Category Archives: culture

Book Review: The Masonic Myth

The Masonic MythThe Masonic Myth by Jay Kinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re a mason, this is the book to give your friends who ask you what freemasonry is. Well-informed and written with sufficient detachment to inspire confidence, the tone is neither reverential nor apologetic, and makes needed criticism of the institution where it’s deserved.

Familiar anti-masonic claims are debunked efficiently, placing their origins in historical context.

View all my reviews

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The end of The Wye Valley Chorus

A couple of Tuesdays ago, a few of us held the last meeting of the Wye Valley Chorus in Monmouth. There was no singing and the mood was sombre as we took votes to decide on which charities would receive the remainder of the bank balance. Instead of the usual banter, there was awkward smalltalk. As individuals left afterwards there was no “see you next week”;  instead there was, “Well, I suppose I’ll see you sometime…”.

The chorus had been for many years a familiar part of the barbershop scene in Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. In the last two years though, despite the heroic efforts of director Paul Mills, membership dwindled and at a meeting before Christmas 2008 the membership voted to wind it up.

Some of the membership have joined Synergy, a chorus based in Abergavenny.

Cultural prejudice and booksellers’ responsibility

I’ve just returned from a trip to a bookshop in Gloucester. Browsing the history section, I noted that the shelves containing books on German history were dominated by books on the Second World War, the Nazis and the Holocaust. One of the very few books that had significant coverage of Germany before 1933 was itself a highly controversial account by A.J.P. Taylor notable for the extremes of opinion it contains. Moving to the section on Freemasonry, I noted the unusually large number (no doubt boosted by the success of The Da Vinci Code) of books there were dominated by books pandering to the Freemasonry-as-world-conspiracy mythology accompanied by dubious (by academic standards) pseudo-historical accounts of Freemasonry’s origins.

I moved on to the reference section in search of a Welsh dictionary to help me better understand the language of the neighbouring country, a language being taught in schools less than thirty miles from Gloucester, a language that is the descendant of the original British languages spoken throughout this island, long before English arrived and a language whose number of speakers is growing. No dictionary to be found, of course. Only a couple of Welsh course books among the huge array of Spanish, French, Italian….

The choices the shop’s management (or distant corporate HQ?) had made obviously reflect what they believe will sell; choices, one presumes, based on the perceived interests and prejudices of the local marketplace. What might that tell us then about the shop’s beliefs about the typical Gloucester book shopper when seeking information on these subjects? – that Germany has little history or culture of interest beyond the Nazi era – that Freemasonry is a sinister secret society bent on world domination or something equally dodgy – the indigenous language of England’s immediately neighbouring country doesn’t matter much.

A German musical coincidence

Last Friday K. and I went to a birthday party in Llanfoist, outside Abergavenny. The host had invited a recorder orchestra made up of mostly middle aged ladies from near Stuttgart who were performing in the area. They played some mediaeval-sounding numbers which were charming, but after the fourth one I went outside where little A. was complaining that she didn’t like it. Made me reflect on how the world would be if adults were as frank as children.

By chance, tonight, I’m singing barbershop songs with the Wye Valley Chorus to a group of Germans from Monmouth’s twin town in the Black Forest. I hope our performance we will be sehr gut.

Bow ties, cricket and close harmony

This month has been notable for singing. The Wye Valley Chorus, with whom I sing songs in the barbershop style took part in the Herefordshire Festival last week. We were pitted against one other choir in our class on Tuesday night, singing “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Yesterday” with camp actions and sentimental yearning respectively. Winning the class, as we eventually did, was less memorable for me than the vignette with which I was briefly presented shortly before our performance at the Hereford Cathedral School.

Having arrived at the wrong venue, we eventually turned up at the school and were ushered into an old fashioned gymnasium, about a hundred feet long, with high ceilings and windows with a pair of cricket nets at the far end. As we came in our rivals were changing, some standing bare-legged as they put on formal white shirts and bow ties. We did likewise, then started warming up by singing some old favourites as two of our number bowled cricket balls in the nets. At one point I stopped and pondered the scene: bare legged men in shirts and bow ties, a huddle of nervous men singing barbershop songs in an echoey (I know that’s not in the dictionary but you find an alternative) acoustic while others bowled overarm at non-existent batsmen.

Looking back on it I can better appreciate its mild absurdity. I’m beginning to think that Proust was right to suggest that we miss so much in everyday life that can intrigue, amuse and enlighten, if only we would take the trouble to look.