Bells, Music and Burlesque in Victoria Park


Gareth Rees reminisces about the day he and his friend Robbie were invited to play music at the park-keeper’s cottage in Victoria Park.

We arrived early and sat outside the venue in the park sipping our fee in the form of Bishop’s Tipple ale. It was a fine spring evening and still light. But it was chilly and I was disappointed that the trees were not yet in leaf or showing their blossom. And then I saw the bell which I thought had been shipped back to China.

The park-keeper’s cottage no longer housed the park-keeper. It had been converted into a place for public art. The man responsible for the project came to join us and I asked him about the bell.

There are several military monuments in the park and one in particular had caught my attention when first I used to stroll in this pleasant place. It was like a miniature pagoda with a large bell hanging inside with an inscription which, translated, had the alluring words, “Perpetual Felicity Achieved”.

Happy all the time, forever and forever? Sounds great. At the same time, eternity scares me although I might be mistakenly defining eternity as being a matter of time rather than being out of time. Happiness in occasional moments, an occasional oasis in the desert of distress sounds a more realistic aspiration. And I was a bit distressed when, one day, I saw, that the felicity bell was no longer in its pagoda. The Art-in-the-Park man told us the story.

The bell had been damaged by vandals and removed to the park-keeper’s shed where, upturned, it had been used as a repository for spades and forks. The Art in the Park man, or Rocky as he’s called, was pained to see this ignominious end for a fine old bell and he became instrumental in a process that saw him accompanying the bell on a journey back to its original home, not in Victoria Park, but in China from where it had been stolen in 1900 by a raiding party from the British gunboat HMS Orlando.

Rocky’s mission was much appreciated in China. He was interviewed on television and his hosts rewarded his effort by commissioning the oldest bell makers in the country to build a replica of the bell and it is this bell which now hangs in Victoria Park.

And there’s a footnote. Rocky had done some research and to his amazement had discovered that a great grandfather of his who’d fled famine in Ireland for Royal Navy square meals had been a member of the raiding party from that same HMS Orlando.

It was getting cold in the gloaming so I went into the old park-keeper’s little walled garden to warm myself by a log fire and to watch people arriving for the evening’s entertainment.

Robbie had told me we were due to perform at 9.50 so there was still an hour to go. I was in a mood where I just wanted to do the job and go. I hardly knew anybody in the arriving crowd.  One woman I did know a bit, a former girlfriend of Robbie’s, was going to do some burlesque after us. She asked me to introduce her as Veronique Devine. I asked her if she was going to take her clothes off but she said striptease was American burlesque. European burlesque was more about the peasantry satirising the toffs.

As 9.50 got nearer, I went indoors to check the tuning on my guitar and I was upset to see a stranger playing my instrument. It’s a territory thing… He obviously read my disapproval and apologised. He said he’d never seen a guitar like it and couldn’t help picking it up. ‘Is it actually a guitar ?’ he asked. ‘It’s so tiny.’ I said it was made in China and probably shrank on the long journey from Asia to Europe.

More people were trickling into the building in expectation of the show starting shortly. And then a large group of women came in dressed as I imagined women dressed in Berlin nightclubs in the 1930s. Seamed black stockings. Immense thighs. And then I realised they were men and I guessed from the military barracks at HMS Nelson just across the road.

The bloke who’d been playing my guitar sang some songs and then it was our turn. Well, Robbie did a song on his own first and I used the wait to fret. I wished I wasn’t there and then prayed that, if I had to be there, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself by forgetting words and arrangements. The inner argument went its usual way, one voice saying I’d collapse with panic and I’d end up lying on the floor, my arms waving in the air and crying for my mummy. The other voice was offering up the cliché about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

The latter words won. Well, it’s not so difficult with Robbie. He gives it spine and spunk, projects rather than wilts, and the example fortified me.

I wasn’t sure if our blend of gospel and blues was right for the audience but it was Robbie’s call. We did songs about alcoholism, grief over a mother’s death and the need to get out of town before something really bad happens. The applause at the end sounded good enough. I gave Robbie a hug and a kiss and left for the tavern in the Hole in the Wall.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.