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Summer letter to the Choir, August 1988

This being a transcription of the hand-written (then photocopied) letter sent to members of the choir before term, August 1988.

Dear Paola (or other choral scholar’s name as appropriate)

With any luck, you’ve been having so far a delightful and perhaps profitable vac. May it last as long as poss. Perhaps you’ve caught sight of a book, but maybe it was a mirage. If it occurs too often, it’s best to ask someone if you’re in a library. If they say not, better take a couple of aspirins and put your feet up for a week.

Years ago we all had a laugh when a library turned out to be a mirage. They’d excavated one of those desert dunes in the infertile crescent which turn out to be the remains of large cities, and had come across a complete horde of clay tablets with cuneiform writing,- the library of some pre-diluvian monarch. Some appeared to have secondary markings in each line, immediately taken to be one of the earliest instances of musical notation. The tablets were sent to be cleaned – which should have meant very dainty dusting down with a fine soft paint-brush  of the type used for painting miniature portraits,– but the batch fell into the care of one of those buxom young helpers (female) of no archaeological training, who are better off terrorizing shire horses with a curry-comb. This enterprising young creature promptly put the clay tablets into a bucket of water and gave them a good scrub with her wire-brush normally used for scrubbing her bedroll. Very soon she had a bucket of amorphous clay dumplings & a quantity of prehistoric sludge. And so nobody will ever know what was top of the pops at Tell-Asmar in 2900 B.C. Nor indeed will we ever have to sing a P.A.T. arrangement of the same at an Annual Gathering!

When I reached my Hampshire pleasure-drome, my first chore was to train the giant hogweeds to chase the neighbours’ cats and not me. My two-stroke motor flail was useful in trimming much of my jungle down to knee or shin height. Two dozen young oaks have seeded themselves on my “lawn”, and more in the paddock-like areas. I disturbed countless frogs, voles, bees’ nests (bumble) and such-like. When at last some clearance was complete, I planted a gorgeous array of little blue campanulas. By next morning nothing of them above ground remained to be seen. I assumed it was the local magpies, which in the past I have seen pecking blue-hydrangea flowers to shreds. So I planted more of the campanulas & surrounded them with a protective wire netting covering. To no purpose. The plants had been eaten up entirely. It could not be the various beetles which abound or the larva of the cranefly, since these are carnivores. So I put on my best orange wellies (usually kept for organ-scholars to borrow for pedal-practice) and went to the garden-centre, returning with a bootful of slug-pellets. Next morning, areas of my garden looked like Ypres after an offensive. It seems the slugs had emerged from their lairs by the myriad. They evidently enjoyed the pellets, for after but a nibble they were seemingly struck by an ecstasy so intense they came to a quietus a foot or two away and awaited the next stage of their Kame or Kismet. There were two distinct types,- sleek black ones about an inch or inch-&-a-half long, and a larger tawny-coloured corrugated monster, between 5 and 6 inches in full length when streaking towards some desirable delicacy, and about the thickness of a good large courgette – an inch diameter perhaps. As with butterflies where often the same species differentiates males & females by colour & size (and scent, which we cannot detect), I took it that the black slugs were perhaps the females (“I am black, but comely” – Song of Solomon) and the brown battlers were the males. So I took to making a tour of the garden at twilight and discovered I am host to millions of these marauding molluscs. They aren’t sluggish at all, but move at a rate of knots when given incentive. One large fellow (I observed) having sampled a pellet went on several inches producing a frothy wake like a full-speed power-boat, and then suddenly he split open stem to stern like an old-fashioned sausage in the frying pan, disgorging a quantity of yellow ichor, grey mucus, and much purulent liquescence. Then he lay singularly doggo. “What a tease!” I thought. “I’ll go and get my cross-bow and see if a shot across the bows doesn’t set him on the bolt again.” But I seem to be out of bolts. So I returned with a torch & a canister of salt, and continued my rounds. Coming round a corner by the sweet-peas I suddenly came upon two of the brown fellows attempting to have sex together. “Lawks!” quoth I – what will the neighbours think if I appear to be countenancing homoeo-erotic deviancies in the animal kingdom?” So I covered their (the slugs) confusion with a dash of salt. They liked it a lot, and were still lying on their backs there next morning in blissful meditation, surrounded, alas, by a good deal of ugly lymphatic foam,- “night-soil” I suppose. So I rang up Prof Wigglesworth the redoubtable entomologist & learned that the black & brown are separate varieties, each with their own black males & females or brown males & females. Amen! So that is a relief to know.

