by Graham Harris
I recently discovered with great shock and sadness that Delia Derbyshire passed away on July 3rd, 2001, at the comparatively early age of sixty-four years. Many years ago when we were teenagers we were friends, but like so many bonds of friendship formed at such a tender age those bonds broke and we drifted apart. I doubt whether the world would have been much different if it had been otherwise. Electronic music was to be created, and Delia was to be its pioneer. This tribute is to Delia, the girl I knew long before the first note of her music was conceived. She was my first girl friend and, therefore, very special.
Delia was born in Coventry, England, on Wednesday, May 5th, 1937 to Emmie (nee Dawson) and Ted Derbyshire. I know it was a Wednesday when she came into the world, as I was born a few weeks later on a Saturday. There is an old rhyme which says "Wednesday's child is full of woe." I cannot claim Delia was full of woe, but her early life was indeed marked by tragedy. Her only sister died in childhood of peritonitis (according to my own sister), and her father also died in his middle years.
Our parents knew each other well, and Emmie and Ted Derbyshire would often visit us, and Ted would talk to me for ages about cricket. I always looked forward to their visits as a boy, I looked forward even more when I became a little older and more aware of Delia's charms.
I remember the day I fell in love with Delia, for it was my sister's birthday, and she was invited to the party. She wore a pale blue dress of utter simplicity (for those were the days when every mother knew how to make clothes) and, with her wavy auburn hair, and her peaches and cream complexion, she looked like a goddess visiting Earth. As a humble mortal I was totally devastated, and with one fell stroke became her devotee. I desperately hoped I was her only admirer! Even at the age of thirteen she was an accomplished pianist, and played our piano faultlessly in spite of my picking out all the complicated bits I could find on the sheet music available. She had indeed come down from Heaven! So began our 'love affair'.
At that time I was keen on being an explorer, and had become fascinated with a map of Brazil on which an area was marked 'Unexplored'. In my juvenile dreams I had visions of returning from some jungle vastness to find Delia giving a piano recital at the Albert Hall, sweeping her up in my arms, and carrying her off to some turgid tributary of the Amazon. In that tropical paradise she would mother a brood of children. None of this was to be!
I have seen it claimed that Delia attended Coventry Grammar School, and came from a working-class background. I would differ on both accounts. She attended Barr's Hill School for Girls which, no doubt, was later incorporated into Coventry Grammar School (likely as the result of some shotgun marriage instigated by the education authorities). Her parents, like mine, may well have been considered 'working class', but in reality they were part of the huge 'middle class' of the England of yesteryear, then the backbone of the country. Ted and Emmie Derbyshire were decent upright citizens who had managed to survive two world wars. They had a family connection with Preston, Lancashire, and links to Ireland.
The uniform worn by the girls of Barr's Hill was blue. The girls in summer were an absolute delight in their blue and white striped dresses, their dark blue blazers, and their straw boaters adorned with blue ribbon. I doubt if Delia could have worn a better uniform to set off her shock of auburn hair. It has often been said a woman's hair is her crowning glory. In those teenage years it was certainly hers.
It was Delia who found an intermediary to carry our 'billet douxs'. One of her classmates was Lois, a striking well-developed blonde, who used to catch the same bus as me. I was in seventh heaven when she sat alongside and passed over one of those distictive pale blue envelopes. Delia was very discriminating, she always used Basildon Bond! I only wish those letters I once treasured had not been lost!
The word quickly got round my school that I was in love, and a fourteen year old in love is ripe for all kinds of foolishness. On a school cycling trip we were examining rock outcrops in a disused limestone quarry. I found a nice piece of quarry wall hidden by a clump of trees, and chiselled Delia's name into it in large letters about twelve inches high. I was admiring my handiwork when one of my teachers suddenly appeared. He grinned and asked "Delia! Delia! Who is she? Sheffield or Coventry?" From then on he became my tormentor, for each time we met, he grinned knowingly, shook his head solemnly, and repeated the rhyme. Thereafter I took trouble to avoid him whenever I could. Doubtless the school staff were amused. My English teacher once spoke of 'calf love' glancing at me all the while.
I took Delia to see a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Mikado', and deliberately bought two tickets for the back row of the stalls. I decided to be brave, and that night to hold her hand, for I'd been told grown-ups held hands on the back row. My lecherous intents were frustrated for I found my geography teacher and his wife seated next to us. He smiled patronisingly, and before I could introduce my girl friend said "I suppose this is Delia." The course of true love never did run smooth!
We played tennis, not that our tennis was much good. But then Delia couldn't play cricket and wouldn't play rugby, so we lobbed tennis balls over the net at each other rather ineffectively. It wasn't so much the tennis, or the odd ice-cream afterwards that was so marvellous, but the fact she would cycle over and wait for me outside the school gates. Having a girlfriend that waited for you outside the school gates was the true mark of having come of age in the eyes of one's peers.
About the age of sixteen the juvenile flames of passion began to abate, and slowly we drifted apart - no letters and no tennis. This was a period when Delia began to exhibit great promise as a pianist, perhaps she found other boy friends. She did, however, win many piano competitions. When she went to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1955 to study music and mathematics I went into the army. We met only once again. It was December 1958 when she was in her final year, and I was just commencing engineering studies. We were two different people inhabiting different planets, and a wide gulf had grown between us.
Being in effect an only child, it is likely Delia led a rather sheltered and restricted life and, as a consequence, might have felt some degree of loneliness. Her religious background was staunch Roman Catholic, which would not have helped in the prevailing Protestant milieu in which she found herself, neither would the time consuming demands of constant piano practice. Being of an impressionable nature Cambridge University must have proved a watershed - whether the experience was for better or worse I am not qualified to say.
On the last occasion we met I took Delia to a dance. There was a girl there wearing a bright yellow dress that looked more like a gaudy bell tent. I believe it was the fashion of the day. Delia remarked what a gorgeous dress it was, to which I made some derogatory response. "What sort of dress do you like then?" she asked. "Tight black satin that shows all the curves," I replied. "Oh, you horrid man," she shrieked, and thumped my shoulder. Everyone looked, probably wondering where my hands had strayed to deserve such a riposte.
Later on I learned through the grapevine between our mothers that Delia joined the BBC. Then she moved to Cumbria, where she married. I know I mentally wished her great joy at the time, though I understand the marriage did not last long. Until I read of her passing a few weeks ago I had no knowledge of how she lived those forty odd years since we last met. I only wish it had been different. Now it is too late.
Delia Derbyshire as a teenager was very talented, she was highly intelligent, she was personable, lively and witty. I understand she found a companion later in life who supported her love for the electronic music she had pioneered. If only she had found a strong companion in those early formative years her world would truly have been different. God bless you Delia!
31st March 2005