14 March, 2018

Local Hero

Remembering 60 years ago:
I saw him play only once
Yesterday, far from Preston where I was born and grew up, I was taken back to a November day in 1957 – over 60 years ago now, almost a lifetime. I was 12 years old at the time and over those intervening 60 plus years I have recalled and replayed in my mind on numerous occasions the events of that day - but none more so than yesterday. That day a lifetime ago wasn’t a special day – just an ordinary Saturday - November 9th. I would have risen early (about 6 o’clock) and completed my newspaper round in the streets around New Hall Lane for the local newsagent Joe Unsworth, returned home and eaten my breakfast of cereal and a cup of tea and then walked down Caroline Street and Chatsworth Street to the house of my Auntie Edna – although I always, till the day she died, called her Nennie – on Fishwick View. Once there I would have done her shopping – borrowed her bike and cycled up New Hall Lane to Moon’s bread and cake shop and there bought her bread, some barm cakes (bread rolls to non-Lancastrians) and a selection of cakes that she always had on order (my auntie loved her cakes!) and importantly a cake for myself – I always chose a chocolate éclair or an apple turn over! Then, after paying her newspaper bill at Joe Unsworth’s, I would pick up some groceries at the local Co-op on Skeffington Road and some tripe for my Uncle Joe’s Saturday tea from the tripe shop on New Hall Lane and then precariously cycle back with the shopping bags swinging on the handle bars to enjoy a cup of tea and my éclair or turn over while Nennie  chose a cake from the selection I had brought back for her. And, as I left – by now it would be late morning - she would press a silver coin in my hand, if I was lucky a half-a-crown (a two and sixpenny piece/12½p); a fortune – and she would whisper “Don’t tell Joe”. If I was really lucky my Uncle Joe would be there and he, too, might press a coin into my fist and wink as he whispered “Don’t tell Edna”! My auntie was a weaver at Emerson Road Mill and Joe was a tackler there (a tackler was the man who kept the looms going and sorted out any problems). I remember all this because those Saturday mornings filled my early teenage years until I left school and went to work  as a trainee draughtsman at Thermic Engineering in Salmon Street just off London Road.
Part of the wonderful Dudley Museum exhibition 

But that Saturday was going to be different. Little did I know that it would be a Saturday I would remember for the rest of my life. As usual, like every Saturday afternoon, I would go along to Deepdale to watch Preston North End play –  one week the First team and the next week the Reserves - but on that day the First Team game was special, Manchester United were coming to play; the famed Busby Babes were in town. So having eaten a sandwich for my dinner I  called for my pal “Nebber” and we walked the mile or so up Skeffington Road to be at the ground by 1 pm clutching our autograph books hoping to catch the eye of the players as they arrived. Almost 40,000 squashed into Deepdale  that day. United were already topping the Division and looking as if they would go on to win the 1st Division Championship. Preston finished second that year behind Wolves but United's 1957/58 season ended in tragedy their chances scuttled of winning the 1st Division title as they had been expected to. On that long ago Saturday the game ended as a 1-1 draw – North End scoring first and United grabbing an equalised 10 minutes later.  The local Evening Post had been full of the fixture for days – Preston versus United, a big game, with two of the top clubs in the land - but I can still remember reading the sports pages in the days leading up to the game; the big news was that the mythical  Duncan Edwards was expected to play for United. He was the player everyone wanted to see and so did Nebber and I. Little did we all know that we would see him play only this once and that in a few months this great United team, Edwards included, would be so tragically broken up in the horror of the Munich air crash.
Memories of old programmes that I recognise from my teenage
support of Preston North End

This interest in Edwards was remarkable for it was in age when the “superstar celebrity” was unknown. Few people had a TV and so in reality few had actually seen Edwards play – it was all by word of mouth or by newspaper reports that the young player’s fame, skills and personal qualities were becoming known. But we all knew of him and his talked of prodigious talent. Even in those far off days this 21 year old was being called England’s greatest ever player. For Nebber and me to see him on the same pitch as the man who we all knew was England’s greatest ever – North End’s Tom Finney – was a treat indeed. So we queued at the turnstile with the sign “Juveniles” over the door, paid our money and pressed our way into the crowd at the Kop end of the pitch – where we always went. We wormed our way through the crowd to the front to sit on the cinder track on the very edge of pitch (as was the fashion for children in those days) just to the right of the goal and within touching distance of the players. With our blue and white scarves wrapped round us we listened to the Brindle Band as they marched up and down the pitch playing their rousing music and  marching in perfect formation while I strained my eyes to catch a sight of my Uncle Ken who played the cornet in the band.

In all honesty I remember little of the actual game I had eyes only for the United player in the number 6 shirt, Duncan Edwards. In one way I was a bit disappointed because my other hero from the Busby Babes was the young Bobby Charlton who I had hoped to see play. When we bought our programmes however and heard the announcer give out the teams on the loudspeaker we learned that Charlton was not playing - so I only had eyes for Edwards that afternoon!  Tom Finney, I know, scored for Preston but it was Edwards that filled my mind as the final whistle blew. By his standards I think he had a quiet game but even now, 60 years on I can still remember and almost feel the silent  intake of breath from the crowd each time he got the ball, the expectation that something special was going to happen. Such was his charisma and presence that to my young eyes (and I suspect to thousands of others) he seemed to fill the whole pitch; to coin a much over used and trivialised term in these modern days it seemed to my young eyes that he truly was "awesome". At the end of the game at 4.40 pm (in those days there was only a 10 minute half time and 4.40 was when games finished – none of the nonsense of today when games can drag on and on because of stoppage time)  Nebber and I both ran. We had newspapers to deliver at 5 o’clock. As I collected my Saturday evening “first post”/early edition round from Joe Unsworth’s (and got a telling off and a few expletives  from Joe for being late!) the headlines were still of the upcoming visit by United and Edwards – the early edition  had, as usual, been printed prior to the game. But by the time that I took my second round – the “Football Post” – at just after 6 o’clock the match report was there and I walked around the streets reading it as I delivered the papers, pleased that I had at last seen this young man who was becoming a legend in his own lifetime and who was now, having seen him play, very definitely my hero! As I walked the streets with my bag of papers hanging round my neck I never imagined that for the rest of my life – even until today in my eighth decade - I would remember that day and regularly repeat when talking of football and great players  what many of my generation who were fortunate enough to see him would say: “I saw him play only once........”  
A detail from the stained glass windows

“I saw him play only once........”,  an innocent enough comment - but even as I write this a shiver still runs through me as I remember.  They are but a few simple words but carry within them great meaning, excitement , admiration and regret; they are the ones that I and many thousands of others have used over the past six decades such was the impact that this young man had on football fans of my generation, and yesterday they came back to me in a torrent. All the feelings, memories, sights, sounds and dreams from when I was that 12 year old child sitting on that cinder track around the Deepdale pitch in November 1957 flooded my mind. And the reason for the memories and the nostalgia? – what happened only a few short months afterwards in early February 1958 when it all went so dreadfully and so tragically wrong as the plane carrying United home from a game in Belgrade crashed at Munich and many young men, the heart of the Busby Babes, lost their lives. All the promise of that day when I saw Duncan Edwards play at Preston were  dashed in the snow of the Munich airport runway.  Just as with President Kennedy’s death, football fans of my generation (and, I suspect, for many who are not particularly involved in football) can remember what they were doing or where they were when the news of Edwards’ death came through. and all those memories and feelings came back yesterday; the sixty years falling away to nothing. I can still remember -  no, feel - the event exactly; me and Nebber playing football after school in the evening dusk under the street lights of Caroline Street and then the news coming through; people standing on their doorsteps talking in whispers as they listened to the radio or the few that had a TV watched it for news. As the story unfolded there was only one question in my  young mind (and in the minds of thousands of others) has Big Duncan survived?  It was not to be; the greatest of the Babes, the young Duncan Edwards, my hero (and of thousands of other little boys) - survived the immediate aftermath of the crash but died a couple of weeks later of his injuries; and I saw him play only once.

