IN the Methodist Chapel, once, there was a bird amongst the organ pipes.
All sorts of things got in – birds, mice, dust, rain. The place was full of holes. Some of the stained-glass windows had little panes missing and these little panes had been blocked with folded-up brown envelopes. In winter when the ceiling heaters were on occasional drops of hot brown liquid fell on the necks of the congregation, and brown worms trickled down the yellow walls. On summer Sunday mornings shafts of sunlight came through the various cracks and I would be fascinated to watch specks of dust dancing in it. When they told us the Biblical story of the mote and the beam I knew exactly what they meant. I was swimming in motes.
Anyway, a bird got in, and it was flying round and round, in and out of the organ pipes. The organ pipes were behind the organ and formed a kind of pipe mountain between the chapel and the vestry next door. The vestry was where Pastor Hall put on his robes and counted the collection. The pipes were of various heights and didn’t go all the way up so there was plenty of room for a bird to thread around them.
And this was the strange thing. Everybody just carried on singing. The bird was making a terrible racket, wanting to get out, but the hymns were more important; to them, but not to me. I was tuned in to the bird’s distress. I couldn’t tune out. I wanted to cry. The bird was crying. Weren’t they listening?
I think it was at that point that my view of God began to diverge from that of the congregation. To them he was a kindly father perched upon the clouds. He was going to reward them for their patience in plodding through life, toiling in their dull professions, bearing and raising their children. Yes, and on the last day, when the trumpet sounded and black horses came a-clattering from the four corners of the globe they would rise from their graves, brush the earth off their Sunday best, and there He would be, beaming a giant-size welcome. From then on it would be one big Sunday School party, all jelly and blancmange, spin-the-collection-plate, piano thumping and let’s all have a jolly good sing-song, for ever and ever, amen.
But to me God was the bird in the organ pipes, the dancing of dust in the sunlight, the fine veins in the leaves outside the porch. He was rain falling and grass growing. Couldn’t they feel him?
However, I still attended. I even got prizes for attendance – a Bible, a hymn book; lots of brightly coloured tracts, like giant postage stamps; bookmarks in the shape of crosses with Jesus on them. I got gold stars in my little blue book. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I had a choice about going, and in fact I probably didn’t. One day, when I was quite small, my hand had been grabbed and I found myself being taken to Chapel by an older girl, the daughter of a lady my mother used to chat to in the street sometimes. We started off in the infants’ class, sitting among the empty pews before the main congregation came in, singing little songs with the help of flip charts, the teacher pointing at the words:
I’m HAPPY / I’m HAPPY / I know I am / I’m sure I am / I’m HAPPY
I used to find this annoying as I wasn’t HAPPY, really, and the song made no attempt to explain why I should be. I liked Jesus Bids Us Shine better. It had a good tune and made more sense:
Jesus bids us shine / With a pure, clear light, / Like a little candle / Shining in the night. / In this world of darkness / So let us shine, / You in your small corner / And I in mine.
I loved singing in those days, before I realised there was such a thing as good singing and bad singing, and mine was the bad sort. The Methodist was a splendid opportunity for loud singing. The congregation was so small and the Wesleyan hymns so militarily enthusiastic that loud singing was the order of the day. The organ would launch into a thunderous introduction – missing the odd note – the organist playing, his assistant pumping a kind of bellows arrangement behind a curtain of dusty and, as I later discovered, rotten purple silk. And in would leap the congregation. Methodist hymns often began on an off-beat: musically very satisfying, but you had to be ready or you’d miss it:
Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom (deep breath!)
GOD is love, His the CARE / Tending EACH, everywhere, / God is love – all is there! / Jesus came to SHOW him, / That mankind might KNOW him. / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD…
And we did. And it did us all a power of good.
Hymns were my first taste of what was to become the greatest pleasure of my life – poetry. I wasn’t bothered about the message so much as the words – the sound of them, the way they could be arranged in patterns, the imagery they could conjure up. I used to like There is a green hill far away (‘without’ a city wall) which taught me that words have a historical ‘trail’, and their old meanings often coexist with the new.
My grandmother had told me that this was called etymology. She actually possessed an Etymological Dictionary and I looked up every new word, finding out whether it had Latin or Greek roots, or was a corruption of an older English word, or once meant something similar but not quite the same. This is something I still do. Thanks to my grandmother, I can hear a word for the first time, spell it and quite often define it, because I am splitting it into its component parts, running it past the Etymological Dictionary in my head, and reassembling it. This happens so fast I do not even have to think about it. It annoys people. I once worked in a big typing pool. My team supervisor, many years younger, detested me because the other typists soon realised they could ask me how to spell things and I would always know. After a while I used to pretend not to know, or insert a long delay while I appeared to be attempting to recall… She still detested me. She knew I knew.
I also liked In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. In those days I assumed that hymn-writers and poets were two different creatures, and it was not until much later that I came across Goblin Market and other poems by the same lady.
In the bleak midwinter, / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone, / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow, / In the bleak midwinter / Long ago.
It was simple, but it was real; something she had seen out of her own window, maybe; and now I could see it. It was as if we were looking at the same scene, a new world. This is what good poetry and writing does. You look through a window, you walk through a door into another world, and suddenly there are two pairs of eyes, the reader’s and the writer’s, seeing the same thing, two imaginations in harness, and behind them, stretching back into history, all the other imaginations and influences that fed those two.
This is magic, in a world where there isn’t much of any other kind of magic.
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, / Missing so much and so much? / O fat white woman whom nobody loves.
Frances Cornford: To A Fat Lady Seen From A Train (1910)
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; / And beauty came like the setting sun: / My heart was shaken with tears; and horror/ Drifted away… O, but Everyone / Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1897)