Sunday, 27 April 2014

The ocarina from Picardy

We're in Clacton on Sea, which is a strange kind of place. I've just been served in a garage by the most astonishingly middle class older gentleman, with very rosy cheeks. Whether this is typical of the place, I'd not like to say, but there can't be many jobs for middle class older gentlemen here. It's a sunny Sunday afternoon and the place is half empty. For a town whose wealth must be based almost entirely on tourism, this can't be a good sign.

The windswept pier is filled with amusement arcades and fairground rides but has a rather tragic, down-at-heal vibe. Lonely gangs of teenaged lads drift like listless cyphers from bench to bench dropping chips for seagulls whilst the hope drains from their faces.

Clacton is permanently watched-over these days by a farm of windmills far out in the brown sea behind a light drape of mist. They lend a majesty and grandeur to the view from the pier, which I'm sure the locals loathe.

The beach is brittle. Sad. Empty.

This afternoon we drove to Woodbridge, a charming town at the end of a Suffolk estuary. We made the decision to go there after hearing about a rather special concert due to take place at the community centre in the town. The concert included a programme of string music played by a local amateur orchestra. A bit of Mozart. A bit of Brahms. A few arrangements of Scandinavian folk songs. Exactly what you might expect from a concert of this nature; all played with gusto and great joy by the elderly players. But it wasn't this part of the concert which had piqued our interest and brought us 80 or so miles out of London...

The concert's conductor, a friendly mild-mannered chap called Andrew Fairly, is a flautist and great collector of unusual wind instruments. Half way through the concert, he stepped down from the conductor's rostrum, and introduced the audience to a very curious-looking instrument; part-ocarina, part-flute, part rolled-up tube of cardboard.

The instrument he was holding had been made 100 years ago in Picardy by a soldier in a trench. He'd used whatever he could get his hands on to make it - "Wills" tobacco paper, a brass shell case, glue, boot polish - and created a unique-looking instrument with a haunting, slightly dissonant sound.

Mr Fairly found the instrument 50 years ago in a junk shop in Middlesex and it was recently semi-validated by the Imperial War Museum. They're a cagey bunch at the IWM and are never going to stick their necks out for something which lacks provenance, but they said of the instrument; "taking into account the materials used and method of construction, it was almost certainly made by one of our troops during a period of blissful calm between the horrors of combat."

The instrument made an incredibly sad sound. Plainly most of my sadness came through association; there is, after all, a song in Brass called "I Miss The Music" which is based on countless doleful accounts I've read where soldiers in the trenches speak of becoming hugely distressed as a result of not being able to play or listen to music. I was engulfed by the romance of a soldier being forced to make his own instrument, despite the fact that the cynic in me assumes the flute was made more as a representation of the ingenuity of its maker. What cannot be disputed, however, is the instrument's empty, willowy sound; a little like a breath of wind rolling over no-man's-land. One day I might attempt to write something for it. It was an absolute treat to hear.

Here's the flute itself

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