Even within that terrible tale there was a piece of cruel irony. Each month Nebber and I pooled any pennies we had and bought a copy of the football magazine popular at the time Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly to share and in mid February 1958, as Duncan Edwards lay in a Munich hospital losing his battle for life, the March edition came out. It had been printed prior to the air crash and by a terrible twist of fate it was Edwards who decorated the front cover, standing in full kit putting on his boots. Inside was a hurriedly inserted piece of paper from the magazine’s publishers explaining that the magazine had gone to press prior to the disaster and that sympathy was extended to all the victims and of course to the family of Duncan Edwards in particular. I was smitten and showed it to my mother and asked if she would make me a football shirt like his – I knew that buying one was out of the question. So a few days later - by now Edwards was dead - I can remember walking down Caroline Street and up to the park at the top of New Hall Lane with my pals to play football and feeling a bit special as I walked along in my Duncan Edwards shirt which my mother had turned out on her old Singer treadle sewing machine using a bit of old red material she had. It wasn’t even the right shade of red – maroon rather than the vibrant United red. It didn’t have the white trim that the real shirt had – just plain red. But, and this was important, it did have a “V” neck and short sleeves and it was just like (at least to my eyes) the one worn by my hero who was no more. And, better, my mother had cut an old piece of white material (probably one of my dad’s shirts!) to make a number six which she had stitched on the back – just like Duncan Edwards! Of course, I didn’t have the rest of the kit there was no way we could have afforded that, but that didn’t matter – the red United number 6 shirt was the thing and even though I was a Preston North End supporter through and through the glamour glitz of the Busby Babes and especially the tale of Duncan Edwards even in those days was worming its way into the national consciousness. 
St Francis' Church - and the splendid Retreat Café

So, yesterday, in this 60th anniversary year of the Munich air crash, I went on a little pilgrimage with my wife Pat. We spent a wonderful day in the Black Country, in Duncan Edwards’ home  town, Dudley.  I had read that in the town’s Museum there was a small exhibition retelling Duncan’s life and rise to fame so I went to relive my past. It was not a huge exhibition but so very, very poignant and beautifully put together. As I walked around peering at the old programmes, grainy black and white photographs, school memorabilia, his Manchester United and England shirts, his England international caps the feelings of the 1950s came back in a rush. Not only was I seeing things that I hadn’t seen for 60 years like old programme covers from clubs that I had visited in my teenage years as I watched Preston play but more tellingly I was reminded of the atmosphere of the age: the way newspaper articles were worded, the implicit belief in sportsmanship and fair play, the pride that went with wearing a team’s shirt (whether it be the school football team shirt or the England shirt), the reserved, often deferential manner in which people at that time described and talked of people like Edwards and his team mates. But above all I was struck by something that I  also knew – the lack of celebrity and glorification. There were many examples of this but one I liked was an old programme relating to an England Schoolboy International game that the young Duncan Edwards played in. Today, as with all football, games such as this are played at our major stadia since they feature young players who are expected to be next year’s superstars. In Edwards’ time it was different – even schoolboy internationals were played at very humble places and this game in particular was played at “The playing field Chesterfield”. The young Duncan Edwards might have dreamed of one day playing at Wembley or some other great venue but his feet were being kept very firmly on the ground.

And this was the message of the whole exhibition – arguably the most talented player England has ever produced in an age when there were many hugely talented young players – was, in the end, just an ordinary lad from a very humble background in a very ordinary small town in the middle of England. Edwards and his fellow Busby Babes would not have recognised the super star celebrity footballers of today in their gated mansions and fleets of high powered top end cars. He would have gazed in wonderment at the life of David Beckham or Wayne Rooney. He would have been horrified  - and I have absolutely no doubts about this – at the foul language on today’s football pitches or the action of the ex-Liverpool and England player Jamie Carragher a few days ago who was filmed spitting into the car adjacent to him as he sat in a traffic jam after the game between Manchester United and Liverpool. In short, the exhibition told a tale of a simpler and gentler age where a different set of values perhaps operated than in these brutal years of the early 21st century. It was a salutary but worthwhile reminder of how things might be.  
My school prize when I was 13 and the new edition that
I have now
Having enjoyed the exhibition we then visited the town centre to gaze up at the splendid statue of this local hero which stands in Dudley’s market place. On the plinth below the statue are the famous words of Jimmy Murphy, Edwards’ coach and mentor at Manchester United: “The most complete footballer I have ever seen”. Amen to that. As we walked down the High Street and through the Market Place to gaze at the statue and then find some lunch in the local Wetherspoons pub we enjoyed reading the slabs set in the pavements pointing out various historical facts and names associated with the town; there was, we felt, a real sense of local history and of civic pride here and, of course, pride in Dudley’s own local hero Duncan Edwards.  
Duncan Edwards with his great manager
Sir Matt Busby

Lunch enjoyed, we travelled the short distance to St Francis’ Church where the funeral of this young man was held a few days after his death in Munich. The church was locked but the little “Retreat Cafe” at the side was open serving cups of tea and snacks to anyone who turned up needing one. Was it possible to see the stained glass window we asked the lady behind the counter and we were taken to a gentleman who escorted us into the church to tell us the story of the window that had been made to celebrate the life of this young sportsman who had grown up within sight of the church. What a treat as this quietly spoken elderly man retold a story that he has no doubt told a thousand times before but with such quiet enthusiasm and respect for who and what he was describing. I told him that I had seen Edwards play once – and his response took us both by surprise when he replied that he had been at school with Duncan Edwards and played football with him as a boy. For me, this was really touching the past and again, a poignant and gentle reminder that this young man who achieved some kind of immortality in his short life time and who elicited such fond memories in people of my generation was in the end an ordinary human being, but through good fortune, his great talents and above all his human qualities achieved mythical status and importantly the respect of his home town. At the back of the church was a selection of booklets about Duncan Edwards so we put our £5 in the little box and took one and as we did so another man came into the church also seeking out the stained glass window – and the old gentleman began his tale again – while we crept out to enjoy a cup of tea in the cafe and to buy some jars of home-made jam and pickles to boost church funds. What a welcoming treasure house is St Francis’ church, Dudley.  

