George Martin

George Martin

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Everyone knew George Martin – in his 80s yet until recently still going strong, a great pianist but better know for the joy he brought to so many people through directing other musicians. Yes, everyone knew George Martin… but you might be thinking of the wrong one. I don’t mean the one called the ‘Fifth Beatle’ – and if you think I might be referring to the organist at St Paul’s, that’s a different one again. I mean the Thanet carpenter who died on 9 March 2013.

Until a few months before, George was conductor of Thanet Light Orchestra. He had been for over 40 years, to the extent that many people simply knew of the group as “George Martin’s Orchestra”. He was not merely the conductor, though: he acted as librarian, fixed the instruments if they broke, drove people to and from the rehearsals, arranged concerts, and perhaps most importantly of all, was so enthusiastic and charming that people always wanted to come back. As one member of the orchestra put it, he was “A natural musician. The authenticity of his ‘Chanson du Matin’ with all the rubato as if Elgar himself was whispering in his ear made me feel connected to history. He just belonged in that music. And just a lovely man.

Yet he was not a professional musician at all. His grandfather was the illustrious W.W. Martin, who had built most of Ramsgate in the late 19th century – the banks, Chatham House School and much of the East Cliff area in particular. The firm bearing his name is still probably the best-known local construction company. George delighted in telling how “WW” had come to Ramsgate to benefit from the sea air, decided to establish a business here, but not found sufficient skilled workers in the town… whereupon he promptly hired a train and filled it with builders from his village near Maidstone (complete with their families and all belongings), who lived in Thanet for many months during the contract (and in many cases stayed on later).

George and his five brothers were all brought up as apprentices within the family firm, three as bricklayers and three as carpenters. To the end, one of the few things that could raise George’s temper was making a rash comment about the value of apprenticeships: he was furious when, during a spell as a governor at a local school, the headmaster told him ‘I don’t care if our kids don’t get a job at the end of it, we don’t want them ending up as idiot apprentices’. He was also convinced that giving young men a set of tools and teaching them to build things was the way to social harmony, crime reduction and prosperity. It certainly seemed to have worked for all those he helped nurture through the building trade.

Yet the focus on George’s life was clearly on music. Surprising, perhaps, given that his father was tone-deaf and his mother – although she had allegedly played the violin once – never did so in his lifetime. The family owned a piano but only one of George’s brothers could play a tune on it, and even he could not read music. Nevertheless, George taught himself how to play a few pieces, and his rendition of “Butterflies in the Rain” while on a family holiday to Jersey age 7 prompted an onlooker to suggest that he ought to be given lessons, which his parents duly arranged. His first teacher was a Miss Griggs, at East Cliff preparatory school. George played the pieces she taught him over and over again, and learned quickly. Once he forgot his music case at the school, and she sternly quizzed him: “George!” “Yes Miss Griggs” “Have you done your practice?” “Yes, I’ve done my practice” “But how is it you’ve done your practice and I’ve still got all your music here?” “Well, Miss Griggs, I can play all the pieces from memory.”

By the time the war came he had reached Grade 4, but the family were then evacuated to Ross on Wye. While there, George recalled his mother buying him his first classical record: the flamboyant Eileen Joyce playing Chopin Ballade’s in A♭, with the Study in E on the other side. Only 13 years old, he was completely entranced. His mother then bought him some Chopin books, which he had taught himself to play by the time he returned to Ramsgate in 1943 to look after his father. He continued learning with Robert Haworth, a retired professor from the Royal Academy, and having passed his eighth grade, went on to win prizes at several festivals, including at Thanet Music Festival where the adjudicator was Thomas Dunhill. Later George himself became Vice President of this festival.

A few years after the war, George’s brothers invited him to join them for a dinner at their cricket club, St George’s. There he met Pam, a young singer and former WREN who had just in a short space of time married a sailor, given birth to a son, and then lost her husband in the Palestine conflict. Pam asked George to accompany her on the piano, and they soon became firm friends, married, and had several children.

In 1961 the Ramsgate Operatic Society was founded, and although Pam was having her last baby the first year, she joined from the second year and George became their permanent rehearsal pianist, as well as making the props for many of their shows – even a full working waterwheel for one of them.

