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Diary: Pat Ashworth

24 June 2022


Safety first

I AM reassured by the security arrangements at my local C of E primary school, when I arrive to talk to Year 6 children about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s. It’s my friend Lizzie’s class, and they have a barrage of questions prepared, but — having first announced myself by means of the intercom on the outer door — I must now verify my details via the touch screen. It prints me off a name badge before the inner door opens and I can proceed into the reception area itself for the warm and noisy welcome that awaits.

I can’t help thinking with anguish of the mass shooting at the Texas primary school as I chat with the mostly young, and mostly female, classroom teachers. I reflect on the continuous refinement of school security measures in this country over the quarter-century since the Dunblane massacre, and I cannot believe that the suggestion of arming the profession as a preventive measure could be anything but a piece of Swiftian satire.

Temps perdu

THE girls in the class are a little disappointed that I grew up with gas and electricity, and didn’t play lacrosse like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers (why do boarding- school stories still have such a hold?). They shake their heads in sorrow at at the paucity of the sweet ration, and goggle at the idea of bedrooms so cold that ice formed on the inside of the windows in winter.

They exclaim at no TV and no car, and cannot comprehend being turned out after breakfast and expected not to return home until lunchtime. We “played out” unless it was raining, scrambled on dangerous cliffs, and hung like monkeys off the bars of the pier.

So the most delightful thing about the Platinum Jubilee street party that I attend is that, with the road closed to traffic, the children get a small taste of that freedom. There’s a football being kicked around at the bottom of the street; someone’s had the forethought to put up a basketball hoop-and-stand in a lay-by; there’s pizza on demand from Anthony’s pizza oven; and the entrance of “the Queen” is more exciting than anything we peered at on TV in 1953.

All the ages long

PENTECOST, Jubilee, and Songs of Praise proves a heady combination for our Sunday-evening service, allowing equal fervour to be given to big, chosen hymns — “Great is thy faithfulness”, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” — and to the National Anthem. We sing Christopher Tye’s lovely motet, “O Holy Spirit, Lord of Grace”, as an introit, and it’s divine.

But there’s something ageless, something that feels like closure, when we sing words used at the accession service of Elizabeth I, set to music by Elizabeth Poston: “So will we sing unto thee, Lord, Betimes ere day be light; And so declare thy truth abroad When it doth draw to night.”

Hearts to heaven

SECULAR music can sound just as powerful, though, in an ecclesiastical setting. Covid-19 has made schools reluctant to hire out their rooms — especially in the evenings — and, as if the absence of singing for so long hadn’t been bad enough, our large four-part choir was faced with finding somewhere new after years of familiar residence.

After a long search, we have fetched up in a church building large enough and welcoming enough to accommodate what we hope will be a return to our pre-Covid numbers of 100-plus. I idly look up the impressive Gothic Revival church St Paul’s, Daybrook, in Nottingham, and find that it was built by John Loughborough Pearson, an architect who “revived and practised largely the art of vaulting and acquired in it a proficiency unrivalled in his generation”.

I am curious to know more. I am delighting in a random pocket-book purchase, How to Read Churches: A crash course in ecclesiastical architecture, by Denis R. McNamara; and his section on vaulting and buttresses opens my eyes to their intricacies and power: “Harmonic geometries underlying sumptuous patterns echoed the order of the universe itself, making believers delight in the created world uplifting and virtuous.”

Promised land

MY CHOIR isn’t at all full of believers, and some were uneasy about the prospect of singing in the alien setting of a church. But when, as instructed, we look up from the safety of our sheet music, raise our heads, and direct our voices to Pearson’s lofty roof — oh, the acoustic!

The result is an audible change of gear, a new dimension in which trapped sound is set free to float heavenwards. A traditional African lullaby sends a shiver down the spine. The Beatles’ “Long and winding road” is haunting. But it’s the sea shanty “Rolling Home” that we discover most powerfully marries the secular and the religious.

It’s a defiant, full-throated song of labourers: “The gentry in their fine array, they prosper night and morn, While we unto the fields must go to plough and sow the corn. The rich they steal the power, but the glory’s ours alone, When we go rolling home, when we go rolling home.”

It speaks of peace and plenty, a land of milk and honey waiting on the other side. We lift our heads, and the power and passion carries to the great vaulted roof. “Our dreams fly up to glory of where the lark has flown, When we go rolling home, when we go rolling home.”

Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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