The Cornet

Chris is a soft-spoken, modest man who engages the world with a gentle smile and a kindly manner. Being around Chris always makes me feel relaxed and, for a few moments at least, I can lay aside some of the things I normally find tricky and sticky and painful.

Chris recently appeared on The Repair Shop, a popular British television programme where a team of master craftsmen repair the nation’s broken treasures. It is formulaic in its presentation but each piece and each story is unique. Chris brought his cornet to be repaired and, as he explained to Pete, the conservator, it was given to him by his parents when he was eleven years old. The instrument was dented and chipped, parts were missing and it was held together with sticking plaster: This cornet changed my life. It’s the reason I am where I am now, he said.

It was an inspiring and heartfelt story and I subsequently asked Chris if I could interview him and write a longer, more detailed piece about his life.

Chris Bassett grew up on a council estate in High Wycombe in the 1960s.  His paternal grandfather, born in the Welsh valleys, was a resourceful man, who managed a snooker hall and worked as an upholsterer. Chris’ father, Reg was employed at the local Hoover factory, became a national convener for the company union and, while his five children were still at school, he studied for his Bachelor’s degree. Chris’ mother, Betty, was orphaned as a small child and raised by a neighbour. As an adult, she struggled with her mental health and was hospitalised for extended periods. In her absence, Chris and his siblings were sent to children’s homes.

When Chris was eight years old, he fell off his bicycle and fractured his skull. A year later, he fell off a garage roof and fractured it again. He was taken to the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville and subsequently spent two years in Marlborough Children’s Hospital. His parents visited once a month but he didn’t see his siblings again until he was eleven.

Chris recovered physically from his accidents but he never recovered academically. He started at secondary school but was subsequently transferred to the adjoining vocational unit and it was at this point that his parents bought him the cornet. It opened up a new world, he said. Although he could no longer read words or add up numbers, he discovered that he could sight-read music. His brass band teacher encouraged him to join the local Salvation Army Band and the High Wycombe Youth Band.

He followed his older brother into the Army Cadets and, at the age of fourteen, Chris applied to join the British Army. He flunked the entrance test but the recruiting sergeant, recognising that the boy was musically gifted, suggested he apply directly to the Royal Green Jackets. He was accepted but had to give up his cornet in exchange for the French horn. Two years later, Chris won a place at the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham.  I loved my time in the army, he told me. I was a musician, not a soldier and we toured the UK every year, playing at ceremonies and marching displays, school concerts and fetes.

He left the army in 1975 and worked as a postman, a Securicor manager and a fireman, before training as a ventriloquist and puppeteer. In 2004 Chris began working in secondary schools, supporting pupils, especially teenage boys, with emotional, behavioural and mental health needs.

After he retired in 2020 he applied to be a volunteer mentor for GRIT – Growing Resilience in Teenagers. At the interview, Chris was asked to speak about his own experiences with resilience and positive change and he recounted the story of his cornet. It was Claire on the  interview panel who suggested he contact The Repair Shop.

When Chris’ cornet was unveiled, he was deeply moved. He gently picked up the instrument and played it again for the first time in fifty years. He chose Edelweiss, he explained, because it was the first piece he had ever played in public. I never got to say thank you to my Mum and Dad because by the time I realised the impact this cornet had had on my life, it was too late. I don’t know why they bought it, but I’m so grateful they did. It was a life changer. I’d like to think that they are proud of me.

The injuries Chris sustained as a boy have been disturbingly echoed in the life of his youngest son. In 2011, at the age of nineteen, Matthew suffered a spinal cord injury in a swimming accident which left him a tetraplegic. Just like his father, he neither leads with, nor defines himself by his injury. In interviews he is relaxed, engaged and quick-witted. Since his accident, Matthew has got married to Amanda, climbed Mount Snowdon, gone skiing in Sweden and, last year he went surfing off the Gower Peninsula. I made peace with the sea again, he said. Life isn’t defined by what I can’t do – it’s about what I can do. If you’ve got the right attitude, you can do more or less anything. It’s about looking at the small things that create something important for you.

As we came to the end of our time together, Chris took his shiny old cornet out of its new carrying case and, at my request he played Edelweiss, a song which always reminds me of my Swiss mother.

Chris Bassett on The Repair Shop BBC iplayer: Series 7 Episode 40

Matthew Bassett on Weatherman Walking, Surf’s Up BBC iplayer