Working Lives

Career choices – art and music (1955-2012)

Location: Norwich

David had a fascinating career as a musician, artist and stone carver. He is well known for his sculptures on the porch of Norwich Cathedral, but here he talks about his life alternating music, graphic design and even a stint as a brush salesman.

Growing up with music

My dad was a signwriter and an interior decorator, but was also a very good musician. He played jazz piano and ran his own band in Yorkshire, ‘Ted Holgate and his Band’ In those days music was just his sideline as he had to be out working every day to bring the money home. My parents moved to Romford where I was born, in a flat just off the High Street in April 1939. World War Two started the following September so my mum took me up to her sister’s in Blackpool and sort of deposited me there with my Auntie. My Father landed a job at Marshall’s airport in Cambridge where he became foreman of the paint shop. His work involved painting the camouflage and decals onto the aeroplanes used in the air battles. It was a war protected job which meant that he could avoid getting called-up.

During the war and after it there were lots and lots of servicemen everywhere, on bases and in RAF camps so he was doing gigs all the time to entertain the servicemen and women. Whilst he was employed there my father took lodgings in Cambridge, so my mum moved down and we all lived for a while in the centre of Cambridge city. My parents were able to buy a little cottage in Trumpington after the war, and they then surprised me with a sister.

I was brought up with music, was taught piano, and started going to lessons when I was seven. I took the grades but never really enjoyed it. All the other kids were out playing but I had to do my piano practice every day. Playing bloody Tchaikovsky and stuff I really didn’t want to know. I did it because I was a good boy and I did what my parents wanted. I am glad I did it, but I hated the exams with all the sweat pouring off me!

How I became an apprentice stone carver

My first job on leaving school in 1955 was as an apprentice stone carver. At sixteen and towards the end of my school days in Cambridge I would go to Heffers Bookshop above which they held exhibitions. There was Kettles Yard also which was in a beautiful part of the city and had many galleries where I saw works by Henri Gaudier Brzeska and such like. It was started by Helen Ede. I was brought up on this stuff, so all I wanted was be part of it.

I can remember cycling into the city from Trumpington to get to school, and I’d see something, snow or a sunset, or an aeroplane going across the sun, and I always thought when I get into the art class I’ll paint that. I thought that everybody felt like me. I really thought that I would be a rich and famous painter by the time I was thirty. I’d be in the art class several times a week, doing ceramics, pottery, modelling, painting or drawing. There was a moment when I realised that I was doing something original, because one winter’s day I was cycling in and I noticed how on a snowy day it can be very grey, and when it is you get a grey sky and that makes everything else look grey, kind of washed-out colours. So there is the grey road, the grey houses and the grey sky, and the only way you can really distinguish what is going on is with the snow lying on the roofs and on the ledges of the buildings and on the tops of the trees, and that picks everything out from the grey. I just went into school and got a piece of big grey sugar-paper and white paint. I sketched on it lightly with a pencil and painted just using white on the grey paper. And you know what you then get a scene. You can see everything as the form is given by the white. And so you can read everything else into the picture. I happily did this, not thinking anything about it, and the next week when I went in there were all these grey sugar papers with white scenes, and the art master had got everyone to do the same thing. That was the first time I had any indication that I had a kind of creative way of looking at things.

It had been my ambition and intention to go to art school. But just towards the end of my schooldays everything went abstract with the influence of Picasso and suchlike, and I didn’t understand it at all. I loved all the English painters, Stanley Spencer, John Bratby, all those other figurative painters. The lovely tradition of English painting was where I was at, but it all went abstract. I couldn’t tell the difference between a good piece of abstract or a bad piece! If I’d gone to art school, I’d have been a charlatan.

The thing was that in those days if you went to art school you were either going to be a teacher, or you were going to do what was called ‘commercial art’ things like adverts, illustrations or signwriting, just like my father had done. It wasn’t really a formalised thing at that time. There wasn’t much TV, and we didn’t even have a television. There weren’t any TV commercials at that time as it was just the BBC. So the advertising industry was in its infancy. It was really just newspaper advertising with very few magazines in print as this was not long after the War. Then my dad landed a job in the painting and decorating department at Cambridge City College teaching apprentices signwriting. He also taught graining and marbling where he would take a plaster column and turn it literally into a given kind of marble. He knew all the marble formations and was considered a very clever guy. He heard that a sculptor, David Kindersley, who was also teaching at the art school was looking for an apprentice.

We went to see him and took some studies of my artwork from school with me, and I got the job! David Kindersley had been apprenticed to Eric Gill who was a known name at that time in the sculpting world. Later I began to realise that I was going to work for an internationally renowned letter carver. I was to be part of the Gill school of lettering, which is why I am traditional where that is concerned and still respond as I do to the quality of his work. Kindersley was the black sheep of his very aristocratic family. They were related to the Bowes Lyons, so there was all this history on that side of the family but all he wanted to be was a stone carver and a sculptor. He then moved to Cambridge and started his own workshop studio there. I got really enthusiastic about joining his studio once I’d started.

Working for an internationally known letter carver

The apprenticeship was five years. I had to cycle five miles in the morning to get out to the studio where I would be sweeping up, making the tea, sorting the chisels out as well as sharpening them, rubbing down stone, all that kind of stuff. I got fed up as I wanted to be creative.

In the meantime I was playing double bass and piano with a band and we’d go out drinking and then go on to gigs at the American bases getting back at one or two o’clock in the morning! I was getting paid the two pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence apprentice rate out of which I was expected to pay my keep. I always owed my mum lots of money. After five years I was finally allowed to get my hands on the stone and chisels and then I became an assistant for a couple of years. I had been with DK for seven years and I was then twenty three years old.

A lesson in lettering

David Kindersley had already designed the Kindersley street name alphabet, and nearly all our street names on signposts are written in this alphabet. It was designed specifically so that you could read it easily when you look at it sideways and downwards.

David Kindersley got together with his friend Will Carter, an artist and designer with his own print press, to design a new typeface called Klang. They had a wood stand a bit like the rack in Scrabble on which you stand the letters. They had got the letters on separate bits of card and were sticking the bits of card up on this ledge, putting them all together and seeing whether the spacing worked. The spacing is the most important part of lettering. You can have a really beautiful design and face, but if it is badly spaced it will look awful. Likewise you can have a pretty badly designed letter form, but if the spacing is really good it will look OK. Spacing is so crucial that we use space to indicate the end of one word and the beginning of the next. So if the space between the letters isn’t fairly well balanced you wouldn’t be able to read the letters. The spacing of lettering is an absolute art. So there they were, trying to find a system that they could impose on this street name alphabet, so that unskilled people could lay them out. They were doing this by trial and error and trimming little bits off the card, They would then be stamped out of aluminium, painted black, and the spacing should be okay.

I had been really interested in photography from a very early age and I had my own darkroom and had built my own enlarger. I looked at them doing this, and I thought, ‘I can design a machine that will read the letters’. They were explaining that they thought what they were doing was taking the mass of the blackness of the letter and apportioning a proportion of white in and around the letter that made a standard colour. A sort of greyness that would be the right mix all the way along. I thought I can build a machine to read that. All you would have to do is have a long box, have a light at the end of the box and divide it in the middle. You would have two light cells -in those days they were selenium light cells – and the selenium would give off an electrical charge when light falls on it, all dependent on the quality of selenium though. So there would be two selenium cells at the other end of the box, and a carriage where you could put the letter in, and you would find the centre of the letter by moving it over the dividing thing, so you would get a balance between the two selenium cells. You could also have shutters that come in and apportion the white space round the letters.

I built that first spacing machine and we did all our research was working until ten o’clock at night trying to crack this whole thing about what we were doing. We were getting the letters reproduced on ‘clear cell’ and once we had these were then reading the whole alphabet and apportioning it in that way. And by doing that we discovered that the result was crap! And it wasn’t to do with apportioning white spaces with black letters either – that wasn’t what was going on when you space letters really well. So we began to be a real research team, trying to find out what was going on when you do this or that. And in the end it actually turned out to be very simple. We were having to make judgements about balance. (Drawing in the air.) So if you have a letter here and another letter there, in the middle these measurements are not the same.

