Highways and Byways of Hymns


REGULAR CONTRIBUTORS to New Directions pick up some varied feedback. One reader (Forward in Faith) rates this column as the best thing in the paper. Another (in Reform) writes from Venice, ‘You have clearly run out of ideas’. Neither, of course, is true. For one thing, we never had any ideas in the first place. We simply tell the truth. Hence this month’s heading; now it can be told.

What has this to do with hymns? If you want to make your mark in today’s hymn world, you have to face contemporary issues. Pollution, debt, arms sales, discrimination, disablement (but don’t call it that), unemployment, drugs, the internet, women’s issues, oppression, GM foods, mobile phones; this is our world, and to separate the social and secular from the spiritual and sacred is heresy. All this is old hat. But if you want to be seen to have arrived, one essential these days is to write a hymn about AIDS. This must be the world topic of the decade. With a line here, a verse there, about ignorance, bigotry, fear, prejudice, homophobia and fundamentalism, all set it to a catchy tune, you’re made.

But there are still issues where so far the hymn-writing battalions fight shy, and one of these is tobacco. In one way this is odd, since in 1820 John Keble pioneered boldly with ‘Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear: /…O may no earth-born cloud arise / To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes. (An earlier Wesley text about smoking pot, based on Genesis 15.17, has not so far been traced.)

From other angles, the long silence is no surprise. In the heady days of the young Osborne, Tynan and kitchen sinks, the avant-garde fearlessly pushed back the frontiers of theatre. But you had to search very hard to find any characters like the real-life smokers who were simply coughing themselves to death. Spluttering, gasping and choking on stage were not encouraged – not even discussing it, and certainly not being driven to the mortuary. Don’t tell me we didn’t know about lung cancer then; the only ones who hadn’t grasped the connection were the tobacco companies – so they tell us.

Will there ever he a musical based on the life of Roy Castle? His cancer was caused by passive smoking. A century ago the church, or its fringe, was well provided with hymns about the evils of alcohol. Not to everyone’s taste (the hymns), but they comprehensively analysed causes, warned of dangers, and pointed to the Remedy. Yet no-one has done the same for the poor cigarette addict.

You may think that I have missed the boat. With the adverts being curtailed, and only snooker and grand prix surviving the sports ban, why hit an industry already on the slide? I will tell you. Are we concerned about so-called Third World Debt? About poverty, medicine and community health in Africa and India, South America and SE Asia? Such themes are regularly handled in recent hymn collections, not least by North American writers. But now, to compensate for the threat to sales in the northern hemisphere, the tobacco giants are having to move in to the developing countries. So they can develop, of course: developing outlets, developing trade, and developing disease. This has massive potential for many more singing fields. We call it the free market economy. What better topic for some fearless modem writing, full of anger, accuracy and alliteration. What a shame that Roy Castle isn’t here to add his marvellous music!

Ideas – who needs ideas? See above; we just tell the truth.

Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark