We have always kept up the old tradition of caroling – a tradition which goes well back into the 1880's, when our town band was first formed. We have a scattered district, and there are many folk who look forward to our annual visits; and the good old custom of plying us with mince-pies and coffee (and sometimes with something a bit stronger) has not altogether died out. We grumble a bit about carolling but we always enjoy it.
About three miles from our little town, near some crossroads, a new community has sprung up. There is a large old house, rather gloomy and somewhat derelict, which was once the home of the "county" family, but is now the sub-let to two or three groups of people. Nearby, some old army huts, put up during the war, have been turned into temporary homes for a strange mixture of folk, including some foreigners who come to work on the land, or in the new factory project not far away. All are strangers to us, but with go along and play some carols, and they seem to like them.
It is on this spot, for the last three years in succession, that we have been joined on Christmas Eve by a young man, pale of face, with dark eyes; hatless and wearing a rather shabby overcoat. He stood very near our ring of bandsmen, almost part of it, and sang the words of the carols, although we never heard his voice - we play lustily in the country!
When we finished he always slipped quickly away. One of the foreigners, we presumed; but he intrigued us, and we appreciated the fact that he took all this interest in us.
By last year we felt he was an old friend, yet he was actually still a stranger.
* * *
During my holiday last summer, I visited a part of the country where, I had been told, one of our old bandsmen live, and I decided to try to find him. He was delighted to see me, and talked almost incessantly of the old days - he was over 80.
He asked about the old house where he was once the gardener - it happened to be the one at the crossroads I have described to you - and this led on to me telling him about the strange young man.
"I know him", said the old chap. "Son of the folk I used to work for. A bit of a wanderer; been away many years."
"I suppose he still lives around there somewhere", I said.
"No he doesn't", said the old man. "We were there carolling a long time ago, one Christmas Eve, and he came up the lane from his travels, slowly, as if he was very tired, but evidently wanting to be home for Christmas".
"But he's still a young man," I interrupted.
"Maybe so", the old chap said. "But when he got near the band he staggered and fell. We learned afterwards he had been very ill, and when we picked him up he was dead!
What we shall do if the stranger turns up again this year I really don't know!
Former SA officer
The Mozart of the Brass Band Movement was how Dr Roy Newsome described Eric Ball, the highly regarded Composer, Adjudicator and Conductor whose Birth one hundred years ago is being marked all over the world by brass band enthusiasts. Eric Walter John Ball was born in Kingswood near Bristol on 31st October, 1903.