A SKETCH OF A LIFE
I came to Sherrardswood School by a circuitous route. Born in Berlin 9 July 1922, Primary school, and a term or two of Secondary School, in Berlin. Emigrated, and arrived in London on 5 October 1933. Moved to Welwyn Garden City a few weeks later. Started school at Fretherne House Preparatory School, Church Road, next door to the Free Church, during the war home for pregnant mothers, then a cottage hospital where I had my tonsils out, later a pub and a restaurant. The area behind it was all unbuilt-on, and were our playing fields. The school closed after two terms, and my poor mother had to learn knitting, to put bands of the new light blue colour on my pullover, embarrassing for me when it showed the old colours, maroon and yellow, inside... We were broke. Miss Wragg, founder of the school, and Mr Morton, co-head, arranged for me to sit a scholarship examination, which I passed, an actual impossibility, as I had only just started the new language! But they allowed my parents to pay a few quid a term, all we could afford. Of course it was the High School then: Mrs Annand invented the name Sherrardswood. I was at the school 1934 - 1942, when I took the School Certificate for the second time, in order to get Matriculation Exemption, which gave access to University – Mr Annand wanted me to do a language scholarship to Cambridge, German / French, but my parents were not in a position to let me take that route. Did evening classes – always by far the youngest pupil! – in Town and Country Planning, Higher Maths, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy.
Being interested in theatre, I started work at Welwyn Electrical laboratories, working out the maths of electrical resistors, which they baked in ovens, green enamel! How I landed there I do not know. My father was building gliders in Dunstable, was in partnership with a German emigre engineer, Herr Weil, and my parents moved to a hardly furnished house in Dunstable, near the London Gliding Club on the Downs, where I went weekends on the then Hertford-Luton line, under the White Bridge. Stayed with the Franktons, Michael was a pupil of the school, then with the Bakers: My father had met the brilliant Bernard-Baker, cant remember his first name, at the club, where he had his own sailplane. The Bakers had a profound influence on my English. Bill, the wife, was MA Cantab, and introduced me to Fowler’s The King’s English. I’m devoted to R W Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage! Baker, electronic brain behind Murphy Radio, introduced me to a job at the firm, where I worked in the drawing office, my not being able to draw a straight line! Amazingly I was put on a two-year training course, going right through every department of the firm, which didnt teach me a lot about radio or TV, but was a social study of the English class system and hierarchy! I wrote a letter to the Murphy News, criticising the fact that in ONE shop, workers were on overtime, in ANOTHER, they were on WAITING TIME, which meant that the firm was making a profit on both. After a summons to the Managing Director, Mr Stuart Burge, was it? - it’s a long time ago, 1944, I was duly sacked.
We were staying with the Herons, my mother and I – I cant tell you in how many lodgings I have lived in the Garden City - he of Cresta Silks, the fashion house, his son Patrick the famous painter. And sawing logs together in the winter, he helped me greatly to become a conscientious objector, which he viewed from a Christian standpoint. My analysis of the war led me to giving enormous responsibility for the rise of a Hitler to the the allies, exemplified by the disastrous and vengeful handling of Germany through the Treaty of Versailles. I registered as a conchie after my sacking by Murphy Radio, but my political basis for objecting to participation in the war was not recognised, and I landed in Walton Gaol in Liverpool. This in, now, my second year of doing social work all over the country, in homes for children and for old people, with the Friends’ Relief Service (FRS) and the International Voluntary Service for Peace (IVSP). Apt ‘Rehearsal’, for my two years with the Save the Children Fund, under the British Red Cross Commission, and UNRRA, back in my old country, a Berliner in civilian Red Cross khaki, 1946-1948. Did a German play with the locals in Schleswig Holstein! Doffed my British uniform, put on a German costume... German/English... Berliner Londoner...
