The 122nd Henry Johnson Commemoration Dinner ~ Saturday 27 February 2010
The Banqueting Suite, Birmingham Council House
On the evening of Saturday 27th February 2010, 116 ringers and guests, met in memory of the late Henry Johnson, a tradition that has been observed for the last 122 years. This year’s chairman was John Loveless. The venue for this annual gathering, The Banqueting Suite at Birmingham Council House, seems to have become part of this tradition, with an opulence and standard of service unmatched by alternative venues.
The convivial gathering of friends from far and wide enjoyed a three-course meal starting with leek and potato soup. Succulent chicken breast with wild mushroom sauce was the main course with an exquisite pear charlotte for dessert. There was a little consternation concerning the vegetarian option, which contrary to the menu, turned out to be a dish containing aubergine. Eric Bumstead, one of the speakers, has a mild allergy and there was some concern that swelling of the tongue might affect his speech!
Replete from the meal and suitably refreshed from the bar, the company was seated once more in anticipation of the speeches, which began with the traditional “Health of Her Majesty The Queen”, proposed by the chairman. In keeping with tradition the next toast was taken in silence to “The Memory of the Late Henry Johnson”
In the short interval before the main speeches got underway, Steve Horton was heard to comment on the seating plan. He had noticed that not all husbands and wives were seated at the same tables and was anxiously searching Richard Grimmett out to put in an early request for next year. It is pure speculation that Richard was temporarily unavailable because he was talking to Janet.
The “Health of The Church” was proposed by Jo Beavan, who introduced herself as a school teacher, and remarked that addressing a class of teenagers seemed less daunting than assembled gathering before her, although she hoped that we might be a bit better behaved. She spoke about how she cared for the Church, and that for her, bell ringing had a spiritual side which she felt was often overlooked, with some ringers hastily departing so as to avoid the church service that followed. She had experienced three models of bell ringing over the years. The first, as a member of the village church, where most ringers were also in the choir; which presented its own difficulties when both activities were called upon at the same time. Her university experience of ringing differed in that the ringers were an integral part of the congregation. In her later experiences of ringing in a modern church she found herself rather bemused that service ringing had to stop 15 minutes before the service started, so that the synthesizer and drum kit, which were stored in the ringing area, could be assembled. In conclusion, Jo described ringing as a worshipful activity that provides a service to the church. In addition to calling the faithful to gather, ringing serves to remind people that the Church is not just an historical building, but also a living congregation.
Father Crispin Pailing, from Perry Barr, delivered the response. He said he was often surprised to hear of tensions between ringers and the clergy, and was happy to report that this was not his experience; instead he has always found the relationships very close. He paid tribute to Simon Linford and the other ringers who are currently training a band at Perry Barr. He tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid telling many jokes, and amused us with many anecdotes. Having given up alcohol for lent, he was happy to have a “keep in touch” evening with us just to be sociable. He revealed that his father was a ringer and that in his youth he had taken pride in his ability to clear a railway carriage in minutes by ringing hand bell thumbs with accomplices. Crispin said that that he could match this feat just as effectively by merely uttering the words “shall we pray?”
The speeches were suspended temporarily for a spellbinding hand bell performance and nobody was seen to leave the room. David Pipe, Mark Eccleston, Phillip Saddleton, Michael Wilby, David Hull and Richard Grimmett, treated us to Phobos, Bristol, Phobos, described by the chairman as rung in true Birmingham style – “at very short notice”.
Eric Bumstead, fortunately none the worse for his close encounter with the aubergine, proposed the toast to the “Guests and Visitors”. He introduced himself as the first Canadian to address the Henry Johnson Dinner. He welcomed the many clergy attending and was pleased to include Martin Dusek, vicar of Moseley along with Robert Slater, one of the Trustees of the current Moseley Bell project. Sympathy was extended to all the long suffering non-ringers who kindly lend their partners to ringing may be once or twice a week (or three or four times…), but he also thanked them for joining in the social side. Regular visitors and old friends, missing at the dinner for some years were all welcomed back and Eric was pleased to note support for the Chairman from several of the officers of the SRCY. To maintain the balance, a warm welcome was also extended to Martin Cansdale, current Master of the ASCY, especially as he was due to respond to Eric’s toast. Particular mention was given to Christine Andrew on a personal note for Eric, as last year she had travelled quarter of the way round the world just to ring in his wedding peal. He said he was very pleased to be able to propose this toast as it gave him an opportunity to thank the many people who had made him feel welcome as a visitor.
