Friday, 17 July 2020

Happy holidays?

Today we finally dismantled the trappings of our home-school: the pen pots and table mats that have been a feature of our dining table for the past four months: the books, the paints, the pencils, rubbers. Because, come September, my daughter will return to school, to proper school, the school she last attended on Friday March 20th 2020.

Of course I'm not naive enough to think that kids stop learning just because they're not at school. Home is the best, richest and most fulfilling educational environment for children. Or it should be. I know there are countless thousands, tens, even hundreds for whom this has been time lost, through no fault of their own.

But with good fortune and the luxury of time I've been able to keep the schooling going for the past fourteen weeks. I only wish it could be longer. Because the thought of my daughter returning in September to a class of thirty in a school of over 500, or my son resuming lessons in the same physical space as 1000 other pupils fills me with terror.

In spite of all the reassurances, in spite of the super-human efforts of the schools and of my children's teachers, the risk to them, to me, to all of us, hasn't gone away. The criminally-negligent among our rulers stick rigidly to their own agenda, which has more to do with making money than with public safety. That, and doing what the hell they want while telling everyone else to toe the line. Never has the phrase 'do as I say, not as I do' been more apt.

"Politics combines all the seven deadly sins and is the forgotten eighth," as Derek Jarman wrote. But the lies and incompetence of those who actually rule over us (as opposed to the little old lady in Windsor to whom we sing so loud that she may do so long) verges on the villainous and may actually be so if only someone could or would ask the right questions.

I was screaming at the telly during Dominic Cummings Downing Street testimony: ask him why his wife couldn’t drive? Why he didn’t take the train or order a ministerial car (after all, he’s that important - he told us so!) and why he wanted to bring the family back to a place where he said he felt ‘threatened’ anyway?

But nobody did. No doubt they're all afraid they'll be denied access to the Downing Street press briefings if they rattle that particular cage, the sycophantic morons. But, really!

None of the story made sense, apart from as a fragile fabrication designed to get him off the hook of having so clearly broken the government's lockdown guidance. First he flees a house he says has been made vulnerable through media attention, then brings the same, vulnerable family back to London, driving all the way when there's the East Coast main line not twenty miles from where he was staying. And why, precisely, did he need to go so far for 'childcare'? Again, no-one asked why he couldn't have called on family and friends in the capital. We now know there were some. There were plenty of other, less nefarious, options.

But the man, like the government he advises, doesn't seem to care. Coronavirus hadn't gone away; there is, as yet, no vaccine and no cure. The return in September to the 'business as usual' state schooling of packed classrooms and inadequate buildings is a huge risk. Yes, children - especially the vulnerable - need schooling. But not at any price. There are other ways of working that work for some. Yet we're back to the 'one-size-fits-all' philosophy that has blighted education in this country for so long.

The six weeks holiday that we're now embarking on is nothing more than a historical anachronism, a sop to those Tory landowners who couldn't countenance being without a child labour force at harvest time. Still, with some decent weather, we'll have a lovely time. I'm not complaining. I, for one, know my children will keep learning, as they always do, as they have done during lockdown, without a classroom.

But come September, when I say goodbye and wave them off to school I know I'll die, just a little...

Sunday, 28 June 2020

O Radiant Dawn!

There couldn't really be a better way to refer to that time when, post-lockdown, life can return to normal. That day will definitely dawn radiantly! Until then, we do things differently and we dream...

'O Radiant Dawn' was the title of the motet by James MacMillan that the Stay at Home Choir rehearsed and performed with The Sixteen a few weeks ago. Last night, after a long wait, we got to see and hear the result.

Over 14,000 people in 64 countries took part. And I was one of them! It was a wonderful experience, probably something that - under normal circumstances - I'd never have been able to do. It was exciting, inspiring and uplifting. It came at the moment the first wave of good weather broke and lockdown started to seem less like a holiday and more like house arrest, especially to those (like me) with a shielding letter.

We rehearsed with Sir James himself, and then had sectionals (i.e. were split into our respective voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) with members of The Sixteen. I'll never forget Eamonn Dougan's 'Choral Chiuhuahua'... and if that means nothing to you, take a look here:

Then there was the challenge of recording - alone - to a guide track that sounded like a cross between something by Kraftwerk and my Auntie Annie on the Hammond organ. Then, finally, uploading my 'take' and waiting... and waiting.

And it was worth every moment! Here's the result. What do you think?

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

I Have a Song to Sing? No!

Last Thursday the eminent Organista et Magista Choristarum of Westminster Abbey, no less, successor to Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, John Blow (and Osborne Peasgood!) was a guest on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, talking to Sean Rafferty about what desperately frustrating times these are for singers everywhere, not least in this country's great abbeys and cathedrals.

Yesterday The Guardian published a letter from eminent vocal and choral musicians, composers and conductors claiming to 'give voice to the millions of people who sing in choirs in this country' and lamenting the 'uncertain future' we all now face.

Both argued strongly that church leaders, and the government, should take action. Abbey organist James O'Donnell referred to current restrictions as 'ridiculously risk-averse' and The Guardian's correspondents argued church leaders should now 'speak out so that we can make singing together in churches work' and that the government needed to 'show how we can restart singing together on an equal footing with opening theme parks, shopping and kicking a football around.' They added 'It is imperative that we find a way for choirs in this country to resume as soon and as safely as we can.'

No-one could argue with that. But I get the impression that phrases like 'within certain guidelines' are sometimes added as a sop to the 'ridiculously risk-averse' among us who - while bitterly regretting the current situation - might be a little less keen to come back anytime soon to choral singing.

Yes, 'Singing in a choir is not only about communality, social cohesion and harmony...' There is no doubt that is provides a 'source of emotional wellbeing and positive mental health.' It is important and needs protecting. But not at the cost of people's lives.

Like many recent relaxations of the lockdown restrictions, such calls are not only disappointing, but scientifically misleading. Earlier this month the New York Times published a article which seemed to show that, far from being 'ridiculously risk-averse' the current restrictions might actually be inadequate for singers.

Of course, much is not known. But as such, is it right to begin thinking of relaxing restrictions which may silence cathedral and concert halls, but save lives? I am as frustrated with the current situation as anyone. As a former cathedral lay-clerk and active singer I miss the opportunity to make music terribly. But with underlying health conditions, and having received a shielding letter, I am also acutely aware of the need to stay safe.

The risks of relaxing the restrictions too soon are too great. And until we know better, choir practice for me will look like this for a lot longer...

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

In a churchyard...

It's 180 years today since the birth of Thomas Hardy: poet, architect, novelist, playwright, musician, countryman and legend.

Hardy (like his protagonist Jude) didn't go to public school or Oxford. He didn't inherit wealth. He worked, as an architect. And wrote in his spare time. It was architectural business - not literary - that took him to Cornwall in 1870. While there he met the woman who was to become his wife, the woman who, over a long marriage, he would neglect and whose death he would mourn so painfully that it inspired some of the English language's best poetry.

Here's one of his poems not directly inspired by the death of his first wife. 'While Drawing in a Churchyard' is sometimes subtitled 'Song of the Yew' and it is the yew tree, that ancient tree of churchyards, that speaks to the poet. "Death isn't as bad as people think, y'know," the tree seems to say.

But then, that was Hardy's own view!

'It is sad that so many of worth,  
Still in the flesh,' soughed the yew,  
'Misjudge their lot whom kindly earth  
Secludes from view.

'They ride their diurnal round  
Each day-span's sum of hours  
In peerless ease, without jolt or bound  
Or ache like ours.  

'If the living could but hear  
What is heard by my roots as they creep  
Round the restful flock, and the things said there,  
No one would weep.'  

' "Now set among the wise,"  
They say: "Enlarged in scope,  
That no God trumpet us to rise  
We truly hope." '  

I listened to his strange tale  
In the mood that stillness brings,  
And I grew to accept as the day wore pale  
That show of things.
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