Recollections of Paul Davies, cont.,



(If you haven't already, see Recollections of Paul Davies for the introduction to this article)

Terry McGee's Recollections

Meeting Paul

In London, at last.  I'd sent a one-page hand-written application to the Australia Council, proposing they assist me to find out what was happening in folk music in England, Ireland and Scotland, and they went for it.  It's 1974.

One of the first things I noticed is that no-one was playing metal flutes.  We frequented the Favourite (where the LP recording "Paddy in the Smoke" had been made), and were treated to the best of Irish music.  But no-one was playing metal flutes.  Except me.  Something had to be done!  

I found Tony Bingham's shop "At The Sign of the Serpent", in Pond Street (from memory), and picked up a German flute for 40GBP.  I knew it wasn't a great flute, but it worked and it was wood.  I couldn't afford anything on the next shelf.  We were trying to outrun the people who had written the book "England on 5 pounds a day" (and we did!).

Then I got to thinking - where would you buy old things at a reasonable price?  Aha, Portobello Road market, of course!  Next Saturday found me there.  Knowing that the stall owners might not know a flute from a clarinet, I brought the Tony Bingham special with me as a sample.

I steadily worked my way from one end of the market to the other, interrogating every stall holder.  Everywhere the result was the same - the stall holder's eyes frosted over, assuming a vacant stare, and the words were uttered, Nah, never see nothin' like that, Guv.  Then a guilty look over both shoulders, and yer man apologised and slipped off to assist some other customer, whether they needed it or not.

I've traversed the whole market, and am three quarters back to the starting point when a roughly dressed man with a limp and a dog shuffles up to me.  Covertly opening his coat, he withdraws a flute sticking out of the inner pocket, and says "I understand you might be looking for something like this".  I look over the instrument and say "yes, certainly looking for something like this, but something considerably better.  This one has some damage to this tenon, which wouldn't be an easy repair, and I'd be hoping for something with bigger holes".

I'm acutely aware that he's watching me with interest.  He says, "What's in the case?", pointing to the Tony Bingham German flute.  I pull it out and he scoffs.  Yeah, typical German flute, not worth a cracker, how much did you pay, it's a load of rubbish, etc, etc.  But the words are not matching the smile, so I know I'm being tested.  I don't rise to the taunts.

Sensing the game is over, he says, "You did right to refuse this flute - it's a poor example.  And you were right about that tenon, nobody would normally pick that up.  Why don't you come back and see the real stuff."  So we troll off with Paul back his digs nearby and are introduced to the real world of the wooden flute, and an adventure begins.

A real flute, at last!

I did buy a flute from him.  Well, traded to be more precise, remember, we were professionally starving and penniless at the time.  I swapped him my Yamaha student's model nickel plated Boehm flute for a B&S Dulcet Improved, which served me well.  It was an easy flute to play, and in good condition (Paul being responsible for that), so I quickly progressed, and never went back to the Boehm flute from that day on.  And it was much more rewarding to play than the German flute I'd bought from "The Sign of the Serpent".  So, already, I was starting to learn the difference between good flutes and not-so-good flutes.

Paul's business card, with a few words on the back about my B&S Dulcet Improved

The flute itself

The morning before

Naturally, the topic of where Paul gets all his flutes comes up, and he undertakes to show us, under pain of death if we were to reveal his secret.  You get the feeling he's not kidding.

It requires a very early start next Friday - the day before the market.  It's this day that all the rag'n'bone men come in with their wares to sell to the stall holders.  Now Paul isn't a stall holder, but as we saw previously, he's been somehow accorded equal rights as they, indeed, more - none of them would touch a flute, as that was recognised as Paul's territory.

It proved a slow morning, but a few instruments were acquired, followed by a hearty breakfast of bacon & eggs, with the inevitable Bubble & Squeak at a nearby cafe.

Paul's own flute

Given that Paul had the pick of any flute, you might imagine he would sport only the best, to showcase his product line.  Not so.  His own flute, at least at that time, was called "the Monster".  It was a Rudall & Rose, dark close to black, with few if any keys left on it, the holes where they had been all plugged up.  But the sound he produced was magnificent, and that certainly was adequate promotion.

Meeting Philip Bate

We've been knocking around a bit with Paul, and he makes the suggestion that we should come with him to meet Philip Bate.  Philip who?  Sigh.  Australians, don't we know anything?  Philip turns out to be the author of "The Flute", published about 5 years earlier, and the donor of "The Bate Collection" of historic woodwinds to Oxford University.

