Monday, 5 March 2012

Departed Heroes

"I don't suppose he's is expecting you?!" quipped the cemetery attendant, as he helped me locate plot 'A3/51'.

Quietly reposing by a couple of trees, towards the top left-hand corner of Pinner New Cemetery, sure enough, we found a grubby, somewhat weatherbeaten plot, where lies the earthly remains of (Colonel) Bramwell Coles.

In one of those chance conversations, it transpired that the groundsman had Army ancestors, and I explained to him that this chap was arguably the most famous of his 'residents' (and not Screaming Lord Sutch, who is a neighbour 100 or so yards away), to whom the equally great Erik Leidzen wrote:
"Dear Bram,
...I cheerfully stake both my American citizenship and my professional reputation on the truth that Sousa never wrote anything so sparklingly melodious, so thrillingly soul-stirring, as the marches which flowed from your pen, or rather your keen mind and heart. You yourself, in spite of gentlemanly modesty and true Christian humility, must now be aware of this. Moreover, should you run into dear old John Philip on one of the golden streets, he too - in the all-revealing light of eternity - will corroborate my statement, and in his gentle way, join in my little chuckle..."
There are other 'non-martial' Coles masterpieces to which I suggest you listen - 'The Divine Pursuit' (listened to in conjunction with the poetry upon which it is based) is a favourite of mine.

Clearly in possession of a history he had never known of until today, my companion left me alone, and, having taken a few pictures, I put my bike down, sat down on the grass, propped my iPhone up against the marble and put on probably his finest composition in the genre for which he became most famous.

Lt. Col. Norman Bearcroft wrote of his disappointment that there was no band on duty on that Friday in August 1960 when the 'Army march king' was bidden, as the marble records, 'Go forth, Victor Acclaimed!' by his peers, in what must have been a remarkable gathering in the Army hall I pass every week. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the enduring appeal of his work, fifty two years on as I tried to picture the scene, I was able not only to listen to my Grandad's favourite march, but to listen to our corps band's rendition of it from yesterday afternoon, with your Dad giving it big licks on BBb Bass...

I offered a silent prayer of thanks for the life and work of two of my 'Departed Heroes', before removing the weeds from the Colonel's memorial, scraping the mud from my cleats, and riding home.

Remember the other week, I was talking about how my favourite march, Leidzen's 'Steadily onward', is made up of tunes to which I know no words? Well, I have to admit, that was the case with 'In the Firing Line' as well. W.L. Court's biography of Coles, of the same title, references the source of one of the tunes, and another as a musical quotation written by the composer himself, but alas, I could find no trace of either in old song and chorus books in my library.

Sure enough, though, with the kind assistance of a friend at THQ, I have settled at least part of the mystery.

Even when 'In the Firing Line' was first published (General Series 935) in 1925, the tune from the bass solo was nearly twenty years old. I have no idea how well known it was at that time, but Coles was clearly following a definite theme with the words of the song whose chorus he chose for that wonderful 'dogfight' section.
"We are forced to endless strife for our goal, eternal life,
And our foes would overcome us were we left to fight alone,
But our succour is at hand, pow'r against all sin to stand,
While we rest upon the might that guided David's sling and stone;
Tho' our enemies disdain, tho' some falt'ring ones are slain,
And the battle rages hotter if we forward cease to move;
We're discouraged, not cast down, vict'ry brings a victor's crown,
So we'll rally round our banner with the motto "Love".

Fighting for God, shall we waver?
Victory's sure through our Saviour;
In life, in death,
His foes are ours for ever!

We endure without complaints; we were sinners, now we're saints,
All our fighting is with purpose where we used to beat the air;
Soldiers we are under arms, war replaces worldly charms,
Having weapons forged in Heaven, sure, to strike for right we'll dare.
Comrades brave and comrades true, faith will weakened strength renew,
And the mastery is certain though its coming seems so long;
An unfailing captain leads, glorious hopes bring glorious deeds,
So we're marching always upward, banded 'gainst the wrong."
Not exactly a difficult chorus to remember, then, and just as relevant today as it ever was. Perhaps, then, rather than writing off old Army marches as no longer relevant on account of the disuse of the tunes from which they were formed, we should aim to rediscover, and resolve, the challenges our composers left us - not just the 'dots', but the messages behind their music.

In this case, that gift, which Bramwell Coles chose and prepared, was wrapped and given to me by my Grandad to be opened by me today. In the same way, I pray that discovering something I pass on to you might one day give you similar pleasure and encouragement.

Love from Daddy.

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