I drove down to Chislehurst to clear his room, after he died. He’d not been there long, in that place, a month or two. It was a cold room, north facing and dark, on the ground floor. I had tried to get them to move him, but he was almost blind and they wouldn’t risk him in a room upstairs. I suppose nobody cared that much, not even me, for we had had a difficult time of it.

It was a day of reconciliation, that last day. We ate lunch together, a plate of mince and mashed potatoes, sitting at a table separated from the shrieks of the dementia patients by a large television tuned to Loose Women. When I left I said ‘I’ll come to see you after Easter’ and he said ‘I’d like that’. He died on Good Friday, which would have irritated him, for he had no time for religion. He had been clear about his wishes: ‘no God, cremation at Golders Green. I’ve seen a lot of old friends off there. Scatter my ashes on Hampstead Heath’. He also asked that the slow movement of his organ concerto be played. He was a composer.

Richard Anthony Sayer Arnell 1917 – 2009

Image courtesy of the composer's daughter
Image courtesy of the composer’s daughter


The miserable little room was almost empty. On the stripped bed a battered suitcase and a pile of clothes. On the chest of drawers the cardboard box he had refused to unpack. To a stranger that would have signified poverty, perhaps, or the extreme losses of old age, the paring away of inessential possessions. It is true that he had been giving things away for a while. It is also the truth that he was poor, having always spent every penny he had and more, persistently and wilfully writing large cheques that had no hope of clearing. Houses, art and wives had all been abandoned along the way. Each time I visited another photograph had vanished from the windowsill. But he had already entrusted me with the only possessions he cared about. They lay in thirty-five boxes in my spare bedroom. They were not only his most precious things; they were his personal identity.

Some years ago, I studied philosophy. On Friday 26th May 1995 I sat my final examination in the History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant. I still have the exam paper, in a file with lecture notes and essays, written neatly by hand. Thinking now about what makes a person who he, or she, is, led me to that file and to John Locke’s theory of personal identity. There was an essay of mine on the very subject. Re-reading it I do not remember the argument so carefully expressed. Red ticks by my tutor Bill Mander, confirm that I did understand it then. According to Locke, as recorded by me, and validated by Bill, ‘if there are parts of my life that I cannot remember, and there is no remembered consciousness of those times, then I was not then the same person as I am now’.

Such was the awkward conclusion Locke was forced to draw from his particular premises. It seems absurd, making a mockery of memory, putting too great an onus on it. Locke in any case was struggling to determine an understanding of far more than mere personal identity; he was just one of the many thinkers of his time trying to counter the threat of scepticism and the contention that we could know nothing. So it was fundamentally important to determine who or what the thing was that could know anything.

It is unfair to take him to task on personal identity. It was my mistake to look for an answer from him – in his philosophy it has a different meaning after all. He predates the Romantics by at least 100 years, and they were the ones who put the self in the centre; no longer concerned with the proof of its continuity but with the celebration of its pre-eminence. To misuse another philosophical concept, I have made a category error – my idea of personal identity belongs to the post-Romantic cult of the individual. And now I think I am getting closer, for my father saw himself in the Romantic mould, as an artist, as a genius even. Perhaps as defined by love.

So who was my father? Who he thinks he was? Who I think he was? Who someone quite other would think he was, judging by the evidence? These questions matter more to me now than they used to, as I nd that my own sense of self is often contradicted by the versions of others. This may be unavoidable, but I suppose I always believed in the integrity of my identity. It is alarming to realise that that belief is probably as unfounded as the fantasies of religion that I, in one of the few agreements with my father, reject.

I had collected the boxes from Suffolk. He spent about ten years there, with Joan his eighth, and last, wife. As he told it, she had tricked him into going to her house in France and then she refused to return. He was rather at her mercy by then, but that was his own fault. The Suffolk place was to be sold, he, anxious, told me on the phone. He asked me to go and retrieve his things. He had explained to me what all these things were before, so when I opened the door to his dusty of ce I knew what to expect.

They lived in a rambling apartment, converted from what had once been a grand house, a few miles inland. My father’s study was a vast, damp room. Several tables, covered in papers, stood in the centre, and all around the walls industrial shelving, stacked with his life’s work. Here were all the scores, the manuscripts, and the piles of orchestral parts. Here were boxes of files labelled ‘ film projects’, ‘opera ideas’ and ‘press cuttings’. Here was an upright piano, dark wood, with chipped keys. Here were cobwebs, and dust, but not disorder. Every score was numbered and shelved in ascend- ing order, left to right. The parts were neatly tied in bundles. Two box files contained cards cataloguing every work, from 1938 on.

That he had kept all of this safe, through too many moves and so many mar- riages, was a triumph; but it also signi ed disaster, for had he known success most of these manuscripts would have been in his publisher’s vaults, not sagging unknown on his shelves.

I brought everything home, as he had begged me to do and put it away in archive boxes, numbered and labelled. If this was his life, could I now begin to understand it? I can read music a little, enough to pick out a tune, but an orchestral score is too complex. I can work out the parts but I cannot hear the whole. I could read his poems, the odd letters from dead friends, the unpaid bills and angry demands from creditors – all neatly led – but what really made him who he was, this I could not decipher. It was in a language I could not translate.

You have to hear music. Someone has to play it. Over the years I had been to the odd concert, and there were a few recordings. It is only recently, beginning a few years before his death that there have been new recordings, every year a few more, until now I have a shelf too, of eleven CDs.

What he did not keep, were diaries. There was a cardboard box of engage- ment books, dozens of them – he had a long life. I looked in them to nd any reference to myself, and there was barely anything. ‘Lunch J’ appears infrequently; but there are other ‘J’s, a half-sister, a half-brother, so it might not be me. Otherwise these books contain a record of meetings and lists of overtures rejected. He would write soliciting commissions, entering com- petitions, calling in imagined favours. Then scrupulously list these, marked with the result: ‘No’, ‘No’, ‘Maybe’, ‘No’. There is nothing private to be discovered – this is his own history of his career.

