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Diana’s death ten years on

September 3, 2007

My ever-trusty bright orange notebook will prove that I had intended to submit to the inevitable and write about Diana, Princess of Wales this week. Friday saw the ten year anniversary of Diana’s death, or more accurately, an anniversary of a point in time when things began to go a bit weird in this country.

The news that Diana had been involved in a car accident had seemed bizarre enough. I had been sleeping in the front room of my ground floor flat, my horn-playing friend Jacqueline asleep in my bedroom. She was playing in a concert at Snape Maltings Concert Hall later on that afternoon and, as orchestral manager, I was charged with making sure that all the musicians I’d booked for the gig had suitable accommodation. Jacqueline had lost out on the usual high-class accommodation but seemed quite happy settling for my hospitality instead.

The phone was in my bedroom. It started ringing soon after I’d switched on the television to find both GMTV and the BBC were running bizarre news bulletins delivered by sombre, almost heart-broken newsreaders delivering shocking news accompanied by surreal footage. This was all too weird, I thought as I burst into the bedroom, who on earth is ringing me now at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.

“Jon? It’s Hugh.”

Hugh was the conductor of the concert. How had he got my number?

“You’ve heard the news have you?” he asked.

Without thinking I nodded in agreement wiping sleep from my eyes.

“Have you?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I need to change the programme. We can’t play an entire programme of Strauss waltzes. There needs to be something sombre. Something fitting. Have you got the music for Beethoven Seven?”

Sourcing orchestral music is quite difficult at the best of the times unless you’re in the fortunate position of having access to an entire library of music. Professional orchestras don’t normally have this problem. The Britten-Pears Orchestra, a training orchcestra for young professional musicians, had no such library.

There was the Britten-Pears Library just down the road in Aldeburgh. Benjamin Britten – personal hero and local celebrity both during his life and after his death in 1976 – had settled in the Red House in Aldeburgh and there stored his growing collection of scores, music, compositions and recordings in a purpose built library called the Red House Library.

It might be a Sunday, I thought to myself, but you’re not going to tell me the Britten-Pears Library won’t be forthcoming given the unprecedented circumstances. The concert was at 3pm. There was a rehearsal at 10am. The time now was 8.30am. There was just enough time.

Sadly, the library hadn’t been quite as forthcoming as I had hoped. Yes, we could go into the library to find music which might be suitable for the concert but we weren’t going to be allowed to use the actual music. We’d need to photocopy the music first. This was music annotated by Benjamin Britten himself. We would only be able to use photocopies we had to make first.

I quickly calculated the time it would take to photograph the music the conductor was proposing. It was clear there would be insufficient time to photocopy everything.

The conductor was accommodating and as frustrated as I was at the difficulties we faced. I agreed that I’d meet him at the concert hall in twenty minutes. There were some conductor’s scores at the rehearsal venue. There might be something suitable there.

By the time I arrived at the rehearsal room the conductor had already suggested an alternative. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was the preferred choice. It was suitably sombre and reflective and, given that it was only two out of the usual four movements for a symphony, it would also be a suitable opener for the concert. If we played the Schubert in the first half we could easily get away with playing a selection of marginally more appropriate Strauss waltzes so as not to make the audience any more morose than they were already.

There was only one problem. At that point in time we had no orchestral parts. We only had a cut down score measuring 15 by 20 centimetres. The library probably wasn’t going to be forthcoming.

It was then we all of us experienced the second most memorable moment of this bizarre day.

“It’s really not a problem that we haven’t got the music for the orchestra,” said one colleague with an enviable first-class honours degree from Cambridge University, “all we do is photocopy the forty page conductors score, then cut each individual instrumental line out of the photocopies, stick them to individual pieces of paper and then enlarge them to A4. We’ll create each individual instrumental part. We won’t need to go to the library to photocopy the music.”

Me and a friend watched as all the important people in the room nodded in agreement that this really was the way to go, whilst we quietly laughed at the ridiculousness of the plan. The time now was 9.30am. Even if we started at 11.00am we’d only get half of the orchestra kitted out with music and even then we’d have no real confidence that everything would be free of errors. There’d be time for one rehearsal before the concert but if there were mistakes in the music this would cut into the rehearsal time making the concert an even more stressful experience than our morning had been.

Our challenges did little to reverse this slightly panicked solution. With one additional person now throwing their opinions behind mine about the time and effort such a task would take it seemed all the more disappointing that noone heard our pleas. Dutiful as we were and still a little stunned by events of the day, we pressed on with the redundant task.

As I recall, someone, somewhere higher up in the organisation had manage to persuade the necessary people that some flexibility was required on the part of the library staff. An agreement was reached, a representative sent and the original photocopying plan executed.

The orchestra began their rehearsal an hour and half later than planned. They played through the symphony once, finishing their rehearsal in time for lunch and ultimately for the early afternoon concert they were contracted to play in.

I remember the day so well not solely because of the events in that Paris underpass were so shocking but more because I remember the look on the face of the person whose authority and common sense I had thought to question.The concert might have passed off without a hitch in the end, but the memory of that face was unmistakable. A mixture of panic, frustration and total indignance coloured her usually ashen face. I had crossed a line. My time was up.

Only a month later I handed in my notice at the concert hall where I worked. The great pride I had basked in working there had dissipated since the day Diana had died. I hadn’t got another job to go and had absolutely no financial means to keep me afloat. Getting a new job was vitally important so too escaping the difficult situation I found myself in.

I did find another job – working in an IT support department in a margarine factory in East London. I moved there in October, moving in with a friend of mine who had played in the orchestra ten years ago.

I met Simon for the first time literally days after I’d moved to London. I first made contact with my friend Peter a few months after that and a few months after that I came out.

The death of Diana and that bizarre week where hoards of people felt compelled out let their grief pour out of them uncontrollably was a milestone. It was something being carved out at the time even though I didn’t realise it. We didn’t mark ten years since the death of Diana on Friday. We all marked ten years that had passed largely unnoticed by all of us. And that is quite a scary prospect.

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One Comment
  1. johnny permalink

    Great post, just stumbled across it whilst looking for something else but couldn’t stop reading. It’s been twelve years now, and THAT’S a scary prospect!

    Apparently you can go and visit Diana’s childhood home at Althorp and it’s supposed to be lovely, really really peaceful and poignant. According to this piece, it’s got so popualr that there’s now going to be an audio guide and everything for visitors. Could be worth a visit I guess.

    Anyway, good post Jon, thanks for making me think.

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