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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

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

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