A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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12 - A forgotten black composer, the Lancashire Caruso and Freddie Pazzi

Continuing to walk north, on the right side of Plough Lane, a high white metal fence protects a sports ground and a modernistic Scandinavian-style building made of light-coloured wood with a curved roof. A security notice, fixed firmly to a gate in the white ring-fence, announces the London Community Cricket Association. On the left of the road is the older and poorly maintained hut of the 1st North Wallington Scout Group, and the entrance to Bandon Hill Cemetery. The 300 easting cuts right through the cemetery, but, as I can't walk through it (there is only one way in and out), I decide to take a diversionary stroll through it any way. A notice says 'strictly no dogs'; a war memorial tells me that the 'cross of sacrifice' is 'one in design and intention with those which have been set up in France and Belgium and other places around the world where our dead of the great war are laid to rest'; and a lame fox limps along one of the paths, unperturbed by my presence.

Although there was a Roman cemetery on the site, as evidenced by the discovery in the 1970s of cinerary urns from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Bandon Hill Cemetery is only 100 years old. Elizabeth Annie Luck, who died on 7 March 1900, was its first resident. Not many years later, the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died of acute pneumonia aged only 37. Born in Holborn in 1875 to an English mother and a doctor from Sierra Leone (who abandoned mother and child in 1876), he achieved fame when only 22-23 with his composition 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast' based on Longfellow's poem. This music was described by the Royal College of Music as 'one of the most remarkable events in English musical history'. At the time, it was said to be as popular as Handel's 'Messiah' and Mendelssohn's 'Elijah'.

But, while Coleridge-Taylor has been largely forgotten as a composer, he is still remembered with reverence for his championing of black people and music, and particularly his love of negro folk music. He wrote the songs 'African Romances', the 'African Suite' for piano, and 'Five Choral Ballads', a setting of Longfellow poems on slavery. He went to the United States, where he was lionised, three times, giving workshops and lecturing, and was one of the few black people to be received by President Roosevelt.

Blyden Jackson, an eminent African-American professor of English, said this about Coleridge-Taylor: 'American Negroes who were born in the earlier years of this century grew up in black communities where the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was as well known then as the names Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are now. Gentle as he was in manner, refined as was his calling, he was still a fierce apostle of human liberty and a crusader for the rights of man. He was a parable for the black consciousness of our present time.'

For his monument in Bandon Hill, the poet Alfred Noyes wrote the following:

'Sleep crowned with fame, fearless of change or time
Silent, immortal, while our discords climb
To that great chord which shall resolve the whole
Silent, with Mozart on that solemn shore
Secure where neither waves nor heart can break
Sleep till the Master of the world once more
Touch the remembered strings and bid thee wake
Touch the remembered strings and bid thee wake.'

Underneath, there is a line of music carved into the stone and these words: 'Thus departed Hi-a -wath-a Hi-a-wath-a the be-lov-ed'; and beneath that, in small letters, 'Erected by his wife and other lovers of the man and his music'.

Further back, in the more modern part of the cemetery, in a plot where all the gravestones are simple slabs of stone or marble, and all are placed in regulated lines, another musician is buried. The plain gravestone says: 'Tom Burke. The great Tenor who passed over 13 September 1969 in his eightieth year. "I have never heard my music more beautifully sung" - Puccini.' There are no flowers, plastic or otherwise, by this grave, but it's clear from the fact that the grass around is very worn, that many more people stop here than anywhere else in this part of the cemetery. Tom Burke was born in 1890 and started his working life in a local silk mill. He became known as the Lancashire Caruso, starring at Covent Garden and opera houses throughout the world. There is a plaque to his memory at Leigh Town Hall. Tom Burke's daughter, Patricia Burke, a well-known actress and singer in her own right, was living in France until recently, but died in 2003. She had played Jimmy's mother in 'The Clitheroe Kid' and the Parisian ballerina Gabrielle Girard in 'The Lisbon Story'. Her mother, Burke's first wife, Maria was also an actress and a founder of the actor's union equity (according to the Jimmy Clitheroe website).

On the way out, my eye is caught by a bright white monument, upon which a Virgin Mary comforts Jesus. On the marble plinth, which rests on an elaborate square-patterned marble platform, is written: 'Merciful Jesus grant eternal rest to the soul of R. A. 'Freddie' Pazzi who left us on the 28 May 1967.' Which means I was celebrating my 15th birthday when Freddie Pazzi was dying (which is neither here nor there). Also engraved is this: 'Mother of sorrows intercede for him. Thank you darling for 33 wonderful years, love Annette. A wonderful papa to Brian and Ann Venetta. To know him was to love him. Love Annette, Brian and Ann Venetta R.I.P.'

I don't know who Freddie Pazzi was, but the Italian name 'Pazzi' means crazy or crazies, and the Pazzi Conspiracy is infamous in Italy - perhaps like the Guy Fawkes plot in Britain. The Pazzi family, in cahoots with Pope Sixtus IV, plotted to kill Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother Giuliano, the heads of the Medici family, during mass at Florence Cathedral in 1478. The plot failed, many of the Pazzi were killed in punishment, and a two year war between the Medici and the papacy ended up in disaster for Florence. It's hardly relevant, but a Pazzi, played by the actor Giancarlo Giannini, also comes to a sticky end in the film 'Hannibal'.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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