Student, Ray Plassard playing the flute.

City Lit stories - Ray Plassard

19 March 2019
Posted in: Stories

Me and City Lit - Ray Plassard

Hearing that the City Lit celebrates its centenary in 2019 put me in mind that I have been attending classes there on and off for over 50 years, half of its existence! Mainly in the music department.

As a child, the schools I attended did not do much music and like most people then I left school at 16 (only 5% of people attended university in those days), took a job as a trainee quantity surveyor, studied at evening classes and at the age of 21 I had a professional qualification and 5 years work experience, unlike the situation today. I then did 2 years National Service in the Royal Artillery, returned after it to work and more study. During all this time my interest in music grew, attending many concerts and recitals, until one day in my late 20’s I thought it would be good to be able to play music rather than to just listen. Some of my friends being musicians I could then play with them. I decided I would try the flute (I thought it would be easy!). I went out and bought one and enrolled in a woodwind tuition group at the local Hendon Music Centre run by the local council. I was fortunate in having an excellent teacher to start with, Peter Hull, a freelance professional musician, but later he left because of playing commitments and I did not find his successor satisfactory.

I looked around and discovered the City Lit. At the time (1968) there were three flute classes, beginners, intermediate and advanced. After interviews with Bob Plowright and Kenneth Van Barthold I enrolled in the intermediate class. This was run by Mary Ryan, a well-known professional player of the day. After a while I graduated up to the advanced class run by Mary’s husband, Ron Gillham. He had retired from full time playing but still taught and played when required in one of his wife’s groups, ‘The Tilford Bach Festival Orchestra’. At one time Ron had been second flute in the Philharmonia Orchestra and piccolo in the L.S.O and can be seen playing in the 1940’s educational film ‘Instruments of the Orchestra’ for which Benjamin Britten had composed the ‘Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra’ otherwise ‘Variations and fugue on a theme by Purcell’.

 Ray Plassard - Flute, Alfred White - Bassoon, Peter Cardew - Horn, Jenny Nyman - Clarinet Ray Plassard - Flute, Alfred White - Bassoon, Peter Cardew - Horn, Jenny Nyman - Clarinet

By this time I had also joined the ‘City Lit Wind Band’. About 40 of us, of all standards, a dozen or so flutes and clarinets, and a smattering of other woodwind and brass instruments. This was conducted by Bryan Fairfax, actually a violinist, who had played in the Hallé Orchestra. He was assisted by Greta Stubbs, a wonderful pianist who could play at sight all the missing parts from the full score, including all the transpositions necessary, which my mind still boggles at. Among the students in the band was well-known actor Warren Mitchell of ‘Alf Garnet’ fame who played bass clarinet.

A bit later I joined the wind chamber music class, also run by Bryan and Greta, where we had three wind quintets on the go (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn) and we gave some recitals at the Institute and elsewhere and also played as guinea pigs for the conductor’s classes. I am still in touch with Greta after all these years.

During this time I also attended photography (portraiture) classes at the City Lit. In the basement of the Stukely Street premises was a photographic studio and fully equipped darkroom. The classes were run by Jack Rufus and a Mr Todhunter, both were excellent photographers who wrote articles for 'Amateur Photographers' magazine and judging by the props and models I am sure some of the published photos were taken in the City Lit studio.

1970s wind ensemble1970s wind ensemble

Juliet Offner - Flute, Diana Samson - Oboe, Tony Huston - Clarinet, Ross Valentine - Horn, Greta Stubbs (Tutor) - Cello (playing bassoon part)

My attendance at the City Lit also led to opportunities elsewhere. Patrick, an oboe player in the wind band, also played in the ‘Chandos Orchestra’ run by Camden Council’s adult education department. When they had a vacancy he asked me to join them and I played with them for many years. Ron Gillham also invited me to join the Pearl Orchestra which he conducted. This was part of Pearl Assurance and we used to meet at their offices in Holborn until they closed and moved to Peterborough when we then met at the conductor’s home in West London. It is interesting to consider the amateur music scene at the time (1970’s) as apart from all that was going on at City Lit, Mary Ward Centre and Morley College etc. there was also the Pearl and Chandos Orchestras I have mentioned. The Prudential Insurance also had an Orchestra at their iconic offices in Holborn. Camden Council also ran the ‘Orion Orchestra’ (conducted by the formidable Blanche Mundlack who had a music shop near Mornington Crescent tube station) and Bernard, a friend of mine from Ron’s class, played in the British Railways Eastern Region Orchestra who met at the Bishopsgate Institute. Five amateur orchestras all within a couple miles of each other!

In the 1990s all this activity on my part ran down due to work and family commitments until I was just left playing in Ron’s Pearl Orchestra. When he died this folded and as I could not find anything similar my flute was packed away gathering dust.

Image from Music Week, City Lit publication in 1970sImage from Music Week, City Lit publication in 1970s

Music Week 1970s

Fast forward about 15 years. I was attending history classes run by the local Waltham Forest W.E.A (Workers Education Association) with an excellent tutor, Patricia Melville. When she retired from the W.E.A I re-started at the City Lit in her classes there and also enrolled for music history and appreciation classes. At this time I had also re-started playing the flute, as a friend was starting up a local music group, and when I had recovered a bit of my former (moderate) technique I joined the City Lit Wind ensemble run by Karen Betley.

So, for the last 4 years I have attended music history, appreciation and playing classes and also classes on architecture, art and history. I have learnt such a lot from excellent tutors but most important has been the life enhancing relationships and contact with other students and the friendly staff.

I am now over 81 years old and consider the City Lit a wholly admirable organisation, keeping my brain and fingers active even if the rest of my body seems to be falling behind! Well done City Lit on reaching your centenary, here’s to the next 100 years!

Ray Plassard, 2019