Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Drake's Drum

Fifty-five years ago young boys in Britain still routinely wore shorts, year round – grey flannel in winter, khaki in summer – until that rite of passage into adolescence when they donned their first "long trousers". This didn't happen simultaneously in any particular cohort – there was no mass re-bagging ceremony – but case by case. The first year classes at secondary school would start with mainly bare knees and gradually transform. It was a personal metamorphosis that required tact and good judgement: made too soon or left too late and you would risk mockery. Then again, you risked mockery for pretty much anything that marked you out as odd. The playground police never sleep.

Inevitably, this important sartorial transition was closely associated with that physiological change in the adolescent male known as the voice "breaking". For some boys this can be a rough ride, getting pitched unpredictably and treacherously from high to low from one end of an utterance to the other; a golden opportunity for more mockery. I was spared this torment, myself: never having really occupied the glass-pure treble register, my voice didn't so much break as erode into a sandy light tenor, where it has stuck ever since. Unless I have a bit of a cold, when I am gifted with an octave drop in vocal range, which is always fun until over-exploitation renders me completely voiceless.

A few years ago, on holiday in the Pyrenees, I had a summer cold, and kept catching myself singing "On the Road to Mandalay", in a ridiculous faux-baritone voice. Or, at least, as much of it as I could remember. The blog post I wrote at the time (Mandalay) linked Kipling, the popular music of the Time Before Rock, and various other themes I have often returned to in this blog. It's a good piece of writing and, re-reading it, I suspect there may have been a falling-off in standards around here in recent times. Although I think we all experience this sensation any time we look at some piece of our own work which is old enough to be seen objectively; that is, as if it had been made by someone else. Hey, he's pretty good! Whatever happened to that guy?

It happened again a while ago, around New Year. The voice, I mean. This time, it was fragments of another song that entertained me, one which had an even trickier tune than "Mandalay", but suited the growly register.  "Slung a'tween the roundshot, in Something Something Bay"... "Captain, art thou sleeping there belo-o-ow..." But why did I even know this song? "Drake's Drum", wasn't it? Then a memory rose up from the depths, of a hand-written, blue-duplicated song sheet, with "captain" spelled "capten", immediately followed by an even stronger memory of my fourth-year class lined up, each of us with a hand held out, while a furious gowned figure went down the line, whacking each extended palm with a ruler. It may sound terrifying, but nothing is more gratifying to a class of boys than a mass punishment for some individual's witty, well-timed transgression, owned collectively. I am Spartacus! No, I am Spartacus! Or, more likely, Fartacus in this case. The energy from the suppressed giggles could have powered all the lights in every classroom for a week.

Well, it was asking for trouble, expecting us to sing these stupid old songs. I think the idea was that they would be as familiar to us as they were to our more elderly teachers but, for boys born in 1954, they were as utterly alien as the oeuvre of Noël Coward or Gracie Fields. It was the same when I tried to learn the trumpet at school: the peripatetic music teacher assumed a tune like "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" would be as familiar as, say, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep", and thus act as an aid to reading musical notation. Wrong! Few things expose the gulf between generations as radically as the failure to find common musical ground. I expect there are teachers today amazed at the ignorance of a class that has never heard or even heard of Bob Dylan or the Beatles, and couldn't care less about their stupid old songs. Happily, they are now banned from beating children with rulers on that account.

In my time, however, the real generational gulf that was exposed was the idea that you could appeal to intelligent boys through wholesome, boy-scoutish stuff, whether it was songs about the likes of Francis Drake, tales of derring-do in the Empire, or even compulsory participation in team games every Wednesday afternoon. To the dismay of our elders, many of us had gone over to the dark side, and despised and mocked the tropes of manly fortitude. We found hilarity, not inspiration, in the very things that had stirred the would-be hearts of oak of previous adolescent generations. Our sympathy was for the Devil, it seemed; we rooted for the indians and not the cowboys, and took more pleasure in dumb insolence than in due deference.

It was partly, but by no means wholly, a class thing. A very old grammar school in a very small town on the Great North Road, one that had educated the boys of the local squirearchy for generations, had been overwhelmed by the building of a New Town and the much larger numbers of children from its newly deracinated working-class inhabitants, admitted purely by academic ability, not ability to pay. But, like so many such schools absorbed into the state system, it had also been confused by the social upheavals that followed WW2, further exacerbated by the change to comprehensive, non-selective schooling, which was happening during my secondary years. Suddenly, no-one was singing from the same songsheet any more, because no-one on any side – government or staff or pupils or parents – could agree what the song was supposed to be.

Most parents, however, were pretty sure that Drake's Drum, should it ever be beaten again, would simply mean more slaughter and pain for the many, yet again dressed up as national "sacrifice", and we weren't having that song again, now were we? And you might say the clatter of Keith Moon's much-abused kit was the ragged opening drum-roll of a whole new attitude among the young. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won't get fooled again.

But, no, these four pictures have absolutely no connection whatsoever with the ramblings above. I'm still just having fun with the Sketchbooks project, and felt like sharing a few more. There's no better way of exploring the potential of Photoshop [1] than to take some pencilled scribbles and then to see what can be done with them. Which is clearly rather more like making jewellery out of polished pebbles picked up on the beach than kicking your drums off the stage. But at my age, a few more steps back into the place where the light is brightest may not be a bad move.

1. The cut-down Photoshop Elements 10, in my case  I'm too tight-fisted to pay for the whole thing, and besides there is absolutely no way I'm going to sign up for Adobe's inertia-selling subscription model.


Anonymous said...

Being grounded this week with the worst cold since the influenza I've caught some twenty years ago, let me chime in with a resounding "A-a-h wos bo-orn under a won-dring staaa"!

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Sorry to hear that! I thought I detected some subsonic rumbling coming from somewhere...

Get well soon,