I’m sitting in a classroom, in a temporary building on a patch of waste ground. The ‘hut’, as we call it, looks as if it’s been dropped here by a tornado, like Dorothy’s farm in the Wizard of Oz.
We’re surrounded by Victorian terraced houses of soot-blackened stone and a couple of streets away, at the top of a steep hill, is a mill with the hugest mill chimney I’ve ever seen. Square, with ornate embellishments. A signal to the world that Lister’s wool is best.
People round here say you could drive a coach and horses round the chimney top – but why would anyone want to? It is a chimney, after all. And how would you get the horses up there, let alone the coach?
For a brief, idyllic period I’m living in the shadow of the mill, skipping distance from Bradford’s Lister Park – yes, the same Lister, a classic Victorian philanthropist.
There I develop a lifelong fascination for stones, thanks to Cartwright Hall, which houses a collection of excellent fossils.
There I graze my knees, my elbows, my nose, rolling down the little hills in my shiny metal and red-leather roller skates with the black rubber stopping thing on the toes that usually tips me over. I don’t think you’re meant to use it on slopes.
I can walk to school, past the mill and the floating wool wisps that I make into fairies in my head. Odd smelling fairies, but who knows how fairies really smell? (With their noses, before you say it.)
But back to school.
My school’s a poor school in a poor area. The main Victorian building, two streets away from the hut, where we eat our school dinners, is condemned. But it’s a good school, so it’s incredibly popular. And there’s no limit on class size.
In our class of 48, children like me – a headmaster’s daughter whose mum drives a car and whose house has central heating – sit alongside children whose houses have no indoor lavatory, let alone heating, and have never even been in a car.
Plus, they eat the whole apple. The whole apple! Except for the pips, obviously. Because as we all know they’d grow into trees in our tummies and we’d DIE!
I’m in Mrs Wilkinson’s class. One day a week she limps out (her leg, deformed in World War II in some unspecified accident, is a sight that I find unutterably fascinating) – carrying a large radio from the store cupboard. The prefect hands out booklets and Miss switches on.
It’s time for ‘Singing Together’, a programme on the BBC schools’ service.
The shabby classroom vanishes. (I wish the same could be said of the earwigs nesting in my desk. The big tin of talcum powder Mrs W keeps handy may sort them out for a while, but I know they’ll be back.)
Out of the windows, across the waste ground, up and over the great big chimney, across the moors to the sea, we’ve sailed across the world. One minute we’re in Jamaica, sipping fiery rum (shocking, at our age), then we’re leaving Kingston town, bound for South Australia and wondering at the laughing Kookaburra.
And on we sing, day after day – in assembly, in music lessons, at Mass, in playground games of big ships sailing through the alley-alley-oh and gathering nuts in May.
By the time I leave school and the communal singing has stopped – apart from Sunday Mass (which doesn’t count as I am embarrassed and mostly just mouth the hymns) – I’ve learned to drive. My mum lends me the car and I tootle over to Ilkley Moor, singing along to the radio. Oh joy! No one to hear, at last I can sing to my heart’s content.
I mostly listen to BBC Radio 4 now. Talking. Listening. It’s not the same.
Once you’re grown up (questionable, in my case) then if you’re not fine of voice (I’m not) the chances are you only sing at concerts of the not-too-heavy-rock variety. Or at rugby or footie matches. Or maybe, a little tiddly, to 60s, 70s, 80s – even 90s – nostalgia on late night TV.
But for the last few months I’ve been singing in company once more. An unforeseen side effect (one of many) of the great religious experiment.* Singing at church. Yes, I’ve found my voice! Even Atheist man is hooked – for now.
Because it feels good, singing together.
So, pending the end of the religious experience, just in case, I’d like the BBC to come up with a new radio programme:
‘Singing together alone.’
We could download the words and sing on our own, or in company. It’d be on at a certain time and not available as listen-again. So that even if we sang alone we’d know, we’re really singing together.
Cue the Beatles.
All, together, now (all together now).
*If you’ve not seen any of my posts on this subject, Atheist-man decided last Advent he wanted to attend church for a year, for the experience, as an anthropologist (and a human being). If you’d like to read all about it, all the posts so far are together under the ‘Religious for a year’ page – you’ll find a tab at the top.