5. Alan Bush

Wilf discussed his friendship with Alan Bush in a 1999 interview with Barbara Slaughter for the World Socialist Web Site.

Wilf first met Bush through a chance meeting on Hampstead Heath, near Highgate where they both lived:

I’d actually known Alan Bush for years, since I was a young kid.  I met him on Hampstead Heath on a snowy morning.  I sat down on a bench and he came and joined me. He said, “I’ve been following you because I heard you singing. What’s that book that you have there”?  I’d been trying to learn to read music and it was a music book.  That’s how we met and he was as old as the year, so he was eight years older than I was.1

In the early 1930’s the friendship became closer as Wilf and Michael Tippett collaborated with Bush on left wing music and  drama productions and became involved with Marxist political groups.

I used to sell papers and I made silk-screen posters for meetings.  I got Michael Tippett and Alan Bush interested.  Then they joined the Communist Party as Trotskyists and met with Gerry Healy.  Tippett used to come to London from our cottage in Oxted in Surrey to discuss with Healy, whom Tippett had the greatest respect for.  Michael also knew of Jock Haston, but I don’t think he ever met him — only Healy.  He became disillusioned and left politics because it was much harder than he expected.  Whenever he talked to Communist Party members he got such terrible reactions.
I told Michael and Alan that they were wasting their time.  I said we should be starting our own movement. But they insisted, and it was terrible. Alan Bush became convinced that Stalin and the Communist Party were on the right lines. He and Michael had tremendous arguments when we went to concerts at the Albert Hall and the Queen’s Hall. 2

The three men worked together on various left wing pageants and performances including The Pageant of Labour at Crystal Palace in October 1934.  In 1938 Wilf performed as part of Margaret Barr’s Dance Drama Group in Alan Bush’s Towards Tomorrow Pageant at Wembley Stadium:

I worked together with Michael Tippett and that was the basis of our friendship. We worked with the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.  We hired Wembley Stadium for a ‘big do’ organised with the joint co-operative societies.  And I went round all the schools in and around London and rehearsed the children, so that they could come together and perform this pageant, which Michael Tippett had devised largely.  Alan Bush had something to do with it too.  And then we did a festival of youth in Brockwell Park with London school-children and again I went round all the schools to rehearse the children.  It was paid for by the Brixton Council. 3

In a 1934 letter Tippett asked Alan Bush to contribute £10 a year to Tippett’s Wilfare fund, set up to keep Wilf from living a life of poverty while he tried to establish himself as an artist.  In a 1936 letter Tippett makes reference to Wilf and Bush being ‘best of friends’:

Mein tuerster Alan.  I don’t know what you want to do about Wilf this year.  For myself I am quite willing to go on letting him have the means to keep himself out of unhappiness etc……I am no longer in the same emotional dependence to him, and that is a great essential, but as I knew from the first I have a natural loyalty to him….I am bound to go on supporting him as I have undertaken to do…For you, best of friends, it is absolutely not I think a serious matter….so let me know sometime at your leisure what you want to do about it… 4

On 8th July 1936 Alan Bush writes back to Tippett:

I am sending you a cheque for twelve pounds for Wilf.  I am glad to hear that things are better there as far as you are concerned, you have much else to worry about. 5

In the 1999 interview, Wilf gave an insight into the musical relationship between Tippett and Bush:

I used to go with him (Tippett) and Alan Bush to concerts at the Queen’s Hall and the Albert Hall. We would listen to a new work and it went completely over my head.  In the café afterwards the two of them would sing passages to one another.  Bush would number the chords.  Tippett would look bewildered because he didn’t work like that.  He would work at the piano playing notes until he got what he had imagined.  Somebody who knew the numbers of the chords was totally foreign to him.6

Wilf believed that Stalin had betrayed the ideals of Marxism after he came to power. Bush,  however,  took a different view and maintained strong ties to the Eastern Bloc, particularly East Germany where his work was often performed.

I never really understood it. I’d seen Alan as very intelligent until then. He became a teacher at the Royal Academy and continued until he was seventy-five years of age.
All this came between us for many years…he was completely and utterly fooled all his life, which I can’t equate with the rest of him.7

In the 1980’s Michael Tippett and David Ayerst sought Wilf out at his home in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, and their old friendship was rekindled.  It was through Tippett that Alan Bush and Wilf also became reacquainted:

Thank you very much for sending me the address of Wilf Franks so promptly.  It so happens that I shall be going to Manchester for a performance of my CONCERT-OVERTURE FOR AN OCCASION in October, and I shall write to Wilf, Manchester being somewhat nearer to Middlesbrough than Radlett is; I would be very interested to see Wilf again after all these years.8

The two men met up at Bush’s house in 1985:

He had foraged me out in his old age because he realised that if he had not met me he might never have become a communist.  He said that Gorbachev was a great man.  I explained what Gorbachev was and that he had said Stalin signed a death warrant for 80,000 intellectuals. 9

Despite their political differences,  I am quite sure that Wilf had the greatest of respect for Alan Bush both musically and personally. Other than close family members, Bush and Tippett were amongst the few people who Wilf found time to visit in his old age.


References

  1. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999
  2. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999
  3. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999
  4. Thomas Schuttenhelm. Selected Letters of Michael Tippett. Faber & Faber 2005. p120-123
  5. Letter from Alan Bush to Michael Tippett. 8th July 1936. Alan Bush collection at the British Library
  6. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999
  7. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999
  8. Letter from Alan Bush to Michael Tippett. 6th Aug 1985. Alan Bush collection at the British Library
  9. Barbara Slaughter. Interview for the World Socialist Website.  1999

 

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