29 March, 2014

Passing the Torch - or Putting Something Back.

On Thursday evening I attended, together with a number of other similar people, a meeting of the Football Association held at my local FA here in Nottinghamshire. I went as a representative of the Under 19 League of which I am secretary. The meeting had been planned in advance and was concerned with an issue confronting football (or “soccer” to any American readers!) in the UK – namely the gradual but definite fall in recent years in participation in the game at the local or grassroots level. Whilst it is true that at a professional and elite level - and especially the Premiership - the game is doing well, at the opposite end there is a worrying trend of teams closing down and general lack of participation. Over the past five or six years about 500 teams each year have ceased to exist because of lack of participation on the field and, perhaps more importantly, because volunteers cannot be found to administer and "run" the teams.  Indeed, on the very day of the meeting, and quite coincidentally, one of the government funding bodies “Sport England” reduced its funding of grassroots football to by some £1.6 million  - essentially because there are now fewer participants.

I could blog long and hard about what I see as the problems in modern football – especially at the elite end – and I could be even more depressive and aggressive about largely male society's testosterone filled obsession with sport generally and football in particular. One of the clubs who are members of my League advertise football as the “opera of the masses” – I prefer to think of it as the “opium of the masses” so besotted, dependent and addicted have so many become on this in their worship of the stars and the top teams. I have absolutely no doubt that we have somehow forgotten that in the end football (and indeed every other sport) is just a game, a pleasurable pursuit, a pastime. At its root it is simply a lot of blokes running around a field chasing a bag filled with air – no more, no less – and as such not a thing to get worked up about or upon which to lavish huge amounts of money, praise or importance. To give sport or football any more status than a game or a pastime is to misrepresent it and to do it a disservice - and it devalues the important things of life. However, you will be pleased that I will not on this occasion bang on (again!) about my views of professional sport in the modern world!

But back to the FA meeting which I attended. It was an excellent meeting, well researched both nationally and locally and well presented. The figures and surveys quoted gave much food for thought as to why levels of participation are falling. But as I listened and looked at the data and heard the comments made by many who had contributed to the research a number of thoughts came into my mind.

Firstly, the data presented reflected my League’s own experience – we know that many (or all) of our clubs are finding it harder and harder to stay afloat financially, we know that players are becoming less reliable in their commitment or willingness to be available for fixtures, we know that clubs are finding it incredibly difficult to recruit people to help out at the club especially  to do the many less glamorous jobs that need to be done in order that a game takes place – e.g. kit washed, programme printed, opposition liaised with to arrange the fixture, necessary paperwork completed before and after games, pitch marked out......all the myriad of unseen and unsung tasks that go on in the background before a ball is kicked but which without there would be no game. In short I heard nothing that I could not have predicted – and I guess that was true of everyone else in the room.

But having thought this, my second thought was that this sort of thing is also true in many other walks of life – not just football and not just sport. My wife is involved in a choir – they have exactly the same problems. A friend is involved with rowing – that, too, is afflicted with the same issues. And, unbelievably we heard recently of a thriving local WI (Women’s Institute) that bastion of English middle class endeavour and involvement which has had to close down because they could not find any volunteers to take over the role of secretary of the local branch; everyone wanted to come and enjoy the meetings, the speakers, the socialising and the jam making but no-one was prepared to do the planning and the paperwork and the general administration necessary to keep the show on the road! Similarly, 6 months ago I advised the Under 19 League of which I am secretary that I would be standing down as League Secretary at the end of this season – this would give them, I thought, plenty of time to find a replacement for me. I feel that after many years I have done enough but more importantly I know that I am increasingly out of touch with the young men who now play the game – their beliefs and aspirations are very different from mine.  I am of the firm view that it is bad for the League to have a Secretary (the most important administrative position within a club or league) who is increasingly out of touch with the needs and values those who are most actively involved in playing the sport. In short new, young blood is needed. Unfortunately, however, no replacement can be found – only two desultory enquiries have come forward and neither taken any further. And listening to the FA reports and surveys on Thursday I could see that my experiences were not in any way untypical. What will happen at the end of the season when I go I know not. It is worrying – both for the League and myself.

Quite rightly the speakers from the FA were keen to address this problem and all sorts of suggestions were made to leagues and clubs that they might explore to improve the situation and increase participation. We heard and read comments from players and others detailing why there is this fall off in participation: poor quality pitches, increasing costs, poor facilities, work commitments, busy life styles, family commitments, other interests, lack of interests in doing the backroom or administrative jobs. One comment was typical: “The problem with football is around the extensive amount of time needed to run teams. People (like me) want to play but the role of an organiser for the team is becoming too onerous” or, another comment was “The thing that stops me wanting to run a  team is the amount of paperwork and politics involved”  and finally one I could particularly relate to “When our chairman packs it in five teams will fold”. In short everyone wanted to play the game, and enjoy the privileges and benefits of what the club and league could offer - so long as it was convenient to them and on their terms. And, more worryingly, no-one was prepared to do anything to help. One can dress it up however one wants but that is the brutal truth. And I have no doubt that the same points would be made by my wife’s choir members, the members of the local WI and my friends rowing club members – they all want the fun and the experiences of membership but are unwilling to commit or amend their lifestyle for the good of the activity, the club or others and nor are they willing to put anything back into the organisation so that others, yet to come, can benefit.

Speakers at the FA argued that a supermarket would ensure that what they had on sale met the customers needs and so encouraged the customer to come to their supermarket and buy - this, it was argued, is what clubs and leagues must do if they are to encourage people to participate in football; they must give the footballing "customers" what they want. Whilst there is some truth in that in so far (for example) as a nice clubhouse might encourage spectators to come and watch the game it is, I believe a rather specious argument when related to involvement and participation. Being involved in a club is not the same at all as buying an item at a supermarket - it involves social interaction, a level of commitment on both sides and a two way process. The very nature of the membership of the team requires both parties to work together - the club cannot exist without the players (or choir singers etc.) and the players or singers cannot play or sing without the club. A player might think, "I don't like what this club has to offer - the pitch isn't good, the fees are too high, the standard of football doesn't suit me etc. -, I'll go somewhere else" (as he might when  he saw that the apples at the supermarket were unsuitable)- but he will still have to face the problem of the interaction and mutual involvement between club and participant when he goes elsewhere.   In short there is an interdependency and both have to give, fulfil their part of the "contract" if the venture is to succeed - and that, I believe, is the essence of the problem, people are less willing to give of their time, attention, help, money, involvement, participation  unless there is something in it for them as an individual.

The decline in team participation over the past few years
As I pondered this I reflected upon John Kennedy’s famous inauguration address comment in 1961 “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. One could easily substitute “club” for “country”  the sentiment, the logic and the implication would hold just as true.
The whole thing is a worrying trend.

It seems to me that the basic “contract” that is inherent (and has always been so) in all social groups and endeavours is in danger of falling apart. When we pay our taxes, play in a football club, build a road, adhere to the basic laws of a society or work in a company we are making an implicit and an explicit contract between not only ourselves and the organisation but also with other members of the club, company or society – both at present and to come. When I drive down the road I enjoy the use of that road because people in the past paid taxes to pay for it – so I must do the same to not only keep it in good repair for my own use but also for others today and tomorrow. We pay our taxes or our weekly membership fees to the football club to keep up and maintain  what we have already invested and which we can enjoy,  but also to improve things for the future - in trust and for the benefit of future people perhaps yet to be born and still to enjoy what we have already enjoyed.  Others before me, who I never knew, did it for me and so I must do it for those who follow. Between the generations this “contract” is extended – not only do we, as adults, hope that the world will be better for our children and grandchildren – or other young footballers, choir members, rowers or young housewife members of the WI or whatever, we have an obligation to put into place measures and to ensure that it will be better.  It is their inheritance and is what being an adult member of society or social group is all about. Any sociologist will tell you that this characteristic is critical and common to all societies - no matter how primitive or advanced – it is one of the very basic attributes and social bonds of humanity that allow and ensure that society develops and improves. In short, it is one of the features that separates us from the animal kingdom - we ignore it at our peril. To do so chips away at our very humanity and sets society on a downward path.  And it is not simply about  great societies – it is true about organisations such as football clubs  - whether it be Manchester United or the village team, famous international choirs or the village song groups, rowing clubs or Women’s Institutes – or any other social grouping that one can think of.

