A Travelogue, In Which 81 Scottish Choristers Descend Upon China

It is now just over five weeks since I was on a flight home to Glasgow with eighty members of the City of Glasgow Chorus and our assorted entourage. That was a journey that had started not quite 24 hours earlier in the darkness of three o’clock in the morning in Shanghai, and had started nine days before that when we had boarded a flight bound for Beijing with copies of Vaughan Williams and Brahms and a sense of not quite knowing what we were doing, and had started, really, three years ago in Opole when on the final night of our Polish tour and on a great deal of Polish vodka we had begun to ask, what’s next?

Back on that night in 2013, the answer to that question was Odessa. And then Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukraine, so that was sort of that.

China, then.

The evening after our arrival back in Scotland, I sat in a coffee shop and I typed, “It’s only 24 hours since I landed at Glasgow Airport, and already I’m finding it difficult to believe that we’re home from China, or, more to the point, that we ever went in the first place.” It had been incredible, transcendent, and utterly mad, and it also felt as though it had taken place inside a sort of bubble beyond which the world had stopped existing — helped along, no doubt, by the Chinese firewall around the Internet, which had largely cut us off from the outside world anyway, but in a more metaphysical sense than that, too. In the last month I’ve been delighting in all the pictures and videos coming across my social media feeds, and the conversations that they’ve sparked: proof that this incredible thing was a thing that really happened.

I have been being asked whether I was going to write about China since I was in the queue to clear security at Glasgow Airport on the way there. Yes, I said. Yes, of course I am. It’s taken five weeks because it turns out I had kind of a lot to say.

Nine days. Three cities. Three performances.

*

Rachel Johnson wrote in the foreword to the 2014 edition of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady that “no interesting anecdote ever began ‘we had a problem-free journey to Istanbul on the Orient Express'”.

We touched down in Beijing at half past ten in the evening. I wanted a shower, clean clothes, and a horizontal surface, preferably in that order; a wish list that is shared by anyone who has ever been on a long haul flight although I’d suggest mine was intensified just a little by the fact that I had started my period in a 777 toilet somewhere over Afghanistan. The journey had in fact been remarkably unproblematic, and we were all aware that we were expected on a sightseeing tour in less than twelve hours and were beginning to have a collective fantasy about bed.

I speak very little Mandarin. I can say thank you and I can count from one to ten, and, because of the scene that proceeded to unfold once we were on the ground, I can understand the quarantine announcement that is currently made on board aeroplanes arriving in China. The announcement that was made, repeatedly, in English and Mandarin, asking people who are from two countries where neither of those is a particularly commonly spoken language to please make their way to the nearest exit before anyone else is allowed to disembark, while those people sat, presumably baffled as to why no one was getting off the plane. I’m pretty sure we had been the last international flight due into Beijing that night even before we sat on the tarmac for over an hour. I was the second to last person in the queue at international immigration. As myself and my last-in-the-queue colleague stepped forward to hand over our passports, sections of Beijing Airport Immigration were shutting down around us. As the final half dozen of us waited for the shuttle train that would take us to baggage reclaim and the exit, we were joined by what appeared to be the entire staff of Beijing Airport, going home for the night. “It’s not that I think our bags won’t be off yet,” I said, musingly. “It’s more that I think they might have decided no one’s coming for them and stashed them in lost property already.”

Our first concert in China was the very next evening. Or, more accurately, since no one actually got to a bed until 2am, that same evening.

We were performing with the Beijing Sinfonetta and the International Festival Chorus, singing the Ralph Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony. I have an emotional response to the Sea Symphony, which is set to extracts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It has parts in it that, every time, I have something that’s partly sense memory, lying in bed in the dark, listening to the quiet burble of the Shipping Forecast, and partly more than that, conjuring up the images and sounds of men and women bobbing up and down in their boats around the waters of the British Isles. And never mind that Whitman was American; in my head —

… token of all brave captains,
and of all intrepid sailors and mates,
and all that went down doing their duty.