So we go with Paul to meet Philip that evening.  On the way, Paul reveals he has a motive - he's aware that Philip has a particularly nice Rudall & Rose flute which Paul would like to acquire.  Paul also reveals he has a secret weapon.

We get there and are introduced to Philip and Mrs Bate.  We get the impression that they live economically but gently.  A cup of tea is had, and after some general conversation, Philip asks: Now Paul, what brings you around here tonight?  

It's that Rudall, says Paul, I figured you don't have much use for it, and I thought you might be interested in a trade.  Now Paul, reproaches Philip, you know I've given up dealing.  Ah, says Paul, so you wouldn't be interested in this then, slipping a magnificent boxwood and ivory Cahusac classical clarinet from his inner coat pocket.  There's a gasp from all of us at its extreme beauty and perfect condition, and Paul and Philip slip into another room to discuss details, reappearing several minutes later, with Paul slipping the Rudall into the inner coat pocket to replace the Cahusac.

Business behind us, we settle down to hear more from Philip about his collecting, and solemnly promise to go to Oxford to see his collection, and to meet its curator, Anthony Baines, author of "Woodwind Instruments".  To ensure I don't leave empty handed, Philip digs out a Bb band flute, marked with the Crown and "Improved London" and presents it as a memento of my visit.  I treasure it still.

4 key Bb treble flute, "Improved, London"


Some people you just can't avoid.  We're in Ireland, and camp one stormy night on the Dingle peninsular, a week or so before the Fleadh Cheol at Listowel.  Now Dingle is a tiny town, and it was a holiday weekend, so the roads were jammed.  Hopelessly jammed - no cars were moving.  We were on bicycles and had the freedom of the town.  Suddenly we heard the chilling sound of an ambulance siren - eh-aw, eh-aw, eh-aw.  Cars, previously gridlocked, found places to scurry, up onto pavements, into the gaps between buildings, wherever, to let the emergency vehicle through.

But it wasn't an emergency vehicle, just a Renault 7 or similar sedan car,  And holding a concertina out the side window was Paul - playing B-A, B-A, B-A ...

A run-in with the Gardai ...

Still in Ireland a few weeks later after joining up with some other Australians at the Fleadh Cheoil in Listowel.  We're in Clare and again we run into Paul, in Feakle from memory.  It's late at night and we give him a lift in a van owned by one of the Australians.  Unbeknown to us, there's been a break-out of Mountjoy Jail by some prominent IRA men, and the Gardai have set up road blocks.  As our driver slows down approaching the road block, Paul repeats the B-A, B-A, B-A concertina trick.  The Garda was far from amused, and made us all get out of the van while he searched it, and demanded to see all our passports. 

It was looking a bit shaky there for a while, until I "dropped" into the conversation that I was on my way to Dublin and would be staying there with Sgt. Tom Glackin (Dublin fiddle player and Garda).  (It was a bit of a calculated overstatement - the truth of the matter was that Mrs Glackin, whom we'd met at Listowel, upon discovering our financial situation, had kindly agreed to let us pitch our tent in her back yard for a few days!)  The mention of a Garda connection seemed to put our man's mind at ease, and we were permitted onwards.  Conversation in the van was subdued for quite a while ....

Back in England

When we returned to England, my researches took me further up north, to Scotland and places dotted all over England, so we didn't see much more of Paul.  He did take us to meet Mrs O'Flaherty, his landlady, who was a lovely concertina player, as was her daughter Mary. I do remember sitting with him while he worked on a few flutes.  I distinctly remember him threading tenons.  He liked Edam cheese, and recycled its red wax coating, melting it in a teaspoon over a small alcohol burner with Vaseline, then running sewing thread through it to render the thread moisture resistant.

Looking back now, I got a lot out of meeting Paul.  I learned about the workings of wooden flutes, and got an easy flute in good condition to learn on.  I learned that it was possible to fix up and improve flutes, and how important a good flute was to a learner.  Through him, I met some of the giants of woodwind historical research - Philip Bate and Anthony Baines - and found out about collections.  Having a flute then set me up to attend the Scoil Éigse in Ireland, where I met and learned from Mick Allen, Josie McDermott, Mico Russell and other great players.  By the time I went back to Australia towards the end of 1974, my mind was choc-a-block with ideas for keyless flutes with integral feet (perhaps a subconscious re-incarnation of Paul's "Monster"?).  By the middle of the next year, it started to happen, and the B&S proved a useful flute model to offer beginners until some years later when I found a better midrange hole model. 

So thanks, Paul!