When you think about it, of course that’s what’s happening around us. We live in gravity and so the centre of gravity is crucially important, especially in the built environment. All these letters were originally designed by Greek calligraphers working with the classic Roman letters and so everything is architectural. I’m giving you a lesson here! And I think I discovered all of this. But if you look at things today everything is computer generated – all our lettering now is computer generated – spacing has gone out of the window completely. People generally don’t know why some letters look lovely whilst others don’t. We are surrounded by really bad spacing!

There was a time when I was so distressed by the bad lettering I saw around that I had to learn how to actually ignore it just to survive. I taught myself how to do that, and now I only notice good lettering. I say to myself ‘oh, that’s really nicely spaced’. It’s like visual noise and visual music . I helped build three machines ultimately, each getting more and more refined, and they were all based on the photographic principles of light and reading it. I didn’t get any credit for that because I was an apprentice. I was working for my governor, DK! After my apprenticeship finished the structure at the studio changed and I became self employed.

After I left ,computers began to take over and so eventually there was a computer equivalent of my machine and it was apportioned, like digital reading. That spacing system which we devised was utilised by what they called ‘Letraset’ transfer lettering. You used to rub letters and symbols out by transfers. Underneath the letters there were a couple of little dots or dashes showing the space that you had to give to the letters, and so as long as you matched those up you would get fairly good spacing. This was so that people who weren’t skilled could place it reasonably well. It wasn’t perfect but it was much closer, and that was my spacing system.

Into the sixties music scene with Anglia Television

At that time I’d become a pretty good jazz bass player, and was doing lots of gigs including playing for Black Anna at the Jolly Butchers on Ber Street in Norwich. I also used to travel up to Norwich to play at the jazz club in ‘the Cellars’ at Orford Yard. The pianist was Peter Fenn, music director of Anglia Television. In those days television was all live, there wasn’t any video tape recording or VTR as we now know it. So he booked me in for an audition. Every day I just practiced to try and get my sight reading up to scratch. I then got in the car to drive up to Norwich for this audition at Anglia Television. I finished the audition and thought I had done quite well with most of the music, but then Pete gave me one number which I will never forget – Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. ‘Well, OK, you did mess up on that one.’ I replied ‘Pete, I’ve never played anything in C flat!’ He was really nice and said, ‘Well, I tell you what, just do one gig…come and do one show and see how you do.’ In those days it would take hours and hours to do a television show. If it was a half-hour show.. So you would turn up in the morning, set your instruments up and get all the cables sorted out. The scenery would have to be arranged, and only then would we have a rehearsal with the band and go through all the material. Meanwhile the cameras are working out how they are going to move, because cameras in those days were huge. In that first show there was a full half-hour of music and a really good singer So we recorded the show in the evening, and afterwards we all went to the green room for ittle ‘drinky poos’ and listened to the playback tape on good speakers. And I think on that first night I did OK. I listened and didn’t hear any wrong notes and neither did anyone else. It ended up with me doing the double bass playing for all the music on Anglia Television. The advertisers were throwing money at commercial television and the television companies were making so much money that we musicians were getting paid vast amounts!

I was earning £15 a week as a skilled stone carver which was like a builder’s rate but was a fair wage in those days. You could run a family on fifteen quid a week. I could then travel up to Norwich from Cambridge, go to the Anglia TV studios, work for an afternoon session and earn another £15. Some weeks I would be up there three times a week! I was earning so much money I could change my car every year. So in 1962 ‘63 everything was beginning to expand. . Anyway, I had this lovely little blue Austin A40, a bit like a mini Estate car, and I used to tie my double bass on the roof rack and drive up to Norwich from Cambridge. One day DK told me I’d have to do either do the stone carving or the music. I chose the music! As well as the music I had possible commissions in London with book publishers for book jacket design and wood carving in Heals furniture department

The dream house

I married Anne and we lived in a tiny little house in Ainsworth Street in Cambridge. The rent was twelve and sixpence a week. But within two weeks DK offered me my work back. So I dropped the London commissions.

Driving back after gigs in Norwich to Cambridge I could see the countryside changing. Farm machinery was developing in the sixties and labourers were losing their jobs on the farms. You could now run a farm with just two guys. You could pick up all sorts of houses cheaply, some really lovely old buildings. Those old houses were really cheap and I used to drive back looking at those houses. My young wife and I would then come out at the weekend and have another look round. We came across several old houses that were around about a thousand pounds each. I came across this place, Limetree House in Aslacton, that had been empty for four years. It was completely overgrown, but it was a listed Georgian building with a double-hip roof. Just like a red brick doll’s house but with an acre of ground. And it had a well in the back garden with six lime trees along the front and its own drive.

