22 March 1958: Barbara Castle, Father Hooper and justice in South Africa

From our correspondence.

22 March 1958

Sir, - Among the many letters I have received arising out of my recent articles on South Africa there is one from Father Hooper, which I feel I must share with your readers. Father Hooper is the Anglican priest and missionary at Zeerust, in the North-West Transvaal, near the borders of Bechuanaland. I have already described in a New Statesman article the fearless way in which he has identified himself with the resistance of the local African people to the government’s attempt to impose passes on the women. Now he writes:

Things are very dire here: much more so than at the time of your visit. In reply to your request for news I shall outline one or two salient matters:

1. On the Friday of the week after you were here (24 January) four people were shot dead and several wounded in Gopane, 35 miles from Zeerust. The wounded who could run did so; some have not been seen since. Those who could not run were taken into custody and kept under guard in the Zeerust hospital. The official version is that the police were attacked. The unofficial version differs from the official version – diametrically. Among the four dead were a youngster and the village simpleton. At the time of the shooting the police are said to have been assaulting an old man – his youngest son ran, and bystanders and this son were shot. None of the bodies fell nearer than 75 yards from the scene of police action. Quite a civilising mission, really. Sten guns; and a lot of pieces of person on the grass. We had been expecting this for months.

2. Three to five thousand refugees have left the area for Bechuanaland – figures are uncertain. They are being well looked after there. I was told in Lobatsi that they are scattered from the border to the Kalahari, and from Mafeking to Serowe. A similar number have left for Johannesburg, many passing through this rectory. One woman had a miscarriage here at the rectory.

3. Police and pro-government chief action continue to be less than benign. A large number of illegal fines have been levied, and the people are in a terrible condition – their cattle having been seized in most instances. As a direct result of police action we face a major famine – no ploughing, or no weeding of crops means that this year this district is going to produce almost nothing. This will doubtless be represented as a visitation from the White Man’s God. For this reason, and because now we can no longer afford legal defence (in one instance 80 people are facing a charge of murder for the death of one man) we desperately need money. Can you help?

4. Banishment of local people to Natal has begun.

5. Last Friday the government (i.e., Vermoerd) made it illegal for anybody to enter these reserves without a permit from the Native Commissioner – penalty three years or £300. This means (a) refugees cannot return if they wish to; (b) nobody has access to observe what is going on behind our local iron curtain; (c) exempted people such as myself can be banned from entering – I have no received notice of such banning – yet; (d) husbands from the towns can no longer visit their wives or children. Further any statement, verbal or written, which is “likely to subvert the authority of the state, chief or headman”, carries a penalty of £300 or three years. Most of the people are of course ignorant of this proclamation.

6. Our own position is more or less impossible. When I go to visit church members in the reserves, police vans (riot cars) accompany me. Nobody wants to see his priest in such company.

7. In spite of all this, three villages have again refused to take reference books for their women. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they are both courageous and stubborn. They say: “The elephant is now stamping us into the ground”. And then they get up and defy the elephant all over again. In the end the elephant will have to depart or tire, and then we may expect all hell to break loose. Guns just can’t subdue the spirit; or not for long.

Father Hooper has risked a great deal to make these evils known. In this he is typical of many brave spirits in South Africa. In return we owe them our support – moral, political and – above all in the immediate future – financial.

Barbara Castle
House of Commons

Barbara Castle in 1974. Photo: Getty Images.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser