To date, there’s only one childhood experience which remains as true today as it did when I experienced it as a kid. Yes, Culford School is a fee-paying enterprise. Yes, it’s had it’s history (a lot of it at odds with the image it projects). But, in comparison to many other re-enacted childhood memories, Culford’s carol service consistently delivers tradition. Depending on how I feel about my past, the carol service might even be Culford’s one redeeming feature.
The carol service is tradition. Present pupils attend with reluctance, past pupils attend all dewy-eyed. Some – keen listeners of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, for example – might even say derivative. But, speaking from personal experience, its consistency is reassuring. It’s the real life version of Radio 4.
I sang in the Culford School ‘Carols Choir’ from 1981 to 1991. It was a magical experience. The school chapel choir would sing an introit (it would never be referred to as an ‘introit’ in the order of service for fear of alienting the very people who had forked out money to send their loved ones there in the first place), after which some poor treble would have the unenviable task of delivering the solo in Once in Royal. Selected mothers convinced it was their son singing would wipe away a tear, after which the choir would sing in four-part harmony. The congregation would dutifully stand and the choir would process down towards their seats.
Twenty one years on, nothing has changed. This years service started with Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, after which I blubbed like a baby as I watched the choir process down the nave.
I stood side-on to the altar. To my left, the assembled crowd of girls from Jocelyn House, flanked by their house-mistress Bronwen Recknell. Ahead of me, in front of a line of pupils specially selected to read excerpts from the bible, Bronwen’s husband James conducted the combined pre-prep and senior choirs in various numbers throughout the service.
Both individuals had played key roles in my own development: the former responsible for my fascination with history and narrative, the latter central to my love of music and obsession with Benjamin Britten. In 1991 I stood in the choir watching James’ beat. Twenty-one years later I stood glued to the same familiar beat as I struggled to sing through each carol. (For the record, ‘Angels From The Realms of Glory’ is officially the most boring carol of all.)
When the American lady in the row in front of me brushed my arm to say goodbye to me at the end of her first carol service, I made a point of telling her that this was the kind of tradition she couldn’t afford to overlook. “It’s the same now as it was twenty years ago, ten years before that and almost certainly ten years before that.” The look she gave me, I might as well have been Prince Charles and that we were both at King’s College, Cambridge not Bury cathedral.
Tradition is everything. If it was me, I would have insisted on a bit more pomp and circumstance. Still, I appreciated recognising so much of what I recalled as a kid.
What came as a shock was learning of the death of a former teacher. Not, as you might suspect, one I was taught by, instead someone I ended up meeting when I interviewed for a BBC film a few years back. “He was the chap who wore really loud jackets, wasn’t he?” I asked an old school friend I bumped into after the service. “Yes,” she said, “It was all very quick. Cancer.”
I’ve never really felt a connection with my school before now, marvelling instead at the comparatively effortless way Facebook connections have enabled me to bond with names and faces from my past. Indeed, it was those very connections which encouraged me to return to Bury St Edmunds today, giving me an excuse to experience again a musical event which over a period of ten years ended up leaving an indelible mark.
This afternoon I stood and watched nonchalant teenagers on the other side of the cathedral mime their way through the carols. Would they leave Culford and reminisce about the carol service in years to come? I hope so. It is one of the few childhood experiences which still delivers in adulthood. I only wish I’d been prepared to place the fiver in my pocket on the collection plate. All I could muster was a paltry 30p.