Thursday, 9 December 2010


Have you seen that Messiah flashmob? I wept and wept as I watched it, wondering as the tears streamed down my cheeks why on earth it was making me cry. Freak. Admittedly it doesn't take much to tip me over the edge, but really? Some people singing a jolly tune in a food court?

Eventually I realised it was sort of the CFO's and my Christmas tune, Messiah (if a whole oratorio can be a "tune", which clearly it can't). In our first year in London together, when I was at law school and he was studying at Imperial College, I joined the St Paul's Cathedral chorus. Choral singing sounds terribly middle aged, but I always did it at school, and then at Oxford, and I like it, so there. It's very absorbing. I'd still do it if I wasn't chronically lazy.

Anyway, one night a week - Tuesday, maybe? - I would walk eastwards from our flat near Tottenham Court Road, finding my way haltingly at first using an A-Z all the way along Holborn viaduct, Cheapside and down to a church somewhere down near the Old Bailey where the rehearsals were held, walking along in the cold in the light of the orange street lamps around these parts of the City that were still just names from Rumpole of the Bailey, and my history papers to me, places where the Wesleys preached, where Milton was born and Chaucer lived. My first introduction to the City, and to those EC postcodes I grew to love. It's an extraordinary part of London if you have even a glancing interest in history; overwhelming if you fetishise it and the places things happened.

That Christmas we sang the Messiah in St Pauls and the CFO came to watch with my dad. My dad still viewed him at that point with the intense and slightly menacing suspicion fathers of girls naturally radiate towards men in their orbit, though this phase passed quickly and his approval was wholehearted once the CFO revealed himself to be a hard-headed spreadsheet wizard and mathematical ninja, fond of 60% proof eaux de vie and massively intolerant of stupidity. It was wonderful to sing there, strange and moving even for me, the most confirmed of atheists. They both tolerated it with relative forebearance and probably a hipflask (it's long, Messiah). Afterwards we had champagne and small sandwiches in the Savoy, which was all glittery and bustling with pre-Christmas, post-theatre drinkers in their finery. You can never reproach my father for lacking a sense of occasion, it's one of the things I most admire about him. I expect he pressed a twenty into my hand for us to get a taxi home afterwards, because he always did. He still does sometimes, and I'm thirty six.

After that, every year the CFO - a man in most respects not over-endowed with a sense of occasion - put Messiah on to decorate the Christmas tree. It was a Thing. I don't think I realised I missed it, didn't listen to it, last year for the first time in 13 years until I watched that video. That's why it made me cry. It's odd, the things that unarm you when you aren't expecting it; important to remember how it felt. That intense contentment, the rightness of it, criticising his arrangement of the fairy lights, and moving baubles around. And Handel.

So. Messiah. We can both keep it, I suppose, if we want, but will we? We're sharing out the decorations tomorrow, and I'm buying a tree on Saturday for the boys to decorate (with Pokémon, probably, eschewing my tasteful birds and sparkly bits and pieces). I don't know. Maybe it should stay where it was; a thing we had together. It's still beautiful though.

(I should stop there, but I feel duty bound to tell you that having written this, rather sadly, I cheered up massively watching this, which is one of my favourite Messiah choruses, set to PICTURES OF SHEEP. Magnificently stupid.)


Em said...

LOVE this x

St Paul's Cathedral, Messiah, memories and sheep. Lovely.

Little Brown Bird said...

Love the blog post. Even as a laspsed Catholic I love the smells and bells and nice bit of choral music especially at Christmas x

PS. Love the sheep too.

Writer in Residence said...

You are wonderful and I adore your writing.
Much love,
Yorkshire Girl

Fat Controller said...

Not freaky at all. I found myself welling up just a little bit. It was a magnificently mad thing to do, and it might be a food court, but it is a food court with the largest pipe organ in the world. Beat that, Bluewater.

My love for EC postcodes came about in much the same way, only in the reverse direction. Wandering from Clerkenwell into the West End and Burger King (the only one in UK at the time) when the food in hall was more than usually inedible, or wandering round the streets of a deserted Square Mile on Sunday mornings with a screaming hangover. (I don't know what it is like now, but in 1977 the city was deserted on Sunday mornings and the pubs all closed at 7 on weekdays)

Mrs Jones said...

I saw the video the other day and swipe me if I didn't manage to get something in my eye at the same time. I think it's just the overwhelming hugeness of the music that I find moving. I worked for a year recently in Fleet Street and absolutely adored poking around the little lanes and streets, finding Dr Johnson's house with the adorable cat statue outside, and drinking in Ye Olde Cock Tavern of a lunchtime. It's a fab part of town.

Alison Cross said...

I love that Messiah flashmob film too! There's lots of them on youtube, but to have the Messiah in a food court and to see everyone looking so happy to hear it, is just fab.

Nobody gets stabbed. No security guards move them along. No tit with a clipboard turns up to check on health and safety....

If you like sheep, you might already have seen this:

Enjoy your Messiah :-)

Sarah said...

That one makes me cry and cry too.

Your link to the sheep reminded me of a choral director of my youth who told us she originally misunderstood the lyrics to that segment as "Oh, we like sheep!!"-- a sort of jubilant tribute to the loveability of all sheepkind.

WrathofDawn said...

You have sung Messiah in St. Paul's? I ENVY YOU THAT. I got to hear a boys' choir rehearsing for the Easter Sunday service many years ago and that was magical.