And so home. I had thought of visiting Duncan Edwards’ grave – a place which still today is very much a shrine and much visited - but I wanted to remember the player as I saw him that once so it was back on the motor way and through the Birmingham rush hour traffic on the road home to Nottingham, my mind still filled with what I had seen and what I remembered of this truly local hero.
In this celebrity, super star obsessed world in which we now live, where the ordinary, the trivial or the unpleasant  is so often deemed good or worthy or valuable we perhaps need more than ever genuine heroes to look up to and aspire to. Heroes are not heroic because they live in a mansion, or have untold wealth, or move in high circles. Nor is being a hero about being brave – too often we mix up the words; being a hero is far more than simple bravery no matter how laudable that might be. Being a hero is about being the best of what man and womankind can be and can be aspired to; to be someone that the rest of us can, and want , to look up to, strive to emulate. A true hero is  someone whose qualities are self evidently good and worthy. Today, I read about the death of the great scientist Stephen Hawking, yesterday we read of the death of the comedian Ken Dodd; neither of these two would, I think, class themselves as heroes, but in my book they certainly were. The qualities that they displayed in their very different lives and their contribution to mankind, made the lives of ordinary people just that little bit richer and their presence on this earth  and their simple humanity - with all its strengths and weaknesses - makes them, I believe, heroes. We might not be able to tell jokes like Ken Dodd or have the huge mind of Stephen Hawking but we can all try to live the sort of worthy life that they seem to have led and aspire to the same things that they aspired to. When we think of heroes we think of the Ancient Greek heroes; true, they were often brave in battle, but more importantly in the myths and legends of Ancient Greece they were also honourable people whose qualities as a human being set them apart from the ordinary. It was the same with the Mediaeval Knights who were granted their knighthood on the basis not only of their bravery in battle but of their honour, their chivalry, and how well they kept their various promises to fulfil their role in the best possible way throughout their lives.
A  well spent £5.00 in St Francis' Church

I wonder what kind of sporting hero we need today? Is it the thoroughly unpleasant  Jamie Carragher spitting from his car window; is it the player who scowls and pours forth obscenities when he misses a chance to score or when someone tackles him or the referee gives a decision against him, or is it someone like the England Rugby manager Eddie Jones who  today has been forced to apologise after making foul and abusive comments about his Welsh and Irish counterparts? I might be accused of looking through rose coloured glasses - maybe so. It is quite true that there were "hard men" playing football at the time of Edwards and Finney, it is also quite true that "sportsmanship" was not universal at that time, nor was everyone in football a saint. But these unpleasant individuals and undesirable behaviours were recognised and frowned upon by wider society. The culture of verbal abuse of fellow players and referees,  cynical fouling, unsportsmanlike behaviour and the rest was  the exception and not endemic as it is today's football.  Like the foul language we see on our TV screens or in social media, or on every street corner we now accept it as alright, normal, everyday, acceptable; it has become  part and parcel of life and sport, it has become the norm.  And that is a sad verdict not only on sport but on the world that we have allowed to be created . Players like Charlton, Edwards and Finney rose above it and everyone recognised their qualities and accepted that these players were  firstly "gentlemen of the game" and secondly great players - they were the players against whom all others were judged be it with regard to their footballing skills or their personal qualities.  
Schoolboy football in Dudley

So what kind of player should be our hero? For me it is unquestionably someone who displays more worthy values – fair play, thoughtfulness, hard work, respect for fellow players................someone who can enjoy and celebrate victory but still smile in defeat, someone who has extraordinary skills and fame but still has the common touch – not common, but able to communicate with all (I am reminded here of Rudyard Kipling's; great poem "If"). Duncan Edwards, like Finney, was such a  person. He was a great footballer but like other sporting greats he had other personal as well as sporting  qualities so beautifully displayed in my visit to Dudley. Sportsmen and sportswomen have a vital role in encouraging the best in people – especially the young – to coin a modern phrase they are role models. Tom Finney, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Duncan Edwards and many other football greats (and other sports men and women) are and were sporting heroes not primarily for their great footballing skills – but rather for the sort of people that they were.
The cover of the football magazine
which brought a terrible twist to the death of
Duncan Edwards - and brought me my
home made Duncan Edwards football shirt.

On the plinth below the statue of Bobby Moore at Wembley are the words “Lord of the game. Captain extraordinary. Gentleman of all time"; Henry Winter sports writer for the Daily Telegraph said of my Preston hero Tom Finney: Finney will forever be associated with fair play, for showing respect to an opponent, for dignity and gentlemanly conduct both on the pitch and off it”. Of Bobby Charlton, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said: “Bobby is a great example in how he kept his feet on the ground and kept his humility all his life.  What a solid human being he is  and a person you’d trust with your life.” And of Duncan Edwards the Manchester United coach Jimmy Murphy said: " The greatest? There was only one and that was Duncan Edwards. He was more than a great player, he seemed like some bright light in the sky.”  Quite,  "a bright star" - something  for us all to look up to.
I liked Dudley, this little anonymous town in the middle of England’s industrial heartland. Not only did I enjoy my viewing of all the Duncan Edwards memorabilia but the museum was a beautifully arranged treasure house – from prehistoric fossils, to dinosaurs, to Roman soldiers and Norman knights in chain mail, to industrial history and to the area’s famous sons and daughters. The museum, the town and St Francis’ Church, too, had a sense of tradition and past; proud of their heritage and their place in the great scheme of things. People who we talked to were pleased to tell us about their town and their hero, this young man born with a huge talent to excel at football but above all a huge gift to be the someone that everyone looked up to – “some bright light in the sky”. So why should the people of Dudley and the rest of us not be proud to honour their history and the good and worthy things that Duncan Edwards represented in his short time on earth?
Duncan Edwards: footballing giant and
a giant as a human being - a true local hero

When, after almost two weeks, this young gentle giant lost his fight for life in February 1958 one newspaper said “People are mourning the loss of this young man not just because he held such sporting promise but [because] he was someone who you would want to call your son or for your daughter to marry”. When, in August 1961, the Manchester United manager Matt Busby unveiled the two stained glass windows dedicated to Duncan Edwards in  St Francis’ Church he said: “There will only be one Duncan Edwards, and any boy who strives to emulate Duncan, or take him as his model, won’t go far wrong”.

