Sometimes Art and Life can collide in the most extraordinary way, where each informs and enlightens the other.
Richard Suart is one of my oldest and closest friends. Two weeks ago his 26 year-old son Christopher died after a battle with cancer that first struck him as infant leukaemia, which was beaten back by chemotherapy, and which then re-emerged two years ago as tumours in his brain. I didn’t know him much as an adult but I still remember him as a newborn, before he first became ill.
Yesterday was his memorial service and the church was full of Christopher’s friends, all in their 20s. In fact I’d say I lost it as soon as I saw the first group of them, smartly dressed but not in mourning, waiting for the service to begin. So much for the “me-me” generation who think of no-one but themselves. Here were well over a hundred young adults who had come to share the pain of losing of a friend in a way I don’t think my generation would ever had done.
The service was extraordinary. Richard spoke, brilliantly, and two of Christopher’s friends too, their tributes full of funny stories about him, his humour, his kindness and his lust for life. As a child Christopher had struggled to make friends – a symptom of his combat with his disease and his long periods of hospitalisation – but he’d later flowered at a local theatre club and then at university.
And of friends he clearly had no shortage. Someone wrote and played a song. Tears were shed by the gallon. But there was no anger, no sense of outrage at Christopher’s too-short life; just wonderful memories, deep gratitude to have known him and lots and lots of love.
And then the vicar spoke.
Earlier in the week I could think about nothing but vicars.
There’s going to be a memorial service for Bob Tear in King’s Chapel, Cambridgein November (as well as the one planned in London in September) and I’m very touched that Philip Ledger has asked me to sing a few songs with him in tribute to Bob. We’ve been figuring out what to do and there was no doubt that we must perform Britten’s The Choirmaster’s Burial from “Winter Words”, his cycle of Thomas Hardy settings. The poem, related by “the tenorman”, tells what happens when the choirmaster dies – “choir” relating not to singers but to a choir of viols or “lutes”, commonplace in the West Country before churches installed organs. Hardy’s novel “Under The Greenwood Tree” is all about this. The choirmaster has asked his players that when he dies, they’ll play his favourite psalm, Mount Ephraim, at his burial but the new-school vicar poo-poos the idea as old-fashioned and he is buried in silence. That night the vicar is awoken by the sound of the choir, dressed in white, playing and singing Mount Ephraimat the grave of their friend.
It’s a wonderful song and you can see how it just has to be sung for Bob.
Bob wrote a set of poems as a response to Winter Words which became a song cycle by Jonathan Dove called “Out Of Winter” and they performed the cycle together a few times. I’d hoped I could do their song about the vicar at Bob’s memorial. It describes how the moment the vicar said “no” his soul turned to a husk. Bob’s poem is very “Bob” in that it can seem like a coruscating attack on the priest and his kin, whereas, if I had to offer my take on it (which I suppose I do as I’m the one writing this blog) I’d say his point was that you don’t have to wear a dog collar to understand the true nature of God. Far from it.
Philip Ledger and I discussed long and hard whether we should do the song, the worry being that people might miss the point Bob was making and they’d feel that his own memorial service wasn’t the place to be having a vicious dig at the clergy. So, sadly, we decided against it.
We want to celebrate Bob’s deeply-held spirituality and the best way we can find to do that is by singing Salutation from Finzi’s “Die Natalis”, his settings of Thomas Traherne. And we’ll do a song from Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin”. When Bob taught me, these were both pieces that I took to him for lessons.
Just as the vicar who appears in Hardy’s poem (and later in Bob’s) is spiritually disconnected from his flock so, it seemed, was the vicar at Christopher’s funeral. He launched into a sermon that sounded as if it had been pulled from a file marked “for funerals of people who die too young”. In his third sentence he said “death often strikes me as being at odds with nature” at which point the entire congregation collectively thought “what the hell are you talking about?” I don’t think one person there thought that death was at odds with nature. Death is entirely natural. He went on in a vein that presumed we were all angry with his god for snatching Christopher from us too young. And his solution to this was to ask his god into our lives.
Hadn’t he been listening? Hadn’t he heard the tributes of gratitude for Christopher? Didn’t he hear how joyous these young people had been to have known Christopher? Had anyone manifested any sort of anger? Er, no. The only anger I was now feeling was that he seemed to be turning the death of my friend’s son into a campaign to drag a large number of young adults back into his fold.
God had already been in the church, in the hearts of Christopher’s friends, but the vicar was so locked into his dogma and his own job description that he couldn’t hear him/her.
Luckily the vicar shut up after ten minutes, by which time no-one was listening, and we could all lustily sing the final hymn, leave his church and hug Christopher’s family.