But in recent years – since, I believe, the time of Margaret Thatcher - this basic contract has begun to unravel, a tiny thread of our basic human condition is a little weaker. We are, both as a society and as individuals far more concerned with our own self interest rather than our neighbours or those who will come after us. We now have generations who have grown up since the 1980s who are, in my view, increasingly self centred and selfish, interested only in satisfying their own needs rather than the wider good. Many of the comments recorded by the FA as to why levels of participation are falling in football are quite understandable in this modern world: “I’m too busy”, “I want better facilities”, “It’s too expensive”, “I don’t want the regular commitment I want to choose when it is convenient to play”, “I want the games to be played at a time more convenient to me”, “I have family commitments”...........and so the list goes on. But all are very selfish viewpoints and reflect the same unsaid theme – they are all “I” viewpoints. They are also understandable but largely false.  The notion that people are busier today is quite frankly a canard – they are largely only too busy because they choose to be involved in a number of other things deemed more important or satisfying which takes up their time – and football, choir membership, being the secretary of a club just doesn't come high enough on their priority list of choices. Similarly the claim that work commitments hinder involvement is equally doubtful. Whilst it might be true in some cases that work commitments do conflict with football, for the vast majority of people (and as a matter of statistical fact) less time is now spent at work – people have more free time than ever before. I am currently reading the biography of the Welsh politician and founder of the NHS Aneurin Bevan. He grew up as the son of a miner in south Wales – his father, David, was at work by 5.30 each morning and didn’t return from his shift until 6 in the evening but he still found time each evening to go to the local library to study, attend political meetings in the town where they lived and read his children bedtime stories. It is all about choices and priorities as to how you spend your available time. And finally, cost – the claim that playing football is costly  has to be seen in context  - as one member of the FA meeting pointed out during the discussion players might complain about paying a weekly membership fee of (say) £4.00 but not consider that the night before they have been out into the middle of Nottingham or some other big city and happily spent far more than this on and drink, food and general enjoyment. I read recently that a survey suggested that young people spent an average of £70 on a night out in the clubs - against those sorts of figures a small weekly “sub” is insignificant. I thought it was not without irony that one of the FA speakers said that survey results showed that players would be happy to pay for good facilities – so the issue is not that football participation costs too much but rather whether it is judged “good value” and something of which the player approves. In short, it is a “me” society where people are unwilling to pay up and turn up to make the whole thing better for themselves and those to come but rather they want everything as they desire for their own use and own terms. Its value is measured only in terms of "What am I getting for my £4.00?" and not whether the £4.00 is reasonable to sustain the club for everyone now and in the future.  It is a very selfish viewpoint - but sadly one that permeates society today at every level and reinforces the comment“Ask not what your club can do for you but what you can do for your club”.  Clearly this is not a dictum high in the minds of the average football player. They clearly expect the club or the league to do much for them but without themselves having to put much effort, time or expense in.
The Daily Telegraph's reporting of the cut in Sports England grant
for local, grassroots football

Of course, this is one of the problems facing the wider modern world – there is simply almost too much choice and too many things that can claim our time, our interests and our money. In football (and it is similar in other areas of life) a young man can go out and play for his local team – which might cost him a few pounds and some of his time – but there are also so many other things he can do to pass the time, some associated with football, many not. He might be prepared to go and join a football club if it is the only way he can get his football “fix” – but in the modern world he doesn't even need to do that. He can watch SKY and see a top class game from anywhere in the world almost any night of the week and twice on Sunday! He can switch on his computer and play virtual football. The football “opium” has truly worked, he has got his “fix” but not by participating in a game or a club. Given this scenario why would he elect to get involved (say) as a club organiser, secretary, kit washer, programme producer, gate man  – he might construe that as “work” or at least not as pleasurable as playing a game or watching a game in the comfort of his home or in the pub. And so, we are in danger of becoming a watching society rather than a participatory society. And in the long run society – and, in this case, sport (or choirs or WIs) etc.  - will suffer. I would add a personal view at this point - not only would these local bodies (football clubs, choirs, rowing clubs etc.) suffer through lack of members and participation but ultimately I have absolutely no doubt that the "health" of the elite game would suffer. It is well established that a successful elite game can only by assured and sustained in the long term by a healthy local, grassroots set up. A decline in participation at the bottom will lead to a decline in success and interest at the top - in whatever sphere, be it football, music, cycling or whatever. Media money such as that funding the Premiership may give short term success and raise interest levels, it will not sustain the game (or the choir) over the longer term, nor will it ensure a wealth of young talent coming through to "feed" the upper levels of the sport.

But, as I have already said, this is not a characteristic found only in football. It is widespread and it crosses generations. In my wife’s choir the vast majority of the members are older people. Many will leave and go elsewhere if they don’t like what the choir happen to be performing in one season. Others may say, “Sorry we are going to be on holiday for three weeks so we won’t join this term it would be such a waste of money to pay my term’s fees and then not use all of them” -  and so the club or choir suffers. All these positions, as with the footballers, are perfectly understandable but all reflect a basic selfishness and lack of awareness. They all send the same message -  "I don't want to commit, my needs and life style are more important than the club or the society" Imagine what would happen if millions said, “Sorry, I don't have any children so I'm not paying the portion of my tax that goes towards the provision of maternity units, schools and the like”.  Then the whole system falls apart, which is exactly what is happening within the fabric of voluntary organisations – everyone wants them but no-one wants to do anything to ensure their provision and continuance.

The message being passed over by the speakers from the FA  on Thursday night was exactly right - how can we encourage individuals to choose football as their preferred option and participate; how can we give people what they want. Clearly football, like choirs and rowing clubs and WIs, are in a battle for people’s minds, time and money. But whilst it is right and proper that clubs, leagues and the FA do try encourage involvement and participation there is, I believe, also a need for a much bigger culture change within society. Sadly, in the age of the “selfie” photograph, twitter, facebook and, indeed, blogging (as I am doing here) all of which are various expressions of “me, me, me”  I really don’t see that happening any time soon.

This morning Pat and I stood in our local village store buying our newspapers and one or two other items. I suddenly noticed that we were standing alongside a shelf filled jars of meat pastes for sandwiches – salmon paste, beef paste, sandwich spread. We laughed as we remembered how for many years each Saturday morning was filled with making large trays full of sandwiches to take to the football club in the afternoon. Each Saturday morning I would go to the store and come back with several jars of sandwich spread, several loaves of bread and butter and we would spread butter and paste for ages during the morning. These would be put in the boot of the car and transported to the ground on the other side of Nottingham. At the end of the game the players would appear on the clubhouse to have a beer and enjoy the sandwiches and the other foods prepared by other committee members as they chatted and joked about the game with the fans, the match officials and anyone else who would listen. Pat commented how much money it must have cost us over the years to do this – but not one penny was begrudged, it was our way of putting something back into a sport and club – Arnold Town FC  -  that had given us both and our son (who played for them) so much pleasure and friendship. Since then I have moved on and become not only a Club Secretary but a League Secretary - but it is still my way of "putting something back" into something that gave me and my family much pleasure and opportunity. 

I have been involved with local football both for children and adults for almost forty years – not including the time that I spent organising school football – and now I feel that it is time to bow out – to simply enjoy the game without having any ultimate responsibilities or workload. I will leave behind a League Committee comprised almost entirely of older people a number of whom, I know, feel like me and would love to pass the torch on to a younger generation. I found it very sad to hear, on Thursday night, that my experience is not unique and that nationally people are now less willing to put something back into what they have enjoyed and taken for granted and are turning away from the chance to take up the torch for the next generation in order that those who follow can enjoy what they, themselves, have benefited from. It says, I fear, much about the prevalent attitudes and the times in which we live.


18 March, 2014

Shouting in Whispers

Paying my respects to Sir Tom
A couple of weeks ago I travelled the 130 or so miles back to my home town of Preston. I hadn’t been back to the area since my dad died in a nearby village seven or eight years ago but it is many, many years since I last went into the town itself. I grew up in the middle of this northern industrial town and lived there until I was about 19 when left Preston to train to be a teacher here in Nottingham in the mid 1960s . My reason for returning to Preston itself after about fifty years was simple – an emotional day out to join thousands of others at the funeral of the great Preston and England footballer Sir Tom Finney who died recently (see my blog of 16th Feb. 2014) – one of my childhood heroes. Finney was someone who (together with his team mates) filled much of my waking hours as I grew up sixty years ago. When he died and I read of his funeral I thought this was an opportunity to not only pay my respects to the man who had so often and so kindly signed his autograph in my little book and thrilled my every Saturday afternoon but to also go back to my roots, to relive my past, to rekindle old memories and to once again see the places where my formative years had been spent.
A last glimpse of the great man as his coffin enters the Church

And so I went. I stood with thousands of others in the bitingly cold wind as the funeral cortege passed us on its way to the church in the centre of town. I got lost on the one way system so much had the town altered since the last time I was there. I found myself on the Preston North End car park at the side of Finney’s wonderful statue (see blog of Feb. 16th 2014) and I spent the afternoon visiting my old childhood and teenage haunts. It was a bitter sweet day – filled with memories – many good, some not so good. I was pleased that although much had changed, many of the places which I knew were still there but  I was, too, occasionally saddened at what some had now become.