At last I started with my original purpose, the theatre. Had fallen in love with it in Berlin as a nipper, White Horse Inn 1928. Emil and the Detecives. Now it was 1948. I was 26, a late start. Hitch hiked to Scotland and back, calling on various Repertory theatres on the way. Was offered a job as ASM, the lowest form of theatrical life, Assistant Stage Manager, in the Alex in Birminham, the Alexandra Theatre. Then up to tour Scotland with the touring company of the Dundee Rep. Then got accepted in the Adelphi Guild Theatre Company, most of whose young actors had come straight from the Old Vic Theatre School, and I took over a part at no notice at all because somebody was ill. So I got my theatre training in the theatre! Not in a drama school. Though I taught at a number of drama schools later, the Rose Bruford, East 15 and, briefliest at RADA, where the interference of the new principal led to my resigning...
I was out of work Christmas 1950, and the editor of the Welwyn Time, Charles Dalton, rang me, and offered me a job as reporter on the paper, so I became a jounalistic factotum on the Welwyn Times, law reports, men’s fashion articles, story of a Dachshund in Old Welwyn with its rear undercarriage on wheels, recipes accidentally omitting an essential ingredient, and such. I must explain that pretty well everybody knew me in the Garden City. I participated in amateur drama; was a junior member of a Brains Trust; sat on the theatre sub-committee of the WGC Post War Committee, planning local facilities; was a member of the discussion group, the Ring. So Dalton knew I could spout, and must have guessed that I could also write... Importantly, he invited me to organise a Child Art Competition, involving 30 schools in the paper’s catchment area in Hertfordshire, and children from as young as 3 years to 18, having heard that I had learnt about the subject from my dear colleague in the SCF team Margaret Ridley, who used painting by children as therapy, big brushes, big movements, cheap newspaper, free choice of subject...
Dalton was furious when I gave notice after 2 years to go and live in Paris, and sacked me on the spot! We met in Soho years later, had a coffee at Cafe Valerie, and he told me I’d be a wealthy man if I’d stayed with him! Instead, I helped to start a famous Chelsea restaurant with friends, Au Pere de Nico, 1952, frequented by the Royal Court Theatre company in its heyday, Look Back In Anger and all that. And I did evening class work for the ILEA, the Inner London Education Authority, in speech and drama and improvisation, later in opera, after my Churchill Fellowship in Opera Production and Administration 1969.
As well as work on stage, in film and on TV, in London and on tour as actor, I directed plays at the Alex in Birmigham, where I’d also acted and asm’ed, and in Perth Rep, and various chamber operas and an operetta with London companies. I put on, under my own management, Brecht’s THE EXCEPTION AND THE RULE; Fassbinder’s PRE-PARADIES SORRY NOW; and, at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre, IL MATRIMONIO SEGRETO, the opera by Cimarosa.
I was channelled towards opera by gaining that travelling fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which took me to Berlin, Hamburg and other major German cities, and for a magical month of rehearsals and performances in Salzburg, and to beautiful beleagered Prague.
In 1975 I was appointed City Arts Administrator and Administrator, later Director, of the City of Portsmouth Arts Festival, and created the annual orchestral concert and recital seasons, Music in Portsmouth. And I brought the Young Vic and the touring company of the National Theatre and the D’Oyly Carte Savoy Opera Company to Portsmouth. I introduced Yehudi Menuhin into the City of Portsmouth’s project of an international music competition, and he became its Artistic Director and Chairman of the jury. I was co-founder of what became the City of Portsmouth International String Quartet Competition, which is now the Wigmore Hall London International String Quartet Competition.
Stray activities to round off the story: Personal manager to performers and musical conductors. Adjudicator of amateur drama festivals, including the navy’s, two-years-running. Examiner of the Drama Board. Some 12 years as film and television extra and photographic model – which is how I earned my first computer, on a photo shoot for Compac in 1995!
