Charles Elford's Blog

October 20, 2013

Thinking of writing a novel about a real person? Read this first...

On 2nd August 2013, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha was performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs festival. It was recorded live by BBC Radio 3 and I had the great honour of being invited to speak to presenter Catherine Bott as part of this programme, broadcast on 12th September 2013. This wonderful event was soured for me by some sideways swipes from a reviewer of the production, primarily about the title of my book Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story.

I was a little perturbed by the inaccuracy of one statement in the review, so submitted what I thought was a fairly good-humoured clarification to the reviewer’s blog. A second review appeared, this time about Jeffrey Green’s excellent biography, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; a Musical Life (Pickering & Chatto, 2011) with some more swipes at me, but this time more vociferous. In addition to this, on the reviewer’s blog, appeared two disproportionately aggressive responses to my post, attacking me personally. They clearly intended to hurt and they succeeded. I actually had a sleepless night trying to make sense of it all and wondering how I should respond. I did nothing... and actually, I should have done nothing the first time round too.

I don’t mind being criticised for things I have said or done, but I was really upset by being publicly attacked for things that I had not said or done. You can’t defend yourself against arrows like those, shot from the dark.

So why am I writing this? Well, if you are considering writing a novel about, or featuring, a real person, please read the transcript of a lecture I delivered at the National Portrait Gallery over a year ago on 23rd August 2012, first; especially the part entitled Novels & History – Portraits & Photographs. And remember too those words from the, Artists and Writers Yearbook that, ‘if you write a historical novel, you will get something wrong and people will tell you about it’. My own experience is that the more successful you become in promoting your subject, the more public and aggressive will be the attacks you encounter. When (not if) this happens, my advice would be to not respond at all, unless you want more of the same to the power of ten.

As I said towards the end of my talk at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘The fact is that no representation can claim to be a person’s life. Different modes of representation speak to us on different levels and all serve different purposes and all have their place. The important thing is the intention underlying the representation’.

You can read the full transcript of my lecture at the National Portrait Gallery (23/08/13) at and hear a pre-lecture interview at
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Published on October 20, 2013 07:50

January 1, 2012

English cultural heritage seeking sympathetic buyer

When I started my Blog, I’d assumed that this post would be about the new website, or more about the book being republished on 6th January 2012 to commemorate 100 years since his tragically premature death; or trying to rouse people into buying it via Amazon on a particular day in the hope of climbing the bestseller ratings or even perhaps, to schmooze the film producers I’ve been connecting with over the past few months with a natty 3 word pitch a la The Player; after all it was Norman Lebrecht who said this was “an incredibly human story” which “would translate extremely well to film”!

Anyway, those were the kinds of things I thought I’d be blogging about in these last few days before my book (re)launch on 6th January, however a more deserving “incredibly human” Croydon story has grabbed my attention.

I received a call on 27th December from a girl whose grandmother is the current, and very proud, owner of the house that Coleridge-Taylor lived in from 1909 until his death in 1912. I’d written to ‘The Occupier’ back in 2008 when my book was originally published to tell them about their home’s illustrious previous owner and to suggest an application for an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

When I compared the Google Streetview image with a picture of the house from Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s book The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Dobson Books Ltd, 1979 printed I notice, by Whitstable Litho who are not 5 minutes walk from my home – will these coincidences never cease? I digress), apart from some minor cosmetic changes, it looks exactly the same. The current owner thought there had been a building next door as the previous owners had discovered what appeared to be foundations when they were digging out an area of garden to create a car parking bay. I suggested that as it looked like this area had always been garden rather than another house, it was more likely they had found the foundations of Coleridge-Taylor’s Music Shed which had stood on that spot and where he composed much of his later works including the now famous Violin Concerto.

The current owner is a foster carer who bought the house in 1999 in order give children a secure and loving start in life, and in a home restored in memory of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a much loved son of Croydon and inspiration to people of African origin and descent the world over. Now she is looking to sell the house to a buyer, who is as sympathetic as she, to the memory of one of England’s greatest sons.

2012 is a very big year for all things Coleridge-Taylor. For example, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival will also be launched on 6th January, at Croydon Town Hall by the Mayor of Croydon, Councillor Graham Bass. The Festival will see many wonderful events including the world premiere (February 2012 Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls) of his ‘unstageable’ opera Thelma, thought lost for almost a century and incidentally, also written in Coleridge-Taylor’s Music Shed.

I suspect that if this were America, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s house would be turned into a national monument or cherished museum and what a wonderful and lasting tribute that would be to such a great man!

