On Friday afternoon I had to deal with one of the most challenging moments I can recall. I think there was learning to be had from it, plus it was one of the funniest experiences I’ve ever had whilst seated at the organ, and I thought you might appreciate it.
I have recently dusted off my organ playing shoes, which have been lurking disconsolately at the back of a cupboard for 5 years. I used to play regularly, as a means of keeping up my skills on the instrument, and as a way of saying sorry to my parents, who had me musically trained for 18 years before I decided to jack it all in and join a brewery.
We’ve recently moved house, and there is nothing like putting your “I’m an organist” card on the table to get the locals’ interest, particularly those of a church-going ilk. It’s been a great way to get to know some new people as well as to give back to the community.
I was playing at a funeral in our local church. Great day for it: 60 mph winds, lashing rain, freezing cold. The worst storm of the winter, and that’s saying something.
We came to the last hymn, which you may know: William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”, set to the music of Sir Hubert Parry. It is well known to most Brits, and is sometimes known as England’s alternative National Anthem.
Anyway, it’s a bit tricky to play, especially on a rickety organ, and involves turning the page three times whilst playing (not easy). I decided to ask one of the church wardens to turn the pages for me, as I knew she sometimes plays, so would be able to read the music.
We got off to a flying start, but things soon deteriorated. She dropped a piece of paper onto the organ pedals, meaning I didn’t know for sure which note was which. I tried to kick it away whilst still playing, to no avail. So she decided to have a go, and started to burrow around down below. This would have been fine, but for the fact that she held onto a crucial bit of the organ for extra stability as she went down. Unfortunately this was the bit that both held the music and was a cover for the keyboard when not in use. Suddenly the music is on its way into my lap (we are now on verse 2), and the keyboard cover is about to trap my fingers, making playing a bit of a challenge.
You could tell that this panicked her, as I heard a “shit” above the noise of the (thankfully very vocal) congregation.
I took remedial action. Barged her out of the way with my elbows (it worked), and gritted my teeth whilst we negotiated the first page turn, whereupon she dived down below again and shifted the paper. Both of us are close to silent hysterics at this stage, to the point that I was worried she might rupture something.
The only thing she could have done to mess up her page turning duties more fully would have been to collapse onto the keyboard itself, or maybe switch the organ off. Or even start a small fire, that would have been good.
The fact that this was a funeral service made it all the funnier, I guess. The sheer chaos that was going on in the back of the church whilst such a solemn ritual was going on all around us made it all the more surreal.
No one noticed (I checked). Another reminder that people don’t know what they don’t know. Thank goodness: there are so many times when that has been my lifeline.
The learning point: when all around you appears to be in a state of collapse, just keep going. You may find that seemingly overwhelming events have a way of working themselves out. As Churchill famously put it, “Keep buggering on” (KBO). This colourful turn of phrase, which was simply slang to him, somehow became embedded in the English vernacular.
It sums up the British spirit in a way, as evidenced by the way thousands of them are currently dealing with the floods across the country. We oldies would of course say that today’s “Youth” has lost the KBO spirit, and gives up too easily. It’s probably what my parents used to say about their children. Some things never change.
Upon reflection, I now realise how appropriate Blake’s words are to my theme: a rather more elegant way to express “Keep Buggering On”:
“I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land.”
I’ll leave you with a more orderly rendition of Jerusalem, from a certain wedding ceremony (funny how it shows up at both weddings and funerals). Somehow it will never sound the same after Friday’s episode.