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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Ding Dong

The vicar sauntered on in slacks and a pully: holy casual. His hand toyed, casually, in the depths of his pocket. He seemed distracted, dippy-looking, as if he might break into a purr.
Despite the garb, and the soft porn gaze, when he got going he was pure vicar: deathly slow and fond of his own voice. Health and Safety had come to the church and he gave us several long minutes of frustrated trolley dolly guff about exits, in the hope of a fire. His hand reluctantly left his pocket, to point hither and thither with confusing enthusiasm for the correct quadrant, the apt exit; X had to filter here, Y must hurry along there. Candles wobbled in takeaway containers atop wonky piers. Several wanton souls perked up at the prospect of an inferno.
Til he spoiled it. We were told that come the end we should wait – for health and safety reasons – for all of the candles to be extinguished. Several hundred people bleakly scanned the church in quick count mode and took in several hundred candles. Trapped in tight rows, it was too late to adopt a “think I’ve left the gas on” face and leg it.

We were not, however, told that the end was so very far in the future, and most of us steeped in early onset dementia, that waiting obediently would be completely forgotten in the rush for the mulled wine. The fumes would be Siren-ing and we’d all be on a mission. Singed hair? Teetering flames? Elbow the slow and helpless. Get me to the grub and grog.

For it was the school’s carol concert and, being a high achieving school, there was not a wonky tea towel in evidence, no tears, no embarrassing silences, no Little Donkey. Just hours of, admittedly, beautiful singing, lovely readings, proper Christmas gravitas.
Lots of it, but conducted at a decent lick.

Each year I’ve stalked the town in search of a cracking carol service. And each year I’ve shuffled home mortified by the paucity on offer. Whether it was the tracksuit trouser and trainers vicar offering the drab metaphor of Asda light bulbs from a damp cardboard box (may the light be with you) on the way out; or the full-on horrors of enthusiastic arms-raised, closed-eye swaying to tuneless modern carols; or the linen-suited vicar, bounding on stage with big teeth, to read requests from the congregation for Toyota Landcruisers (really!) none quite hit the mark.
All I want for Christmas is a decent run of familiar tunes, and a little dignity and ceremony. What I get is quite other.

The worst of all the terrible occasions took place was when T14 was young, ahh, and the primary school choir was invited to sing at a nearby college. I think that that particular service lasted 2 and a half hours, fully 45 minutes of which was given over to Media Vicar. Media Vicar was a worthy wench, in a bust-hugging stripy jumper and shaggy hair, who’d spent too long in Africa and was prepared to share each and every moment. What we did not know at the end about rape, sodomy, AIDS and arson is likely to be thin pickings. Our primary banned whole grapes in the lunch boxes: they had to be sliced in half (health and safety). The head teacher emerged blinking, traumatised; genned up on genocide, grapes temporarily relegated. E still has a small scar from dripping wax on his hand in a semi-successful attempt to stay awake: we had to hold these little candles, all sermon long; yeah, yeah, may the light be with you.

Dutifully, we attend the village service each Christmas eve. It’s a dismal affair, and we know it even as we edge into our wellies for the stride across the field.
The vicar slides in, apologetically, clad in a Snoopy sweatshirt, waving. Some well-meaning, ancient, stout parties spend bloody hours dragging out the reading of a vaguely relevant story to toddlers strung out on smarties, and the rest of us dutifully freeze; the OAPs swaddled smugly in their factory shop anoraks, people like me wondering why we scorn them: suddenly seeing wisdom in Teflon fur. Tartan knee wraps are eyed with envy. Last time I was here was for a funeral. The vicar spoke endlessly about sex. The grieving daughter, her face a bruised chrysanthemum of sorrow, surely could not soothed by the intrusive image of her mother at it with old dad. I was suddenly grateful for my ill-thought through seat selection backing onto the flowers. I could hide my horror in holly and ivy.

