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The wonder boys: meeting Winchester Cathedral's choristers

Being a chorister is hard work, and their commitment to their music tends to give them a startlingly mature outlook on certain aspects of life.

For a thousand years, people have come to cathedrals at the coldest time of the year to be reminded that something better is coming, that the light will return. Nowadays, the anticipation of that moment is punctuated by the arrival of TV adverts and the counting-down of shopping dates, but in all the festive cacophony, it is still possible to hear music – the kind that promises us that amid all the tinsel and tat there is perhaps still space for wonder.

Nothing does this more effectively than the pure, young voice of a chorister. Whether it’s on Classic FM or the annual BBC broadcast of carols from King’s, every year we pause for a moment to listen and marvel at the way these children can sing. Then we carry on with our own celebrations, giving little thought to the seven-year-olds for whom Christmas is, in essence, another day at work.

And it’s hard work, too. Church attendance is dwindling, so the rest of the year the choristers’ audiences may be small, but at Christmas everything is different. At Winchester Cathedral, they have to put on the same carol service three times to make sure all the thousands of people who want to attend can squeeze in.

The choristers, who are pupils at the Pilgrims’ School adjacent to the cathedral, return after the rest of their classmates have gone home for the holidays and stay until Christmas Day. They rehearse intensively during this period and sing in public – either for a service or for a concert, or both – every day. Given that they are all between seven and 13 years old, it’s a punishing schedule after a busy school term. The adults in the choir – known as lay clerks – are all professional singers and the children are expected to sing to the same standard.

For all their musical prowess, they are still children. Following a double file of small, cloak-clad figures as they make their way from the school to the cathedral, I watch the boys race and push and shove around me as they go. One raises a stack of plastic cups to his eye and pretends to be a Dalek, threatening to exterminate his fellows. Another stops to poke at something in the gutter with a stick and then runs to catch up, cloak streaming.

Inside the cathedral, the ribs vault over our heads like a whale skeleton, neck-achingly high, meeting in the middle to form a great ceiling of bleached, carved bone. The boys disappear briefly to change and then, still teasing and groaning, they gather at the foot of a dark fir tree. It’s only when the candles they hold are lit that they are suddenly no longer boys but choristers, a perfect Christmas tableau with puddles of light illuminating their white ruffs and crimson cassocks. As they begin to sing “Away in a Manger”, the air in the cathedral quickens and hums along with them.

If staying at school for weeks to do hour after hour of choir practice after everyone else has left sounds like the worst sort of torture, these boys certainly don’t see it that way. The staff who remain at the school to look after the boys do their best to make “choir time” fun. The boys excitedly tell me about how the school rules banning Nerf guns – which fire foam bullets – are relaxed and that they are allowed to turn the dining hall into a battleground, upturning the tables and benches to make forts as they declare war on each other. If the weather is fine, long games of “capture the flag” take place on the school playing fields, which are partly encircled by the ancient city wall. There are a few historic games, too – they follow hundreds of years of chorister tradition by angling for paper fish from the landing in the deanery and play a complicated coin toss game in teams to win a coveted trophy.

Their commitment to their music tends to give them a startlingly mature outlook on certain aspects of life. Paddy, who, being in year eight, is one of the older boys in the choir, admits that being a chorister has altered his perception of what it means to be busy. “All the choristers complain that we don’t get enough free time, but when we do, we don’t know how to use it,” he explains. “It’s actually quite fun,” agrees Alex, who is a year younger. “I’d rather be at school doing stuff than sitting at home doing nothing.”

Ice skating is also a popular activity and because of their daily work in the cathedral, the boys get after-hours access to the rink set up just outside its walls. They look almost too much like a Christmas card, shooting about on skates in their cassocks. On Christmas cards, though, nobody breaks any bones – but Paddy has a fresh cast on his wrist, the result of a slip on the ice. “When I went to hospital, they gave me a choice of colour for my cast,” he says. Ever the dutiful chorister, he picked red, “because I thought it would blend in with my cassock”.

On 25 December at the Pilgrims’ School, 17 small boys will wake up early and dash downstairs to empty their stockings. (Their parents will join them for lunch but, for the moment, the boarding master’s wife plays both mum and Father Christmas.) Outside, the deputy head will let off a big firework, an unusual custom that puzzles those nearby who are not in the know – what is that booming noise, so early on Christmas morning? But parents, friends and parishioners will be listening out for the bang and sizzle. They know that the same children who are capering around in their pyjamas, delighting at the explosion, will soon be in Winchester Cathedral, candles lit and voices raised.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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