— that’s what I hear: the music, and the waves, and a voice from the BBC saying, “and now the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency … warnings of gales in Tyne and Doggar … Rockall, Mallin, Hebrides, veering northeast 3 or 4 … “

I tell you all this in part so that you will understand why I laughed myself sick when, before leaving Scotland, we saw the promotional material for Beijing.

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And in part so that you will understand why my breath catches, just a little, every time I sing the Sea Symphony.

The honest truth is that I don’t remember a lot about that concert. I remember, while the Sinfonetta were noodling about with the accompaniment during the rehearsal, sitting cross-legged on the stage behind the second sopranos of the International Festival Chorus, and being asked about our journey and them saying it was good, then, that we’d had the chance to rest in the morning, and me corpsing before I told them we’d been up since eight and been taken on a five mile walking tour of the Forbidden City before rehearsal. I remember that I was sitting next to the tenors, because I remember that I got chatting to one of them and asking if it was his first time in Beijing, and he gave me an odd look and said that it was but obviously now he’d lived there for eight years and I was mortified because apparently I can’t tell the difference between my tenors who I’ve sung with for years and tenors who are not my tenors. I was really sleep deprived. And speaking of which, I also remember that at one point in the fourth movement during the performance I started to tilt gently to one side.

Somehow, we managed to get through it without disgracing ourselves in front of our Chinese audience and our illustrious guest conductor, Nick Smith, and from there we had a few days off to explore the city and shake off the jet lag.

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All the times I thought we were going to die in the traffic. Or run over someone else in the traffic. That’s what I’ll remember about Beijing.

*

A long time before left Glasgow, we had each one of us been required by the Chinese government to sign a document saying that having been granted permission to perform in China we would agree not to use the stage as a platform for political protest. It is my view that even if one were inclined to launch a political protest from a stage, the middle of a Vaughan Williams choral work would not be the natural place to do so. It is apparently the view of every person who has ever met me that that is all well and good, but, after all, if anyone were going to do it it would probably be me. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t see their point. My relatives had spent the better part of the previous six months telling me not to get arrested.

The day after the concert, I spent a morning exploring Beijing alone, getting enjoyably lost on the subway, and drinking and buying tea in the tea market, and then we all met back up as a group for a tour of Tiananmen Square which seemed an ideal opportunity for a group photo.

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So. Much. Tea.

I joined my fellow short people in the front row and squatted down. A crowd of people began t to gather, wondering what we were up to. I took off my sunglasses, rendering myself effectively blind, and looked vaguely in the direction of the camera. “Say ‘Cheese!” called someone. This led to a few minutes of: “Say ‘China’!”, and, “Say ‘Beijing’!” and “Say ‘Away!”. The last a reference to the opening movement of the Vaughan Williams, and then people started trying to sing the Sea Symphony except all different bits, and, eventually, one of the altos struck up Auld Lang Syne and we all joined in.

You really aren’t supposed to sing in Tiananmen Square. It turns out. If you do, they think you’re trying to start a revolution. Historically, revolutions in Tiananmen Square have gone a little less than well.

Because I’d not been wearing glasses, the first inkling I had that something had gone a bit wrong was when we gave it, to coin a phrase, laldy, on the last line of the chorus and stopped and the crowd gathered were silent. You do that on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, people mostly clap. The force of ingrained British politeness means even if they think you’re a bit shit they mostly clap. And when I put my glasses back on, the police had arrived.

I am told by people who could see what was going on that what happened was this: A police van that had been parked at the other end of the Square, nearly a kilometre away, started its engine and drove over to us. The military moved forward. As our photographer lifted his camera, he became aware that there was a soldier or a police officer on either side. Afterwards, our Mandarin speaking tour guide was taken aside by the police who questioned him as to whether our song had been an attempt to incite a revolt.

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It’s not that we go looking for trouble. Really.

If you search for Tiananmen Square on an Internet connection within China, there is no evidence of the events of 1989.

*

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The following day, the coaches took us out to the Great Wall of China.

Travelling, there are moments when my breath catches involuntarily and I murmur, oh. Oh, I’m really here. Oh, I’m really seeing this thing. Oh, wow. The moments that linger in the memory better than any photograph.

