In this small black and white photo with badly-thumbed, torn and faded edges, we see again a boys’ army marching the street. The heavens once azure blue above them are now remembered as light grey, and the forgotten royal blue of the uniform has become as if it was in the beginning, bought, handed down, and thread-worn in grey. The uncolourful street was built in a pre-technicolor austerity and post-war humility. It stunted the growth of homes for heroes, to a new low of eight-foot ceilings in humble homes for short heroes. The picture’s sombre faces are fixed uniformly forward, either undistracted, or ignoring us along with any other startled onlookers. But the raucuous moment is richly captured; a picture of a civic display of military pride making the street a special place to stand, as drum shots and bugle calls ricochet off the pebble-dash and mock Tudor eaves of Greenford.
These boys are not having fun. These boys have work to do, and they’re doing it in synchronised precision. United in step, united in key (bugles can only play one key) and united in spirit, for their uniform is the blue and brass of the Boys Brigade. This is the band of the “9th Ealing”, and at the centre of the marchers, that’s me aged 16, wearing the leather apron under the 26″ bass drum, pounding out the four steps to a bar that everybody else is counting on, metaphorically and metronomically.
These performances were not always executed with military precision. Disorder could creep in through error, or worse. The mace bearer who precedes this phalanx of blue wears a fashionably long sweep of blonde hair and an additional sash of honour. He is the herald of pedestrian thunder, the bringer of tinnitus to your neighbourhood. He is Mr. Maylor, famous for hurling the beautiful silver-topped polished ebony mace skywards a full six paces before snaring the plummeting treasure in a white gloved trap without ever glancing up from the road ahead. He is notorious also, for having once fired the ornate missile ground-to-air before fully emerging from under a low bridge; the consequences being catastrophic, life threatening, and highly unmusical.
But even without accidental error, the most disciplined, well-trained, synchronised, and well-ordered collection of men might include in their ranks or files, a rebel, a destroyer, an ‘individual’. The individual in this case is the young man in the centre, third rank. He’s wearing the bass drum. I was that man, even though I had a distaste for drums and bugles. I wanted to be Eric Clapton in ‘Cream’, not a private in some junior territorial army. The Boys Brigade did offer football. And there we draw our final blank. I had a distaste for football too. But a man cannot be alone. He needs the pack; his mates, and we take them where we find them. Two drummers missing from this front rank were my mates. Colin and Ian played drums and bass in my first rock band.
In retrospect I cannot explain how I came to join the Boys Brigade. I did not like uniform and I did not like authority. If that can be justified for any reason, I had one in particular. I was subjected to corporal punishment at school. Made to bend over for a caning on the rump, in a scene too like The Beano to be taken seriously, except the sting of reality robbed me of the comedy. I followed the portly general’s black robe as it swept the varnished parquet through the hallowed halls of St.Clement Dane’s Grammar School to his faux-regency office. A squad of canes stood at attention in the corner, poised for duty. This man had decommissioned John Lennon in a former posting and more recently from this school, Andy Fraser, my favourite bass player, both for disobedience. My new connection with these heroes was also lost in the heat, the shock, the surprise of my loss, as my affiliation to the establishment was drained in the rush of blood to my face from my heart. Four years earlier I had emerged with pride and parents from that same office following a successful exam and interview, newly commissioned for a select education. But now I emerged alone and in the uniform of my enemy.
But among the 9th Ealing Boys Brigade, I was the grammar school boy. I turned down a scholarship to Harrow on the Hill, and now I was studying modern maths and reading the odd revolutionary magazine like International Times and Rolling Stone. So I took the only instrument that makes you an individual, an outsider. Nobody else played the bass drum; I was the one and only. Furthermore, when the bugles stop playing they have to count through 32 bars while the drums do their paradiddles and rolls together. The easy way is to count the bass drum hits, which occur exactly four times in every bar. Usually.
But I would miss beats out, or play “syncopated”, in a “between-the-beats” style. The bugles complained. Not having my advanced education, they found it hard to count to 32, or at least, they found it hard while I was trying to sound like Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton’s drummer in Cream. As the elitist commander of my personal revolutionary campaign for independence, I ignored the complaining troops. I placed no value in conformity, and I had privileged knowledge of the sacred secrets of imaginary and transcendental numbers, so I was a reluctant reinforcement to these young men beaten in their battle to count a few mere integers. I was so rebellious, so artistic, so committed. And so selfish. But looking at the picture now, I don’t see any of that. I see an array of boys marching in uniform. Belonging. And now I wonder if the others remember me that way.