This blog post is therefore especially for the current owner of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s final home and her granddaughter, in the hope that it can help them find a sympathetic individual, or syndicate, to buy the house where much of his wonderful music was composed. If you or someone you know would like to have a part in this once in a lifetime opportunity to make an offer on a piece of English cultural history, then please get in touch with me.

Happy New Year!

PS: What was the attention grabbing 3 word movie pitch going to be, I hear you cry?
“It’s AMADEUS meets ET!”
Hmmm, probably does need a bit of work.
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Published on January 01, 2012 03:38 Tags: amadeus, black-mahler, composer, croydon, et, samuel-coleridge-taylor, thelma

December 11, 2011

Black Mahler book helps reunite family of forgotten genius

It is four years now since my book Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story was first published and I continue to travel the serendipitous journey that started with that article 8 years ago. I continue to be brought into contact with many wonderful people across the globe; many of whom are now connected to each other through the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation, established in September 2010 to promote his work and encourage interest and involvement in classical music using his life and work as an example of excellence in achievement and in overcoming adversity. My book has also brought me invitations to speak at events, music colleges and a growing number of Coleridge-Taylor concerts, not to mention a handful of nibbles of interest from the film industry. I am still convinced that when the time is right, this story will make it to the big screen.

The coincidences I have personally encountered with regards to Coleridge-Taylor are wonderful, strange and too numerous to mention. I know that others who have been brought together through him have also experienced similar coincidences. I would like to share two with you. One of the mpore recent ones was in the summer of 2010, three years after first publication of this book, when I took a new job. One Monday, during my first month, I did a little exploring and on my way back to the office, found myself outside a sandwich bar not 2 minutes walk from my new employer. As it was my break, I wasn’t concentrating too hard but for some reason, I noticed the number of the building on my way in. Having made my selection, I stood in the queue wondering why I was feeling a growing sense of déjà vu, when suddenly it dawned on me. It was 16th August and I was standing inside 15 Theobald’s Road where, 135 years and a day before, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born!

The second case was just four months after my book was first published. Through the magic of the internet, I managed to make contact with the son of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter. We had a long chat and I sent him a copy of my book. He was extremely generous in his endorsement of it and his wholehearted approval of what I hoped to achieve by writing it. He went on to share his own memories of his mother and grandmother and life and times in the house on St Leonards Road. He also kindly granted me permission to reproduce some images from his mother’s book on my website, (more links below)

We spoke on the telephone every few months or so and it was the day after one of these chats when, out of the blue, I received an email from a man called Paul. He said his sister Caroline, had noticed the pictures on my website that were reproduced with the kind permission of their father whom they had not seen since the early 1960s.

I called Coleridge-Taylor’s grandson the next day (3rd June 2009) and later forwarded his contact details to Paul who told me all he now needed was the courage to call his father after almost 40 years. I told him I thought his call would be very well-received.

I didn’t hear anything for a while and actually wondered if I ever would. But, on 15th July, I received a long email from Paul. I was over the moon to hear that he had made the call and that a moving family reunion had since taken place. He told me how they learnt more of their illustrious great grandfather and of their grandmother who had died in 1998; and as a fitting final resting place for her ashes had yet to be found, they agreed that she would have loved to have been reunited with her father.

Paul mentioned that he had met his grandmother a handful of times when he was very young, but that it wasn’t until he took on the challenge of reuniting her with her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, on behalf of his own new-found father, that he discovered his grandmother had spent her last few years in a residential care home in a town where his own wife’s family had always lived. He said that he must have walked passed that house countless times without knowing his grandmother was living inside. He also discovered that the best friend of his wife’s mother had been a resident there at the same time and that as a regular visitor, she had quite possibly met Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter without knowing of the connection.

After a great deal of research, letter writing, snipping of disproportionate amounts of red tape and fully armed with the relevant paperwork and a solicitor’s signature, Paul and Caroline saw to it that, what must have been their grandmother’s final wish was carried out - in a private, family ceremony, she would be interred alongside her father’s own final resting place on leafy Bandon Hill.

