Some twenty years ago, as a much younger man, I worked as a teacher in what is now referred to as an “Independent School”. Part of my pastoral responsibilities lay with the care of a group of cathedral choristers, during times outside school terms when these talented young singers were required by their musical establishment to be performing at public services, concerts, broadcasts and the like. Naturally, this involved Christmas. As well as my teaching, I, too, was a professional singer in the same cathedral foundation – singing the adult parts of the music – alongside my young charges, and Christmas became a time of mellow dark evenings, soft lights, good company among the families I served, and lovely music. The lights of the High Street twinkled in the distance, yet never dominated; my heart would hum contentedly at each Christmastide that passed – a real resonance with the music, the symbolism, the people with whom I shared the season. Life in those days was good.
For whatever reason, the bombs of stress and depression soon began to fall on my once comfortable existence in the Church and its school, as my social profile began to work against me. I believe I was never guilty of any sort of misconduct, yet that profile, in the evermore nervous, secular world of child protection no longer seemed to fit comfortably – male, unattached, knocking on the door of middle-age, yet still working with young children. And the Establishment seemed determined, simply to dispose of me in order to maintain their “squeaky clean” public image at any cost. I was left with no choice other than to get out as quickly as possible, and my exit from a world that for a time I thought might be life-long, was painful, to say the least. It took me to the very edge. Christmas, for it’s part, became nothing more than a grey, annual ritual to be survived, with nothing to protect me from the brash, garish glare of shopping mall and supermarket lights, exhorting us to give them as much of our money as they were able to prise from us. Christmas had now become for me just an empty, commercial ritual – the resonance to which it once rang had fallen silent…
Having stared into the abyss of mental oblivion, a young locum doctor at my local health centre – she was called Kate – offered to refer me to a professional counsellor at the practice. I must admit that, up until this point, I had been rather dubious, even cynical, about the value and merit of counselling, but with nowhere else, realistically, to go, I took up the offer – and a lady called Dot took me under her wing. The final, and most vividly memorable thing she taught me was a set of coping strategies – let’s call them relaxation techniques – all based around reconnecting with my five natural senses. Close your eyes and think of your favourite place… And I thought of white sands and blue ocean on Lady Elliot Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A special touch… My old cat, Bairstow, ever content to be held upside-down, all four paws in the air, having his tummy tickled. A sound… At that, a humming began from deep within, an up-welling of feeling, the sort that makes the eyes fill and breathing become deeper, in response to something extra-special, pleasurable, infinitely meaningful. Dot noticed. The memory of that moment remains with me, vividly, to this day. Dot had succeeded in her mission; I had reconnected… Certain musical sounds, particularly the treble or young soprano voice, and particular pieces of music, seem intensely to stimulate a certain space in my brain and instantly turn me into a heap of quivering mush. Resonance.
And so, with Dot’s help, the foundation of a new “me” was laid. I left teaching and went to drive a bus. I loved it; good times with young folks, old folks, folk I’d never met before, a new, warm feeling of camaraderie with co-workers. The hum began to grow again. Resonance.
The years have passed, and with it the slog of being up at “stupid-o’clock” in the morning for the early shift on the buses, or finishing at equally stupid hours at night, has gone, too. In a new state of semi-retirement, I took a little job at Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, in the tiny Pumpkin coffee bar on platform 7 – my own little “Broom Cupboard”, with a grandstand view of the hustle and bustle of daily commuter life. More to the point, I had the privilege of working with some simply lovely young people, mostly from Europe, as well as regularly teasing the punters who innocently came for their coffee, only to be lambasted with my truly dreadful jokes! It was all so refreshing, being among young folk again. I got on particularly well with one young Italian lady co-worker; I would teach her new words of English, and she would give me some Italian in return, and not all of it was repeatable! Working in the Broom Cupboard was actually quite fun. I even struck up an “understanding” with Nigel, the leader of the station’s seagull mafia and regular winged felon, raiding my store for munchies just when I wasn’t looking. It’s now been some months since working there, and I miss Nigel in a funny sort of way – rumour has it that he, too, has left Temple Meads for pastures new, citing a belief that raiding the Platform 7 Broom Cupboard for packets of Quavers is no longer an adventure! Nevertheless, the resonance of life continues to build anew.
So, Dear Reader, the story comes a full circle, right up to the here-and-now. These days, the fall of the year invariably sees our national broadcaster, the BBC, putting onto television a colourful live family dance spectacle each week, over the course of some three months; this has become the institution of Strictly Come Dancing, in which fifteen celebrities from British society train to dance Latin and Ballroom, and entertain us each week with what they have (or have not!) achieved. One leaves the competition each week, until there are just four left standing for the final. I must admit, that dance has hitherto left me in something of a state of artistic scepticism, but the resonance is still rising in me, like the bubbling of magma, up from the depths of the Earth’s core, just desperate to burst forth over the surface of the planet. Dance is actually stirring and pumping it some more…
As the show’s sixteenth season started, we were introduced to this year’s crop of celebrities: Nothing remarkable resonated for me…yet. Just another regular season of Strictly Come Dancing…? There was a cute-looking red-headed lass called Stacey from Luton, an investigative journalist by day, and a young lad called Joe, who, we were told, used to be a thatcher in Wiltshire, and now regularly blogs on YouTube (Joe who?); dear Joe didn’t really look any more substantial than the straws he once used for doing those roofs! Then there was a professional para-sportswoman called Lauren, minus her right arm from birth, but game for anything. And then, we had two former pop singers, one called Faye (from Steps), and Ashley (once a Pussycat Doll)… These were but five out of the class of fifteen.