At Arsenal for his last game before the
Munich air crash
Now that’s being a hero - "...any boy who strives to emulate Duncan or take him as his role model won't go far wrong" and it is why my little trip to Dudley meant so much to me. It reminded me of my growing up years in Preston, it gave me space to recall a long gone day in my past when I saw two of the greatest footballers and sportsmen ever – Edwards and Finney - play on the same pitch, it reminded me of why, after all these years away from Preston (I moved to Nottingham in the early 1960s), it is still North End's result that I await anxiously every Saturday afternoon at 4.45 pm; in short it is an important part of me and who I am. As Matt Busby suggested, Duncan Edwards was a role model, a hero; this ordinary lad from an ordinary town was  a hero for little boys like me; he was instrumental in making me what I am and even though I saw him play only once the way he played the game and how he behaved were formative features of my own life.  And it reminded me, too, of the one and only prize I ever won at school.! In the summer after Munich I was awarded a prize for coming third in history in my class at Fishwick Secondary Modern where I was a pupil. The local bookshop - Sweeten's in Preston - brought a display of books and we prize winners  could choose one as our prize, to be handed out at the end of term Speech Day. I can remember walking along the tables filled with books and suddenly spying "Tackle Soccer My Way" by Duncan Edwards. It was a coaching manual and of course that was the prize for me. Maybe, I reasoned, if I follow the instructions I'll be the next Duncan Edwards! Of course it didn't work but I treasured that book until it got lost in time in the house moves of adulthood but boy, was I pleased a year of so ago when I discovered that it had been reprinted and was available on Amazon. It now has pride of place on my office bookshelf! If you haven't read the book do so - the coaching may now seem old fashioned but the comments and the advice reflect perfectly the huge sense of decency and sportsmanship that this young man represented to those of us who looked up to him and others like him.

But above all my little trip to Dudley allowed me to think of what I believe were more honourable - perhaps better - times when terms like "gentlemanly conduct", "decency", "sportsmanship" or "honest endeavour" could be used without fear of being thought old fashioned or quaint or twee -  and more, it gave me food for thought about what is important to value and praise when we look at ourselves and others. In a modern world where the trivial,  the crass, and the grotesque are all too often thought to be worthy, good or attractive  my little trip down memory lane helped me to be able to know the difference  - and perhaps to know who are the true heroes.

12 January, 2018

Caring too much?

Figures have been published this week that suggest (show?) an increasing number of UK teachers are suffering various kinds of ill health and mental  stress related to their work. (Follow the link:
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/11/epidemic-of-stress-blamed-for-3750-teachers-on-longterm-sick-leave?CMP=share_btn_fbI ). As I read the article I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the points made and it was interesting that no mention was made anywhere of any direct link with issues like teacher pay - rather, this was about work load and the huge pressures of the job; both things that I could relate to. I, however, have a belief that there are other factors in the situation.

I retired from teaching in primary schools over 10 years ago having spent over 40 years as teacher, school leader and latterly as a trainer and assessor for graduate entrants to the profession. In all those years (and Facebook trolls may not wish to know this!) I can say with absolute conviction and honesty I never met, worked with or managed a single teacher who did not want to do the best job that they could and do their best for their pupils. Some of those with whom I had the privilege of working were outstanding, others industrious in the extreme, others maybe not so successful - but still overwhelmingly committed, aware of their deficiencies and desperate to improve. I didn't always agree with some of my colleagues or trainees and often they needed advice, support or clear guidance but without exception, young and old they were keen to do the best job they could - each and every day - for each and every one of their charges.

It does not surprise me that so many are struggling to keep going. Yes, there is huge pressure to succeed, yes, the government continues to move the goalposts every five minutes, yes, many teachers do fight a daily battle in the classroom ........but there is another, more telling, issue.

Teachers spend their whole life encouraging young people to "do the right thing" - to work hard, to act responsibly, to be kind and considerate.....etc........beliefs and aspirations such as these are hard wired into every teacher. They are what underpin every lesson they teach and every expectation that they have for their pupils and indeed themselves. From the day a teacher starts his or her training he or she is required to undertake self criticism and lesson evaluations after each and every lesson - and those training exercises become part of the everyday life of the classroom teacher - asking themselves the question how did I do, what could I have done better, what went wrong and why? The result is that there is a huge element of self castigation present in the mind set of teachers; they are supremely aware of their perceived failings and linked in with that is the fact that they have entered a caring profession - whose professional requirement is to care about the people they work with and the job that they do.  And following from this every teacher with whom I have ever worked has ALWAYS, as a result, tried to do the right thing as they saw it for their pupils - sometimes they failed and when that happened my experience was that they went home and worried about it; they blamed themselves. They knew that they had not only "failed" their pupils but failed themselves too. When a lesson didn't go well, they criticised themselves, when a child didn't succeed they looked for faults within their own lesson planning or class management. In short they were, and are, hugely self critical.

Governments since the time of Thatcher and sadly, often wider society, has realised this – and "naming an shaming" has become the language of favour for beating our public servants who fail to meet up to the latest crack pot idea from Whitehall or Downing Street and people like teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers are easy meat – simply because they care. When a parent comes in to complain about another child "bullying", or about some new school rule, or the teacher's relationship with their child or their child's progress then in my experience teachers listen and (often through gritted teeth) "understand" - they might profoundly disagree but they take it on board and try to solve the problem. And they do this because they care - but in doing so they too often also accept that they themselves might have failed to do the best job they could. Perversely then the teacher blames themselves for the problem rather than the parent, the child or other circumstances that might be completely outside of their control. In reality, they care too much. Downing Street and Whitehall rarely if ever "name and shame " bankers, lawyers, politicians, or "entrepreneurs" like the despicable Sir Philp Green (ex-owner of BHS) and their ilk because there is no point. People like these don't give a toss - they simply don't "care" - and wouldn't know the meaning of terms like commitment, professionalism, endeavour, doing the right thing, self criticism, kindness, accepting personal responsibility for their actions......and all the rest. For these and others in high power “professions” (I use the term loosely) criticism and failure runs off their back - unless there are large dollops of money involved of course – like water from a duck. For people like these it’s always somebody else’s fault and only when cornered or legally charged is it theirs. If one wants evidence think how easily the 2008 financial crisis was skipped over by the financial establishment – they had caused it but no-one got out their hair shirt and admitted fully to their failings, nor was anyone named and shamed. Think of the owners of the rail franchises in this country - people like Richard Branson - who continually put up fares and give a declining service - but it is never their fault, there is never an apology just a bland comment that "this is the way it is".. Or, think of Theresa May and her cronies – the NHS in meltdown, the Grenfell Tower disaster , the Brexit debacle, the homelessness on our streets, the growth in food banks and all the rest .......but no-one, and certainly not St Theresa, ever stands up and says "Sorry this is down to me" – it’s always someone else. And the reason? - they don't care enough so naming and shaming is never going to work with them. They have no shame!

Not so teachers and other public servants – they assume responsibility (often wrongly) each and every day; and they take the criticisms to heart - for it is what they expect of their charges each and every day - that children will "work hard", "do the right thing", "act well", “do their best” whatever the circumstances. And, as professionals these people, in my 40 years of school experience, impose the same imperatives – to always do their best, to assume responsibility for their actions, to worry when things go wrong - upon themselves. They do this day in day out. It is the ultimate quality and definer of a true professional, to care and to go the extra mile. and in contemporary Britain we have the worrying situation that those who show the greatest capacity to care and to display the very qualities that we might all subscribe and aspire to are, too often now vilified, named and shamed when they do not quite meet society’s ever increasing expectations and demands - no matter how ill considered or unreasonable - and, the criticism is most vociferous, it seems to me, from those very people who care least. It's all too easy to take pop at others simply to cover up your own failings - the politician who doesn't fund our schools or hospitals sufficiently or the parent who is unwilling to ensure that their child is well prepared and well behaved in school. For people like these - the teacher in school or the busy A&E doctor or the poorly paid but hard working nurse/social worker/policeman /paramedic/carer etc. - is an easy target. And, sadly, teachers and others in these caring professions, both individually and collectively, take it all on board and more often than not blaming themselves for what in reality are society's inadequacies and failings. We should be very worried about what sort of a society, we are becoming when we increasingly seek to put the blame and the responsibility for our own shortcomings upon those, who every day, strive on our behalf to make our lives and , in the case of teachers, the lives of our children better.

