Aidan Baker in conversation with
Robin is a Worcestershire businessman with a freelance portfolio including photography, printing, programming, video editing and sales. The biggest change that lockdown has made to his life has been the decision to excise teaching from it.
Some of Robin’s talk is of music. For me, the music of lockdown was a baptised folksong – my lockdown signature tune, ‘King’s Lynn’ , used by English hymnal music editor Ralph Vaughan Williams for Chesterton’s hymn ‘O God of earth and altar’.
Lockdown saw wife Clare and me praying and singing more than previously, for instance in the time formerly taken by my half-hour bike ride to work. We found ‘King’s Lynn’ via Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era, a book of Hebrew psalms and Christian canticles in metrical translations to fit tunes from widely available hymn books. Adam assigns this tune to his translations of Psalms 82 and 86 – psalms of struggle, both of them – and singing it I remembered the Chesterton hymn and tracked it down.
Chesterton’s words are an extraordinary mix. Some of them might almost be Christian Socialist – a label Chesterton would not have worn – and ring true in our time of government corruption and incompetence. Others belong more with Chesterton’s fantasy of the Middle Ages. A sizeable minority of people now would see very clearly the weakness in his “living tether” of “prince and priest and thrall”.
I remember the excitement of wanting to know more, and trying to find out more, and tweeting about the CD-ROM Vaughan Williams in Norfolk, edited by Alan Helsdon,that I’d purchased but couldn’t play. Eventually I downloaded the content from http://www.mtrecords.co.uk/download/covers.htm . I found that the tune ‘King’s Lynn’ was from the song ‘Young Henry the poacher’, the lament of a Warwickshire man transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Vaughan Williams heard it from an elderly fisherman, Joe Anderson, in King’s Lynn, during a week of song collection in January 1905. The note in Alan Helsdon’s work tells us that Mr Anderson’s contribution had both the highest number of songs and the strongest melodies. The final stanzas of this song’s words could power an entire novel.
I have questions. Regarding the hymn. How did Chesterton, not known as a writer of hymns, get into the English hymnal? What were his dealings with Percy Dearmer, EH’s Christian Socialist words editor? Regarding the folk song. Where was the song written? Did the writer know, or invent, Henry’s fate after transportation? How did a song about a Warwickshire man in Van Diemen’s Land get to King’s Lynn? What did Vaughan Williams – himself a lifelong Socialist – pay his contributors, and what did they agree about the use he could make of their songs?
I’ve just retired as a librarian, and find myself far less well read than most in that profession. A world of published knowledge probably contains answers to my questions.
But universal basic income, which I hope to see, is not in the song, or the hymn. Furlough support appeared at the start of lockdown, but now the government’s eager to end it. Both the song and the hymn remind us that we need to be better at equality. I wish Covid were teaching us how.