A Potted Autobiography

I was the progeny of utterly charming but completely incompetent parents - they existed in a continual state of ill-health (mostly emotional) and in a permanent state of panic and apprehension.  Granted there were reasons for this. They had both had a rough entry into the world. My father was two months premature, weighing barely 3 lb at birth; he was so small that his head fitted into the circumference of a tumbler. He was wrapped in cotton wool and fed on brandy, which may have accounted for his subsequent addiction to alcohol. My mother was born in Assam. Her mother died when she was four, and her father, a somewhat tyrannical bewhiskered individual, plus three sons and my mother, set sail for Aberdeen, where the unfortunate children were reared by hardy Scottish governesses who immersed them in the icy waters to harden them to the rigours of the Bonnie North. My father’s upbringing was perhaps less severe, also climatically less harsh, as his family lived in Blackheath, which was still semi-rural. My grandmother, however, appeared entirely disinterested in her offspring, of which she produced nine, my father being the only boy (‘Providence alone knows why I was doomed to so many’, she moaned) and directly they were weaned, all were dispatched to nannies so that she could return to her real interest - that of playing golf. My grandfather was a more sympathetic character and was quite the most handsome individual I had ever set eyes on. Exquisite features, with a flowing grey moustache, he was a considerable dandy, and one of my more pleasant childhood memories is that of choosing which waistcoat for him to wear with his city suit, which was a grey frock-coat and grey top hat. My numerous aunts had their proverbial eccentricities; particularly Aunt Amy, who was tactless in the extreme. She would remark to any pregnant neighbour: ‘You’ll be worse before you’re better, and dead or alive, it will be a boy or a girl.’ On another occasion she was shown by a doting mother a photograph of a soldier son, and her only comment was ‘WEAK!’


How my parents met is vague to me. I only know that my mother was duly transported from the highlands to the lower regions of Blackheath and that they eventually pledged their troth there. The actual wedding was somewhat traumatic, however, as the firm of caterers for the occasion put paraffin instead of olive oil in the salad, so where there should have been a parade of hansom cabs, there were ambulances instead.


My father, by profession an ineffectual architect, had designed and had built an indeterminate type of dwelling in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, and there my parents lived in relative serenity for five years until a most unfortunate episode occurred - I was born - howls of remorse all round. For my father, the only son, to produce a daughter was more than could be tolerated, and my mother especially was told in no uncertain terms there were to be no more, as my birth nearly killed us both. So my entry into the this world was hardly welcome or auspicious. When I was four war broke out and my father at once enlisted. His soldiering proved even less successful than his architecture, as after a few months’ training he inadvertently shot one of his fellow officers in the leg, and so Captain Tate’s military duties promptly ceased and he was at once transferred to non-combatant duties in the War Office, where he travelled daily in full military rig-out, taking immense care rolling on his putties - the only thing he seemed to show expertise in.

Phyl's grandfather

Phyl as a young woman

Duncan, Phyl's father

After the war we moved to London. I remember vividly the barrel organs with dressed-up dogs and monkeys seated patiently beside their owners, and every window would open and a coin wrapped in a coil of paper would be thrown out for the itinerant musician.


My schooling was distinctly scanty and I was sent to a little dame school where my father used to drop me off on his way to work. As we never had any money to pay the school fees, we used to stand in the gutter singing ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, collecting what coins the public were generous enough to pour into his upturned hat.


My education was short and not sweet. At an end of term concert, all the children were told to recite or play ‘their piece’. My contribution consisted of a really bawdy music-hall ditty taught to me, need I say, by my father. The parents all loved it and it brought the house down, but the headmistress was not impressed, and I was duly summoned to her study to be expelled for lowering the standard of such a reputable and ladylike school. So, at the age of 10, virtually illiterate, what next? My parents didn’t think it necessary for me to have any further education (though for some odd reason I was allowed to attend a class given by a retired schoolmistress to trace maps, for which we used lavatory paper). My mother and father had the idea that girls were only necessary as potential mothers, so why waste money on the unessentials?


I therefore had to turn in upon myself, and I must admit to have had a hankering sometimes for a brother or sister to relieve the loneliness. My first venture was journalism. This took the form of several issues of a newspaper called ‘Catland News’, partly because of my adoration of cats, which still persists, and also, I being of a morbid disposition, it gave me the chance to revel in all the horrors of the day. The gory details included such descriptions as ‘Dr Spilsbury examined the organs of the virtuous female, and found a little gravel, but not much, but oh how cats wept at the sad news, especially the young gentleman cats, and even the policemen flushed and fidgeted’. Another excerpt reads, ‘This Yankee cat’ (heavily illustrated with bottles) ‘plans to give an orgy, and is busy rehearsing for it.’ However, it wasn’t only the murky side that filled these many pages. Another issue had more social chit-chat, if slightly misplaced, such as ‘An inquest will be heard on the divorce between Sir Lawrie and Lady Lapmilk - Reuter’. The last issue ends with an IN MEMORIAM: ‘In memory of my delicious husband who passed into his sleep on April 19th, so deeply mourned. Also, we regret to announce that the Bishop of Catland has just died.’ A fitting end, I feel, to the finale.

Catland News issue 2

Catland News issue 3

Catland News issue 1

Most of this meandering has been devoted to the misdeeds of my intensely popular father; everyone fell for him. My mother, most attractive, but immature and helpless, has so far taken a back seat. She has one overriding ambition - that I must at all costs become a musical genius to justify my existence. She herself had some talent, pounding out on the piano and singing the ballads of the day in a sepulchral contralto. Much to her chagrin, I bought myself a ukulele for ten shillings and sixpence which I taught myself to play, and for which I wrote foxtrots and blues to my own lyrics. I became a tolerably good performer, and joined a concert party which travelled around giving entertainments in hospitals, old people’s homes, charity concerts etc.


