Monday, December 20, 2010

White Christmas

Westminster Abbey

My first White Christmas! This is my last full day in London before flying home to Sydney (assuming Heathrow opens tomorrow, but I'm thinking positive), so I spent it celebrating Christmas - in the snow! This may not seem particularly unusual for Northern Hemisphere types, but for we Antipodeans it is quite a rite of passage. So what did I do?

Well, spent a cosy day indoors reading philosophy (Plato's'Symposium', which is nothing at all to do with Christmas, in fact arguably the reverse) and talking for a long hour to mi amigo en Madrid (íFeliz navidad!) I did venture into the St Pancras concourse to buy some Belgian chocolates from the Neuhaus shop, but found it packed to the gills with Eurostar passengers all trying to get to the continent. I scrabbled my way through, to the grateful welcome of the poor shopkeepers whose shop was all but inaccessible. They gave me free samples.

Westminster Abbey in the snow
In the evening, I took myself to Westminster Abbey, the mediaeval church which sees most Royal coronations (including Queen Victoria and the present Queen Elizabeth), weddings, and funerals too. It has been booked by Prince Will and Kate for next April; and it was where the funeral service of his mother, Princess Diana, was held; and his grandmother, the Queen Mother. It is also (somewhat like Jersey) a 'Royal peculiar'. This evening it was prettily surrounded by snow and lit up, under an almost full moon. Inside, the huge stone columns were wreathed with circlets of greenery, and Christmas trees decorated the screen. Many famous people are buried in the Abbey. The one I particularly noticed, perhaps with 'A Ceremony of Carols' in mind, was Benjamin Britten.

We who had come for the service were directed behind the screen, where heady incense was burning in a brazier (they are C of E, but very 'high'). I sat in the choir stalls, which were historic (and as historically uncomfortable as St. Bride's). The lights were dimmed, and Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, gave 'the Bidding'. Then followed what was billed as 'Music and readings looking forward to Christmas', and very ethereal and lovely it was too. And cold. I kept my down coat on through the whole thing. Well, it must be impossible to heat that enormous nave -  it is 31 metres high: built between 1376 and 1517. The church itself began life as Edward the Confessor's Abbey, consecrated in 1065.
Abbey entrance
The service consisted of plainsong, organ preludes and readings. The plainsong was of Antiphons known as  'The O Antiphons', which were written somewhere around the 4th century. The organ preludes were being performed for the first time - yes, a 'world premiere'. Organist James McVinnie has an extensive resume of performances to his credit (including playing 'The Voice of Jupiter' at the Royal Albert Hall), but new music also has a strong place in his repertoire. Tonight it was music written by New York based composer Nico Muhly. According to the information in the program, Nico has written extensively for choirs; and also for Antony and the Johnsons, Bjork and various films, including 'The Reader'. I found the organ preludes striking and evocative. The organ in Westminster Abbey is not on the scale of 'The Voice of Jupiter', but is nevertheless an impressive instrument. Organ music, I think, always sounds so...well, metallic: like the pipes from which it issues. Certainly when played at volume it is extraordinary, especially when echoing through a 31 metre-high nave, in a dimly-lit mediaeval church on a snowy December evening.

The plainsong was beautiful and slightly spooky:

'O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem...' and so on...

The readings were not exclusively Biblical. I was struck by a couple of lines:

'Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, not hankering after an imagined past...' (R S Thomas, 1913-2000)
'There is a hidden coming, like rain on fleece...' (Cyril of Jerusalem, c313-386)

I think it was an appropriate way for a philosophy novice to spend a Christmas service: in contemplation.

Emerging into the snowy night, I set off for Earlsfield, to find Kyle and Andrew's house (where I began my London adventure) transformed by its shroud of snow. Inside things were cosy and warm, and K & A cooked a delicious Christmas roast (lamb! it's been so long!) for myself and Rachel. Santa even left presents under the tree. We had mulled wine and pate, and pumpkin pie with cream (Kyle's Indiana roots showing..)

Tomorrow evening I am due to fly to Sydney on QF2. Heathrow was closed to most flights today. Let's see what tomorrow holds. Every day a new adventure!

Merry Christmas!

No comments:

Post a Comment