Georgie knew it was useless to protest when Lucia got that loud, inspired, gabbling ring in her voice; she would cut through any opposition, as a steam saw buzzes through the most solid oak board till, amid a fountain of flying sawdust, it has sliced its way.
For the last few weeks I have split my time between Riseholme and Tilling and become immersed in the world of EF Benson’s series of books about the lives of his English Society Queens, Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas.
A couple of years ago Mapp and Lucia appeared on the small screen courtesy of the BBC. Anna Chancellor, who plays Lucia had the following to say about her character. ‘I like her a lot. She’s a sort of domineering, snobbish fake. What’s not to like about Lucia? Lucia’s hilarious.’
For anyone who hasn’t read these books, essentially they are about snobbery, shenanigans and social skirmishes. Written between 1920 and 1939, this series of 6 novels focuses on the lives of the upper middle classes with particular emphasis on the two main characters and their battle for social supremacy in the fictional town of Tilling. But, it goes a lot further than that. From what I can see, and to be fair I haven’t yet finished the entire series as I am currently reading chapter 4 of the sixth book, Mapp and Lucia is more than just a series of Novels. There appears to be a whole world of ‘Tillingites’ rushing around in their social circles asking if there is ‘Any news?’ (gossip) and saying ‘No’ if someone reveals anything gossipy or exciting!
I do believe these books have a certain appeal, but I concede they are perhaps not to everyone’s taste. There is no violence, very little action and certainly no sex. It’s all terribly English and deals with the lives of people who inhabit their own little world where the characters are vying for social prestige and one-upmanship in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery.
Some of my readers will not be at all surprised to learn that I think this series of books are without doubt the best works of fiction I have ever read. Certainly I would never wish to be classed as a snob, (stop the sniggering in the corner please) but I do believe standards should be upheld. In fact last week I decided to go cycling (the first time I have done this for many months). In my mind, this counted as physical exercise so I decided that a polo shirt would perhaps be more suitable attire rather than my usual Jermyn Street shirt with blazer and formal trousers. As I donned said polo shirt (probably branded with the name of one of my choirs) I got a very peculiar look from my 3 year old daughter. She didn’t understand why Daddy was wearing such an odd garment and found this new look of mine highly amusing. The bicycle has since been returned to a dark corner of the garage to resume its main vocation of collecting any stray dust which happens to be passing.
All of which brings me to my main point. Choirs are a great social leveller. It doesn’t matter whether you are a trader from Billingsgate Market or a Lawyer from Inns of Court. If you join a choir, then for a couple of hours a week, regardless of social class, employment status or wealth, you become a Chorister. The majority of my choirs are un auditioned and whilst it’s always nice to think that singing will take centre stage, in fact choirs are ultimately small social communities. Certainly speaking for my choirs, they have a lot in common with the fictional characters of Tilling. Often, committees will be formed and some people will assume roles of importance within the group whilst others will happily go along with the decisions made on their behalf.
But to my mind the best thing about being in a choir is the time spent together in rehearsals. Of course there is the serious business (well sort of serious anyway) of learning new songs and trying to sing as well as possible. For most people, however, it is a chance to spend a couple of hours doing something enjoyable without any interruption. Briefly it is as if the world outside has been paused or doesn’t exist. And that is exactly how I perceive the fictional characters in EF Benson’s novels. They are all caught up in their own social world involving Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a Rubber of Bridge and Morning Marketing whilst somewhere, not far away, the rest of the world is getting on with business as usual.
Jules Addison is Musical Director for Blue Notes, The BlueBelles, Cirencester Male Voice Choir, Great Western Harmony and The Pewsey Belles.