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"There's only one band in London"... and a look this year's London and Southern Counties regional championships - ref art004

by Murray Aitken

"There's only one band in London" was the song in the bar after the results of last year's London Area Contest. Most of you from outside the region would think of The Dagenham Girl Pipers or East 17 (although that's two of course). But you may be surprised to read that there are bands in London, real brass bands, and, loath though I may be to admit it, more than one. The London and Southern Counties Region web-site lists a total of 102 graded bands in the five sections with 39 bands in the fourth section alone, making it the largest section in the country (not one for adjudicators with irritable bowel syndrome). There are many other bands in the region who choose not to contest. They don't know what fun they are missing. Then there are the many Salvation Army Bands (including the world famous Enfield Citadel) who pinch all the best carolling pitches at Christmas and send some of their outcasts out into the big bad world of contesting. The most notable example of this is the Refuge for Fallen Salvationists in West London presided over by its founder and benefactor Jeremy Wise, but most bands in the region will have at least one amongst them who has come from the other side having been impure in His sight. Generally it seems that once they start there is no stopping them.

But, you might say (and probably have), "all London Bands are cr#p, except for the Dagenham Girl Pipers, obviously". Well here's a thing. It has actually been a pretty successful year for the bands at the top end of the Region's rankings. On several occasions in the past 12 months London bands have tricked experienced and respected (?) adjudicators into placing them out of the bottom two. A sensational 7th place from Aveley and Newham at the National Finals under the baton of Nigel Taken, with First City Brass (Jeremy Wise) close behind in 9th place. Also Aveley and Newham achieved a creditable 9th place at the All England Masters, third place at Pontins and most recently became Yeovil Entertainment Contest Champions, again with FCB just behind them. My source at Aveley and Newham tells me that the band were delighted to see the picture in the Brutish Bandsman of the Yeovil Shield being presented (who was that handsome young band representative?) alongside a story saying that the organisers were hoping to attract some proper bands to the contest next year. Nice. Other notable performances in competition included an excellent performance from Redbridge Brass (Melvin White) earning second place at Reading contest.

In the Finals of the lower sections there were no prizewinners from the London Area but some promising results were achieved. Bedford Town gained 7th place in the first section and are looking forward to stepping up to the top section at this years Area. Chichester City were 8th in the second section after pushing Aveley and Newham close in coming second at the SCABBA Entertainment Contest earlier in the year. The highest placed London band in any section was Stonesfield Silver, who came 5th in the third section, with Cantium Brass 11th. In the fourth section, St Sebastian Wokingham gained a creditable 11th having drawn number 1, with Amersham and Canterbury Youth not far behind. Canterbury Youth have a lot to be proud of having achieved back to back fourth section area wins under the musical direction of Dave Cutting, quite an achievement with such a large entry (in the section, not Mr Cutting to my knowledge), as well as taking 3rd place in the third section at the recent Harrow Contest. They must be a band to watch in the third section at next month's Area.

In a new venture last year, Wuss Brass 2000 flew the flag for the London Area with its stunning debut at the Whit Marches. A fearless display of street choreography ("better than "Blast"" - The Dobcross Bugle) was combined with some quality performances of ORB directed by Melvin White. The band was conceived over a vat of ale by Clair Tomalin (Clacton), Ron Fidler and Martyn Patterson whilst helping out Cantium Brass at the previous years marches. Ron and Martyn then chivalrously stepped aside in order to allow Clair to do all the work. So well did she apply herself to the task that Wuss Brass became a fifty strong outfit and required a squad rotation system of which Sir Alex Ferguson would have been proud. Only the macho boys in the bass section played in all 7 contests as it was thought that there would not be time to explain the concept of rotation to them. The band was mainly a southern all-stars with a few token northerners to give tips on marching on cobbles, how much gravy to pour on the chips, coach queue jumping etc. A fine time was had by all and the Queen Wuss herself, Mrs Tomalin, enjoyed it all so much she immediately handed over her crown to Sarah Wilson (Winchcombe) to organise this year's trip. Sarah is taking her responsibilities seriously and is to move to the capital to be closer to her subjects.

London and Southern Counties Regional Championships, Stevenage Arts and Leisure Centre, March 17th and 18th

The one you are all waiting for. Rivalries old and new rear their heads as the Area Contest returns to Hertfordshire's answer to The Bronx for a third successive year. For one glorious weekend of the year we can all forget about national rankings, northern bands, vibrato and intonation and have a good scrap amongst ourselves. Guaranteed to provide cheering, screaming, singing, tears and, sad though I am to have to mention it, vomit in the toilets.

All the usual protagonists and old faces (getting ever older as well) will be making their entrances (and exits). Old stagers White, Wise and Taken (who will win the battle of the waistcoats) will, as usual, lead the competition at the sharp end. I believe only John Clark (Redbridge) and Paul Fensom (Regent) have broken this three-way monopoly (? triopoly) in about the last fifty years (but haven't checked). Who would bet against one of these three pulling it off on the day? But will it be Redbridge or Clacton, Melvin?

In recent years the top section in London has been plagued by controversy. The contentious disqualification of City of Oxford in 1998 for unwittingly but blatantly breaking the contest rules was much discussed in the brass band media and Internet sites. The unfathomable adjudication in 1999 will be long remembered by some and a cigarette burn on the floor in 2000 caused near hysteria.