I stood outside the little terraced house where I was born and wondered what it was like inside now, fifty years on from when I last lived there. It was neat and well kept - I was pleased about that. I noticed that it now sported double glazing and I could see a window which I think was a bathroom – something that we certainly didn’t enjoy all those years ago. I wondered what tales its walls could tell if they could speak. I stood outside my long dead auntie’s house on Fishwick View and thought of all the happy hours that I had spent there as a child. I passed the houses of past school friends and girl friends and wondered what happened to all these people who were once so important to me. I wandered to the the old fish and chip shop, still there and just around the corner from my house – a place that provided many of my mid-week meals. “Six penn’orth a chips and a fish please” came back into my mind as I stood outside the shop on Maitland Street. I noticed that it was still called “Bill and Ben’s” and wondered if anyone living in the area now knew why it was called “Bill and Ben’s”. It was a nickname  given during my time in the area. It made me realise how much society has changed. When the shop was given that nickname by locals – and which it later took as its own. I had no understanding even though I was about 17 at the time of the connotations that were implied about the two men who ran it in those far off days. Today, things would be so very different – it would presumably be called the “Lesbian and Gay Chippie” and every child of five and upwards would be quite knowledgeable about the phrase and its connotations! I visited my old school (now a primary school rather than a secondary school as it had been in my day) and stood outside the office.  I had stood on that very same spot on numerous occasions when I had received a telling off from the Deputy Head for some misdemeanour or other! Or, on a brighter note, I had stood there when I became a school prefect and we prefects were briefed by the Head or Deputy Head each week as to our duties!
At his wonderful statue at Deepdale

It was a day for remembering and reflecting on what I was, where I had come from and who I am now. It again brought to my mind the story that I have so often quoted in my blogs – told so eloquently by the great left wing Labour politician Michael Foot of his friend and mentor Nye Bevan the Welsh MP. Foot explained that Bevan would often go for walks in the hills near his Ebbw Vale constituency in south Wales. Occasionally the mist would descend and he would become disorientated. Bevan’s solution was that he would look around him until he could see the glow through the mist of the fires from the great steel mills and furnaces in Ebbw Vale, his home, and he would know where he had come from and as a result where he should go next. Bevan explained to the young Michael Foot  “You need to get your bearings and it’s only by looking back at where you have come from that you can get a sense of where you are, and from that you can know where you should go next”  I think that is how I felt as I stood in the streets where I had grown up. It is surely good not to forget our past, our heritage, where we have come from, what has influenced us – it is who and what we are – or at least it should be. I have absolutely no doubt that he who betrays his past also betrays his future.

But there was one bit of my day that stood out and which gave me rather different and mixed feelings. It was not planned, but simply somewhere where I just found myself – and it brought back all sorts of memories and emotions.
My house - number 18  (the white faced house with
the car outside) - where I grew up

At the top of the street (Caroline Street) where I lived all those years ago is a large Roman Catholic Church – St Joseph’s. After I had stood outside my old house I looked up the street at the distant church and remembered. I parked near to the church. My mother was strongly anti-Catholic and as a child I can vividly remember being constantly confused and no little upset at my mother’s never explained views. Many - indeed most - of the families living near us were Catholic and my two best friends were also of that faith and went to St Joseph’s school. I went to the local Church of England School, St Matthews – although it would have to be said that neither my mother or dad were in any way obviously religious. For my mother there was a just a strong, and in my view today, totally irrational and unpleasant anti-Catholic streak. Such was her vitriol and vehemence that as a child I always viewed the church at the top of the street with misgivings and no little fear – what went on there, what terrible things did these Catholics do to make my mother so angry? My Catholic friends seemed just like me – the only difference was that they went to church on Sunday – but I always wondered, in view of what my mother so often disparagingly said of Catholics, if there was, unknown to me, something that I should be wary and suspicious of? As I became a little older I can remember walking past the main entrance to the Church on Skeffington Road - especially on my way to the football match each Saturday and when perhaps a wedding was about to take place. I would look through the open doors into the Church to see what it was like but always from a distance, never daring to actually poke my head through the open door! It all looked very elaborate but I never saw any terrible events occurring. My mother’s viewpoint always seemed strange and illogical to me. I’ve never reconciled it.

A modern picture of an Orange Parade, but just as I
 remember it from sixty years ago.  Still slightly menacing, and
unpleasant and covering intolerant thuggishness with a
veneer of city gent, bowler hatted respectability.
Each Whitsuntide (Whit Monday) the various churches in Preston ‘walked’ through the streets with their banners and flags. This would start at early morning and go on for much of the day. There was often fear of trouble between the respective groups – C of E, Catholic, and what my mother applauded most of all and she called “the free churches” - all vying to put on the best parade and each with marching bands. Each year different churches were allowed to ‘walk first’ so that everyone had a fair chance. I was kept in the house when the Catholic churches were marching along New Hall Lane at the bottom of our street – lest, I suppose, that I should be tainted. But whenever my mother was otherwise engaged I would peep out of the front door to watch the parade as it passed the end of the street – hoping to get some clue as to what these terrible Catholics were about! Amongst the “walkers” on those Whit Mondays were the Orangemen and at the appointed hour I would be taken to see them walk along New Hall Lane with their banners, drums, flutes, bowler hats, medals and sashes. These were good people mother annually reminded me – they kept the Catholics and the Irish in their place mother.  As we watched the Orangemen walk up New Hall Lane swinging their banners and beating their drums, I can still hear her voice across the years“If it wasn’t for the Orangemen we’d  be overrun by Catholics and Irish tinkers!”.

And, yes, King Billy is, after all these years, still stuck in that
river - and 300 year later still reminding people to hate.
That poor horse will have foot rot!
I was very confused and I spent a long time trying very hard to work out the significance of banners showing a long dead king called ‘Billy’ on a horse in a river and waving his sword (I learned later that the river was the Boyne in Ireland). It didn’t seem very relevant to my life and I wondered just why these nasty Catholics had to be kept in their place by these Orangemen and what it would be like to be “overrun” by them! But as I watched the Orangemen parading - middle aged and elderly men all dressed in black with grim faces and black bowler hats I found them frightening, intimidating and disconcerting - totally out of place on what was usually a bright Spring day. Even as a child and in those far off days I found them and their drums and flutes and their stern, arrogant faces threatening and thuggish - men to be feared. Today, I can recognise their faces, their body language and their strutting demeanour for what it was - unadulterated extremism masked in a cloak of false
genteel respectability. Even to my young eyes I could recognise in their faces and demeanour the same vitriol that I heard in my mother's voice. I have never lost that feeling and neither have I ever understood my mother’s animosity as she spoke of the Catholic faith. Such, I suppose, is the nature of simple prejudice and hate – totally illogical, unfathomable, unpleasant, frightening - and, ultimately, insidious as it weaves itself into the very fabric of our being and our world. It demeans us and makes us all the poorer. It lessens our basic humanity. Over the many years since those far off days I have watched and read if the :troubles" in Northern Ireland and always came to the same conclusion. The source of the problem rests firmly in the Protestant and "Orange" camp - they represent a belief and value system that is anything but Christian. They represent the very worst elements of society and their extremist views cloaked in the jingoistic flag waving of  the Union Flag is a black mark and an affront to common decency and humanity.

But, in my own, small quiet way I rebelled.

You see, my two particular friends, Tony & Gary Clarkson and their friends from school were Catholics and during the long summer holidays they would often go to play football in the garden at St Joseph’s Church at the end of the street – and I didn’t want to miss out! Through the gate at the side of the Church and behind a high wall there was a huge and rather beautiful garden with lawn large enough for a small football match. The lawn was surrounded, as I remember it, with rose bushes, trellis work and bedding plants and one or two bench seats – all beautifully maintained. Looking back it must have made a pleasant place for the priests to enjoy a bit of peace and tranquillity, to sit and read or whatever. But on summer days it was not unusual for a gang of us to turn up at the entrance way to the garden with our football or cricket bat and ball and seek permission to play a game on the lawn. The streets were barren concrete affairs – no grass or gardens - and the local park was quite a walk away. This “secret garden” was a wonderful football stadium or cricket pitch for us! And as my friends asked if we could play there I hung back, unspeaking, on the edge of the group – my friends were Catholics,  they knew the priests, but I was an interloper and fearful of where I was and what I was doing. My mother sat on my shoulder! I was desperate to be part of this gang and part of the game – but at the same time I knew that I was risking eternal damnation either from my mother or maybe a thunderbolt from above!
Bill & Ben's fish and chip shop

We had to be careful, however. It wasn't just a case of going straight in and playing – we had to get permission. There lived at the Presbytery a housekeeper. She was a veritable dragon and we knew if we asked her then permission would be instantly refused and we would be sent packing! But there were always a number of Priests there and often amongst them were young men who were, perhaps, still in training. We always waited until one of them appeared – and permission was always granted!  One or other of these young men would arrange the game for us, helping us to pick teams, deciding who should be in goal, or who would be wicket keeper or who should be captain.  Coats would be put down for goals or the priest would nip inside and re-emerge an old upright chair to serve as a wicket (while the housekeeper scowled disapprovingly from the Presbytery window!) and then we would all soon be chasing about kicking and heading and scoring goals on the lush grass of the immaculate lawn! Sometimes the priests would be in their cassocks but always there to enjoy the fun, to settle disputes and to show off their skills to us kids. But, there was something  else – and it stays with me to this day.  Even in the most exciting game such was the tranquillity and atmosphere of the garden and the adjoining church that I remember that we talked in whispers and even shouted “goal” in a loud whisper! And as the game progressed I was increasingly just part of the group, I was accepted and not noticed – there was never any comment or thought about whether I should be there – I was simply welcomed with no questions asked about why I was never seen at church or who I was. And I wondered what it was that my mother so hated about these people? But my mother was at work so she had no idea that I was committing what to her must have been one of the deadly sins by stepping foot inside this den of iniquity! Of course, I was terrified lest she found out but I never told her – the repercussions would have been too painful.

