IAN HALL …. 18 January 1940 – 11 May 2022
There are some people you can just never forget
Remember the late Ian Hall? It is impossible not to do so. Apart from the clear-cut Oxford accent, which was clearly at odds with his physical appearance, he was one of the most distinctive characters that I – or, indeed, anyone – has met. His achievements as musician, composer, organist and educator are well-known and recorded, but I prefer here to recall his personality and friendship. Once known, he was impossible to forget. Our paths first crossed in the mid-1960s when we were both contributors to the pioneering, but now little-known, magazine JOFFA (produced by the Jamaican Families and Friends Association) from their office in Vining Street, Brixton. If the apparel doth proclaim the man – and William Shakespeare is usually right in such matters, as in everything else – Hall promised to be a very colourful character. At that time he had already graduated (BA 1962, MA 1966) from Keble College, Oxford University where he had been also an enthusiastic sprinter and cricketer. The accent he acquired there never left him.
By then I had got to know already his unique family. His uncle, Rudolph Dunbar, so modest for a man who made history, was guest contributor to some of the other publications around at the time, including Magnet News. An accomplished classical and jazz musician, who accompanied, among others, celebrated chanteuse Josephine Baker, Dunbar was also a journalist. At first, he covered the music scene in the United Kingdom, mainly for readers in the U.S.A., but when the Second World War broke out he found himself taken on also as war correspondent. Rudolph landed with the D-Day action in Normandy and reported first-hand in the push all the way to Berlin. He – a black man – is reported to have conducted the first classical concert in the newly-liberated German capital barely weeks after Furchtwangler had brought his baton down on the racist Third Reich.
Ian Hall, who was born in Georgetown, Guyana, had quite a lot to which to live up. His own father was the first black officer to sign up for the Royal Air Force in WW2. Ian, who had lived with his grandmother since his mother’s early death, joined him in London. There he won a scholarship to Archbishop Tenison’s School, which overlooks the world-renowned Oval cricket ground. Responding to a teacher’s challenge Hall learned to play the classical piano. When he came down from Oxford, and later gained a PhD in ethnomusicology, he became an associate of the Royal College of Organists, playing initially at St Martin in the Fields. In 1966, however, he moved to Ghana as Director of Music at Achimota School.
On his return Ian became organist and director of music at the Church of Christ the King in Bloomsbury, the area of London with the greatest academic, literary and cosmopolitan connections. In 1972 he founded the Bloomsbury International Society to promote racial harmony through music. Good-natured and extrovert, with a self-deprecating style, Hall cultivated friends at the highest level in the arts, politics and the church. He was quoted in 2003 as saying: “My real thing in life has been promoting racial harmony through the arts” which he did so by merging Western instruments with sounds from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa”.
I promised to tell you about Professor Ian Hall, the man, as I knew him, and not just set out the written record, but it is important also to know the background.
Calling in at the House of Commons, one hot sunny day, I encountered Ian standing by the gates, greeting even the most distinguished politicians as if they were old friends, as some probably were, telling the younger Winston Churchill how much he admired his famous grand-father, and trying to contact Nelson Mandela and Jerry Rawlings, the Ghanaian president, on his mobile-phone. He may well have got through to them – much to the bemusement of the police officers guarding the gates. Ian did phone from such unexpected places, and at such unexpected hours.
Some time later he invited me to join him for afternoon tea at a hotel adjoining Victoria international train station while we discussed my planned service at St Martin in the Fields to commemorate the centenary of West Indian cricket tours to England. During our conversation Ian asked the waiters about their families, and seemed to know the names of their wives/children, and most intimate details of their lives. Eventually he got up from the table and made a tour of the room, introducing me to each and every-one. As we came to the exit, Hall opened the door, stepped outside, pulled me after him, and disappeared along the corridor. We hadn’t paid out a penny. Neither the waiters nor the manager tried to stop us. It was probably a regular performance, and, for them, well worth the entertainment value.
For my interview of him in an airline magazine, Ian suggested we should meet at St Martin’s as being the most appropriate location. Hardly had we started than he decided that a restaurant would be better after all. There, to the astonishment of the diners, and the young lady in particular, he declaimed to all and sundry that the waitress (“Esperanza”) had the same name as my wife (“Hope”). Later that afternoon he guided me to the first floor of a seedy café in Soho. There in muted tones, Ian explained that as a schoolboy he used to sneak in for the teenage frisson of adult naughtiness by sitting at a table adjoining that of a real prostitute. That was Soho.
Because Ian Hall’s telephone conversation, enjoyable and informative though it was, could last for several hours, if I was particularly pressed for a deadline, I would catch his voice on the answerphone to reply when time was less pressing. There was still an outstanding call to return when I ran into Ian at a reception in the Ghana Embassy.
“Ian, I hope you do not think I am ignoring you ….” I began with some embarrassment.
“Why not, dear brother?” he replied with characteristic bonhomie. “Why not? Everybody else does”.
In 2000, Hall was asked by Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, to be Ambassador-at-Large in the World Association of Non-Government Organisations. I suggested in my piece for the Weekly Gleaner newspaper that, with his experience, personality and contacts, he would be a suitable candidate in the election for the Mayor of London. The urbane man, truly representative of London’s cosmopolitan culture. Ian phoned and, with not entirely a ffected emotion, told me that it was the nicest thing that had ever been written about him.
“But, Ian, your name is regularly in the papers” I replied.
“Yes, dear brother, but your piece was the only one I didn’t write myself”.
Of course he was joking ….. or so, I think.
Alas, dear brother, you are unable to write this piece about yourself. It is all my own work, and I trust it measures up to what you might have written. There are some people you just cannot forget …..and Ian Hall was one.