IBCC Lecture & Supper Series – Blenheim Summer with Victoria Panton

Personal testimonies about Bomber Command’s role in the Battle of France in 1940 are rare, but it has been brought to the fore in an enlightening, true, recollection by Alastair Panton; who piloted Bristol Blenheims during these difficult days, as France fell into occupied hands.  Seventy years later, his grand-daughter, Victoria found his diary and turned it into a book, called ‘Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer.’

Joined by Graeme Williams, Victoria will read excerpts of her Grandfather’s book, which have been set to different pieces of music by composer, William Drew-Batty.  William describes his music as “the breeze beneath the wings of Air Commodore Panton’s Blenheim as he takes us across the skies of Northern France in May 1940.”

The evening will also include a performance of ‘Late Closing’; which is a narrative poem, also set to music, telling the story of Bomber Command through the lens of a veteran reflecting on operations over Germany, as the war drew to a close.  

Following the presentations, Victoria, William and Graeme would be delighted to take questions from the audience.

I read Victoria’s book, ‘Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer’ in 2017 and was moved by her grandfather’s story. Even more poignant to me was its provenance; really a diary, written on scraps of paper, humble yet with devastating clarity and charting the entire battle of France seen through the eyes of a young airman in the early summer of 1940. The contemporary account of Alastair’s adventure inspired in me a need to create a series of ‘musical paintings’ – minimalist sketches that would hopefully complement the stories without disturbing the words that are, like the man himself, directly powerful in their simplicity and unpretentious. Here I found extraordinary tales, experiences beyond my understanding and without the melodrama of gung-ho daring do found in so many accounts of this period. That they were found in a dusty shoebox at the back of a garage somehow makes them intimate treasures. My music’s role then is to simply be the breeze beneath the wings of Air Commodore Panton’s Blenheim as he takes us across the skies of Northern France in May 1940.

‘Late Closing’ was written in the summer of 2018 amid the RAF Centenary celebrations and the opening of the International Bomber Command Centre’s memorial at Lincoln.  In my narrative poem the story of one flight is told by a fictitious veteran, a Lancaster Bomber tail gunner, now living alone in Maidstone and looking back at his time in 1944. Later in the poem his voice is joined by that of an enemy fighter pilot who lost his life. The title, ‘Late Closing’ is deliberately ambiguous. In one way it reflects the memories that haunt the old man, in another it questions the need to lay things properly to rest, to acknowledge the debt to all involved, including the 50000 young men of Bomber Command who died during these years.

My music, in Late Closing, is based on four main themes that slowly unfold as the story develops. The opening figure evokes a mood of awakening, of the haunting and anticipation. Our narrator moves back in time and awaits his flight. As the journey begins the music increases tempo and its texture becomes more dense. When our man returns to the present the melodies all but disappear before returning again as the bomber moves into enemy territory. The return home is accentuated by a bold, Elgarian, theme, later transforming into a ‘deconstructed’ version of ‘Roll out the barrel’, a popular drinking song of the time. This melody too transforms into a series of rising chords as the airman returns to the mess, ‘The weight of time upon his back like a droning song’.

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