I hadn’t got any money but I managed to get the house for 750 quid. Would you believe it, £750! I used to come up at the weekends and decorate it. Mind you it had one cold tap and only one electricity plug, but it did have electric lights. No bathroom, no loos, and I had to bury the bucket every week .We lived there very happily for many years.

The dance bands, pop music and ‘The Tempos’

So we moved to Norfolk. By that time I was still doing sessions at Anglia Television and I’d also joined a ‘big band’ dance band that played regularly at The Norwood Rooms five or six nights a week. My wife was singing by then as I had trained her and she used to come and do gigs with me. She was good!

The Samson and Hercules were looking to put a small band together and I rehearsed half a dozen numbers there with Alan Dennis, another guitarist, and a girl singer. In those days most bands just did dance band stuff.

This was at the beginning of the pop music explosion. I had done a few bits of pop music for television but this was right at the start, even before the Beatles. We actually performed very early on what was called ‘The Hit Parade’. We covered it by getting hold of the records, writing the music and lyrics down and tried to make it sound exactly like the record. There I was now doing the television work, playing in the ‘big band’ and running this little group, with my wife as lead singer, who were installed as the resident group in the Samson and Hercules. We were making more money than ever and it was good. The big band sound was excellent, but the little band hadn’t been sounding very good in comparison as it had just been a piano trio. But here we were doing these pop covers, and we could churn them out quickly because we were a small group. It didn’t take a lot of doing. I can remember all the covers we did and the first one was Kathy Kirby. Of course my wife sang lead and we guys did the back-up. In those days ‘The Hit Parade’ covered things like Eddy Calvert and his golden trumpet, and other stuff like that … it was just beginning to change to a new sort of music scene. The Everly Brothers were coming along and other kinds of pop. So we did covers of these new songs, and as a result the crowds built up, and it ended up they had to put ‘house full’ notices outside the Samson and Hercules. You couldn’t get any more people in! We called our band ‘The Tempos’ because we had to play for dancing as well as pop music. Some nights there would be strict tempo dancing only, but other nights we would pack the place out with pop. I used to go up to London to the Mecca Ballroom HQ’s to argue for more money as we’d got the place full for them. We used to do American bases as well, so we were working all the time. It was a lovely lifestyle, because Anne and I would be working every night together.

I kept arguing with Mecca for more money for us musicians. The guys started asking me, ‘Can we do less work?’F or musicians that was profound! So I would go up to London and plead the case for more money. But the head of the band department said ‘We can’t pay you any more, you’re already one of the highest-paid bands on the circuit’ The only thing they could offer was a job in London where the pay was better, something called London weighting. We all agreed to this and the band got a job playing at ‘The Lyceum’ in The Strand, opposite Joe Loss and his orchestra. We were also offered a slot at the Empire in Leicester Square. So we were doing afternoons in ‘The Empire’ Leicester Square and evenings at ’The Lyceum’. This was a real big deal for a small provincial band from Norfolk!

London calls

We rented a flat in London in the Greek quarter just off The Seven Sisters Road. So we would live and work in London most of the time, but between the show runs we could also get back to Norfolk for short stints. I still had our house in Aslacton. And as my wife was the singer in ‘The Tempos’ it all worked out nicely and we enjoyed the two contrasting lifestyles.

Now Phil Tate, who was head of the band department at Mecca would come in and listen to us, because the manager had complained and was causing us a lot of problems. He would sit in the balcony and listen to us play. One afternoon he said ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with anything you’re doing.’ But it was really interesting times as a lot of the people who came to these events were really good dancers as it was at the top of the London dance hall scene. Phil Tate said, ‘Well, there’s a new club opening in Bristol and for that you’ll need a six-piece band with two girl singers and four fellas. And if you can get this together we will pay you to rehearse’. We would be allowed to call ourselves by a new name, and the band was to perform in something like a residents club. Mecca were starting to change their business model and were promoting this new craze called ‘a disco’ rather than their dance halls. So I formed a new group called ‘The Rainbow People.’ as this was at the start of flower power time. In the club in Brighton we shared the stage with a DJ. Our six piece did 45 minute slots alternating with the DJ over the evening. We were on a rotating stage, a bit like a child’s roundabout, and it was a proper show!

