Hospitals, hips & funeral marches: Britten’s Old Abram Brown
The sound of a boys choir – individual voices straining earnestly for the top notes – lingers in the corridors of the West Suffolk hospital. Rubber-clad feet squeak on the polished floor. The smell of medical-grade disinfectant blurs the line between life and death. This is not where I want to be.
“Stay in the house,” she said without a hint of what I might find in the back garden. “Stay in the house and keep an eye out for the ambulance.” The thin pane of frosted glass rattled in its inadequate frame as she slammed the back door behind her. Silence.
I’d only ever seen an ambulance on television, a window on a 2D world. Shaky cameras held by panicked cameramen followed emergency vehicles careering up the streets of Belfast on the evening news each night.
Closer to home, similarly precarious-looking white boxes on wheels occupied the shot at the end of the more sedate slow-pan my father used filming the aftermath of a road traffic accident for local TV news.
The ambulance I saw parked up on the pavement at the top of our driveway looked incongruous. Oversized and cumbersome, it was almost as though the vehicle had got itself lost and ended up outside our house, unceremoniously depositing its occupants on the path in contempt for their own incompetence at navigating.
From the lounge I stood and followed the sight of my Mum runing from the end of the garden, past the window at the side of the house and towards the gate at the front of the house. There was a pause before the gate swung open and the green-clad medics skipped through the gap and ran into the garden. I watched them as they passed the front window, then the side window, picking up speed slightly at the back when they’d clocked the subject of the call.
The fact my curiosity had been suppressed was a testament to the way in which my mother had handled the situation, a sign in itself that this was an extraordinary situation. Detail was played out in the silent movie played out through the windows of our lounge. The two medics who had entered our garden with a trolly, now left it considerably more slowly with a mound on top of it covered in a bright red blanket. One held a drip up high, the other pushed the trolly towards the gate. The only person I hadn’t seen in all of this was my father, and the last time I saw him was at breakfast.
The back door slammed shut. The lock turned. “Come on, we’re following your father to the hospital.”
Mum filled me in on what had happened earlier as we drove through the King’s Forest behind the ambulance. The trees had needed trimming. The tops were a little higher than either of them had anticipated. Forgetting he was already at the top of the ladder he was using and she was holding, Dad went to step up on to the next rung, failed to find one and fell to the ground below.
It’s easy to forget what neither of us knew at this stage. Thirty years on, all I can recall we knew then was that he could feel his toes and could even move some of them. At least he wasn’t paralysed.
The wait to learn what the consequences of ‘the accident’ was lengthy. Three hours in the West Suffolk Hospital’s accident and emergency unit watching people come and go. The winter sun began to diminish, night time was approaching. I was incredibly bored and hugely impatient for something to actually happen.
My sister arrived at the hospital some time during the afternoon, alerted by a call to her boyfriend’s house. She later sat with us while we all waited first for Mum to be called in to see Dad and the medical staff. We watched as she was invited to pass through a doorway in front of us through to a whole other world hidden behind a partition wall, imagination making up for what we couldn’t see.
Even though the memory of the day fades, there is one irrepressible recollection: shortly after my mother emerged from the partition wall, clearly shaken, it appeared the next most important thing which needed to happen was for my sister to take me to school for an evening concert I was participating in. Whatever had happened, whatever news she had been given, even then she was desperate to maintain an air of normalcy to proceedings.
I recall nothing of the concert other than the work of my imagination running in overdrive and in parallel as I sang in the school ‘Junior Choir’ – one of many ‘acts’ billed for the Easter Term concert that night. The choir was to sing three songs it had been rehearsing hard ahead of the inaugural Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition our choirmaster was keen for us to compete in.
The first, a jaunty little number bound to please the parents in attendance was Daddy Long Legs, one of a collection of Captain Beaky songs written by Jeremy Lloyd and broadcast on BBC Television a few years before. I had the tape of both volumes, every song an absolute corker and – unusually – hugely satisfying to sing as a group, even now.
