“ON this day in 1957,” the Advertiser dutifully reported a couple of Saturdays ago, “Brian F Hamley of Southampton Street, Swindon caught an 8lb 4oz bronze bream in Queen’s Park.
“Using a roach rod with a line of 5lb breaking strain,” our tiny fragment of nostalgia continued, “he took nearly 20 minutes to land the bream, which was believed to be the biggest taken in any waters around Swindon for many years.”
Suddenly, I am grinning from ear-to-ear, my interest piqued. I don’t give a fig about fishing. Couldn’t tell a kipper from a carp. Nevertheless, this silvery droplet of news from our On This Day column evokes a stream of warm, fleeting memories.
It is surely a reference to THE Brian Hamley. You know, the one who sparked controversy with an exhibition of – gasp – nude drawings at the Wyvern Theatre. The one who transformed his end-of-terrace Swindon house into a community recording studio and called it Bull’s Hit.
The one who invited aspiring musicians of all ages to: “Come around and play – it won’t cost you a penny.” The one who released a vinyl LP showcasing the work of Swindon musicians and called it, with a hearty chuckle, Songs From Pigland in deference to our origins as a hill-top farming community.
It has got to be him, the bighearted nurturer of Swindon talent be it artistic, musical or otherwise. The local jazz drummer who liked to be known, with a hint of self-mockery, as Brian ‘Slim’ Hamley.
The Swindon art teacher who called on education chiefs to provide guitars, drums and amps instead of pianos for school music lessons because most kids found them ditchwater dull.
The life-long Town fan who loved yelling his head off at the County Ground. The latter-day beat poet who composed and read “adult-themed offbeat poetry in an offbeat manner” on Swindon community television.
Of course it is him because – and this is the clincher – the on-line archives of Swindon Viewpoint TV have footage of “Brian Hamley bringing us the fishing news straight from the riverbank in August 1979.”
Ex-Commonweal pupil Brian was 16 or 17 when he wrestled that scaly monster from the drowned bicycle-infested depths of the Queen’s Park Lake 57 years ago. His son Gareth still possesses the said specimen.
Fast forward to the early Seventies and Brian not only continues to land decent-sized denizens from our local lakes but has also landed a job – after a spell at Marlborough Secondary Modern – as head of art at Hreod Burna School.
When his prowess as a talented artist gains him an exhibition at the Wyvern he again comes to the notice of Adver readers. “Brian’s nudes cause a walk-out at theatre club” we trumpet in March 5, 1975.
Some of the 20 pen and ink works that Brian has displayed at the venue have angered the more straight-laced members of the Wyvern Theatre Club.
The poor dears brand these works “obscene” and call for the offending material to be immediately removed before storming from the premises in disgust, presumably in search of smelling salts.
Brian is pictured in the Adver looking cool, bemused and bearded with some of the less explicit paintings in the background, although a stray nipple can be viewed. He is puzzled but unrepentant. His critics, he decrees, are “old headed fools” while his nudes, it is decided, should remain in situ.
Controversy soon beckons again… news that Brian is to oversee a public mural prompts an outraged local councillor to rant that the town doesn’t want any more of Brian’s, or anyone else’s “off-beat stuff.” Brian’s response is to invite this self-appointed guardian of public taste to come along and help paint the thing.
Another smidgeon of news from our On This Day column nicely sums up Brian’s attitude towards recognising and encouraging local artistic talent: “On This Day in 1977… Swindon fireman and artist Wally Holland gave his first ever exhibition at the Wyvern Club thanks to his daughter Janine’s art teacher.
“Janine showed one of his pictures to Brian Hamley at Hreod Burna School and he suggested the Wyvern exhibition because the oil painting was so good.”
It was the late Seventies when I first met Brian. He was a hirsute kind of fellow who resembled, in my eyes, a roadie for the Grateful Dead. As the years rolled on he adopted the guise of a Bohemian… which is pretty much what he was.
Around this time he was publicly calling for schools to be supplied with small recording studios instead of acoustic pianos because music had become boring and meaningless to most teenage pupils.
His pleas, strangely enough, were ignored by education bosses so he created his own home studio and for many years invited musicians – from schoolkids and up‘n’coming local groups to veteran musos – to hang out, jam, rehearse and record. “Come and have a look,” he said to me in 1979.
It was easy to find Brian’s house in Manchester Road. The gable end boasted one of the biggest advertising hoardings in Swindon, much to his amusement. The studio, as I recall, was a room at the back of the house encased in mattresses for the purposes of sound-proofing while chaotically littered with a haphazard array of salvaged, borrowed and battered gear.
Pete Cousins, one of the musicians who recorded there and whose 30 year-old Teddy White combo first emerged from the jazz-rock Electric Swing sessions at Brian’s pad, later described it as a “a rag bag junk pile boot sale assortment of equipment.”
Whatever it was, Brian managed to squeeze an LP’s worth of tunes from Swindon groups circa 1979/80, and issue 1,000 copies of the LP, Songs from Pigland – one of which recently went for £55 on eBay.
Always a big figure on the Swindon music/arts/culture scene, there was a genuine sense of loss when Brian – who taught for many years at Swindon New College – died from cancer at just 55 in 1995.
One of his three sons, Brendan, says: “He was an inspirational guy and was just such good fun to be around with a huge appetite for life and an uncanny knack for making extraordinary things happen.
“Dad lived around his passions – music, art, poetry, Swindon Town, angling and boating.
“He was most passionate, though, about encouraging his friends, students and family to live life to its potential and was always willing to help and connect people to each other and to new ideas.”
Hat’s off, then, to Sir Brian of Pigland!