Monday, 14 November 2011

11.11.11 at 11.11

I always try to have gigs on Remembrance Day. It's good to spend the day remembering with the people who had their entire lives changed, defined by the war, and who remember their parents and grandparents who were in WWI. And I hope I'm a good enough musician to benefit them by my singing of the old songs we all love so much.

This year was especially busy, because my manager was clever enough to get me in to sing at the Poppy Factory in the morning, in Richmond. So I had four places to go rather than just the three.

I HIGHLY recommend a visit. They make poppies all year round, and have been doing so since the 1920s, when it started up as a way to give an income to the enormous number of injured soldiers. Read about their work here. As far as I know, they don't often have people coming to perform. It's a factory.

This photo was taken at 11:11 on 11.11.11
You can see, framed, dried poppies from Flanders Fields sent by a soldier to his wife in 1917, and the poem by John McCrae, which we Canadians know off-by-heart. Also you can buy lovely ceramic teacups and pots and saucers with poppies on them!

With Judith, post-gig, last month.
I was lucky to have Judith Flint, pianist-saviour, colleague and comrade on many a tour, performing with me. Melanie, the Chief Executive, greeted us warmly as Judith lugged in the piano that weighs as much as she does. General Manager Bill showed us around and asked us what we were doing for the rest of the day. I mentioned our three other concerts. "All on the same day?" I said that Judith and I often did tours with three concerts per day. "So you're not like that Katherine Jenkins who drinks liquids and doesn't talk for two days before a concert," he joked.

Well let's put it this way: I wouldn't get to very many retirement homes and hospices if I was.

Judith, dwarfed by a Yamaha and poppies
We started with "I'll be loving you, Always" and suddenly a whole bunch of German members of the British Legion filed in. They had all married British soldiers, or were children of British soldiers. The men and women making the poppies slowly put their fabric petals, plastic stamens and studs down and came toward us. We were surrounded by warmth. I made a gesture at the repetition of the chorus and they all started to sing!

We went on to "Did you ever see a dream walking" and I started to dance around the room, and held out my hand to factory-worker Julie, who joined me. We did "Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry" and got a real call-and-response going. It was like a scene from a WWII film. All this time I was watching the analogue clock on the wall. We had to stop for the radio to come on, for the silence, for the sound of Big Ben. I watched that minute hand. I knew we had to end with "We'll Gather Lilacs" but I didn't want to have to stop halfway. Judith, as always, read my mind, and after playing the piano intro, she flipped the pages forward and started in on the chorus. We did it once through and ended on a nice, long note. After the applause I thanked them for having me, and AS SOON as I shut my mouth, the radio:

"It is now eleven o'clock". And Big Ben.

How easily that could have gone wrong! It was so perfect, the photographer thought that Bill had put on a pre-recorded version!

At Chorleywood

We piled Judith's piano and music back into her car, got to Chorleywood, and gave a full hour's-worth there for Music in Hospitals, and Chris, who has MS and is in a wheelchair, asked us to do "Jerusalem". Judith knew it and I only had to look down at the sheet she gave me (did I say she was my pianist-saviour already?) a couple of times. It's a memorable text. I noticed from the footage of the Royal Wedding that everyone had their eyes glued to their sheets for Jerusalem. Not the residents at the Chorleywood Beaumont Home. They sat at attention, eyes straight ahead, word-perfect.

Off to the nursing home in Rickmansworth, considerably more humble, and all the ladies (they were all ladies there) assembled in the cafeteria to hear us. A woman was having her 78th birthday, but she'd had a stroke and couldn't speak. Her husband had brought a bunch of silvery balloons and some cards. He held her hand. But when we performed "Smilin' Through" she opened her mouth and sang every word. There were so many smiles in that room I can still feel them today, three days later.

We'll Meet Again
The traffic was kind to us, and we got to the Royal Star and Garter on time. Always try to be on time at the RS&G! The army, navy, air-force, engineers, merchant navy...time means a lot to them. The atmosphere in the huge Queen's Ballroom was intimate, hushed. I could try and write a book about a concert like that; it would involve finding every life-story for every person in the room, and each song in relation to that person.
Back at the Royal Star and Garter's Queen's Ballroom

All I'll say is that you've never sung "We'll Meet Again" until you're holding hands with a WWII veteran in a wheelchair, looking into his eyes and KNOWING that he's thinking of his lost comrades. Seeing them through his eyes, focussed on these people and their stories because of the song you're singing, a magical creation hovering all around you.
(Previous posts about the Royal Star and Garter: Part 1 and Part 2)

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