THE Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts has been and gone. This year, I was mostly acting as a volunteer driver, ferrying artistes between Leominster Railway Station and St Andrew’s, where most of the concerts took place.
This is a job that I enjoy very much, because of the talking in a confined space. There is no escape for the (mostly young) musicians from my non-stop anecdotage, nor from my probing questioning about “How do you remember all that music?” and “Wow! Bassoons take up a lot of space, don’t they?” or “Why the viola?”
Ronald Blythe came every year, and sometimes preached for the festival eucharist in St Andrew’s, or in our sister church, St Michael’s, Discoed; and I wish I’d heard him.
I wish, too, that I’d been given his eye for nature, but that gift passed me by, because I have what is known as aphantasia. It is a neurological anomaly that acquired a name only in 2015. It means that I have the inability to visualise anything.
“Picture a horse” is the challenge posed to those with aphantasia — and we can’t. I think in sentences: I can remember Jerome K. Jerome’s horse in the cheese scene from Three Men in a Boat: “a knock-kneed, broken winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse”. I think in music; so I can whistle you horse songs such as “White Horses” by Jackie, or “My Lovely Horse” by Fathers Ted and Dougal. But I can’t picture one. When I close my eyes, I’m blind.
I hope, though, that this strange gift makes me a better listener, be it to friends, or the radio, or sermons — whether or not they are by Ronald Blythe.
THINKING in words and melodies means that I pretty much always have a tune playing in my head. But, sadly, I can’t picture the words, as one of my stepdaughters can; nor, without my reading specs, can I read the hymn book. But I need my long-distance specs to find my way to church, and to see what’s happening up at the altar.
So, I mumble my way through hymns, not because I don’t remember the tunes, but because I can’t remember words. “Onward, Christian soldiers” morphs all too easily into “Lloyd George knew my father”. Worse, I sing the wrong words that I think I’ve read correctly at the considerable top of my voice.
I perch my specs on the top of my head, and hold the hymn book close; or I hold it at arm’s length, where I can read it, but which intrudes on the space of the elderly Anglo-Catholic gentleman who usually sits in front of me. He sometimes stands to pray.
Last Sunday, the gentleman behind me demonstrated an ability to kneel which was admirable in one no longer in the first flush of youth, and in a church where the churchwarden has faced facts about the average age of the congregation, and removed the hassocks, thinking that there was no longer any call for them. I just go with the Anglican sit’n’stoop.
So, the three of us were bouncing up and down in different directions, struggling with reading specs and large-print service sheets, like a bizarre medieval mechanical clock, with figures popping up and down, lifting their specs to enable them to see, and dropping their service sheets.
Don’t get old, my mum used to say. I would reply: “But what’s the alternative?” These days, I am coming to see her point: death is nothing to fear. It’s how to look after the left-behind. Another job that we must trust to God.
Stiffly come dancing
FROM this month, all those with whom I started secondary school in 1969 who are still with us will be coming into receipt of their old-age pensions. That’s got to make you think about mortality, and I’ve been writing my letter of wishes regarding my funeral. I have in mind getting to 70, but thought that I’d have a first pass at the letter, just in case.
I’ve written the text of my headstone; I’ve chosen my hymns; and my wife has suggested a Gospel reading. My eldest daughter wants to do a eulogy, which makes me nervous, hoping that she’ll overlook my quick temper and undoubted hypocrisies, and concentrate on the good bits.
I’ve picked a walk-out song; most of my friends and family are un- or never-churched, and they’ll expect an over-sentimental pop song — in my case Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer”, which will, if nothing else, draw a tear from the eyes of all those old-age pensioners I was at school with.
A FEW weeks ago, three rebellious sheep crossed the River Lugg from England, and spent a happy weekend mowing a neighbour’s lawn, while the neighbour was away on his holidays. On his return, the neighbour pointed out to the farmer that three of his (the farmer’s) sheep were in his (the neighbour’s) garden; so the farmer knocked on our door to ask whether we could stand at various vantage points while he coaxed the sheep back over the river and into their home field.
My dears, the language! You’ve never heard swearing until you’ve heard a sheep farmer swear at his errant sheep. Our Good Shepherd, I’m sure, must on occasion feel similarly exasperated. . .
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.