We had been warned that the day was misty and that the views from the Wall wouldn’t be at their best.

I got off the coach and rounded the corner from the car park on foot and looked up.

And.

Oh.

That’s something I’ll remember for a long time. 

*

 Nanjing felt noticeably smaller and quieter than Beijing had.

It has a population of 8 million people, to Beijing’s population of 25 million. For reference, the population of Nanjing is still three million more people than live in the whole of Scotland.

First, though, we had had to get there.

On the bullet train.

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Well, how hard can that be?

The trouble is that Chinese public transport is very punctual. Yes, I did say “the trouble is”.

We had boarded the bullet train at its point of origin in Beijing and once underway it stops at each station en route for only two minutes. I’ve mentioned, I think, that the City of Glasgow Chorus was not a small group; ninety-eight of us once you tot up the assorted hangers on, like the spouses and the soloists and the conductor. So, imagine, if you will, the ninety-eight of us when we learned that this did indeed mean that we would have 120 seconds from the doors opening to get all of us and all of our luggage off the train and onto the platform.

I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do regret the fact that I don’t have a video of that one minute and fifty seconds. Oh, yes. And no one accidentally went to Shanghai, even.

At some point in Nanjing, I vanished into the kind of tour bubble that I talked about at the beginning, that I experience as a complete and all-encompassing metaphysical thing. It persisted until a good three or four days after I arrived back in Glasgow, far more disorientating than even the worst jet lag. It isn’t peculiar only to choir tour, although it happened in Poland too – I experience a similar if more short lived kind of thing at General Synod, where this is life now and it is all life is and that’s very okay with me, and emerging back into the real world where people do not care fervently about either obscure points of canon law or Brahms is thoroughly flummoxing. I’ve written in my paper journal in Nanjing, I could do this forever. It is patently not true – I have a real job that I love and a real life that I love and eventually I’d like to be in one place for long enough to unpack a suitcase and wash some socks, but in that moment, in the middle of that all-encompassing experience, I was entirely content with this life. A few days later, I’d sit down for my last breakfast in China and I would think, what on Earth do I do on Monday morning when I don’t have ninety-odd people to eat breakfast with?

However, I digress.

Nanjing.

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From the top of the city walls of Old Nanjing

My recollection is that we hadn’t originally intended to be there at all, and that a concert had been moved from Tianjin to Nanjing for logistical reasons. In fact, our tour guide told us repeatedly that it was unusual for the city to see Western tourists; by implication, let alone for it to see almost a hundred Scots descending on the place en masse. It’s the provincial capital of Jiangsu Province, and in the earlier part of the twentieth century had been the site of central government under the Kuomintang nationalist party until its invasion by the Peoples’ Liberation Army in 1949.
We were there for an extraordinarily short period of time, but managed to see a lot of old Nanjing in the time we had and then walk through the streets of the city near the Confucius Temple where we used our terrible Mandarin to buy street food of uncertain but mostly delicious origin.

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Kittens in the Confucius Temple

It is probably worth my saying at this point that despite spending the better part of an hour in the Confucius Temple, I know nothing about Confucius. As we entered, I spied a cat. I went over to say hello, and found a whole family of kittens who were perfectly friendly if baffled by the presence of an odd woman who kept squeaking at them and taking pictures. In my own defence: I was starting to miss my own cats by this stage. And also in my own defence: I have no defences against cats who really were very sweet.

The afternoon was spent in a rehearsal and then in a performance. Nanjing has a beautiful concert hall, where we sang our first of two performances of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with Charlotte Drummond, from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, as our soprano soloist and Paul Keohone as our baritone.

The City of Glasgow Chorus knows Charlie and Paul well, at this point. They both do a lot of solo work for the Chorus, and Paul, particularly, who has been on tour with us before, to Poland as ‘our Elijah’. They are both incredible talents whose voices brought me to tears multiple times during the week. They are also both thoroughly delightful people who were all too pleased to muck in with everything we did outside of the concert venues, and I think on this I can speak not only for myself when I say that it was a joy to have them with us.

