A Telegram

Monday, 7 November 2016

John Amis was the first administrator at the Summer School, working alongside William Glock from 1948 through until 1982. He died in August 2013 at the age of 91. When I heard the news I got in contact with the love of his late life, Isla Baring, and she invited me to visit her at John’s flat in Eccleston Square in London’s Belgravia. The flat is on the very top floor, almost in the eaves of the once-was-grand mansion, a bachelor’s pad full of fascinating clutter from a life in music.

Isla welcomed me in. “Help yourself. Take your time.” She looked a little ragged, still raw with grief but also eaten up with feelings of responsibility for John’s estate, a precious treasury of ephemera with little or no monetary value. Where would it all go? Who would have the piano (a baby grand, famously winched up the outside of the building when he moved to the top floor)? Who would be interested in a sound library of 45s, 33s and reel-to-reels? Or the foxed piles of sheet music, crumbling at the edges like toasted wafers?

Isla and I wandered through the tiny warren, with me decoding some of the pictures from John’s life-before-Isla. A painting by James Kelso of one of the iron lampstands in the Great Hall; a pen-and-ink sketch by Milein Cosman; a picture of my mother, with her hair in a beehive. Shivers down the spine.

I was there for several hours. It was a rummaging, not a fastidious inspection. That would have to be later. Instead, I opened drawers and leafed through books, feeling faintly naughty as I poked around. Many of the photos I’d already seen: John had worked with the archivist, Jeremy Wilson, to fill in gaps. This telegram, however, was a new discovery.


It reads “Enesco regret heart attack will try to fill booking Dartington medical decision next week Valma Letav”.

It’s dated 25 July. I can’t see a year but it must be 1953 or 1954, because the Summer School only moved to Dartington in ’53 and Enescu died in May ’55. He was, indeed, already frail when he first visited the Summer School in 1949, in its first home at Bryanston, with an intermittent hearing problem. He gave his official farewell concert in New York in January, 1950, but John Amis remembers another performance at Bryanston that summer.

"We did not want to insult the Maitre by not asking him to play at all, so we asked him to play just one item. He chose Bach’s C major Sonata and he played it like a god. The distortions in his hearing and his head were absent. It was a performance that none of us have forgotten, something that happens once in a lifetime, noble, monumental and perfectly articulated. We cheered and cheered until, backstage, he asked, whould he play a little encore. So he went back and played the Chaconne. And it was as wonderful as the Sonata until about halfway through, when the distortion and distonation of the previous year returned and the Chaconne disintegrated, the mirror cracked, heaven became hell."

O the fragility of perfection.

I stood with the telegram in my hands, hardly believing that I was holding this random piece of communication which, somehow, John Amis had decided to keep, to throw in the back of a drawer somewhere. The past was reaching out to grab me with an unexpected acuity.

There wasn’t time to look through everything. Isla insisted I take the photo of my mother, and one of my father, looking impossibly young, standing at a tennis net, alongside a girl -- not my mother -- then, to her left Peter Pears and John. I also took away my own mental snapshots of the narrow corridor and poky rooms, images to try and reconcile with vague memories from my childhood.

Isla tried to keep John’s flat for as long as she could. He was a protected tenant under Westminster Council, but the tenancy died, of course, with him. Thankfully, before the removalists came in, she negotiated with John’s alma mater, Dulwich College, to take his archive. They plan to create a John Amis room, complete with his piano and library.

This post is a tribute to John Amis, and also to Isla Baring, who has made such a wonderful contribution to this project via the Tait Memorial Trust.





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