Grandma, Clara Butt and the BBC - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Grandma, Clara Butt and the BBC

One day in Spring 1942 my maternal grandparents came to visit us in Wakefield - I believe it was the only time they came to our house. Grandma happened to notice the latest issue of the BBC's magazine Radio Times on the table and, knowing my penchant for being the first in the house to read it, she asked me what interesting programmes were due to be broadcast in the next week. I read out aloud details of a few programmes and mentioned that on the very next day someone called Clara Butt would be the subject of the BBC's regular 7.15am programme Morning Star, which was a recital of gramophone records. Even at that early age I recognised the names of most of the performers, but this was a new one for me. I can remember the subsequent conversation as though it happened just yesterday not more than 70 years ago.

Left: That is almost certainly the last photograph of Grandma Winter, posing on the steps of her house on Westbury Terrace.

"I've never heard of Clara Butt," I said. "Who is she?"

"She's Dame Clara Butt," said Grandma, excitedly. Turning to her husband she added, "James, make sure you get me out of bed in good time to listen - and don't forget or else there'll be trouble."

"But who is she?" I asked again.

"She's a wonderful contralto," said Grandma. "I haven't heard her sing since I was a little girl."

I now know that Dame Clara Butt was a very imposing lady, over six feet tall. Her contralto voice apparently ranged from the C below middle C to high B flat - almost three octaves. She was said to be especially powerful in the lower range where many less able contraltos started to falter. Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked, in one of those typical acerbic sound bites for which he was renowned, that on a clear day one could hear Clara Butt from the French side of the English Channel. During the First World War she had raised more than £100,000 for war charities through her public concerts and it was in recognition of that magnificent effort that she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

I don't know if Grandad woke Grandma in time for the radio broadcast, but I certainly listened to it. One of records the BBC played that morning was Clara Butt singing the aria Ombra mai fu from Handel's opera Xerxes. I already knew Handel's Largo as an orchestral piece but that was the day I discovered that it is really an aria from the first act of one of Handel's many Italian operas - but it was several years before I found out who Xerxes was or even how to spell his name. That visit to our house was the last time I ever saw Grandma because just a few weeks later, in May 1942, she died. My sister and I were deemed too young to attend the funeral. After Grandma's death, Grandad moved in with us in Wakefield. I thought that would be wonderful because he and I got on so well together but, sadly, it didn't quite work out like that.

During the wartime winter evenings at home there was little to do apart from reading, listening to the wireless and, on the relatively few smog-free nights, watching the brilliant stars and planets in the inky-black night skies. At a very early age I learned about the Plough and I could easily find the North Star which always seemed to be high above Wakefield Park. I don't think I ever believed that there was a man in the Moon, but I do know I hoped that there were men on one or more of the planets.

I enjoyed browsing through Dad's collection of books. My favourites, which were always close to hand, were bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine for 1929 and 1931. When I first found them, I just looked at the pictures, many of them in beautiful colour but, as I grew older, I enjoyed reading the accompanying articles. Then there was a copy of Gray's Anatomy (which I wasn't supposed to look into - but did) and a large book called Enquire Within about Everything. The latter was a truly fascinating book; it contained hundreds of short items about all manner of subjects.

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