The village choir
In the 1930s we were members of our village church choir. There was no question then of the modern car jaunt to the seaside because money didn’t run to it and, anyhow, our lifestyle was different.
Our domain was the vestry and the choir stalls. In the former we congregated and got ready – a question of donning our own robes, polishing shoes vigorously on our cassocks and doing our hair with the help of a mirror, a brush speckled with dandruff and an aged gap-toothed comb secured to the windowsill with a length of string.
Towards 11 o’clock, and when we had been hushed and shushed several times by an irri-
tably dispatched verger, we shuffled into a double rank for the processional.
The congregation knew us for what we wrere outside the church, and must have wondered about the transformation in our appearance as we minced out of the vestry, hair plastered down with nature’s own fixative, skin clean and shiny, mouths and eyes wide open with song and transcendental innocence. Well might they have echoed the hvmnist’s question Who are these, like stars appearing’? Who were we indeed?
In the lead, always, came John, a gardener’s son. He had
a voice that would have graced a cathedral choir, but here it was abused until its shrillness would have cracked a bottle at 25 yards. Next to him was Jim, the Huckleberry Finn of Rvlton, for once without a visible rent in his clothes. Behind him would be Roger, his round blue eyes and simian smirk giving no hint of the poaching catapult bulging his pocket. Then came Harry -happy-go-lucky Harry – face aglow with pimples. The freckle-faced boy, whose Titian hair hung awry like flax upon a distaff, twinkled along in the third brace. His cassock, long divested of its buttons to the
gain of the offertory bag, was always too long for him. Ralph of the fiery poll and his brother Alfie, owl-like and pale in vast, horn-rimmed spectacles, the frame lashed at strategic points with discarded bootlace. Sam and Sid were makeweights, choristers forever dumb. They mimed with some skill, books held at the correct chorister’s angle, but alas, they could not sing. Neither could they read.
The choirmistress, alias headmistress of the village school as well as the church organist, kept stern watch over her charges. You obtained privileges in school for being in the choir, but you paid for your Sabbath peccadilloes on a Monday morning. This Mrs. Easton had a large mirror fixed to the front of the organ, and she could raise her eyes momentarily from score to mirror in the middle of the trickiest anthem. Let your inattentive eyes once meet hers in that mirror and Monday morning could become a grim and tearful prospect.
The organ was blown by a small boy, who pumped a long wooden handle in the dark corner between pipes and wall. Hardly a service passed without some mishap in that quarter. During one session the handle flewr smartly up of its own accord and gave the operator a cracking blow on the point of his jaw. His inert body lay for some minutes among the daisies outside the vestry door. He always maintained that he would go through it all again for another florin and ride home in the car with the vicar’s daughter!
The boy was enjoined ever to keep his eye on the metal weight depending from a string over a pulley on the side of the organ case. The weight had to be maintained at a pencilled mark. Often it was a struggle to keep it there when all the stops were out, and if the battle were lost the result was shame and loss of face. Occasionally the boy dropped off, until Mrs. Easton depressed the keys and the silence betokened empty bellows. The look that passed towards the blower’s niche would have roused the dead, never mind the slumbering.
We did things in the choir-stalls that most choirboys do. We ate sweets. We whispered.
We giggled. Those who had indulged in a pre-service cigarette in the stokehold felt sick. Sometimes they were. We scribbled silly notes to each other. We tried to ogle Becky Thatcher in the body of the church. But wre did sing, we looked decorative. And that wTas what we got paid for.
Our wages were one halfpenny per service. In a normal year therefore, supposing you were never ill, lazy or spent a Sabbath away from home; provided you zealously braved all weathers, you could earn four 4/4d and a free trip to the seaside, which meant a longish coach journey because there were not a lot of seaside resorts in our county.
For us the annual choir trip was the highlight of the year. At this distance one’s memories are of the unbearable mounting excitement as the day drew near, the long ride in the crowded charabanc – we filled the bus with parents and casuals – the sea, the beach, the fun fair and the twin smells of beer and fish and chips as we drowsed the never-endingjourney home.
I often wonder if the minds of the other choirboys ever hark back to those halcyon days when we were all members of the village choir, when life for the most of us “ran gaily as the sparkling Thames” and our biggest prol> lem was how to remove the wrapper from a caramel without its explosive crackle reaching the ears of the vicar,