Old Monovians; Who's Who

Sir John Dankworth - Early Years

Early Years

It was my mother who was the main musical influence in our household. She came from a family with several professional musicians in its ranks - one a church organist, another a pianist for the silent movies. Her connections with the Methodist church and Townswomen's Guild choirs - first as a mezzo-soprano and later as a choir leader-meant that she was constantly searching through songbooks for new material and roping us young 'uns in to practise it. As far back as I can recall I was expected to look over her shoulder at the piano music-stand and keep my end up. I struggled manfully to sightread unfamiliar notes, coupling them with unfamiliar words, which were often nowhere near the notes but at the bottom of the page.
Thus I became, almost before I was aware of it, initiated into the world of musical performance - and the die was cast. I suppose it slowly and imperceptibly dawned on me that here was the foundation of a job, a job that would beat the daylights out of a daily trek to an office on a bicycle. But I had to reason all this out for myself gradually over the years, because even though my father was full of good advice about some things he was a hopeless counsellor for others. Nothing my father ever said to me led me even to suspect that there was any other way to earn a living than his way - to hop on a bike or bus to go to work in the mornings every weekday, and return in time for supper and the 6 o'clock evening news on BBC radio. The possibility that anyone on this earth led a normal and solvent life performing music did not exist - as far as my father was concerned.
Life was sweet. True, Wall Street had not long ago crashed and left millions destitute and homeless. Hitler was beginning to take over Germany and Mussolini was already in charge of Italy. The Japanese were raping China. Spain was racked with bitter divisions which would lead to a bloody civil war ... but all of these were of small concern to a young lad living in a genteel suburb of a country at peace.
I could go out of the back door of our garden to a strip of waste land by a stream and play with the other kids of the neighbourhood. I could get out my bike and cycle all over the area without meeting a car. But if I did see a parked car I would dismount and inspect the vehicle meticulously, whether it be a Rolls, a Morris Cowley or a Trojan van. I could go to the level-crossing by the station and watch the steam trains go by. I could go along to the Regal cinema (we used to call them picture palaces in those days) and look at the pictures in the display cabinet outside. There were a hundred things to do without spending any money at all - there had to be, for we so often had no money to spend. But even just a little money went a very long way. Tuppence bought a quarter of a pound of sweets, quite a long ride on a bus, a couple of hours seeing films in the Regal on Saturday morning, a comic paper such as Film Fun, an adventure magazine such as Hotspur or Wizard, or even a kid's science paper such as Modern Wonder.
My first five years or so of school involved a fifteen-minute dawdle through side streets and along footpaths, and necessitated crossing only one road with any appreciable amount of traffic. The daily routine at school was much the same as it had been for years - kids drank their school milk in the morning break and ate their sandwiches at lunch time, if they didn't go home for lunch. They played in the playgrounds before and after school and during breaks much as they had since time immemorial. Occasionally playground ditties would reflect the goings-on of the outside world:
Roll along, Mussolini, roll along You won't be in Abyssinia very long You'll be lying on the grass With a bullet up your arse, Roll along, Mussolini. roll along.
That particular one demonstrated which side British kids were on at the time of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, long before we were at war with them in 1940.
My sister Avril was five years ahead of me - at junior school, at high school and eventually at earning a living. Avril and I were always good friends. In some ways she was my guiding light, my advisor in moments of unhappiness or doubt. Yet in some ways she was a bit of a millstone round my neck (a tiny one from a peppermill perhaps, but a millstone nevertheless) because, as an exemplary student, she created a model for me which I found very hard to live up to. She was a staunch and enthusiastic Girl Guide, so I was enrolled in the Cubs. She took music lessons, so 1 was sent to music lessons. That wasn't so bad, but Avril practised, and I (in common with millions of young boys coerced into taking up a musical instrument) hated practising. All in all, Avril was much too good an example of what can be done with a young life for me to be able to get away with anything at all. Which made me occasionally wish I had been an only child - and a spoilt brat, no doubt. Avril and I were nevertheless bosom buddies and spent countless happy hours together. Some of the happiest were when she rattled out popular songs of the day on our front-room piano from sheet music she had somehow acquired, and I played along on a toy drum kit. As a duo we were hard to beat.
And so life went on for us in the 1930s, day after day, year after year. Father plied to and from his office and played his snooker, Mother did the shopping and went to her choir practices, while Avril and I wafted to school and music lessons and Guide or Cub meetings. Nothing much seemed to change.
However, around my eleventh birthday came the inevitable school selection exams. To my parents' delight I found myself chosen for the Sir George Monoux Grammar School for Boys in Walthamstow. The Monoux was a good school, and I was proud to have been selected for it. It boasted a reputation for entrances to Oxford, Cambridge and others of the more venerable universities that was far and away above the national average. My contemporaries included ballet critic John Percival, England cricketer Doug Insole, symphony conductor John Pritchard and several others who have made their mark on the world. Indeed, when in 1995 my wife and I performed at Brown University in New England I received a phone call. 'It's Geoffrey Ribbans here - we used to be classmates at the Monoux. Do you remember me?' I did, but he remembered me better.
'You gave me some advice. I was taking German as a second language, and you said I was wasting my time, and should be taking Spanish as you were - so I did.'
'Great. What are you doing here: '
'I'm director of Hispanic studies', came the reply.
Life might well have gone smoothly at the Monoux, with the brighter among us cruising on to university scholarships or an easy slide into the business world, in either case leading to prosperity, security and a quiet life. Three terms every year, with the family summer holidays to Clacton on Sea, or Cromer in Norfolk, or Hastings or wherever coming predictably round each year. But such patterns were about to change-to my surprise, although quite predictably for those wise enough to see all the symptoms and draw their inevitable conclusion. The world was sliding towards war.