Tuesday, June 20, 2006

dawn chorus

Catholic Herald, 23 June 2006

The dawn chorus began at 3.30 this morning when an insanely driven car with a faulty silencer drove over my duvet at 70mph. OK, the car didn’t actually enter the room, but on these balmy nights, a particular style of driving gives a person sleeping in the upper floor of a corner house on a normally peaceful street the powerful sensation of being in the middle of the M25.

A couple of seconds later a motorbike passed, equally furiously, in the same direction, probably ridden by a determined policeman. Two squad cars began calling from opposite sides of the borough. An aerial “chugga-chugga” noise heralded our friendly neighbourhood police helicopter, equipped with its familiar searchlight, which circled us for an hour like a guest who won’t quite go home: every now and again he raises your hopes, making a little sally as though looking round for his coat – then he thinks of another important point he wanted to make, and turns back.

I closed my eyes and imagined the person who had orchestrated this symphony: probably under 25, undoubtedly male, and driving a stolen car. Was this his first time? Probably not, if the daredevilry of his driving is anything to go by. Did he have passengers? Was someone’s daughter clinging to the passenger seat beside him, wondering where her night out went wrong?

We all need to feel that special frisson down our spines a few times in our lives – the sense that we have taken on a great task and might succeed, but also might fail. Life for children today is notoriously lacking in danger. So where does my dawn joyrider go for excitement? Where has he felt goose bumps on the back of his neck? Most likely, when defying the law: squaring up for a fight with a playground rival, running from a shop before being caught with his loot, seeing the bright flick of a knife in the hand of a boy from another gang – these are, I thought sadly, the only experiences which have made him feel alive.

A teenage boy nowadays stands between two impossibles: the bland world of school and authority, where every risk is assessed, every playground stripped of anything that a child could fall off; or the genuinely dangerous and thrilling world of the street.

With this thought in mind, I – and my family – have become somewhat hooked on a TV series about a choir. “The Singing Estate” (Five, 8pm, Sunday) began with conductor Ivor Setterfield holding open auditions in the Blackbird Leys Estate in Oxford – in order to train a choir of supposedly complete beginners to sing Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Royal Albert Hall.

The gimmick of the programme is that in episode 1, most of the auditionees started out with no idea how to sing at all. Many could not read music. Few knew anything of classical music. Most had no idea how to follow a conductor. Yet hidden beneath the strangled howls and would-be Kylie noises were real voices, even one really fine tenor.

In episode 2 Setterfield took his embryonic choir on an inspirational visit to Italy, where they experienced “goosebump moments” and excitement such as my poor joyrider could never imagine. On their first evening, a top Italian tenor walked into the restaurant where they were eating, and sang “Nessun Dorma” at full stretch; several choristers simply burst into tears.

There were more tears on a visit to La Scala in Milan: the splendour, the size and the cultural distance of it from the 1960s tower blocks that make up the Blackbird Leys estate was emotionally overwhelming. Crying when you walk into La Scala is a sure sign that a love affair with “difficult” music is in the air.

But then the choristers blew it, by going out on the town, and thus wrecking their voices for the next day’s scheduled al fresco performance…which was consequently a disaster.

All very contrived for TV, of course, and the programme rather exaggerates the non-musical backgrounds of the choristers: in truth, nearly all of them have sung before, notably with church choirs. But it is deeply moving to see young people who have never before met a seriously uncompromising teacher, and older people who had forgotten how to try hard at something, deal with such a challenge. And – more importantly – deal with failing, feeling humiliated, then rallying and coming back to the challenge again.

I wonder if my dawn joyrider can sing.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Exam Hell

Catholic Herald, 9 June 2006

We prayed for young people having exams last Sunday: I very much hope you did too. Unlike women in childbirth, who are woefully under-represented, students have a whole team of patron saints on their side – and now, more than ever, they need them and they need your prayers. Exams are not fun any more.

I used to enjoy exams. They were the nearest thing, I reasoned, to going into battle which I was ever likely to experience. In the old days, you spent the evening before the exam re-reading and re-reading the notes you’d written during lessons over the previous years. In the morning you got up early and dressed with care like a knight putting on his armour.

Breakfast was equally ritualistic, a French vocabulary book open by the plate and your stomach churning with adrenalin. Bright-eyed teenagers gathered at the school gate, chattering excitedly, our clear plastic pencil bags, the special insignia of the warrior, clutched in our hands. The sun always shone, the birds sang and there was a bright, fierce scent of battle in the air as we wished each other good luck, as though we would never set eyes on each other again.

It got even better at Oxford, where we really did have to put on a sort of medieval armour – dark suits and incongruous white ties for the lads, and for the girls black skirts and ties or bows adorning an amazing range of garments all loosely conforming to the rubric “a white blouse”.

Whatever the weather, the ensemble was topped off with an academic gown - for some of us (cough, cough), a calf-length scholar’s number billowing and fluttering through the Examination Schools corridors with glorious intellectual snobbishness; and of course everybody had to wear an absurd hat. Most difficult public occasions are made bearable by the wearing of an absurd hat, as High Court Judges, Fr Kit Cunningham and ladies at Royal Ascot can all agree.

From the moment you woke up, therefore, you were playing the part of the person sitting an exam, and best of all everybody in town knew what your role was just by looking at you. I liked to believe (probably erroneously) that kind motorists would note the wobbly girl cyclist in the black and white get-up and give her an extra wide berth. I hope they did.

But in those days exams came not more than every two or three years. Now they are with us constantly. They never go away. Even notwithstanding the plethora of lesser tests such as SATs, as soon as a teenager has done GCSEs they are plunged into AS levels, then A-levels. There is no longer a pleasant lower-sixth year when a young person can throw himself or herself into the school play, or the cricket team, without fear of losing marks in some trumped up subject that will be completely outdated in ten years’ time, like ICT or Travel and Tourism. The more exams we have, the less proper knowledge our children seem to be allowed to acquire.

In addition we are subjected to a year-round drip-drip of coursework deadlines which, as we move through the year, by turns threaten, then glower, then loom and finally pass (sometimes in deadly silence) in an almost weekly cycle. The tyranny of coursework is one of the worst aspects of the current system. From my very small sample of the teenage population, it seems that girls easily become obsessive about coursework, staying up late into the night perfecting their offering despite pleas from parents; while boys are constantly astonished to discover that deadlines which were written into the calendar over a year ago really do, eventually, arrive. I accept that my sample may not be reliable - but I resent the way that exams have crept, by means of coursework, from their traditional summer domain to squat toad-like on family life across the whole year.

All my exam-passing techniques of old seem to be useless: Examiners are paid a pittance for each script and have no time for cleverness, so any attempt by one’s child to be original or to discuss, say, the Second World War beyond “what Sir said we have to learn” is quashed. French vocab books have been replaced by brightly coloured revision guides with titles like “GCSE French In A Week”. “No good for us,” commented the mother of one of my son’s friends. “It’s ‘GCSE in Three Days’ we need now.”

So please pray for our young people; please call with me on Saints Benedict, Catherine of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Jerome, John Bosco, Thomas Aquinas, Brigid of Ireland – and (in our case at least) not forgetting St Jude Thaddeus - to give them courage and a brave, cheerful heart as they go into battle on these cruelly sunny June mornings.