Singing Along

2 08 2009

[You can listen to this episode here, or subscribe by searching for ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

Some of the more attentive listeners to this letter will be aware that I moved out of Nicholas Street some weeks ago. In fact, strictly speaking, you are currently listening to ‘A View From Parham Road, in Canterbury’. Some correspondents have asked what I plan to do about this inconsistency.


Well, judging by my recent submissions the letter could be titled ‘Interesting people who have died this week, or whose anniversaries have been celebrated recently.’ I’m sure you will all agree, that while this would be a legitimate and interesting route down which to go, it is probably best left to another aspiring broadcaster.


The unfortunate consequence of taking this position, is that I cannot speak to you today about the life of Sir Bobby Robson. We cannot look at the way in which he represented the very best of English values, of sportsmanship and professionalism. Nor can we consider the way in which he communicated with players, fans and bosses alike – charming them all, and causing them to adore him. His enormous contribution to English football – not in cup wins, but in decency brought to the game – will have to go unmentioned.


There is, though, one little story which I feel I must share with you. There I was on Saturday morning reading Robson’s obituary in the sports pages. I happened to be on a train heading to London for a weekend of excitement. It so happened that I was travelling with a companion. When he noticed what I was reading, he began to frown and let out a small tut.


“What was that for?” I asked innocently.


“I never liked that Robson fella. Good riddance, I say. Unpleasant man.” As you can imagine, I sat in shock, while the rest of the carriage pricked up their ears, waiting for some evidence to be produced.


Well, after some astonishment was expressed, we got to the root of the matter. It turns out my friend was getting confused with the renowned bigot and racist, Ron Atkinson. Thank goodness that confusion was settled before my friend set up camp, air horn and placards in hand, at Sir Bobby’s funeral.


Both as a player and as a manager, Sir Bobby Robson will have been familiar with one of the great traditions of match day – singing. Unfortunately I suffer from a near physical allergy to all things relating to sport. Consequently, I have never experienced a football stadium in full concert. The closest I have come is the often witty chanting coming from the Shed at Kingsholm, where Gloucester play their rugby.

 Singing Along

For the rest, I have to rely on anecdotal reports. I’m told it is a very magical thing, when the crowd of some sixty thousand breaks into song.


Of course, Football doesn’t hold a monopoly on singing. Spending an unlikely amount of time in Churches and Cathedrals as I do, I have the opportunity to sing as part of a congregation typically at least once a week – and to listen to a choir more often at Evensong.


But again, the church is just a small part of our national tradition of singing. There once was a time when every school child new all the words of Hymns Ancient and Modern. That particular form of singing is less common nowadays, but song has not been entirely removed from the classroom.


I was observing a music lesson in a school just a few weeks ago. At the start of the hour there were just a few who were prepared to do anything but cross their arms in sulky defiance of the teacher’s instruction to sing along. By the time we had got through a few verses of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’, and nipped round the words of ‘Oranges & Lemons’ a couple of times, the atmosphere was very different. The boys – yes, the boys – were all keen as anything to get involved. The girls had thrown their images to the side, and were joining in with gusto. It was a true joy to watch.


As with all these things, there has been some research carried out into why singing makes us feel so good. Apparently, it has something to do with inner vibrations in our body. By singing we are mimicking a cat’s purr. The vibrations do something to our muscles which makes them healthier.


No doubt that is a perfectly valid explanation, though I prefer the idea of a communal hug. Singing in unison can bring a community together. The simple notion of sharing a common tune can create a bond between two complete strangers.


Hence the power of singing at football matches. That’s also why we sing Auld Lang Syne  at the New Year: should old acquaintance be forgot. The soldiers of the First World War didn’t sing It’s a long way to Tipperary simply to pass the time. They were reminding themselves of who they were, where they had come from, and who they had left behind.


Of course, some communities take singing more seriously than others and nobody can compete with the Welsh for lung-size and gusto. Several years ago, I happened to find myself escorting a troupe of Australian actors around South Wales.


At the end of our final performance, in Newport, the audience took to their feet. None of us quite understood what was happening – there was no instruction, or signal. Quite spontaneously the several hundred people started singing:


We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside,

we’ll keep a welcome in the Vale.

This land you knew will still be singing,

when you come home to Wales again.


It was a beautiful moment, and one that I will remember for a long time. It spoke more to us visitors than any speeches, or presentations of gifts ever could.


Speaking of speeches, there is always a way of getting politics into these things. For one thing, singing is a great leveller. There are no class distinctions when it comes to singing. Alright, so some people choose to sing operatic arias. For others, it’s ‘Knees up mother brown.’ But the point is that they’re all singing. You don’t need expensive instruments, or to dress up in order to sing.


In fact, you don’t really need much training – though I will concede that some of us need a helping hand from time to time.


Singing can also be aspirational. I recall a simple line in Willy Russell’s play Education Rita. Rita tells Frank, her tutor, about an epiphany she hadin the pub. Everybody is standing around the bar singing, and her mother bursts into tears. “We could sing better songs than these”, she says. Her mother’s distress prompts Rita to go back and finish her degree course, and do something with her life.


And let us not forget that if you want to get a political movement going, it’s not speeches you want. Find a catchy song. Geldof and the Band Aid gang managed to motivate seemingly the entire Western world, even with a remarkably weak set of lyrics.


Do they know it’s Christmas? Given that African Christians tend to take their religion rather more seriously than we tend to, probably – yes.

There’ll be no snow in Africa this Christmas time. Well, that’s questionable given that the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is covered in snow all year round. But that aside, the song fails to provide a solution to the problem it highlights. Presumably we are expected to start shipping containers of snow out to Malawi.


Well, Bobby Robson need not worry about any of this anymore. From now on, when he hear’s the chant ‘who ate all the pies’, it will be sung by choirs of angels.




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