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Here comes that kid again

2010 December 25
by Paul Vallely

I am history’s lady. Those are words that the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, imagines from the lips of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she takes the child she refers to as “my December baby” south to the safety of refugee Egypt, far from Herod’s maddened vengeance. They are from a lapidary suite of secular hymns known as the Manchester Carols.

The songs, and the narrative which links them, retell the Christmas story in a way which self-consciously echoes the time-honoured phrases of the Christian tradition but which sets them in a context in which we might, just might, be hearing the ancient story for the first time. Past and present exist side by side.

Advent singularly juxtaposes an awareness of the end of our world – the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell – with a sense of looking forward to a here-and-now that can be different. It underscores an ambiguity in our awareness of time.  With the arrival of Christmas we recall the past, prepare the present and anticipate the future. Now, perhaps more than at any other point in the church calendar, we become alive to the interaction between the events of history, the repeated rhythm of the seasons and the transcendence that arcs us on towards eternity. When Mary says she is history’s lady she perceives the relationship between the prison of the past, the striving of the present and the shaping of the future.

Readers with long memories will be aware that this is not the first time I have mentioned this extraordinary song cycle by Carol Ann Duffy and the composer Sasha Johnson Manning, who, like her poet librettist, writes in a captivating way which echoes tradition but moves us into a gloriously new melodic place. The end product, I am convinced, will become a part of the Christmas landscape for generations to come. But this year my experience of the work took on a new dimension when I was invited by the Prestbury Choral Society, and their inspiring musical director Andrew Dean, to act as narrator of the sequences which link the carols.

A few days afterwards I was reading the newspaper and came across the statistic that some 20 million people had watched the final of the ITV television talent show The X Factor and that 11 million had tuned into the semi-final of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. These are extraordinarily high viewing figures in an age where myriad digital stations have so fragmented the audience that shared viewing on that scale is generally something that is only remembered from the bygone era in which the only choice was to  watch BBC or ITV.

Of course slavish obeisance to the contemporary cult of celebrity might explain the success of the X Factor and Strictly. But I suspect that it is more to do with the fact that the audience is allowed to participate in the contests at the heart of the programmes by voting on which competitors are evicted and who goes on to win. There is perhaps a lesson for our modern politics in that. Everywhere I go I detect a constantly increasing sense of disgruntled alienation in the way ordinary people talk about politicians whom they see as utterly disconnected from the everyday interests of those who voted for them.

Connection was something I focussed on intently as I stood in the pulpit of the 900-year-old church of St Peter in Prestbury reaching out across the years, down a tradition, with new breathed words, to living faces.  Those who occupy pulpits more regularly may better understand the feeling, which is something actors also speak about in their engagement with audiences of different kinds.  The Christmas story, we know, is one which both transcends and transforms. But participating in its sharing and shaping somehow allows us to enter into that most profoundly. Happy Christmas.

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