Brian Viner: Country Life

On the Saturday before last I took myself to a concert at the neo-classical Lion Ballroom in Leominster, then wrote about it elsewhere in these pages

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The concert was by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and its centrepiece was John Cage's silent composition 4.33, conceived in 1952 after Cage spent some time in a soundproof chamber where, he claimed, he could hear his own blood circulating. So to demonstrate that there is no such thing as perfect silence he came up with 4.33, which has the musicians sitting quietly for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.

The concert was by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and its centrepiece was John Cage's silent composition 4.33, conceived in 1952 after Cage spent some time in a soundproof chamber where, he claimed, he could hear his own blood circulating. So to demonstrate that there is no such thing as perfect silence he came up with 4.33, which has the musicians sitting quietly for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.

The extremely high decibel content of Leominster's May Fair, which was pulsating alarmingly not 50 yards away, probably offered more ambient sound than Cage ever intended. But still, for Leominster it was exciting high-concept stuff.

I confess that I went along intending to write an affectionately mocking piece about the pretension of 4.33 and the avant garde's incompatibility with the Welsh Marches. Instead, I came away rather impressed by Cage's originality, and with my respect for Leominster reinforced. The small town rose comfortably to the challenge of accommodating, simultaneously, the Mighty Waltzer and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Having said that, it was only a concerted effort by the concert organiser, Alan Crumpler, that ensured that cider-fuelled youths did not wander into the Lion Ballroom to see what the silence was all about. He spent the evening as a bouncer, albeit a rather improbably thin and intellectual bouncer, and possibly the only bouncer in Herefordshire who makes his own harpsichords.

Every small town should have a Crumpler. I didn't even know of his existence until I was leaving, and was button-holed by an Independent reader who recognised me. He told me that Crumpler would make an excellent subject for this column, since life in the sticks is greatly enhanced by the inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm of such people.

With his wife, Maureen, he used to own a shop in Leominster selling classical instruments; they now devote much of their time, unpaid, to running the Lion Ballroom.

They do it on a shoestring budget, and put on an eclectic programme which sounds peculiar on paper (last month's concert of "Old and New Music From Wales and Finland" would not necessarily have had me hammering the five miles along the A44, even had I known about it), but is invariably excellent in the venerable ballroom itself, which I'm told has acoustics that are the envy of many a larger concert hall.

Crumpler told me that the ballroom was the pride (my pun) of the Lion Hotel when it opened in 1840. But the Lion was a coaching inn, at the dawn of the railway era. In the Hereford Journal on 18 October, 1843, it was gloomily reported that "within the last week the only coach that was left on the road from Bristol to London ceased running. The railroad monopoly is now complete". In 1851, the Lion went bankrupt.

This reminded me of the story of a pub I used to go to when I lived in London, called Crocker's. It had been built by a Victorian entrepreneur called Frank Crocker, who sited it directly opposite the proposed entrance of the soon-to-be-built Marylebone Station.

Crocker then sat back and waited to make his fortune, except that some bugger then decided to move the station half a mile or so to the south. The pub duly went bust and poor Crocker killed himself by leaping off its roof. There must have been thousands of personal tragedies like that resulting from the advent of rail transport, which the history books tell us was such a triumph of the Industrial Revolution.

Anyway, despite the hotel's closure, the ballroom remained largely intact, and for years housed an ironmongery business. Thanks to the vision and dedication of a small band of selfless people, however, it has been restored to its former fleeting glory, and is run much as the 1840 owners would have liked. I dare say 4.33 would have caused them some bewilderment, though.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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