Echoes of an anthem from 33 years ago bring comfort
The memory of the first time performing Britain’s national song inspires thoughts of how life has changed since, writes Miriam O’Callaghan
THE first time I sang God Save the Queen was in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was 1984 — the autumn of the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton — and I had just moved to London to do a post-grad in music.
At rehearsal, there was warm, breezy conversation with the conductor, and glorious human, Sir David Willcocks about my comfort or otherwise with singing it.
I thought about this last week, when, along with representatives of other previously-subjugated territories, I sang the anthem again.
It was at a wedding — a priest’s wedding. The bride glowed in oyster-pink silk. The groom beamed and sweated in the dress uniform of a British Army chaplain. After the reception, the newly-weds left for their honeymoon in a blizzard of good wishes, olive leaves and crushed lavender.
A couple of older-weds had arrived from their parish in central France to look after Mass the following morning.
As I set off for Dublin Airport in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm, I’m all set for a month in Italy and Croatia. As yet, I’m unaware that Aer Lingus has diversified into time travel and we will shortly be landing in the 1980s.
Or maybe it’s down to the Ma- rine Miracle cream with its promise to turn the years back, on sale, half-price, in-flight. For this user, it does exactly what it says on the tin, or rather, the mirrored orb. At least for now. There’s every chance the marine miracle will disintegrate under the scrutiny of the beckoning €2.75 ‘reading’ glasses, used increasingly to cop the small items such as cars, fridges, stairs, presses.
For many of us in our 50s, the 1990s can be a blur caused by the hallucinogenic cocktail of first mortgages, new babies and no sleep. By contrast, the 1980s can have a clarity that wounds. Which is why watching the series Stranger Things with your offspring can be simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
On screen, the look is your look, the moment your moment. But if you are reliving that moment — the texture of a blue cotton shirt, the colour of the sun one Saturday night outside The Bullman pub, the smell of L’Air du Temps perfume — as opposed to simply remembering it, then where the hell did the two interlopers come from; the cognoscenti on the sofa admiring how beautifully lit the scene is, the vintage feel, the era authenticity? And in what split second did the prospect of the absence of these two strangers, whose existence you never imagined, make your current and future existence unimaginable?
On the Venice lagoon, it takes a bit longer for my schoolfriend to realise the absence of an entire layer of skin (resting under my nails) as a water-taxi tested the limits of buoyancy and endurance en-route to the silent island of Murano, in the squalling rain, one Monday after midnight.
Still, we survive to eat eel, drink Tai white wine, meet a friend of a friend — so here I am a few days later, in another city, still undrowned and singing at a clergyman’s wedding.
It’s a week of Tallis, Byrd and Handel, works I last performed at university. It feels like I heard and sung the opening notes of these works over 30 years ago and then they stopped suddenly. The sensation is simultaneously exhilarating and enervating; a mix of déjà vu and falling.
A Benedictine friend says that in plainchant the power, the intention are in the pause between verses. If he is right, what is the power, the intention of the 30-year pause? Were those bars between beginning and end tacit, silent? Or have I been travelling since, bar by bar, child by child, loss by loss, fear by fear, joy by joy, to the close?
As I walk back from rehearsals in this strange, seanced city, the old notes and their vibration scouring the coronary, cerebral and lenticulostriate arteries, I half expect my dad to meet me on the North Mall to heft my bag up the Rock Steps or the Cattle Market or Shandon Street.
Only on this foreign street, the man to meet me is my son. A ringer for my dad, he is the university student now. He takes the music sheets and sticks them in the book he is lugging up the hill. An atlas of functional anatomy.
One night, he picks me up from rehearsal and we go to see Walk with Me, a movie about Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village.
There is no doubt that Thich Nhat Hanh is a beautiful and holy man. But at the risk of mindfulness heresy, the movie itself, leaves us cold. Maybe we lack that twist of need — or niceness — in our oh-so-cheap Martinis. I believe in mindfulness. At the same time, I’m wary of it in its commodified form, bought by the kilo by bankers et al as a kind of elixir of employee contentment; the Zen version of Joe Kennedy, the shoe-shine boy and stock tips.
As can happen for usually-frazzled people who get to take time off, the month away is both dizzying and clarifying.
With my schoolfriend and her husband, there are times we might as well be 16 again, only with fine lines, worn discs, giddy hearts, a quartet of children older than we were when we first met, one the queen of Spain, the others dotted in work and study around other parts of Europe.
We watch our fellow travellers, some of them from the no-manlands of the UK, slip-slapping in M&S chinos and turquoise around the islands on a lashing grey day.
In a bar on Burano, we take refuge from the rain and a glass case containing the Blessed Virgin as a Daz-frilled, bonneted six-monthold. She is a cross between the winner of the Bonny Baby contest in Glen Rovers circa 1970 and the cameos on Italian headstones for infants killed by the Spanish flu. The bar is a mini Babel — Swedish, German, English, Dutch, Arabic. Under the coffee top notes, there is a niff of wet bunions, dogs, brollies.
Over an emergency macchiato, we put bets on how long it will take a campaigner to ‘call out’ Venetian authorities for the reprehensible practice of allowing locals board the water-buses before the rest of us.
Since we’ve missed the latest bus, we order a local wine, wondering for how many of us here, travelling belies our sweatshop existence of work, more work, mortgages, a profusion of bills, fees, a dearth of decent pensions. By the second glass, we’re talking about what brought us to this point in our lives? Would we do the same again? And what will we do with those hopefully still-long lives now that so much of what we’d planned, hasn’t happened and likely never will?
Above all though, we consider how we can live the life that is truly ours, mindful not only of our own story, but the fact we have one at all?
On Sunday, it is clear that the Canadian priest, ministering in France, with the glamorous Scottish wife, doing locum for the British honeymooner, has been eavesdropping on our Venetian conversation.
He asks how true are we being to the story of who we are, the story of our life? Yes, it is easy, especially midlife, to find ourselves living someone else’s story. The stealth with which we can be evicted from our life comes to us in a shock in the long nights.
Over the month, on planes, trains and boats I observe my common woman, common man. How like Dante, in the middle of the journey of our life, we awake in the dark forest. “Selva oscura”, though, is more than just dark. It has connotations of secret, hidden. Something for another day.
In 1984, I sang God Save the Queen hidden in serried ranks of musicians. Last week, I sang it out beside Americans, Scots, a Swede, Italians, British Remainers in a hail of trumpets.
Thatcher is dead. The IRA is theoretically no more. A generation of people in the North have known nothing but peace. The queen, and all belonging to her, have come to Ireland and been welcome. In the Garden of Remembrance she bowed to our dead. In Dublin Castle, she called us a Chairde. She has a lip for English Market fish and a gra for its monger Pat O’Connell.
In that story, 33 years on, our passport’s wine, not Heaney green. We can raise a glass — and voice — to toast the queen.
‘The queen, and all belonging to her, have come to Ireland and been welcomed...’
MOVING ON: Margaret Thatcher is dead, the IRA is theoretically no more, and a generation of people born in Northern Ireland have known nothing but peace