Life Choices

After Silence - Music Best Expresses the Inexpressible

Albert Einstein

What is it, I wonder, that drives a musician to learn to play? It’s an intriguing question; one that has always fascinated me. I remember, when my brother and I were  boys, doing what all kids of our age did when we heard the hit record of the day – we pretended to play the piece as if we were the stars of the show. Now, it’s called ‘Air Guitar’. Still do it today, when Hank Marvin strikes up the first few notes of Apache! But that wasn't the reason. It's because music has a direct connection to our emotions and so has such an profound effect on us. Albert Einstein understood the relationship we have with music. He once said "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music, I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.... I get most joy in life out of music."

acquiring my first guitar

Other than a brief flirtation with the violin at school and dabbling at my Grandmothers’ pianos whenever we visited them, it wasn’t until I started work that I was able to buy my first instrument. A sixteen year old engineering apprentice earned just £3.50 a week in those days, out of which you had to pay for food, lodging and rail fares to London. It didn’t leave very much, so it took way too long to save six guineas (that’s £6.30) to buy the sunburst, steel strung, Selmer acoustic guitar from Francis, Day and Hunter’s music shop in London’s Charing Cross Road, one dark and rainy December night.

It didn’t last me long, but it got me started, and like many aspiring Hank Marvins, I worked my way through Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day book and graduated, eventually, to John Pearse’s Folk Guitar course before I outgrew it and, anyway, the neck had started to warp.

By then, I’d seen its replacement in a local shop, which I financed on (ahem) 'Hire Purchase', only to find that I couldn’t afford the payments, so it had to go back. A year or so later, it was followed by another sunburst wonder, a Hofner dreadnought, bought new from a long since vanished music store in London’s Moorgate. This was the guitar that helped me start playing Bluegrass music. There’s an another post here that shows a friend of mine playing it while I’m hacking away at a double bass.

The Hofner was an inexpensive, factory built, laminated top / plywood back and sided stock guitar typical of the day, but all I could afford. It lasted well and I played it at many folk club spots until it was obvious that I needed something with more carrying power, that didn’t get drowned out by the 5 string banjo solos.

Along came an Epiphone dreadnought copy, built in Japan, but by the time it arrived, I had left the Bluegrass band (to earn a living) and was moving on to British traditional folk music of the sort popularised by Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, and also aspiring to play fingerstyle guitar ala John Renbourn, et al.

By now it was 1971 and I was teaching guitar students in the evenings for extra money. I’d also formed an Accapella folk group with two student friends, and to go with the English traditional songs we had worked up a few hard driving acoustic instrumentals which went down really well in our club spots. It was then I decided to brave the ‘big purchase’ – my first quality guitar.

my genuine, c.f. martin guitar

Martin D28 Guitar

Martin D28 Guitar

Having stared through many a music store window over the years, I thought it was time I took 'the plunge'. My playing was coming along well and I felt I could do better with a quality instrument. So I plucked up the courage and went to Rose Morris, in London’s West End, many times until finally buying a Martin D28.

It was a stunningly beautiful instrument made of the finest tone woods and staggeringly expensive at over £2,000! In the early seventies that was an enormous amount of money, and yes, you guessed it, after a week I was suffering the most dreadful buyer’s remorse and took it back to the store feeling guilty beyond words for having been so extravagant. They were very understanding and, eventually, restocked it - for a fee, of course!. That was a day I have never forgotten. It was the beginning of a very long journey though. One that still continues today.

The Mind's Eye Opens

early photographic awakenings

I've always been an acutely visual person, with an instinctive appreciation of the visual arts. My 'photographic' awakening came early when, as a child, I was given an old box brownie to play with and later a small Kodak roll film camera. While at school though, like many other boys, I didn't enjoy the rather inept 'Art' classes, but I worked hard at technical drawing, eventually gaining a Royal Society of Arts certificate.

I don't remember exactly when I consciously 'realised' my much deeper interest in serious photography, but I do recall various attempts at drawing figures during my early teens, sadly with little success, so I knew I would never make an 'artist'. Most of my teenage years were taken up with music, so I suppose it was in my early twenties that photography came to the fore. I was teaching guitar classes in the evenings at the time, to make extra cash, but feeling that I wanted to explore other visual art forms.

Reading photographic magazines of the day I had become fascinated by black and white photography, particularly in photojournalism, and had invested in a Canon FTbN 35mm film camera as a first step. I was very taken with the great photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Cartier Bresson, who worked exclusively in monochrome, although I knew very little about it at the time.

To me, there was something deeply appealing about conceiving an image, in the mind's eye, finding the unique location or choosing the 'decisive moment', composing and exposing the frame and then working diligently from the latent film image all the way through to a beautifully printed, mounted exhibition print. I just didn't have the first idea how to go about achieving it.

