15 August 2022

DAVID MICHELL, 1929-2022


David and I were very close at one time – we became friends originally as fellow members of the Hampstead Choral Society which I joined within a week of coming to London for library school (North-Western Polytechnic) in January 1967. I think it was at my second rehearsal that he chatted to me, after which we did so many things together: outings (the destination usually to include a cathedral and a second-hand bookshop), joining the Elgar Society London Branch on its formation, joining the Southwark Cathedral Choir. I remember a visit to Rochester where the discovery of a shop with a large collection of 78s took precedence over Evensong in the cathedral – one of the objects of the visit – which he missed and I attended alone.

David was best man at my first wedding. And, of course, it was through David that I met Robert Tucker. (David was quite alarmed to discover that everyone he met seemed to be a librarian!) I'm afraid that we eventually drifted apart and I always felt guilty about it (Robert kept in touch with him), but I felt I had outgrown the friendship, though we still exchanged Christmas cards. I hope he made appropriate arrangements for the disposal of his wonderful collection of recordings and other memorabilia, which could be claimed as of national importance. I once met his brother, who was at St Thomas’s Hospital when I visited David, who was a patient there in the 1970s.

Robert says that, despite his infirmities, David sounded quite unchanged on the telephone, and I can imagine his frustration at having his freedom curtailed so irrevocably. I could have provided the stimulating conversation Andrew Neill says David craved – which makes me feel even more guilty – but the trouble was that David didn’t want anything to change, and was very put out when I (and I think Robert too) got married and, of course, made changes to our lives. He wasn’t a misogynist or (so far as I am aware) homosexual, but just felt that women were a bit of an irrelevance in his life.

I loved his dry sense of humour, though this could sometimes be hurtful or embarrassing: I remember we were in a cafe near Southwark Cathedral, probably when we both sang in the Cathedral choir, and a poor old down-and-out came up to him saying ‘Can you help me, sir?’ to which he replied, rather sharply: ‘No! No one can.’ I remember Ron Taylor complaining that once when David visited him he started picking up and reading letters that were lying around. There was one occasion when, on Christmas Day, he missed the only bus to Southwark (when there were buses on Christmas Day!) for the cathedral services (and presumably taxis were completely booked up or unaffordable) and so, unexpectedly, had to spend the day at home, probably lunching on beans on toast (lunch would have been provided at Southwark, where the choir was also required for Evensong); on hearing this I invited him to Kennington (where I then lived – by then I had moved on from Southwark to St George’s Hanover Square) on Boxing Day for a repeat Christmas lunch when he also had the challenge of entertaining my mother, who had come from Nottingham for the occasion. As my best man (at St George’s), he was a bundle of nerves and, the day before, had to be sent home by my prospective mother-in-law to prevent him driving everyone mad! As I think we said at the time, anyone would have thought that he was the one getting married! Everything was fine on the day, but Janet did not help by telling him (teasingly) that if the groom fails to turn up the best man has to marry the bride!

He had a great love of names: in the musical world Graupner (composer) and Bronsgeest (singer) amused him; it was David who named Wulstan Atkins (with his utter devotion to Elgar) as ‘the Thirteenth Apostle’ (also, ‘Woolsack’). Other Elgarians earned similar epithets (no names no pack drill). We once visited (I think on a dull November day, having travelled by train, including an excellent lunch on board – those were the days! – and walking from Worcester to Lower Broadheath) the Elgar Birthplace, met by Alan Webb and – sworn to secrecy – CAKE provided by Mrs Webb! And there was that instantly recognizable cough that punctuated many a London Branch talk. He was a great friend (and fellow Cornishman) of Bill Harris (William Lewarne Harris), composer, whom I also got to know, the baritone Donald Francke, and of course Inglis Gundry. We were also frequent visitors to William Reeves, near him in south London, for second-hand books and music and I remember hesitating to spend the then considerable sum of £3. 10s. on the two volumes of Percy Scholes’s The Mirror of Music (I succumbed. They sell for up to £90 the pair now!). I remember my first wife Janet commenting on how his flat was surprisingly (for a bachelor!) comfortable and ‘chintzy’. There was also the Block instrument, indicating ‘train on line’ when the doorbell was rung. Did you ever notice that, though tall, he had very small feet?

The Hampstead Choral Society often sang in Promenade Concerts, usually as part of a vast composite choir: we sang in the Beethoven Choral Symphony conducted by Boult in place of Malcolm Sargent who was mortally ill. We thought how slow the scherzo was, until we heard the broadcast repeat and realized it was spot-on, the more particular pointing of the rhythm giving far more impetus than mere speed; another year we sang in Belshazzar’s Feast (David loved the alternative German title that then appeared in the vocal score: Belsazers Gastmahl!), conducted by John Pritchard with a choir of thousands; so many in fact that we planned, when they all shouted ‘Slain!’, to shout ‘Shit!’, but I can’t remember whether we did. David later joined the London Philharmonic Choir.

He often played recordings down the telephone when talking to me: I remember in particular the Eugene Goossens recording of the 1920 revision of the Vaughan Williams London Symphony and comparing it with the published score. He recalled, as a very young man, meeting Vaughan Williams (I think in Cornwall) and discussing a piece for which not all instruments were available locally (unfortunately I can’t now remember what the piece was) and RVW suggesting ‘You could try saxophones’, of which there was no shortage in the dance bands of the local seaside hotels at the time! David also recalled as a child witnessing the Crystal Palace fire (1936), which could be seen from the road where they lived.

This has been mostly about music, but David's interest in railways was significant too (I think he was in ‘planning’ at Waterloo when I first knew him) and he relished a recording of steam locomotives tackling the Lickey Incline. He was also a Territorial and, in our early days, was occasionally called for periodic training sessions; I think he may have been awarded the TD (Territorial Decoration).

As for the pronunciation of his name, it was definitely ‘Mitchell’, despite the actor Keith Michell pronouncing it ‘Meeshell’. I remember Robert Tong ringing me up about a concert at Queen Mary College that he was conducting and in which David was interested and Tong asking if my friend Michelle was coming – my first reaction was that I didn’t know any girl called Michelle!

Finally, as David tended to collect friends who were younger than himself, I always used to refer to him, teasingly, but quite truthfully, as ‘my oldest friend in London in both senses of the word’. (Actually John Bishop and Betty Roe probably also qualified but it was a pity to spoil the joke!) David was quite sensitive about his age (compared with us) though he would only have been in his 30s/40s at the time.

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