Full blown confession: I listen to Classic FM in the morning. If you’ve never heard of Classic FM, that will be because you are a much groovier individual than me. It’s a UK based radio station that plays classical music, and I do like me a bit of Brahms or Handel or Grieg or a cheeky wee blast of Stravinsky, when I open my eyes on the world.
I blame this love of classical music partly on my Mum’s wee brother, Uncle James, but mostly on a lady called Mrs Rennie, who taught choir at my school. Mrs R was one of those truly extraordinary teachers who appear once or twice in a lifetime. I don’t know if she realized how brilliant she was, because she was so busy actually being brilliant. But, she firmly believed that everybody had something to offer, and was forever telling me I had a lovely voice.
That's why, one year when we were rehearsing for the Christmas concert in the local church, she decided I would sing a wee solo piece in the middle of Ding Dong Merrily on High. Even thinking about it all these years later sends a shiver down my spine. I mean, Ding Dong Merrily On Fucking High. If you’ve never heard that particular Christmas carol, you have been very lucky. It’s bloody awful.
Unsurprisingly, I really really didn’t want to do it. I was 10 years old and wanted to fit in with the choir like everyone else. But Mrs Rennie wouldn’t hear of it. Despite her assurances that I had perfect pitch, I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep.
As it was approaching Christmas, I figured I could mention to God, that if he didn’t want to completely ruin his son’s birthday, he needed to find a way that I didn’t have to sing. And lo and behold, the night before the choir concert there was a massive snowfall and the concert was canceled. Hallelujah, a proper Christmas miracle.
Years later I discovered Mrs Rennie was right though and I do actually have a pretty good ear for music. I was in a fancy play with the Royal National Theatre and the end of the first half was me singing a folk song in a meaningful way, accompanied by a mandolin.
One night however, I positioned myself for the song, but when I turned to nod to the mandolin player for us to begin, I saw only an empty chair where a guy playing a stringed instrument should be. I paused for a moment, clearing my throat in my most “Where the fuck are you?” tone. But to no avail. I had no choice. So, hoping to drown out the frantic backstage panic as they hunted for the errant musician, I began to sing.
Halfway through my second verse, a very ruffled mandolin player was unceremoniously propelled onto the stage, and began playing in the key he was used to playing in. Extraordinarily, it turned out that it was the exact key I was singing in. A proper Christmas miracle - except it was June.
After the show, people marveled at my perfect pitch and scowled at the mandolin player. He defensively claimed he’d been taken off guard by a particularly sturdy and problematic bowel movement - though we were all convinced he’d just been off somewhere smoking a joint.
Anyway, I’ve recently had to do without Classic FM for a couple of weeks. It had proclaimed itself to be the station of The Coronation and was all full of pomp and pageantry for the then-future king.
It’s not just that I’m Scottish or that I’m not big into the Royals, but I had problems getting my head round the fact that 100 million pounds of public money was to be spent on two humans riding along in a golden carriage and putting priceless jewels on their heads to celebrate their incoherent specialness, when so many many people are struggling financially.
If you enjoy Royals, good for you, I’m glad somebody got something out of it. We don’t all have the same taste. Some people, for example, think Ding Dong Merrily On Fucking High is a lovely Christmas carol. For me, I felt sick to my stomach.
I did my best to avoid it, in the news and on Classic FM.
And maybe the change of routine was part of the reason I was so out of sorts when a friend went a bit mental this week. It was ugly and hurtful and I was on the verge of responding in a way I don’t like, when the thought entered my head that I could take a moment and not make it about me. I asked my friend if there was something I could do to help and the whole story came tumbling out. They were dealing with stuff that could topple even the strongest of grown adults. Ashamed and overwhelmed, they were doing it alone, and the words coming out of their mouth were from pain rather than aggression. I had misheard.
Goddamit, and there was me with my perfect pitch too.
It’s true that the sounds we make, don’t always line up with the way others hear them. Words can be thoughtless rather than willfully damaging, yet the end result can be the same. Like the friend who always posts pictures of her delectable pool house, or the couple who are always so much in love, or the humblebrag about money or awards or general specialness. They’re decent people who wish to be seen as ‘part of’ rather than ‘better than’ but that's not always how it comes across.
Even in Notes From the Valley there must be times when you who read it, and want to punch me in my smug Scottish face for my charming wee vignettes.
We are all off-key some of the time.
But words are different from actions. Technically it didn’t matter whether the mandolin player professed to a solidly problematic bowel movement or confessed he was just smoking a joint. Either way, he didn’t turn up. It sucks to be left feeling like the idiot, but my choice was to explain it away or do what I knew to be right.
This morning on Classic FM - the station of the Coronation - the leading news story was about the increase of mothers in the UK stealing formula milk, because they can’t afford to feed their babies.
Maybe I should listen to jazz in the mornings.
Till next week xo
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Haha, so here we all are. Mrs Rennie’s choir group.
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