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.

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