On a sunny yet blustery day, I made my way to Mr Derek Blyth’s house for a warming cup of coffee and a lovely chat. I was greeted by his beautiful cat and his gracious hello, and ushered into his sumptuously appointed lounge, where a tempting pile of biscuits were on offer.
AF: Thank you so much for inviting me over today, your house is beautiful! Shall we start with you introducing yourself, please?
DB: My name is Derek Blyth. I am 64 years old and I’m a retired music teacher.
AF: Oh, how lovely! Did you teach a particular instrument?
DB: No, I was a school music teacher. I started off as a secondary school music teacher, but moved into primary as well and latterly I was a sort of filler-in, doing the extra bits for which schools didn’t have enough staff. And I can honestly say I loved every minute of it!
AF: I was also very into music when I was a child. I played different instruments and I sang in choirs, and those are some of my happiest memories from school – going from the band room to the choir room… Are you in touch with any of your old students? Do you know if any of them went on to have a career in music?
DB: Yes. I shouldn’t mention names obviously for privacy. But yes, I have pupils who have sung in the choir at the Vatican in Rome, who’ve been in the chorus in various opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, in orchestras… but also on the more popular music side, who have formed and been successful in groups, and jazz musicians, and all sorts. And some of them, of course, became teachers. So I have what you might call grandpupils as well: pupils of my pupils. It does give one the feeling of perpetuity…
AF: I envy people who find that teaching is their calling because I think it must be such a rewarding way of spending your time. If you’ve got the patience to be with lots of children!
DB: I’ve never found it difficult – well maybe I’m just very patient. I don’t think I am. But I still do some teaching. I am one of the three Sunday school teachers at St Mary’s in Stotfold. So I work with very young children – as little as babes-in-arms up to about eight or nine years – every Sunday. And we have a wonderful time together as a part of the worship of the church. Yes, so I still keep my hand in teaching in that way.
AF: That’s so fantastic. And what made you want to get into teaching?
DB: Well my father wanted me to be a teacher. Though I wouldn’t say I was pressured into it – I bowed to family influence as it were.
AF: Ah, I see. So do you have other passions besides teaching and music?
DB: Oh yes, I love travel. I love to go to France or Germany or Italy or the Netherlands, Belgium, wherever – experience different types of foods, different things to drink, different ways of doing things. I like to learn a bit of the language. Go and see the high art, yes – I love going to the opera or to an orchestral concert – but when we were in Prague, we went to see the black theatre, for example, you know, something that is very peculiar to Prague.
AF: I’m sorry if this is a silly question, but what is the black theatre? I’ve not heard of it…
DB: Not a silly question at all! The black theatre of Prague is puppetry, but done under ultraviolet light and they use paints which glow and everything else looks black. So you don’t see the operators. You don’t see strings around the place. When I was a child, they used to come every year for the Royal Variety Show and it was always the funniest thing. So when we went to Prague, we went to see it. And you know, when we were in Venice, we didn’t go to La Fenice, the big opera house. We went to see a performance in a crumbling old palazzo on the Grand Canal and just immerse yourself in something that’s – I think the word is indigenous – to something that is authentic to the place where you are.
AF: I agree with you. I also really love travelling. And sometimes the best travel experiences lie in those crunchy bits. Where’s your favourite place that you’ve visited?
DB: I’ve enjoyed so many places, but the place I’m most comfortable in is the city of Mainz in Germany. I taught there and, I mean, nobody’s ever heard of Mainz. So it always strikes me as being a great injustice because Mainz was the home of Johannes Gutenberg who invented movable type and therefore is responsible for everything that we know –in fact, we’re sitting talking to each other today and being recorded thanks to Gutenberg. Mainz is a lovely city, a very small city, very friendly. And I always feel at home when I go back there.
AF: How long did you teach there?
DB: Oh, just for a year, but it’s had such an impression on me. It could have been half my life. A very formative year, you might say. I loved every minute of it. Before COVID I would go three or four times a year to visit. And I have many friends, and two or three very good friends who also visit us very regularly. So I keep in touch and keep practising my German.
AF: It’s lovely that you’re able to keep up with your German. Do you also still play music regularly?
DB: I still do a lot of performing, yes. I play the accordion. I play in the London Accordion Orchestra and we perform in London. We are performing in Letchworth this July. We have a concert coming up here. But we’ve been to Nuremberg and we’ve been to Ljubljana. We’ve been to Innsbruck many times. We’ve been to Ireland – we’ve gone all over the place.
AF: So is it an entire orchestra of accordions?
DB: Accordion and percussion, yes. So we have 35 players divided into four groups and then we have whatever percussion the piece needs as well. I think we make an amazing sound. We’ve just been in the charts with an Irish group, The Divine Comedy. They invited us to record two tracks with them three or four years ago, and they were on CD. It was released two weeks ago. Last week we were number five on the album charts. So cool as a pensioner – I’m in the charts! I remember as a child with my younger sister, following the charts and being so excited by them, and suddenly I’m in them! But I’m also a singer. I gave a recital recently to St Mary’s Church for church funds. For me, the most difficult thing about lockdown was not having live music. Sitting playing the piano or the accordion or singing on your own is fine. But music is about community; music is about getting together and sharing.
AF: Lovely way of putting it! I couldn’t agree with you more! Thank you so much for having me for a chat today – I really enjoyed it! Is there anything else you want to mention to your fellow Fairfielders?
DB: Take care, stay safe. And let’s hope we can all get together with lots and lots of wonderful things this summer, especially lots of music. Thank you!
Amber Fortier moved to Fairfield Park in 2017 with her husband and three young children. She is originally from New York.