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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe recalls the brains behind The Oxford Book of Carols

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WITH MAMMON on the rampage, I consider the Advent carol. The sun stares down on the cold garden, and bullfinches rock my new feeder. Before me lies a treasured inheri­tance, The Oxford Book of Carols by Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw.

I met Martin Shaw when I was a youth. He was my friend Jane Garrett’s uncle, as, of course, was his brother Geoffrey, who got John Ireland to set the wonderful hymn “My song is Love unknown”. So when it comes to the Advent carol service at Little Horkesley, as it does without fail each year, I feel on personal terms with it.

There are six Advent carols in the Oxford book, five of them set by Martin Shaw: “All hail to the days”, “If ye would hear the angels sing”, “People, look east”, “When Caesar Augustus had raised a taxation”, and “When righteous Joseph wedded was”.

Percy Dearmer (who married my friend Jane’s parents) wrote the preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, and very fine it is. Everyone arranging this season’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols should read it. It begins, “Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular and modern. . . Carol literature and music are rich in true folk-poetry and remain fresh and buoyant even when the subject is a grave one. . .

“The word ‘carol’ has a dancing origin and once meant to dance in a ring. . . it dances because it is so Christian. . . Carols, moreover, were always modern, expressing the manner in which the ordinary man at his best understood the ideas of his age.”

Reading this, I recall something from Parson Woodforde’s Diary. At the end of the Christmas Day ser­vice, the people asked if they might song a carol. “Not until I am out of the church”, said he. This in the 1780s. His Diary is full of food, and should be the telly chefs’ Bible.

But back to Martin Shaw, and his inclusion of Advent carols in the Oxford book, which do not include his setting of “Hills of the North, rejoice”, with its grand geography, so distant from the snug hearth of his:

  This time of the year is spent in Good cheer,

  And neighbours together do meet,

  To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,

  Each other in love to greet,

  Old grudges forgot are put in the pot. . .

He found this in a black-letter tome in the Pepys Library. But the gifted Eleanor Farjeon wrote “People, look east”, with its “Fur­rows be glad, though earth is bare, One more seed is planted there”, and its refrain, “Love the Guest, Rose, Bird, Star, Lord is on the way.”

Another friend of my youth, Imogen Holst, had a dancing “carol” step which would become a positive dance in itself when she was con­ducting. She possessed an inner joy that was infectious and funny and serious all at once. Both she and the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols were the last inheritors of Christian Socialism.

They were liberationists, who were able to trace back common freedoms and common worship through the years, and especially through the clutter of materialism, and via dancing songs.

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