Education: What the little angels are really like
For most of us, the Christmas Day carols sung by boys from King's College School in Cambridge are an oasis of calm. Gillian and Charles Perkins describe how, as choristers' parents, their lives are turned upside down by preparations and performances
Thursday 17 December 1998
That's when Christmas begins for us - the first sound of those well-loved descants ringing around the vaulting, even just for the balance test, always brings back memories of all sorts of Christmases and the hopes for this one too.
After that comes the first of many anticipations. Which boy is going to sing "Once in Royal David's City" on telly? We never know, (nor do they), until they have processed in and Stephen's chosen chorister is very quietly signed to come forward. Last year our older son, John, was head chorister and we shared in his gentle rivalry with the other boys and in the friendly anticipation among the other parents. It was not something we were looking forward to, because we knew that several of the boys could do a splendid job. In the end it was down to three possibles, and two had to be disappointed, John among them. Edward does it really well, with no trace of nerves.
After all the media attention and photographs, it must be hard for the boys to go back into ordinary school the next day, but that's life. The next time we see them is later the same week on the platform of St John's Smith Square in London. There they sing a selection of music, with Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" one of the highlights. The older boys process in singing that, leaving the youngest boys, including our second son Oliver, sitting on the platform waiting for them. Even they seem self-assured and unbothered by the crowded church. The older boys sing solos in the Britten, and in an anthem by Orlando Gibbons. The highlight of the evening, for the boys at least, is the presence of Mr Bean in the audience.
We drive them back to Cambridge afterwards, and enjoy a car full of boyish gossip and excitement, some of it about their trip by train to Edinburgh the next day. There they repeat the St John's concert, and return to Cambridge by train on Friday, grateful for the kindness of their hosts and the audience at the Queen's Hall.
Then we have two lovely and very noisy days at home. John and Oliver still have the energy to get into the more common Christmas mode: "Can we have a really BIG tree this year? Can we go shopping for presents? No, Mum, you're not to come. Have you made fudge yet? Why not, haven't you had time? Can we have more cards to send? Can I add this to my Christmas list?" And so the merry chaos envelops us all, and in two days flat we get our own Christmas sorted out.
But the whole thing has to go back on hold again - the boys must return to school on Sunday! Fortunately not for work, but so that they can fit in their annual panto visit with the Cleoburys that evening. This year the star of Cambridge's panto is Otis the Aardvark, a great favourite with all the boys!
Monday sees them back at work with yet another Christmas concert, this time at the Royal Albert Hall in London when, with quite a large gathering of other parents, we watch them from so far away give a stunning account of some of this year's favourite carols. Yet again, there's not a seat to be had. They go back to school on the coach, so that they can begin work in earnest the next morning when the final practices start for the real Nine Lessons and Carols service of Christmas Eve.
That leaves us at home with just one day to wrap presents, make up beds for guests and final food shopping. Pick up the turkey from the butcher, make the stuffing, cook the ham, all those things which my mother did years ago, and which we still do. A busy day, since we have three other chorister families coming to stay, and beds need to be moved and put-you- ups put up.
Wednesday 24 December dawns, not cold, but very windy. King's College is quite the windiest place in town as we queue outside the chapel. And it starts to rain. We shall get wet before we are done, though we take longer than we mean to getting ourselves into college, and by that time the rain is starting to ease off. We catch up with the boys for five minutes or so when they tumble out from practice around 12.30pm, and there is much laughter and betting on who is going to sing "that solo" again. Bets are on the star of the television show doing a repeat, and John is more worried about his solo in the newly commissioned carol by Thomas Ades. There's some doubt about which chorister will read the first lesson, too; Geoffrey, one of the senior boys, has laryngitis and is not going to be able to read loudly enough. It sounds as if Ben, another boy in his last year, will have some emergency practicing to do.
While they go off to have lunch at school, we manage to keep warm thanks to our bring-and-share picnic. Mulled wine in a Thermos flask is a real help, as is the company of good friends. In the real queue - for the public - pride of place goes to a number of ex-choristers who have been camping all night, it seems. Thankfully, the chapel staff have been looking after them, but they are all clearly very wet and bedraggled. Meanwhile, we hear that this year's choristers have been seen having a game of footie back at school, now that it has stopped raining. They must be getting very muddy, but no doubt will be cleaned up before they have to walk back to college.
More sedately, the choral scholars, the men of the choir, come to serenade us during their lunch break with close harmony versions of carols and of "Chattanooga Choo-choo" and the like. Then we wait, and wait, and at last are let into the warmth of the chapel. It fills up so quickly, and is absolutely crammed with all those who have waited far longer than us lucky ones. That final anticipation is awesome - but on the dot of 3pm, in they come, Edward is chosen again, and off he goes, singing as if there were nothing special about it all, even though he's being listened to by so many millions around the world. How different this is from childhood memories of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, and listening to that famous opening. Little did we ever dream that we would be part of it in years to come. The familiar procession of lessons and carols flows over us: and however many times we hear them, they still give us an opportunity to remember the basis of Christmas festivities.
And afterwards, well, there's tea in college first. The boys rush into salmon sandwiches and chocolate meringues - heaven help the college caterer who decides such things are not necessary - no matter how many times we tell them that they have dinner in less than two hours. We wander back to school where we parents have organised silly party games - just in case any of the boys has any surplus energy. Then comes Christmas dinner for all the chorister families, who are more like one big family with around 70 of us all told. Grannies, uncles, older brothers, and younger sisters all come.
Afterwards, tradition has it that the head chorister's father pays tribute to the boys, but never seriously. Our send-up of them all this year is very loosely based on Snow White and her 20 or so Helpers. Head choristers give out staff presents, too, guides to help them manage the new computers, musical boxes of "Want to teach the world to sing" and silly hats are clear favourites with the boys if not the recipients.
Other parents give out the annual spoof awards to some of the boys to celebrate their achievements and exploits; the Really Wild Award is given to Geoffrey who collected the most creepy-crawlies in his bedroom on the summer tour to Barbados. Then there's one of the boys' favourites, the John Boulter Bucket Award, which is named after the long suffering chapel administrator. Generally given to the unfortunate member who's been sick the most times during the year, this year it's translated into the Toronto Lampshade Award and given to the luckless boy who mistook a large lampshade for a waste bin at Toronto airport on the summer tour.
We leave the boys watching the video of the televised carols shown earlier in the evening - it's difficult to watch, let alone hear properly with all their ribald comments as accompaniment. Even when we get home without them, Christmas Eve night is not exactly quiet either. The other parents and ex-choristers staying overnight with us chat over a glass of this and that for quite a long time into the night.
Christmas morning is another early start; for the boys, the chase around the school to find the headmaster starts on the dot of 8am; for once it takes them a long time to track him down in the school basement. For us, another queue starts about 10am for the Christmas communion service. How different the atmosphere - much more relaxed, with the chapel full of friends and families, and a chance for us all to sing out, too. Home for lunch - ham and baked potatoes - and then at last we get to those important things like presents. Phone calls to the rest of the family, all enjoying more normal Christmases, help to overcome the sense of anti-climax and sheer exhaustion that sets in.
But tomorrow is another day, and even though we know it's really Boxing Day, we celebrate Christmas with turkey, stuffing, funny hats and mince pies and all, with another house full of people. It's a little strange doing it a day late, and carols are absolutely banned until next year.
John, Ben and Geoffrey finished their time as choristers at King's in July of this year. They won music scholarships to Uppingham, Harrow and Rugby
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