Half a century ago President John F Kennedy sadly reflected "Modern cynics and sceptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds and well being of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those whom they entrust their plumbing. Until America understands this fundamental wrong then our education system, the life chances of our children, and indeed, the overall well being of our society will be forever blighted." While this present concern about the health and welfare of our teachers is not directly about remuneration I think Kennedy's point shows an abundant understanding of the relative value that we place upon our teachers. In short, as a society we no longer hold them in high regard or give them the respect and courtesy they so much deserve; instead from government minister to Mr & Mrs Joe Public teachers are, it seems to me, increasingly fair game for criticism  - to be pilloried at will when, despite their best efforts they fail to meet society's ever changing and often quite impossible expectations. Sadly, it is no surprise to me that so many wonderfully talented and committed (and yes, excellent teachers) are suffering. If we began treating our public servants in general, and our teachers in particular, with more grace and praise rather than constantly reminding them of their inadequacies (which, I can assure OFSTED, St Theresa and Mr & Mrs Joe Public, every teacher that I have ever worked with is already quite well aware of and is trying desperately to remedy) then maybe we would have a happier teaching force and perhaps even more successful schools. 

18 December, 2017

In The Bleak Midwinter - St John's, a Warm Place on a Cold Manchester Night

As we crept onto the dark and already crowded car park of St John’s Church in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester on Saturday night the temperature gauge on the car showed -1, the drizzle spattered our windscreen, and already it looked as if freezing fog would surround the church by the time we left later that evening. Mid December, the clock for Christmas already ticking down, the streets around the church busy with late Christmas shoppers and early evening revellers, a Manchester mid winter’s night – bleak indeed!

We had had made our way across Manchester from Hale Barns with our two teenage grand-daughters to enjoy a Christmas Concert at the church. Our daughter Kate, Sophie & Ellie’s mother,  was playing cello as part of the string ensemble in the concert. At last, we found a parking spot and, wrapping our coats around us, walked through the drizzle and already thickening mist towards the lighted windows of the church. We squeezed through the mass of people who stood chatting outside the door – the Saturday evening Mass had just ended – and stepped into the warmth and light of the already half full church (many worshippers had stayed on after the Mass to enjoy the concert). Immediately my glasses misted up as the warmth of the church hit them and through the misted lenses I took in this bright and gloriously decorated church – what a sight to lift, and indeed, warm, the spirits on such a night as this! The rich colours of the walls, the soaring arch and ceiling above the altar, the wall paintings, - and yes, the brightly lit Christmas trees and coloured decorations all combined to remind us that this was a church to celebrate the Christian message but also to celebrate the message and traditions of Christmastide. I sat in the pew looking around, all thoughts gone of the misty drizzle and cold that lurked just a few metres away on the other side of the richly decorated walls, and watched as the pews slowly filled and the choir and orchestra assembled and made themselves ready for the concert.

The concert was advertised as a “Christmas Carol Concert with Carols and Christmas music old and new.....to sing in the Christmas season” – well, it certainly was that! But that only tells a small part of the evening – it misses the warmth, welcome and celebration of the whole occasion. A thoughtfully constructed programme with some of the great Christmas carols – Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark the Herald Angels Sing - gave the audience plenty of scope to join in and keep the Christmas tradition alive by giving voice (and give voice we all did!) to their mighty words, and at the other end of the Christmas spectrum the choir - the gentlemen of the choir bedecked in tinsel, bauble decorated beards and occasional flashing lights! - entertained us with much loved  Christmas favourites: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Sleigh Ride. And in between, beautifully sung and played Christmas music ranging from the great Glory to God  chorus from Handel’s Messiah, to Ding Dong Merrily on High and In the Bleak Midwinter  not only reminded everyone of the Christmas season but told us, too, of the great message of Christmas. And throughout all, the bright singing of the choir, the skilful and warm playing of the string ensemble, trumpeter and pianist gave a sense of warmth and togetherness that is surely also part of the Christmas message.
In full voice!

The choir, under the enthusiastic baton of Katharine Longworth were a joy not only to listen to but to watch – their eager smiling faces, total involvement and musicality self evident. The rapport with their conductor was a pleasure to see; they were at one with every sweep of her arm and beat of her hand – it was one of the things that I will remember most about the concert. The string orchestra and pianist, too, not only hit all the right notes but hit the right sound to ensure that the choir were showed off to their best and the music became not just a few notes played correctly but a vibrant sound to enhance and enrich. No-one in the church could have missed the glory that is Christmas when in the final verses of the audience carols the trumpeter and choir gave voice to the descants – it seemed as if the  very angels depicted on the church walls were themselves singing along with us! And there was fun and sparkle too! – the delightful rendition by the choir of the Carol of the Bells and then at the end of Sleigh Ride Geoff Baines, the trumpeter, gave us a wonderful horse’s neigh which made everyone smile and applaud! But from start to finish the haunting and exquisite voice of solo soprano Kerry Firth was an absolute joy – perfectly in sympathy with and complementing the choir and musicians. When her voice rang out across the silent, expectant church with the opening words of the concert: “Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed.....”  she not only set the scene for what was to follow but created an atmosphere and tone for the whole evening. When she sang, everyone in the church sat, like me, captivated, transfixed.

For all its modern day crassness and hype – Santa, reindeer, snowmen, pantomime, office parties, frenetic shopping malls, gluttony and credit card excess - the basic message of the Christmas story is simple and it is upon this simple message that the whole Christmas “baggage” rests: an ordinary couple of two millennia ago who find themselves homeless in a strange town and can find no refuge except a rough stable - but into that stable come people carrying gifts and goodwill to both the couple and their new born child. This simple  two thousand years old tale might be condemned as twee sentimentalism; it isn't. It is a powerful message and a warning; a modern day parable for our worrying and austere times where global super companies increasingly dictate the ethics of the day and put simple, decent  values and basic humanity under threat as never before. We live today in a world where personal  greed and corporate pillaging  increasingly (and here I use the word carefully) [T]rumps the values of kindness, care for others or concern for the weak. In America the most powerful man on the planet, the despicable Donald Trump, has reduced health care provision to a level unthinkable in any civilised nation and at the same time has rewarded and increased the wealth of the rich (and himself) via obscene tax breaks to levels which by any standard of judgement - economic, social, ethical, political can only be paid for by massively robbing from the nation's poor; he is Robin Hood in reverse - robbing the  poor to reward the rich - and in doing so has made America the most unequal society in the western world and where absolute and relative poverty is rife and living standards declining at a rate unthinkable only a few years ago. And no-one, it seems is willing or able to stop him. Only this week in our own fair land, Jeff Fairburn, the CEO of housing company Persimmon, was awarded a bonus of £110 million. This bonus was not earned by Fairburn's massive industry, intellect, worthiness or even his astounding commercial skills on behalf of his employers but quite simply leached (that is the correct word) from government grants and house buying incentives, and squandered from the small pockets of individual house owners desperate to get onto the housing ladder. Appallingly and unforgivably it was defended by Fairnburn himself who, we learned, laughed when it was suggested that he might like to donate some of it to charity. This, in a country where homelessness, economic/social division and destitution are reaching levels unseen for generations. Against this backdrop the simple story of goodwill, care and gifts for those in need - which is the backbone of the Christmas story - is needed as never before and on Saturday night at St John's, it needed no embellishment or “jazzing up” to get its timeless message across. Just the great carols of Christmas and the reading of the mighty words in St Luke's Gospel were sufficient to pass on its profound yet humbling message of Christmas to all who had ears to hear, minds to understand and hearts to take in its meaning:

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them”.