Both of them also performed in Victorian musical evenings as part of the Broadstairs Dickens Festival. One day a flute player there named Derek asked George if he would help a different group, Broadstairs Dramatic Society (later Thanet Dramatic Society), as for the first time they were thinking of performing a pantomime and needed a musical director. George protested, “I know nothing about orchestras – I don’t know how to arrange music” but Derek replied, “As long as you’ve got a piano copy, you’ve just got to copy the bits out for the different instruments”. Thinking “that sounds easy enough”, George accepted the job… only to discover it would take him months of hard slog. He used to write out the parts until 2 a.m. every day after having completed a full day’s work at the company. Having done this, he turned up for the dress rehearsal, having been assured a competent orchestra would be there. As it turned out, however, they were hopeless sight-readers, and in desperation George asked the theatre manager for permission to play their Compton organ instead. The audience were none the wiser, the run was a great success, and George and his ‘orchestra’ returned for the next 13 years.

Meanwhile, the founder and conductor of Thanet Philharmonic Orchestra, Captain Donne, had died and the orchestra were looking for a replacement. Derek also played with this group, and suggested that George come along. Once again, George protested that he knew nothing about conducting but he was persuaded to have a go, and having discovered that he enjoyed the experience – and the orchestra also liked him – he ended up staying for 43 years. It was not all plain sailing: soon after he arrived, the leader (Mr Last, a brickmaker) insisted that George exert authority and stop the trumpet player taking a tea break, and when George expressed his reluctance to do so, the leader promptly packed up and left. The tea break remained.

In the late 1970s, a young Ramsgate student with grand ambitions called Raymond Banning decided he wanted to start an orchestra, and having gathered local forces and brought down some extra players from the London colleges, the Isle of Thanet Symphony Orchestra was formed. Naturally, they needed an experienced hand on the tiller, so George was voted Chairman of the orchestra. This also led to Thanet Philharmonic Orchestra changing its name to Thanet Light Orchestra. Sadly, although it did bring top soloists such as Moura Lympany, John Ogdon and Clarence Myerscough to the area, the combination of numerous expenses and modest audiences made ITSO reliant on a grant from Thanet District Council, which was finally cut.

George never taught music; or rather, almost never. There was just one young man, a friend of George’s daughter Sue, who was a very good trumpet player aspiring to go to the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, he knew that he had to demonstrate two instruments. Sue suggested that he learn just one piece on the piano from George, and attempt to blag his way in. Not only did the plot work as planned – making George possibly the most successful teacher ever – but the young man with chutzpah went on to become an internationally known conductor and arranger, working from Hollywood to the Olympics.

This was however one of only two occasions when George’s integrity could be questioned. He often related the story of how, age 7, his school class had been asked if any of them had flown in an aeroplane. Although he had not, he assumed that all the others had, and not wanting to be outdone, he put his hand up – only to discover he was the only one. He then had to describe the experience, and made it up based on what he had read. He vowed after this never to tell a lie again, and incredibly, managed to stick to it throughout his life.

There were so many other facets to George’s life. When Pam started a bridal outfitter’s shop in around 1965, George splashed out on a Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur’s hat, and began ferrying newly-weds around. Once he drove for a couple where the husband was American, and in the course of small-talk about New Orleans it suddenly emerged that he was the best friend of George’s son-in-law. George was also an excellent cook, regularly preparing elaborate meals for all the extended family well into his 80s.

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Yet he never really recovered from Pam’s death. As his own health deteriorated, even Thanet Light Orchestra – which he had called ‘the highlight of his week’ – began to become a worry rather than a joy, and he expressed great relief when he managed to pass on the baton to the next generation. The next generations of his own family were still an immense pleasure and source of pride to the end, particularly the numerous musicians amongst them.

George was never arrogant enough to talk about his ‘legacy’ – except in jest, followed soon by a hearty belly-laugh – but it seems clear that the impact he has had on the musical scene of East Kent will live on for a very long time to come. Not in a physical sense, perhaps – not the recordings, nor even his arrangements, good though they are – but in the way he inspired so many both inside and outside his family, professionals and amateurs alike, to make music and enjoy music together in friendship. Music truly can unite everyone, as it did with Pam and George.

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