I have three wishes. Although the singer has passed, my first is that his song should continue to live on and that it is sung loud. My second is that Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story continues to spread the word and so contributes to raising his profile further, bringing more people to his music. And finally, my third wish is that people continue to be (re)united by the man today just as they were during his all too brief life. It is with these three wishes, that I see this second edition published on 6th January 2012 (advanced online orders from 31/12/11), 100 years after this great musician’s final bow.
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Published on December 11, 2011 07:25 Tags: african-american, coincidence, coleridge-taylor, composer, historical-fiction, reunioun, serendipity

December 3, 2011

How I came to write Black Mahler

On 7th April 2004, an article by Norman Lebrecht marking the release of Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto, appeared in the London Evening Standard. It likened the success of the cantata ‘Hiawatha’ from the 1890s up to the 1930s to the success of Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musicals today. The article gave a fascinating insight into the life of a man I knew nothing about and yet felt I should have known about, especially as I was born so close to where Coleridge-Taylor lived and worked and died; but forgivable too perhaps, because long before 2004, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had undeservedly faded, almost without trace, into obscurity.

I started to dig and his remarkable story began to reveal itself; a mixed-race composer born to a white English woman in Victorian England, in the wake of the Great Exhibition (1851) with all the turbo-charged technological advancements of the day being made. Change, mechanisation, the new, emergent ‘middle-classes’, suburbs and commuting, the Royal Albert Hall, the Crystal Palace, the Titanic! His story also seemed so modern in terms of the relentless over-work, financial struggle, low self-esteem and devastating tragedy and yet his enduring sunny, optimistic and modest demeanour endured and made everyone who knew him, love him. I poured over the books by his wife and daughter and these quickly became my principal sources for a story I felt compelled to tell.

I trained as an actor originally and saw the story filmically and so after 2 years of research and rumination, I had written the screenplay. Although the overwhelming response was confirmation that it truly was a great story and well told, ‘he was so unknown’ and perhaps ‘the whole thing would be much more marketable if there was a book to go with it; selling it as a film/book deal’. So, on the advice of those I submitted the screenplay to, and propelled forward by the strength of the material, I wrote the book.

I considered writing an orthodox biography but discovered that there’s a limited market for biographies; more so if no-one knew who the subject was! My aim was then, and still is now, to bring the life, work, character and context of this unjustly forgotten man, to as many people as I possibly could. An academic biography, is not to be taken as a person’s life any more or less than a scrap book is or a painting is or film is or my book is. Historian, Sir John H Plumb reflected that, ‘History is now strictly organized, powerfully disciplined, but it possesses only a modest educational value and even less conscious social purpose’. My view is that any representation of a man, including the academic, is just that, a ‘re-presentation’ and therefore inevitably subject to distortion, deletion and generalisation. What is important is the aim underlying the representation.

My aim was to recreate Coleridge-Taylor’s life, in an accessible way, through the words and reminiscences of those who were there and knew him. This is a modern story of a creative man, and so warranted being treated in a creative and modern way. I approached the man as an actor approaches a new part; by systematically listing what he did, what he said about himself, what others said about him etc. Patterns of character, conflict, storyline and the central themes emerged and recurred. When my research period ended and the writing started, I noticed a few minor gaps in the fabric, but I knew the patterns and so made reasonable assumptions (many since borne out) based on the ‘facts’, to restore any unknowable parts.

It is 4 years now since the original book was published and it is my very great pleasure to announce that a revised edition will be available in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s passing.

You can place an advanced order for your copy of Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story on 31st December 2011

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Published on December 03, 2011 08:58 Tags: african-american, coleridge-taylor, composer, historical-fiction

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story

Black Mahler tells the true story of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who was born to a white mother and black African father in London, 1875. He is abandoned by his father as a baby and grows up searching for acceptance in a very white Victorian England. He attends the Royal College of Music where he is a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, Hurlstone and Holst, and writes the cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. This piece propels him to international super stardom overnight however he sells the rights to it outright for just £15 so never reaps the huge financial rewards.

Despite his indisputable talent, his international fame and being hailed a cultural icon by African Americans, Coleridge encounters one disaster after another and, to keep poverty from the door, soon spirals into a pattern of relentless overwork.

Set against a vivid Victorian world, rapidly changing through mechanical and industrial advancements and populated by the great and the good of the day, Coleridge unites people all across the globe. But will he himself be reunited with his long lost father, before his own premature and tragic end in 1912?
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Published on December 03, 2011 08:33 Tags: african-american, black-mahler, coleridge-taylor, composer, historical-fiction

November 26, 2011

Black Mahler: The New Edition

A slightly revised edition of Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story is republished in January 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great man's passing.

Visit the website
Read an extract
Follow me on Twitter!/CharlesElford
Join me on Facebook!...
And link as a friend

More blog to follow so watch this space...
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Published on November 26, 2011 07:17