That Other Golden Jubilee: our Debt to Dulwich
Without a first-hand acquaintance with Dulwich College, SE London, in the 1890s, it is difficult to envisage the rows of small and large boys at their daily assembly in Chapel. One surmises, from the evidence, that they sang lustily from some solid Church of England hymn book. But lest you think we dwell too much on the past, consider the publishing success of Penguin Books. They do not continue their print-runs if no one is reading the stuff, and the works of former Dulwich boy PG Wodehouse are still available.
World of Wooster
Take, for example, Pigs Have Wings, whose golden jubilee is being celebrated this year. Or should be; it was first published in 1952. I cannot say that hymns are vital to the plot, or that without them you cannot work out why the pig is in the kitchen, which pig it is, or who put it there. But it will be sad if future editors have to provide footnotes for the references, just as new editions of other classics help their student readers by explaining who Pontius Pilate or Jonah were.
We could approach this from the other end by asking what these five hymns have in common: ‘As pants the hart for cooling streams’, ‘Christian, dost thou see them on the holy ground’, ‘Fight the good fight’, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ and ‘The voice that breathed o’er Eden’. I can see young Wodehouse, who sang well, warbling merrily through all but the last, which he must have picked up elsewhere. But you now know the answer. They all feature in or around Blandings Castle, Shropshire, in the work we celebrate this year. You will note the respective authors, on whom I shall have more to say in August: Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, John Mason Neale, John Samuel Bewley Monsell, William Cowper and John Keble. Anglicans to a man, and fifty years ago they were all within the mainstream of English culture. At least, the author thought so, or he could not have expected his readers to pick up the hints. Hints are sometimes all we get. I have no wish to spoil the denouement, but when Beach the butler encounters pig man George Cyril Wellbeloved at the back door, ‘he might have been a prominent Christian receiving an unexpected call from one of the troops of Midian.’ The alert reader has been prepared by a previous and fuller reference. ‘As pants the hart’ gets no such early-warning support. And as soon we plod in with explanations, the sparkling delight of the allusive style is lost. I shall take no further risks by quoting more, especially as PGW wrote at that time, ‘My loathing of the critics continues unabated; damn their impertinence for praising my books!’
The hymns, as we might expect, are all in The English Hymnal and the Standard Ancient and Modern, published when our novelist’s schooldays were well past. As part of the premiership of hymnody, they lasted well; but one or two have begun the slide down the divisions. How will modern readers fare, not so much in recalling their inheritance as enjoying new treasures referred to in passing during their light reading? I have few encouragements. But if the BBC’s Jeremy Vine is a name to conjure with, it may be helpful to know ‘Great is your faithfulness’ (Jubilate version) when you pick up ‘Forget heaven, just kiss me’ from the 20p stall outside the shop.
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark