Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Dec 15th
Yesterday I spent two hours singing carols at Victoria station. We're going to do it again next week, at Waterloo. I absolutely love it - it's one of the best parts of Christmas.

You get crowds and crowds of people pouring through both these stations in the Rush Hour, and by singing traditional carols with great enthusiasm a number of useful things can be achieved:
- you can cheer people up
- you can convey some glorious Christian doctrine ("veiled in flesh the Godhead see - Hail the incarnate Deity" is my personal favourite - it comes in "Hark the Herald angels")
- you can collect a lot - and I mean a LOT - of money for charity
- you can sing at the top of your voice, and the accoustics are even better than when you sing in the bath
- you can be part of what Christmas is really all about.

I owe my real enjoyment of this to a complete stranger. Some years ago, a smallish group of us gathered to sing at a railway station. We didn't know that permission was needed, and we didn't have any carol sheets, and we weren't very good at singing. We struggled along, about 6-10 of us, and it was all a bit feeble. Then a chap turned up who was very slightly - but only slightly, merry after what must have been a rather good office party.

"Here - you're getting this all wrong!" he announced breezily in a strong, carrying voice. "This is the way to do it. Stand properly, in line but close, shoulders overlapping. Like a proper choir......That's right. Now, sing - and throw your chests out, and make the sound reach the ceiling. " We looked up. The ceiling at Victoria station is a long, long way up. "Now sing!" and he started :"Once in Royal David's city...." He had a superb voice. We sang. "Get those chests out!" he boomed. And sing out!" We sang louder. It sounded glorious! We got confident. Sang louder still. People started to stop and watch. People gave us money. We went on singing. As we finished one carol, he'd start another. By now we were up and away. Suddenly, we knew we were starting to get it right. We belted out all the well-known carols, mostly just the first verse or two of each as we didn't have the full words. We were exhiliarated.

In our brief pauses, the clipped tones of the railway announcer could occasionally be heard "The-train-now-standfing-at-platform-fourteen-is-calling-at....." and then the lists of various surburban stations. At one of these announcements, our hero-helper suddenly said "Bromley South!" and headed without more ado for the barrier. My group went on singing, but I had the presence of mind to hurry after him, and was just able to pant out :"Who are you?" as he leapt forward to catch the train. For a split second he was there in the doorway, and answered "I run the choir at the Ministry of Defence!" before the doors closed, and the train moved off and he was out of my life for ever.

And ever since then, I've passed on his tips. Stand together. Bunch close, shoulders overlapping. Sing out. Make the sound hit the ceiling. Yesterday at Victoria we were a motley crew: a couple of dear nuns, a lady with a violin (who was excellent), Yvonne the organiser with wicker baskets full of sustaining flasks of tea, her husband - immaculate in formal City suit - and sundry other people including me in elegant but rather painful new ankle-boots (bought half-an-hour earlier in Victoria Street at that rather goodshoe-shop just by the Cathedral which was doing a half-price sale). I conducted. You need some one to conduct and it can't be done in a half-hearted way. You have to fill the entire railway station with singing. The object of carol singing is to make a glorious sound. This takes energy and commitment. We had carol sheets. We had enthusiasm. We sang out hearts out and honestly, we were good. Not just my opinion - lots of people told us so, and we made vast sums of money, as people put in loads of cash and even £5 notes.......

We had official permission to sing: Yvonne organised this, and was issued with passes, and I had to wear a sort of jerkin with the name of the church through which the thing was formally arranged (her local parish in Putney). I think it probably looked a bit odd as I waved my arms about, but it didn't inhibit movement. And just as we were getting organised, and Yvonne was sorting things out, two men with official faces and railway-official uniforms came up and asked me if we had our fire extingusiher. "Fire extinguisher?" I gulped. Apparently we had to have one. Regulations. I put on a strong, confident face and said that I was certain that our Official Organiser had arranged for a fire extinguisher. When Yvonne came up, I whispered to her urgently about it, and she said not to worry, all organised. And in a moment two chaps turned up with a massive trolley, and on it a sort of box, very large, and they set it down importantly and there it was, and it was the Fire Extinguisher.

Why did the railway people think we needed a fire extinguisher? Do they think that carol singers have a tendency to burst into flames, or something?

Anyway, we sang away for two hours and it was huge fun, and quite a number of people I know came by (Victoria station serves the suburbs where I grew up. Amazing how many familiar faces pass through it on a typical December evening). And then, when we were finished and had sang every carol a great many times and had truly made a glorious sound, we all set off for home and I plodded along with Yvonne to take the jerkin and thermos flasks and carol-sheets to her car, parked in Hudson's PLace along by the station, and the official railway chaps came and took the Fire Extinguisher away.

I would love to know - I really would love to know - why the railway people insist that carol singers cannot sing without a fire extinguisher.

At home I wrapped presents and wrote letters and dealt with Christmassy things. The Catholic Times has printed my reviews of the excellent new series of children's books produced by the Catholic Truth Society: hard-back, beautifully-illustrated,"The Rosary", "The Stations of the Cross" and more..... Moderately priced and the best children's religious books I have seen for a long while.