Her Hymn

Posted by Jeni in Ad Infinitum | 12 July 2014

I love Hymns.

My mothers favourite was 'To be a Pilgrim'.

I loved the rousing chorus of 'Eternal Father', or the ridiculously lush 'I Vow to Thee my Country'. I was invited, aged 15, to play the grand piano in the school assemblies.

The whole school would await my introductions, but my finger work on 'Jerusalem' left a lot to be desired. The majestic octaves going down the scale on another hymn I can't remember the name of, always sounded like a Les Dawson/Eric Morcambe medley. I had all the correct notes but not necessarily in the right order. Nobody laughed my fervour was far too strong to mock.

Growing up in the East End I was just one of the many Jews who went to Canon Barnet Junior school next to Toynbee Hall and a short walk from Aldgate East tube. Trendsville now but back then it served the local immigrant community, which in the main was poor and unfamiliar with the book of 'Ancient and Modern Hymns'.

Canon Barnet took its pastoral role seriously. Everybody was welcomed from second generation jews to first generation Bangladeshis. School dinners were catered tastefully for all.

The custard made with milk for the Gentiles, and the custard for us - from all points East of Minsk - made with water. I would stand at the school hatch yearning for the thick creamy custard that 'they' got. Kosher rules observed meant that meat could not be served with milk so all puddings were served with a watery excuse for Créme Anglaise.

My mother taught me how to make the perfect lump free sauce from a packet of 'Birds' custard powder. She would boast she made the creamiest custard in the East End. Emptying the packet into a mug. Adding some cold silver top milk, (Gold was reserved for special occasions it had more cream in the neck of the bottle) and a dessert spoonful of sugar the white milk was stirred vigorously until it tuned a delicious powdery yellow, whilst the rest of the milk came to the boil on the gas stove.

Just before the milk boiled over, a risky business to catch it at the right time, meant everything came to a standstill until the hiss of that hot foam formed a circle in the top of the saucepan, a split second before the milk boiled over the cold custardy mix was poured into the pan.

And then it was stirred until it was as thick and gloopy as the canteen fare in Canon Barnet. It was literally finger licking good.

Apart from separate diets the school also allowed Non Christians to skip assembly. But the pull of those tunes and the choral singing had me clamouring at the doors. They let me in. I would stand erect and join in heartily with the ploughing and scattering of seeds. Send my voice soaring to the sky as we bellowed out the breaking of morning, or the shepherding of sheep. Praising the Lord, of whatever persuasion, was a perfect way to start the day.

Bubba Sophie had a piano in her tiny tenement flat. A piano with candle holders, inlaid marquetry and a selection of family photographs on top. We would sing; cousins, brothers, mothers and aunts. Anything from 'Maybe it's Because I'm a Londoner' to 'Bei Mir Bistu Shein'.

In my own home, my father on the biscuit tin with knitting needles, my mother playing the piano, my brother preferring to make model aeroplanes in his bedroom, and me standing behind my mothers right hand, belting out - in harmony let me tell you - anything we could remember. My father shouting 'Where's your rhythm' as my mother and I battled out 'He-e-e who would valiant be....'

My husband is a Catholic so his selection of hymns is utterly foreign to me. I have lots of hymn books with block chords and complicated harmonies. A Christmas favourite, always sung in four part harmony round the old Joanna is 'In the bleak mid winter'.

The love of harmonic progressions and the passion for a melodic line has been passed down to the dawter. When she was very little I told her to go to the piano and get her father to play some hymns for her to sing. She declined saying it hurt her heart.

Even my late make-up artist had links with 'Abide With Me' - her great uncle wrote it.

So when my father died only a handful of us could follow the service.

He had secretly remarried a non-Jewish gal who had organised the funeral service in Luton. As all the Jews, men in skulls caps women in silence took their seats, the minister asked as all to turn to Hymn number 27. All of us sitting on the left cleared our throats to singalong with the jaunty organist and her thumping good version of 'Amazing Grace'. All those on the right turned to us ignorant of how sweet the sound was. The 'oosbind even added a seriously good bass line.

The very next day we attended another funeral. It was the same service. When we were asked to turn to Hymn Number 27 the whole congregation in Tunbridge Wells, their voices swelling with familiarity, filled the chapel with their lusty rendition of 'Amazing Grace'. When my whispering husband pointed out that the organist in Luton had more flair and that her timing was better I had to pretend my shaking shoulders were from grief.

Two days of bereavement and we decided to go to the cinema for some light relief. Ewan McGregor in 'Big Fish' . I fell asleep only to be woken by the vicar on the screen asking the assembled mourners to open their books to Hymn Number 27. The cinemas surround sound of 'Amazing Grace' was overwhelming. It was a good job I still had a wadge of tissues in my pocket.

We didn't sing any hymns at my mothers funeral. Too many non denominational people there. But the three daughters sung 'April Showers' in perfect three part harmony, with Jimbo on the ukulele. It was number one in the hit parade when my mother was born.

I may just compromise at my demise and have Leonard Cohen singing 'Hallelujah' failing that Yusuf Islam's version of 'Morning has broken' or better still some Gospel Reggae, African, Soca, Jamoo, Ragga, Dancehall toons with a bit of Bangra thrown in.

Looks it's my party and I'll cry if I want to, but whatever I choose, you can be rest assured it won't be Hymn Number 27.

Jeni Barnett tells of her scrumptious time at Good Food Live in her first audiobook! Download NOW from iTunes


1. At July 13, 2014 12:20 PM Pauline Jones wrote:

Now that was worth waiting for Jeni! I think I'll go for Leonard Cohen - I saw him recently and he's ageing beautifully, so that will put a smile on my face wherever I am!

2. At July 13, 2014 8:52 PM 'L' wrote:

I really enjoyed that my dear! Keep it coming!

3. At July 13, 2014 11:15 PM Lindy wrote:

Every night in bed I look to see if you have left me some bedtime reading, of late there has been none. So I read twitter and FB bit it's not the same as a good Barnett tale.
I shall now sleep not tweet xxhugxx

4. At July 15, 2014 5:52 PM Lyn Misselbrook wrote:

One of my sweetest memories in the cottage was (attempting on my part) to sing in harmony with Maureen and you on the piano 'In the bleak midwinter' while outside it was very cold - "... hard as i...ron ...".
I've started to note what I should like played at my funeral, none of which would be hymns but one thing I definitely want is Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding - I ache at the trumpet.

5. At July 25, 2014 2:12 PM Marmite wrote:

the only two things my Dad said to me just before my Mum's funeral were "no tears and sing loud" he hated funerals where no-one sang the hymns or they were just mumbled. So I sang loud :)
Much love Marmite xx

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