At  the end of the garden were some old outbuildings that led, as I remember, it to a door in the outside wall of the garden. These rooms were places for garden tools, old disused church impedimenta and the like – I can remember the Priests referring to the rooms as “the glory hole” and in my naivety I wondered if this was some deeply religious reference and whether it was “glory hole” or “glory hall”. The reality, of course, was that the Priests were simply being disparaging about these junk rooms! If the weather was bad we would often play in them – hide and seek, hunt for treasure in the old dusty cupboards (we usually only found old torn hymn and prayer books!), talk football, swop comics, play marbles or flick cigarette packets (I wonder if I can still do that?). I remember that one day we found an old wind up gramophone and one scratched old record! We played that record over and over again! Looking back the song was dreadful – but it became ingrained on my mind and the whole experience part of my growing up. Even today it reminds me of my mother’s intolerance, of the fear of my getting caught by her and equally of the exciting and secret things we did on those wet summer afternoons in that magical place. And the record?  - I can still remember every single word of “The Hand That Wore the Velvet Glove”

“Last night as I was strolling by,
There on the ground I found a velvet glove,
Whose can it be, and where is she,
Oh where is she,
The hand that wore the velvet glove........”

At this point my memory has perhaps played tricks. I have always firmly believed that it was sung by Jimmy Durante but on researching this blog I can find no record of a recording by “Schnozzle”. It was certainly recorded by many singers of that 50s generation but which one I may never know. But as I write this I can still hear it, I can still picture the and smell that "glory hole" on those wet afternoons and feel the feelings of those far off days!
Looking up Caroline Street - St Joseph's at the far end

And so, I parked my car near the church gate where all those years ago I used to stand, on the edge of the group as we kids asked if we could play on the church lawn. I walked through the gateway and stood in the entrance. I still felt an intruder and uneasy about breaking the calm of the place just as I had done all those years ago. In front of me stood the Church buildings, the Presbytery with two or three cars parked there – just as I remember it from all those years ago.  I felt instantly at home, the feelings flooded back. But then I realised it was not the same. Where once was a lovely rose bed with trellis work there now stood some rather depressing and poorly maintained garage like structures. And the beautifully manicured lawn which had served as our Wembley stadium or Lords cricket ground – all gone. No benches for priests to sit and think great religious thoughts, read devotional works or click their rosaries, no peaceful tranquillity, no place of beauty in the middle of these rows of mean  terraced  houses. Instead the area had been turned into a children’s nursery – with a substantial looking wire fence and metal climbing frames all painted with garish bright colours - what had once been a lovely garden now resembled a secure area, indeed for the safety of the young children that was exactly what it was. All very functional and “today” but all beauty and magical atmosphere gone. I couldn't imagine that the children who come to play in the nursery today would shout in whispers as we had done for there was no sense of tranquillity or of the magical or the beautiful. For us, all those years ago, we knew that we were "privileged guests", we had no entitlement to be there and this fact combined with the beautiful "specialness" of the place ensured that we looked and acted in awe and wonder. I looked into the distance through the security fencing and there, indeed, were the rooms, the “glory hole” that we used to play in but now, I suspected, playrooms to lots of young children as they are brought there each day by their parents. All as it should be in our modern world – but, I have to say, there was no sense of awe and wonder and I wondered if just sometimes we increasingly in this modern world fail to provide or insist upon places of reverence and respect  as we constantly encourage and legislate for open access and entitlement. And I felt a twinge of sadness for what has perhaps been lost and which children of the future may never experience.

Of course, in this day and age that is what we do – we take a pragmatic approach, utilitarianism is the watchword, value for money. The Church has to be seen to be doing something, playing an active role in the local community – there is less and less a place in our modern world for a Church to be simply a place of devotion, beauty and spiritual renewal – it has to be useful. And what better way than allowing or promoting a nursery for the local youngsters. It happens everywhere and with every faith – and who am I to complain – after all it is what society wants and demands. Perhaps for the Catholic church – so often in recent years on the back foot in the face of allegations of abuse or lack of understanding of the modern world – it is a good PR exercise and something that they have no option but to be involved with. And in this context a beautiful lawn and trellised garden cannot be justified – “turn it into something useful” would be the mission statement and business plan! I'm not against children’s playgrounds and the like – they are, rightly, part of the very fabric of our modern society. But I do sometimes wonder if, in our rush to satisfy society’s every whim and demand we are in danger of losing much else. That we must have HS2, or another London airport; that we must do away with “red tape” so that houses can be more easily built; that we must ensure that an area like my local and very beautiful country park here in Ruddington has an even bigger (it’s already huge!) children’s play area complete with (so the advert at the entrance to the park tells me) a mediaeval castle – all these and a million other wants, needs and demands are all very understandable and laudable.  But whilst they might satisfy our physical, economic and leisure needs will they sustain our deeper instincts or any spiritual needs? Will we be the better and happier for them, will they provide food for the soul and make us glad to be alive? – I’m not too sure about that.   
Outside my house: Gary Clarkson, Tony Clarkson
and me

Somewhere, deep down, I feel that we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water and possibly losing something that will only become apparent when we no longer have it. When society has done away with all its beautiful and quietly inspiring things, when all that is left is concrete, security fencing  and garish climbing frames or fake mediaeval castles and there is no family silver left in the awe and wonder cupboard – what then? As I stood in that gateway I was pleased for the local kids that they had a nursery to go to, just as I had gone there all those years ago and played football and cricket on the manicured greensward. But I also thought that they might also be missing things that the shady garden offered – peace, tranquillity, a green haven in the middle of the concrete and bricks, birds in the trees, maybe the odd squirrel.................. the awe and wonder, the shouting in whispers. But, of course, things like that don’t have an economic worth, they don’t come out so well in the hard sell, they aren't utilitarian or practical, they don’t win votes or impress banks or gain government grants – all things that are so important in our modern busy, busy world.

So I stood in that gateway and thought back to those long off summer afternoons and remembered. As I stood there I hoped that perhaps a priest might emerge and ask if he could be of assistance. I already had my words ready – “Could I look in the church?” I would ask. Could I satisfy my curiosity as to what it is actually like in there after all these years. I have stood and marvelled in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of great churches, mosques and temples throughout the world - the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the Church of the Blood of the Saviour in St. Petersburg, Canterbury Cathedral, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, York Minster, St Marks in Venice, Hagia Sophia  and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Mesquita in Cordoba...... an endless list. I have stood humbled, inspired and awed in St Peter’s in Rome and in the Sistine Chapel, I have looked in wonder and jaw dropping amazement at the frescoes in places like the Basilica of St Francis in  Assisi so I knew the sort of thing that I might see – the confessional box, the high altar, statues of the Virgin and so on. And I also knew that all these places are, in the end, only an arrangement bricks and mortar which could, if some builder wished, be re-arranged in a different form to make a hotel or a prison or a large mansion.  But I also believe that as places of worship and spiritual renewal (as that garden certainly was) they give us just a little glimpse of what it is to be human – to experience awe and wonder and they might encourage us to shout in whispers. And that is worth preserving – but of course “spiritual renewal” and “awe and wonder” don’t sit well on a balance sheet.

Off to the secret garden for a game of cricket
while mum is at work!
But no priest came out. I stood in the gateway and remembered and thought back to my friends – my best friend, Tony Clarkson now long dead. And I wondered what had happened to the young priests who ran around the grass often with their cassocks swirling, passing the ball and scoring a goal and celebrating, almost silently, with us – and at the same time, kindly, keeping us in order. Maybe they are all aged bishops and cardinals now - I hope so.

