Celebrities have depressingly predictable tastes, finds Brian Brindley
My Favourite Hymn, compiled by Graham Ferguson Lacey, Robson Books £18.95
Tsus is a very nice hook, contributed to by mostly nice people, and on a topic that will be of interest to most nice people. It is sold on behalf of the Red Cross, who will receive £3 for each copy sold, and is sure to attract a wide sale. I hope it does well.
But a critic does not fulfil his obligation to his readers by mere glad-handing, however worthy the cause. I cannot help thinking what a much better book this might have been, had more attention been paid to the finer details of editorial method. Of course. the compiler cannot be blamed for the trite and obvious choices of his contributors: the footballer Tony Adams, the first of them, says frankly "Morning Has Broken simply reminds me of my childhood days. When at school we would sing this hymn". And Norman Wisdom, almost the last, says "Rock of Ages is my favourite hymn because we sang it at school". There are 100 hymns. chosen by 100 "celebrities" (some of whom I have never heard of before) and, apart from a dozen or so oddities, the book might just as well have been called Hymns We Used to Sing at School. (Maureen Lipman has chosen Lord, Dismiss Us with thy Blessing, which is only ever sung at the end of school term, but the version printed is not the one used on such occasions.)
Oddities are to be expected: the Chief Rabbi offers Psalm 22 (23) in Hebrew, Topol gives us a Sabbath Prayer, and Dr Zaki Badawi chooses a beautiful Muslim prayer but not a hymn. But what are we to make of Felicity Kendall's Agadah, a poem that can hardly be sung? Or of the fashion designer Catherine Walker's long prose passage from Kahlil Gilbran?
The most popular choices are Onward, Christian Soldiers (five times, though hardly ever sung in church these days) and Mr Valiant-For-Truth's Song from The Pilgrim's Progress (twice in Butiyan's original words, three times in Percy Dearmer's mutilated version; ears of cloth must he have who finds "He who would valiant he, 'gainst all disaster" better than "Who
would true valour see, let him come hither". But in all five instances the hymn is ascribed to Dearrner.)
Abide With Me occurs four times, Bread of Heaven only three: soccer is still more popular than rugger. For Alt the Saints also has four entries, and P D James includes three verses I had never come across before. Prince Michael of Kent has a good story of his childhood family doctor, with the surname "Saint" and numerous children, who arrived late for church and had blushingly to find their seats during the singing of For Al! the Saints. My favourite anecdote is told by the scriptwriter Laurence Marks, who remembers being dragged out of the school carol service by
his Jewish mother just as he was about to sing, solo, "Mary was that Mother mild, Jesus Christ her little Child".
The Day Thou Gayest, Lord, is Ended is chosen by three people: Rowan Atkinson, who finds the tune St Clement "extremely moving"; Lord Owen, who praises "a simple rhythm which allows it to be sung without musical accompaniment"; and Rick Warner, "Musician and Television Personality", who says it is "encased in one of the most beautiful melodies ever written". Yet a hundred years ago musical people were united in condemning the tune, with its many opportunities for portamento, as the nadir of taste. You can't keep a good tune down! Lord Owen, incidentally, prints some trashy doggerel beginning "The day you gave us, Lord, is ended, the sun is sinking in the west", and ending (instead of with the triumphant "Till all the nations own thy sway") with the banal "Until there dawns that glorious day". Cloth ears again. Auberon Waugh comments perceptively "Like the Anglicans, the Catholics have sacked most of their grand old hymns, preferring sentimental rubbish with no tune to speak of. I think the reason for this is that the regular church attenders wish to discourage occasional visitors. It is a terrible shame".
The worst fault of this compilation, on its own terms, is the decision not to print tunes with the hymns: just four are included: Repton, to Dear Lord and Father of Mankind; Old Hundredth, to All People that on Earth Do Dwell; Horsley, to There is a Green Hill Far Away; and Eventide to Abide With Me. These are surely the very tunes we might have managed from memory. "Baroness Margaret Thatcher" (the book is throughout hazy on how to refer to people with titles, and its pages are full of people unknown to the editor of Who's Who, such as "Lord David Alton") tells us firmly that she wants Jesus, Lover of my Soul sung to Aberystwyth; but at other times we are left in the dark.
RONNIE BARKFR, for instance, says "I have chosen Praise to the Holiest in the Height because of the wonderful rising bass harmonies, especially in the third line". Well, there are four popular tunes to this hymn: Sir Richard Terry's Billing, and Sir Arthur Somervell's Chorus Angelorum, both familiar to Catholics, J B Dykes's lovely Gerontius, and the not very appropriate Richmond by Haweis: come the Good Friday ecumenical service, someone is doomed to disappointment. Most of us do not own more than one hymn book with music , so we have no means of searching out these lush harmonies. How nice it would be if we could carry My Favourite Hymns to the piano and find out.
I fear I have been a trifle pernickety about this book. It does contain some good things. I particularly liked Dame Thora Hid, explaining her choice of Onward, Christian Soldiers: "I do not know what I would do without God; and nor do I know who I would have been without the cross and what that stands for — I thank God daily for all his love".