The reluctant choirboy

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The Independent Culture
MY SON, who is four months old, gets bored sometimes, and who can blame him? He can't read, he can't do crosswords, not even quick crosswords, he can't understand the television, he can't play board games or cards, he can't walk or talk, he can't cook, or even feed himself, he can't sit, for heaven's sake, although most of us who can sit would argue that sitting does little to break up the longueurs of these wet winter Sundays. In effect, he is waiting to get older, and time can hang heavy on your hands in those circumstances.

In my experience, it gets worse before it gets better. He will have to face double maths lessons, long journeys to see people he doesn't know, terrible holiday jobs and maybe, one day, university lectures in which his concentration will wander in the first 10 minutes and then lose itself altogether somewhere in the jungle of daydreams inside his head. He will probably go, of his own volition, to see dull films and indigestible plays, just because he feels he ought to. And then, somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, he will find himself in a position to eliminate from his life most of the things that have tried his patience, and he will be happier.

He will not, at least, have to join the church choir; indeed, he will not be allowed to join the church choir, however piercingly beautiful his treble, however much he begs and pleads and cries. 'No way,' I shall say. 'It's just too dull, and that's that.' I was in the church choir for several decades during 1967, and it would be no exaggeration to say that it was a key experience in my life, an ordeal that has stayed with me to this day, that has, in ways that I shall try to explain, turned me into the imperfect human I am now.

My mum made me join (she'll be on the phone to deny this, probably just as the Italian football kicks off, but it's true), and though I can forgive her most things, I can't forgive her that one. It was the sermons that destroyed me: interminable, incomprehensible rants, delivered by a grumpy lunatic to a stupefied congregation while we sat behind him, flicking through hymn books in the forlorn hope that one of the hymns contained an obscenity, or a narrative involving Nazi spies. I was, maybe literally, bored to tears; I can certainly recall wanting to weep with the sheer frustration of being somewhere I hated with absolutely nothing to do, and ever since then I have done as much as I can to stave off that terrible, numbing state. I never leave home without two books and a magazine (I am frequently late for appointments because I cannot decide what the back-up book should be); I usually buy a newspaper on the way to the station or bus stop, just in case.

I suspect that fierce cultural critics who grumble about sound-bites and MTV culture (and hats off to the MTV generation, I say - I can no longer watch a three-minute pop video in its entirety), who castigate us for turning our backs on difficult novels and art-house films, did not listen to many Sunday sermons when they were children; if they had, they would be a lot more tolerant of our weakness. When I was at college, and was more prepared to flirt with danger than I am now, I sat through the whole of Jean-Luc Godard's resolutely plot-free One Plus One (a film, as far as I recall, about a man who sits in a wheelbarrow reciting poetry while the Rolling Stones rehearse a small section of 'Sympathy for the Devil' over and over again). I was very brave about it - I didn't cry once in the entire 90 minutes - but that evening coloured my view of experimental cinema, and I haven't given Godard the benefit of the doubt since.

My film guide, however, does not use the word 'boring' once in its consideration of One Plus One. It does not warn unsuspecting punters that, half-way through the film, they will be rummaging through their pockets to find a sweet-wrapper to read, or wondering whether it is possible to kill oneself with a Kleenex; it merely notes that the film is 'extreme in its abandonment of narrative forms', 'a random collage that the viewer must edit himself'. Is it any wonder, then, that filmgoers end up distrusting critics, that so many clever young people end up running straight into the arms of Arnie, Sly and Clint?

Those who have sung in the choir, or seen a Godard film, resent deeply the misappropriation of the word 'boring' by those who plainly have no idea what it means. There is a certain mealy-mouthed moral minority who complain that sex on the screen is 'boring', for example, but of course it isn't; offensive, possibly, tacky, for sure, but boring? Most of us would rather watch people having it off than people sitting in wheelbarrows reciting poetry. Screen violence, too, has been similarly misrepresented by commentators who have (justifiable) moral qualms but are too hip to say so. We must face facts: an exploding head possesses an intrinsic fascination that a talking head will never have, and anyone who tries to tell us otherwise forfeits the right to be taken seriously. The fear of boredom, after all, is a serious business, perhaps the most important issue of our age.

One worries, of course one worries, about where this fear is leading us. It's leading me personally towards a state of enervated idiocy: I may get a lot of reading done on public transport, but at home I watch only tiny fractions of television programmes at the same time as I'm reading just the first paragraphs of newspaper articles. I haven't listened to a CD all the way through for months, although I buy loads of the things, and the running time of a movie is now more important to me than the director's filmography. I fear that by the time my son is two, his attention span will have outstripped mine, and his Fireman Sam videos will appear as intimidating and as relentless to me as Bergman once did. Maybe I should try speed-reading haiku.

I guess that it's important for children to learn the benefits of patience and self-reliance, to understand that sometimes they will have to do things they don't want to do. But the stark truth is that I would be a more educated person - better-read, with a greater knowledge of world cinema and theatre, an appreciation of classical music and a firmer grasp of current events - if I hadn't been made to join the choir; and if my son wants to play Sonic the Hedgehog on Sunday mornings, then so be it. It will be for his own good, in the long run.

(Photograph omitted)

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