Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 102 No. 1214 June 1991
ALBERT BANKS ON THE NHS
Albert Cooper, biographer of Benjamin Banks, has a mysterious visit from famous English maker, over the airways…
My closest friends pull no punches when it comes to frankness: ‘For goodness sake get a hearing aid’ they told me for several years during which they had to put up with repeating themselves. The situation was not getting any better so, courtesy of the NHS, one was installed in my left ear. The resulting whistles which burst forth before aid and master came to terms disturbed them considerably; now the cry was “that thing is no good, you’re better off without it” - not with any malice, mind you, but it was all sorted out. These whistles eventually became inaudible to outsiders, but quiet sounds persisted in my head, and occasionally a name seemed to be trying to get through. Now I am not the sort of person (like the violin maker The Reverend G. L. Tweedale) who believes in the supernatural, so I was puzzled and not a little intrigued. Having forgotten one night to remove my aid, sleep was forgotten, as the name Benjamin Banks seemed clear. More from curiosity than anything else I said, “don’t disturb me, I am trying to get to sleep”.
“Ah, so at last I’ve got through to you. This is Benjamin Banks and I want a word with you about all the stuff you have written about me and my family”.
I was beginning to recover from my original shock and was able to blurt out, “Oh, so you know about that then?”
“Of course I do, I’ve been watching your antics with great interest. It would appear that most information is correct, but why did you have to mention family planning, having ten children at such regular intervals, etc.? That was impertinent, to put it mildly”.
I was getting a little annoyed by now and very curious, but all went dead. My curiosity got the better of me, so much so that I deliberately kept my aid in the next night, switched on of course. Would Banks come again? Sure enough he did, but this time I got in first. “Where are you speaking from?” was my first question.
“How old are you?” countered Banks.
“In my seventies. Why, what has that got to do with it?”
“You’ll know soon enough, from that silhouette I sat for in Bath around 1790 you deduce that I rule my domain with a firm hand. You are right there, how else could I keep 10 children under control? Ann was too busy having them. I would have preferred you to say “well built” in your appendix rather than “rotund”. That silhouettist thought it was compliment to portray all sitters this way, I wished afterwards that it had been done in London”.
At last I got a word in. “You sound a rather conceited man, which surprises me”.
“Not as pompous as Stradivari!” retorted Banks. “I suppose he has a right to be, after all, he was the greatest. We all know that, but because one of his violins is called “the Messiah” he gets a little above himself. There is a rumpus whenever it is suggested that the great man himself did not make it, but of course J. B. Vuillaume (JBV to us), being a little big headed, is flattered and rather amused at the preposterous suggestion that he made it. Clever chap JBV swanks even now about making around 3,000 instruments all sold and paid for, so he said in a letter to his friend Peter Sylvestre. We think he gets unfair credit; after all he couldn’t have achieved much without the loyal support of his staff and my outworkers. We watch his recent rise to fame with interest, not to say envy”.
Banks was not finished with me yet, he came back at a most inopportune moment to say the least, just as I was about to glue in a new bass bar. “Be quiet for a few minutes,” I pleaded, but to no avail.
“We sometimes signed our instruments under the bass bar,” Banks said rather pompously.
I was a little annoyed at this. “That was stupid,” and couldn’t resist suggesting that the inscribing by his family was sometimes overdone; for example, any branding on the outside of the pegbox and then allowing Longman and Brodrip to plant theirs over yours. It would have been much more helpful if you had labelled and numbered every instrument, JBV always did, well, almost always”.
Banks cut in sharply. “What, and make researching easy for snoopers such as yourself, never! Don’t forget also that even in my day common work was being renamed and branded to command more money”.
With BB in full flood I had by now given up hope of fitting that bass bar, in any case the situation was getting a little out of hand, and my ears were hotting up. Banks realised this and changed the subject. “I hope you have noted that we always fitted a separate bass bar, never was a belly shaped, leaving wood to form one as so many London cheapjacks did.”
“Yes, I had noticed and have recorded it. Do you know that my work on your career has reached 14 different countries? So you are a worldwide celebrity now. But don’t get a swollen head, it wouldn’t become you. Besides, it would only distress Ann. As you inferred earlier, I am a busybody, but only on my readers’ behalf, so can you say whether The Banks Musical Emporium (posh description this) made double basses? Have I assumed correctly that you did not? I have yet to see one”. Before Banks could answer the battery went in my aid; it was like being cut off in the middle of a very interesting telephone call and having no number with which to ring back, so I have no option but to wait and listen. Will BB come back, or was it all a dream?