The Rainbow People. Television is for being on

I changed the band entirely. I held auditions in London to find three other guys, and got everything all sorted or so I thought. When me and Anne got down to Bristol for rehearsals two of them didn’t turn up! There was me and Anne, the guitar player Roger Cotton and the drummer Chas O’Brian. There were the four of us but we had two missing. I had to quickly go round Bristol looking for a couple of people and found a guy called Pete Budd for one of the guitars, and Samantha Gordon (who was only 15) for female vocals. I put us all together and rehearsed. We only had about a week, or ten days at the most to get everything together for the opening night. But it turned out great and the band was spot on! So there we were, rehearsing every week and I was writing all the arrangements for the band.

I think it was Lawrence Olivier when once asked what he watched on television said, in his posh voice, ‘Television? Television isn’t for watching. Television is for being on.’ So you see I don’t listen to a lot of music actually, and I only listen to it as a kind of study to hear what’s going on at any time. We played for the TV show ‘Mr & Mrs’ and the producer thought we were so good he offered us our own TV series! This was ‘The Seeds of Love with ‘The Rainbow People’ where I was commissioned to write arrangements of West Country folk songs and perform them like pop songs. So we were like a pop group doing traditional folk songs. I had to stay true to the tune and the words (they had to be Cecil Sharp’s collection) but could interpret them in whatever way I wanted. I wrote 47 arrangements of these tunes. The band then spent months performing and filming them on location with us guys and gals all dancing around. It looks highly comical now … it does look hilarious! It was aired for Harlech TV to the South East of England and Wales. Harlech Television put up one of the shows as their entry for the Montreux award, so that shows how successful we were. We were big, really big in the West Country. We got a recording contract with Pye records and we cut several records including ‘The Sailing Song’. It was all my original material and the band line up was still the same – me Anne, Sami, Pete, Chas and Roger although I was the only one composing. Also we were still doing the residency in London when we got the offer to support ‘The Beach Boys’. By this time we’d signed with The Arthur Howes agency in London so we had some management in the city where it was all happening. We only did one London gig with them and we were the first on.

So there we were playing alongside ‘The Beach Boys’. There were these big show posters displayed all over London featuring the Beach Boys and the Rainbow People and the music department at Mecca went ballistic. As band leader I was in charge of the finances, I gave the guys a good working wage. I used to pay them a regular working salary, and if the gigs came in strong I would build up funds in an account so that when we had a few weeks off I could still pay them a working wage. I never made any big money for us all because we spent everything on clothes and equipment. Being on the road is also expensive. We had two VW vans and were driving about all over the place. My wife Anne had always said to me, ‘I’ll do whatever you want’ and was totally supportive, ‘But I’m not going to sing another note after I’m thirty.’ she warned me. I said, ‘Alright, fair enough.’ We were doing a show in Blackpool at ‘The Tower Theatre’ supporting Tessie O’Shea, and it was 26th July, her birthday. At the end of the gig she turned and said, ‘Well, you know what I’ve always told you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ So we both said, ‘That’s it!’

The big bang and selling brushes

The band had all these really strong characters in it, but you had to have a strong character just to survive that lifestyle. We used to have spectacular rows! My job as band leader, as I saw it was … as a carbon rod. Inside a nuclear power station you have what is essentially a controlled explosion – there’s an atomic pile and there are carbon rods that go in and out to absorb the nuclear radiation. If there weren’t any carbon rods it would be a bomb. It would just go off! You’ve got to control this powerful energy. So when you go on stage and the show is good it can produce terrific energy that has to go somewhere.

