Last Saturday Crotchety Man went back to school.
It was the first time I had visited my old school, St. Dunstan’s College, in more than 45 years. My father, who also went to St. Dunstan’s, had visited a couple of years ago when they celebrated the 125th anniversary of moving to their present site in south London. This time they had invited former pupils who would have been in their final year between 1930 and 1970 for lunch and a tour around the school buildings. Having left in 1970 I was one of the youngest; my father, who left in 1949, was one of the oldest.
We had been told we would be interviewed by one of the prefects about our memories of our school days and subsequent careers. The conversation was to be videoed and added to the College’s ever growing archives. Needless to say this prompted some extensive archaeology within Crotchety Man’s personal memory banks in search of historical facts, anecdotes and, if possible, skeletons in the hope of providing something interesting, amusing or shocking for the official record.
Several artefacts came to light. There was the time Mr. Jeffries, a diminutive but perfectly formed example of the teaching profession (affectionately nicknamed ‘Peanut’), came into the classroom where we were expecting to have a German lesson. He hoisted himself into a sitting position on the big table at the front of the room and announced, “I don’t feel like doing any work today. Someone tell me a joke”. But I am not Tom Brown and this is a music blog not an autobiography covering my less Crotchety school days, so I won’t go into that.
One memory, though, that is appropriate for these pages is of a hymn we used to sing occasionally in the school assemblies. Although I loved some of the hymns I sang as a choirboy in our local church, I Vow To Thee My Country was always my favourite and it was only in those school assemblies that I had a chance to hear it and sing it. It is a highly patriotic song, excessively patriotic in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why it was never on the board in St. Bartholomew’s church. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the hymn book used there. I don’t know. What I do know is that this hymn, with its Thaxted tune, was given to me by St. Dunstan’s College and for that I am very grateful.
I Vow To Thee My Country started as a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, British Ambassador to the United States of America from 1912 to 1918. The poem was set to music in 1921 by the English composer Gustav Holst. Holst cheated a bit. Instead of writing a new piece to accompany the poem he took the music from his orchestral suite, The Planets. It is, in fact, the middle section of the fourth movement, Jupiter.
Jupiter is supposed to be the Bringer of Jollity, as Holst titled it, but it doesn’t feel jolly to me. Perhaps ‘playful’ is a better description for the main theme of the movement but neither ‘jolly’ nor ‘playful’ fit the tone of the bit in the middle that became the patriotic hymn in praise of dear old England. I prefer to think of I Vow as a sober but stirring folk song arranged for a full orchestra and choir. The instrumental parts sound to me more determined than frivolous, more hopeful than carefree. The words, though, express a somewhat different sentiment.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect the service of my love.
The writer is pledging to serve his country with all his strength and courage, to fight for the motherland even if it means he has to make the final sacrifice and lay down his life. It’s all a bit over the top. I mean, it’s OK to support your national football team but a blind allegiance to your flag, whatever colour it may be, smacks of rampant nationalism – the kind of nationalism, in fact, that had led to the Great War and prompted Cecil Spring Rice to write a rarely used second verse lamenting the terrible loss of life in that conflict.
The link I gave above is to a version of I Vow To Thee My Country by Helena Blackman and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a tad slower than most but it’s a good recording and the various textures of the strings, woodwind and brass come across really well. Enjoy the music, sing along with it if you like, but don’t think too much about the words. There’s a subtle difference between a love of one’s own country (patriotism) and a belief that all other nations are inferior to your own (nationalism).
The school reunion was scheduled to run from 12 noon to 3 pm. Mr. and Mrs. Crotchety had made full use of their Senior Railcards and the advanced booking rules to get cheap train tickets and we had to leave promptly at 3 o’clock to catch the train for the return journey. As the lunch progressed it became obvious that we would not have time for a tour of the school or to recount any memories for a prefect wielding a video camera. So, sadly, I never had a chance to entertain one of the current pupils with my wit and humour. To be honest, although she was polite and welcoming she didn’t really seem to be that interested in the old fogeys who surrounded her. And I’m just a Crotchety Old Man these days.
This post was prompted by the school reunion but, in the wake of the British EU Referendum result, it seems to have taken on a slightly political slant. I think our decision to leave the EU highlights a disturbing rise of nationalism within the UK and I worry that this might ignite the fuse of nationalist tendencies elsewhere in Europe. We shall see.