Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Exoneration of a cinema organist

Today I had a visit in the archive from Gurney's great-nephew: the grandson and grand-daughter-in-law of Gurney's sister, Dorothy. They were over in England on holiday from Australia, to where Dorothy emigrated following her marriage.

In readiness for their visit, I got out the photographs held in the archive, some examples of his music and poetry, and also some of the correspondence between Don Ray and the visitors' other great-uncle and great-aunt, Gurney's brother Ronald and sister Winifred. I haven't yet got to these in my cataloguing, and had a browse through some of those items I hadn't yet been through. In this part of the collection - the Don Ray gathering of recollections during 1950-51 - two letters grabbed my attention. The handwriting was so poor that I thought it to be that of Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, on inspection it turned out to be John Haines who, by the time of writing in 1951, was almost blind and his handwriting had deteriorated with this loss of sight.

One of these letters from Haines had been partially transcribed - perhaps by Don Ray - but there were numerous gaps where words were indistinguishable, and the transcriber obviously gave up two thirds of the way through the letter. Where the transcriber stopped, I endeavoured to continue, and was rewarded with an interesting nugget of information I thought I'd share here. It arose from what must have been a question from Ray to determine whether, in his capacity as solicitor, Haines had ever acted for Gurney. Haines's letter cites just one instance relating to the period of 1921-22, during which Gurney moved from job to job, unable to keep any for a great length of time.

One of the posts Gurney sought was that of cinema organist. He wrote to Edward Marsh that such posts were 'hard to get, fearful to retain, easy to lose.' (December 1921, Collected Letters p.523). He was successful in obtaining two such posts, one in Plumstead, London, and one in Bude, Cornwall, neither of which he retained for long; only a matter of days. In the brief words of Michael Hurd on the subject in The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, these jobs 'eluded his grasp'. He elaborates no further, and one is left to presume that either Gurney's erratic tendencies at this time or perhaps the unsuitability of his music were to blame. However, Haines's letter perhaps refutes this in some way: he writes that he was successful in obtaining the then not insubstantial sum of '£10 for him out of a cinema company for wrongful dismissal.' He doesn't note which cinema it was, although earlier in the letter he states that he was employed as a cinema organist in Cornwall. Perhaps it was therefore the Bude cinema that had terminated his contract on weak or insubstantiable grounds. In Haines's action against the cinema Gurney found absolution, a little money; but he may rather have continued in post, working and making music to earn his living.

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