I would like to tell you more about Hampshire’s wild-life (which doesn’t mean the juvenile-delinquency & adult-abuse,- but the rarities of the New Forest, like “Rufus’s Stone” – he only had one; or the large spiders in the woods on Old Beacon Hill which live by hunting shrew-mice and the chicks of small birds, and whose mandibles will give your bicycle-tyre a nasty puncture if it annoys them; or our two village witches of the late 17th cent, one bad, one good.) [The black hag put evil spells on people, but the white witch took them off. (Privately, I think they ran a racket. The white one paid the black one to impose the magic which she (the white one) counteracted, receiving a suitable fee from satisfied customers. Meanwhile the black one received presents to avert her possible disposition to cast a spell against you, and the white one received equal considerations to maintain her readiness to help in need, and indeed her resistance to any temptation to turn black too & do you a harm. That’s my theory.

Have you ever seen a spell cast? Well in Europe it is cast, or thrown,- usually by one hand from a position in the air at arm’s-length over the head. The hand is brought down powerfully as if throwing an object (such as an egg or squib or stone) at the feet of the person standing before you about 6-feet away from you. It is a violent gesture, sometimes done several times, counting aloud or in silence, and preceded by the relevant imprecation (or cursing prayer), and sometimes (but not always) followed by some conclusive phrase like “so mote it be”. It is very frightening to witness; and it must be devastating to be the object of the curse. You can be in no doubt at all that you have been cursed, a sensation highly demoralising for a start.]

But I must move on to the purpose of this letter which is to remind you of a few dates.

  1. 30 September and 1 October 1988
  2. 8 October 1988

First: 30 Sept (Friday): Extra Annual Gathering of Old Boys with Commem Service first. We’ll try to do the same programme exactly as at the last An. Gath. Could we please meet in Chapel at 3 p.m. See details on next sheet.

Next: 1 Oct (Saturday): Master’s installation preceded by Evensong, which means Responses, Mag + Nunc setting, and possibly two anthems. See next sheet.

Finally: 8 Oct (Saturday): 3 p.m. We start Marathon of practice for Term.

Friday 30 Sept 88

3.00 p.m. Rehearsal of material for the day & if possible the morrow. [Psalm 150. Smart: Te Deum. Wood: Heaven. Hymns 165, 379. Silentium. Precamini. Grace. Peace be with you. Tomkins: O yes has any seen a lad? Reger: Abshied. Pearsall: Let us all go maying. Carmen Caianum.]

6.30 p.m. Commem Service.

7.15 for 7.30 p.m. Annual Gathering Dinner & After Dinner Musics

Saturday 1 Oct 88

11.00 a.m. - 12.15 p.m. Rehearsal. [Responses: Smith SATB version. Psalm: 119 vv33-40. Chant 155. (provisionally:) Mag & Nunc: Wood in E flat no 1. Anthems: Byrd: Sing joyfully; Stanford: Ye choirs of new Jerusalem.]

6.30 p.m. Magisterial Installation Service & Ceremony

7.20 p.m. Dinner in Hall.

I hope I am expecting the attendance at the above events.

Simon Ball Catriona Stewart I am inviting also:
Neil Chippington James Stuart Christopher Batchelor
Andrew Davison Bruce Tarlton and the following freshers:
Crispin Flower Alan Taylor Richard Simpkin (Org.Schol.)
Adrian Lock Rebecca Trafford-Roberts Paola Doimi de Lupis (Sop.)
Lucy Miller Anna Vedat David Long (Bass)
John Pitman Jonathan Williams
Stuart Rea Tabitha Winnifrith
Julian Sale and possibly Simon Marshall

Please let me know as soon as possible if you are unable to attend. Don’t arrive out of breath (or out of practice).

The following meals if taken in Hall will be at College expense: Fri 30 Sept: Lunch,[Dinner]: Sat 1 Oct: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner; Sun 2 Oct: Breakfast.

Travel expenses from-home-&-back, if necessary, will be refunded.

There will not be reimbursement for those who having travelled to Cambridge opt to stay on right through into Term.

There will be no charge for accommodation in College for the nights 30 Sept, 1 Oct.

It cannot be guaranteed that you will be able to occupy for this week-end the room assigned to you for the ensuing Term.

University Term (the period I believe covered by your room-rent) starts on 1 Oct 88.

Dress for Annual Gathering as usual is D.J. suit + black tie, or feminine equivalent; + surplice for service; + gown for dinner.


The time-table for the ‘Marathon’ is on the next sheet; and on the sheet after that are the additional dates in which we are involved. Some of you may wonder what is supposed to be going on, on 9 Dec,- I wonder too.

The basic fact is that I reach next summer the age at which I perforce retire from my University Lectureship. It is an appropriate moment for me to relinquish my various College offices. Hence this is the last Long Vac summons any of you will get from me. The College is therefore busying itself as to finding a successor for me, and have a appointed a committee. This Committee evidently thinks (poor dears) that taking choir-practices is a salient feature of a Precentor’s duties! Whoever they get (if anyone), you yourselves will have had the experience of working with a real live composer of real live music, even if you haven’t enjoyed it as an experience or witnessed any of his more significant output!


That seems to be everything that we need to say at this stage.

À bientôt,


Peter T.