We Tried to sing

I AM ALWAYS CHUFFED when hymns appear unexpectedly. Take BBC’s John Simpson; someone gave me his autobiographical Strange Places, Questionable People for Christmas. The title, come to that, would fit Christmas too, but this is John rather than Matthew or Luke. It is a gripping read, if not always a pleasant one. Quite early on, this former Christian Scientist confesses: ‘Instead I have gravitated to the Church of England, and nowadays sing all the same old hymns and say all the same old prayers and collects familiar to me from the past’ – that is, from his schooldays at St Paul’s. Lucky man, I hear you mutter.

In this modem, media-driven secular book of travel through late twentieth century horrors we encounter bishops, prayers, stained glass, and Now thank we all our God. You can’t keep a good hymn down.

I do not say this is a great book. But I would claim that for another present, Ed Ball’s Slaves in the Family. His family tree, researched with equal energy, care, courage and pain, unfolds an enormous cast of slave-owners, slaves, and the mixed-race cousins who fit in nowhere and everywhere.

And the hymns? This too is painful, but not so painful as the workhouse lash which gouged great lumps of flesh and blood from black skin. As a boy I sang at school about South Carolina and saw Gone with the Wind’ at the cinema, without much understanding of the politics. But here it all is, and religion, too. The slaves sang their unforgettably heartbreaking spirituals which we have now tamed and prettified, and which their owners’ clans were until recently, unbelievably, imitating. The Ball clan of owners and masters, threatened by Yankee liberators, were crying to God, reading from Lamentations, and ‘We tried to sing hymns together. It was Sunday. Some could not sing, but wept.’?

This was 1865. My grandma was born ten years later. I am glad not to know which hymns they sang. I wonder what Amos would have said.

Meanwhile: December offered you our exclusively millennial quiz on hymns. Here are the answers for which you have clamoured:

1: Advice given to Isaac Watts by Sir Edmund King.
2: 2000 years appear in It came upon the midnight clear (1849).
3: Two archdeacons; the late George Timms, and Norman Warren.
4: Hilary Jolly won, runner-up Brian Wren.
5: Those fearsome lines by J M Neale.
6: Shelley and Arlott.
7: American RC musician Thomas Day wrote ‘Why Catholics Can’t Sing’?.
8: Complaints about shallow novelties came from Bernard Manning in 1942.
9: He also damned Horatius Bonar with this faint praise.
10: Trivial trash? A metrical accusation by Joseph Hart, author of How good is the God we adore.
11: Watts and the two Wesleys walked, talked and sang, 1738.
12: The faggots blazed, the caldron’s smoke up through the green wood curled; Whittier’s 12th verse begins Dear Lord and Father, which some Americans prefer as Dear God who loves all humankind.
13: Surrey Chapel; Rowland Hill.
14: Probably Thank you for the world so sweet. 15: Mad to make joyous hymns was Walt Whitman.
16: John Tavener knows.
17: John Wilson.
18: Benjamin Webb, c.1849, said the age of hymns was over.
19: Who was glad? I was; Psalm 122. 20: Rock of ages.

The response was stunning. No-one scored 100%; the winner by the narrowest of margins, at the eleventh hour, was Tony Redman of Great Livermere, Suffolk, an authority on pigs and teenagers who (without either) has clambered over more church roofs than most of us. His prize is on its way.

Christopher Idle lives and works in the Diocese of Southwark