A Place in the Choir (December 2017)

What is the world’s largest crustacean? The Tasmanian Giant Crab, you say, no doubt inspired by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II to undertake a little research. Eighteen inches across and 13 kilograms takes some beating in crustacean land just as Blue Planet takes some beating in the world of documentaries. It’s not normally my kind of thing but it is so beautifully made, so cleverly shot that I sit entranced wondering how they manage to get these things on film. The answer is time – it takes a first-class camera operator about seven days do get one minute of film: I’m reminded of Christine Spolar’s comment when she came to speak to us a couple of years ago. She’s an editor for the Financial Times, and, when a journalist sends her an interesting, well-written article she says “That’s really good – but why should we settle for really good when with another fortnight of rewrites we could have great?”

Creating something great requires skill, it requires time and often it requires someone to tell you to go away and have just one more go. Yesterday, at Carols in St Margaret’s we had a wonderful outpouring of creativity and skill from students who had been working away for much longer than a fortnight to make something great – and it was great, well done to everyone who took part. There were too many highlights to list them all but one of my favourite parts was with one of my favourite poems: a piece called “The Journey of the Magi” which starts “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey and such a long journey. The ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.” Rather interestingly, those lines are taken almost word for word from a sermon delivered in 1622 in Whitehall, just up the road from here. Lancelot Andrews, bishop of Winchester was preaching for King James I and took as his topic the three wise men: characters whose fame is not the result of creative genius but of going to see and support another.

T.S. Eliot takes those lines and in his imagination develops their journey through two stanzas – we hear about camels, galled, sorefooted, refractory, lying down in the melted snow and the camel men, cursing and grumbling and running away and wanting their liquor and women until they arrive at evening, not a moment too soon, finding the place – it was, you might say, satisfactory. I encourage you to read the poem or even to join with me in my attempt to learn it (there is a third stanza but I haven’t quite got that nailed yet). It is in the spirit of that poem and those wise men that I thank those who weren’t performing last night but came to see and support those who were. Creativity is hard and the drive for great can be lonely and so we should do our part to support our creative friends knowing that they will then support our creativity.

The power of creativity is something that struck me the other week when I was watching a film called Sing Street – it’s not very well known and it might have passed you by (I’d never have seen it if it hadn’t been for my sister) but I recommend it to you. The tagline is “Boy meets girl, girl is unimpressed, boy forms band”. It’s set in 1980s Dublin, a place so tough that they ultimate success story is escape to Thatcher’s Britain, and the boy in question, Connor, is taken out of private school by parents who have fallen on hard times and sent to a school run by the Christian Brothers – a group who do not get the best of press generally and whose school is not shown in a favourable light. Connor gets some friends with musical skill together and they think about what kind of band they want to be. Connor’s brother – an unemployed cannabis smoker – tells him not to be a covers band: or you’ll spend your whole life not knowing what you could have done and so the band Connor sets up write and perform their own songs, the best line of which is dedicated to the horrible headmaster and his uniform code “You wear a dress and tell me not to wear brown shoes.” As well as struggling under the iron discipline of the school whose prohibition of make-up is even more of an imposition on a young new-romantic than that of shoe colour, the hero has to cope with the school bully. This issue is finally put to rights and the bully recruited to act as a roadie for the band when Connor turns to him and says “Come on then – do it – you have no power because you cannot create: only destroy”.

This idea of creation being more special and powerful than destruction is a rejection of the second law of thermodynamics (or, at least, since we shouldn’t put fundamental laws of physics aside so easily, a statement of humanity’s ability to be a localised source of negative entropy). It is an idea that we also find in Tolkien’s writings – the evil characters, Morgoth and Sauron lose their ability to create and can only mock or destroy. It is in creation whether it’s film, music, poetry or storytelling that we are truly human and if we forget this, if we allow ourselves to regress into destruction and abrasion of beauty, then we do ourselves the ultimate disservice: we are, or at least should be, quite simply, better than that.

I was musing on these ideas of creativity as I sat listening to a concert on Saturday afternoon. This is also not my usual selection of activity for an exeat but it was the mayor of Bexley’s carol concert and my daughters were in the orchestra. The best bits were obviously the second violin and first cello but a close runner up was a choir called the Movers and Shakers. This is an amazing ensemble formed as a self-help group for people with Parkinson’s disease (see what they did with the band-name there? Wordplay is important in band names as can be seen in the Beatles with an A and in Connor’s band who take the Singe Street their school lies on and lose an e to become Sing Street), but for the movers and shakers the point is not that they sing with profound beauty but that they sing at all: Parkinson’s eats away at the brain, taking away the ability to interact socially, taking, eventually, the ability to speak and by practicing, by singing the group is fighting against that loss, preserving for a little while longer those abilities. Some of them can’t speak any more but they can still sing and the song whose lyrics have stuck with me is called a place in the choir, originally by a band called Celtic Thunder, and the chorus goes like this: “All God’s creatures got a place in the choir, some sing low and some sing higher, some sing out loud on a telephone wire and some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got.”

I don’t sing well: I auditioned for the choir in my primary school and was the only student rejected – in retrospect I think they had a point. Some of you may be sitting there thinking that Sauron may have had a point – if you can’t sing amazingly or paint or write poetry then there’s no point trying, and you may as well go over to the dark side: it is, after all, quicker and more seductive. I hope that you won’t. I know that you are all brilliant in your own ways, that you each have the capacity to create beauty: it is a fundamental property of humans and you are all brilliant humans. One of the challenges of coming to Harris Westminster is that no matter how brilliant you are there are others just as brilliant all around and if that’s how you feel then at least you need not feel it alone: Oscar Wilde, one of the most brilliant and creative people of the 19th and 20th centuries is recorded as wailing in despair “Why was I born with such contemporaries?”

You may be suffering from dizziness from the variety of sources I’ve used this morning but I’m not embarrassed that in an assembly on creativity I’ve used the words and ideas of, I think, nine others including a fleeting reference to Star Wars – a piece of subtle cleverness that I’ve wrecked by drawing your attention to it. Just one more to sneak in to make the total ten and about two and a half minutes to do it. The last point I want to make this morning is that part of creativity is being inspired by the creativity of others. Be creative: if singing is your thing then join the choir – there aren’t many people who get the chance to sing at St Margaret’s or in Westminster Abbey: take your chances. I’ve referred to a terrible fictional headmaster this morning – let me redress the balance and quote a rather brilliant one “Ah Music, a magic beyond all we do here”. Be creative: if singing isn’t your thing then find your thing and do that. Be creative: remember that the difference between really good and great is just a question of hard work. Be creative: allow yourself to be inspired by others as T.S. Eliot was by Lancelot Andrews. Be creative: dare to be original – take and use the work of others, don’t just copy. Be creative and support the creativity of others – particularly your friends and classmates and you’ll find they support yours.

Be creative and remember that you all have a place in the choir and if you can’t sing low or higher or out loud on the telephone wire then you can join me and clap your hands, or paws, or anything you’ve got. Be creative – enjoy humour and wordplay and remember, as Londoners should, that larger than the Tasmanian Giant crab is the largest crustacean in the world – Kings Crustacean.