A simple, but profound story: the kindness of the innkeeper, the poverty of the couple, the circumstances of the Child’s birth and the faith, reverence and goodwill of the shepherds; it reminds us and prods our consciences. It is the season of goodwill to all, even to the poor and (as the carol says) the “mean and lowly”.  It is  a reminder of that implicit but weighty imperative contained in the Christmas story to do good to others - for we, too, might so easily find ourselves in dire circumstances, in need, and reliant upon others and upon the kindness of strangers. “There but for the Grace of God go I” might well be the hidden sub-message of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph are not disconnected, mythical, comic cut figures from a long gone fictional  age, they are, too, today’s tragedy – almost a metaphor for today’s world where in our modern society dire poverty rubs shoulders with obscene wealth, where homeless sleepers bed down in the dark corners at the back of five star hotels, where thousands know the insecurity that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they wandered the streets of Bethlehem looking for shelter and a kind word, where those seeking sanctuary or a new life in our wealthy country are too often viewed with suspicion or worse, where an increasing proportion of the population rely upon food banks, charity organisations and like for essential sustenance and comfort, and where increasingly those who are in need of aid or support are too often perceived by the tabloid press and right wing media as scroungers, cheats and victims of their own feckless nature. Had Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees Mogg been on the Bethlehem Town Council two millennia ago then no doubt Mary and Joseph would have been vilified in the Council Chamber and on the Bethlehem Council Website for their rashness  in making such a journey at that time in Mary's pregnancy; they would have been told that they were victims of their own feckless way of life and since, by leaving  the home in Nazareth, they had made themselves "intentionally homeless"  they would have been advised by the Bethlehem Department for Work and Pensions that they were undeserving of any housing benefit or temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. "Imagine the stupidity", Duncan Smith would say when interviewed by the Bethlehem Daily Telegraph as he sat in the delightful living room of his country house on his estate in the Bethlehem stock broker belt "of going on a trip like that when they knew Bethlehem would be crowded. Why didn't they think to text or email ahead to book a room and reserve a table at the local Premier Inn, or to get Mary on the local GP's list or better still book her in to the local Bethlehem BUPA hospital. It's all so easy - these people can't be bothered, so they get what they deserve!" The Bethlehem Daily Mail, too, would have ramped up the venom by advising their readers that this was yet another example of migrants turning up  and demanding shelter from the good, hard working folk of Bethlehem - taking all the housing stock that should be first and foremost for locals - and, "Just like all the other migrants" the Mail would cry, "these two itinerants have brought another mouth to feed with the birth of another immigrant baby - another call on the rates and hard pressed local services like health and schools". No, the story of Mary and Joseph and the bleak reality of life are not new phenomena, nor are they just facets of a long gone age; they are today’s reality and sadly, perhaps, tomorrow’s future in our incredibly wealthy but tragically unequal and often uncaring society. Sadly, in our modern dog eat dog corporate age, where big business, a right wing media, and increasingly populist politicians seek to make society even more unequal and where a capitalist inspired consumerist society rules the hearts, minds, ethics and pockets of almost all of us we have, I believe, largely lost the capacity to feel and to do the right thing. In an age where we only ask "What does it cost?", "Does it work?", "Is it cheap or good value for money?" or "What's in it for me?" but  rarely, if ever, ask questions such as "Is this fair?", "Is it decent?", "Is it just?", "Is it worthy?" then perhaps more than ever before our world needs the kindness of strangers and the lessons and hope that the Christmas story brings.

And  so with  the last chords of “Hark the Herald Angels” ringing in our ears we pulled our coats around us to make our way out of St John’s and out into Manchester’s bleak midwinter night. The warm temperatures of the Church’s central heating had been welcome but even more important and memorable to me was the inner warmth provided by the joy and sincerity of the gathering,  the welcome we received and the simple kindness of this occasion. We had come to St John’s as strangers – travellers from far distant Nottingham – but the occasion and the smiling faces made us feel welcome and a part, albeit for a short time, of this little community and little celebration.

Outside the freezing, drizzling mists had descended and looking back through the dark and the fog, the lighted windows of the church looked to me like welcoming beacons in the cold night air – perhaps as the dimly lit stable must have looked to Mary and Joseph – a place of sanctuary and security on such a night as this. And as I started the car  engine, hoping for some warmth to clear the misted windows I thought of how we had come to be here on such an uncharitable night when it would have been so much easier to stay indoors by the warmth of the fire. As we made ready to leave, buckled our seat belts, checked our mobiles and all the other minutia of everyday modern life  I punched into the sat-nav the postal code for my daughter's home in  Hale Barns. And as I did so and the wipers began to clear the mist and drizzle from the windscreen, a few words from a much loved poem flashed across my mind: “wicked weather for walking.......the storm beat on the windows.... the gale blew off the marshes.....”  Those words from one of the great Christmas poems (and a personal favourite)Rudyard Kipling’s “Eddi's Service AD 687” seem to me to capture the very essence of the Christmas story and indeed of the evening that we had just enjoyed where the simple but wonderful tale of Christmas and had been retold in words and music:

Eddi’s Service AD 687

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

"'Wicked weather for walking,"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted, --
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The World,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend."

The early  17th century depiction of the stable scene
and the adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni
Fog lamps blazing, we nudged our way into the Chorlton traffic, mist swirling  about us, the sat-nav guiding us through unknown streets. I clenched the steering wheel, a little anxious to be out on such a night in a part of the world that I did not know - but at the same time, as the car’s heater began to warm our bodies, quietly pleased that I had made the effort and braved the bleak Manchester midwinter and, to quote Eddi in Kipling's poem, “cared to attend”.  For had I not, I would have missed a wonderful, gentle but at the same time powerful retelling of the Christmas message - and my 2017 Christmas would have been all the poorer for it, a little less enjoyable, a little less rewarding. And as we picked up a little speed and the sat-nav guided us into the non-stop stream of glowing red rear lights and oncoming brilliant headlights of Manchester's high speed motoring night life as it thundered past and towards us in the fast lanes  of the Princess Parkway I turned up the car heater one more notch and thought of the great words from Paul's Epistle to the Philippians: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  This little concert - its words, its music, its warmth and kindness - captured the essence of these words and of the Christmas story to perfection - real people singing of and retelling the real message of Christmas - the message of kindness, care, worthy thought and virtuous action, goodwill to all and man's potential for humanity towards his fellow man - even the "mean and lowly". In a world where we too often witness injustice, impure thoughts, dishonest action and above all man's inhumanity to his fellow man it is a powerful and important message, a thing of "good report" of which to be reminded.

