Magazine article The Spectator

Batting on a Crumbling Wicket

Magazine article The Spectator

Batting on a Crumbling Wicket

Article excerpt


by John Drummond

Faber, L25, pp. 478

Unlike most public figures John Drummond speaks his mind. Indeed he is proud to agree with his friend David Attenborough that he has `an unlimited capacity for indignation'. This indignation is the entertaining devil in what can be the excessive detail of this autobiography. He also speaks with the authority of a former head of the Edinburgh Festival, Radio 3 and the Proms, surely a unique hat-trick.

The tone is affirmative and he has shared many artistic triumphs and revelations, especially through working with musicians, but it is the struggle which impresses. If you want to know what a snake-pit the world of administration can be; how egotistical politicians are; how mean the rich; how lazy critics; how conceited artists; how far the Arts Council and the BBC have declined from the high ideals in which they were conceived; in short, to what a depressing extent we are indifferent to art in this country, especially the art of our own time -. read this book.

After the vivid opening chapters about his formative years as an only child, the door is closed on his private life. This lends a certain hollowness, even darkness, to the tale. Drummond is an animator, a man who wants things to happen, and is accordingly rarely off duty. He has reaped the public rewards of bachelorhood, networking in the precious after-hours when the more domestic put their feet up; but there is something sad, even chilling, in his valediction: `Now, at sixty, I might have a chance to explore whether I was a person in my own right...'

His mother was pretty, vivacious, stoical liberal, a lover of all the arts, a talented musician and Australian, without racial prejudice except towards patronising English. She would, in the phrase of his Scottish father's great-aunt Margaret, who thought art the work of the Devil, `always be an incomer for us'. His father was tonedeaf, conservative and imperialist in his racial views, strong, confident and outgoing; but 'a darker side was reserved for the family'. He was in the merchant navy, bringing his service to a successful conclusion as a captain of liners.

His mother sacrificed her own career as a musician for marriage, much of it spent scraping to provide the best possible education for her adored and musical son, while his father was rarely at home until disgruntled retirement. Young John went `willingly to school' - first Canford then Trinity, Cambridge, a star pupil and scholarship boy but a disappointment to his father who would have preferred a more laddish son. Although taking a starred first in one of his Tripos subjects and destined always to be ,at heart a performer', he early recognised that by temperament and imagination he would never be a scholar or an artist. Instead he would play the lesser part of fostering and spreading the arts. Much of his intellectual stimulation as a boy came from listening to the Third Programme. At 18, when asked what he wanted to do with his life, he said to run the Edinburgh Festival, the Third Programme and the Proms.

There was a rider to this. Before they married his parents were told by separate fortune-tellers that they would have one son called John, who would eventually be knighted. In 1995 that prediction also came true when, after a `restless afternoon' in a hotel room, Drummond received confirmation of his 'K' for `services to music'. …

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