“Cast a cold eye on life, on death…” (4)

An occasional series of vignettes of the past, drawn from the archives I use.

This is not strictly speaking drawn from an archive, but it is from a relic of the past, and if you have read some of my previous posts you will know that my definition of archives is a broad one.

My sister as a child once bought an old copy of the 1964 Brownie Annual at a jumble sale. At the time of the book’s publication the graded tests for Brownies were called, in ascending order, the Golden Bar, Golden Ladder and Golden Hand. When a Brownie reached the age to move up to Guides, if she had passed her Golden Hand she could make the transition at a special ceremony called “flying up”, which seems to have consisted of her new Guide colleagues picking her up and bearing her bodily from the Brownies’ end of the hall to the Guides’. This annual had the requirements for the Golden Bar, Golden Ladder and Golden Hand printed across its endpapers. Beside each one the girl who had originally owned the book had pencilled “passed”. But beside her “passed” for the Golden Hand she had also written:

I did not fly up beacause (sic) ol’ Kelly said “you were away the day you were to fly up so you can’t.”

So I walked out on it! Without a word.

Save the Library of Birmingham.

Another subject I now reprise – this time with dismay – is that of the Library of Birmingham, which I wrote about so ecstatically a few months ago. The library, though less than two years old and built as a showpiece, now faces severe service reductions: according to a report in CILIP Update in February opening hours are to be cut from 70 hours a week to 40 and more than half the staff are likely to lose their jobs. The report quotes Councillor Penny Holbrook, Birmingham City Council’s cabinet member for skills, learning and culture, as saying: “It must also be remembered that the library was commissioned by the council’s previous administration, and it has been well documented that the decision to proceed with the project was taken a matter of weeks before the global financial crisis which has triggered the period of austerity the council now faces.”

I have two strong objections to this. One is that in times when book buying is less easy to afford book borrowing comes into its own. But more important is that it is literature, learning and the arts which show us that life is richer, profounder and more surprising than we sometimes suppose. When material prosperity is harder to come by, we have an especial need of these more durable qualities. That is why the means of providing them – and the provision is remarkably cheap – ought to be one of the first things we protect against economic ravages.

The skool piano strikes (up) again.

Some months ago I wrote about the supply of Danemann pianos to Middlesex schools, and speculated about the origins of the Danemann design and the Middlesex specification. A friend has kindly lent me a book, Five London Piano Makers by Alastair Laurence, which throws light on the questions I raised then, and to which I am indebted for what follows.

As I suspected it was the London County Council which laid down the specification, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which would have given Middlesex a ready-made spec. to hand to manufacturers in the 1960s. Laurence calls the specification “very rigid” and we can see that this was true in a concrete as well as an abstract sense:

Such instruments were required to have solid oak case components, and expensive-to-produce wire gauze protective backing pieces behind their soundboards… [they] had to be at least four feet in height… their internal timber construction had to be based on a massive six-post braced back… [their] steel piano wire… zinc plated and therefore rust-resistant… [was] tonally inferior… but then those involved in the laying down of specifications were uneducated in this important area of piano-building knowledge.

This was a specification which it was “quite costly” to meet: “Large quantities of choice solid oak had to be kept in stock for months in order to season on the flat roof of the factory, and this tied up the firm’s working capital.” And yet, in Laurence’s graphic phrase, the Danemann school pianos were “built down to a price”, so that by the late 1960s the company’s profit on each instrument was only about £5. The quantities in which education authorities ordered Danemann pianos obliged the company to discount the school models until they were selling them at or below the wholesale price – and selling them direct. Many incensed retailers refused to stock Danemanns, a policy which depressed the numbers of domestic upright pianos the company produced. This was perhaps a pity: the school models had what Laurence calls “a ‘clangy’ and aggressive tonal quality, which might be good to fill a classroom with sound, but not so pleasing to the ear”. This sound was caused by the very hard felt of their hammers; a softer variety was used in the company’s successful “PJ” and “PJA” domestic uprights, which also had a more elegant appearance.

Danemann for a time also manufactured grand pianos. The LCC was a customer for these too, installing them in school halls and public buildings. It was doubtless thanks to their patronage that Danemann supplied the concert grand for the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. My secondary school in south Middlesex had a Danemann baby grand in its hall, honey-coloured rather than white-oak pale, and displaying the manufacturer’s name in mock handwriting rather than the equally (and therefore inaccurately) spaced block capitals of the classroom uprights. Its tone, however, did not suggest that it was well looked after.

Laurence records that during the 1970s

the rigid specifications for school models were relaxed: cheaper veneered oak parts (rather than solid oak) were now acceptable, and smaller instruments were actually preferred by the teaching profession, whose music-teaching members could now see over the top of their instruments. This helped them to direct classroom singing, and enabled them to better maintain classroom discipline.

At one point school pianos constituted 80% of the company’s output. “We sometimes wonder”, Laurence writes, “if the Danemanns saw themselves as ‘piano manufacturers to the State’”. It is certainly true that, when the company ceased trading in 1984, a small piece of educational history passed too.