Catholic Herald, 13 January 1989
Nearly two weeks into it, but a happy New Year to you anyway! Despite a generous pint of Scottish blood in my veins, Hogmanay high jinks leave me as cold as yesterday’s mashed neeps.
This reluctance to join in the fun is nothing new. As a teenybopper at the height of the Cold War, I felt the optimism misplaced and the relentless celebrations rather hollow. Thirty years on, such little wisdom one has accumulated en route tends to confirm, not dissipate, those earlier fears.
If you have been watching the BBC series The Rock’N-Roll Years, you may share the feeling that little has changed. Familiar trouble spots around the world, South Africa, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, floods, famine, disasters. The Cold War may have de-frosted but there are more than enough weapons stockpiled to blow us all to smithereens. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever.
Even the weather doesn’t improve: the horrid suspicion that a wet spring will be followed by yet another uncertain summer (with bigger holes in the ozone layer) is hardly cause for celebration. To add insult to injury, one becomes a year older – an annual reminder that there is no time to lose …
New Year jollies
New Year jollies are supposed to smother all these gloomy thoughts with a cheery, forward-facing message. For centuries the Church was unwilling to introduce a festival on New Year’s day, which the pagans marked with great riot and licence.
December 31 is the Feast of St Sylvester, an obscure fourth century Pope who provides, it must be said, insufficient excuse for a knees-up. Until recently, the distinctly uncharismatic Feast of the Circumcision fell on January I. This was replaced in 1969 with the Solemnity of the Mother of God – much kinder to those who are nursing hangovers.
January 1 is also World Day of Peace with which no-one would quarrel. But none of these feasts is calculated to whip up the hectic enthusiasm considered proper to seeing in a new year. Like so much else, how one celebrates the occasion has a lot to do with one’s childhood.
In my family there was a sort of no-man’s-land between Christmas and Easter; my wetblanket attitude probably stems from those formative years.
To counteract the dismal tone set by my lines so far, let us quickly switch to the symbol of New Year. Traditionally, this is a brand-new baby. The Infant Jesus of Christmas merges, in a calendar week, with the infant new year. The little tot, unspoiled by Time, represents Hope in the Future.
The image is apt; even the most cynical and world-weary can see the hopefulness in a tiny bundle of mewling, puking humanity. It is the future and it is lapped in hope. Which is a comforting thought to carry forward into January.
From such lofty concepts to the pavement outside Marks & Spencer’s is not the gigantic leap you may imagine. There is nothing much more hopeful than a busker. From time to time (not too often, the public is quickly bored) a young man plays his trumpet outside our branch of the chain store.
If you are old enough to remember Eddie Calvert you will have some idea of this young trumpeter’s talent. He reminds me of the Pied Piper. Harassed shoppers eager to get home stood rooted to the spot, entranced by the lovely sound. Convinced that this was no ordinary busker I bagged him for coffee to find out more.
John Barker is a 26-year-old professional musician from Sheffield. One of a musical family, he has an impressive musical background and now plays regularly with the New Bert Kaempfert Orchestra based in Chesterfield.
Busking supplements the income from professional engagements and he frequently packs up the trumpet his parents gave him years ago and drives to different pitches up and down the country. Hard work – especially if he plays for five hours virtually non-stop as he had the day I met him (imagine the aching face muscles).
A busker quickly guages the atmosphere of a town which may as equally be hostile or sympathetic. Our town abolished the bye-law that restricts the activities of buskers. Such tolerance can lead to overkill (the generosity of any public is limited) so this talented trumpeter rations his visits.
Apart from the obvious delight of his pavement audience, M&S were so impressed they invited John inside the store to play during one of their Chargecard evenings. I’m not quite sure what that is but it must have been enhanced by the golden notes he blew.
Elephants and monkeys
Equally riveting street entertainment was the quite gratuitous sight of five elephants plodding trunk-to-tail up the town’s High Street. These creatures, somehow bound up with childhood memories of the zoo, circus and Babar, brought on floods of nostalgia.
So does Phil, from Burnley, Lancs. He plays the last genuine barrel organ in Britain. The only concession to modernity is the mechanical monkey on its lid rather than a live one. Phil had a stroke some years ago so cannot give the passer-by a spoken history of his instrument; he distributes a leaflet instead. The sound of the barrel organ recalls half-forgotten sounds and scenes in city streets, a haunting echo from the world of crossing-sweepers, lamp lighters and muffin-men. In spite of poor health Phil is determined to carry on until his strength gives out. His leaflet urges one not to be embarrassed if one has no coins for his hat – just enjoy the music. Listen, if you see him; you may not hear his like again.
Mick is a poet and yarnspinner. Since he recites his poems on the same spot nearly every Saturday, one must assume that his marketing techniques are unsophisticated. The simple heartfelt verses are inspired by his young family and ecological, anti-nuclear viewpoint.
Retiring to the nearest pub after a stint on the pavement, Mick tells tales and stories for as long as there is an audience to listen.
Liz occupies the most precarious of busking pitches. The pavement artist is at the mercy of the weather and Liz’s talent is liable to be obliterated at the whim of a passing cloud. The courage of the girl from Luton with the little tin of chalks is admirable. Highly coloured repros of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are exposed literally underfoot – to the comment, mirth or mockery of the casual on-looker.
As every busker will tell you, the measure of the reward depends on the quality of the product. But it is difficult to pass by without some acknowledgement of their ever-hopefulness.
Our church hall could do with a tune from John or Phil later this month. Here, ex-soldiers of the Polish 13th Battalion (5th Rifles Division) meet for an annual party. 1989 is the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and before you are saturated with commemorations, let me tell you about these veterans of the Italian Campaign.
In 1953 the Combatants Association of the 13th Battalion founded a lively club in Cowley, Oxford, where ex-soldiers, their families, and indeed all members of the numerous Polish community, could socialise and obtain the help needed to cope with the complexities of living in a strange country.
As time went by families found their feet and were absorbed into the host society. Sadly, a few of the men were too damaged by the war to be able to manage on their own and were “confined to barracks” in psychiatric hospitals.
Regular visiting and events such as the New Year party (“Sylwester” is much-celebrated in Poland) keep these few in touch with their compatriots and homeland. This year only half-a-dozen will tuck into the traditional meal, presided over by the Polish chaplain, Fr Klyza, and take home a parcel of goodies.
Ryszard Alwinger, ultra-modest war hero and inspiration behind the continuing care, told me the work will go on as long as there is a need. Funds from the 5th Division support not only the needs of ex-soldiers, widows and orphans in this country, but all over the world; not least back home in Poland. Close links are maintained with the Dorset Regiment, with which the Poles fought, side by side on the slopes of Monte Cassino.
As long as there are comrades to remember, these exiled old soldiers will not fade away.