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Sweet singing in the choir: preparing for Christmas with Salisbury’s girl choristers

For the choristers at Salisbury cathedral, Christmas is the busiest time of year.

From the top of the tower at Salisbury Cathedral, you can see the whole world. Or, at least, the world as it appeared to the masons who completed the spire in the early 14th century: the lead roof of the nave and the houses huddled in the cathedral close a hundred metres below, then the water meadows and the River Avon beyond and, on the horizon, the site of the first cathedral here, the Iron Age hill fort of Old Sarum. In the stillness, a flock of birds swoops between the tower and cloisters, perfectly synchronised.

Down below, fir boughs are being brought inside to decorate the cathedral. With a chill in the air and the forest scent rising from the heaps of greenery everywhere, it’s easy to imagine that the vaulted roof is open to the wintry sky. Not all the adornments are so traditional this year, though. Beside the customary garlands and candles is a shape-shifting laser star, designed by the creative coding artist Jayson Haebich. An algorithm controls what shapes and colours the lasers project on to a transparent screen suspended from the ceiling, ensuring that the star never repeats a pattern.

There’s a startling mixture of ancient and modern when the choristers arrive for their 8am rehearsal, too. On the day I visit, it is the turn of the girls’ choir to practise in the cathedral’s centuries-old song room. Its members file in wearing long, royal-blue cloaks over pink leggings and sparkling denim – the school that they attend in the cathedral’s grounds is having a charity home clothes day, so uniform rules have been relaxed. Once they are assembled in formation, their director of music, David Halls, briskly takes them through a rigorous, hour-long rehearsal for the coming services, breaking only to check the cricket score on his phone and share a few jokes with the girls.

These 16 girls, who are aged between eight and 13, share the musical duties at the cathedral equally with their counterparts in the boys’ choir. There is evensong every day, plus Sunday services, BBC broadcasts, special concerts and tours to fit in with their schoolwork. The same professional singers provide the lower parts for both the girls and the boys, and all of the children are expected to sing to the highest standard.

In 1991 – 900 years after the first boys’ cathedral choir here was founded in Old Sarum – Salisbury became the first English cathedral to form an equal and separate girls’ choir. Since then, all but four (Chichester, St Paul’s, Oxford and Hereford) have added girl choristers in some capacity, though Salisbury is still unusual in having gender equality between its choirs. Other cathedrals, such as Winchester and Canterbury, use older girls from all over the diocese and most of the day-to-day musical work is still done by the younger boys who attend the cathedral boarding school.

Over coffee in the refectory after the rehearsal, Halls tells me that people have finally stopped writing to him to complain about Salisbury’s decision to appoint full-time girl choristers. “It’s so tedious,” he says. “When we started [including] the girls, one of the great worries was that it would kill off the boys’ choirs. Well, it hasn’t, not in cathedrals anyway.”

In 1991 a pressure group called the Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir expressed concern that Salisbury’s actions were motivated by political correctness; it still maintains that girl choristers imperil “traditional” cathedral music.

Halls feels differently. “It’s mixed up with other things, a bit like women priests,” he says. “I suspect it’s about more than the music.”

Physiologically, the vocal equipment of boys before puberty is very similar to that girls at the same stage, he explains, so their singing isn’t that different. “Here, they sing in the same building, the same people train them, they know the house style that I like – it’s not a surprise that they sound pretty similar.” At Salisbury, the two choirs sing together for works such as Handel’s Messiah, to great effect.

Christmas is the busiest time of year for the choristers. They return to school after term has finished and sing as many as three services a day until Christmas Day. Katie Darke, a 13-year-old chorister, says that they call this time “chori hols” (short for chorister holidays).

“It’s full of things. We go to the hospital and sing carols. We do all the services and midnight Mass. That’s a good one – we stay up until 12am.”

When I ask if there is a favourite piece of music that they do at this time of year, the girls agree that Christmas carols are pretty fun to sing, though Imogen Moorsom, 12, adds that Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai, which they will sing for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, is also “really nice”.

She explains that spending part of your holidays at school, working, isn’t so bad. “Generally I get bored when I’m at home. It’s not boring here.” It isn’t all singing, either: the congregation pays for the choristers to go on an outing to the pantomime and the boarding-house staff organise lots of festive activities. As for working with their boy chorister colleagues: “They’re annoying,” says Beatrice Fisher, 13. “It depends on the boys,” Moorsom qualifies.

“Often you find that busy children are really happy children,” says the boarding-house mistress, Simi Slade. “They absolutely love it. They all pull each other along.” The children have a schedule that most adults would find stressful and tiring, and so Slade and Halls have to work hard to keep the choristers well rested and in good health.

Although midnight Mass and the Christmas Day services are the blockbuster musical events of the season – thousands pack the cathedral to hear the choirs – it is evensong on 24 December that Halls looks forward to most.

“We’ll have done the family service just before it, with nearly 2,000 people in there, kids screaming, donkeys all over the place. Then we do the evensong. And you think, ‘This is actually what we normally do.’”

With the young choristers in good voice for a selection of “nice, friendly music”, it’s a small moment of calm in a hectic season.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist