Songs of praise
I LOVE a sign outside the Western Hills United Methodist Church that has been circulating on the internet: “If you love to sin, our chancel choir will welcome you.” Ours is rehearsing for the annual RSCM diocesan choirs festival, which this year celebrates all things Parry. Our booklets have not yet arrived; so single copies of the anthems have had to be scrounged from the shelves of parish churches whose choirs are long defunct.
Some of the sheets are held together with sticky tape that is so old it has become brittle. But they are precious pages of history, scribbled on by generations of choristers who wrote “Breathe” and “Turn now” and “Watch” in soft-leaded pencil. My joy has been to sing “I Was Glad” from what was clearly an organist’s copy, liberally sprinkled with the shorthand of Sw and Ped and Gt and Reeds and Flute. When the booklets arrive, white and pristine, something is lost.
I reflect that it’s all bound up with the demographic of parish-church choirs. We will be one of only a handful at the festival bringing junior choristers, whose perspective on life is our Sunday entertainment in the vestry. One of them wants to be an astro-physicist. “I planned to go into space,” he says grandly, “but then I found out about the injections.” When the reading that morning turns out to be Psalm 1, with its great hymn to the galaxy, he gives us the thumbs-up, and we smile.
I HAVE been smiling in anticipation on frequent trips up the A1, a temporary disruption to railway timetables having forced us all to take to the road. There’s a point at which a giant billboard in a farmer’s field comes into view: “Prepare to meet thy God.” I’m sure no irony was intended in the small sign propped up beside it: “Barnsdale Café, next on the left”. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, and I hope it always will be. And I hope — for all it represents — that this sign, too, will continue to be glimpsed as I’m crossing the Isle of Mull by bus on the long journey back from Iona: “Otters crossing for the next 6 miles”.
WATCHING the landscape turn from summer green to autumn gold is part of the calendar. But, back home, the summer drought has taken its toll on our apple tree, which is brown and barren, and, for the first time in 40 years, has produced no crop. Picking its abundant fruit always coincided with the children’s birthdays, and was a signpost on the road to autumn: that marker has gone now, and I am strangely unnerved by it. The bluetits continue to gather in its skeletal branches, and I wonder if they have noticed the absence of leaves.
Robert Macfarlane, the author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways, was disturbed when once common words from Nature, such as “swallow”, “bramble”, “heather”, and “fern” began to vanish from the language of children, “fading away like water on stone”. His large-format book The Lost Words, gloriously illustrated by Jackie Morrison, is “a spellbook for conjuring back those lost words . . . told in the gold of goldfinches that flit through its pages in charms”.
He is a Nottingham man, and it’s a cause of immense satisfaction here that enough money has been raised through crowdfunding to put a copy into every primary and special school in the county. Now they’ve widened that objective to include secondary schools, so that no child will slip through the net. “If the right spells are spoken, the lost words might return. . .”.
Words and music
THAT stirs something in me, and I am moved to hunt for my ancient copy of The School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church. At Albion Street Methodist Church, we sang often from the section “God in Nature” with joyful hymns that lauded violets, bees, harebells, and gorse, and exhorted us children, “Sing, sing, for the year is young and the breezes are sweet and keen.”
I’ve never before had cause to read the preface to this little book. I discover that it came out in 1950, publication having been suspended by the war. Many people continued to live in the world of worship they had known 40 years previously — a world that was, the compilers reflected, “increasingly remote” from the children of the 1950s.
“Certain characteristics of the new books and new ways may be mentioned. Words that are unreal, as well as the morbid and sentimental, are disappearing. There is a growing care for the theological implications of the hymns and their moral teaching. . . There is a much finer feeling for poetry and music. Tunes that were unsatisfying and often trivial have gone, whilst many of the classic treasures of the past have been restored and modern compositions provided.”
Curiosity prompts me to investigate the Revd Robert Wilfrid Callin, whom the preface credits with having guided the task. I discover that he was born in 1886, and died in 1951; that he was a lover of music, a poet with “a remarkable gift of lucid and clear language”, and that his own hymn, “O Lord of every lovely thing” found an honourable place in the book.
So I look it up. And I rejoice in the words that were not lost to my own generation — the language of flowers, streams, hills, and waves. “Count us among the radiant choir”, Mr Callin exhorts God, and “set in our hands the heavenly lyre”. A seven-fold Amen to that.