Well I’ve often enough in this life stopped dead in my tracks to ask the Big One: What fchrissakes am I Doing Here? Except in boep, of course, where a great big ugly man with a badge on his hat read out exactly what I was doing there and for how long and declared he hoped next time he saw me in there it would be so I should get hung. But here I was now in Württemberg, which I’d never even heard of when I did Special German fanagalo at the university. Jawohl, so how did I get from there to studying the techniques of mural painting in Stuttgart?
It is 1952. All still looks pretty skeletal. Stuttgart never got it like Berlin, certain buildings still stand, but it looks like Hell. Never to worry, says a crinkled-up old Herr Proffi from the Akademie, God spared us the Markuskirche and there you may see the great frescoes of the German Renaissance. Nu? Never mind the god bit, let’s see if this lot is as passionate as the Giotto frescoes of Florence, hey? Hum-te-tum, I stroll across to St Mark’s late on a Sunday when all the church business should be over, and... and... the place is packed with people, all silent in expectation... of what?
A couple of dozen folks with sheet music and tidy clothing troop on to a makeshift stage. They are the Three Cities Choir: Munich, Augsburg und Stuttgart. Another dozen or two with Baroque instruments follow. If they are going to make music they couldn’t find a better place. This church got its top blasted off entirely by Ami B17s, with post-war money and guilt the Amis have now rigged up makeshift wood and corrugated asbestos walls and roof to keep out the rain for now and bejasus you couldn’t design a more scientific sound-box for the human voice. They sing. J S Bach. The B-minor Mass.
If you want true passion you must have no sloppy art, and I tell you sloppy is not what these Germans are about. With the utmost precision they sing: Cum sancto spiritu – with the holy spirit – and a heraldic trumpet coming in at just the moment of truth fair gives me the chicken skin. A young woman next to me is openly weeping, I offer her my handkerchief. Never mind the holy bit, this, all of it, is about survival of the human spirit! I head for home drained.
Back in London I’m still a bit drained. It’s a couple of weeks till I’m due back at the Institute, I hang about. And then, in an Underground station of all places, appears a poster with a pic of Gloucester cathedral and a notice saying that on a certain Sunday the St Matthew Passion will be performed there. Bach. Johann Sebastian Almighty Bach. More, more, more! I shall hitch-hike to Gloucester the very next morning and pull in at the Youth Hostel, get in early on the day and find a nice pew near the musicians. And I’m off!
Early autumn in the lovely countryside, Constable countryside, and other side of Oxford I team up with a hitch-hiking Hispanic sort of bloke name of Tony Gomes. Where are you from? say I. Glue Sister, says he, and Guyana. And you? London, say I, and South Africa. I’m going to work on a farm at a place called Chipping Norton, says he, Why don’t you come along? Just like that? say I. Yeeah, says he, there’s this scheme for city people who can’t afford a holiday in the country to go and help with the harvesting and you get no wages but lots of lovely grub and fresh air and free time. Okay, say I, and here we go, picking apples with about a dozen young city folks, so gaan dit mos when you’re 23. Lovely exercise, and the farmer gives us jugs of cider with our supper. Not your silly city bubbly stuff, this, it is straight apple wine, green, 12% alc. Every evening is a festivity.
And one of these evenings Tony sings for us a calypso: Mahatma Gandhi go to use and a Red Army sport done blow he fuse. I sing a Boere liedjie: My naam is Hans ek is vyf voet ses, my van is
Wobblyou o r s. And a local farm hand sings for us:
Oi knows where a blackbird be, Oi be going yonder,
Ee be up in yonder tree, buggered if Oi don’t foind ee,
Ee knows Oi, Oi knows ee, buggered if Oi aint after ee,
Forty year Oi worked on a farm and ee cassn’t take the piss out of Oi.
And quite suddenly I go into a cold sweat and exclaim Bloody Hell! I’m supposed to be in the cathedral! Where? say all in alarm. In Glue Sister, say I, for some wonderful singing. But we’re singing here, says Tony Gomes.
Ja, I suppose so, say I. Pass the cider.
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