When the group broke up we came back to the house in Aslacton which we still owned. My wife became ill and it was the most depressing time of my life. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. So I became a Kleeneze salesman in the Hethersett and Wymondham patch. I was given this little case (which I’ve still got somewhere) that held the sample polish, brushes and catalogues. I would knock on doors in Hethersett and Wymondham but there was usually no-one in during the days except grandmothers and little old ladies! These old ladies would come to the door and they’d be ever so pleased to see you (Laughter). They’d say, ‘Oh Kleeneze, yeah, lovely’ and you’d be standing on the doorstep talking about their family and their kids for an hour or so, when finally ‘Well, I’ve kept you here all this time.. I’d better buy something’. They’d take a look through the catalogue and then buy the cheapest thing they could find which was a teapot spout brush! A tiny little … sixpence! So I’d get all these orders for teapot spout brushes which I had to place and collect the following Saturday morning. I then had to deliver them all round Hethersett. I did this for six weeks and my average weekly income over that time was £7.50 I think! The best week I ever had was 15 quid but that was because I went to this posh house where the woman was over the moon when I turned up, and bought all this polish and brushes …I was so thrilled I took the rest of the day off. They used to think I was a student because I had long hair. It really was one of the biggest lessons of my life.

Saved by the dance band

I knocked on one door and a musician I knew answered. His name was Derek, he was a great sax man and I’d known for years. He said, ‘Hello Dave, what’re you doing here?’ The last time I’d seen him was when I’d left Norwich, on a high, going to work up in London. He said, ‘Come in and have a cup of tea.’ I sat there feeling absolutely dreadful. Selling Kleeneze brushes and polish with this guy being kind to me and everything. I left there and went straight home where I got out my old phone book which contained all the numbers of my old musician acquaintances. I wrote down all the potential names that I could find and it was quite a long list. The first person I was going to ring was Chic Applin. He said, ‘Man, that’s fantastic, I’ve been looking for a good bass player for the last six weeks.’ – the six weeks that I’d been selling brushes! And I got a job just like that. I think it was sixty quid a week, which was enough to keep the family on.. So I started playing with Chic Applin and his dance band, and my wife took up singing again and joined me in the same band. For the next three or four years we did nicely and enjoyed just working in the dance band.

Back to lettering

I was working in the dance band in the evenings and was around in the house during the day. During quiet times I made four or five house name plates as samples. Orchard Cottage, The Hawthorns, you know with nice lettering and nicely designed. I took them to ‘The Elm Hill Craft Shop’ which at the time was owned by a lady called Liz. I started getting orders for these I would then go to see the house, do a drawing of the doorway, and go back and work out a really nice design for a nameplate that would really suit their house. I made them in stone, wood, slate, anything really. I started getting all these orders and people were prepared to pay half a week’s wages for something unique. I wasn’t making much money out of it but I was building up a sort of reputation. Occasionally an architect would come and ask if I could make a foundation stone or plaque for some important building or other. After four years of playing with the dance band every night, whilst doing bits of lettering during the day I realised that I had a healthy order book. Work had grown and I had enough orders in the book to give up playing commercially. I gave up playing and didn’t then play a single note for seven years. I was so busy with the lettering work that I didn’t miss it. I always had several years’ worth of work waiting to be done and even now at 73 I have at least two years work waiting for me.

Trio to big band and small gigs again

After a while I started a trio with a guitar player called Lee Vasey and a drummer. He had recently moved to the area. We were making records and doing local gigs and it was really good fun. Lee used to write stuff so that’s why he needed a really good reader. He was a bass guitarist and he could write the 1812 overture for guitar, bass and drums! No-one had ever heard anything like it. Lee then got big ideas – if you remember there was a movie called ‘The Blues Brothers’. It was a cult film and once that got going it really caught on. By this time Lee had expanded the trio and it had become a five piece. Eventually it became a big band and I was still in it. We were doing all these lovely kinds of jazzy things. We did bits of pop, rock music and jazz stuff as well. Lee then saw this as an opportunity to go big-time, so he changed it into a sort of cover band for the Blues Brothers. We were all there wearing dark glasses, trilbies and leather trousers and the music was getting louder and louder. The band ended up playing blues all night. I played with Lee for about 12 years and all the time I was earning a living, but eventually I gave up and since then I’ve just been doing little jazz gigs locally. I now do a couple of gigs a week. Double bass most of the time. I’m in ‘Tom’s’ band, ‘Simon’s’ band, ‘The Big Band’ and ‘Pangaea’.

Julian of Norwich, Cathedral Porch, by David Holgate

David Holgate (1939-2014) talking to WISEArchive on 21st February 2012 in Norwich

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