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13 December 2013

How to survive the annual carol concert: think about Wenceslas. Or do the crossword

By Nicholas Lezard

To St Michael’s Church in Highgate with the children for the annual Christmas concert. This is, I know, the most middle-class thing you can possibly do but I am obligated, as my mother, an ex-Broadway and opera singer, has been a stalwart of the choir since she moved to East Finchley, the next stop on the Tube, in the early 1970s.

Last year no one from the family went and it was given to us to understand that failure to attend this year would result in downward-cast eyes, sighs and other passive yet unmistakable expressions of disappointment. For someone who is not at all Semitic, she can do the Jewish mother thing very well.

Actually, as amateur musical groups go, the Highgate Choral Society is pretty good and while I have been dragooned into so many of their performances over the decades that I feel I have paid my dues, I do very often like the music they sing, and sing well. But as with all live performance across all art forms there is a whiff of penance about the whole thing – and coping strategies, the most extreme of which being non-attendance, sometimes have to be deployed. One year my father had a brainwave and took the Telegraph crossword with him to do while he sat in the pews. His reasoning was sound: he didn’t need to look at the performers, he knew what his wife looked like and wasn’t that interested in what anyone else did; he wanted to do the crossword and the music helped him concentrate, or at least provided a stimulating backdrop to his mentations.

Some outrage was expressed; unfairly, I think, but then this is the price you pay when you think beyond the confines of the pack. Still: hats off to my father. I have a certain je m’en foutisme about my dealings with the world, as some authorities have noticed, but in many respects he is streets ahead of me.

This year, as I was driving, my usual technique of mild narcosis had been denied me, so I found myself having to pay attention. I had brought a book for the concert but once I realised that the audience was going to have to join in some of the carols and that I needed to set an example to the fruit of the loins, it stayed in my pocket. But the boys and I looked with dismay at the programme for the concert. There were 30 songs, carols and instrumental pieces in all, a few of which had been composed by the conductor – rarely an encouraging sign – with one interval during which we would be encouraged to drink mulled wine and eat mince pies. (I had already seen the bottles in which the mulled wine was stored: they had labels saying “mulled wine” on them, so I marched us off to the Flask for a glass of something proper in the time we had before the concert started.)

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Well, we got through it in the end. My father was stuck next to a pair of noisy children playing on a laptop – a laptop – throughout the performance; meanwhile, the rest of the church echoed to the sound of toddlers galloping up and down the aisles and being herded by fathers in varying degrees of embarrassment. My boys stood up when asked to but refused to open their mouths in song. The Beloved sang the descants vigorously and everyone in the adjacent seats swivelled round to look at the woman who did not know the tune to the final verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”.

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I sang, too, for I love a sing-song and even though I am not entirely at ease with organised religion, I pondered the meaning of the words. For some reason I found myself stripping away the layers of sentiment and baby language of some of the carols to see the reality they obscured. The whole, recurring point, as far as I could see, was that Jesus was born in abject poverty. Translate that into modern terms and you would have the saviour of the human race being born into a family who would very much be the innocent target of this government’s diminishing tolerance.

I know that the wife of a (now ex-) Tory MP sings in the choir and wondered whether his successors would have absorbed the final lesson of “Good King Wenceslas”, which exhorts the wealthy to bless the poor, so that they may be blessed as well. I looked about at the sleek and well-fed members of the audience, and contemplated the incredibly genteel and desirable properties we had walked past on our way to the church. And I recalled a detail from Martin Rowson’s Christmas card, which had arrived that morning: a suited man with a briefcase bearing the initials “DWP”, saying to the Holy Family: “It’s not a stable – it’s a spare bedroom!”

Well, quite. And a Merry Christmas to you all.