Money is being raised for digital bells which no-one wants; meanwhile the wind cuts through ill-fitting windows and the glass freezes over both sides. A floppy hat does the rounds and returns home barely heavier, a mere one handed clap to its clink. The wailing plink plonk of Little Donkey kicks in and I remember what a long time an hour can be in a local church, how killing a song.

But last night was wonderful. The real thing.
Long, however, and wasted on the great British public, a breed unable, en masse, to sit still without coughing, rummaging or creaking. Within half an hour the texting was beginning. A series of Nintendo DSs pinged into action as small heads bent over pixelated screens. Every now and again, we were called upon to sing and I stood, with such anticipation that this time, of all times, I might actually be able to make something approaching a decent sound. Pitiful optimism. In speech, I’m like Princess Anne on helium, and in singing something even stranger happens as my vocal chords ricochet between emitting barrel-scraping grunts or desperate squeaks. Almost an art. I’d love to be able to sing well; of all the talents it truly is a gift. E is a lusty singer and I try to tuck my reedy croaks all unobtrusive in amongst his full baritone.

“It was OK,” said F12 as we scarpered, mince-pie rich to the car, “but that’s it, yes? We’re not going to the village one, too.”
“Why not?” I said, bracing myself. You have to feel strong to take on F12 and the humiliation of the non-singing had weakened me.
”I’ve already been to it. Lots of times. You won’t let me watch “The Simpsons” twice, why should I go to the service twice.”
He has a point. But we’ll go. Christmas is all about traditions. The good, the bad and the ugly. And the ones with wonky tea towels and Little Bloody Donkey. All 45 rotten verses of it. I feel a car coat purchase on the cards.

20 comments:

Expat mum said...

Brilliant. Re-Tweeted!

Crystal Jigsaw said...

I think vicars try a bit too hard to be trendy these days. They should just stick to the cassock and collar and be done with it, perhaps hold the collection tin whilst doing a sermon and get two birds with one stone.

I haven't been to a carol service for many years. We have Amy's panto this week but it's comical, not a carol in sight!

CJ xx

Preseli Mags said...

Superb. My children's Christmas concert was conducted at a decent lick this year. One hour start to finish. Perfect.

Tattie Weasle said...

For you Milla a heartfelt rendition of Little Donkey courtesy of my 7 year old - I beleive he wilol go far:
"Little Donkey,
Little Donkey
On the A14
Got run over
By a Land Rover
And the was then of Him!!!!
Just thought you'd apprecaite it....
PS Do WORRY about your Vicar though not the one with eh snooppy hat the one with his hands in his pockets!

legend in his own lunchtime said...

A game of pocket billiards or two? or just keeping his hands warm. Still better than fondling the choir boys.
Great post.

Frances said...

Milla, it was illuminating (!) to read this post of yours. Isn't it something to sort of long for meaningful traditions and to often find that the evolution of some of these traditions has taken a strange turn or two?

A church in my area (used as a location for the original Ghostbusters movie) used to have wonderful evensong services on every Advent Sunday, with lots of Bach music and lots of beautiful fragrant greenery around the church, and usually these services drew a true full house.
Something happened. I do not know what, and these services don't happen now. And, I usually find myself working on Sundays in Advent. At least my memories are quite strong and my feeling of the beauty of those evenings still resonates. xo

Edward said...

In lieu of what I would call a decent carol service I normally try to listen to the service of nine lessons and carols from King's College, Cambridge. It's not the same as being there, but at least you get the real thing, and not some happy clappy crappy dirges that prove the theory that the Devil has all the best tunes.

Oh, and a great blog, natch.

Bill Fathers@shoutydad said...

Funny, you and I were talking about toothy vicars only the other day. Oh dear, this is all depressingly familiar and a scenario that awaits me next week with that peculiar Christingles ceremony. Lovely piece of writing, of course. If there was any justice in this world, you would have dozens of comments.

Shopgirl said...

Very funny:
...E still has a small scar from dripping wax on his hand in a semi-successful attempt to stay awake:...