This year we will once again have the pleasure of seeing the ever-expanding waistline of First City Brass exaggerated by the straining fabric of their flamboyant mosaic of shirts. Close observers will notice that solo euphonium Andrew Hicks varies his shirt colour depending on how his "Chip and Pie Diet" has been going in the previous weeks. Andrew's increasing stature has in fact led to some changes in personnel in his section recently. Talented, clean-living Australian (have those three (or four) words ever appeared so close together?) Russell Davies was forced to leave the section to avoid suffocation and take up the solo chair at rivals Aveley and Newham following an unforgettable trip to Pontins as a guest with the band. He can't wait to return. First City acted quickly to install another Aussie, the diminutive Maaaaaark who has squeezed in well alongside Andrew. Rumours that FCB will replace their shirts with smocks in time for the area are probably made up. This lot can be guaranteed to pump out some sound with a top euph/bari/bass section and it will be good to hear the salvationist swing version of Jazz.

Redbridge Brass will be looking to consolidate on their good result at Reading last year after what I know has been a disappointing last two years for Band Manager Alan Roberts. Before he knew that I was writing this, Alan told me that he had "a great band signed and we're going to win". It would, of course, be grossly unfair of me to print information acquired in this way, especially since the next thing he said was "you're my best mate you are, I really love you, whose round is it?" I am sure he won't mind. He can dream.

I also know that Alan has been hampered somewhat this year by a few defections from his ranks to the newly formed London students' band (don't know what they are called I'm afraid). I believe that this band are due to compete in the first section but I had heard from an unreliable source that they had already gone belly up. I must say I am only surprised they lasted so long. I mean, what are the chances of twenty-eight music students all getting up on a weekend morning. Let alone having time to find their student railcards, retrieve their charity shop DJ from a vomit-filled carrier bag, iron a shirt (ha), text message each other to find out where they are meant to be and why, set the video for the Eastenders Omnibus, realise there are no expenses, smoke a joint and fall asleep for 18 hours. It's not going to happen is it?

Aveley and Newham's main concern is over the state of their principal cornet player, Dave Lewis. Nothing new there then you might think. However Dave has just been released from hospital following surgery. This was not, as rumoured, for an embouchure-lift but to re-bore his nose after years of being punched in the face. The rest of the front row wish Dave a speedy recovery.

One mystery to me, looking at the list of bands competing in the top section (Brass Band World Website) is what has happened to Haverhill. Promoted from first section last year (despite 8th place in 2000), they do not appear on the list of just 11 bands. The other promoted band are Bedford Town who will be hoping to avoid the relegation battle which looks likely to involve Regent Brass, Denham Hendon and Matthews Norfolk Brass.

Looking at the lower sections, Paul Fensom looks to be competing with Melvin White for the "conducted most bands on the day" award. Paul is obviously spreading himself thinly these days, which is one talent I didn't know he possessed. He must be in with a shout with Hatfields of Colchester in the first section after they narrowly missed out on promotion last year. Look for a strong challenge from that man again Mr White with Staines (Paul Baker on solo euph I hear) and I wouldn't rule out a strong challenge from the two promoted bands, Chichester and a resurgent Cambridge. Northfleet may do well if David Lewis doesn't bleed on the score too much. The second section will be all about Tilbury Band. "A rapidly improving band with class players and an inspiring Musical Director", says Musical Director Robert Nunnery.

Two more chances here for Mr Fensom with Brent Brass and the newly-promoted Brosely. I tip Becontree for the third section for no better reason than I know some of them. Canterbury Youth must be in with a shout and Ellesborough Silver are sure to put in a strong performance (declaration of interest: soprano player Chris Kirkpatrick is my boss). The fourth section is tough to call with its usual unmanageable field of around 30 bands. Rather them than me. The Association Secretary David Hobbs acknowledges that the size of this section is a real problem but one which we have to get on with. Maybe some bands could change their addresses to the less popular regions for an easier life.

All this excitement will happen in the heart of Stevenage's concrete jungle. This is possibly the best venue in the country, that is if the event is after-hours fighting or supermarket trolley racing. David Hobbs gets his defence in early by saying that no venue is built with band contests in mind and we have to make the best of what we can afford. Actually I can't see that we have too much to complain about in this respect. A huge sports hall serves as a changing/hanging about zone, the shhh police are on patrol but don't possess the over-zealous qualities of some venues (hello Milton Keynes). Aim for an early draw if you hope to find any paper in the backstage toilets. The auditorium fulfils its purpose, and after all you only have to be in there for 15 minutes. The bar is huge, with an atmosphere of friendly hostility and it is possible to get served in less than an ice age. There's no mud, you don't have to hang about outside in the rain before reaching the stage (Prestatyn), you can park next door in Tescos and there are plenty of rehearsal rooms to book nearby. It doesn't have the soundproof rehearsal room backstage that Basildon offered (what luxury) but you can't have it all.

What of "Jazz", the championship section test piece? The consensus (albeit of a small sample) is "a bit s***e but difficult". It will be fun listening to the euphonium players at least. Some say that you can spot them as kids as they are the only ones in the playground who can't swing.

Well, that's it for my first effort. You might have noticed the thin veneer of facts. Time was short and information limited. Thanks to David Hobbs and Jeremy Wise for replying to my e-mails. Nothing printable though, Jeremy, but all your secrets are safe with me. The rest I've had to make up. If you feel that your band deserves a mention, or has been misrepresented, please contact me. Whilst I can't print anything libellous I would be delighted to report anything which falls just short of this.

Next month I will be reviewing the Area Contest. Good luck to all those taking part and let's see who's singing in the bar this year.

I'll give the last word to brass band fanatic Jack Aitken (aged 3) who if asked the question "how many bands are there in London?" will answer "ONE!" He is too young to remember the Dagenham Girl Pipers, so who could he mean?

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