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Diary: Pat Ashworth

15 May 2020

ISTOCK

Heartfelt silence

MORE than anything, I am missing the singing. It is like a hole in the heart. But at 7.30 on Wednesday evenings — choir-practice night — I place the iPad on my music stand and play the audio file sent to all of us each week from David, our organist and choirmaster.

First, the warm-up exercises — so important, his familiar, measured tones tell us, for keeping our range, pitch, and breath control in shape at a time when we’re singing far less than we normally do. They culminate in the Sevenfold Amen, and the beauty of its cadences can move me to tears.

We worked through Holy Week and Easter like that, singing our hymns and anthems to piano accompaniment. It turned us all into soloists. “All glory, laud, and honour”: “Take two lines to a breath. And I don’t want to hear. . .” — we all know what’s coming — “All glory, laud, and Donna.”

As instructed, we didn’t anticipate the beat in the great Passiontide piece “O Saviour of the World”, thus avoiding the hiss on “Saviour” and “save”. And, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, as we turned to AHB 178, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise”, it was “Unison last verse, and perhaps imagine, as I will, the organ thundering out a triumphant finale to this great hymn of praise.” Amen. Seven times amen.

 

Banished voices

MY DAUGHTER’s uplifting business is choirs: school choirs; community choirs; choirs of blind and partially sighted singers; choirs of people with learning difficulties; choirs of people in sheltered housing. We were aghast at news from Germany that, when the churches reopened, singing was banned.

It is worse than coughing, scientists there say, for spreading the virus; for singers’ breath comes from the diaphragm and can propel droplets to a range of 25 feet. Choirs could be the last thing to come back — and a future without song is unthinkable.

 

Antic disposition

WORKING from home is something that I’ve done for the past 25 years; so there’s no novelty for me here. But, amid the flurry of important advice, I’m learning lessons that I should have been applying all my deskbound life as a writer: notably, the imperative to exercise.

Why have I not known that once round the back garden is 100 steps, including a short incline, and that 1000 brisk steps is a mere ten minutes away from the screen? I drop a ceramic baking bean into a flowerpot to mark every completed lap, and every ping is a note of triumph.

I can’t help wondering, though, what the neighbours across the back are thinking as I turn at a sharp angle by the rockery for the ninth time, or brush the beech hedge as I pass. I probably look like poor, mad Ophelia. “There she goes again, poor soul, pacing up and down her garden. . . It’s a real shame.”

 

Many parts, one Body

AS IT is for many others, mine is a solitary confinement. Work is a gift, lending structure and normality to the day, but the scale of the pandemic can anguish and overwhelm, and there is no shoulder to cry on. My spiritual life has strengthened out of necessity.

I need to clear the news out of my head before going to bed; so I create a quiet sanctuary: a kneeler; candles in holders of Derbyshire stone; and rounded pebbles on which I can close my fingers, from St Columba’s Bay on Iona. Compline becomes a way of life, and, like the promenade round the garden, I wonder why I haven’t ended every day like this.

And then there is Taizé, where, in the absence of visitors, the Brothers have opened up their evening worship to the world. The monastery bell is the summons. Most evenings, I take my place at the back of the chapel — or so it feels, as we join the service from all over the globe. We look in behind the kneeling or seated monks, whose faces we never see, but whose simple prayers and robust chants in myriad languages need no translation.

Greetings, petitions, and blessings flow in live — from France, Italy, Latvia, Poland, the United States, South Africa, Moscow. . . “Seigneur, prends soin de ma mère”; “Pour les soignants et tous qui souffrent de la maladie et solitude” . . .

Myriad heart symbols are released, rising like bubbles to vanish into the ether. I feel embraced by the world. This is where the hollow mantra “We are all in it together” actually feels as if it means something.

 

Great British gift-off

I HAVE written before in this column about cake. A baker all my life, as my mother was before me, I’m delighted that the world has taken it up, but rueful that flour stocks have been depleted as a consequence.

My friend Richard Almond, furloughed from his job at John Lewis, heroically undertakes to buy two 16-kilo sacks and a supply of paper bags from a miller. He takes orders from family and friends, weighs and bags it up in his kitchen, and, suddenly, we’re all in possession again of both plain and self-raising. Oh joy!

My daughter undertakes a delivery round for him, because he doesn’t drive at present. In thankfulness for the gift of flour, I bake him an apple crumble. She bakes him some chocolate flapjacks. His mother, Hilary, bakes him some fruit scones. Another friend gives him two pots of flowers. So the gifts become two-way. They’re bursts of goodwill that seem to be happening a lot in these strange and straitened times.

 

Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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