Somerset Maugham’s short story The Verger came to mind recently. It’s about a snooty new vicar in a snooty London church sacking the faithful verger because he couldn’t read or write. It was filmed in the 50s and you can watch it here. It always conjures up St Michael’s Chester Square, where for 18 months or so I sang in the choir while I was (notionally) a clinical medical student at King’s in south London.
Chester Square is in Belgravia, the area bounded more or less by Knightsbridge, Sloane Street, Buck House and Victoria station. It’s an area, as you might imagine, that is amongst the most deprived in the country, past and present inhabitants including such poor unfortunates as Margaret Thatcher, Nigella Lawson, and Roman Abramovich.
Sometimes I went in by bike. From the flat in East Dulwich that involved cycling up the hideously steep Champion Hill over to Camberwell. After that it was pretty much plain sailing up Camberwell New Road, past The Skinner’s Arms of abdominal scar notoriety (see here), then through Vauxhall and over the Thames. However bad I thought Sunday traffic was in those days, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. I rather enjoyed cycling in London, and did a fair bit of it, along with getting first hand experience of the south London rail network—both activities more attractive than some of the teaching I could or should have attended. Susan was slaving away at this time at a school in north Peckham, so I dare not let on that I was not as diligent a student as she thought I was.
The church was 19 century Gothic, rather ugly but with fine stained-glass in the east window so that gave me something to look at during the sermons. Two previous vicars, W H Elliott and Charles Roderick, had been famous for their radio broadcasts, but by the time I got there the glory had departed and it was just another dull low church set up. Never mind, the music was good. (It’s now a Holy Trinity Brompton spin off, the sort of thing that seems to appeal to the Tobys and Tamsins who work in the City). The then vicar sticks in the memory for a sermon he preached at the funeral of a nanny. The church was packed with her former charges whose upper lips didn’t move when they spoke, all dressed in Crombies and Aquascutum and Harrods and dripping with jools, a bit like Nancy Mitford’s Lady Montdore expounding the virtues of ‘all this’. The theme of the address was that nanny had returned to the big Norlands nursery school in the sky. Not a model that I’ve found useful in my clerical career.
I saw the advert for a choir man in the Musical Times. I’m turned up for what I thought was an audition with the organist Guy Eldridge. Turned out I was the only applicant. Eldridge was ill and music was in the hands of his assistant, Leonard Henderson, a most gifted organist equally at home in light, cinema and classical genres. The organ was pretty interesting: formerly a Hope-Jones and tarted up in the 50s by Walkers (anoraks will understand), and former organists included Arthur Sullivan and Reginald Goss Custard. Guy Eldridge resumed the reins after a couple of months or so, but for less than a year, for then he retired after a distinguished career in various London churches and academies. By then I was a kind of unofficial assistant and I had the temerity to apply for the job. I was interviewed.
After I didn’t get the job, St Michael’s had no further use for me, so it was back to Musical Times adverts. St Silas Nunhead was my next appointment, much handier for East Dulwich—only about a mile away. The church has gone now, demolished for structural reasons but the organ was good and had some (anorak alert) fantastic reeds. I wonder if it was salvaged. We had a trebles only choir of local oiks, and I remember some good fun, a couple of concerts with visiting musicians, and a carol service that was very decent, though I say so myself.
All this was much more satisfying than studying medicine, but all good things must bow to the inevitable and my double life came up against the reality of Victoria’s birth and looming Cambridge exams. Quite how I passed them—well I failed pharmacology but it didn’t hold me up since the first sitting was months before other subjects, so I did the resit along with Medicine, Surgery and Obs and Gynae—I shall never know. It must be something to do with knowledge by osmosis. I’ve always felt that the act of holding a book or article results in the absorption of the wisdom therein contained.
I wonder where I’d be now if I’d got that job at St Michael’s.