We ended with Auld Lang Syne.

This time, without the police incursion.

*

We were blown into Shanghai on the tail end of a typhoon.

“Welcome to wherever you are,” I murmured to my neighbour, as we fought with suitcases and satchels and umbrellas and looked for our bus, still bleary eyed from the Brahms the previous evening.

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No, but did I mention that there’d been a typhoon?

We would later have a day to see Shanghai. We would go up to the top of the Jin Mao Tower, which is eighty eight floors up and apparently shows a beautiful panorama over the city but on the day we were there featured a wall of thick cloud. We would go for a paddle through the Bund, the waterfront part of Central Shanghai, and would break an array of hotel umbrellas (and I would get lost). A proportion of us would brave the rain and wind still howling around after that typhoon to go on a boat trip down the Huangpu River at night and see the lights of Shanghai, and, oh, I have never been so wet in my life, but I would not have missed that for the world.

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Shanghai: Taken by night. Photo: Taken by iPhone in a storm.

Even at 3am the following morning, debating how best to pack the things I had been wearing, which felt as though they’d been through a washing machine without the benefit of either warm water or a spin cycle, without destroying everything else I owned. Even at 10pm the following night back in Glasgow when I looked sadly at my brogues and wondered if they would ever be wearable again. Even despite all those things, that was a very good night.

First, we had a concert to do.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but, on a bus to the concert hall that afternoon for a rehearsal, I found myself needing to perk up. I was looking forward to it and all, but… Ein Deutsches Requiem is a big sing, and, having last done it less than 24 hours earlier and 200 miles away, there were things that my brain was refusing to compute. Like the fact that I was about to sing it all again. This was a case of the spirit being willing and the flesh being thoroughly knackered.

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And then we walked into the Shanghai Symphony Hall.

As I write that, I’m having the strongest memory.

The people who were there with me know what I’m talking about. The utter perfection of that gem of a space, and the sheer spine-melting joy of that acoustic. My God, that acoustic. Later, under the stage lights and opening with the pianissimo of the first movement, there was a proper fizz at the base of my skull. I can feel it there again now. As the piece progressed to its end, Charlie got to her feet to sing the soprano solo in the fifth movement and I became aware of tears wobbling in the corner of my eye. There are times – not often, but sometimes – that a piece of music will remind you why you believe in God, and this was one of those times.

That concert is the thing I’ll remember about China more than anything – more than the vast emptiness of Tiananmen Square, or the Great Wall of China under the soles of my feet, more than nearly drowning in the Huangpu River or two minutes disembarkations and being the last people out of the airport, more than standing under the lights of Shanghai in the rain, more even than friendship and shared food and much laughter. I will remember all of those things for a very long time, of course I will, but none of them will compare to the memory of standing on that stage.

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That’s us!

We ended, again, with Auld Lang Syne, and this time, having kept it together through the Brahms, just about, as I joined hands with my neighbours I burst into tears. “It’s okay,” I telegraphed frantically. “It’s okay, these are happy tears.” I’ve written three and a half thousand of them and it wasn’t half of what I could have done, but I don’t know that I have the words to describe what those nine days were like, this thing that we did, that I genuinely still can’t really believe we did do.

Instead of words, then, I leave you with music. This link goes to a video of the last two minutes of our last performance of one hell of an adventure.

It was an extraordinary journey, and an extraordinary privilege that I will never ever forget.

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Nie Przeszkadzać

I’m going away for a little while.

The City of Glasgow Chorus, with whom I’ve been singing since my second year of medical school, are off to Poland tomorrow. I say tomorrow. I’ll be leaving for the airport at the eye-wateringly early hour of 3.30am, which is practically the middle of tonight. We’ll be singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah at St Catherine’s Church in Krakow on Tuesday, before going on to the Opole Philharmonic Hall to sing the Verdi Requiem and the Rossini Petite Messe Solenelle on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Don’t expect anything in the way of blogging until I get back, and then there’ll be stories and photos aplenty when I do.