And, turning, I climbed back into my car and drove off to the motorway and south to my home my journey into my past done. But, as I accelerated onto the motorway I thought that  perhaps I would return and stand in that gateway once again. But this time I will wait until a priest does appear. I won’t knock on the Presbytery door – that old dragon like housekeeper might still be there and even after sixty years she will surely say "What, you again, no you can't play football - clear off" and she will send me packing! So I’ll just wait and when a kindly looking Priest emerges I’ll step forward and ask him “Please, Mister, can I see inside your church?” And maybe he’ll allow it – and in doing so I’ll be able put behind me my mother’s irrational and unpleasant  rants and the stern faced Orangemen and remember I'll only the good things like the tranquillity of the garden, the games of football and cricket, the kindness of the young priests, the old scratched  record and, yes, the “shouting in whispers”.

09 March, 2014

It was all so very English!

King's as we approached - the BBC vans outside
There are few, if any, things today which can make me feel proud to be English – not the hollow jingoistic patriotism of military parades, “Help for Heroes” and men sporting silly hats, gold braid and rows of meaningless bits of tin that they call medals and with which we are supposed to be impressed. Certainly not today’s quick fix and sleazy, opportunistic  politicians and definitely not the trivialising of the life and culture of what was once, allegedly, a great empire and civilization. A civilization that spawned some of the great minds and works of English and world history but today thinks that “Strictly Come Dancing” is high culture and  worthwhile entertainment, that “The X Factor”  is some sort of definitive guide to excellence  and that Russell Brand or Stephen Fry's banal utterances constitute meaningful wit, insight or social commentary. But above all, not the hero worship and celebrity seeking that characterises the age and ranges from the “selfie” photograph, to the  mindless deification of all sport and of very ordinary sportsmen, to the pure theatrical soap opera that is the royal family. As a nation we have lost so much and gained so little. Of course, we are not alone – the same is true elsewhere in much of the world and pervades all walks of life. Over the past week or so our news broadcasts have been filled with the manufactured “hype” of the BAFTA film awards and the Oscars – who will win, aren’t these highly paid celebrities important, what will they say in their speech, will they cry, who will wear the most glamorous dress, who will be once again disappointed.........who  cares? The entertainment industry, and Hollywood in particular, has an obscene propensity for self congratulation and making the trivial, the unimportant and the ordinary sound worthwhile, vital and valuable. Can there be a sadder and more telling verdict upon our modern age than last week's "selfie" photo taken at the Oscars and thrust upon us through every media outlet; some of the worlds most famous, wealthy and at the same time least talented people taking a photo of themselves congratulating each other!

Oh, aren't we Oscar attenders a wonderful lot. We may be
completely talentless and plastic but it's the image that counts -
and we are ensuring that our image stays firmly in your mind
otherwise our limited very talents would ensure that our "A"
list status would soon become "X" list!
But the really sad thing about it is that society swallows it and wants to gorge itself upon it. Whether it be standing watching the stars walk up the red carpet, drooling over photographs of the royals and their every comment and change of clothes or, like the crowds in the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, applauding the poor or the ordinary and calling it high culture the result is the same – we have lost the ability to know and appreciate things which are of real value and of which we can be proud. Listen to people – especially younger people in the street or a bar – or look at the mindless comments on social networking sites and you will witness the gross misuse of language where an everyday event such as an evening out in the local pub, a visit to the zoo, meeting a friend or eating a plate of lasagne is described as “fantastic”, “amazing” or, the dreaded, “awesome”. Listen to football pundits and they will describe a simple goal as a “great goal” when all the player (who is paid an eye watering amount of money each week to perform this simple task!) had to do was tap the ball into an empty goal (24 feet wide and 8 feet high - longer and higher than my lounge wall!). Listen to young parents (and, sadly, young teachers) today talking to their children and you will hear the ordinary and what should be the expected praised as if it was the greatest thing that ever happened: “Oh, well done John for sitting quietly” (when the child has been asked to sit quietly – i.e. it is an expectation), or “What a good boy you are for eating that potato” (even though the child has dragged out this simple operation, picked at his food throughout the meal and generally caused what should be a pleasant meal time to become a battle ground for the past half an hour!). We praise and applaud the normal and the expected rather than the special and the outstanding. We can no longer discriminate between the worthwhile and valuable and the ordinary and everyday. We have, I fear, lost our sense of perspective.
Henry VI - I wonder if he realised what
a treasure he was leaving for future

I often wonder what great minds and personalities of the past would think if they returned and cast their eyes over 21st century western “civilisation” – John Milton, Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Oliver Cromwell,  Thomas Rainsborough, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Franklin Roosevelt................... a guess would be that many of them would shake their heads in disbelief and no little sadness.

So, it was with both huge satisfaction and pleasure that I emerged into the night air at about half past nine last Wednesday night (March 5th) knowing that I had been present at something that really was wonderful, a truly once in  a life time event and that for a couple of hours I had sat, often open mouthed, sometimes stunned but at the same time humbled as I witnessed something that really did make me feel proud to be British - or, more precisely, English. Hundreds of others, like me emerged into the cold night of Cambridge knowing that we had been privileged to see and hear something, which in absolute terms, was very, very special. I had, earlier in the day, passed a shop in Cambridge selling birthday cards and in the window was a large card saying “Have a really awesome birthday” – what we witnessed on Wednesday evening really was awesome – in the real sense of the word, not the overused and trivialised word that we so often hear today describing the very ordinary, the expected and the average.

John Eliot Gardiner
We had booked seats for the concert many weeks ago having read an article in The Guardian. The articles suggested that it would be one of the musical highlights of the year – and, indeed, so it was. The great conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his world renowned Monteverdi Choir were performing the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – one of the world’s very great works – in King’s College Chapel. Eliot Gardiner had first performed the work as an undergraduate at King’s on March 5th 1964 and this was to be a fiftieth anniversary concert. On that March 5th night in 1964 he put together a group of unknown singers – that group became the  Monteverdi Choir  – and the rest is musical history, both for him and the Choir. He and they are without doubt two of the great exponents of choral music and especially of ancient music. I didn’t expect to be able to get tickets, we knew they would be like gold dust – but we were lucky, the booking office told us we had got the last two.  So, we have looked forward to the event for weeks. King’s College Chapel is one of our favourite places and the Vespers one of our favourite works – to put the two together and with Gardiner and the Montiverdi Choir plus the English Baroque soloists was not to be missed.

And so at about 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening we made our way through the twilight of King’s College quad and towards the great Chapel – one of the very great buildings of England. Few places in the whole of the country can have so much history attached, few places can have seen so many of the great names of England – academics, politicians, royalty, great names of literature, science and the arts, world leaders and the rest - walk past it and through it. Outside stood the BBC outside broadcast vans – the concert was being broadcast live on the radio – and a line of people already stood outside the chapel waiting to take their seats. As we stood there we heard locals confirming how difficult tickets had been to get. We stood next to another couple who had come all the way from south Wales to be at the concert.
The wonderful ceiling

As we stood there I reflected how very English it all was. Here we were at one of the great events of the musical year, where the great and good of the musical (and other worlds) would be; we were standing waiting to gain entry into one of the very greatest buildings of England and indeed, the world and to see some of the greatest musical names perform. And yet, and yet....... there was little or no security, certainly no bull necked security guards, just a gentle university porter politely stopping anyone going in until the doors officially opened. There was no red carpet, no glitz, no flashing lights or media coverage, no celebrity status – the great, the good and the peasants (Pat and I!) all queued up together, standing in the chilly night air, all speaking in whispers so as not to disturb the tranquillity of the King’s quad. A hastily typed notice was sellotaped to the gate advising people of the entrance for those with unsighted tickets and that was about the sum total of the “organisation”. In the great buildings of King’s College windows were lit as people inside got on with their everyday work – no-one bothered to look out and see the growing queue, no one was looking for “the stars”. It was so typically English and so very ordinary – and in being so it was, in these days of constant hyperbole, so very extraordinary!
The King's Quad at dusk - we queued from the door on the bottom left

And at last we were allowed in. We had our tickets at the ready but no-one bothered to check them. Yet, despite the lack of security and despite the fact that every seat was taken, no-one tried to get in without  ticket, no-one caused a fuss – it all just happened. England at its best – unassuming, calm, polite, gentle, unhurried, taking everything in its moderate stride. All qualities that we increasingly seem to have lost. I swear, had some budding Al Qaeda terrorist cell  planned to commit some act of terrorism and strike at this, the very heart of the English Establishment, their venture would have failed miserably. They would have been put off, confused, by the ordinariness of the occasion – and anyway, the folk in the queue would, like elderly  headmistresses and  headmasters, have simply glared at them, wagged their fingers in admonishment and gently, but firmly, told them not to be so silly. "Go home" the would be terrorists would have been told "and take a warm bath, make yourselves some nice toasted crumpets and jam with a nice cup of tea - and and then have an early night in bed. You'll feel much better in the morning. There's a good chap!" They would have been sent slinking off into the dusk, tails between their legs, humbly apologising for disturbing the event and thoroughly chastened! There were no “plastic people” trying to sell us trivia or escorting us to our seats, there were no "loud" people intent upon making themselves the centre of attraction or showing their ignorance and lack of awareness by breaking the quietness and solemnity, there were no ice cream sellers or refreshments available, no “have a nice day” insincerity, no CDs for sale, no commemorative mugs or other "tat",  no “comfort breaks” (what an awful Americanism!) planned (for there are no public toilets in Kings College Chapel!). Even though the work was almost two hours in length there were no concessions made that would trivialise the evening. In short, the expectation was that people would behave in a manner to suit the occasion and the venue, there was no dumbing down. It was English stiff upper lip time! It was what we, the audience expected and demanded.
The poster advertising the first concert 50 years ago
Many of the then unknown performers are now
musical superstars

