Single Mum: Hymn-singing
I grew up with hymns. I learned to bellow Away in a Manger at about the same age that I memorised Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star – and probably, at that age, they made similar sense. My mother and grandmother used continually to hum hymns round the house; and I remember at least two of our early au-pairs singing noisily in Switzer-Deutsch.
My first good experience of congregational hymn-singing was at Sunday School at The Seventh Christian Science Church, which Grandma regularly attended. I firmly disliked the superintendent; she was a stale-perfumed lady in late middle-age with a Marcel wave. She looked like Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers’ films and wore ropes of pearls over a low, though imposing, bosom. She was patronising, and her embraces were invasive and inauthentic-feeling. But I loved the singing.
Hymns helped mum to concentrate. We’d set out for the shops on winter afternoons, with the golden sunset brightening in the west, and that would be enough to set her off singing loudly round the supermarket on the high street:
‘The golden sunset brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful cheese and butter, milk.
Sweet is the cream and yoghurt, eggs and ham
Aa- aa- lay- loo -yah! Aa- aa-aa- lay- loo-YAH!’
Yes readers, honestly and truly, that is what she did. These occasions constitute my earliest memories of wishing for instantaneous death. Or at least temporary evaporation.
At both my infant and secondary schools, we sang in assembly before classes started. That is where I learned dozens of hymns by heart. This proved useful later; as head girl I was supposed to watch out for gossiping, pinching and tickling in the ranks. I could sing whilst snooping.
My father only sang (and only knew, I suspect) two hymns – one was God Save the Queen. The other was Onward Christian Soldiers, which he sang stentoriously and often in order to irritate my mother – which it unquestionably did. He liked to embarrass her with its imperialistic undertones. He also hummed Land of my Fathers, happily and tearfully, at the start of Welsh rugby internationals.
Of course I didn’t notice the different competing and conflicting theologies rampaging through the hymns we sang until years later. I just loved them all. About a year ago, as part of a service during which we investigated the different theologies of hymns, we sang Christian Soldiers at Bethnal Green. I loved it still, whilst cringing. I’m like that. Perhaps other people are too; I love the Queen, but don’t approve of the monarchy. I love the last night of the Proms, yet am ashamed of the words to Land of Hope and Glory.
Little Sav (I suppose he was four then) learned the words to God Save the Queen when I realised that he wasn’t brushing his teeth for long enough. Really, this wasn’t patriotism in its most elevated form, since it involved us singing while brushing and spitting every two lines. Singing “confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks” with a toothbrush in your mouth isn’t easy or musical, but it kept us brushing for three verses which was long enough. Sav has no fillings. I rest my case.
Saville came into the world with hymns. His arrival took 38 dangerous and frightening hours; painful enough that I was finally given a spinal tap. So I sang hymns for about the last four hours and Lord, it did help: We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree – and wither – and perish – but nought changeth Thee.
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.