A Brother’s Memoir

George was five years my senior, born in the dark days of 1915. He averred that, whilst sheltering under our sturdy Victorian sideboard he had responded with a loud ‘boom’ as a bomb fell in our garden, blowing down our frail greenhouse! I don’t know whether there were other early influences that led him to music and painting! He would always produce some incidents suggesting early interest in both ­–­ but we all do that, and it’s fun.

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He was probably a normal little boy – at least until I came along, soon after the armistice. This might have been a surprise, but I suspect not, for he was very knowing. It brought new responsibilities, taking the burden of a younger brother, especially when I was Dannatt Junior at the self-same school that the neglected Henry Williamson attended and whose Dandelion Days is a veracious and entertaining account of pre-1914 masters whom we suffered under, post-war. (George was notoriously whacked for putting oil in the Sixth Form ink pots – an early example of his interest in different textures!) Needless to say George looked after me, especially when suffering very frequent sick headaches, evincing his caring attitude. One of his great qualities (though I don’t think he was particularly a people person, even though he did look after many people and their affairs when distressed or in need) was that of a good friend with a strong sense of responsibility.

My beautiful picture

In his early years he was always doing or making something. Model engineering was engrossing but needed a workshop, so he built a respectable shed which I believe still exists – though it is not yet listed! Earlier he ran a make-believe building company, converting hollow elms to conning towers, or digging holes. We were all roped in. Teddy Hughes, a neighbour, pulled the cart. Asked by my father what I did, my reply was ‘I’m the boy that fetches things’. Clearly George was the organiser. One of his first passions was model boats, which really did sail. Much later I pointed out that some of these did bear a relation to abstract art – the funnels for instance. That pleased him.

George started learning the piano quite late, but drew early inspiration for the life of music from the rather kitsch proto-musical Waltzes from Vienna, about the rivalry of the elder and the younger Strausses. I teased him about his having seen it four times. He rather wished it had been Richard Strauss, a later love. Truly the life of music seized his imagination and became his dominant interest. He pursued it in depth, became an inveterate Promenader as well as an early morning queuer at Covent Garden, developing rapidly his range and understanding, vastly extended by his close friendship with the brilliant Scott Goddard with whom he eventually shared the News Chronicle critics’ desk.

As almost everyone will testify, George was a prodigious letter-writer, whether on practical issues or philosophical, and expected an answer. A nonchalant postcard with no date was not an adequate response, even though it was sometimes jokily deliberate on my part! In such cases there would be an admonitory note from George, but we put up with this, admiring his undiminished questing, thoroughness, persistence and energy, and especially when there was some goal in view. His seriousness on paper was relieved by his skill as raconteur and delightful mimic, and with a wide range, from aunts who sang wistful songs at the piano, great uncles with archaic bicycles, bearded relations who boomed out Shakespeare, all eccentric characters left over from the nineteenth century – a rich and varied cast including many an odd-ball, in which sometimes you found yourself included.

Trevor Dannatt