Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Gay Gordons send Dance Society reeling

I have nine siblings, all musical in their way. The seventh child, Peter, a baritone, knows that the fifth child, Judy, a dancer, is not the sort to organise anything for her own fiftieth birthday, so he plans a surprise party. He books a church hall and a three-piece Scottish dance band and arranges for his sister to be fetched thither by friends. She thinks she is going to a quiet meal, but when she arrives, sixty people are seated. She is duly startled. The caller announces that the ball will begin with a demonstration dance by a professional troupe. It is made up of seven of Judy’s siblings and one sibling-in-law. We emerge from the kitchen in kilts and sashes and parade round the floor like horses before the Epsom Derby. Professional troupe indeed. Judy nearly faints with shock.

We travel hundreds of miles from all directions for the event. The eighth child Matthew flies down from Edinburgh. We rehearse West’s Hornpipe in the afternoon until we think we have eradicated all danger of collision. The figures-of-eight are tricky. So is remembering not to slip into a reverie and losing one’s place in the intricate weave. The instructor says we should keep our eyes on our partners as we bow, because looking at the floor is what amateurs do, and we should stop counting the bars as we dance, as nothing could be more unprofessional. She is a tough instructor, but it is satisfying to arrive back where we started on cue with the final chord and cadence.

There is no Scottish blood in the family. The kilts are borrowed. Yet a passion for Scottish dance was harboured by our parents who weekly watched The White Heather Club on a black-and-white telly and suffered us to play records by Jimmy Shand and his Band at all children’s parties. Also Granny had married a Scotsman called Duncan after burying two previous husbands. I ask if he were a dancer. ‘A drinker,’ say my parents in unison. He died in the fifties. Granny never had much luck with spouses. The first one died in the Great War, the second on an operating table in 1937. In honour of her we appear as the Marjorie Duncan Dancers.

Mother and Father had seven sons but only three daughters which is not enough for a troupe, so her ninth child Timothy, a singer and dancer, doubles as a girl. See illustration above. He partners Peter, the instigator of the event. The sixth offspring, Patrick, a trombonist, has sciatica and cannot leap about, but joins us for the singing. The tenth child and seventh son Gareth, a bass, cries off because his wife is adding to the clan. He already has two daughters so he will have to get moving if we are to discover if there is anything special about the seventh son of a seventh son.

After the Marjorie Duncan Dancers have made their triumphant debut, the members find themselves in demand as partners in a long programme of reels and flings. They also perform the evening’s cabaret and gather round the piano with the fourth child Bill, at the keys while the official paid band has its supper. We sing Burns songs like our father, a tenor, used to. He is proud of having once sung in a choir with the late Kenneth McKellar, a famous concert artist who embraced TV and lost out to the opera houses. They were interested only in serious singers in the days before crossover. The Burns lyrics fir the melodies like a glove and a stillness descends on the hall. Judy seems to be glowing. We also dust off our arrangements of light jazz classics such as Nagasaki, which on close examination seems full of euphemisms for geisha practices, and The Jones Boy, a recording of which once won us the title of BBC Radio Two’s Most Musical Family in Britain. 


Encouraged by the party, I invite myself to sing with the Southwark Girls Choir at the Book of Common Prayer service. The choirmaster Mr Disley is happy to have me and only once has to pick up the altos (of which I am one) for flatness. The offertory anthem is Parry’s ‘Blest pair of Sirens’, a setting of Milton’s youthful ode At a Solemn Music and another paean to the coupling of words and music or as he puts it Voice and Verse. The poet seems to think we were much better in tune in the period of innocence before The Fall, when ‘sin jarred against Nature’s chime’. He looks forward to a resumption of in-tune-ness in heaven, but he didn’t know about the the recording industry and professional singing groups like Polyphony whose excellent re-release of part works by Percy Grainger I shall review here when I get the chance.


A morning train is late. Impatient boys from Chis and Sids Grammar School start beating each other with rolled up copies of the Metro which they have finished reading. The station announcer at Hither Green Station shows his annoyance and after apologising for the delay continues, ‘…. and stop messing round with those papers! Be’ave yourselves!’ which makes the grown up passengers laugh and the larking cease immediately.