Thank you to all at St John’s, Chorlton-cum Hardy, for a lovely and memorable evening.

11 December, 2017

"All Life is Here"

The sub heading to the now mercifully defunct and rightly shamed British newspaper the
News of the World  was, for its entire existence of over 150 years, “All human life is here” and I suppose the newspaper was true to its motto – all human life was indeed present in its pages – sadly, in all its unpleasant, voyeuristic, gory detail. Nothing was too scandalous, sordid or shaming to be printed to titillate the fantasies and lowest aspirations of its readers. Fortunately, the newspaper was brought to its knees in 2011 because of its shameful behaviour and operating procedures in relation to phone hacking; it was shown to all the world that not only did the paper and its owner – Rupert Murdoch - print unpleasant items it was in itself, and Murdoch himself was, sordid, unpleasant and thoroughly shameless.   

It might seem monumentally perverse but I thought of that News of the World motto, “All human life is here”  on Saturday night as I stood at the back of St Peter’s Church here in Ruddington enjoying Ruddington & District Choral Society perform JS Bach’s Magnificat and his cantata Sleepers, Wake,  plus other wonderful musical items performed by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble: the  much loved and well known Pastoral from Handel’s Messiah, the sublime Sinfonia from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the achingly beautiful Pastorale from Correlli’s Concerto Grosso often called the Christmas Concerto. This was an Advent night to remember and there was absolutely no doubt at the end of the concert that every member of the large audience filling St Peter’s went away knowing that they had not only got value for money but enjoyed something very, very special.

As my last blog ( http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/all-right-notesbut-in-right-order.html ) suggested the choir, orchestra and soloists had to be on top of their game if they were to pull off two of Bach’s most well known and complex works  – and on top of their game they were. As I stood listening to Bach’s glorious music – so well and richly mastered by the players and singers – I thought, as I often think when listening to Bach, that to hear a few bars of his glorious music is to hear and be made privy to all the joy, pathos, exuberance, weaknesses, glory, baseness, humanity and spirituality that makes up man and womankind; to coin the News of the World, all life – human and spiritual - is indeed here. The opening movement of his monumental St Matthew Passion  - "Come, you daughters help me lament"  - has a dreadful bleakness that could easily drive you to the edge of despair as it prefaces the terrible tale of the Crucifixion and at the other end of this massive work the final chorus, "We sit down in tears" has an awful sorrowfulness and sense of abandon that it seems to take onto its shoulders all the grief and distress of the whole of mankind; in between those two desolate but perversely beautiful movements is some of the most intimate and soul searching music ever made by man. But, equally, listen to the Agnus dei and the Donna Nobis Pacem from his B Minor Mass and your spirits  will be raised to the edge of heaven so charged are they both with the essence of mankind’s ability to glorify and celebrate. On Saturday night the Ruddington singers and players captured this essence to perfection and in doing so, as Bach intended, the music reflected and reminded us of our human frailty whilst at the same time encouraged our spiritual aspirations and showed us what we are and what we might be.  All the hard work on fugue and counterpoint that I mentioned in my last blog had paid off and these hugely difficult pieces had been mastered - and the result was a glorious and uplifting performance. The young soloists, Grace Bale, Rebecca Sarginson and James Farmer, all students at Nottingham University, wove their solos perfectly into the complex web of Bach’s orchestral and choral accompaniment whilst Musical Director Paul Hayward brought the whole together skilfully and sympathetically ensuring that the finished result was not only memorable but a true and sincere rendering of Bach’s great works. In our modern world we are so used to hearing perfection when we listen to apiece of music - be it classical, pop or any other kind; our CDs have been tweaked by sound engineers and their state of the art equipment to ensure that what we hear is close to perfection and only in rare cases what one would hear in a live performance. Our radios and CD players have infinite adjustment possibilities  to make sure that the sound that comes out of  them matches the sound that we want to hear. And the voices and music that are digitally inscribed on our CDs are those of the musical superstars - Callas, Rattle, Von Karajan and the rest all performing in the technically acoustic perfection of the recording studio or some other perfect setting - all a very far cry from what the composer intended or had available at the time. So when we go to live concert what we should be looking for is not the perfection that we hear on our CD but something of greater integrity, more real - the essence of what the composer intended - and that is exactly what we got on Saturday night: the essence and glory of Bach. It may not have been as perfect as my CD recordings of these works, it might not have been the exact sound that Bach's Thomaskirche choir produced  three centuries ago but it was a faithful and celebratory capturing of what the music of Bach is about - and all the better for it.

From what we know of Bach it might be argued that he was a bit of a curmudgeon – certainly he was diligent and hard working and expected others to be so. He was not a freewheeling musical impresario like  Handel who courted Kings and made the London opera stage his home. Nor was Bach a musical genius of the Mozartian mould – a man who could churn out some of the world’s greatest and most divine melodies at the drop of a hat. No, Bach was a Lutheran, a stoical Saxon, perhaps somewhat dour, a man for whom the term "Protestant work ethic" might have been invented. In 1705 Bach, as a young man and anxious to learn his trade walked almost three hundred miles from his home in Arnstadt to Lubeck in northern Germany to visit Dietetrich Buxtehude then regarded as one of the premier church organists of his time. Almost four months later he walked back again and when one considers that this journey was taken over the winter of 1705/06 when weather and roads would have been at their worst this was no mean feat, even for a stern, hard working and committed Lutheran! - it suggests a man who was hugely driven and prepared to put up with any hardship to further his skills and improve himself. He was too, it seems, similarly driven when it came to others: there are many records of his chastisement of the pupils at the Thomaskirche for their musical failings or lack of commitment  and endeavour, and of his disagreements with his employers about his terms and conditions of work. Bach famously said of himself:  “I have been obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well “ and of his music “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”. Wonderful quotes and anyone who has enjoyed Bach’s work will recognise the truth of the latter comment in whatever he composed – music for "the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul". But, I fear Bach undersells himself! - one needs to be a little more than simply “industrious” to produce the sort of stunning work that he composed. It was once said the "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"  and whilst Bach may agree with that I fear that most of us would believe that maybe talent too has some part in the equation! As a confessed Bach addict I would go along with the great Bach interpreter and pianist, the late Glenn Gould who said of Bach's work: “I were required to spend the rest of my life alone on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of only one composer during all that time, that composer would be Bach. I  can think of no other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, has a value beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that – its humanity”. When I sit in a quiet room and listen to Gould play the Goldberg Variations – a work that has been called “a high point of western civilisation” - or I sit spellbound as Gould plays the 48 Preludes and Fugues -  a work that perhaps more than any other has influenced the development of western music - or I sit quietly in awe listening to and admiring the complexities of the Two and Three Part Inventions or the Art of the Fugue, or I am humbled as the B Minor Mass or the Christmas Oratorio or the Matthew Passion fill my office or lounge, then it is at these times that deep down I know that I am not just listening to great music, rather, I am listening to and peering into the  very soul of mankind and into his most intense human and spiritual dimensions. As I said at the top of this blog “All human [and spiritual] life is here".
Paul Hayward

