When I was young…

This is potentially one of those terribly dorky “I love my friends” posts, but – fingers crossed – I’ll manage to rise above it. 

I’m quite proud of the longevity of several of my friendships – there are quite a few that are past the decade mark, others that are just about on 15 years, while another is fast approaching two decades. This last one is a classic ‘we met on the first day of secondary school’ friendship. As I remember it, we were sat together writing out our timetables and I was impressed that she could fit ‘geography’ into one box (as ever, it’s rather odd things that attract me to people).

Over the years our friendship’s survived severe competition in academic stakes (my diary from this period is full of references to our termly grade cards – what I got is always followed by what she got); my family’s move to the shire; university; her marriage… Often we’ll go months without seeing each other, but just recently we managed to meet three times in under two weeks.

When we were young, I felt like a total short-arse next to leggy Babs. When we met again as adults, I was delighted to discover we were pretty much the same height (and, even better, the same shoe size). Talking about this recently, she refused to believe that there had been such a difference – until she came across, and texted me, this photo last week:

Oh goodness – the 1990s were a harsh decade. And yes, that is a bum-bag. Woe is me…

The fact that she’s actually leaning on my shoulder reveals just how much of a titch I was in comparison to her! I’m pretty sure Babs was just exceptionally tall for her age and probably hasn’t grown that much since this photo was taken (July 1993, in a hypermarket car park in Boulougne, on a school day-trip to France), whereas I had my growth spurt at some point after we’d moved to the shire. I definitely wasn’t particularly short as I never suffered any of the teasing my sister did – she was so short (for ages and ages) that our Maths teacher used to joke that she could sleep in a shoe box.

Anyway, things have evened out now:

See – practically the same height. The third person in our school trio is Viv (whose recent book launch included Fish & Chips canapés) and she’s definitely tall (and was wearing heels that particular evening) – still being in touch with her is also miraculous. The three of us ended up studying history at three different University of London colleges and are now doing very different things with our identical degrees…

When Babs sent me the 1993 photo, I dug out my photo album to see what I had from the same trip. I didn’t discover much – this being an age of disposable film cameras – but amongst a blurry headshot of Babs and some other girls on a coach, I found what may possibly be the first example of me ‘doing a Liz’ (except as it’s 1993, it would be ‘doing an Elizabeth’):

I could blame the frizz on an early start & long coach journey – but that’s just its natural state. For the last decade only the good work of John Freida’s Frizz Ease has tamed it. Terrifying.
One final thing, this might be a good opportunity to publicly apologise for a reference made to Babs’ wedding on this blog – and a story I’ve shared far too widely. She didn’t have strippers at her wedding reception; they were a tasteful burlesque act and almost certainly will never be bettered in terms of wedding entertainment no matter how many nuptials I attend. 

From the archives (Part Two)

The box I perused last night contained (according to its label) “Ribston and MAYC memories”. Essentially, this was a hodge-podge of miscellany dating from 1995 onwards. I knew things would get interesting (or boring, depending on who you are) when on opening the box I discovered my rather gorgeous 6th form jumper and two old school ties lying on top of everything else:

Other contents (in addition to the notebook mentioned earlier) included:
All my school reports from year 10 onwards.
My GCSE & A-level results envelopes.
Passport photos of myself dating back to 1992.
Tickets to every film I went to see between 1995 and roughly 2000.
Progammes to concerts and services I’d sung in.
A woolly green and yellow scarf.
And, last but not least, issues of my school magazine – The Ribbus.

I was particularly interested in this final item because I wanted to look up some of my juvenile writing explorations. The Lower 6th took on the role of putting the magazine together and I was super keen to be editor of my year’s issue. However, for some reason our year was the only one in the history of the school to have the magazine edited by a member of staff – but, in a cunning move, I managed (completely unintentionally) to appear as though I was editor on the inside page.

Yes, I’m in the photo – prizes to the first person to spot me…

Reading through the issue, I was surprised to find nothing credited with my name. My official capacity was Features Editor, and I have vague memories of writing quite a few short pieces tying collections of random articles by other pupils together. Then I turned a page and discovered something I’m 99% sure I wrote. A lot of its style would suggest that I wrote it and I definitely remember having the idea for the story. Anyway, perhaps you can judge for yourselves…

Through the keyhole: What is lurking behind the blue door? 

The one place where pupils aren’t allowed. The only room which cannot be seen from the outside of our schools building. The mysterious dwelling place of the species known as…the teacher! Why is it that pupils are banished from this lair? Consider the following clues: Pupils are only allowed to knock on the door at certain times of the day. Is it simply because teachers have different sleeping patterns to the rest of us? Or do they actually hang upside down from beams on the staff room ceiling, and sleep to avoid daylight?

Why is it that the only pupils claiming to have set foot in here are those who are about to leave? what have they seen that has traumatised them so deeply that they feel the need to depart our school? We don’t believe that is is marking work and chatting.

