In December 2005 Francis, Bertie, Archie and I were sitting in the semi-darkness outside the National Theatre. We’d enjoyed our annual outing to the Private Eye entertainment and weren’t quite ready to go home. An unknown lady came up to us and asked if we’d like three free tickets to Coram Boy, Helen Donaldson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s award-winning novel. At first we found it hard to believe that the offer was genuine but she convinced us, handed over the tickets and hurried away. The box office had one more ticket available so the four of us were in.
The play was enthralling, terrifying, heart-breaking. The image that stays most vividly in my mind’s eye is the golden-lit rear alcove with a small orchestra playing music from The Messiah (first performed at the Foundling Hospital in 1750). The front of the stage is dark: there are small mounds which we, in the audience, know to be graves; desperate women are running to and fro, clutching the swaddled bodies of their newly born babies. ‘For unto us a Child is Born!’ plays the orchestra; ‘Unto us a Son is Given!’ The music was without words but we remember what The Messiah says: ‘Wonderful Counsellor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!’ I'm sure Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, did not include exclamation marks, but try singing or listening to this music without those glorious flashes of suppressed excitement breaking though at the end of every phrase. That’s what having a baby is like, isn’t it? A supreme moment of love and achievement; happiness and hope; exhaustion, pain and joy.
Not for the mothers in Coram Boy. Helen Donaldson’s stage directions (Act 1 scene 32) read: ‘The following scenes take place under music, so that the words are not heard and only the actions tell the story.’ And what the actions are telling us is that the experience of these mothers is unrelieved anguish and despair. They are handing over their newborns, their treasures, their savings, their pitiful blessings to men and women who will betray them. The recipients are not the good folk of the Coram Foundation, they are murderers and traffickers who are flourishing as a result of c18th society’s sanctimonious disgust at children born out of wedlock. As I'm only recently married myself I won't make the obvious point about the Blessed Virgin's marital status: I'll only say how glad I am that Bertie and Archie are millennials.
Our choir is already planning our December 2020 concert. It’s to be a Christmas celebration and my job is to find some not-necessarily-religious words to thread through our music. Expressing celebration is easy enough – any northern Christmas draws on the strength of old midwinter festivals when people welcomed a chance to come together and carouse. And if they started seeing Green Knights after they'd drunk a flagon or two that might have seemed all part of the fun-- at least until you woke up a week or so later and discovered you'd promised to go looking for some leaf-coloured giant with a wickedly sharp axe. But scripting this glorious celebration around the birth of an out-of-wedlock baby is more difficult, particularly when so much of our inherited literature, as well as our music, has been written by men.
We'll sing choruses from The Messiah and from Bach chorales – inspired, sublime music, full of that tingle of anticipation. Sublimity, that upwelling joy that lifts the angel wings…where to find Bach in words? I turn to John Milton: ‘Say Heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein / Afford a present to the Infant God?’ And for most of the poem (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity) Milton's Muse obliges. ‘Ring out ye crystal spheres! /Once bless our human ears /(If ye have power to touch our senses so) /And let your silver chime /Move in melodious time, /And let the bass of Heav’n’s deep organ blow; /And with your ninefold harmony / Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.’
‘Ninefold harmony’ sounds properly Bach-like but there’s hideous moment in verse six when Milton appears to start thinking about sex and the female body. Instantly he’s horrified and the poem insists that Nature (female, obviously) needs to cover herself up. ‘To hide her guilty front with innocent snow, /And on her naked shame, /Pollute with sinful blame, /The saintly veil of maiden white to throw, /Confounded that her Maker’s eyes /Should look so near on her foul deformities.’ Excuse me! Just who, exactly, is it that deforms Nature? Humans. Who messed up the Garden of Eden? Let’s all blame Eve, shall we? Luckily for Milton’s and my continuing relationship his next verse sends Peace ‘softly sliding / Down through the turning sphere’ and my admiration for his vision and mesmeric diction allows me to move on. ‘The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist, /Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean, /Who now has quite forgot to rave, / While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmèd wave.’
So Milton (abridged) will probably find his place along with Bach and Handel and the Gawain-poet and the anonymous author of ‘Bring us in good ale.’ But where will we hear Jesus’s mother's voice in all of this – or the voice of any woman who thinks, as I do, that the day they had a baby -- in or out of wedlock -- was one of the greatest of their lives? Coram Boy was a good book and a wonderful play but the quality of mother love is so cruelly abused. Parenthood, as most of us discover, is a completely unpredictable mix of joy and pain. There are some emotive mediaeval poems that present Mary's anguish when her baby tells her the story of what’s going to happen to him later. ‘Whorto shall I biden that day / To beren thee to this wo?’ but for the most part she seems to stay quiet, a lonely figure, surrounded by men. St Luke is one of the very few writers who recognise that she might have developed a point of view. ‘But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’.
My search for words is at an early stage (it is only January!). The passion and the anger within Coram Boy derived from a book which was written by a woman, adapted for the stage by a woman and produced by an all-female team. The leading boy in both acts (a father and his son) were also played by a woman (Anna Madeley). -- a neat reversal of the plays where boys played women. But I want celebration. Mary said nothing -- would anyone have listened to her anyway? -- will modern mothers who are also writers speak for the special joy of those first days?
Here's Alice B Fogel's If I Sleep while my Baby Sleeps
I will hear his sleep
in and through my own, my sleep
in one same fluid
My sleep floats within a listening
so deep that the separating
spaces of air become
as pliant and full as snowfall,
its singing silence as profound
My ears and his throat —
the sensation of anticipated
hearing close inside the ear
and the incipient murmur or cry
forming at the end of his sleep —
borne like birds and thrumming
on the air of rooms between us
My own sleep will be his
clock, safely keeping time,
his sleep tunes my dreams to listen,
our sleep binds the hour,
heavy and warm,
into a blanket of air
Your suggestions please.