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Diary: Ian Marchant

01 December 2023


Global player

THE biggest act ever to appear in our school hall was my brother’s band, Peter and the Test Tube Babies, in 1977. I would urge readers of the Church Times not to Google them — trust me: the foolish teacher who thought that it was a good idea to book the lads had no choice but to pull the plug after two minutes (which anyone who had seen the band could have told him was an inevitability).

In stark contrast, my wife and I drove recently on a cross-country pilgrimage to Saffron Walden, to hear the internationally famed pianist Vikingur Ólafsson play Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations in the Saffron Hall, which is the school hall of the Saffron Walden County High School — probably the only comprehensive school in the world with a world-class, 750-seater concert venue on site.

The music was wonderful: sacred, prayerful. When it finished, my wife and I turned to one another and wept. Ólafsson gave only three performances in the UK: with the Liverpool Philharmonic, at the Royal Festival Hall, and in a school hall in Essex. By the time this piece goes to print, he will be playing in Tokyo, followed by five nights at the Sydney Opera House, then the Carnegie Hall, and so on.

Music of the spheres

ÓLAFSSON seemed as surprised as anyone to be playing the Saffron Hall. After the applause had died down, he came out and said that he hadn’t really expected the space to be so perfect, but, if they booked him, he would come again.

That the Saffron Walden County High School nurses such a treasure is down to the philanthropy of an anonymous donor, who felt that state schools should have access to world-class facilities. Does this person follow the Christian faith? I don’t know. Is this the kind of thing that Christians should be doing? I felt very strongly, yes.

If peace is to come in our world, it can only come, not through passing resolutions, but by actively building community — you might say, by loving our neighbours. As for loving God, try listening to Ólafsson play Bach, and see if that helps.

Downhill all the way

THE best thing about writing a book is having written a book. Some writers don’t like finishing and publishing, and so on, but it fills me with delight. I should much rather be standing up in front of a Literary Festival audience, telling jokes and stories, than being banged up in my little studio writing them.

I have done a fair bit of this pleasant activity to promote my latest book. Of course, you shouldn’t have favourite places, because it is great to be asked under all circumstances, but Petworth Festival Literary Week will take some beating. The event was held in the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, and the vestry had been set aside as a dressing room for the authors. To my puzzled delight, a sign on the door announced that it was “The Marchant Room” — I mean, hospitality is one thing, but this was going the extra mile.

Simon Heffer was on immediately before me, and I asked the organisers whether they had a series of Velcro-ed signs they could whip on and off the door, but was assured that this was not the case.

It’s going to feel anti-climactic to talk anywhere that doesn’t have a dedicated Marchant room, but, I guess, once in a lifetime will have to do.

What goes around

THE older I get, the easier I find it to disentangle Advent from all the stuff that surrounds the build-up to that great capitalist orgy known as Xmas. What used to enrage me, I now find funny. Who can beat, for example, the four-pack of snowman lavatory paper that I recently bought from a German supermarket chain? (No, not that one — the other one.)

Daytime telly has been running uniformly rubbish Xmas films since the middle of October, and it’s enough to make me want to get a job. Daftest of all are the armchair anthropologists in my local café, veterans of the Free Festivals of the ’70s, who like nothing better than explaining to me that our story is just a fairy story, while their neo-pagan narrative is very much true, despite the utter lack of evidence of any kind.

“It’s Sun Return, Ian,” they opine. “You should go to see the solstice at Stonehenge, like the Druids.” You would imagine that most old hippies had seen Spinal Tap — but apparently not.

Bear thou thy part

GETTING upset about it, I have learned, just distracts from the season of Advent. It is measured in our house by the arrival of the new volume of Reflections for Daily Prayer, published by Church House, which makes its welcome appearance at this time of year. Every night, before we turn off the light, my wife reads to me from scripture, and then reads the daily reflection and prayer.

A brand spanking new volume to mark the start of Advent reminds us that the world itself awaits a changeover: a renewal so profound that, for two millennia, we humans have drawn breath, waiting for the moment when the Divine re-manifests as Human; waiting for the moment when we are reminded that we are made in his image, in the shape of a helpless infant.

If it is the job of Christians actively to love God and our neighbours, it also increasingly falls to us to remember the story that we have to tell, and to feel the joy mounting as our beloved festival — coincidentally, on the same day as “Xmas” — draws closer.

Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire. His book,
One Fine Day: A journey through English time, is published by September Publishing (Books, 12 May).

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