Pupils appear to have an intense fear of knocking on the door. Pupils we have interviewed who have actually reached the “inner door” talk of being knocked off their feet by the blast as the door opens or being blinded by white lights. Perhaps there is something out there after all. It is as if they know that they don’t want to discover what’s in there. [You might think that but we can’t possibly comment – Ed.]

So what do we really think goes on in there? We know that they must have their reasons for keeping activities here under wraps. Do teachers have various rituals such as inisteing on drinking from the same mug or sitting in the same seat? Who knows how bizarre and extreme staff room activities have become? [Wouldn’t you like to know! Ed.] The staff remain adamant that there is really nothing of intrerest there, but still, where is better for the exchange of torture techniques and the concoction of evil examination papers? So let’s look at the evidence:
The sink full of unwashed mugs
The magnetic letters on the whiteboard
The glorious smells of cakes (Mrs Waterman’s) and coffee
The flourishing pot plants
The torn copies of the Times Educational Supplement (ripped during a fight for the Appointments section, presumably).

And now for our home audience, here’s whose room it is…

From the archives (Part One)

I’m currently with the parents in Belfast (I use the plural, though my Dad actually left less than 24 hours after I arrived – I’m trying not to take it personally), where in an understairs cupboard is my academic archive. (That’s my pretentious way of describing a load of school reports, files, books and assorted other paraphernalia.)

Inspired by my nostalgia adventure the other week, I wanted to dig through one specific box and find the notebook friends wrote in when we left school for good. (This is a particularly quaint custom – I guess it emulates the American yearbook tradition.) It’s just as amusing as I suspected. Sian (creator of the CD mentioned previously) wrote a mammoth entry in which she had this to say about my future life:

“I suspect that when you’re 45, you’ll be a mega-famous historian…if there is such a thing, or you’ll be presenting one of those Open University programmes that are on at 3am on BBC2. Or you’ll be having a torrid affair with Jeremy Paxman, or you’ll be MP for Gloucester (!!!). Or you’ll have a love child by a Cabinet Minister and call it Jurgen. Or be someone very high up in the Women’s Institute. Or you’ll be a jolly good librarian. Or you’ll be the Managing Director of a very nice company producing nice things (like the Body Shop). Or you’ll be a lap dancer working in a seedy Soho club. Or of course, you’ll be studying Theology at Durham with Mr Fuller’s [one of our less favourite teachers] old lecturers (!!!!!!). Or you could be a Minister and do the Cathedral Service every year. See, the possibilities are endless!”

I think you’ll agree that she’s got a lot of bases covered there – so chances are I may end up actually doing at least one of them. (Though I can safely say that no child of mine will ever be called Jurgen!)

Also amongst the pages of this book was the script for our final school assembly (goodness only knows how I managed to acquire and then safely store away such a thing) which appears to have been a mash up of Grease, Daisy Pulls it Off and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Clearly we were a very, very special group of 17 and 17 year olds. In addition, was a letter inviting me to an interview with the Headmistress for the position of Head and Deputy-Head girl (I was awarded neither post) along with a copy of an ‘alternative A-level’ Sian and I created over several hours when we ought to have been revising. Ahhhh, the memories!

There was an awful lot of other stuff in the box, so this theme’s to be continued…

Show choirs – how the Brits have missed out

On Monday night I missed out on two TV gems – the penultimate episode of Glee and Gleeful: The Real Show Choirs of America – I’d have been severely miffed, were it not for the fact that I was in musical theatre heaven. (Enjoying Sister Act with my sister, how appropriate.)

Catching up on Gleeful the following day, I was alternately fascinated and horrified by the insight it gave into a world that Brits knew little about until the arrival of Glee on our shores. Basically, show choirs seem to exist to give US teenagers the opportunity to fulfil musical theatre fantasies that we have to recreate in our own homes. For example, I witnessed a girl singing Defying Gravity with full, twirling skirt à la Wicked’s Act 1 finale – we have to make do with jumping on/off furniture to emulate the same moment… [When I say ‘we’, I know at least two other people who do this, so it’s not simply my own fantasy!]

The show began by illustrating the supreme naffness of British choirs. I’ll refute the ‘naff’ label – we have an admirable choral tradition in the classical vein, we’re just not much given to showing off in an all-singing all-dancing style. After all, where would He Who Shall Not Be Named be without our passion for traditional choirs?

The suggested inferiority of British school choirs versus the Glee Club tradition got me thinking that perhaps I’d been brought up in the wrong country. It dawned on me that had we had show choirs in good old Gloucestershire, I’d have been Co Show Choir Captain because, being (joint) queen of my year’s music nerds, I was Choir Captain – so surely it goes to follow I could have made the same rank in Glee world? (Given my dancing and acting skills are virtually nil I realise this is a massive assumption to make, but in my head it made sense!)

The role of Choir Captain was an odd one. My co-captain, Clair, was an excellent musician and thoroughly deserved the role. I can’t quite recall if there was some kind of contest for the job or whether no one else actually wanted it, perhaps I got on board simply by being a good friend of hers – it certainly wasn’t owing to any kind of musical genius on my part!