My choir is performing Messiah tomorrow and Saturday evening in the local RC basilica, which only dates back to 1755, which is a baby by UK standards. We are threatening to do the kamikaze Messiah in one of the local malls next year.

Messiah is bittersweet for me this year for me, too, but for a different reason. My best choir buddy, a fellow alto next to whom I stood to sing Messiah for the last 7 years, passed away last March from metastatic breast cancer and this is the first one we've sung without her. I found myself being reminded of her over and over during the dress tonight and I had to block her from my mind as I'm singing so as to not start bawling.

As for it reminding you of the CFO... you just never know when that stuff is gonna creep up and bite ya on the butt, do you? Certain Christmas tunes still remind me of my ex. He's not as nice as the CFO, though.

SUEB0B said...

That's a perfect winter story...sad and lovely.

And I love Sarah's "Oh, we like sheep!" comment

J. said...

In the U.S. we have what's known as DIY Messiah, where local churches and opera houses pick a night in December and everyone who wants to shows up with a donation and sings. It's how a lot of choir drop-outs (like me) get a yearly fix. Being part of a group of people making a gigantic, gorgeous sound is always thrilling and often brings me to tears, too.

B said...

Yes yes yes! This post is full of absolute, unimpeded, pure WIN. I am writing this listening to the Hallelujah Chorus, on a CD I bought in the Handel House in London, after standing in the room where he wrote the thing. I, too, have incredibly fond memories of being part of a huge group of people, on a snowy, wintery eve, making this music HAPPEN. And it is, without doubt, magical.

Also, I have a surprisingly deep singing voice. It's one of the rare butch things about me.

WV: Fratoc. Is this the collective noun for a large group of fraternity members?

indigo16 said...

I only discovered those amazing city churches a few weeks ago; it's the names of them that kill me.
I don't think you need to believe in god to know that he does great architecture!
Children singing carols always makes me blub, really just any choir singing in tune makes me well up, I guess it's the music that moves us, yet it never seems to affect anyone else.
Did you ever do York Minster midnight mass that was a whole box of tissues!

the fly in the web said...

The flash mob 'Messiah{ got to me too, hard boiled old bat that I am.

I loved working in the Temple area...super music in the church...lots of alleys and unexpected shops to discover...untourist London of little villages..

livesbythewoods said...

Fantastic flashmob. I want SO MUCH to get caught up in a music event like that. I suspect that I would be embarrassingly over-enthusiastic, though, and they'd edit me out.

WV: Monsua - phonetic French.

Catherine said...

Love this post. I have sung the Messiah in the church in the middle of the Hammersmith roundabout, in a church in Balham, and in the Royal Albert Hall (one of those bonkers choir reunions, 5000 singers, 500 in the audience). All great memories. Thanks for sharing and making me think of those in turn, whilst I am nursing a huge hangover from a parents pub night...

Lindsey said...

What a lovely post, I do so admire your writing.

I sing in a small chamber choir, and to me it is the greatest thing on earth - the epitome of something that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

I have made life-long friends through singing; travelled the world; had opportunities to perform alongside some of my musical heroes and in prestigious venues; and laughed my big fat arse off more times than I could ever remember!

AND I'm lucky enough to have a job that means I organise concerts not just in St Paul's Cathedral but in many of the other wonderful Wren churches in the City. Sometimes, life is not too bad!

Unknown said...

I also love choral music - and marching bands! I think it's because I took part in both in school - the nostalgia of course is part of it. There is something about being a part of a cooperative music effort that does amount to more than the sum of its parts for the participant even more so than the hearer. Even the awful singing to the terrible piano at my church supplies some of that feeling. Shared music is a form of communal magic I think.

Z said...

My husband still tucks a banknote into our daughter's hand when she comes to see us, 'for the petrol' - she is thirty-six too. Very sweet, I wish I'd had the chance to be spoiled by my father as an adult, but he was dead by then.

I avoid family traditions on the whole - that is, they are of their time. The ones we had when the children were small have been left to memory.

Singing and playing wind instruments are awfully good for you. Also for the figure - I went from an A cup to a D in a couple of years of playing the clarinet, which came at the right time, in my late 30s, by which age I had the confidence to carry off an unexpected cleavage.

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London said...

This is a lovely post. The Messiah means a lot to me too, but for different reasons - I remember going to see my father sing in the Messiah at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh when I was at school. He died a few years ago and it still brings a tear to my eye.

Music and smells are hugely nostalgic beasts - I can't listen to Witchita Lineman for a while, or smell certain aftershave. Neither of us "own" it, we are both avoiding for the time being.

It is time for a new song, new decorations, a new tree. You deserve it xx

PS love the sound of your pa - having a great sense of occasion is a wonderful quality to have

Nimble said...

Thanks for the WE LIKE SHEEP link, that was goofy goodness. The Messiah seems like such good clean muscular music, there is nothing lazy or unsound in it. Good yule!

Tervuren Tart said...

This Messiah posting finally moved me to respond with thanks for your honesty. Emma, my life is wonderful, the day-to-day domestic perfection too pedestrian to support a blog. But I still find myself aching, wistful and tearful - even when I'm not hormonal.
Top tip for Christmas day - small sandwiches, champagne, Handel, a picture of your mum and a big box of tissues.
I love your writing, despite being wildly envious of your talent.

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