Edward Greenfield, Music Critic
The entire ground floor of Ted Greenfield’s house in Folgate St is given over to an archive of thousands upon thousands of CDs. Stretching from floor to ceiling in each room are shelves of utilitarian design, lined with meticulously labelled brown archive boxes containing them all, while down in the cellar is stored his collection of over thirty thousand LPs. When you first walk through the door, it feels as if you have entered the storeroom of a music shop or the hidden stack of music library, but climbing the stairs to the first floor leads you into the more congenial atmosphere of Ted’s domestic arena. He lives up above, in the top three storeys of his magnificently tottering eighteenth century house, in rooms stacked with more CDs, musical biographies, back copies of The Gramophone, programmes from concerts and opera – and innumerable notes and cards of good wishes that testify to his many friends and admirers.
“I once had a flat in Highgate but the LPs got me out!” he admitted to me as we enjoyed a reviving mid-morning vodka and lemon in his sunlit panelled living room, lined with striking modernist portraits by Jeffrey Spedding of Ted’s musical icons, Mahler, Sibelius, Brahms, William Walton, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven.
“I have been here in Spitalfields for thirty-two years and it seems like no time at all. The whole place has changed, yet largely for the better I think. In those days, there was nothing between me and the church, nowadays you’d barely recognise it. My friends were shocked when I bought this house with a hole in the roof in 1979, but I could see the potential and so could my architect, because it was he who suggested I come to live here.
The builders were in for over two years, and then it took another ten years to get the panelling sorted out. This room alone took over a year. In the nineteen thirties, they thought ‘horrible old panelling’ and lined it with fibreboard and covered the walls with miles of bellwire attached to alarms, because this was the Co-operative Fruit & Vegetable Department and they kept all their valuables here, using staples for the wire that created thousands of tiny holes we had to fill. And they installed a particularly nasty nineteen thirties ceramic fireplace that looked like it should have china rabbits over it – behind that we discovered this original coved fireplace recess.
Then I had a disaster when I moved in and only stayed fifteen minutes because there was a fire! Later, I had just moved my record collection of thirty thousand odd LPs into the cellar when there was flood. After the fire and the flood, I was expecting an earthquake. At that time, the two plots next door were vacant, where the houses had fallen down, and there were baulks of timber holding this one up. I had a party for one hundred and fifty people when I finally moved in and there were so many people the building was rocking!”
Ted Greenfield dramatises his own life with an endearing humour borne of a life of fulfilment at the heart of the British music scene as longtime music critic at The Guardian and subsequently as editor of the Penguin Guide to CDs. A trusted authority who, now into his eighties, continues to review regularly for The Gramophone, Greenfield forged friendships with many musicians who were the subject of his writing – from William Walton (“My great hero and a dear friend”), Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Yehudi Menuhin and Mstislav Rostropovich to Leonard Bernstein (“The most charismatic man I ever knew”.). Ted Greenfield’s magnanimous optimistic temperament partly accounts for this, but it is further explained by his philosophy of criticism, which he outlines thus,“The first duty of a critic is to appreciate, to try to understand what the artist is trying to do and how far he has succeeded. You just have to try and sympathise.” As a critic, Ted Greenfield wrote to explore the intentions of the work he was reviewing, rather than sitting in judgement.
“I always wanted to write about records, but then I thought ‘I’ll never be able to keep myself,’ so I did Law at Cambridge where I wrote the Cambridge Union reports, and then when I went to the Appointments Board, they said, ‘Why not journalism?’ I think I’ve been very lucky, but equally I know you have to make your own luck to an extent. I try to look for the best side of things and to make things happen. I’ve written about a lot of people and they’ve become good friends. I’ve known many of the greats in music and politics over the years.”
When I asked Ted what music he listens to for recreation, he opened Who’s Who’s and showed me his entry which lists his recreations as “music and work,” and I understood that music is simply his life. Looking around, I realised that it is unquestionably a bachelor’s dwelling he inhabits, with few luxuries and comforts, and an atmosphere that is collegiate as much as it is domestic, displaying the charismatic disorder of books and papers you might expect in an undergraduate’s chambers overlooking an old quad.
Indeed many of Ted’s Cambridge contemporaries remained lifelong friends including ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe (“When he came to my party here, before all the buildings were put up, we were able to look across and see St Pauls”), ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie ( “When I first visited him at Lambeth Palace, his wife had him doing the washing up”) and ex-Prime Minister Edward Heath with whom he shared a love of music. “Ted became a dear friend, especially when Margaret Thatcher took over and he famously was in the big sulk – he was a frequent visitor to Spitalfields in those days. I realised how vulnerable he was. Although he was entirely incapable of expressing human emotions, whenever he saw me he was plainly delighted. It was very amusing to tease him and have him tease me back.”
In spite of his immense knowledge and his friendships with all these establishment types, Ted is refreshingly lacking in pomposity and even a little subversive, wearing britches and nicely polished riding boots when he has no intention of going riding or even leaving the house. Drinking spirits in the morning is a rare experience for me but I recognised at once it was a habit I could get accustomed to – What could be more civilised than to sit in an old house in Spitalfields sipping vodka with lemon and listening to classical CDs? This is the life of Edward Greenfield.
You can read excerpts from Edward Greenfield’s memoires at www.edwardgreenfield.co.uk
Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies