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Thursday, 5 June 2014

Belgium - stepping into the past

New Mill Male Voice Choir toured Flanders in May 2014. The Flanders towns Ypres, Bruges and Ghent were the principle destinations, both to take in the sites, to sing and to search for connections with the West Riding. Wool was king here long before Huddersfield, Leeds and Bradford took centre stage during the industrial revolution. Sadly, many Yorkshire men lost their lives here, during WW1. 

In the early middle ages, Flanders was an important trading centre. Merchants, becoming very rich in the process, bought raw wool from England and employed artisans to make highly desirable cloth for export. Canals,  fine merchants’ houses and large cloth halls were impressive, though the Ypres buildings were modern reconstructions of structures razed in WW1 by the Germans. Ghent also had factory remains from a 19th century textile revival. These reminders fitted snugly with 21st century bars and bistros. 

Two cathedrals, Bruges and Ghent, hosted the choir on successive days. Bruges’ Sint-Salvator, whilst built in the 10th century, obtained cathedral status after Belgium’s independence in the 1830s. The organ was massive, expanded and rebuilt three times in the 20th century. Saint Bavo of Ghent was consecrated in 942, completed in 1569, becoming a cathedral in 1559. It houses the masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Bruges was the more intimate space, but both had exceptional acoustics.

We spent a day with a guide, exploring Ypres and Passchendaele; the battlefield and the cemeteries. At Essex Farm, the cemetery was next to a dressing station, manned by a Canadian surgeon called Lt Col John McCrae who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields. One of the poignant moments here was at the graveside of a sixteen year old. At Tyne Cot we were reminded of the 100 days it took to advance 5 miles prior to the third battle of Passchendaele when over 250,000 British lives were lost. We were told about excess rain, artillery bombardment, mud and murderous machine guns. And executions for cowardice. Beyond our experience, hard to imagine. It’s a peaceful place now.   
We sang Let There Be Peace On Earth and Abide With Me at the Menin Gate, which with Tyne Cot, are memorials to those who have no known grave. Adam, our chairman, read an extract from Robert Binyon’s poem. The names of soldiers from The Duke Of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) appeared regularly on the memorials.

Everything we reflect on in the present is already history. Making sense of personal history depends on our first memories and the memories of relatives, personally known to us or known to the generations we grew up alongside. This living history goes back maybe to grandparents and their siblings, many of whom died in Flanders. Most of us abhor violent conflict on any scale and the heartbreaking loss of young lives. Yet there was dignity here in Flanders, in the white symmetrical stones and the neat names carved on walls. Row on row, just on the edge of our personal histories, still not a remote date in a history textbook. 


Flanders was a great place to visit, and to sing, and to catch up on history some of us might not know a lot about, until now.

New Mill Male Voice Choir visit Lowerhouses Primary School

It was a partnership, two parties cooperating and giving something to each other through music.
  On Wednesday May 21st, after school, twenty or so choir members arrived in dribs and drabs to be electronically signed in at reception by their chairman, Adam Brown. There were several spelling mistakes, not by Adam. 
  We were greeted by Mrs Tracey, choir mistress, who explained how the action-packed session would go.
  The juniors, some really small, began with Music Memories illustrated by elegant choreography. Then You Raise Me Up complete with signing for the hearing impaired.
  The men did their set unaccompanied. First Let it be me, the most popular version of which was released in 1960 by The Everly Brothers. Second African Trilogy which was a tad rusty it has to be said. Two traditional Zulu melodies are combined with the South African national anthem. The first song, Siyahamba, is now well-known as the hymn ‘We are marching in the light of God’. The second item, Shosholoza, is a road gang work song. The trilogy concludes with the anthem Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika, sung in English. We were due to do it again as a joint item, but the two very different versions couldn’t sing to each other.
  Drumming was next and each choir member received an instrument. ‘Quieten down children,’ did not always apply to the children. There were three drumming sections, in a round, alternating with singing. The children then sang their favourite song about Mr Miller and his band. Some great trombones and saxophones. The choir is usually unable to perform with added movement or action, but the men gladly joined in, some better than others.
   You raise me up came again, this time with a tutorial for the men on signing by Mrs Thomas. Again we had no option but to multitask and sing and sign together. It was hard. Confusingly, whilst the actions and sounds are performed at the same time, signing and singing don’t necessarily use the same words. Recorded by more than one hundred artists, You Raise Me Up was originally composed by the duo, Secret Garden. In 2005, it was popularised in the UK by Westlife. Today, it is also a church hymn.
  The men finished with Let there be Peace on Earth.

  The partnership was between children, starting out on life’s journey, and men in their fifties and sixties with something left in the tank. The children, and the teachers, received somewhere that deep soulful sound that men can make together. The men, uncoordinated granddads, smiled a lot. It was fun, and moving.

Two Events in Two Days


On Friday 11th April, New Mill Male Voice Choir sang at the funeral of one of its members, Derek Haigh, who died suddenly on holiday in Cyprus. He was a sunny character who’d a great business career and who loved his music. In 2003, he and his wife, Jocelyne, were responsible for inviting the choir to two big concerts in aid of Rotary and Inner Wheel at The Winter Gardens, Blackpool and The Spa, Scarborough.
  Over 300 attended the service at Kirkheaton Parish Church. Tributes came from Mirfield Rotarian, Paul Cusworth and Graham Dawson, representing the choir. The congregation progressed to Woodsome GC for refreshments, golf being another of Derek’s passions.
  The following day, the choir sang at The Salvation Army Citadel, Scarborough with Manhattan Voices, a dozen or so ladies linked to the choir by a long-standing friendship between their musical director and Ray Thompson, the choir's music committee chair. They smiled a lot and their repertoire was popular and well sung, an excellent foil for the choir’s mostly traditional male voice pieces. Sadly, for a great venue with great singing, the audience, mostly camp-followers and Jocelyne, numbered little more than 40. The afterglow was enjoyed at The Red Lea Hotel, prior to an eleventh hour departure on the coach.
  Two events in two days. Unusual for the choir, and well supported. Two sacred venues, one for a solemn celebration of a life, the other secular and joyful. Two strong singing spaces, ideal for the male voice genre. Pity about the unequal audience sizes.

  Two contrasting experiences, brought together by Jocelyne and Derek.