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The Sound of Swindon
January/February 2014

Alexander Borodin: Outside Russia, Swindon was the place to hear his works 

Along the southeast coast of England lies a string of small towns where people leave relics of their useful lives. It's a common habit. A couple reach retirement age and, anticipating visits from friends, children and grandchildren, move to the seaside. They grow frail, the grandchildren grow up and away, the husband dies. The widow, with immaculate hair, measures out time in bridge mornings until her hour also comes and the house-clearance van pulls up outside.

The van carries off books and albums and distributes them down a trail of second-hand stores in the down-at-heel town centre. Every year or two, in need of sea air, I travel down to the coast and find myself driven off the front by blustery winds to browse through the detritus of lost lives.

I begin at the music shelves, bulging with well-thumbed scores of Handel's Messiah and the Beethoven piano sonatas, nothing more adventurous. Signed copies of Edward Heath's Music: A Joy for Life abound for a couple of pounds (unsigned are scarcer). Here and there, I find a scrapbook in which someone has lovingly pasted a programme of every concert and opera they attended. The ephemera, suburban and provincial, are of negligible interest. Why did people need to be reminded of such routine performances? Depression kicks in.

Then, in a Beethoven stack, I find an album so rich in creative activity that it blows away my preconceptions and breaks open a window into a lost age of idealism, an age that propounded art for all. The sticker on the scrapbook cover reads: "Swindon Playhouse opera programmes, 1932-1954".

Swindon was a railway town, serving since Isambard Kingdom Brunel's time for the repair and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock. It flourished until the 1960s when inflated wage costs and the growth of motorways ended the age of rail; the last works shut in 1986. Swindon had no function or purpose beyond rail, no cultural footprint. I do not expect much of its Playhouse operas. How wrong I am.

The first item in the scrapbook is a death announcement, on June 26, 1965, for Harry Stanley Fairclough, aged 71, beloved husband of Muriel of 41 Westlecot Road ("donations may be sent to the British Empire Cancer Campaign"). Opposite, we see the late Harry, baton in hand, "musical director of the Swindon Musical Society". 

Harry Stanley Fairclough appears in no music dictionaries, nor is there any trace of him on the internet. He is a provincial conductor, teacher of "the choral and orchestral classes of the Swindon College". I turn a page, expecting Gilbert and Sullivan, at best a Dream of Gerontius. Harry, however, has wider horizons.

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Local Studies, Swindon Central Library
January 29th, 2018
1:01 PM
UPDATE: We would like to add that the author of this article was kind enough to donate this fantastic scrapbook to us - the Local Studies collection for the Borough of Swindon.

Local Studies, Swindon Central Library
May 30th, 2014
11:05 AM
A great find and a great article. The quality of locally-staged productions, from the later 19thC onwards is hugely impressive and an often-forgotten part of the town's history

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