Sometimes, in the world of literature, you come across a short sentence or brief phrase that embodies such emotion, or simply sums up something in a way no other permutation of words could do. For me, this often happens with Dickens. I can read and re-read an especially glorious paragraph for the joy of it and there, lurking inconspicuously amongst all the other thoughtfully chosen vocabulary, will be the acute simplicity of three or four words that comprises the essence of it all. My two all-time favourite books embody this skill even though they are poles apart in all senses, and neither is written by that king of the social commentators of Londinium. Their titles are a contextual irrelevance really, but, in case you’re interested, they are Midnight’s Children and Three Men in a Boat.
Once a year, generally on the second Wednesday in December, I hear about ‘a man acquainted with grief’. And every year, I’m suddenly alerted to the poignancy of the description and not necessarily in a Religious sense (the capital R is there on purpose). It’s always impossible for me to write those words down at the time and I inevitably forget by the time I get home because I’ve been overcome by the hallelujahs. You see, I never read those words – I hear them at my own private Chrismassy self-indulgence … a performance of Handel’s Messiah. And there’s a lot to this particular selfishness.
For a start, there’s the place. Years ago, I began with the old hang-out of Morse, The Sheldonian, Oxford. It’s a great venue but its sense of self-importance endangers the worth of the music. Nonetheless, on one memorable occasion – I recall ‘twas the extraordinary choir of New College – the Hallelujah Chorus was so well-received that the radically brave conductor instructed an immediate re-run and allowed applause. The purists were dropping like flies. It never happened again of course and a veritable flurry of academic papers was subsequently published on the dangers of populism to cultural mores.
I’ve also tried candlelit churches. It doesn’t work. The audience has to keep its coats, hats and scarves on because these joints are so draughty plus you can only fit three or four musicians and a small harpsichord inside. It’s all very seasonal and, dare I say it, Dickensian but the hallelujahs without a choir is a bit of a disappointment to say the least. Everyone willingly stands but only for the opportunity to stamp feet in a desperate attempt to restart the circulation of icy blood.
Who you go with is also important. I don’t go with anyone. One of the justifications is that it’s always possible to get a better seat if there’s only one of you. And you can always talk to the folk either side if you’ve such a tendency. However, the main reason for going alone can be found in the notion of self-indulgence. There’s a clue in the word ‘self’. I do a lot of things alone but I’m happy to share most of them. Not, however, if I know the other person will be bored out of their skull. So, with the exception of a particular person who has the misfortune to live in Trowbridge, I never invite anyone.
Yet again, I go (alone) to the Lighthouse in Poole. Aesthetically, it’s the most unattractive venue available. I go because it’s the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus which is about as good as it’ll get in the whole world. There are, naturally, minor distractions: the tenor shuffles on doing a most excellent impression of Robbie Coltrane: the short bloke on the organ has scruffy facial hair, a long coat, and an unfortunate lean – he is Reg Christie. And the incredibly superb lead trumpet looks, in between blows, as if he’s waiting for his car to be repaired.
The man on my right asks whether I know who the conductor is. I apologise and looking along our row, notice that we don’t have a programme between us. ‘We’re in the cheapskates’ seats’, I explain. I embellish: ‘no point asking the chap behind as I heard him ask who the band is’. ‘Does he know where he is’, my new friend asks? ‘He doesn’t know WHO he is’, I reply. And after we are suitably sated, I say to the woman on my left, ‘well we know it’s Christmas now’.
‘Merry Christmas’, we all say somewhat emotionally to each other. ‘And Merry Christmas to you dear reader’.