At 7.45 pm John Eliot Gardiner walked down the central aisle to take his place at the front of the orchestra. There was no fanfare, rhythmic clapping or extended  standing ovation as there might have been at an awful American staged event - just a reserved acknowledgement of the great man's presence and the silence. The solo bass stepped forward, his deep voice ringing around the Chapel and opening  the work and then the choir’s voices rose in splendour, filling the great Chapel with the most glorious sound – I swear that there a mighty intake of breath at that sound. In a Times review of a Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir concert in 2011 reviewer Richard Morrison famously said:  “If all the world’s depressed people [could] hear this ........the pharmaceutical companies would be out of business......who needs pills to lift the spirits when we have this.......I felt as if I was flying above the clouds.....”. I'm sure that many, like me, in King's on Wednesday night when listening to those opening few bars - and for the next two hours - would echo those sentiments completely.  In this morning’s Times  Morrison was equally lavish in his praise of Wednesday’s concert “Same magnificent chapel, same glorious music, same conductor — but half a century on. ...........this was a triumph........I have never heard this masterly compendium of 17th-century sacred music interpreted with such fervour and freedom and delivered with such pungent virtuosity”. I have no doubts that every member of that audience on Wednesday would say "Amen" to that. The Daily Telegraph was equally lavish in its praise: John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of the Monteverdi Vespers in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on March 5 1964 has entered musical lore, not only for giving birth to the Monteverdi Choir but for helping to shake up period-conscious performance in this country. Fifty years on to the night, Gardiner was back at King’s for a celebratory performance of the same work, his energy seemingly undiminished.......Here in Cambridge, a new-generation Monteverdi Choir – augmented in a couple of key moments by veterans of the 1964 and other early performances – was joined by the Choristers of King’s College and the English Baroque Soloists...... Everyone lent tonal weight to the kaleidoscopic final Magnificat, in which all the richness of Monteverdi’s invention comes together: it was by turns ethereal and magnificent....... “. And The Guardian was equally spellbound: “It was stirring, as performances in that chapel can hardly fail to be – full of glorious sounds from the 36 voices and the instruments of the English Baroque Soloists, full of Gardiner's typically punchy rhythms and .......cadential diminuendos, and the spatial effects were carefully choreographed. The echoes of Audi Coelum were beautifully calibrated, the trebles of the college choir added the litany of saints to the otherwise instrumental Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, and founder members of the Monteverdi Choir joined in for the closing Ave Maris Stella and Magnificat.......for Gardiner and his choir, the Vespers has become an institution, the musical equivalent of a world heritage site......”
The heraldic carvings above our seats

And as I sat – often open mouthed – I looked around me. Above me the great soaring ceiling of King’s – surely one of the great wonders of the world – looking almost like the entrance way to heaven. Certainly, I'm sure, just as its mediaeval builders intended it look! And the Choir’s voices rose to that ceiling and away into the March sky and into the heavens. The College and Chapel were founded by Henry VI – who also founded Eton - in 1441 so it was already an old building by the time that Monteverdi wrote his Vespers in Venice in the early years of the 17th century. The Vespers were originally composed to be sung in the mighty St Mark’s in Venice, and indeed Eliot Gardiner and the choir have performed them there. They are  monumental in scale, and require a choir large enough and skilful enough to cover all the vocal parts  and split into separate choirs while accompanying different soloists. When I wandered to the front of the Chapel before the concert began strange and ancient instruments were already laid out on the orchestra’s chairs and as the performance took place we were treated to the instrumental sounds of the sixteenth century. Monteverdi's unique approach to each movement of the Vespers has earned the work a place in history – it was a “first” in those far off days for  it incorporated secular music within a  religious performance and its individual movements present an array of musical forms - sonata, motet, hymn, and psalm – all within a piece of devotional music.Throughout the performance we watched and listened intrigued and amazed as singers and musicians would occasionally, and silently, leave their appointed place to disappear behind the rood screen or into an adjoining side chapel or go the back of the main Chapel to perform some part of the Vespers and give the effect of distance or echo or some other embellishment to  enrich and refine the sound. As we sat on the end of our row, and mid way through, the boy choristers of Kings College filed passed us, having left their places in the choir stalls. Led by their famous choir master Stephen Cleobury  they silently made their way to the back of the Chapel and a few moments later their glorious voices were heard behind us – truly quadraphonic sound! And then, equally silently, heads bowed, they made their way back and disappeared into their choir stalls.
The Monteverdi Choir today

There are surely few buildings, apart from St Mark’s, where the Vespers are so at home – but King’s is one of them. As I sat there I wondered how many great musicians and musical offerings had been heard by that ceiling and those walls in the six centuries of their life. Not only great choirs in great concerts, but the everyday services that take place there. When we first arrived at Kings on Wednesday afternoon we could have gone in (for free) to listen to the world famous Choral Evensong sung by the boy choristers of Kings. The King’s Choir is itself world famous – especially so since every Christmas Eve the famous carol concert takes place which is broadcast throughout the world and which for many heralds the start of Christmas . As we had meandered around Cambridge’s streets and looked at  the other world famous colleges many, like King’s, had boards outside informing the public that they were welcome to join Evensong in the college chapels. As it was Ash Wednesday many of these services would be special affairs – at King’s the choir were singing the works of the sixteenth century English composer William Byrd. Byrd, like Monteverdi, was composing at the time when music was emerging from the era of plainsong to polyphony and the Vespers of 1610 are amongst the early works to celebrate the newly emerging musical sound. In their day they were very much “new sound”, cutting edge!

And I thought, too, as I sat there how many others had sat, like me, over the centuries and listened to the magnificent music and great words that have been spoken in King’s College Chapel. The list of the great minds and great leaders who are part of King’s history is a list which in many ways tracks the course of English (and indeed world) history since the sixteenth century: Francis Walsingham (Secretary to Elizabeth 1st and her “spy master” – the first James Bond!) , Robert Walpole the great statesman and effectively the first English Prime Minister, EM Forster the famous novelist,  John Maynard Keynes the economist whose theories dominated 20th century economics and politics and who is once again increasingly in fashion, JK Galbraith, the great American economist, Andrew Davis world famous conductor, Bernard Williams, the philosopher, Eric Hobsbawm arguably the world’s greatest historian, Rupert Brooke the famous poet, Alan Turing the mathematician who cracked the wartime German Enigma Code and who is regarded as the father of the modern computer......... and, of course, Eliot Gardiner amongst King’s past students there are six Nobel prize winners – just from this one constituent college of Cambridge University. All these, and thousands of others, will have looked, as I looked, at the magnificent stained glass of the Chapel’s windows – the glass amongst the most precious and outstanding in the world. It was made and put there by the great Flemish glass maker  Barnard Flower in the late fifteenth century. Flower was employed by Henry VI for the work but for a time was himself a refugee fleeing from persecution in his own land. Had Flower been alive today it is more than likely that our modern immigration laws would have denied him entry to the country. How much we have changed – for the worse. And then I looked at the walls with their intricate heraldic carvings and patterns. What fifteenth century craftsmen carved these? What did he go home to each night? Did he know that his day’s work would be marvelled at half a millennia after his death? That his work really could be described as awesome? I looked at the carved crowns, the lions rampant, the unicorns and the great carved roses. The roses, not Tudor roses, for Henry VI came before the Tudor dynasty nor were they Lancastrian or Yorkist Roses (even though Henry was of the family of Lancaster and the Wars of the Roses broke out during his reign) - no, they symbolise two things: the white rose represents the Virgin Mary, one of King’s patron saints and they  also represent the bringing forth of the flower of knowledge. It is perhaps not insignificant that Henry, although often forgotten in the great swathe of English history and amongst the magnificence of other monarchs such as Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, should be symbolised by the rose of knowledge, for despite a period when he himself was considered to be mad  his reign is, above all, remembered for his commitment to learning and education. Very appropriate.
Half way through!

