Evelyn Barbirolli

I make no apology that this is an unashamedly personal picture. It could be nothing else. Evelyn’s public life and achievements are well documented elsewhere but I hope these reflections may be of some interest.

Evelyn was both my aunt and my godmother. In the latter capacity, she found herself in a somewhat equivocal position. She revelled, at times, in calling me ‘godson’ but that was always in a spirit of fun. She was a most generous and supportive godmother and perhaps, in a sense, a very modern one. Church and its affairs did not enter the equation. Towards the end of her life, she disinclined to go at all and regularly said of funerals or memorial services, which she did her utmost to avoid attending: ‘I won’t do him (or her) any good by being there’.

My earliest memories of Evelyn stem from the period (in the 1960s) when John was still alive and she appeared irregularly because of the busy life she led with him and the frequent travelling. However, a visit was always a major event and she loved coming ‘home’ (to Wallingford and/or Cholsey) since this is how she always viewed the part of the country where she had been born and brought up and where my parents continued to live, until the death of my mother in 2003.

John was, of course, a great figure, although it was difficult for me to appreciate fully at such a young age that one was, in fact, in the presence of someone who bestrode the musical world stage with such distinction. I recall vividly accompanying my parents to lunch at Huntsworth Mews (John and Evelyn’s then London residence) in the summer of 1968. I was under the strictest instructions to be on my best behaviour. When he arrived, John surprised me firstly by telling us all about how poorly the orchestra, with which he had been rehearsing that morning, had played for him; he then proceeded to remove his shoes, saying that they were too tight – and there I was trying to be on my best behaviour! (I subsequently used this story in a sermon to show that things don’t always turn out quite as one expects). Conversation at lunch turned to the recent Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia (frankly a dull topic for a nine year-old) but then to cricket – the Australians were in the middle of an Ashes tour – which was excellent common ground for uncle, aunt and the nine year-old. A memorable occasion.

I recall poignantly the period immediately after John’s death in July 1970. In terms of the family, the world had almost literally been turned upside down. However, as time passed, a new era in my aunt’s life began as she fashioned her own busy schedule – still playing, teaching more and more, adjudicating masses and travelling insatiably. She now became a very frequent visitor to my parents’ house, invariably with us for Christmas and Easter and regularly at other times besides, and it was during this time (through the 1970s) that I got to know her best. From this point onwards, Evelyn also developed a bond of immense closeness with my mother who was as unmusical as they come but, amid some pretty stiff competition, was probably my aunt’s staunchest admirer. This relationship sustained them both – and magnificently – for the last 30 years of their respective lives.

Often on the occasion of a visit by Evelyn my uncle Richard, the elder of her two brothers, would come over and join the family party and the three siblings, my aunt, my uncle and my father, George (the youngest of the three), would reminisce and mildly poke fun at each other. My uncle Richard often told increasingly tall stories (regularly involving the King {George VI} and Monty {Field Marshal Montgomery}) and one might have been excused for thinking that he had been the right-hand man of them both; amid considerable merriment he would always be gently deflated. What emerged clearly from their conversation was the close-knit childhood of their youth and, in a quite fascinating way, they evoked a vivid picture of a lost world – their father had, for instance, walked some fifteen miles from Wallingford to Reading and back, in order to catch a train to London during the General Strike of 1926.

In London Evelyn had moved from Huntsworth Mews round the corner to Ivor Place (my favourite of her three London residences which I knew); within easy walking distance of Lord’s Cricket Ground, I once stayed with her for the whole of a Test Match against India in 1971. It was hard work! All day at the cricket and then a dinner party every single evening, for which my aunt cooked herself and sparkled amidst the company which she had gathered. I’m not sure that her nephew was a great addition to this scene, but it was certainly a privilege to be there.

It was at Ivor Place that Evelyn began to develop her serious interest in gardening. Her ever growing array of pots in the basement rapidly became a real source of pride, creating a considerable something out of absolutely nothing, and it was clear that the situation whereby she did not have a proper garden would not last long. She found the ideal solution at Buckland Crescent, near Swiss Cottage; this had a comparatively spacious garden (in London terms), combined with a ground-floor flat. It was here that she moved and here that she stayed, developing the garden to a state whereby it was worthy of being opened to the public annually in June; and it will be so for one last time on Sunday 15th June 2008, in her memory.

