Whether one thinks David Cameron’s “big society” is hopelessly deluded or, as Ed Miliband put it, an attempt by the coalition government “to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society”, few would disagree that the aim of “unleashing community engagement” is a worthy one.
I have an idea that may not have found its way into Tory plans, but perhaps it should. For if the “big society” is to mean anything, it has to be about more than just delivering local services such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing services in a different way — important though that is. It also has to include the most ambitious target of all, which is to reverse the atomisation of our communities and to bring back some sense of belonging.
In other words: it needs to build social capital, as the former Labour adviser Andy Westwood conceded in a surprisingly fair-minded early response to Cameron’s big idea that you can find here.
And it struck me that, quietly, and without being connected with any discussion of the “big society”, one type of those “little platoons” Burke urged us to cherish has been showing its worth, in the concert hall, on the much-mocked (mostly justly mocked) format of reality television, and in real communities. I’m talking about choirs.
Real people sing Bach
Who provided a large number of the singers for Mahler’s 8th, which opened the Proms last week? Not a group of highly paid professional singers, but the amateurs of the Crouch End Festival Chorus.
Where on Sunday night could you see people of all different sizes, ages and races come together and give up their spare time to rehearse and then perform, both for their pleasure and for that of others? On Don’t Stop Believing, Channel 5’s show inspired by the success of US TV’s Glee. And what was it that brought “a real sense of pride”, according to a local teacher, to South Oxhey, a large, despondent and divided housing estate outside Watford? The community choirs, assembled by Gareth Malone, a tireless and inspirational chorusmaster featured in The Choir: Unsung Town and several other BBC series.
This will be no surprise to anyone who has spent much time singing in one; and I write as someone who did so for ten years, including, for five, in either the crypt or the nave of Canterbury Cathedral every Sunday. But that example should not be taken as typical.
In fact, the ones I mentioned above are far better models for choirs or choruses that bring communities or groups together. For, contrary to their slightly elitist image — ordinary people singing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, imagine! — the truth is that the chorus is one of the most powerfully egalitarian of institutions.
Unlike in sport, individual success does not require that others should fail (the only competition is to maintain or exceed the standard of performance). And unlike team sports, in which individual effort is noted, rated and judged, the chorus is one.
A footballer may be tempted to take a risky shot at a goal to further his own glory. A singer in a chorus whose voice can be heard amid the throng is doing something wrong; his or her role is to serve and combine in the greater group.
Indeed, it is precisely because of this melding of the many into one that it does not matter all that much if individual members of a chorus have particularly good voices. The embarrassment that leads many men in particular to claim that they can’t sing, or to pretend they can only do so in a basso profundo monotone growl (both nonsense — being genuinely tone-deaf or lacking at least the baritone range of a Frank Sinatra, in my experience, are extremely rare), swiftly disappears when singular imperfections are masked by a greater whole, affording singers the liberty to enjoy the most uplifting of forms of self-expression.
There is a reason why many mining pits used to have male voice choirs and why all religions employ singing as part of their devotions. The eastern bloc countries were very aware of the power of music — remember the Red Army Band and Chorus? But we have lost, or become shy of, one of the oldest and most bonding of human traditions.
It is a paradox that instances of singing — such as bellowing out a hymn as part of the daily act of worship schools were meant to provide under the Butler Education Act 1944 — came to be seen not as acts that enhanced esprit de corps or group solidarity, but as anachronistic, paternalistic examples of repression or religious indoctrination. Try telling that to any group of people who have just sung “Jerusalem”, whether at a funeral (as I have done twice in the past few weeks, at those for Sebastian Horsley and Beryl Bainbridge) or at a football match. They know better.
This suggestion may seem frivolous to some, perhaps, or a distraction from the cuts whose effects the “big society” is expected to ameliorate. But if the term is to represent anything real, if individuals are to think more generously about others than concentrating selfishly only on their own “rights”, something has to bring them together.
It will not, I think, be through the works of Philip Blond and Robert Putnam suddenly becoming bestsellers that a greater sense of cohesion and mutual obligation will come about. If, however, different people from across an area meet regularly in a common endeavour, they are surely less likely to walk on by or to ignore the problems faced by others, hitherto unknown, who have through this experience become neighbours — a notion of which our frightened, unfriendly cities, whose dwellers barricade themselves in at home behind triple locks and bars, are in desperate need.
A choir may be only one example of such an endeavour, but it is a good example, and one that deserves the encouragement and support of the Departments of Culture and Education. I would urge anyone who still thinks I’m being foolish, facetious or fatuous in suggesting it to look up any series of BBC2’s The Choir, and the third in particular.
Yes, it was a reality TV show. But I’m willing to bet that it brought more joy, hope and sense of community to a run-down, depressing area than any government initiative or grant has in the whole of South Oxhey’s existence.
No one knows exactly how to create a “big society”. But a big song might not be a bad start.