So, as I stood and listened on Saturday night, wondering to myself how could it be that this self confessed, hard working, driven but self disciplined and industrious curmudgeon – in his later years, a confirmed “grumpy old man” – could produce work of such uplifting brilliance? Bach had a large family, a busy family life, and a work schedule which forced him to work the longest of hours just to keep on top of the basic demands of his job; he was also a man who largely cut himself off from unnecessary social interaction and was obsessive about his work and the spiritual nature of his labours - how could this man find it within himself to produce music that has spoken to and inspired the very hearts, minds and souls of men and women for three centuries?  The answer, of course, is beyond knowing but as I stood in St Peter’s listening to the performers it occurred to me that Bach’s profound commitment to the human and spiritual aspects of music – the ability of a work to speak to the inner mind and heart - is something that all good music must have. Put simply, whether it is a religious work like the Magnificat or Sleepers, Wake  or a secular work such as the Brandenburg Concertos or the Goldberg Variations Bach was composing music with the clear intent to speak to people as individuals and to lift their very souls.  He did not simply write good tunes - he wrote musical conversations that addressed the  innermost mind, emotions, spirituality and soul of both performers and the listeners. We see this, occasionally, in works by other composers: when I listen to Beethoven’s gloriously mighty 9th Symphony, Mahler’s gut wrenching 1st Symphony, Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, Mozart’s Piano Concert No 23 or Kathleen Ferrier singing  Blow the Wind Southerly or a thousand more I can be similarly uplifted and made to feel humble in the great scheme of things. And it isn’t just classical music – any music can have this capacity to reach our innermost feelings and make us examine who and what we are: when I listen to Dire Straits perform Telegraph Road or Romeo and Juliet, or the Everley Brothers (remember them!?) sing Cryin’ in the Rain, or Eric Clapton sing “My father’s eyes”, or Kirsty MacCall & Shane MacGowan perform Fairytale of New York  these might not be great artistic works in the way that Mahler or Mozart might be but they are works that poke at the very essence of the human condition, they are about what makes us “tick” and in a small way encourage us to think about our humanity, and by association, our mortality and spirituality. The difference is that most composers or artists do this, if they are lucky, only a few times in their lives; Bach does it each and every time – all of his music, be it spiritual or secular, has the capacity to make us examine ourselves and our condition – and more importantly addresses our humanity and asks us to be better. 
Glenn Gould

And as I listened on Saturday I saw and heard the singers, soloists and players bring out this essential message and quality. In every note and in every bar what shone through was the disciplined Lutheran that wrote the work; each note important in the great scheme of things, measured, calculated to inspire and magnify mankind and to glorify God. There was no flippancy, no concession to trivialise, this was "strictly Bach"; as Glenn Gould said: “all-encompassing music..... valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful ”.  What we saw and heard was a rich tapestry of contrasts – haunting spirituality interspersed with glorious humanity. The threads of fugue and counterpoint were woven into a multilayered tapestry by choir, orchestra and soloists; the great choruses beautifully counterbalanced the quieter solo sections whilst the sublime serenity and joy of the sopranos and altos contrasted with and complemented the power and strength of the tenors and basses. And through it all, the lyrical and disciplined playing by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble wove a sensitive but at the same time glorious musical framework underpinning, supporting and enhancing while the gentle musicality of the three soloists was both precise and evocative, producing a sincere and heartfelt sound that prodded the very soul.
Michael Overbury

At  the end of the performance, as Director Paul Hayward turned to receive the applause of the audience he had every right to smile – he, and his associate Michael Overbury (Organ Continuo), have moved this Choir and Ensemble once again significantly further up the musical ladder. In May when I blogged on the last concert by the Choir (http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/music-to-hear-indeed-it-was.html ) I commented that these two leaders had significantly widened the choir’s (and audience) repertoire when they performed George Shearing’s beautifully lyrical but difficult Music to Hear with its jazz undertones and sophisticated syncopations followed by the daunting but hauntingly  atmospheric Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams; the concert on Saturday was further evidence of that widening and deepening  repertoire. The programmes sung by the Choir this past year have been amongst the most taxing of the choral repertoire and the response of the members of  the Choir has been first class; they have raised their game and it was both understandable and absolutely right when on Saturday night, as the last notes died away and the applause rang round the church, that the smiling, relieved faces of the singers showed their elation and pride in their performance.  Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury clearly have the knack and the musicality to get the best out of their charges and to ensure that everyone responds to the demands and joys of the music. But there is more; making and listening to music is not a passive activity, it is, at its best and most profound, an activity of engagement and involvement where performer and listener are moved by what the music conveys – be it in the disco or the concert hall. And as I watched and listened on Saturday the engagement, involvement and yes, joy, of those taking part was self evident and that in its turn gave the sound that emanated from the front of the church a joyousness, a depth, an integrity and an enthusiasm – and I wondered if, perhaps, these are the qualities of which Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury should be most proud to have instilled. Such joy, enthusiasm and willingness to improve are precious commodities, they are the building blocks of improvement and success - Hayward and Overbury should be delighted to have ensured these qualities in their charges.  Perhaps it is the aspect of the night that the old curmudgeon Bach, had he sat in the St Peter's roof beams, would have approved of most of all: to see and hear his music being performed with such industry, enthusiasm and joy for the greater glorification of God.  

And if Bach was sitting under the eaves of the Church on Saturday night I have absolutely no doubt that he would have nodded his head in approval at what he saw and heard, for like me he would have known that both performers and listeners left the Church feeling a little more human, a little more humble in the great scheme of things, a little more understanding of our fellow man and a little more aware of the glory and the magnitude of God’s universe.  In a modern world torn by strife, dissent and discord, where rampant consumerism - especially at this Christmastide – stalks our streets and the wider world, where obscene wealth rubs shoulders with abject poverty and need, where it seems man's inhumanity to man increasingly seems to know no bounds and where the strident and false voices of leaders like Donald Trump seek to marginalise and pervert our very humanity and our ideals it is perhaps the music of Bach and the message that it brings that can sustain and inspire us to do better and to be better.
Paul Tortlellier

The great French cellist and Bach lover Paul Tortellier once said "Bach is my great hope for the future of mankind ..... a fugue by Bach is the perfect image of how the human society should be; it is the most beautiful thing you can hear". He was not wrong  and whenever I listen to Bach and as I stood entranced in St Peter’s on Saturday night I reflected that perhaps the world and our society  has never needed this message and this image so much - for within Bach there is indeed all human and spiritual life to uplift and remind us of higher thoughts, better things and more worthy actions - music, as Bach said "for the refreshment of the soul". 

Thank you to all for a wonderful and uplifting performance.