced were largely in ordinary occupations substantially farming connected.  They were not in the labouring class but certainly not much up the class scale.  His mother, however, was a Greening and they were among the very ordinary people.

Britten's father was a Charing Cross Hospital trained dentist who made a decent living and was able to educate his children to a good standard.  His mother, given as Hockley but actually Hockey was from a lower background but they look very much like skilled men and tradesmen down the generations.

The father, Robert, was born in Birkenhead, his father Thomas, then a draper but later a dairy owner, his wife Mary Charlotte of a Staffordshire farming family.  It is said that Robert wanted to be a farmer but did not have the capital.  There is more to it than that, because the family and most others were being thinned out by the gathering agricultural depression of the late 19th Century.

Before Thomas Britten the family were farmers and very much in the category of Yeoman farmers with decent sized holdings.  The district where they were then settled for generations was by The Malverns and go back to at least the 17th Century.

It is difficult to see either of Elgar or Britten as "farmer's boys" whose roots are in the "Middle England" of the time, yet essentially this is what they were.  So if critics complain about the "rural" and very "English" nature of some of their music from that general area then it is only what they were and their families from generations before.

That world was something utterly foreign to the present younger two or three generations in this country, whether it is the English, Scots, Irish or Welsh kinds. They know nothing about the real history of the life as it was, whether it was the farming, maritime or other basic elements of Britain.

Anything they are told about the past reflects only the obsessions and propaganda of present politics and interests.  As for agriculture with most of the population blissfully unaware of how or where it is grown or by whom.  The vast majority see the green parts as either playgrounds, facilities for preferred wildlife or opportunities for property development.

Our own countryside and real rural community as it was just within my memory is now a lost world and with a lost people, almost as remote in modern society as the Aztecs or Ancient Egyptians and deemed as just as irrelevant. 

When we look at films about those who were close to it the reality of their own connection and the influence it may have had is never mentioned because it is never researched or understood in its own terms and context and by people with other agendas.

What I did not realise when shuffling through the records out of incidental interest was that it would become personal.  One of my eight great great grandfathers; the one in the direct male line in 1841 was working on a farm along the road from Britten's farmer great grandfather also in the direct male line.

Going back further the other family links in the area turn up in the same villages and then merge.  They look to be a group of Yeomen farmers, Parish Gentry, Husbandmen and the like of independent mind and running their own parishes as far as possible.

One of the connecting families is a Vobe.  A branch of these turn up in Williamsburg in Virginia in the later 18th Century running the "Kings Arms" Inn.  A local called George Washington often dined there.

Ideas do and can travel.


  1. Thank you. So very, very, true, unfortunately.

  2. "pronunciation now assumed to be and deemed "posh" or "elitist"
    You have it wrong really. As a nigh eighty year old I can tell you that nowaday most peoplre speech would be classified as 'common' or even 'dead common'. As are their manners.

  3. Fascinating stuff. Please consider a piece on George Lloyd, born in Cornwall in 1913, the same year as Britten. He composed his first opera Iernin when just 19 and wrote many other pieces. In a way he was a man out of time, preferring C19 style rather than the new music of Britten and his other contemporaries.

  4. A fascinating mix of genealogy and observation of British education (mostly lack thereof) through the ages. It supports one of my basic themes that human capacity peaked in the UK perhaps as early as 1900 and has since been regressing.

    This uninspired soul is still using genealogy to track only his own forebears and having a difficult enough time.

  5. I once had a brief holiday in a house just below the Malvern Hills. Very early every morning I made the effort - and I do mean effort! - to get up, cross the road and walk up on the hills. Simply superb! As I walked I 'put up' the larks who were kind enough to sing for me. Not jaw-droppingly gorgeous like, say, the Alps but just very gentle on the eye. The memory lingers.