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What we know by heart

Lewes Bonfire night

Today’s the biggest day of the year here in Lewes – Bonfire. Not much I can say about it that will do it justice, but search for ‘Lewes Bonfire’ on YouTube and you’ll get the picture. For the first time in about eight years we’re having a ‘quiet Bonfire’. In other words, I’m not dressing up & processing, Nick’s not playing host to a houseful, we won’t be standing in the muddy field at 11pm and I won’t be down said field at 7am tomorrow filling a hundred black bags with discarded bottles, chip papers, cans, broken umbrellas and all the other detritus dropped by thousands of spectators.

Nope – we’re just going to pop outside to watch a procession or two, enjoy the odd beer and bangers & mash and then see the fireworks from our top room. Ah!

Having woken up at 5.30am to the first bangs I started saying ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November’ in my head and trying to recall all the verses which get recited by the ‘Bonfire Boys’ around town tonight under the banner of ‘Bonfire Prayers.’ But if it makes you think of wiggling a few sparklers in the back garden as a kid then think again. These Bonfire Prayers are recited with all the ritual awe and seriousness of the Anglican Creed. People really do remember, and may of them feel the events of the past as if they happened yesterday.

What rhymes or songs learned in childhood can you still recite? We no longer have an oral tradition in this country, unless you count football chants (‘We’re all agreed, Liverpool are magic’). I was reading recently about how in Russia you won’t struggle to find people who can recite poetry, from all walks of life and backgrounds.

I started dredging my memory. Nursery rhymes – OK, I can probably do a couple of verses of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ or ‘Oranges and Lemons’. After that, hymns – daily assembly from age 7 to 18 left an indelible mark. Even my ex-chorister husband (who has an encyclopaedic memory for hymn tunes and numbers) is surprised at how many verses of how many hymns I can still sing from memory. Pop ballads, sure. But there are no new lyrics, although I used to love memorising Al Stewart songs (“In a morning from a Bogart movie / In a country where they turn back time / You go strolling though the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime…”)

Then of course TV. ‘Hugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grump.’ And something I’m most ashamed of, advertising jingles:

Richard Shops are filled with lots of pretty things / lots of lovely pretty things to wear / hey there, pretty thing! Make the world a prettier place! / Come pretty up, come buy your clothes at Richard Shops! (Aaahh!)

Hmm… some nice (if unsubtle) internal rhyme there, but more repetition than a search-engine-optimised ‘buy now’ page. Believe it or not, that actually worked on me when I was about 15. I was desperate to shop at Richard Shops. And I won’t even start on the Flake advert.

Miss Cave who taught us RE at school (“Cave! That means ‘beware’!”) made us learn the books of the Bible to a catchy tune. Yes indeed – the entire Old and New Testaments. I wouldn’t trust myself to be word-perfect now, as I’m a little out of practice. But I can do enough for it to be a party piece. Of course it was just a mnemonic device, although many of the names have their own music – Habukkuk, Ezekiel, Collossians.

When it comes to poetry I know very few poems in their entirety (and they’re all short!) and some snatches/lines from other poems. There’s always been a movement in support of learning songs and poems from memory. I wish I’d made more of an effort to do so when I was younger and it was easier to stimulate the long-term memory. One of my mother’s great pleasures at the end of her life, when it was hard for her to focus on the here and now and even photographs had lost their relevance, was to be read the poetry she learned in her youth. Even the little rhymes in her school autograph book made her laugh every time I read them out, and it was a joy to hear her join in the phrases she still knew by heart.

If you’re around fireworks this evening, stay safe (and dry, if you can.)

Published inPlacesWriting

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Robin Houghton 2021
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