Thurifer takes the air


In the depths of winter, some look forward to summer sun. Refreshment and reinvigoration were part of the attraction of Spa towns where many would flock ‘to take the waters.’ If that attracts you, why not try the healing springs of Bagnères-de-Bigorre? 


The saline sources… suit exhausted temperaments, nervous women suffering from tree-sickness or worn out by the excitement of fashionable life. This spot invites delicate or languid constitutions, or such as have been unduly stimulated by moral impressions or excesses of the nervous system. Everything here tends to rest these worn-out organisations, to calm nervous agitation, to refresh mind and body, and even to console the heart when it is inaccessible to the gentle beauties of nature. The graduated use of these unctuous, tonic, and slightly stimulating waters dissipates vapours, drives away spleen, this cruel disorder of the soul, by re-invigorating the digestive powers and bracing up the bowls.

If that is for you, if that entices, book now. To avoid disappointment you might bear in mind that this attractive description was written in 1872.


‘Kind of,’ ‘Sort of,’ ‘Kinda,’ Sorta,’ have entered my lexicon of infuriating linguistic and conversational tropes. I can understand if someone is groping for a suitable metaphor that is just out of reach and uses such phrases to indicate that process. But as persistent and irrelevant verbal tics in any discourse, they are irritating and, what is more important, distracting from what the speaker has to say. 


Parks in London are known as the ‘lungs’ of the city. However, there is one park in central London that I have been unable to visit. It is Coram Fields in Bloomsbury where admittance for adults is only possible if accompanied by a child. Here was the site of the Foundling Hospital founded by Thomas Coram. His date of birth is uncertain but thought to be in 1668. He died in 1751. Born in Lyme Regis of a seafaring family, he was sent to sea at the age of eleven. For ten years he settled in Massachusetts. He returned to London in 1704 and set up business importing tar under an Act of Parliament. He continued to go to sea, commanding merchant ships. He gained a reputation for philanthropy and was particularly moved by the sight of infants dying in the street from malnutrition, among other diseases. He obtained a charter in 1739 to found a Hospital for such foundlings. The foundation stone was laid in 1742. Despite his philanthropic instincts he seems to have been a rebarbative and disputatious figure, highly critical of the running of the Hospital, so much so that he was not re-elected to the Governing Body and took no part in its running thereafter. He was buried in the Hospital’s Chapel but when the Hospital was transferred to Berkhamstead in 1935, his body was transferred to a specially designed crypt. When, in 1955, that building was sold and Coram’s earthly remains were interred in St Andrew’s, Holborn (now the Episcopal Seat of the Bishop of Fulham). The Hospital attracted many distinguished supporters (William Hogarth was a Governor) and Handel gave performances of Messiah in the Chapel to benefit the Hospital. But if you wish to see the Fields and enjoy their facilities, take a child. It will be, I suspect, well worth the effort.


Messiah was the first classical concert I attended. Taken by my grandfather. I must have been 11 or 12 and I can remember standing for the Hallelujah Chorus but the only other recollection is of the bass, Owen Brannigan, singing ‘And the trumpet shall sound.’ Brannigan had a distinguished career in oratorio and and opera. He was Noah in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde. However, I have a less elevated and highbrow memory of him. He starred in an advertisement on the Tyne Tees Television channel for the signature brew Newcastle Brown Ale. Such is the power of advertising, I can still recall it, to the tune of Cushie Butterfield: 


If you want a beer that’s perfection indeed, / I’ll give you a guide to fulfilling your need, / At home by the fireside, in club or in bar, / The sign of good taste is the famous Blue Star. / It’s a strong beer, it’s a bottled beer, with the north’s biggest sale, / For complete satisfaction, Newcastle Brown Ale.

Such is the limitation of advertising, I have never tasted it.


Brannigan also participated in one of the best of musical jokes. Gerard Hoffnung, one of the most amusing men of his generation, many will know of his speech to the Oxford Union, arranged a concert which had a series of items of which Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture scored for orchestra and vacuum cleaners, dedicated to President Hoover is typical. The concert was prefaced by the Managing Director of the Royal Festival Hall coming onto the stage, to the groans of the audience expecting some change of programme or absence of an advertised performer. He said, ‘The London County Council very much regrets that this evening’s concert will be given exactly as advertised.’ Later, it was announced that William Walton would conduct an extract from his oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Walton and Brannigan (as the soloist) walked onto the stage, bowed. Walton raised his baton, the chorus shouted, ‘Slain.’ Walton put down his baton. He and Brannigan bowed and left the stage.