Granddad by Jude Cowan Montague

Tales of My Granddad’s Magical ‘cello

My grandfather, Sydney Wright was a ‘cellist for 44 years with the Hallé Orchestra.

This fact was a mantra of our household. The 44 years was so important I wondered if it had a magical significance. What was so particular about 44 years? It was a long time, but to children, all numbers above 10 feel impossibly long. Forty-four years it was. It was impressive, and I repeated the mantra myself to others, feeling proud.

A musician at school, hard-working, sensitive, committed, he had gone to the Royal Manchester School of Music and from there had been chosen by fellow musician Don Hyden (violin) together with Pat Ryan (clarinet) and Eric Fogg (piano) for a quartet which had gone on to be the very first to perform for the proto-BBC in Manchester, on the very first radio broadcasts. At that time, London was not necessarily going to be the centre of the new wireless transmissions. There were five different centres from which broadcast would take place. The Manchester one was called 2ZY. When I saw, in the newspaper cuttings in the scrapbooks, that he had been from the BBC since the very beginning, with an orchestra called 2ZY, I did not know that this was what this was. It sounded very modernist and the young musicians and forward-thinking band-leaders, conductors, musical organisers and engineers were very modern.

photo by Sydney Wright

I get this feeling from looking at the photographs in his albums. I feel the energy, the exciement of the new, the surprise of creatives finding themselves at the vanguard of a sound engineering revolution. Bing! They are awake. Scrape! Play those violins. Shock and delight. This is a moment in history that will never be repeated, and will never be forgotten, although it has in many ways been overlooked and disappeared far beyond the front pages of memory.

Sydney was one of the very first, with his friends, fellow players, at the forefront of what was happening in regional broadcast. The transmitter reached only so far and the signals needed booset therefore regional radio, organised as part of a national network, was what was necessary.

Trafford Park was selected as the home for the new studio. It was here that Sydney, and his fellows in the 2ZY Trio, Jessie Cormack and Leonard Hirsch, came to perform live in sessions that would be relayed throughout the North West, as far as the technical constraints of both transmitter and receivers would allow. Dan Godrey set up the the orchestra which performed in a main studio which was roughly 33 ft by 14 ft, irregular in shape.

The musicians bristle with serious fun in the photos in Sydney’s album. We are here! We are a force to be reckoned with! We bring classical music to a new generation, and we are playing contemporary and cutting-edge composers, we are playing the tunes of the Romantics too, Tchaikowsky as well as Stravinksy.

I asked my grandfather what his favourite composer was. I don’t have him, he said with seriousness. But I like Stravinsky.

My granddad had an amazing Siamese cat which curled around our legs. Dusky, he was called. He had the loudest shout, huge pointed ears, the bluest eyes and the darkest brown sealpoint legs. On top of which he had the loudest miaow, a shout like the ‘cello itself, scraping and shouting like a dark brown note from a ‘cello bow.

Maureen Avenue, Crumpsall, Manchester 8

Every Saturday I would go and see Sydney. He would disappear into his parlour, a dark room, shaded by curtains. The dark mahogany furniture was kept cool and safe from the bleaching properties of the sun in that dark parlour. And from this musical larder, twisting, elegant, beautiful lines would come and curl around my ears where I sat and played in the back room, overlooking the garden with the gooseberry bushes and the vintage-burgundy black-red-velvet roses. That phrasing became the sound of my dreams. Even now, sometimes I wake, thinking I hear that chocolate deep melody with the rich strings buzzing and there’s no one, but perhaps, it I’m lucky, it’s a golden morning and the birds are singing to the sun.

As a child that was my routine. I went for piano at Miss Musgrave’s on Hermitage Road by Crumpsall station and then on to my granddad’s. I would sit at his wood-turned age-dark table with watercolours and pencil, and draw and paint images from real life or of the countryside. We spent quiet, meditative times together, thinking of trees, of clouds, of sky and flowers. He would call me Marjorie, not Judith. Marjorie was my middle name and it was the name of his wife and of my aunt.

His wife, born Marjorie Mason, was the love of his life. She grew up in Heysham, but she was from a Yorkshire family. I am the descendant, through her, of the Earnshaws around Howarth, the name that Emily Brontë took for her character Catherine Earnshaw, the anti-heroine of Wuthering Heights. Sydney had kept the paper treasures of her family in the writing cabinet in the corner of his room. I poured over the artefacts as a child, knowing that somehow, through my family, I was connected to the romantic love story which inspired me and so many, like Kate Bush, that doomed love affair between Heathcliffe and Cathy set on the moors. And I was a child of the moors, later choosing to spend hours walking them in the bright light and harsh wind.

With my granddad, listening to his magical ‘cello, the imagination that would take me throughout my life, leading me a merry dance here and there, was formed. The line pulled me to this location and that location, to Oxford, to London, to Sumatra, to Thailand, to India, to Estonia, to Latvia and back home to Manchester. A line as wispy and insubstantial as his cigarette smoke and as grey as his hair, slicked back with brill cream. He played. I listened. And lives were lived.

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.

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