American Patrol - Glenn Miller and his Orchestra
A few months earlier I was walking past the recording studio which was part of the Islington Arts and Entertainment Arts Resources section beneath our offices in Essex Road when I overheard Bob, an amateur thespian from Libraries, reciting the poem "For the Fallen" by Laurence Binyon. I was incensed that a so-called actor was reading it so badly and so, after Bob had left, I approached the Arts Resources Manager, Trevor Kates, and told him I could do much better. Trevor told me he was recording the poem for the Bexley Borough VE Day celebrations as they had commissioned us to do technical back-up to their firework show. I was incensed that Trevor, who was supposedly my friend, hadn't called upon my services first, as he knew my pretensions as an actor and - even moreso - a devotee of poetry. He said, "okay you have a go" and after only one read-through I made a recording for him, saying I could even better if he decided to go with me. He looked unimpressed so I thought no more about it, even though I knew I'd done far better than Bob.
Each September, we were in the habit of putting on in Highbury Fields what was at that time one of London's biggest November 5th firework displays. The previous Bonfire Night in 1994, the crowd size was adjudged to be in excess of 40,000, and the local police were getting worried about the safety of the event because the natural exit to the park poured out a single main point at the southern end of Holloway Road opposite Highbury and Islington tube station. The police said that, due to the event's success they might have to up the police presence and charge the borough for their services as they did for football matches at nearby Arsenal, or even prohibit the event from taking place altogether. In response to this we promised to monitor crowd movements at the end of the VE Day firework event on Highbury Fields. I was detailed to film the crowd movement during the event from one of two purpose-built temporary towers strategically placed half way down the fields. There was, much as on Guy Fawkes Night, a large bonfire in the middle of the park, and I was able to catch on film a man breaking the outer security cordon around the fire, sprinting across the "safety zone" and throwing himself into the flames. Our stewards swiftly pulled him out and subdued him before he did himself serious damage. Later, we were incensed to see it reported in the local press that he had been "saved from serious injury by the police" when it was our team who risked their lives to get to the man, who was a divorcee protesting against his lack of access to his children. He was whisked away promptly with most of the crowd not even noticing what had occurred.
The spectacular fireworks display lasted for a full half hour with an especially choreographed soundtrack that included Holst's Jupiter from the planet suite and the "Dam Busters" theme tune. Half way through I got a radio message to move to the tube entrance so as to film the crowds as they left when the show finished. I climbed down from my tower and began making my way back through the crowd, often having to push through them as they were facing the other way and looking up, watching the fireworks. The finale was an amazing shimmering series of silent gold and light flare-type incendiaries that lit the whole sky and in a glistening silence I suddenly heard my voice like something out of a dream, reading the poem. I had no idea that they were going to broadcast the poem at Highbury Fields, let alone that they would use my reading. Trevor hadn't said a word to me about it. It's worth mentioning that my voice, especially when recorded, even now resembles that of a young man, and as I intoned Binyon's
"They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them...."
I sounded like the disembodied ghost of a young soldier. I could see all the faces of the crowd looking up, most of them visibly moved, many with tears running down their cheeks. But I, with my bulky video camera and tripod over my shoulder, had to push my way through them to get to my new post in time for the exit. A lot of people were angry with me for spoiling the climax of the evening. One man actually called me a Philistine and snapped: "How can you possibly ruin such a beautiful moment?" I tried to tell him that it was me he was listening to, but that right now I had a job to do. He looked at me as though I had just defecated on his wedding cake so I switched to a lame apology and pursued my weary way through yet further abuse and with a confusion of mixed feelings.
The police didn't like our crowd management and we had to switch Bonfire Night to Finsbury Park, actually in Haringey, not Islington, which was the beginning of the end for the event. It was cut three years later. After that night, having experienced first hand the effect of my oration on the assembled masses, I thought of trying to pursue a career in tv advert voiceovers, but never got round to it; let's face it, arts development and community arts is not only more fun, it's more worthwhile as well.
For many British as well as Americans, the sound of Glenn Miller was the sound of the Second World War. While he was phenomenally successful from 1938 on, his recordings selling like hot crumpet on both sides of the Atlantic, he became the toast of the American war effort when, having tried to enlist in the navy and been turned down on account of his age, he made himself available to help the war effort as a musician. Based in London he performed concerts and recorded with the American Air Force Band, as well as making radio broadcasts to raise morale. He even made some broadcasts that were beamed at Germany, in German, as anti Nazi propaganda. In his book "Different Drummers: Jazz Culture of Nazi Germany" Michael Kater quotes Miller, translated back into English, from one of these broadcasts as follows:
"America means freedom, and there's no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music."