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The Butcher Conductor - 1903


The dale, through which I had been walking, widened, and before me stretched the town, straggling up the hillside, with its main street hugging the river. The strident din of a brass band assaulted my ears, and turning aside, through foliage, into what was apparently a disused quarry, I found that this was the day appointed for the great brass band contest. There were seven competitors, drawn from neighbouring towns, and in turn each set of amateur musicians huddled together on a platform in the centre of the quarry, and blared old airs to the reverberate hills.

The earnestness of the performers gave a relish to the exhibition; but after listening to the melodies of two towns, my interest waned; I roamed, and finding nothing more exciting to do, examined the framed photographs of the competing bands hanging outside the van of an itinerant photographer, who had been given a pitch in the ground. In each photograph the conductor was prominent. One of them I labelled modest, another timid, as if he doubted his capacity for the perilous post; here, one giggled; there the face spelled braggart; the fifth held me. Confidence and power were written over this florid, bullet-headed man with a flower in his buttonhole and a cornet clutched in his right hand.

The photographer's mucous voice disturbed my reverie "Now's your time. They're good. Everybody likes 'em. That's the beauty of 'em. They're champions." As nobody gave any heed to his speech, he turned to me, nudged my ribs, and pointing to a large photograph in a plush frame, said: "There's a beauty, Sir, that is a champion. And mark me, his band is the winner." The group indicated was a presentation of a butcher's shop, but removed from the category of the commonplace by the human interest and the sense of design that characterised it. I saw a document of worldly success, of crowned effort, of honourable pride.

The shop stood at the corner of a street, and maintained a Christmas, indeed a gala, appearance. Joints of meat of noble proportions, decorated with ribbons and green sprigs, hung in the window. Above was a boar's head, flanked by sucking pigs - pink and entire. On the slab beneath were smaller joints, interspersed with poultry, and over all was the savour of cleanliness and white napery. On one side of the shop stood a natty cart occupied by a youthful butcher, the reins gathered in his hands, ready to start upon his rounds; on the other side of the shop I perceived a bright butcher boy mounted upon a stout cob, with a basket upon his arm, prepared to execute the day's orders. The family stood in front of the shop, a baby, much millineried, in a perambulator, a nurse offering it the bottle, and nearby, the stout, well-preserved wife, encased from neck to feet in a serviceable white apron. Her face had an ample smile, but it was insignificant compared with the smile of her husband, the butcher. He stood voluminously in the doorway, one hand resting on a joint of meat, the other upraised persuasively, as if to say, "Enter and be satisfied!" He, too, was clothed in white, undecorated, save for the steel that hung by a leather girdle from his waist.

The photographer placed a yellow finger on the face of the proud butcher. "He's all right. You just wait and see him conduct." I waited, saw him lead his mixed team to the platform, and drive them, by sheer force of personality, to a rendering of the set pieces that aroused vociferous applause. Hatless, he flitted from fife to trombone, from euphonium to drum, beating the players with eloquent hand movements down to pianissimo, and storming them up to forte heights; when he put his lips to the cornet that he clutched, the babies in the crowd cried. He crooned down the pathetic portions of "The Bluebells of Scotland" to a point that was almost inaudible; with "Cherry Ripe" he danced his musicians into gaiety. And his band was successful.

I like to think that the snap-shot the photographer took of the successful band after the announcement of the award will hang next door to the photograph of the shop. In work and play - a success! And when, later, I saw the white-faced failures, born into the same class, loafing in the purlieus of the corner public-house, I wondered at what point they had stumbled from the straight road which the butcher-conductor had pursued.