Friday, 24 June 2011

Harmonising with History

One of my sisters told me that she had joined a local choir – despite the fact that she is not a trained singer. She has always been one for breaking out into unselfconscious, cheerful-sounding harmony whenever the mood takes her, even though her competence owes more to enthusiasm than to natural ability. Of course I showed my support and applauded her brave adoption of such a creative pursuit. I thought no more of it until several months later when she announced that her choir was to give a public concert. “That’s great! Where will it be?” I enquired, dutifully sustaining my interest. “Oh, just at the local church. We’re not very good.”  Amateur choirs and local churches do not have a glamorous image and, without a good PR company behind them, are always going to be a difficult sell. Fortunately for her I am a fond brother who had already declared interest and, as such, was a sucker for a couple of tickets. “That would be nice” she said “But don’t feel you have to”. “I will be there” I insisted. “Ah thanks - but don’t expect too much. We’re not very good” she insisted in return.

The venue is in her village, Tattershall, which lies in deepest, flattest Lincolnshire. It is utterly unremarkable on drive-through acquaintance but, hidden from view, just off its main road, stands England’s largest parish church, the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity - her ‘local church’. It is ancient and awe-inspiring in its beauty, grace and grandeur. And that’s not all. It is related to another mid-15th century building a few yards away, the 130 feet-high tower of Tattershall castle, a spectacular monument to the moneyed power of the time. In short, our choir of brave amateurs was about to strut its stuff in middle England’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey with the Tower of London shifted next door. As well as that they had the undaunted temerity to perform an ambitious programme: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (concert version) and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria.

It is true to say that I have heard more accomplished performances of both works; but let this pass as a technical quibble. The concurrence of the music, the spirit in which it was delivered, the magnificence of the building and the reverberations with history came together as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved by ‘ordinary people’. Amidst the mundaneness of everyday life they had tapped into the deep roots of shared culture which are still there for all to savour. This was more than just a concert; it was a testament to the lingering power of cultural heritage.

The experience was marred only by the woeful lack of numbers in the audience - which leads to speculation about the frailty of such events. When Ralph, the 3rd Baron Cromwell, built the castle and the church he was Lord Treasurer of England. Some of that ‘treasure’ must have found its way into his personal account for the building of monuments to the glory of his god (and to himself). Now that he’s gone, however, the cost of maintenance falls heavily upon the small community. Yet, just two fields away, there is an RAF base which is home to some of the world’s most advanced jet fighter aircraft. The wealth of the nation is spent there in unimaginable billions of pounds. Standing in the grounds, watching the jets fly over, it is possible to imagine them destroying both these ancient buildings in a matter of minutes. The contrast is extreme: on the one hand no expense is spared to exert military might while, on the other, our cultural heritage clings on by a thin thread of charitable donations.

Some of the choristers were participating out of sheer passion for music, some for more social motives; but all of them, whether or not they were aware of it, were adding their particular layer to the precious patina of our social and cultural history. They have vision, talent and chutzpah – but they could really use a good PR company.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Another Perspective

I had begun to feel twinges of pain in one of my thighs and, although I tried at first to ignore it, I knew that this marked the onset of an ineffably painful, recurring condition caused by trapped nerves somewhere in my lower back. So, acting as swiftly and decisively as NHS procedure allows, I secured an appointment with my GP to get an appointment with the physiotherapist.

The therapist, a friendly, chatty bloke, was not the one I had seen before so he was obliged to start again with the diagnosis. He had a way of theorising out loud while he prodded, poked and twisted me. Theories are not what you want to hear when you are in pain. I wanted to say “Just tell me what’s wrong and fix it please” but I suspected he was well-intentioned so I kept quiet and tried politely to follow the technicalities of his procedure instead. His diagnosis, once reached, still sounded disappointingly tentative; but he prescribed some exercises, offered me a crib-sheet full of matchstick-man diagrams and sent me limping on my way.

Friends discovering my dilemma were generous with their sympathy and advice. Some had similar stories to tell and could even recommend pharmaceutical products to ease pain and inflammation (alcohol doesn’t work). To clarify all this advice I went back to the doctor for a prescription. While writing it he told me that, in his opinion, physiotherapists are not necessarily good at treating lower back problems and that I should consider seeing a chiropractor instead. At the time I was in too much distress to remonstrate with him – I was desperate to get to the chemist’s – but perhaps I shall take it up with him one day.

