Memories of Christ Church Southgate by Dr Martin Neary LVO

Posted on November 29, 2012

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Dr Martin Neary LVO

Distinguished organist and choral conductor Dr Martin Neary LVO has a long association with Christ Church Southgate. Former Organist and Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, we were delighted when in October this year, he was awarded a Lambeth Degree by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

We are delighted that he found time to write about his memories of our church for the programme accompanying our 150th Anniversary Concert on 25th November 2012.

Christ Church’s Director of Music, Harvey Brink, who was an outstanding chorister during my time as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, has invited me to write a personal memoire about my family links with Christ Church Southgate.

My earliest memory takes me back to 1943, when I was three, not to the church itself but to the lovely neighbouring Minchenden Garden, with its 400 year-old oak tree, where my mother would sometimes take my sister, Denise, and me to have a picnic. A few years later we dutifully attended Sunday school on Sunday afternoons.  To begin with classes were in the old Walker Hall, although when we grew older we “graduated” to the church.

From the age of seven however I had other duties on Sunday mornings; first at Holy Trinity Brompton, where my father, Leonard, was one of the regular bass baritones, and where I became a chorister, before in 1948 being accepted as one of the Children of the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace.  And so it was not until my voice broke, at the age of fifteen, that I became anything like a regular member of Christ Church again.

Soon after I was confirmed, I was invited to become a server at the Saturday morning Eucharist, and before long I joined the Anglican Young People’s Association.  I also frequently attended Evensong, although one of the attractions in the summer months was leaving home in time to watch some cricket on the Walker Ground – where in 1949 I saw the legendary Denis Compton obligingly score a century in one of his Benefit matches; since when my family would probably claim that I have spent almost as much time watching cricket as I have making music! (After leaving school, I was invited to play in one game for the Southgate Club on the famous ground; I scored one run, and so not surprisingly was never selected again.)

By then I had started to play the organ seriously, having lessons with the Organist and Choirmaster at the Chapel Royal, Harry Gabb; and at the age of seventeen, on the strength of a recommendation from our local doctor (!),  I was appointed Organist of St. Mary’s, Hornsey Rise. Inevitably my appearances at Christ Church services then became spasmodic, but this did not prevent my practising the organ, thanks to the good offices of successive organists, Angus Oldaker and Peter Branker. I practised a great deal, at all times of the day and night, and am sure this helped enormously in my winning the organ scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (where one of the Fellows was Harvey Brink’s distinguished grandfather, Charles Brink, Regius Professor of Classics).

Rather than studying for a degree in music however, I had decided to read Theology, as I was thinking in terms of Ordination; in this I had been much encouraged by successive Christ Church vicars, Charles Plummer and Murray MacLeod.

I have scant memories of the vicar in the 1940s, John Stainsby, but I do remember the impact made by the arrival of Charles Plummer, and later of his curates, John Yates, Bevan Wardrobe and Jeremy Walsh, who lived opposite to us at the Clergy House, 62 Oakfield Road. They all seemed to appreciate my parents’ hospitality (at No.73); and with John there were numerous musical evenings, when he would play Bach preludes on the piano very sensitively. (Little did I anticipate that both John and Jeremy would later become Bishops, with John ending his career by assisting Archbishop Carey as Bishop at Lambeth).

Other memories from those early days at Christ Church include performances of the passion play by Dorothy Sayers, Man born to be King, when a stage was erected in the middle of the choir stalls, and to reach the organ you had to crawl under some temporary scaffolding. I know this because,  in order to turn pages, I had to do it!

The Choir of Christ Church Southgate at Brereton Hall, Cheshire – Low Sunday 1958

I can’t remember the first time I was allowed to play the organ for a service at Christ Church – it was probably for a funeral – but I have a clear memory of being drafted in by Peter Branker to play for the Carol Service in 1959, when the assistant organist, Norman Lilley was suddenly taken ill. And thus began a friendship with Peter, who invited me on several occasions to act as accompanist on the choristers’ annual camps at Brereton Hall in Cheshire (left). Another musical event was the annual carol concert at Church House, close to Minchenden School, when Angus Oldaker used to share the conducting with his friend Leslie Spencer.  In the early 1960s they kindly invited me to be the accompanist which I much enjoyed, not least because they hired a superb piano! I was also involved in a centenary service of thanksgiving in, I suppose, 1962, when I made an arrangement for choir, organ and brass of “Now thank we all our God”. It did not receive universal acclaim – John Yates’s mother coming round the following morning to complain to my mother about the awful music, without realising who was responsible!

I was not deterred, however, and by this time I had decided to take a different career direction, completing my degree by reading music.

Martin on one of the choir’s Annual Summer Camps in the 1960’s (photo :Graham Knight)

My life thus far had been very much based in Southgate, and I fear I must have reduced the lifespan of the Christ Church organ, on which I remember practising the day before winning Second Prize in the St. Alban’s International Organ Festival in June 1963. Soon afterwards I went to America for three months to study conducting, and, on returning to London, I was appointed Assistant Organist at St. Margaret’s Church Westminster, and so my appearances in Christ Church became increasingly limited.  Probably the last occasion I was in the church was to give a recital in the 1970s, when I was Organist of Winchester Cathedral.

From the 1960s, on the other hand, my parents took an increasing part in the life of the church, despite moving to Winchmore Hill.  My father became successively a voluntary member of the choir, Editor of the Magazine and Church Warden, while my mother, Jeanne, now aged 96, to whom I have read this article to check the facts, used to contribute Le petit coin français.

I would like to end this short appreciation of all that Christ Church has meant to me and my family by saying how marvellous it is that one of the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary should be a performance, by the church’s musical forces, of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass; fifty years ago this would have been inconceivable. So, many congratulations to the current musicians and to the church they serve!  May they continue to sing unto the Lord with a merry voice!

Dr Martin Neary LVO

Written and contributed as a feature for the programme accompanying the 150th Anniversary Concert on 25th November 2012.

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