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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 November 2019

Malcolm Guite defends all that is old and worn

MY BIRTHDAY falls in November; so, naturally, I look back a little, and sometimes forward, reflecting on the passage of time. This year, I somehow found myself remembering a November night 20 years ago — the year we were all being asked to prepare for the millennium!

A little notice appeared in the post-office window in Fenstanton, where we lived, advertising a meeting to start a “Fenstanton Millennium Band” to play for the festivities, planned to take place around the village clock-tower on New Year’s Eve. So, I blew the dust off my old guitar, and showed up to see what would happen.

Arriving at the village hall, I could already hear the loud wailing of electric guitars and the clatter of synthesised drums, and soon realised, once I stepped in, that all the other contenders had gone out and bought the latest shiny gear, including auto-loop pedals and drum machines, and were all trying them out at full volume.

Well, we did form a band, and, in spite of my less-than-pristine guitar, I found myself rocking round the clock with the others as the new millennium dawned. But, on the night of that audition, I went home and wrote a song about my old guitar, which became a defence of all that’s old and worn. It started with a verse and chorus like this:

I was round rocking with the boys, they showed me all the latest toys,
They’ve got gizmos now that could almost play the gig.
They like to tell me money talks, they sure can make those boxes squawk,
They say by spending out they’re bound to make it big.
But my guitar is old and worn, made the year that I was born,
You could put it down as only wood and string
But when I open up that case and blow the dust from off its face
And lift it up, sometimes I swear I can hear it sing

I sang the song a few days later at a gig for my birthday, and I still occasionally take it out at this time of year. Indeed, the verses I wrote two decades ago about savouring the passage of time seem more pertinent to me now than they did then:

Now as I watch my life unroll, I read the poems on the scroll
And I do my best to savour every line
And every year that takes its toll, is laid down deep within my soul
But I can draw it up again like vintage wine. . .

After each verse, I came back to the chorus about taking my guitar out of its case, but, when it came to the final verse and chorus, I changed it around a little. Perhaps I was remembering Donne’s lines about being made God’s music, and perhaps, even in this dark time of year, I wanted a little hint of the Easter to come.

I still sing this song in pubs, although the “touch of grey” in the final chorus has since become a full cascade. The song ends like this:

Now this box of mellowed wood, sounds every bit as good

As the day its maker blessed it with a string
I can see it lying in the shade, remembering every note it’s played
And waiting for the day that’ll let that music ring.
So I don’t mind my touch of grey, I’m not fearing for the day
When every buried seed is bound to have its spring.
When Someone opens up my case, I know I’ll see Him face to face
And when I’m in my Maker’s hands, He’ll hear me sing!

Special offer: After Prayer: New sonnets and other poems by Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press) is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.

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