In 2012 Tasmin Little was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Jubilee honours list, alongside people from every walk of life. In the sixties, the inclusion of pop stars in the Queen’s honours list represented a huge change, in post war society attitudes, and British values that provoked indignation from the popular press and the middle classes. Barry Tuckwell was my horn professor at the Royal Academy.
When I switched on the television news and heard your name included in the Queen’s birthday honours list, I was so thrilled to hear it, but having been inspired to write to you, I was quickly stricken with my customary indolence, until I received a telephone call from a Welsh friend who had been at your concert in Fishguard. Your performance had converted him, along with his companions at the concert,” permanently,” he said to the music of Delius. The telephone call was made with great and atypical excitement to tell me about the epidemic of Delian delirium that you had initiated in West Wales. And remembering my friend’s extreme dislike of Delius’s music from our student days and the futile and heated arguments we used to have about it, it is the more remarkable. But I have remained an avid student of Delius’s music for almost all my life, as you know.
In 1965, as I was coming to the end of my studies at the Academy, I was surprised and puzzled one day to find in my pigeon hole, in the students’ common room, an invitation to dinner at my professor’s house.
At that time, I owned one suit that doubled as a dinner jacket, and for this my first invitation into musical high society, my friend, the Academy fencing master, gave me a yellow silk tie, which he had tactfully suggested might suit the occasion, my own being the shameful legacy of my squalid and slovenly student life. So I braced myself for the ordeal to come, telling myself that attendance at functions like this would be an unavoidable part of a musician’s life, and I set off by underground for West London.
The Edwardian terraced houses in Bayswater were of three or four storeys piled on top of a basement, with the ground floor set at the top of stone steps.
Muffled conversation, laughter and a pool of bright light from the chandeliers spilled from the high window onto the pavement, where I loitered uneasily at a safe distance from the house and its dispiriting opulence.
I felt a small revolt within, at the elegance of the street and the sophisticated assemblage that awaited me, and while I wondered if my absence might be noticed at all, a few light drops of rain prompted me to action, but I could only turn to the warm smoky comfort of the Leinster Arms on the corner, where I nervously swallowed a pint of beer amongst its few muttering customers before taking to the street for another attempt at my entry into high society.
How I longed for the clatter of the pinball machine and the rowdy students at the “Rising Sun” in Marylebone.
My precious and few invitations to the London Symphony Orchestra had, up until that time been undertaken with a certain discomfort and self-consciousness. These feelings were derived mainly from my valleys accent that was indecipherable to many, and the paucity of my experience which was very obvious to most: but there were a few people at the house that evening, who had been particularly encouraging and welcoming to me, and thereafter became lifelong friends.
Neville Marriner was one such, who was at that time the leader of the second violins of the LSO, and was getting a lot of attention for his founding and conducting of the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
When he saw me enter the room, he raised my confidence a little by breaking ranks and hurrying sidelong through the elbows and wine glasses, to get me a drink as a sort of official and ritual acceptance, before we all sat down to eat.
I had never seen an artichoke before that evening and the effort involved in eating and pretending to enjoy it, while surrounded by mystifying conversations about Arts council spending and its proportion of the gross national product, only amplified my feelings of inadequacy, but a small comfort lay in the fact that hardly anyone present appeared to have the slightest interest in me or my awkwardness.
This fragile calm was to be disturbed eventually by the attentions of a beautiful and aristocratic lady who attempted to include me in the general social intercourse, by underlining her familiarity with the Beatles and their music. When she asked me if I had an opinion as to their elevation to the Queen’s birthday honours list, my flustered and reflexive reply came out as an almost direct quote from the front page of the “Daily Mail”.
“They would give it to just about anyone these days!” I said, immediately feeling a rueful stab of panic and embarrassment as the awkward laughter rippled across the surrounding company: and no one spoke to me again until the effusive stream of good nights and pleasantries were exchanged on the steps down to the street and the waiting taxis.
On the next day, in the morning pub which was empty but for a few cleaning staff, Cedric the fencing master appeared at the open door, and shouting above the whine of the vacuum cleaner and the Marylebone traffic on the street outside, told me with delight that he had solved the mystery and the significance of my dinner invitation. He showed me a copy of the “Times” from the previous day that carried the full “honours” list for the Queen’s birthday, and there underneath a picture of the “Beatles” was one of Barry smiling in white tie and tails.
He had been awarded the OBE for his services to music!
I spent the rest of the morning in the dark brown depths of a great deal of Allsop’s bitter beer, and the weight of embarrassment and humiliation did not leave me until the “Rising Sun” had regained its midday energy and was filled with jostling students and the joyful noise of the pin ball.
I told myself that the time was near – the time to leave student life behind, and since then, as my world grew larger and the profession demanded more from me, my life has stumbled onwards gathering confidence, and towards an identity of sorts, the fuel for the journey being mostly the fear of starvation and the frivolity and fatalism of my fellow travellers, which, thank God, has never quite left me.
For days now it has been blowing and raining here, but when the mist dissolves, you can see the faint outline of the Fife coast, out beyond the crab boat swaggering through the heavy waves. And having put my idleness aside at last, I watched the sea all the morning whilst writing, for which I give thanks to you and to Delius and the honours system.
Congratulations –Your award is more than appropriate, and best wishes from your new admirers in West Wales, who will want me to thank you for their infection. We need no cure they would say – but more of the same.