I have few memories of this job, but do remember fighting for badges, mainly so there could be an addition to our prefect (or in C’s case, Deputy Head Girl) badges on our jumpers. Pride came before a fall though, as we were eventually issued with hideous things that we only wore when formality demanded it. Most of the time we acted as music department dogsbodies – taking choir registers, hunting down no-shows, tidying the music cupboards, and presenting end of concert gifts. There were just two moments of glory:

1. Pippin Choir [our school was named ‘Ribston Hall’, apparently there’s an apple named the ‘Ribston Pippin’ which is how this choir got its name…make your own judgement on the kind of school I went to.]
This was a ramshackle collection of 1st years singing a Christmas song chosen & arranged by us (I chose, C arranged). We were completely in charge – rehearsals, performance – everything, a total risk! Thus far, it has been my only experience of conducting, which I vowed never to repeat, not being entirely comfortable with the whole audience only seeing your backside thing…

2. The Boar’s Head Carol [A version similar to, but not as dramatic as ours can be watched here.]
At the beginning of the Christmas concert’s second half, it was traditional for the Upper 6th (i.e. final year) girls to enter singing a somewhat dramatic version of this medieval carol, while carrying a papier maché boar’s head aloft. The Choir Captains were responsible for its organisation and it was the single-most controversial moment of our 6th form career (even after the hotly fought Head Girl contest – that’s a whole other story!) owing to high competition for solos. Reflecting upon this, it seems this tradition was the closest we got to show choir drama…

Americans get divas, costumes, choreographers and trophies – we got cloaks, home-made lanterns and a papier maché pig. It’s really not the same thing at all and I feel a little bit cheated.

Incidentally, you might have been hoping that this post would come with photos. It doesn’t and I make no apologies for that fact. Photos of me, as a teenager, on the internet? Never. Going. To. Happen. 

A question of clapping

I’ve got a new research project and I’m turning to you, my treasured blog-readers, to provide the data I need – I do hope you’ll oblige.

The project in question is, if you will, an exercise in musical ethnography. Specifically, it relates to the rhythmic clapping that takes place at certain points within a (one time) extremely popular religious chorus…

Graham Kendrick’s Shine Jesus Shine was the first ‘mega chorus’ (that’s my term) of the worship song era. Up and down the country congregations of all denominations and most traditions could be found singing it lustily of a Sunday. In fact, in our suburban London church, it got to the point that it had been sung to exhaustion and was banned for five years.

Like the best cringeworthy and beloved choruses, SJS has clapping segments, enjoyed primarily by middle-aged women and small children. Until yesterday, I thought this clapping was fairly standardised – that was until I’d read Caroline’s description of praise choruses in Belize. Apparently there no one claps at all:
“either the northern [?] clapclap-clapclap, OR the southern [?] clapclapclap-clap)?”

This was the first I’d heard of a rhythmic clapping north-south divide. In fact, in the two (southern) locations in which I’d sung this the clapping had been the first rhythm, not the second. (I established this by tapping it several times on my desk, much to C’s annoyance.) Now, perhaps Caroline got the regions round the wrong way, or maybe (as she commented) it’s actually a north-middle-south divide.

So, research…I know a fair few British Christians read this; most (if not all) have probably sung SJS more than once in their lifetime; a lot of them have probably lived in a variety of UK locations; and at least a few will have lived in the ‘north’. Is there a rhythmic clapping divide?

I’ve done a bit of research myself, and located this clip which illustrates it being clapped the way I’m used to. Be warned, the sound quality’s appalling as it was filmed on a mobile phone in a school assembly. But this helpfully illustrates a tangental point. At my secondary school SJS was the only hymn ever sung in assembly with any kind of enthusiasm. (The only other song that was sung with similar passion was the school song – Gaudeamus Igitur and only because certain Latin lyrics could be turned into double entendres or just plain ‘rude’ words. Even now, me and my school friends could probably sing all 4 verses if requested.)

Anyway, the clapping was the pupils’ favourite bit, yet it never ceased to make me and my two Christian friends cringe that:
(i) This wasn’t even a ‘good’ song in our opinion. (This was at a time when Matt Redman had just appeared, but we didn’t sing his stuff at school.)
(ii) We wouldn’t ever consider engaging in rhythmic clapping at school or at church – it just wasn’t the done thing.
[It might also be worth mentioning that our school hymn-book was Hymns Ancient & Modern, with the addition of only three songs whose words were taped into the inside covers – the school song, SJS and Make Me a Channel of Your Peace – perhaps that shows why SJS was seized upon so enthusiastically.]

Intriguingly, my brief trawl of YouTube indicated a lack of clips with any form of clapping at all. Most weren’t British, so perhaps the clapping is our own phenomenon? Anyway, I’d be grateful (and I’m sure Caroline will be too) if you could shed some light on this interesting* question – a short comment will do. Thanks.

*Apologies, I realise ‘interesting’ may be taking this a bit far. We find it interesting, doesn’t mean you have to.