24 September 2007

A Reflection

I turned fifty a few weeks ago, and next week approach the ninth and eigth anniversaries of my father and mother's deaths. So my mind is fixed on the past.

A piece of music took me back to the 1970s: "I'll Be Your Sweetheart, If You Will Be Mine"; not, obviously, because it wasn't a piece of 1970s music.

I grew up in a house where everybody sang: I grew up in an extended family where everybody sang. That meant that we knew "old songs", for the older members of the family liked to hear the songs of their childhood, and as we, as a family, are blessed (mainly) with longevity, long generations and respect, it meant that we sang for Grandmothers (I never knew my Grandfathers) and Great Aunts the songs of their childhood, and some of those were the songs that their parents had sung: Victorian parlour ballads, like "Nelly Dean" or "Come Into The Garden, Maud"; or Stephen Foster songs like "Lily of Laguna". We knew the lot! And when it came to Music Hall - well, my (maternal) Grandmother had trod the boards and we could sing songs none of you would ever have heard of!

My (paternal) Grandmother ran an Over 60s Club (in fact she ran two, but we'll leave the one she shared with Bernard Manning's mother for the purposes of this post) in the parish. A couple of times a year, my father, two uncles and me would dress up in bow ties and cadies (straw boaters to the ignorant) and impersonate a barber shop quartet, my mother accompanying us on the piano.

The songs they (and "they" would number up to 100) loved were the songs of their childhood: for people aged around 70 in 1970, this meant the songs of the First World War. The First World War had affected all of them: this was Lancashire Fusiliers territory, the area of Pals' Batallions; they had pretty well all lost brothers and cousins. Many of the old ladies were spinsters: there hadn't been enough young men to go round in the 1920s and 1930s. (When there was a dance, they used to dance with each other: they'd all learned to dance both parts.)

They loved "Roses Are Blooming In Picardy": Uncle Jim had a fine tenor voice; and would all join in "Keep The Home Fires Burning"; but we always had to finish with "Tipperary", because it had become a lodestar that "Tipperary" was what the boys sang as they marched to the Front. This was keeping faith:

"If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

This is what Tradition is all about: the world changes and we change with it, but the change is informed and softened by the past, and we venerate the past and those who lived in it and through it; not the change.

My Grandmother, dying, relived August 4th 1914: she was on the prom at Blackpool and saw the soldiers marching and the young men forming up behind the band to go and join up: "Come on Willie" she said, in her delirium, to her cousin "are you going to join them too? Look at the lovely red uniforms!" (Willie had far more sense, by the way, and lived until his 90s.)

My other Grandmother told me that as a girl, her Grandmother had told her that, as a girl, she remembered the trains coming to the station in Liverpool with the magazines containing the latest instalments of Charles Dickens' novels, and how people would pay a penny to sit in the room of somebody who could read to hear them read aloud.

In my lifetime I have seen the idea of Tradition as a Good Thing disappear completely; the idea of passing things orally from one generation to the next has gone. We are losing our History, and that means we are losing our identity: I shudder to think what life will be like for our children, locked into a Present like this.

1 comment:

John said...

So you turned 50 a few weeks ago!
Well lad, I can still remember when I turned 50. The event was not marked by memories of bygone songs but by pints of Guiness in an Irish style pub that actually had a photograph of the tiny village my wife came from in Co. Cork.
I do remember all those songs which you mentioned though. My mother, alas, had no great voice but she used to sing "Lily of Laguna" to my brothers and me. She also had a fund of 'dog' stories. We'd heard them before but, no matter, we wanted to hear them again. My father had a most remarkable war. He wasn't quite sure but he suspected that the rumour had gone around that he was going to be a priest so he was made batman to the Catholic Chaplain and he spent his war in French presbyteries. I have a Missal which was given to my father by a French priest during his stay in his presbytery. It is in Latin and French, of course. Dad spoke French fluently. In it is a prayer card for the cause of the beatification of the Venerable Sister Mary Bernard Soubirous and it has a little bit of cloth from some part of her clothing, as a relic, sewn onto the card. I use the Missal very ocasionally to look up some prayer or another.