As the choir rose to the final Amen of the Magnificat  there seemed again a final intake of breath from the audience and as the last sounds drained away there was total, almost stunned, silence. It almost seemed wrong to applaud in that place and at that time. But then as one the whole audience, and indeed the performers, broke into a spontaneous huge applause. Flashbulbs flashed and the ringing applause went on and on and on. But, English reserve was not cast aside – it was all very staid and tasteful – no whoops, no whistles, no cries of “More”. In front of us a group of Japanese young people applauded enthusiastically  but typically sedately and along the row elderly donnish professors wearing their Cambridge ties clapped their hands with quiet gusto – acknowledging something of very great worth but not being carried away. It was all so very “ordinary”, so very English. Whilst we all knew that we had seen and heard something  very special in a place that was very special everyone wanted to treat what they had seen and heard with respect, not glamorise and so cheapen it. But, as I sat there applauding, I thought to myself that perhaps even the ghosts that might inhabit King’s College Chapel, and who have seen many such great occasions in the Chapel’s long and illustrious life must surely have put this down as one of the most memorable events.
The King's rose

I am not one for jingoism or royalty. I don’t go much on overkill, name dropping,  excess or fashionable “style”  but I have to confess that as I emerged into the cold Cambridge night air I oozed self satisfaction and superiority!  I knew that I had been present at something very grand and I was glad to be English. My faith had been somewhat restored. In the front of our programme for the concert was a piece written by Prince Charles, Patron of the Monteverdi Choir, praising Gardiner and the Choir for the work that they have done and what they have achieved over the past half century. The words that Prince Charles wrote were just right, unassuming, just like the performers and the audience – not sensationalist, not showy, not patronising, not pretentious. There were no words like "awesome" or "fantastic" or "amazing" – just a gentle recognition of all that had been achieved and contributed.  It was the classic English understatement and exactly the atmosphere that pervaded King’s College Chapel on Wednesday night. It was indubitably one of the great musical events of the year – not just in this country but, I suspect, internationally too.  It was a most wonderful evening of truly great music. But it was also respectful of the place and the occasion, it added one more layer to the history of King’s but there were no red carpets, no glitzy “stars”, no concessions to the trivial or the cheap or the tasteless. The great and the good came, indistinguishable from the rest of us, in their overcoats and anoraks; there was no brashness or raucous whistling or calling out at the end of the performance, no encores given, no applause that went on and on – just a sustained, sincere applause -  tasteful and knowledgeable by people who knew what they had witnessed. This was definitely not Tony Blair's awful "Cool Brittania" and it certainly wasn't Margaret Thatcher's drum bashing "Rule Brittania". As we stepped out into the King's quad I thought about some words that I had read earlier in the day. I am currently reading the biography of Clement Attlee by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds. Symond's relates that Churchill disparagingly described Attlee - often regarded as the greatest Prime Minister of the twentieth century - as "a sheep dressed up in sheep's clothing" . But Symond's argues "Attlee personified Britishness - understated, unemotional in public, unfussy and with a deep and quiet pride in his country and its history" . And I also thought about the description of King's College's founder, Henry VI that I had read prior to our visit. Henry was described as "peaceful, pious and benevolent" a description that would have suited Attlee completely and which matched exactly my feelings about what I had just witnessed - it waall so very English. Henry VI and indeed Clement Attlee would, I think, have felt very much at home had they sat in Wednesday night's audience.
Gardiner takes the applause

The final bows
And I was glad that in these so often dumbed down times where the very ordinary or poor is too often considered wonderful and where the appearance is so often gauged to be of much greater importance that the substance that there are still, in this country, places, events and people who know the difference. It was worth every penny of the £50 per head mid-range tickets that we bought, and not once did I begrudge the £10 spent on the programme – it will be something to treasure and to long remember that I was there. It was worth every mile of the 90 mile trip to Cambridge and the night we spent in the local Travelodge. The event, was not only wonderful but has whetted my appetite. When we booked the tickets for the concert we also booked tickets for the Easter concert at King’s – to see Bach’s great Matthew Passion – often regarded as the world’s greatest musical work – and “starring” (a word that in this context is totally out of place) the world’s greatest counter tenor Andreas Scholl. To hear Scholl will really be a once in a life time experience, to hear him sing in the Passion  truly  “awesome” – but to hear it all in King’s surely the stuff of my dreams!   I know that I will not be disappointed – and once again glad to be reminded that we English can, despite the best efforts of the media, our dumbed down society  and our politicians of all persuasions still do it right!

04 March, 2014

"Italian Chicken Stew with Dumplings - £3.50"!

I am by nature a pessimist. My glass is always half empty rather than half full. My answer, when people (usually my wife) exhort me to think positively or look on the bright side, is that if I anticipate the worst then I cannot be disappointed. Whereas, I argue, the optimist must be constantly dissatisfied for the world cannot always deliver his high expectations! It goes further. For as long as I can remember, and because I am a pessimist, I have always anticipated the worst case scenario and as a result am a “mega planner”. Whatever venture I am involved with I plan it to the nth degree to try to eliminate whatever can go wrong. Unfortunately, despite one’s best efforts, things still go wrong – the technical term for this, I think, is Sod’s Law. Fortunately, however, when things go wrong – and despite one’s prior anxieties and subsequent planning – it does occasionally happen that it all works out well in the end. And when that happens the whole can be both enjoyable, memorable and, in certain situations, restore one’s faith in the world and in human nature. That was true on Saturday night.
St Mary's

Let me explain.

On Saturday Pat and I had tickets to attend a concert in Nottingham – at the wonderful St Mary’s Church in the Lace Market. St Mary’s is a magnificent building and as we were reminded in the pre-concert  introductory talk is the oldest medieval building in the city. The Lace Market is an old area of the city – right in the very centre - where once the lace industry which was instrumental in making Nottingham famous and upon which much of the city’s historical wealth was based. Indeed, when we first came to live in Nottingham almost half a century ago it was often commented that Nottingham was the best place in all England to go to find a wife – there were so many young women, it was said  that they allegedly outnumbered the men 2:1! They were the prettiest women in England so the local folklore had it – and they were there because of the size and importance of the lace industry – they worked in the industry making the finest lace in the kingdom.
Some of the magnificent buildings of the Lace Market

Those times are long gone; although there are still a few lace companies left the vast majority of this small, compact area of the city, with its narrow winding streets and tall impressive  buildings has been converted into night clubs, swish restaurants and bars, exclusive penthouse apartments  and the like. And, as the historic courthouse of Nottingham is on the edge of the Lace Market there is a fair sprinkling of legal chambers, all sporting splendid nameplates displaying the names of the lawyers and barristers who reside there – all very stylish. Despite the fact that it is right in the middle of a major city with its busy pavements, mobile phone shops, big department stores and burger bars little or no traffic goes through the streets of the Lace Market – it is a quiet haven - making it a shady and peaceful place even on the busiest day. It is a protected heritage site and is a trendy and atmospheric place to visit – and, I would think, good to live in. Whenever we walk through the Lace Market I wonder – day dream – about how exciting it must be to live in a small rooftop apartment looking out over the city! And right in the middle of this tranquil spot stands St Mary’s – very much the centre of the whole area and looking out, as it has done since the times of Robin Hood, from its hilltop perch over the whole of Nottingham.

The quiet, atmospheric streets of the area
So I was looking forward to my concert. We would see a top class chamber ensemble the London Concertante and we would hear the glorious music of my favourite composer – Bach - his two great violin concerti, a violin and oboe concerto and two pieces by Mozart and Albinoni.

But, being me, we had to plan this adventure! Nothing could be left to chance that might spoil the evening – for my pessimistic view of the world dictates that if something is going to go wrong it will.  First, as we knew that trying to park in town is always difficult on Saturday evening, and we didn’t want to be late for the concert, we decided to go in very early and have a meal in town – then, we reasoned, we could be in good time for the concert which began at 7.30 pm. Secondly, I noticed that the local football team, Nottingham Forest, were playing at home and the game would be finishing just as we were going into town. So, to miss the long queues of football traffic we went a circuitous route  to get to the Lace Market. Thirdly – where should we eat? We knew that the busy shopping areas of Nottingham would be full of shoppers, but, I argued, if we go in early we will be able to get a meal in small pub that we know opposite St Mary’s – the Kean’s Head. At that time, I knew, it would be quiet, the Lace Market district would be its usual peaceful self. We could enjoy a leisurely meal and a quiet drink. Nothing could go wrong!

A quiet night at the Kean's Head - not at all like when
we visited!
The first part of the plan went perfectly, we missed the football traffic and arrived at the car park on the edge of the Lace Market at 5.30 – plenty of time for a meal. We soon parked the car, so second phase of the plan completed.............but then disaster!