The cats are in charge while I’m gone.

Things To Read, Watch, and Listen To

For the medics, especially the newly minted ones and the older ones who have become jaded with their experience, there’s Michelle Au’s fabulous commencement address to the graduating doctors of the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. Michelle is an attending physician in anaesthesiology in the US and one of what I imagine must have been the first wave of medical bloggers, at The Underwear Drawer.

For the politicos, for the people who are taking an interest in equal marriage legislation, there are these videos of the presentation and Q&A session that John Curtice did for St Mary’s Cathedral this past Sunday on the subject of public opinion of same sex relationships and the cultural shift that has been seen in that opinion over the last 30 years. This is one that will interest the nerds and the activists alike.

For the musicians and the Anglicans, a lovely piece on Radio 4 about the boy choristers of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. There are some lovely stories about not rustling chocolate wrappers in the choir stalls and a good cobweb-sweeping dose of Parry and Handel. I was thinking as I listened to it of the late and much missed George Wilson, whom I met in a different set of choir stalls, at St Peter’s Church in Stockton, fifty years after he had been one of those choristers. Available on iPlayer for another 5 days.

I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me

There are few things more magnificent than the offering up of wonderful church music in churches. I love choral music, wherever I might happen to hear it – be it in ancient theatres, in drafty school halls, or on my iPod on the train to work. I get a huge buzz from singing it in the city’s concert venues and come home from performances so high that I don’t sleep for hours. But there’s still something special about listening to it in a church and I’m privileged to be able to do that every Sunday. This weekend, we have had a positive orgy of that something special.

It began on Thursday evening with our inaugural celebration of Corpus Christi accompanied by the Reinberger Missa Cantus in E Flat. I have no qualms at all about saying that of all the things I have ever done inside a church, this service was the most hilarious and most luxurious, and had the most potential for it to all go horribly wrong. It was gorgeous. I came into this with no real idea of what the Feast of Corpus Christi was all about (I was baptised and raised and confirmed and educated for fifteen years in the Roman Catholic church; as I was told just before the service, the Catholicism evidently didn’t take very well). It is truly about pure pure joy. It’s about doing a sacred thing and taking that moment to simply rejoice in it, and, for that time and that festival, knowing that it is entirely right and proper to feel laughter bubbling up as the thurible swings ever closer to the Provost’s glasses. My God knows a thing or two about suppressing giggling fits, I think.

On Friday, a Parisian organ mass performed to Francois Couperin’s setting Messe pour les Couvents for the Feast of John the Baptist. A quieter and simpler service but just as beautiful, and a chance after all the high spirits of Thursday evening to sit down and simply let the words of the Eucharist wash over us.

And today, the cathedral choir were holding a Come and Sing Messiah. It has been a stupendous day with much laughter and more coffee and a great crowd in fine voice, and it was a wonderful opportunity to sing that music in that space. I said that there was something special about the offering up of wonderful church music in churches and for me that was very special indeed.

The feast of joy and wonder and delight continues tomorrow, with a glorious orchestral Evensong with massed choirs (and Parry: see title) at 6.30pm and before that the normal worship at 10.30am. Whenever I talk about or hear anyone else talk about normal worship at St Mary’s, I’m reminded of Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, who came to a very normal service and ended it by saying, “If you belong here, you are blessed. If you don’t belong here yet, you are crazy – they do this every Sunday!”

It’s my last weekend in Glasgow until mid-August, the longest I’ve been away since I first came here four years ago, and this has been a thoroughly perfect way to spend it. There is a picture from Corpus Christi that just completely sums up my experience of this weekend. It reminds me of the suppressed giggling fits. It expresses the potential that there was for everything to go so very very wrong (I was walking backwards at the time). It shows a censer and censed. And if I close my eyes, in the middle of it and surrounding it and raising up its voice to the rafters, I can see and feel and hear the very real Body of Christ. These are my people. They are the ones who make me laugh and make me cry and make me know that this is where I truly come home to. I thank God for them every single day.

All due credit for the wonderful photos used here to Gordon Smith.