Miles Kington: A life of laughter, energy - and the bass saxophone

I can't think of anyone else for whom Radio 3 would organise a tribute like this. Humphrey engendered such a ground-swell of affection and enthusiasm
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last Friday there was a special concert arranged and recorded by Radio 3 in honour of the late Humphrey Carpenter, at which I was lucky enough to be present. There was a lot of coming and going on the stage of the Cadogan Hall - the DG himself, the BBC Concert Orchestra, tuba soloists, dance band set-ups, choirs, compere Russell Davies, God knows what - but in front, untouched the whole evening, was Humphrey's own bass saxophone, standing like the figurehead of an old sailing ship.

Everyone present must have had their own memories of Humphrey, that dynamic, perpetually fizzing, chronically inquisitive bundle of laughter and energy, but it was the sight of the bass sax that clicked a memory and took me back to the time when Carpenter was running the Cheltenham Literary Festival. One of the guest speakers one year was Josef Skvorecky, who had written a book called The Bass Saxophone, a brilliant yarn set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The coincidence - that Humphrey also played the eponymous instrument - was too much for him, and he set about putting together a band to play at the Festival for Josef Skvorecky's delight.

He asked me to play on string bass, not because he treasured my bass playing, but because he thought it would be a good wheeze to have a band made up entirely of writers. So, apart from himself and me, he got Russell Davies on piano and his regular drummer from Oxford, Tony Augarde, editor of many a dictionary for the Oxford University Press. Duly this unusually literate band played a few numbers for Joseph Skvorecky which we enjoyed tremendously, even if, I fancy, Mr Skvorecky looked a little puzzled by the whole affair. But then, not many writers expect a live music tribute to them when they come on stage.

Nor, come to that, can I think of any other festival director who would have had the nous, the gumption and the energy to put that together, but then I can't think of anyone else for whom Radio 3 would want to organise a tribute concert quite like last Friday's. Humphrey engendered such a ground-swell of affection and enthusiasm, it was almost as if his posthumous energy had brought the whole event into being. The Vaughan Williams tuba concerto ( to mark his brass activities), Arnold's Cornish Dances (echoing his links with Cornwall), songs from the musical based on Carpenter's own Mr Majeika books, a reconstruction of Humphrey's own 1930s-style dance band, Vile Bodies - it all flew past in a swift two hours or so, compered by the affable, unflappable Russell Davies.

Actually, you could sense Davies was under stress in one number. They had elected to perform part of the soundtrack from "Night Mail", the Auden/Britten collaboration, and Russell Davies was doing the words. They don't half come fast, those words. "Letters from uncles, cousins and aunts, Letters to Scotland from the South of France..." and you could see Davies sweating over them, because if you make one mistake, you're done for and derailed, and it's no use scatting if you forget the lyrics, but he got home bang on schedule, and, as he said to the audience afterwards: "I have never been so glad to arrive safely in Scotland."

And why were they performing "Night Mail"? Well, because Carpenter had written major biographies of both WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, and was said to be mad about trains, so it seemed the perfect choice. But then, he seemed to have written lives of everyone. The last time I saw him in action was at an Oldie lunch in Bristol, where he was talking about his biography of Spike Milligan, and already suffering from the effects of his final illness. When he told the audience that, in case they had forgotten how good the Goons were, he would now enact part of a Goon Show, I silently prayed that he wouldn't. Nobody, even if they are 100 per cent healthy, can do all the voices properly. My prayers were disregarded; he went ahead and did all the Goons; and he was brilliant - I noticed a young man at a nearby table who could never have heard of the Goons, weeping with laughter.

It's not a bad last memory of a great character.