Travel must be mentioned. Annual summer and Christmas stays in the city of my birth, Berlin. Septembers in Mytilini. Intimacy with France, Italy and Switzerland. An amazing journey with friends in a vintage car all the way to Morocco. A luxury film invitation to Goa, where my friend Dinah Collin was costuming a Hollywood Film, and we toured beautiful Kerala by taxi with Mathew, who managed to keep us alive among Indian drivers. And by boat on the backwaters. A visit on opera business to Israel, and an insight into its disastrous relationship to its neighbours. A theatre tour in South Africa, and an insight into its then disastrous policy of Apartheid. Spent a fascinated fortnight in New York, where I slept extremely well with two Francis Bacon paintings in the room, was glad to get to know them and him.
I twice acted as catalyst with Yehudi Menuhin. As I report above, I took the idea of the Portsmouth music competition TO him. And I took an idea of his of 25 years ago FROM him: Menuhin had wanted an opera house IN A CAVE, IN THE MOUNTAIN, IN GSTAAD, IN SWITZERLAND, for his annual music festival. The plan was never realised for lack of money. I heard about it indirectly in Berlin, when a friend of mine, then an architectural student, Wieka Muthesius, showed me her student project of a concert hall, in a cave, in the mountain, in Gstaad, in Switzerland: Her professor, Swiss architect Alfred Grazioli, later her husband, had kept the Menuhin idea alive, by giving the project to his students. I took this idea to a businessman friend of mine in Gstaad, Markus Kappeler, who some years later formed a committee, did a feasibility study, issued an architectural competition, appointed an architect, and started collecting sponsorship money and public support. I am very involved in the project, keeping a watching brief over it as an old pro,with a lifetime’s experience of stage and podium, and in my profound concern about five serious errors being made in the planning of the concert hall:
1) No orchstra pit is planned, although ballet will be performed on the stage.
2) There are no choir stalls planned, obviously needed for choral works. Such stalls could also be used as public seating, thus the audience surrounding the performers. And they should be hydraulically removed, like on the new stage of the Royal Festival Hall, to provide a clear area for performances on stage.
3) The exterior of the building, shaped somewhat like a mountain with a flat top, will be faced with tree trunks, a beautiful aesthetic solution. BUT THE BUILDING WILL HAVE NO WINDOWS! No windows for audience, for performers, for technicians, for visitors to the art galleries included in this complex building, nor for the travellers using the coach station situated below it. No views of the snow capped mountains nor of the river valley.
4) There will be no restaurants. None for the audience, none for the artists, none for the technicians, none for the visitors, none for the travellers. This is in deference to the restaurants, cafes, and hotels nearby – who could of course apply for a licence to run them...
5) And there is no organ planned – a necessity for such an international performance venue. As I point out publicly, on my blog, and eslewhere: They are not planning a village hall. They are not planning a church hall. They are planning a concert and performance venue of world standard, which will also have to serve the needs of the Menuhin Festival.
Oh! Hear me! Oh! Hear me! Oh! Hear me!!!
In my quest for perfection in a scheme that I have been dreaming about now for 25 years, I went last year to meet the architect, Rudi Ricciotti, in Bandol, on the French Riviera, and I went on to Gstaad, had a coffee with the editor of the local newspaper, Anzeiger von Saanen, Frank Müller-Brand, and I met Leonz Blunschi, President of the Menuhin Festival Gstaad. And I went to Bern to meet Kurt Aellen, the architect member of the project committee, and to Zuerich for a delightful interview with the Arts Editor, Chefredaktor, of the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Markus Spillmann, who at first had been reluctant to see me, but shares my view of the mis-handling of the project.
I keep busy. And I celebrate my 90th birthday in my father’s sailing club on the lovely Wannsee lake in Berlin in July. Here I spent my wonderful childhood weekends, sailing, rowing, watching the regattas, and picnicking on board my father’s racing yacht, with my mother, with Adolf Hain, my father’s old friend and sailing partner, his wife Elisabeth and their son Peter, my childhood friend. My blog has the story of how Adolf Hain, became leader of the club in 1933, and how he threw out its Jewish members…
Peter Zander 31 March 2012