The viewing public gets to vote for their favourite dancers each week, and seems determined in its demand that the celebrities have some sort of “journey” during their time on Strictly. And so it began: In Week 3, Movie Week, Faye quick-stepped her way to the top score of the evening, whilst Ashley just caught my eye with the first really daring lift of the series during her Salsa – recreating the famous moment between Patrick Swayzee and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing: Ashley wobbled a bit, but she did it, and the audience roared.
I missed the Hallowe’en special in Week 6, stuck on a train travelling back from a day on the south coast… Somewhere in the Wiltshire countryside that evening, my ‘phone went ding, announcing a message from a friend to tell me that Ashley had just scored 39 with her “Trolls” Charleston – near perfection. And later, Faye, too – 39 for her Jazz number to Peggy Lee’s Fever. My heart fluttered a little at the thought of watching these two on catch-up when I got home; I was not disappointed, the resonance was beginning…
Two weeks later, Strictly hit me like a train: Ashley prefaced her performance that evening with a tearful pre-recorded piece to camera about recently losing her father – not something with which I usually empathise particularly well. But then… the performance… the first ever Contemporary dance to be seen on Strictly… and it was 90 seconds of sheer ecstasy. Mesmerising. Ashley looked incredible. That dance was an open window, straight through to her inner being, everything she must have been feeling for her lost father. The up-welling of emotion inside me was uncontrollable – Shirley Ballas, head judge, sobbed live on national TV as she delivered her critique…and so did I. Three 10s and a 9 – only the ultra-demanding Craig still withheld the perfect score; it was rather early in the series for that, after all. Ashley Allyn Roberts’ performance just screamed to me that evening – perfect harmonic resonance, and even as I awoke the following morning, I was still quivering. I later read that Ashley had lost her father just months ago… to perhaps the worst of all, suicide. I resonated some more.
The following week was Strictly’s annual trip to the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, and in those hallowed surroundings, Ashley Roberts reached her “Palm Sunday” moment: Judge Bruno Tonioli described her Jive as a moment of “Strictly history…” The audience simply roared at Craig to finally bring out his “10” paddle, and roared some more when he did. A perfect 40, and that evening, Ashley could, seemingly, do no wrong.
But people are just cruel. From that moment on began the passion of Ashley Roberts, as social media lit up with spiteful, even hateful, comment about Ashley having an unfair advantage, on account of her perceived previous “professional” dance experience. The annual Strictly social media punch-up was on! Frankly, I just don’t give a damn about the debate that blew up – the young lady had delivered to me, and thousands of other like-minded folk like me, performance of such deep resonance, and that performance was coming to mean more and more every week. Resonance.
Ashley did make it to the final of Strictly this year and completed her own, unique, Strictly journey; so did Faye, Stacey and Joe. Dear Lauren was eliminated in the semi-final, but spoke so eloquently on live TV as she left, and that, in itself, was a huge moment. The stage was set for what promised to be the biggest show ever to be seen on British TV; I was beside myself, day-by-day, with artistic anticipation. The “Ashley” row raged on, and it was clear that the hapless girl had no chance of actually winning the trophy – but that, somehow, seemed to provide a release for her: What Ashley gave us in that Finale was utterly a masterclass, total perfection, and most importantly, a real poke-in-the-eye to all the bullying haters who were giving her such a bad time in the media. Faye, too, gave us stunning grace and beauty with her own favoured Hollywood glamour style, and the two of them headed into the Strictly stratosphere, in a league of their very own. Meanwhile, Stacey received the Glitterball Trophy (then apparently misplaced it at the show after-party!), and Joe did himself no harm at all, gaining, by all accounts, a new girlfriend in dance partner Dianne. I wish them every happiness 🙂
It is many a long year since I have experience the sort of emotional stimulation I received from Strictly this year. Just a TV show…? It was more than that. Days later, I was still humming with the resonant response to it all. As I walked out with my new-found buoyancy just before Christmas, I wondered, could I ever, one day, find that long-lost REAL Christmas of years gone by once again? Just like the ones of old, when I was still making music in the Church and looking after kids at Yuletide? Mmmmm… It’s a bit late this year, I thought. Maybe next time…
Christmas Day 2018 itself was grey and drab outside, not really promising anything more than a regular day. Another regular Christmas. No sign of Real Christmas here. But then, a lovely moment twinkled, as I sat on my bed wondering what the young people I had been working with so happily at Temple Meads might be doing on that day. I thought about sending out a couple of texts to them, but put the idea to the back of my mind for a while. All at once, the ‘phone went ding, and there it was, a Christmas message, quite out of the blue, from my young Italian friend; and in that one, tiny moment, Real Christmas was right there before my eyes, right there in front of me. Resonance rang like a bell inside; Christmas Day was finally special once again. And that is now forever etched in my memory. Wherever you are, young Lori, I wish you the very best for 2019… 😉