Nov 2002 Journal

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Renaissance man on the Mersey: A profile of Fritz Spiegel

Readers may remember the list of my most prominent profilees (see September issue, p. 2), whom I sought out in such elevated locations as the Palace of Westminster and Cambridge colleges. Even so, I was not prepared for the Georgian splendour of the house Fritz Spiegl inhabits in Liverpool. Fortunately, being aesthetically untrained, I am absolved from the chore of describing his miniature palazzo – since it serves as the setting of Granada TV’s ongoing Forsyte Saga series. All I can do is to state prosaically that it houses a veritable Aladdin’s cave of bibelots, old musical instruments, pictures, antiques and books.

A propos of books, as I mounted the stairs to the first floor, I faced rows of bookshelves that took up the width of the landing. The spines of the volumes in the middle section, I discovered, all bore jokey titles: Richard Wagner’s Kol Nidrei, 1985 by George Orwell, The Goyhood of Arnold Schoenberg (NB: Schoenberg had turned Catholic, and then Protestant, before reverting to Judaism in 1933). It took me some time to realise that I was looking at the dummy spines of non-existent books. The whole trompe l’oeil concealed a secret door (a feature found in many country houses).

Fritz Spiegl has not always lived like this. He was born in a fly-blown village in Burgenland, close to the Austro-Hungarian border. From the age of ten he attended a Catholic Konvikt, where ‘the teachers were either priests, or Nazis – or both’. His father distilled soda water, and several uncles followed similarly humdrum trades. However, Fritz had a Viennese cousin whose employment by Reuter’s agency gave him foreign contacts (as well as the News Chronicle proprietor, Lord Layton, as a father-in-law).

Thanks to this cousin, who was as solicitous as he was well-connected, 12-year-old Fritz got taken into the Northamptonshire home of Captain Margesson MP, a minister in the Chamberlain government. Here the newcomer shared a snug berth with a fellow refugee by the name of Walter Neurath (subsequently founder of the art publishing house Thames and Hudson). What makes this episode in Fritz’s early life read like a page torn from Who’s Who is the fact that the Margessons employed Marjory Strachey (sister of Lytton, the Bloomsbury literary lion) as their boys’ home tutor, and the father of the actor Peter Bowles as their chauffeur.

Fritz was sent to a minor public school, where he learned little beyond ‘rugger, plane-spotting and a bit of Latin’. Eventually he went to London to work in the design department of an advertising agency. From art he switched to music, taught himself the flute, enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music and, within a short time, became Principal Flautist with the Liverpool Philharmonic.

Fritz stayed in that post for 15 years, during which time he increasingly branched out into extra-mural, though still music-related, activities. He formed a wind ensemble, gave talks on the BBC’s Third Programme, and co-composed the signature tune of Z Cars, which sold 150,000 records. In addition, he turned the Royal Albert Hall into the venue for performing a Concerto for Motor-car and Orchestra, at the climax of which Lord Montague of Beaulieu drove his vintage car onto the stage. In Liverpool he organised annual ‘Nuts in May’ concerts, featuring a Liszt Twist and other parody items. This approach helped draw new young audiences into concert halls. But though Fritz is a popularizer of music, he has a strong, not to say visceral, aversion to Pop. He called the Beatles phenomenon ‘the greatest confidence trick since the Virgin Birth’ – a judgment bound to rouse the ire of all Liverpudlians (half of whom are Catholics, and the rest ‘Fab Four’ addicts). On the other hand, Fritz mollified at least some of his Scouse neighbours by tracking down the apparently lost score of the only opera set in their native city: Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool. He then went on to have this musical rarity broadcast by the BBC Home Service with Joan Sutherland in the lead.

Fritz’s association with the BBC has also yielded such worthwhile series as ‘Music for Pleasure’; later he was a regular on ‘Start the Week’. In the interim he had turned to authorship, producing a string of books linked to this profession, including Music through the Looking Glass, Musical Blunders, and The Lives, Wives and Loves of the Great Composers. Impelled by his impish humour, he then cast his net wider with such titles as A Bedside Book for English Lovers, Lern Yourself Scouse, A Game of Two Halves, Brian (about football), Grave Humour (about tombstone inscriptions), and Keep Taking the Tabloids (an attack on newspaper jargon and clichés). He also homed in on the last-mentioned target in his ‘Usage and Abusage’ column in the Daily Telegraph.

Right now Fritz is at work on a related book to be entitled Contradictionary. Given that he is an ever-vigilant guardian of the purity and stylishness of English, I am happy to report that AJR Journal has passed the Spiegl test. And, what is more, he has recently taken out a subscription.
Richard Grunberger

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