About 25 years ago I worked in Grimethorpe on a book about the environment.
It was at the time when the old terraced rows in that village were becoming derelict; the rows of streets in the old village named after far off seaside places like Margate and Brighton were looking sad and forlorn, windows where women had once sat on sills to wash them were being boarded over on a daily basis and there was an air of depression hanging like washing on a still day.
One night I was invited to watch the brass band practice in the old institute. Up to then I don’t think I’d ever seen a brass band perform, I’d heard the odd tune on the wireless of course and I knew of the exploits of Brighouse and Rastrick Band who took their version of Floral Dance to number one in the very year that the world turned on to punk rock.
Yet I’d never sat down and listened to one live. That night in the institute the culture of brass band music struck me.
The Grimethorpe Band played some familiar tunes like William Tell Overture and Concerto de Aranjuez which they later made famous, then they played McArthur Park, a tune I would never have associated with northern music makers and halfway through it the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up and I got a lump in my throat as big as a lump of coal.
I came to realise at that moment that brass bands are a very important part of our heritage round here and I’ve been a fan ever since.
This week brass band music has come in to my consciousness on three separate occasions.
First was when I watched Brassed Off for the umpteenth time and I still can’t get past certain parts of that film without shedding a tear.
Second was last Wednesday when I got an email from the South Bank Centre in London requesting that I present a brass band concert in The Queen Elizabeth Hall by The Tredegar Brass Band.
Then on Saturday I was delighted to compere the Mayor of Featherstone’s concert for Macmillan Cancer Support at St Thomas’ Church in Purston.
The concert featured the mighty Featherstone Male Voice Choir, a nurse and part time singer called Vicky Quarshie who sang one of my favourite Dusty Springfield songs, but also the long-awaited debut of the newly-reformed Featherstone Main Brass Band and the whole thing was absolutely sublime.
I have long been a fan of our male voice choir, who have been keeping a tradition of this kind of singing going in the town for more than half a century now and they are really good.
They sang a beautiful version of the old French chanson Autumn Leaves that took your breath away, a rousing medley of First World War songs in tribute to fallen comrades from round here and lifted the old roof with a rousing version of a song made famous by Elvis, American Trilogy.
My old school teacher from George Street, Paul Rhodes, conducts them with undisguised glee, if ever you get the chance to see them live, don’t dawdle, just book tickets because they are magnificent.
I’d heard on the grapevine that Featherstone Main Brass Band were back in training, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good they were going to be, what a thrill!
If I’d had my beret on, I’m sure it would have lifted up into St Thomas’ rafters! They opened with a piece composed by one of their own bandsmen called Featherstone Rover and worked their way to a finale of, yes, you guessed it, Floral Dance and it was every bit as good as the one that Brighouse and Rastrick took to the top of the hit parade.
I was immensely proud to be asked to present at this event and even prouder when I came home and reflected that all this music came from my home town.
On that subject, it is Billie’s annual memorial concert tomorrow night, 7pm start at St Wilfrid’s School, North Featherstone.
It is the ninth one of ten that we plan to do and an opportunity to see how all the children we have been giving instruments to in the last nine years are getting on.
It’s free to get in, I have some tickets still available, so if you would like to come, let me know by email, phone or Facebook and I’ll put your name on a ticket to be collected at the door.