One of the things that undermined that career was his reckless and selfish pursuit of love, and for that he left no explanation. I think he saw it as a justi able and necessary condition of being a creative person. We never discussed it. And though we did often talk of safe and relatively neutral things like films and books and writers, I don’t recall that he ever mentioned William Hazlitt, whom I’m sure he would have admired, as something of a brilliant outsider, which is how he imagined himself. The other day I read the preface, by Ronald Blythe, to a selection of Hazlitt’s writing and found an account of the crisis in Hazlitt’s life when in 1820, aged forty-three, he fell in love with a nineteen-year-old girl and almost lost his reason. Recovering eventually, he wrote an account of his unrequited passion, Liber Amoris (1823). It was not well received. According to Blythe, it ‘endorsed posterity’s claim to distrust him long after his politics had ceased to offend. Robert Louis Stevenson thought of writing Hazlitt’s biography, then discovered this book and withdrew in horror’. For the rest of his life references to this ‘disgusting’ book would be made in any reviews of his work. If his frank account of demented passion offended many of his con- temporaries it was perhaps only a more personal expression of the theories of Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal. He had published a book in France on much the same theme, De L’Amour in 1822. He too suffered a hopeless passion for an unattainable woman, and the book does relate this, but his more dispassionate, almost scienti c, analysis of the process of falling in love earned not derision but respect.

Stendhal’s metaphor for the power of the imagination in love is a natural phenomenon that he terms ‘crystallization’. On a visit to the salt mines near Salzburg he is shown a branch, thrown down and left in the mine, that in a few months had been transformed by the salt crystals into a dazzlingly beautiful, seemingly jewelled, object. It inspired this: ‘What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one’.

It’s not a new idea, the transformative – deluded – effect of imagination, but a colourful and dramatic metaphor. I think my father would have liked it, though it is not possible to be sure. He was unpredictable in his endorsements. What I do know is that a love he experienced, perhaps for the first time, when he was fifteen years old was not only never forgotten but crystallized over and over again for sixty years, and which in the end brought him not joy but disappointment.

He, Richard Arnell, known as Tony, and Joan met as teenagers (though they wouldn’t have been called that then) on summer holidays in Thorpeness in the early 1930s. Thorpeness, Suffolk, was a curious, artificial place; a private village of holiday houses, eccentrically designed and dotted around a boating lake, the Meare. It was on the Meare that Tony and Joan learnt to sail. There is a short lm shot by my father on one of those holidays; ten minutes or so of black and white 16mm footage of a regatta.

Apparently Joan’s father put a stop to whatever romance was developing. If I could force myself to read it there is a manuscript of a novel in which my father tells this story. I found it in a box with his poems, bound with string, written in his scrawling script with the adolescent title: ‘Cupid’s Arrow’. I have deciphered a few paragraphs, and the crux of the matter is there: ‘she’, ‘her father’, ‘I’. But I knew nothing of this person until one of his telephone calls.

It was 1991. He, now 74, said he had left his wife Audrey and that he was living with Joan, someone he had known a long time ago. It wasn’t the rst call of this kind. It was ridiculous of course, and tragic and stupid, but the worst of it was that he believed that Joan, after all these years, was the love of his life, his happy ending.

I had lunch with them at a restaurant in London. It was clear that they had nothing more in common than a shared memory of a summer in 1934. A while later I visited them in Suffolk. When they were out of the room, one of her daughters said, ‘Of course you do realise that they hate each other?’ but by then they were married.

He told me once that she complained that he had no money, ‘She can’t understand how someone with three pages in Who’s Who is poor’. What he hadn’t explained to her was that he had provided all that information himself and I’m sure that he had told her that he was ‘the greatest living symphonist in Europe’. Someone did write that about him, and he photocopied it many times to send out to everyone he knew. He drank, as he had done for many years, to dull his disappointment. In the end she died first, which put an end to hers. In between the pages of his battered blue Letts engagement book of 1990 I found a scrap of newsprint. It announced the death of Joan’s husband. Was it then he contacted her, arranged to meet? Over what celebratory dish did he look across the table at that elderly woman and see young Joan, sailing on the Meare? And she too, must have seen not a dishevelled old man, draining his glass, but tall, slim, redheaded Tony, who had loved her.

Once upon a time when he was young, he was the protégé of the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who played and commissioned his work. There was a moment in some sort of sun for him, a few years of success. At this time he composed a symphonic portrait of Lord Byron. It is, he wrote, ‘an attempt to create, in music, the illusion of a real character . . . a portrait of the poet himself’. In 1952, when it was completed and performed, my father was thirty- five, the age Byron was at his death. Not I think a coincidence.

A recording of this was made two years before his death. When I listen to it now, and to his later works, I hear too much; not only that younger man I do remember, the one who took me to the zoo or the cinema; but also the one he let me see when I was old enough, the one who drank and struggled for recognition. Also the one he didn’t think I saw, who had misunderstood everything that might have brought him some security, or even happiness. For me the man intrudes. The music is too personal. That is a shame, for I know much of it to be fine.

I did as he asked and he was cremated at Golders Green. My American half-sister wanted to share the scattering of his ashes on Hampstead Heath but seemed to be lame so we could not walk far from the car park. The box was larger than I had expected, and the ashes sticky. I don’t think I did my best by him, for we dumped him under the trees in a shady avenue near the Spaniard’s Inn. Not a part of the Heath he would have chosen – I’m sure of that.

By Jennifer Johnson 

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