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Put a finger to your lips, an ear to the open window and, in these still moments over the dying traffic noise, you will hear the sound of singing. This is the day and night when men and women, unselfconsciously and by no means drunk, raise their voices in dodgy harmony to declare, in the deep midwinter, a bottomless faith in the possibility of renewal.
Carollers patrol our suburbs and shopping malls – ding, dong merrily on high street – and we, of all colours and ethnicities, will put down our bags and beam upon them kindly, savouring their contagious optimism. We may even – mumble-mumble, forgot the words – be tempted to chime in.
It’s not a sectarian thing, not unique to Christian worship nor, indeed to having any faith at all apart from the common English creed of kindness to strangers and confidence in the year to come. Some Jews, around their Sabbath tables tonight, will give thanks for 350 years of peaceful residence on these islands and hum a Hebrew hymn to the tune of Good King Wenceslas. Many Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shintoist and Zoroastrian tots in the diversity of our nurseries will bewilder their immigrant parents with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Families – nuclear, unwed, same-sex and allsorts – will huddle around the telly on Sunday afternoon mouthing along to the annual festival of lessons and carols from Kings, thinking of nothing but the season to be jolly, the time to end the year’s sorrows and begin anew in hopeful expectation.
This is not the moment to carp at the tiny-minded officials who regulate every detail of our lives into tidy boxes, since the schools and councils that to tried ban Christmas and its carols in condescension to a spurious multiculturalism have lost not only their own road sense but the plot of how this country came into being and how it maintained its identity through waves of immigration and tides of fortune, good and bad. Our history is one of benign unity, expressed around occasions that have lost all vestige of their original meaning – the Ashes, Bonfire Night, Boxing Day, carols on Christmas Eve.
Singing carols is as much a mark of Englishness as drinking beer unchilled, wearing checked pullovers one size too large and giving up one’s seat on the bus to the elderly and child-bound – all of which are imperilled in present uncertainties. So is the act of singing itself. Proof its parlous state was brought into our living rooms by The Choir on BBC2, the most shocking and compelling piece of television to be aired in the whole of this para-reality year.
The series, itself a product of pseudo-reality, sent the London Symphony Orchestra choirmaster, Gareth Malone, into a bog-standard comprehensive to whip together a choir that could compete in the choral Olympics in Beijing. What Malone found at Northolt High was a school so apathetic to the heightws of civilisation that its music teacher dared not mention Mozart and hardly any of its teenagers had ever raised a voice in song.
The auditions he conducted were literally ear-opening. Kids who bobbed their heads for hours each day to mechanised syncopations on their headsets were unable to sustain a line of simple melody, to know when they were out of tune, or to appreciate that their grunts and nasal wails were in any way different or inferior to the slick hits of the stars they were attempting to emulate. I have rarely slumped so low in my sofa, so alarmed at the erasure of hope and glory in a sink school system that raises citizens who have no access to the idea of beauty.
Malone, grimly optimistic and infinitely ingenious, selected 30 children who recorded a demo disc on just seven rehearsals and won a place in Beijing, only to be eliminated, predictably enough, in the first round. No matter. The Northolt girls and boys were transformed from sullen endurance to self-pride. Gone was the look of defeat in their eyes. A deadened instinct, buried beneath conformist pressures, had been touched and revived by the breath of an inspiring master. Thirty children found their voices and will never fall dumb again.
If ever there was a message of hope it was in the tears they shed, Malone most helplessly of all, in the aftermath of the elimination verdict – tears that had nothing to do with failure and everything with the rediscovery of a human potential that had been crushed and negated in the struggle to achieve a secure and dignified foothold in this most mixed and competitive of societies. The act of singing taught these children that it is possible to transcend the misery of broken families and immigration blight, the prevalence of drugs and casual sex, and the inertia of an education system that has been programmed to care more for results and averages than for the individual child. Singing the Paul Simon ballad Bridge over Troubled Waters brought feeling into numbed lives. Singing it in three and four-part harmony with cameo solos brought a spirit of community to these young people that neither school nor society had engendered. Jamie Oliver might have changed school dinners with his TV series but Gareth Malone showed that we are we are more, much more, than what we eat.
There is nothing so liberating as opening your chest cavity and giving vent to a song. Never mind if you’re flat or sharp, in tune or out, the physical release is one the great forms of catharsis, the way we become whole with ourselves. I walked alone on an empty Basque beach for hours in early summer, belting out old favourites whose lyrics had gone a bit blurry in the mind but whose healing force was undimmed.
If you have never sung a scratch Messiah or Elijah at the Royal Albert Hall, join the next Easter blast. Fill the dome with your voice: it will feel better than any physical workout. Singing is the oldest human need after food and the sexual urge, the need to give voice to wonderment and joy. It is the beginnings of spiritual awareness, the engine of social harmony, the flowering of love.
So sing out one and all this Christmas Eve. Sing a carol while you’re waiting for a bus, Silent Night in the Heathrow departure lounge, Come all Ye Faithful on the clogged M25. Sing because it will annoy the killjoys and Scrooges, the pc-enforcers, the congestion chargers, the flight cancellers. Sing because it feels so good. Sing for happiness, sing for hope, sing for a better year ahead, for peace on earth and joy to all mankind.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]