So I decided to join a local Photographic Society and went along to watch various competitions to get an idea of what was involved. I was hooked on my first visit. What I found there seemed to me to combine all the fascination of both art and technology rolled into one immensely satisfying challenge. I felt an immediate rapport with the aspiring photographers there, who were all steadily improving their capabilities through regular competition, feedback from fellow photographers and expert help from the masters.

I struck up a friendship with one Peter Gant, an elite photographer at the club, and i have to admit I pestered him mercilessly with endless questions. For some reason he decided to mentor me. He generously volunteered to teach me the in-camera and film development techniques, the chemical formulations and workflow processes, as well as the darkroom, printing and mounting techniques, every part of which had to be thoroughly understood and repeatedly practised before I could even think of putting images in for judging and feedback.

into the darkroom then out into the light

Bill Brandt - The Nude

Bill Brandt - The Nude

This was a priceless apprenticeship. I was deeply fascinated, learned quickly and progressed rapidly under Peter's guidance. He was then a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society working towards his Associate Panel examination and had succeeded in having his work published in various magazines.

His style was similar to Bill Brandt, a world famous photographer known for his high contrast, intensely dark and brooding images, a famous example of which (The Nude) is shown on the right. Peter had a unique, dark sense of humour coupled with a superb eye, always capturing the essence of a subject in a way that made you think more about the story behind the image. I was fascinated by both men's work and diligently went about attempting to emulate it.

“Not as easy as it looks, is it?” he would say in the darkroom, pouring over his nth attempt to rescue one of my images after I had exasperated myself in my own darkroom and exhausted my skills, without success. Then he would produce a print that would just leave me - well, speechless.

Peter was a true Master. He is greatly missed.

Setting Out The Pathways

which path?

Over the years, I've enthusiastically pursued my opportunities mostly without needing the encouragement of others, but there have also been times when wiser men have guided me to opportunities I didn't see. From time to time, then, I admit I have been given the necessary 'kick up the pants' by mentors far cleverer than me, who perhaps saw greater potential in me than I saw in myself.

What? Yes, it's true; sometimes, you just need to 'follow' your leader and remember that, most of the time, they know more about it than you and you must trust their greater experience.

And so it has turned out; all for the better, I think. Since leaving school at the age of sixteen and finding myself a first job as a lowly Maintenance Clerk in a famous engineering company, I have been on a continual 'sprint' through life. Leaving school without substantial qualifications, I had to work hard for the next fifteen years to eventually overtake my contemporaries, finally achieving over twenty qualifications covering many engineering, construction, applied physics and computing disciplines. I qualified as a Design Engineer at the age of twenty three and went on to a twenty year career in the architectural and engineering fields, during which time I learned how to build my first computer and how to program it in languages which are now long dead.

a crossroads - 'new' technologies

Like many Engineering graduates studying in the early seventies, I had the opportunity to use the university's mainframe computers for advanced calculations. It opened up an entirely new world for me. The experience triggered my desire to learn more about a technology which I knew, instinctively, would totally revolutionise the way we all worked, particularly in the engineering fields. It drove me to immerse myself in all aspects of computing - beginning with building my own machines, from scratch, in order to understand how the technology worked.

It seems strange now to talk about building a computer based on a single board design with an external power supply, cassette interface and a flakey monitor interface. This, in the seventies, was before 8" floppy disks were available - even if I could have afforded one! My first machine was based on an OSI design which, once built, housed 4K of Random Access Memory. It was the smallest amount you could get away with, and it stored the entire but extremely basic operating system, an assembler, disassembler and later, a crude version of a Dartmouth BASIC Interpreter.

I remember it cost me £700 to buy an upgrade board and 24K of additional memory chips for it; that's well over £5,000 in today's money! Think of that when you buy your next laptop with 32Gb of RAM and 1Tb of hard disk, or the achievements of Apple in relation to the iPod, the iPhone and the recent iPad - 128Gb of memory in a multimedia device embedded in hardly more than a sheet of glass!

The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
— Winston Churchill

Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to combine this new knowledge with my engineering training and so became part of the early vanguard of computer 'experts'. On seeing my work on interstitial condensation predictions in multi-layer wall constructions and on advanced heat transfer and vapour pressure gradient analysis using software I had developed in my spare time, my employer invited me to computerise the production and management of our engineering design work and assist in solving our project management challenges.

This 'success' created an entirely new career path for me; one that has presented many obstacles. More importantly, one that brought me greater opportunities and a chance to contribute major innovations in various fields. Indeed, the chances of a lifetime. My heartfelt thanks to those monitors who took it upon themselves to push me forward when I needed it, whether it was in my  work or private life. My debt can never be repaid.

The point is; you never know when opportunity will present itself. So, seize it, whenever it materialises. You never know where it will lead. Unless you try!