Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

The refugee's violin



It's Christmas time!
I know this to be so for several reasons. The holly bushes round here are covered in berries, it's bloody cold, people keep giving me bottles of wine and bits of card decorated with pictures of a fat man dressed in a gay red outfit (and you can read into that what you will), and there's a tree in my house. But if you took all that away I'd still know it was the festive season - by virtue of all the crime dramas on the telly.

I can't imagine who decided that the season of 'peace on Earth and goodwill to all men' was the right time to screen murder/mystery dramas, but it seems to have become an established part of the festive celebrations.
So, not wishing to buck the trend I have decided to share with you my very own tale of mystery and suspense.
If you haven't already done so, now is the time to fill your glass or put the kettle on and load up a plateful of nibbles - because, just like all good mysteries, if you miss the beginning you won't have a clue about what's going on later...and nothing spoils the atmosphere like a latecomer who pipes up with "So who's HE then?" at the denouement.
And what a fabulous word that is.
To save time in case you're unfamiliar with the word it means 'the clarification of the plot' - in other words, whodunit.
It's a French word, and given its dramatic meaning I think it quite right and proper that every effort should be made to pronounce it with all due flair and élan, thus: Day noo-mon. If you've had a few sherbets, or just watched Peter Seller's inimitable depiction of Inspector Clouseau, you might want to camp it up a little - thus: Dehggrr nyeuughmoournnn.
Works even better with a mouthful of mince pie and sherry. Don't forget to pout.

My tale of mystery starts way back in the 1980s. The scene is a lowly basement in Notting Hill - my old workshop.
At that time I shared the business with two other chaps; between us we specialised in brass, woodwind and strings repairs and as such we did work for schools on behalf of the I.L.E.A (the Inner London Education Authority) - a central organisation that oversaw the logistics of maintaining and supplying the thousands of educational establishments contained within Britain's capital city...and therefore just the sort of incredibly useful organisation that governments hate. Which is why they scrapped it.
Our role in the scheme of things was to collect broken instruments from schools, assess the work required, issue quotations and then, given the go-ahead, carry out the work and deliver the repaired items. It often transpired though that an instrument needed more spent on it than it was worth, in which case it was written off and the school would be sent a replacement. That left us holding the unwanted instruments, and for the most part these were kept for spares.

However, the string department rapidly filled up with busted and useless violins. With a replacement cost of about forty quid, and being so susceptible to damage it wasn't uncommon to write off half a dozen instruments a week - and there isn't much on a violin that can be used for spare parts.
So we had a surplus of violins and, occasionally, cellos.
Our initial solution was to bung them all in the arches adjoining the basement that ran under the street. These were small, dark and incredibly damp - and the combination of damp, mould and goodness knows what else would soon reduce the instruments into their component parts.
But even this wasn't enough, and soon we found ourselves having to consider other options for disposal.

We hired a skip on one occasion, and duly filled it to the brim with all manner of instrument debris. We had to do it in one day too - if you leave a half-full skip out in a London street overnight you can be bloody sure that, come the morning, it'll be full...of someone else's crap.
It came as something of a surprise then when, having filled the skip and left it to stand overnight, we returned the next day to find it filled with someone else's rubbish. Thing is, it hadn't simply been chucked on top of ours - someone had actually removed all our rubbish and made off with it. If we'd known this was likely to happen we wouldn't have bothered with the skip, and just chucked all the stuff out on the street!

About a week later we began to get a steady stream of rather curious customers in. Each of them would have a very busted violin.
Clearly these instruments had come out of our skip.
This wasn't an issue really, it wasn't as if anything had been stolen - it was just junk. What was interesting though were the stories the clients would cook up as to how they came by the instruments. It got so that our shop assistant would buzz down from upstairs every time someone came in with one of these discarded violins, and we'd all rush upstairs just to hear their story. God knows how many of these violins had been found in lofts, or belonged to recently departed relatives.
I rather enjoyed it, but it obviously taxed the patience of the strings repairer, who eventually snapped and started telling people exactly where their 'precious family heirloom' had come from - but then that was kinda fun too.
Even more fun was a little stunt the strings guy pulled with some of these violins.
He'd keep one underneath his bench - and when the buzzer went to signify a client coming down to see him he'd place the old violin on his bench...and just as the prospective client hove into view he'd pick up a mallet and smash the violin to bits. In reply to the client's astounded gaze he'd say "I just hate working on shoddy instruments".
On one occasion the client turned tail and legged it off back up the stairs.