One of these happened to be given in the Conservatory of Music at Blackheath, and luckily for me a professor there was in the audience. He came and spoke to me and offered to give me some lessons in ‘proper music’. After some hesitation I agreed, and within a few weeks my entire personality had changed. I wore a sombrero hat and sandals, and studied all the necessary ingredients for the first steps as a composer, subsequently transferring (with the same teacher) to one of the main schools of music. But how archaic were the textbooks! To quote one (still in use I believe), ‘but when we come to modern music, such as that of Chopin...’. I wonder if by any chance Stockhausen has been substituted for Chopin, though I rather doubt it.


I cannot admit to being an illustrious pupil. I joined the conductor’s course and went on beating 12 bars after the orchestra had finished and were packing up their instruments to go home. I learnt the timpani, and was playing at a concert (royalty present) when I descended with a wallop either a bar before or after the crucial movement. The conductor’s comment: ‘You may be only 17, but do that again and you’re fired!’ I next had a shot at writing a symphony in which every instrument played non-stop without a break throughout. As the duration was close on an hour, the players emerged completely breathless and puce in the face.


So on I plodded, writing dreadful ‘arty’ songs and a violin and piano sonata, and eventually emerged with a rather undeserved gold medal. The next step was how to make any sort of career, and one that would eke out our parsimonious resources. My father had since died, so it was left, rather embarrassingly, to our more prosperous relations to support us. My mother was perhaps, rather naturally, bitterly disappointed that I hadn’t carried off a single prize during my student days. I think she visualised at least my name would find a place in gold lettering on one of those impressive blackboards hung in rows along the walls of this august institution.


Then suddenly I remembered a long while back I had met a very nice man called Norman Peterkin who was an important member of a well-known firm of publishers - The Oxford University Press. He had been interested and sympathetic, and told me to contact him when I felt my compositional efforts were nearing publishing standards. So I nosed him out, and he was extremely kind and helpful, introducing me to his colleague Hubert Foss. Perhaps they thought there was a grain of talent in these exceedingly immature pieces, for they promoted a little series of concerts of my efforts in their office, and introduced me to various well-disposed people including Dame Ethel Smyth. This brings me to an interlude worth recording. As a result of this meeting, Dame Ethel invited me to lunch at her home in Woking. It proved a rather stormy excursion. Firstly, we arrived very late, as my escort insisted on stopping off at every pub en route, and taking his time at each. When we did eventually arrive, pretty well-oiled, there was Dame Ethel, dressed (with the exception of a harsh tweed skirt) in entirely male rig-out - stiff collar, tie, sports coat, billy-cock hat, and clutching a struggling sheepdog. It seemed to me strange and contradictory that she, the ardent feminist, should adopt this attire. Her eyes were ablaze with anger as she roared ‘Lunch is ruined! How like a man!’ Even over lunch the anti-woman [sic] attitude monopolised the conversation, and she hardly spoke two words to me. However, once lunch was over, the atmosphere lightened, and her attitude became more benign. She asked to see and hear my cello concerto which I strummed out ff for her. At the end she said ‘At last I have heard a real woman composer!’ But let me add hastily that as the poor dear was virtually stone deaf, I didn’t take this vociferous praise too literally. She then sang and played Wagner for hours, after which at long last we took our departure, completely exhausted. But the ordeal was not quite over. Her house happened to be situated in a kind of roundabout from which we seemed unable to extricate ourselves - we kept going round in circles, but always returning to the same spot to see her still glowering at us from the window. At length she burst open the door and yelled at the top of her voice ‘GO!’ Terrified, we managed to find a side turning and at last vanished into obscurity. Soon after this enervating outing, my cello concerto was performed at Bournemouth, and Dame Ethel insisted on coming, sitting in the front row, and banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music. Soon before she died, I invited her to my wedding. Her reply was typical. She sent a card which read: ‘1000 congratulations; sorry, too old to come, but promise my ghost will not appear.'

Newspaper article

Alan and Phyl

Alan, apprentice at the OUP

It was around this period I came across a seventeen-year-old apprentice at The Oxford University Press learning the trade and making the tea. At first I disliked him intensely as he gave me my first bad review in some musical journal. In time, though, we found our relationship had a certain symmetry, and in due course we married. My professor was exceedingly upset about this: ‘Once maternity takes hold, and that in marriage is inescapable, that’s the end of your composing’. True, we did indeed produce ‘one S’ and ‘one D’ (as the dictionaries say) but oddly enough my output appeared to increase. I did a thorough survey of my student and post-student work, and being far from satisfied, held a vast conflagration (except for a few which seemed to have possibilities) and determined to make a completely fresh start. I am a great ‘destroyer’ - that is why no opus numbers grace my manuscript paper for the simple reason that I discard as much as I write! Many is the time I have stolen down at dead of night to rescue a ‘possible’ from the dustbin; occasionally, it has been worth it, but all too often not, I fear. It is difficult, if not impossible to assess one’s own attempts, but I hope I have improved (dreary word!). One does one’s best, which is, of course, never good enough. However, I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear to be. One can only surmise, and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch for is this - writing music can be hell; torture in extreme; but there’s one thing even worse; and that is not writing it.



- Phyllis Tate, 1979.

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