My family were very keen on Butlins. It provided an all-in-one holiday with in house entertainment, activities, fun, games and a chance for my parents to get rid of us for a while.
I remember our first night in Cliftonville; They had a live dance band. It was led by bandleader Bert Hayes who I’d seen on Crackerjack, my favourite BBC TV show. Seeing musicians playing together on stage seemed so glamourous, so showbusiness. I’m sure this gave me my first ideas of what I’d like to do. That and the fact that they had a talent competition. My father thought it would be a good idea for me to enter. I’d been having piano lessons for a couple of years and had one single party piece called ‘The Boy Scout’s March’ by John Sousa. The fact that I’d never been able to play it all the way through didn’t appear to dilute his enthusiasm and so he put my name down.
The day of the show came and I was introduced jovially by the red coated MC. “I will now play for you: The Boy Scout’s March.” I mumbled into the microphone and started to play. As predicted, I managed to get roughly to bar thirty-five, or where I thought the page turn was and then had a total brain freeze. The eighty-eight notes blurred into a mass of sinister black and white teeth grinning back at me, daring me to continue. Not knowing what else to do, I ran off stage and hid in the wings until it was all over. My younger sister who had also entered dressed in a bathing costume and bedside lampshade with a large number one on her chest came second in the competition making my embarrassment more profound and lack lustre performance all the more pointless.
In another life later, I decided that the only way to make a few shillings was to teach guitar. I wasn’t very good and definitely not terribly patient especially when the kids saw me as a soft touch. But despite the incessant bells denoting the beginning and end of the periods I had some really nice kids to teach. They all wanted to play rock and roll. So, I did a deal with them and said I’d teach them some rock riffs if they learnt a bit of music theory and a few scales. Often this deal worked and the combination of major scales and twelve bar blues was cacophonous yet rewarding.
One day, I had a pupil arrive and he was very upbeat. They were having a competition in the class and he had been asked to play a guitar piece. He asked if I would help him play it better so he could perform it with confidence. I agreed and through the day he would come to the classroom and play through his piece, during each break, lunchtime and the odd five minutes between classes until the time came for him to do his piece. I asked him to let me know. After school I was packing up and I heard the familiar sound of the door opening and someone climbing the stairs. The door flew open and he ran into the room in tears throwing his guitar across the room: “I blew it!” I played it all wrong!”. It took some time to talk him in off the ledge but I told him that no matter how he was feeling right now, this could be one of the most important things to have happened, and certainly not in a bad way. Like me at Butlins and many other times since, to experience utter failure and disappointment are probably the most vital elements of the creative and performing process. Without failure there is no way up again. You need this to know how to improve, change, get better.
You have to know failure as a close friend and adopt him as a life-long companion and try again. fail again. fail better.