Can just picture it.

Milla said...

Thank you, Expat.
Enjoy, CJ. the ephemeral nature of traditions is what makes them so painful.
Tattie, I like it. But just the one verse will do.
Legend, I fear so. Shudder.
Frances, Fragrant Greenery! I could weep. Not dusty remnants??
Edward, do I know you? heh heh.
Bill, I've clearly got them on the brain. Disturbing. Now I'm getting on, things on the brain just hang around for too long. Oh God.
Thank you, Shopgirl. Picturing it is one thing, remembering the stench of sizzling flesh quite another.
thanks for coming by, all.

Exmoorjane said...

Oh god yes, yes, yes.....it's not difficult, is it? Surely? All I really want is somewhere that includes 'Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar'...but that never happens.
Missed the (big) school one this year. Am wondering if anyone would go with me to the village one...But Adrian has brought home a flyer for Carols at Woods (yup, the pub).... *sigh*
Fab stuff, dear girl. jxx

Fennie said...

Of course you're paying the price for living within ten minutes of Waitrose - which marks you out as inhabiting one of the 'advanced' regions of the country, one with experimental, high-brow or avant-guard tendencies in matters cultural.

Running a mail-order business as one does here and sending little parcels the length and breadth of these islands - we have customers on both Shetland and the Scillies - you can identify which regions are forward and which..er.. more traditional. Northern Ireland, for instance is deeply traditional and so, for some unfathomable reason is Kent.

So for a good Carol service you can take your pick between Canterbury and Armagh, Archbisoprics both (why both with mere 'vicars') and both equidistant, I imagine. Amargh possibly the most exciting in that it offers the remote prospect, I suppose, of encountering some modern day Herod's troops, whereas at Canterbury you only have the chilly ghost of Thomas Becket to contend with though by contriving to have himself murdered over the period of the Christmas festivities he could nevertheless be expected yo offer some 'frisson' to the young.

Good luck with your hunt: if all else fails hire a bus and take it around the villages charging the biddies by the hour to listen to a recording of the King's choristers, while the boys practice their "The people who live in darkness have seen a great light"

There needn't be a single candle on the bus!

elizabethm said...

I do think you might need to come to North East Wales. Anyone who tried anything remotely trendy or Health and Safety would be hounded out. The service of nine lessons and carols is always full, but hellish cold, and basically just is what it is: carols, nine lessons, couple of plastic cups of mulled wine and some home made mince pies. Like all of life here it is simultaneously generous and basic. Fennie of course has it in one: we have no Waitrose.
Please don't leave it so long to blog lots. Such a treat.

Exmoorjane said...

looking hopefully, expectantly, eagerly for signs of fresh blog...but no spoor... :(

mountainear said...

I'm with Edward re the Carols from Kings - at least if you get fed up you can wander off in search of amusement.

Spare me vicars - trendy ones in particular and - and services with happy clappy hymns and words without poetry.

wv is poroto - which sounds like a game choir boys might play on their Gameboys when the choirmaster's back is turned...

Kitty said...

Ah, marvellous stuff. Me too with the singing voice, can never work out which octave to pitch at, warbly squeak or gravelly rumble. I long to be able to do the descant harmonies in the carols, sadly would sound like nails down a blackboard.

Chris Stovell said...

Ah, Christmas just got merrier for reading your blog!

Merry Christmas to you and E, Milla, and all good wishes for the New Year!

LITTLE BROWN DOG said...

Mah-vellous, Milla. What on earth do digital bells sound like? And Princess Anne on helium? I'm all agog. What a lovely atmospheric Christmas blog - you've put me right in the mood. Happy Christmas one and all and all the very best for 2011. xxx

sea-blue-sky & abstracts said...

Milla you're a winna!

Check yesterday's post on my blog. Lesley

DD said...

Excellent stuff. What is it with vicars? Did you see the series Rev? Fabulous. I really want a tartan rug now.