Maybe I was just tired, but breakfast television this morning turned me into a quivering wreck. They were slowly winching people out of that mine in Chile and seeing those men in sunglasses, hugging family and friends who they probably thought they’d never see again, filled me with such elation that I thought I was going to burst. And then, five minutes later, a little lad was sitting on the sofa next to Bill Turnbull, talking about an all-male squad of cheerleaders from Leeds and how it didn’t bother him that the kids at school ragged him for being a member, because he loved dancing wanted to play Billy Elliot one day. I suppose I felt really proud to live in a society that allows a group of boys to be cheerleaders and for some reason this also made me feel emotional. I'm all for ripping gender barriers limb from limb.
Today’s been about visiting the four corners of London. I started in Greenwich, auditioning potential gospel singers at Trinity College. I sat in the courtyard outside the music college listening to the sound of hundreds of musicians playing hundreds of instruments through hundreds of open windows. It was a true cacophony and took about 2 minutes to shift from being an impressive noise to the stuff nightmares are made of! I was waiting on a bench, in my new cloth cap, for a girl who never came. When I texted her, she reminded me that we’d actually agreed to meet tomorrow and I realised with horror that I was meant to be at Goldsmith’s College instead. She kindly told me that if I came to her house there and then, I could save myself another early morning trip to the arse end of the East End, so twenty minutes later, I’d postponed my meeting in New Cross, ventured to Charlton and was listening to a soul singer from Italy who spoke English with a broad Dublin accent. I decided that this was a good sign. If she can speak a second language flawlessly, she had to have a good ear – and she did. Her voice was breathy and jazzy, and I liked it enough to immediately offer her one of the places in the choir.
Back in New Cross, I met my first black gospel singer. Her voice was hugely exciting, so it was with a renewed sense of optimism that I pootled my way out West for a meeting about the American project. Later in the day, I had my second meeting with the folk choir. This took place in Vauxhall, which meant I could add due south to my compass of London locations. The rehearsal was tiring; a really hard slog, but by the end, I’d heard the wonderful possibilities of a group of singers who were opening up and expressing themselves in the folk idiom. A choir, if you like. We’re still only two-thirds of the way through the music, but I know we're going to get there... and get there beautifully.
Incidentally, invitations to the motet will be going out very shortly, so now is the time to get in touch if you’d like to come. Ben@benjamintill.com. Please email me ASAP if you would like us to add you to the official list and if you’d like to bring a plus one. The performances are at St Olave’s Church on November 25th at 6.30pm and 8.30pm and it is invitation only so you can't just turn up. It is free, but there will be a collection at the end for the church. Give what you can. We can’t have the building that houses Pepys’ grave falling down on us!
Speaking of which, January 13th provides us with a classic diary entry; one which, excitingly, gives us a piece of text that we were actually rehearsing tonight! Sandwich was indisposed, perhaps rather conveniently, for it was the day that Major General Harrison was due to be punished for his role in the “murder” of Charles I. Pepys went to Charing Cross to see him being hanged drawn and quartered and ended up writing one of his most laconic and regularly-quoted passages, remarking that Harrison looked “as cheerful as any man could in that condition.” The famous words are even written in enormous letters on the outside wall of a pub next to the Tower of London called, misnomically, “The Hung Drawn and Quartered.” You don’t need to read far into Pepys’ matter-of-fact account of the event to get a sense of the true horror of that most gruesome of gruesome punishments; “he was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was a great shout of joy.” A blood thirsty crowd indeed.
Pepys, who, as a 16 year old, had actually witnessed the execution of Charles I, adds; “thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at Whitehall, and to see the first bloodshed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.” This line is also quoted in the motet.
But Pepys’ Diary, as life, is full of contrasts and contraditions. Following the execution, he blithely took himself to the Sun Tavern for oysters before heading home and getting extremely angry with his wife for leaving her things scattered messily around the house; “and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.” I’m sure he’s not the only person in history to have taken out his frustration on an inanimate object. I once tore an entire newspaper into confetti-sized pieces. Following his outburst, he retired to his bedroom and spent the afternoon putting up shelves for his books. Perhaps the events at Charing Cross had upset him more than he’d thought? He doesn't tell us how Elizabeth responded to his little tantrum...