This was  where the master plan began to unravel! You see, we know from past experience that at the end of a concert everyone rushes out of the concert venue at once and goes to the car parks – the result, everyone is queuing to pay their car park fee. So we had decided to pay for our ticket in advance – a service offered by Nottingham’s city centre car parks. We found the ticket machine, followed the instructions, pressed the right buttons, put in the right money.......and out came our ticket. But, to our horror, instead of giving us an evening’s parking till about 10.30 pm it gave us only two hours – no use at all! We couldn’t simply get another ticket for we had already parked our car and the tickets are dispensed automatically as you drive through the entrance barrier. Feverishly we looked for an office with a car park attendant to solve our problem but it was deserted, the car park was  fully automated. We walked around the various floors searching for an assistant and in an increasing state of panic! I at last decided that the only thing to do was to drive out of the car park and thus use our 2 hour ticket and then re-enter and go through the whole process again when suddenly we spied a tiny voice box to speak into and gain assistance. I pressed the button and a voice on the other end asked what our problem was. I explained, and the guy on the other end wearily told us (I could tell in his voice that he judged us to be total idiots) that we could reinsert our ticket into the machine and we would be allowed  to buy “extra time”. Holding our breath we followed his instructions...........Bingo!.... it worked, and the screen on the cash machine told us (although my natural pessimism refused to believe it) that our ticket was now paid in advance till 10.30 pm.

Hogarth painted this three centuries ago - or was he in
Nottingham on a Saturday night!
This whole episode had taken about 25 minutes so we were now a little late – but not to worry, there was plenty of time, we could soon grab a meal and then walk across the road to the church. We walked through the Lace Market’s darkening, silent and deserted streets and arrived at the Kean’s Head with the silhouette of St Mary’s rising into the night sky on the other side of the street. We pushed open the door........and were met with a wall of sound of which the 1960s American record producer Phil Spector, famed for his wall of sound effect, would have been proud. The place was packed, not a table to be seen, huge numbers of people squeezed near the bar, loud laughter and much consuming of vast quantities of alcohol. We looked around us bewildered. It was manifestly clear that we would not get a quick meal here and we certainly would not find a seat. Could all these people be going to our Bach concert I wondered – I didn’t think so and quite frankly I hoped not! The whole scene was reminiscent of one of Hogarth’s famous depictions of 18th century gin palaces!

Yep! - another Hogarth - and definitely like the
places we looked into as we tried to get a meal!
But, we were not worried – there were plenty of other eating places.......or so we thought. We wandered through the quiet Lace Market streets and at each hostelry, to our horror, found more of the same – vast numbers of people all of whom looked as if they had been there since early morning and were intent on staying there until the next morning. Tables and bars crowded - the whole of Nottingham it seemed was in celebration mode and celebrating in the Lace Market! The couple of restaurants we managed to squeeze into were no better “Do you have a table?” we asked – the waitresses shook her heads sadly – it was almost like a modern version of the Christmas story.  I know now how Mary & Joseph felt when there was no room at the inn! And so we trawled through the streets, our hearts occasionally rising but only to be dashed when we entered some promising looking establishment – each one even fuller and noisier, it seemed, than the last! By now it was 6.30 and we were getting cold. Perhaps we should go into the city centre and find a MacDonald’s or buy a sandwich from the  little supermarket on the edge of the Lace Market. But time was fast running out. Perhaps we should just go to the church and forget about food . Pat was becoming desperate through cold and lack of food, I was becoming frustrated and pessimistic, wanting to vent my spleen upon all those who filled the pubs so noisily and prevented me having my meal!

Nottingham Contemporary - a place of warmth,
food and sanctuary!
Just as we were at the lowest ebb we passed the Nottingham Contemporary – a modern and new art gallery and arts centre on the edge of the Lace Market. Pat suddenly remembered that they had a small cafe downstairs – she had once had coffee there. Maybe we could get a warm cup of tea and a cake. “Any port in a storm”, sprung to mind. We entered through the glass doors and saw that the cafe, deep in the bowels of the place, was still open. By this time I had no optimism left – pessimism ruled, and I suspect even Pat, who is by nature an optimist,  was being sorely tried. The small cafe was almost empty – but they were serving drinks. A group – which we subsequently discovered were an ageing punk group called "Gaffa" - were setting up their instruments in the corner ready for a show later that evening. We stood and looked at the menu -  a cup of tea, a cake, a sandwich........... seemed to be on offer. Then we noticed just one hot dish – “Italian chicken stew with dumplings” - £3.50. “Are you still serving it?” we asked. They were!

Ah! civilization!- the cafe where we ate our stew
We sat at one of the small table surrounded by ageing punk rockers and huge speakers and miles of cabling as the band set up their stage. We had no real hopes – for £3.50 the dish would not be much, we argued, hardly a feast. But the cup of tea was excellent and the stew might just warm us up and keep us going until we got home after the concert. But then it arrived – a smiling, gentle and polite young waiter sporting an assortment of punk style chains down his jeans and around his legs presented us each with a splendid bowl of thick, hot, home made stew – filled with vegetables, chicken, dumplings and a delicious sauce. Just what the doctor ordered! We both tucked into our meal with relish – it really was the food of the gods! No meal in the poshest of hotels had ever tasted better. Savouring every mouthful we ploughed through it and pushed the boat out by enjoying a slice of cake and cheese and biscuits – and all for less than £15.00 for the two of us!
"Gaffa" - Nottingham's ageing rock group

We had had an excellent meal in a super atmosphere – definitely one that will long remain in our memory. The punk rockers, to our amazement, were all rather  genteel, middle aged men, reserved and quietly spoken, not my image of a punk rocker at all and  I almost felt tempted to stay and listen to them as they started to tune up their instruments!  But, no, Bach called and by now it was 7 o'clock. We wrapped our coats around us and made our way across the street to St Mary’s.

And what a concert – wonderful. The church was full, the music glorious, the ensemble perfect. Bach played how it is meant to be played – by a small group in an intimate atmosphere. The music wafted over me played by musicians who not only had a huge talent but a great love for what they were playing. As I sat listening and we wondered around during the interval I reflected that the church had stood for centuries in the middle of the Lace Market – thousand, perhaps millions, had over those centuries come as we had come to enjoy music or to worship.
London Concertante
On the walls were ancient tablets recording past citizens and benefactors who had made  their fortunes in the lace industry. There were ancient brasses of medieval knights and we remembered how once, many years ago, when our children were small we took them one sunny afternoon in the school holidays to St Mary’s to do some brass rubbing.  And, as I sat down again to enjoy the second half of the concert, I thought about all the thousands who were still sitting in those noisy pubs just across the street, about the punk rockers and about the clubbers who would be arriving at their venues. The church was an island, a place of sanctuary - as perhaps it often was in the troubled middle ages - and today a haven, a quiet place of worship and  musical beauty, insulated from the loud outside world. A far cry from the Hogarthian scenes just a few yards away. It was a very special evening.
Girls "clubbing" at one of the Lace Market night clubs -
they should all be wearing vests my wife advises.

And then it was over. We stepped outside into the cold night air. We passed the Kean’s Head - still packed with revellers, we passed brightly lit nightclubs their doors guarded by grim, shaven headed  bouncers and security guards. Through the open doors of the clubs  we glimpsed throngs of young men and women; girls hurrying through the streets to the night clubs all dressed (although maybe that is an exaggeration!) in tiny short dresses leaving nothing to the imagination, tottering on very high heels and drinking and shouting above the pulsating music. As we hurried along Pat mumbled something about those girls needing to wear a vest! And then it was back to the car park.  At the entrance a huge queue stood, all waiting to pay their parking fees – surely they couldn’t all be from the concert? But no, they wore brightly coloured shirts and we realised that they were all ice hockey supporters who had just left the ice stadium which is just on the opposite side of the Lace Market - they had been watching Nottingham Panthers. With a superior air we marched past them  with our advance payment parking ticket (forward planning is such a good thing!) and jumped into our car, started the engine and switched on the heater. But, as we crawled to the car park gate both of us had a slight anxiety.........would the car park ticket with which we had had such problems actually work, or would we be stuck at the gate unable to leave. Both of us breathed a sigh of relief when the barrier rose and we emerged and took the road home!
London Concertante
And as we drove home I was reminded of Gladstone’s famous one liner: “What we anticipate seldom occurs: but what we least expect generally happens”. Gladstone must, like me, been a bit of a pessimist but perhaps like me he would also have said that being a pessimist has its benefits because you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised. That was certainly true on Saturday night! I have already written down the dates for the next concerts given by the London Concertante at St Mary’s. Maybe next time, in September or December when the Concertante next visit, we’ll go straight to Nottingham Contemporary for another bowl of the Italian chicken stew and dumplings before listening to Bach! Or maybe even next Saturday we'll have a night out at the Nottingham Contemporary, enjoying the stew and listening the ageing punk rockers - now that would be a first - I feel that we rather owe the gallery and the rockers our future patronage for rescuing our night out!