A circumstance from the early 1970s had a most profound effect upon my perception of things. In our first home at Cholsey the grand visitor’s bedroom was next door to my own bedroom. When I was home from boarding school it was my custom, being in my teenage years, neither to wake up nor to get up particularly early. When I did rouse, I would read – at that stage almost invariably a novel by P G Wodehouse, who remains my favourite author. If Evelyn was staying, I would be awoken (somewhat rudely) by the sound of oboe scales next door and these would continue uninterrupted for the whole of the rest of the morning. This did not make either for easy reading or particularly enjoyable listening, but it made me distinctly and dramatically aware of something which I have never forgotten. However good you are at something, you don’t get to the top of your profession without being prepared to work extremely hard and extremely long. On many an occasion, as a Housemaster at Marlborough, I would use this story when I wanted to make a point about industry and application to one of my charges: ‘Let me tell you about my aunt….’.

Once I had an argument with Evelyn, when she had returned from receiving an Honorary Degree from some university or other, concerning the validity of such awards. Inspired by the message of the oboe scales next door, I had worked very hard through my four years at Oxford to achieve a decent degree there and I could never quite understand (and probably still can’t) the purpose of honorary awards. Evelyn took great pride in the fact that her nephew had done well at Oxford (indeed she took equal pride in the many and varied achievements of all her nephews and nieces) and made clear that she would absolutely have loved to have been able to do that too; however, in her view her honorary awards were the best she could do in this field and they, therefore, brought her much pleasure. We agreed to disagree and were all the better for it.

Another aspect of Evelyn’s family life that brought her tremendous pride and enjoyment was her association with the Worshipful Company of Dyers, one of the major London Livery Companies. Her father had been a distinguished member, ending his time as Father of the Court (senior member) and her brother, Richard, was Prime Warden of the Company in 1959; her surviving brother, George, was Prime Warden in 1963 and is the current Father of the Court; her two nephews are now senior members of the Livery. John had been a treasured Honorary Liveryman – an honour bestowed upon him due both to his own eminence and to his strong connection, by marriage, with the Company. Quite simply, membership of the Company forms a rather special element within the Rothwell family.

To this day, the Dyers has not moved enormously far down any misdirected path towards political correctness and the fairer sex has not been accorded the privilege of membership – unless perhaps royalty is a feature. However, an important break with the past was made in 1980 when Evelyn was elected an Honorary Liveryman of the Company in her own right; this she always regarded as a most signal honour. She was subsequently the most assiduous attender of all functions to which she was invited and the pleasure she derived from this association was entirely reciprocated by the Company. Typically, she embraced, and thus enhanced, everything which it stands for. The last occasion on which she attended a function upstairs at Dyers’ Hall was a lunch in honour of her brother George’s 90th birthday in November 2006. One of the many memorable photographs of that occasion is one of Evelyn (aged 95) being carried up an awkward staircase in a wheelchair by a collection of her nephews and great nephews. Appropriately, her own 90th birthday in January 2001 had been celebrated by a similar lunch at Dyers’ Hall – in the days when she could walk upstairs.

In his famous poem ‘If’ Rudyard Kipling wrote of walking with Kings and not losing the common touch. The one quality which Evelyn certainly had in abundance was the ‘common touch’. Over the years the family had a number of very faithful retainers in the Cholsey area. Perhaps even more so than for the rest of us, brief contact with Evelyn brought a memorable ray of sunshine into their lives, such was the warmth and humanity with which she invariably engaged with them. She was as much at ease with them as she was with Kings (or Queens – the Queen Mother had been a friend). Not all the retainers found the name ‘Barbirolli’ easy to pronounce – often to much subsequent amusement; it became often easier to refer to her as ‘Lady Brolli’.

My mother came from a family of five sisters. My brother and sisters and I were thus blessed (if this is the right word) with a significant number of aunts. It was, at times, not difficult to appreciate why P G Wodehouse had developed from his own experience such a phobia about aunts – a theme which infused so much of his writing (memorably encapsulated in one of his last titles Aunts aren’t Gentlemen). However, for us Evelyn was and will always remain in a distinguished class quite of her own. A stern but friendly critic, she was equally our greatest supporter at all times, as we perhaps fulfilled for her most closely the role of the children whom she herself had never had. In that sense, the privilege was and remains entirely ours.