But control of pain does not equal cure of the condition so I buckled down to the exercises. They require the adoption of two basic positions; one is lying on your belly on the floor and the other is lying on your back on the floor. Thus I was given an opportunity to see my world from an unusual perspective for extended periods of time. The face-down position gave me un-looked-for opportunities to inspect the carpet and make resolve to get the vacuum cleaner out (as soon as I felt up to it). Meanwhile I learnt not to inhale too sharply. The face-up position seemed only to lead to paranoid speculation about ceilings falling in on top of me.

One day, whilst rolling awkwardly from the face-up to the face-down position without twisting my vertebrae in the process, I got a close-up view of the bottom shelf of a bookcase. It contains, as a sort of ballast, all those weighty tomes which prevent the bookcase from becoming top-heavy and falling over. I hadn’t seen them for years; in fact, some of them, I swear, I have never seen before. Such a one was Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania – a big, fat hardback of 540 pages. While I was down there I pulled it from the shelf, dusted it off and decided that, in my reduced state of health, it would be an ideal lightweight read.

I discovered quite quickly, however, that reading this book presented some unforeseen difficulties. Because the only reading position I could adopt for any reasonable length of time was lying on the floor, flat on my back, I imagined that (apart from the possibility of the ceiling falling down on me) holding a heavy book above my face could risk further medical complications; the onset of conditions such as acute readers’ wrist, book-luggers’ elbow, frozen shoulder or even a poke in the eye with a hard-back. Nothing against Paul Theroux, but I promptly returned the book to its hiding place and reached instead for my trusty e-reader. It weighs just 280 grams and requires only one hand to hold it and turn the pages. The rest, as they say, is ballast. 

Friday, 10 June 2011


One evening, feeling adventurous, I had decided to take a chance on a live performance by a band I had never listened to - despite their longevity and relative fame. It turned out to be a disappointing gig, rich in virtuosity, yet devoid of excitement and inspiration. Afterwards I opted to walk home through the livelier streets of the city in order to glean some sort of entertainment as compensation for the twenty five quid I had laid out. It wasn’t long coming. On a street corner, outside an hotel, I was obliged to take evasive action to avoid a very animated young man who was pacing the pavement, gesticulating manically and shouting into his phone in what sounded like pantomime Italian. I dredged up some of the vocabulary I had learned over the years and was quite pleased at being able to translate a few phrases, particularly the memorable testa di cazzo or, as we say, ‘dickhead’.

Turning on to Canal Street I was admiring the elaborate costumes of the transvestites and envying the exuberance of the crowds when I became aware that someone was following me and trying to get my attention. He was persistent but very polite so, in the end, I felt obliged to respond. He was a small, neatly dressed middle-aged man of Indian origin – a species not normally spotted at that time of night in that location. He claimed he was a visitor who had been wandering the area for several hours, finding it fascinating because “there is nothing like this back at home”. Sadly, though, he had found nobody to talk to (the street was heaving) and would really appreciate a friendly chat with somebody (why me?) in a quiet bar (no such thing hereabouts) over a “cold drink”. I found it hard to decline his plaintive request for company, although I did in the end, because I remained sceptical of his motive.  I left him looking sad, lonely and lost in the crowd, or so I imagined, for I didn’t dare look back.

The next day, in broad daylight, on a busy shopping thoroughfare, I was accosted again. This time by a scruffy but earnest young man who proffered a DVD and implored me to accept it.  My conscience was still uneasy from the previous night’s display of callous disregard so I stopped briefly to hear his story. “It’s a couple of short films about implanted micro-chips” he said “You can have the DVD but, if you can spare a pound or two towards the production cost, it would be appreciated”.  I took  the disc and, imagining him to be a struggling young artist and me a wealthy patron, fished out a two pound coin (I had nothing smaller), thereby making his day happier and leaving me with a conscience salved.

Some weeks later I came across the DVD in my “pending” tray and decided to give it a spin. It started off well, with a kind of alternative take on society, the gist of which was that the abolition of money would be a good thing. The worship of Mammon would be replaced by a giant hippy-style commune, where we would all care for each other and barter for our needs. I was about to press ‘stop’ when a sinister note was struck by a reference to “the mark of the beast”.

It began to dawn on me that I was watching a cunning propaganda film made by a Christian sect which believed that we are all about to be persuaded to have micro-chips implanted in our hands to act as credit cards. They believe that this micro-chip represents “the mark of the beast” which is foretold in The Book of Revelations and is an evil plan dreamt up by The Devil to ensure that we all go to Hell. I watched to the end of the film, searching for some cogent logic, but could find only assumption, tendentious interpretation and blind faith.

Having thus shown a polite interest in the young man’s mission, I am left wondering only whether he would have accepted the two pounds contribution via my implanted microchip.