A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

The Best Present


It all started about a year ago. My brother, organised and thoughtful as ever, emailed me looking for suggestions for our father’s 80th birthday.

James and Jacobs Pillow

Bassoonist’s son in Dartington Hall Gardens

After listening politely to my hopeless ideas, he said, “Shouldn’t we get someone to write a piece of music?” Not only that, but he gave John Woolrich a call and the next thing I know, the Dartington brochure comes out with a concert including a new work by Gordon Crosse dedicated to Jeremy Wilson, archivist to the Summer School. Which is how I came to be in the Dartington Hall Gardens on a beautiful summer’s afternoon this August.

I say it started a year ago. It actually started way back in 1951, when my father, a student at Bryanston School, got involved in one of Europe’s post-war cultural rebuilding efforts, a summer school of music run by William Glock. The summer school moved to Dartington Hall in 1953 and has been there ever since, and my father has been a constant presence.

He’s been an audience member, a trog*, a member of the management council and, now, archivist. His collection of photos, programs, the ‘daily’ and the ‘weekly’ are a real treasure trove. His memories are even richer. Moving harpsichords for George Malcolm, defending the Steinway in the Great Hall from being ‘prepared’, waltzing with Elizabeth Schumann and in later years, propping up the bar with Peter Sculthorpe and Wilfrid Mellers, three surprisingly non-grumpy old men of music. This year, even at the age of 80, he was still much in demand. (Good bassoonists are always hard to come by).

His involvement with Dartington Summer School has been the foundation of my musical life. My whole life, in fact, given that he met my mother at Dartington. My first Summer School was at five months, my last at about 23. So I’ve done 24 summer schools. But my father has done a great many more.

So on 19th August me, my brother, my dad and many summer school attendees heard the premiere of  Ambleside Air, a new work for bassoon, by Gordon Crosse, commissioned by the Summer School in honour of their archivist, Jeremy Wilson. Bassoonist Sarah Burnett performed it twice, brilliantly. Now my father is learning it himself (having typed the manuscript copy into his computer – “don’t like Sibelius, much prefer music publisher…”)

Great joy all round. So if anyone is trying to think of a good present for a friend or relative, ageing or otherwise, please consider commissioning a piece of music. It doesn’t clutter up the house and it keeps on giving.

*A trog (or troglodyte) was George Malcolm’s nickname for the team of stage managers.


  1. Bassoonist’s son in Dartington Hall Gardens – should tuck his shirt in

  2. What a beautiful post. There is generosity of spirit, warm memories and strong family feeling. And staying power. Who, nowadays, will stay involved with one worthwhile endeavour for sixty years?
    I can only endorse the sentiments about commissioning: Mrs Oz and I did it for the first time last year, in memory of her late parents. It was a wonderful experience which will linger long and has the potential for continuing renewal. To commission a work is a gift appropriate for those who have everything, and those who have nothing; to say nothing of the way in which it rewards the giver.

    • Thank you for your kind words John. For once me and my bro’ get to be proud children. You should see his archive! It’s amazing. I’m going to put up some guest posts from stuff he’s written about the Summer School.

  3. Could we perhaps ‘HAVE a listen’ (as they perpetually say on ABC TV) down here Down Under? Four Winds Festival or Northern Gardens Shindig? Jeremy could bring his picnic chair and we’ll bring the oysters!

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