When I was a child, I spent a vast amount of time daydreaming. Nothing unusual about that, of course: all children do it. My daydreams, which I called thunks, were long, elaborate and rich in detail, and I can remember some of them even now, half a century later. They were fed by my voracious reading; and since I was a precocious brat and was reading from the age of three, I was on to the Beano, Biggles and Jennings by the time I was six, and devoured Treasure Island and Swiss family Robinson soon after that. When I was nine, my parents sent me (with the best, if misguided, intentions) to a Catholic boarding-school in deepest Yorkshire; and although very privileged to have been given such a posh education, I hated almost every moment of it. In 1955 there were no motorways – the first section of motorway (the M6 Preston bypass) was opened in 1958 – and the journey to school seemed to take the best part of a day; so parents visited once a term, if one was lucky. To a small boy banged up in an eighteenth-century castle in North Yorkshire, with monks as teachers and warders, and a seemingly eternal regime of rugby and religion, reading and daydreaming were useful avenues of escape.
It should already be clear that I was not ideal public schoolboy material at the age of nine; and nothing much changed in the eight tedious years I spent in Yorkshire captivity. My favourite pastime at that age was mooching around; come to think of it, it is still quite high on the list, fifty years later. Like many small boys, I had an amazing ability to invent alternative realities, in which I slew dastardly villains and rescued ravishingly beautiful ladies who somehow turned out to be exotic Oriental princesses. And little by little, another activity was added to daydreaming as an escape from the interminable round of rugger matches, playing at soldiers, and praying to an imaginary and disapproving God: music.
When I say “music”, I mean playing and writing it. Composing soon became my aim and my obsession; and somehow (against all the odds) I achieved my childhood aim of making it my profession. Whether that was a good thing or not is another matter: they say you should beware of wishing for something too much, in case your wish is granted. A composer’s life as imagined by a wide-eyed boy of twelve in 1958 was one thing; the reality in twenty-first-century Britain is very different. More than fifty years have passed since the dream of writing music first took root in my mind, and both the world of music and I myself have changed beyond recognition. Most of us have dreams and ambitions when we are young; if they come true, we have to live with them when we are old.
My school contemporaries quickly grew out of their daydreams, and went on to do the sort of useful, grown-up jobs which benefit the community: law, medicine, defending our islands from dastardly foreigners on land, on the high seas and in the skies, and making vast quantities of money in Rio Tinto Zinc or Proctor & Gamble (names plucked from the air of distant memory). Not so I, unfortunately: at the age of twelve I caught the music bug, and have never been able to rid myself of it. The question I occasionally ask myself is this: is my obsessive pursuit of musical perfection a healthy and useful vocation? Or is it, like the thunks of my childhood and adolescence, an attempt to escape from the harsh and/or tedious realities of daily existence?
Flashback to 1960: when term ended, and the grim tedium of boarding-school life was left behind, the holidays were (or seem in retrospect) idylls of light and laughter. Which is quite a tribute to my parents, who despite their share of faults and sorrows were kind and funny people. We were a tolerably happy family. My father, who had had a tough and heroic war, worked for a shipping company in Liverpool, and was doing well in the office jungle. We lived in the Wirral – that variegated strip of suburbia and country which lies between the Mersey and the Dee. By the time I was twelve, and had graduated from my prep-school to its big brother on the other side of the Yorkshire valley, the holidays offered excitements such as concerts at the Liverpool Phil and the Christmas panto with Ken Dodd at the Liverpool Empire; a few years later, after my father had been promoted and we were better off, we moved to a spacious house in a nice part of Liverpool, about a hundred yards from the river Mersey.
In the course of this secure and privileged childhood, and in between practising the piano, translating the speeches of Burke and Churchill into Ciceronian Latin or Demosthenes’ Greek, reading every escapist adventure book I could lay my hands on, wearing out the knees of my school trousers in fearful prayer (daily before breakfast), marching up and down in a prickly khaki uniform (two afternoons a week), and being trampled to bits on the rugby field by large boys in studded boots (four afternoons a week), I started scribbling tiny musical efforts (in blue ink, because that was all we had). Some of these I wrote at school in the smelly hencoops which passed for practice-rooms; most were written at home, where I had more space and privacy. Almost all these early efforts, fortunately, are lost.
This little essay has rambled so much that I have all but lost my train of thought (if I had one). To come to the point – or at least to a point of sorts: I feel in some ways as if I have sleepwalked through sixty years of life with no coherent plan whatever. But if I ever had a plan, it was very simple: to write music which embodies that mystery, the human condition. If I stop and reflect, I suppose I have partly achieved this, producing a body of work which (even if nobody pays much attention to it) has a value of a kind, and will remain (even if ignored) after I am gone. But what made me write music in the first place? And what is it that still drives me to put myself through the misery and Angst which invariably results from the struggle to create a piece? To date, my work-list numbers a hundred and thirty pieces of music. Not one of these was completed without, at some stage during its composition, a feeling of worthless impotence. I am not alone in this: almost every worthwhile creative artist, if honest, would confess to similar feelings. Why do we put ourselves through this? Are we all masochists? Or is the creative urge simply an itch? A bad habit? A neurosis, even?
It’s a reasonable question. Do artists create things as an escape from the clutter, humiliations and boredom of daily reality? Or (more worryingly) is it that we have such a desperate need to remain (or appear to remain) in control of our surroundings that we box ourselves about with a thing called Art, which allows us to play at being God within those confines, however powerless and unfulfilled we are – or feel – outside them? Are my many choral and orchestral works, my operas, songs and chamber music merely the grown-up equivalents of my boyhood thunks? The difference between men and boys, they say, is the price of their toys (and the difference between women and girls? The price of their pearls)
In most cases, I believe, we composers and creative artists do what we do because at some moment in our childhood we were fired up by it; at a young and impressionable age a kind of imprinting takes place – as happens with a chick when it emerges from the egg, or a baby when it first hears its parents’ voices. This creates a powerful bond which (especially in the case of music) is reinforced by years of daily practice, first of an instrument and then of composition itself. It’s true that there are many children who take up instruments, and some who may write music up to college level; but very few of them persevere after school or university, because the pressure to earn a secure living becomes too great. In some senses, these are the lucky ones – the ones who get away from a hard and sometimes cruel life. Those who continue, despite all the difficulties, are usually those whose drive or obsession overrides all other considerations. The question is, what causes this drive?