Tuesday 22 May 2007

The ideal way to start the day

I flicked on Radio 4 just before ten to nine on Sunday morning, hoping to hear some left-wing commentator setting the world to rights. I find that shouting at the wireless is an excellent form of mental stimulation, while clearing up after one has hurled the set through a closed window provides much-needed exercise.

But I had made a horrible miscalculation, for instead of some strident feminist voice there came the strains of a jolly group carousing to a honky-tonk piano. I thought it might be the annual convention of the Chas ‘N’ Dave Appreciation Society; it turned out to be the last hymn of the Sunday morning service.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I had spent the previous Saturday morning attending my young godson’s first communion service in a great cathedral, renowned throughout Britain and beyond for the quality of its choral music. There had been precisely one uplifting moment: right at the end when the organ struck up to convey the message that we should clear off home.

Prior to that, the “music” had been provided by two shaven-headed refugees from Crimewatch twanging guitars, while a self-consciously multi-racial kiddies’ chorus lisped its way through a series of feeble tunes that would have been rejected as potential Eurovision entries even by the United Kingdom.

The previous time I went to a service of that nature, I’d found myself in a church full of soberly-dressed white people, clapping and swaying as though they were attending a revivalist meeting on one of the more liberally minded Caribbean islands. The tambourine-bashing maniac who was leading the frenzy turned out to be the head teacher at the local primary school.

How very different from my own formative religious experience, singing classic English hymns at school assembly each morning. What delights were there. “Oh God our help in ages past”, “We plough the fields and scatter”, “Dear Lord and father of mankind”, or maybe that one which went to the tune of “Deutschland über alles”. Followed by a comically incompetent reading from the Authorised Version and a portentous announcement from the headmaster, perhaps concerned with the continuing defacement of his official notice board.

This was the time of Roy Jenkins’ regrettable liberalisation of British society, and it was our good fortune to have a headmaster whose first name was William. You can imagine what a gift strategically placed clippings of headlines like “Homosexual Bill hits trouble again” were to the budding schoolboy humorist. A good sing-song followed by some poorly suppressed laughs: could there be a better way to start the day?

Little did I know that the process of dismantling traditional values would soon do away not only with Christian assemblies in schools, but also with recognisable services in almost every church. I am left with a substantial, memorised repertoire of uplifting hymns which I never get a chance to sing. One or two still manage to creep into Christmas services and the occasional funeral. Though when my brother and I tried to have a recording of one of our mother’s favourite hymns played at her cremation, we ended up with a throaty country ‘n’ western song of the same name. I imagine that this is not an untypical experience.

I started suffering from depression almost the minute I left school. I imagined for years that it was the result of becoming a habitual drunk and failing to impress the right women, but lately I’ve begun to suspect that it was due to the withdrawal of my daily fix of hymn-singing. A good burst of song now would cheer me up no end. I’m wondering whether science hasn’t concerned itself with transplanting completely the wrong sort of organs. Follow my advice, Patricia Hewitt, and focus on the ones that accompany old-fashioned hymns. Singing them may soon rank alongside country walks as an effective and low-cost alternative to all those anti-depressant drugs that cost so much and achieve so little.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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