The second was the twee Slovakian folk song Stodola Pumpa, a number as distinctly unsatisfying to sing as it was guaranteed to provoke the laughs of contemporaries who reckoned the choir was something of a justification to ridicule its members.
But it was the third and final song which was to provide my lifelong soundtrack for what I only appreciate now was an incredibly traumatic day for our family.
Old Abram Brown, one of a collection of songs entitled Songs from ‘Friday Afternoons’ written by Benjamin Britten between 1933 and 1935, written for the boys choir of Clive House School, Prestatyn in North Wales, where his brother Robert Britten was headmaster.
Old Abram Brown is the last in the eleven-strong collection. It’s a chilling affair and typically Britten. A simple melody set to the words “Old Abram Brown is dead and gone, you’ll never see him more. He used to wear a long brown coat that buttoned down before” is repeated first in unison, next in a two-part canon and then finally in a four-part before returning to an adapted two-part at the climactic end. The three minute song finishes with a hauntingly quiet coda that leaves memories of the horrific dissonances created by the previous canons and Britten’s increasingly contorted piano accompaniment.
Visually, it’s a deceptive looking thing. Even with a basic understanding of music, anyone can see that the music on the paper doesn’t look complicated. Yet, the cumulative effective of Britten’s piano accompaniment throughout the song put this on a par with “Goodnight” from the end of act one of Lucretia. When Britten manipulates a simple idea as he does in both of these examples, the effects can be devastating. Old Abram Brown still has the power to reduce me to tears.
“Your father has to have an operation,” said my Mum as she hurried me over to the school park after the concert, “you can see him tomorrow after school.”
Where my mother had managed to suppress my curiosity before with an urgent yet calm tone to her voice, now a whole days worth of questions needed answering. What were the surgeons doing? What was a surgeon? Were they really going to cut my Dad open? How can they fix a hip if its shattered into pieces? Are they really going to put a big piece of metal in his body? Really? How do they put him to sleep? Isn’t that what vets do to animals?
It was cold and dark. Old Abram Brown hung around. Back through the King’s Forest, we were going home to a house missing a family member. A part-cooked Sunday lunch had gone cold in the oven. None of us knew how things were going to be from now on. Everything had suddenly and irretrievably gone weird. Our daily routine was to be radically changed. Two daily visits for a period of three months after which Dad would be discharged and driven back home where he would spend a further three months recuperating and valiantly rebuilding his life.
But before that – before the agonising sight of him home, sat in the armchair after his long spell away and all of us crouched crying with relief he was ‘out of the woods’ – were the daily walks to the ward at the West Suffolk Hospital. The endless corridors of polished floors.
The walk past the operating theatre along the way to the ward left an unshakable impression. Shrouded in darkness except for one light shining down on an operating table in the centre of the room, my Dad covered in a gown, vulnerable and alone, in need of help from people promising to do things none of us imagined was even possible. And that smell of disinfectant. A repulsive yet fascinating memory to walk through all at the same time and one now inextricably linked with Britten’s Old Abram Brown.
Back then it didn’t seem like a drama: it felt unusual yes, but everyday. It’s only now as I walk the same corridors, past the same operating theatre to check on his recovery from his hip replacement 30 years later I realise what we all went through and how it shaped our subsequent life experience.
And it’s recalled in an instant, all of it summed up in some of Britten’s most exquisite music, music which demonstrates his trademark style.
Aldeburgh Music is running a nationwide singing project in2013 entitled Friday Afternoons after the collection of songs written by Benjamin Britten. The project culminates on 22 November 2013 as part of the Britten Weekend in Aldeburgh.
You can watch a video contribution from Britten’s nephew, Alan Britten about his recollections of the work, his father and Benjamin Britten on the dedicated Friday Afternoons website where further information about the project and a recording of Old Abram Brown is also available.