Tom Sutcliffe looks back on his musical beginnings

When I attended the voice trials in the song school at Chichester Cathedral in January or February 1952 I did not do much preparation. I had never sung in a choir, but my mother turned out to be able to play our next-door neighbour’s old piano at Emsworth well enough to help me learn the tune of ‘There is a green hill far away’. I think I had to read a bit of the Bible at sight, which was no problem for me, and there were some sound tests: singing the middle or top note in a chord which was being held down. Unlike these days, there were really quite a lot of boys going in for the opportunity. I don’t remember if I was surprised to be given a place. I started in May, just before I turned nine.

Being musical, which I suppose was what it was all about, was not something I ever thought about; it was just there – like some other boys could play football well, as I found when I was a bit older and had to do compulsory sport for years and years without ever really liking it. At Chichester I soon settled into the working routine we choirboys had to follow, including spending quite a few extra weeks at school keeping up the sung services at the cathedral. It was all bonus being in a cathedral choir, with no downside. Having to work made one better at doing work. Practice makes one able to learn to learn. Being different, because of what was expected of one in competence and imagination, opened one up to seeing all sorts of things in a different way. And it was, of course, a quite special sort of community which one was a part of, away from one’s family, though I enjoyed a very happy family, with my father usually away at sea and two active and determined grandmothers whom I saw all the time. Old ladies living in nearby houses and flats were my greatest resource. My sister was away boarding at the Royal Naval School, Haslemere.

My first real memories are from summer 1946 when my mother, my sister Jane and I went for three months to Denmark, where our father was engaged in mine-sweeping in the Baltic. I remember him coming back from winning a delightful little furry toy monkey at the Tivoli. I had a bear which I called Shoobear, though the name Schubert meant nothing to me, which somehow got lost during all those packings-up and journeys, much to my grief. I loved Southsea and Portsmouth, especially after I learnt to ride a bike when I was 5 and basically could go anywhere I wanted. I rode a bike to the little school I went to in Marmion Road, run by a lovely elderly lady called Miss Merrill, who had a sister with whom she lived in a basement flat nearer the Ladies’ Mile. On one occasion when I was riding home and nearing the Kings Theatre stage door, the handlebars came off in my hands, and of course both I and the bike fell over into the gutter.

I did not like leaving Portsmouth to go and live on the edge of fields in Sussex. It meant giving up my ballet class when I was getting somewhere. It meant no theatre down the road, and no beaches, stony or sandy. A child’s freedom and innocence and interest are irreplaceable. From when I was 4 there had been a succession of work-permit girls living in a little bedroom next to the kitchen in our flat, helping Mum. The first, Lydie Ehretsmann from Thann in Alsace, spoke no English when she arrived, aged 17. My parents kept up with all of them, and Lydie told me on one of my many visits to her in retirement from being infirmière at the Hôtel Georges V in Paris that she had come to England because she was so furious at having to take her Baccalauréat in French after years of being taught in German during the Nazi occupation: it seemed so unjust to her. She wanted to be a doctor but ended up as a nurse because of that. The other girls were all from Burgdorf in Switzerland and had all been at the same girls’ school there. The last, Martha Brechbühl, turned 90 on March 3. Her father had been caretaker of the school and the whole family (eight children) had lived in the basement of the school, and slept in the attic together in the 1930s. There was an outside loo and a bath in the kitchen.

Martha was in the Salvation Army and never married. She worked in Burgdorf as PA to the man who ran the forests of the Bern canton. My younger brother Francis was her baby whom she took on the back of her bike to the Salvation Army meeting over in Westbourne, after we moved to Emsworth. There were 25 relatives at the lunch celebrating her 90th birthday, many nieces and nephews, and Francis’s and my attendance was kept secret. I had reconnected with Martha in 1991 when I was researching my opera book, which involved an interview in Basel with a wonderful opera director called Herbert Wernicke. She has been to many operas in Bern with me. She has told me on more than one occasion that the 18 months she spent with my family were the happiest time of her life. That seems incredible to me. But Martha, like Susy and Dora and Lydie, were crucial figures in my childhood. I used to dream about having two mothers. I never felt insecure or depressed for long in my life. A world where women must do a job for a family to survive financially is not a world made for children.