Thanking Eric for his kind words, Martin Cansdale stepped up to the podium to respond on behalf of the guests and visitors and to propose the “Continued Prosperity of the St Martin’s Guild”. This was not a difficult task as he considered that the Guild was in many ways a pioneering presence in the world of ringing. He wondered, though, if there was any connection between the start of Birmingham’s illustrious 12 bell trophy-winning period and John Loveless’s simultaneous departure from the Birmingham ringing scene! St Martin’s Guild ringers have always been at the forefront of the advancement in ringing, whether in composition – the advent of Orion, he said, gave the rest of the ringing world some headaches; Henry Johnson had been a notable composer and the Guild seem to effortlessly produce talented composers, Rod Pipe, David Hull and Mark Eccleston among them – or in technological advances: St Martin’s being the world’s first ring of sixteen. Martin complimented the Guild on its ability to innovate and felt it was assured of a bright future with the continuing strength and enthusiasm of its membership.
The response, given by Simon Linford was an entertaining mixture of anecdotes, jokes and wise words. He ruefully suggested that his contribution tonight was due to his unfortunate mistake of saying “if you can’t find anyone else to say a few words, I will…” He said that this was on a par with saying “well, if you can’t find anyone else…” in the pub after ringing, to someone who is trying to fix a peal the next day. He mentioned that in conversation with someone who had heard him speak at another event he had casually asked “did you hear my last speech?” and was somewhat deflated by the response “I hope so.” He obviously should have told them the centipede joke. In the serious part of his speech he said that continued prosperity was dependent on good foundations at the grass roots level. By that he meant that we should strive to teach people young, teach them well and provide a good structure for them to advance and progress. The recent formation of the Birmingham branch of Kids Ring Out, in which Simon has been instrumental, shows a commitment by the Guild to these principles. On the subject of teaching he noted that there are few good ringers with poor ringing styles. On a positive note he said that attendance at Guild practices and events was the best it had been for many years, thereby providing a structure of opportunity for all Guild members. He cautioned people to remember that the Guild is essentially an amateur organization and encouraged people to take initiatives. Paraphrasing John F Kennedy he said “Ask not what your guild can do for you, but what you can do for your guild…”
The second part of Simon’s speech was to propose the “Health of the Chairman”. He recounted his “revealing” first encounter with Jake in the lounge of his flat, and went on to admit that notwithstanding this event, he had been one of his early ringing heroes. Simon had nervously asked Jake to ring in a peal with him early on in his peal-ringing career and had been surprised and gratified by Jake saying yes. This was a measure of Jake’s willingness to help up and coming ringers. He embodies the quote by Kevin Spacey: “I feel it’s a responsibility for anyone who breaks through a certain ceiling… to send the elevator back down and give others a helpful lift.” illustrating a sentiment that can be applied well to ringing,
With this resounding endorsement John Loveless rounded off the formal proceedings of the evening. He congratulated Richard Grimmett on the smooth organisation of the event. He gave tribute to Birmingham as a place where ringing opportunities abound. He recalled the years he spent in Birmingham in the early 1970s, when the Birmingham Rep was new, Steve Barton was the Master of the Guild and he remembered the many characters from the past such as George and Henry Fearn who were the foremost ringers of the era. It was a time of change in Birmingham and some of the big names on the ringing scene were leaving, but this meant that new opportunities arose for newcomers like Jake, that were theirs for the taking. Amongst those “newcomers” he particularly remembered Richard Grimmett, Paul Mills and Mark Regan. He thanked everyone for their contribution to ringing and entreated us all to continue to invest time in the young and inexperienced so that the strength of the Guild endures.
All that remained was for the assembled party to finish the beer and spend the last hour or so catching up with old friends and soaking up the atmosphere of another successful HJ.