It was about this time that I made my move out of London, and finding myself living in a house with an open fireplace it occurred to me that busted violins and the like would make ideal kindling wood - so I began shipping boxfuls of broken instruments back home.
Some of them were relatively intact, and I have to admit that I did that terribly naff thing and hung a couple of the better examples on the walls. I found that a cello scroll with a couple of pegs in made an ideal and interesting doorstop!
And so, over the course of the weeks and months, untold numbers of violins met a fiery end.
Some met their end with style.
I'd often have guests round, and nothing beats sitting by the cheery glow of an open fire after a splendid meal - and being something of a lover of practical jokes I hit upon the idea of making use of some of the violins.
It was always a treat to see the guests' faces when I'd say "My, it's getting a bit chilly in here - I think I'll throw another violin on the fire". This alone always raised a smile, but you should've seen their faces when I pulled a violin out from behind the chair and threw it on the fire. They don't half burn a treat too.
I even had a few violins still fitted with strings, and just to make it more of an event of it I'd announce that I'd been having lessons. I'd then pick up the violin and make a dreadful noise. This would always result in pained expressions, and a general consensus that I'd probably not make a good violinist - at which point I'd agree, and smash the instrument on the hearth before tossing it on the fire. Ooh, their faces.
I once did it with a cello. Unfortunately they're not as easy to smash, and I'd had rather too much Merlot - so I ended up on the floor in something of a wrestling match with a half-busted cello - and when I did eventually get it on the fire I didn't realise just how fiercely it would burn. Nearly set the blasted chimney alight!

Many years have passed since those days, more than ten years even, and it was in the spring of this year that I found myself facing the prospect of having to clear out the shed that sits behind my house. I say 'facing', because the shed tends to get used as a giant bin - open the door, chuck it in, close the door. You get the picture.
I'd been clearing out for most of a morning when I finally reached one of the rear corners. Buried beneath an assortment of debris was an old cardboard box - and I remembered that this was the box I used to store all the old violin bits in.
I peeked inside, and after having jumped back in fright as a particularly large spider (about two inches long...which is big as far as I'm concerned, OK?) ran out of the box I noticed that there were still a few bits and pieces in it.
Well, you can never have enough kindling wood - so I tipped the contents out and began sorting through the pile.
Now, I don't know a great deal about violins - but I know at least enough to be able to spot when one looks a little different from the normal student fare, and I noticed half a back that looked as though it had been crafted rather than mass produced.
I rescued it from the pile, and when I turned it over in my hands I saw an inscription had been written upon it in black ink.

For reasons that will become clear I won't relate the precise details of the inscription (I did say it was a mystery!), suffice to say that it contained a date - 1939, a place - Margate, and a name...of which the most relevant detail is that the man who built the violin was a Czech refugee.

That evening found me sitting at my computer with the violin back beside me. At this point in time I was simply just curious about the inscription. I had it in mind that given the date it was just possible that the man who built it might still be alive, just - and certainly his descendants, if he had any.
And so I Googled, in the vague hope that I'd find at least a few pointers or references. And I did.
I quickly discovered that at the start of WWII there was in influx of refugees to Britain. Some of these were accommodate in refugee camps along the south coast, and in particular at Margate.
Better yet, I stumbled across a site entirely devoted to Czech refugees in Britain.
Having found out as much as I felt I could I decided to drop the author of the site an email, in which I explained how I came by the piece of the violin and my hopes of finding a living link.
I hoped I'd get at least an informative reply, maybe some extra links to follow up too.

The reply came a little later - and I was astonished by what I read.
Clearly a man after my own heart when it comes to such things, my correspondent had done some in-depth research and dug up a wealth of information, including birth dates, marriage details, children etc. He'd even visited the public records office on my behalf to see if there were any other details to be found. It transpired that the craftsman had left his home country at the outbreak of war, along with his wife and children, seeking safety from the Nazi regime - and ended up in a holding camp in Margate.
During his stay here he found time to build this violin, even though his known history made no mention of any trade associated with the craft. Indeed, from looking at the remains it appears that he was either largely self-taught, or limited by the availability of tools or materials.

As to how the violin ended up in my Notting Hill shop - on the correspondent's site was a photo of a group of Czech refugees at one of the Margate camps. In the photo was a young man holding a violin. I speculated that perhaps this could be the man himself, but the ages didn't match.
However, seated next to the young man was a woman, and it transpired that she was a regular correspondent of the man who sent the website author the photo. Following the war, she found herself living in Notting Hill, as did many other Czech refugees - which gives us the link from the violin built in Margate to my shop in West London.

The records show that the craftsman passed away in 1952, still living in Britain, leaving behind a wife, and a son who later married. The son would be in his 80's now, if he's still alive - but there remains the possibility that he and his wife had children - in which case I hold something built by their grandfather.
I have some details with which to follow up my investigation - I have details of Naturalisation certificate for the craftsman's son which ties him to a place. Beyond that, I don't know - and it will mean further research in that specific area.
I would like one day to be able to place the violin part in the hands of someone to whom I feel it rightfully belongs, but in the meantime I feel it's my duty to take good care of it.
The reason I'm being somewhat secretive about specific details is that I feel I'm sharing someone else's history with you. I feel I can only do so up to a point, at least until I have either come to the end of the trail or until I have permission from those concerned to reveal all.

And so, like all the best mysteries, this one ends with '..to be continued'.

 


 



 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015