Melamine blue

A blue melamine cup…

What is it about that particular shade of baby blue – deeper than powder, softer than steel – which is so consoling, so pacifying, so utterly redolent of childhood?   And when rendered in melamine, perhaps the ultimate soft edged yet unbreakable material, the association is intensified again.

Baby blue featured very little in our 1970s’ household and yet the blue of that cup more strongly evokes early childhood than contemporaneous staples such as ubiquitous brown carpets or a sofa’s pukey orange.

Baby blue

It feels like that particular shade might have been born in the nurseries of the immediate post-war era.  Blue slows the metabolism, calms the nerves…  Like invalid cookery and Boots The Chemist, it provided a hygienic, protective wrap for atomic babies, consolation in an uncertain age.

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I half-remember a flashback scene in an early Absolutely Fabulous where cot-bound baby Edina is comforted by a gently cooing mummy June Whitfield.  We see the new antispectic white-tiled world from Edina’s viewpoint but I’m sure there is also baby blue, perhaps in mother’s dress or a nurse’s tunic, for more than anything, this is the colour of the NHS, the diluted authority of a navy police force rendered oh-so comforting.

“I dare you!”

That melamine cup conjures one particular incident:  it’s summer 1969 and next door’s neighbour – a towering giant of an eight year-old – persuaded this five year old, for a dare, to pass through a low, concrete pipe carrying a shallow stream under a main road at the back of our house.   He would meet me the other side.

I don’t recall much of the darkened journey or the trepidation which accompanied it.  I do recall being found out by my mother and sent to bed at 5pm without any tea.  I lay accompanied by my constant bedtime companion, a giant panda called Peter, and on the table beside the bed, a blue melamine cup of tap water.

The words “You could have been killed!” still stung my ears and chilled my spine but all I could actually hear was the loud tick-tock of a (melamine) alarm clock, the swish of an occasional car and the distant chatter of my friends playing on the road.

Light filtered through daytime curtains in the way which only summer light can – unnatural, disturbing, the light of deprivation.  Normally a succour to nightmares, the water in the cup had become prison ration austerity, the ultimate in neutrality and antiseptic punishment.

Yet somehow through this, the soft-hard blue melamine maintained its unbreakable comfort as if it had been chosen to prevent a prisoner from coming to harm.  It was like my mother’s presence in the room, still nurturing even though I had been disobedient.

So there I lay awake for countless wide-eyed hours, gazing into the blue, listening intently to the racing tick-tock of the alarm clock, until day became night and sleep finally descended.

Blue comfort

I learned my lesson and never went down the concrete pipe ever again.

That shade of infinitely mid-mid-blue continued to crop-up though less frequently as time went by.  I think particularly of an Adidas skinny-rib T-shirt in 1978.  Now, baby blue is largely confined to NHS logos and sanitary ware products or the textured panel of an Oral B toothbrush.

The memory of that particular afternoon, so confining and nerve-shattering at the time, now raises a smile.

My cup overfloweth.

60 Years of Carols from King’s

This post maybe seems a little off topic for lightspots but it’s about a key ingredient of Christmas for me so I hope you will enjoy this unexpected betwixt Christmas and New Year piece.

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A kind of tradition

Like many Christmas traditions, the origins of the BBC’s Christmas Eve broadcast of Carols from King’s are not quite what you might expect.   The first television broadcast from King’s College Cambridge was in 1954 but the ‘tradition’ was not revived until some ten years later, significantly, perhaps, coinciding with the start of BBC2 earlier in 1964.  To my knowledge, the service has been broadcast annually ever since.

Complete footage of that first 1954 broadcast has been recently unearthed or, according to accounts, ‘unfrozen,’ cleaned up and was shown on Christmas Eve together with the 2014 service.  Christmas Day brought an accompanying documentary celebrating sixty years of Carols from King’s.

It is a rare treat to see any television footage from as early as 1954 as so little survives.  Given that the service is dictated by its own unchanging internal liturgy, not too much is different content-wise between 1954 and 2014.  The 2014 broadcast is bathed in a glorious golden amber glow which I have never seen so well captured as here and which seems almost synonymous with the warmth and light of Christmas itself.

Christmas card and a tapestry

Nevertheless, there were times when the milky monochrome of 1954 lent its own possibly unintended enchantments.  An arresting shot appeared of organ pipes and fan vaulting framed together like a kind of 1950s heraldic Christmas card or perhaps a design for the Christmas Number of the Radio Times.  At other times the picture seemed briefly transformed into a kind of ecclesiastical tapestry rendered in 405 lines and black and white.  The restored picture still background-flickered a little just as our coronation television used to, as if to remind us of the era.  You were aware of the huge heavy 1950s’ cameras on their dollies tracking slowly and affording none of the heavenly vantage point views of recent years.  There were a couple of quite prolonged holding shots which felt very stationary to a modern viewer.  Another difference was the marked lack of close-ups in 1954, as if to suggest that the liturgy, the overall form and the tradition – not the individuals partaking in it – are of paramount importance.  This had been corrected by 1964.

That first Carols from King’s took place a year after the coronation and was probably inspired by the success of that huge television ‘first’.  The bringing of tradition into a new age of television resonates with that brief New Elizabethan era which reigned as post-war austerity and rationing faded but before consumerism really got a grip.  The following year, ITV began broadcasting and the McMillan era beckoned.

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Year of the solo

The service always begins with Once In Royal David’s City, the first verse sung by a lone chorister.  In the documentary celebrating sixty years, the 2011 candidate recalls the “moment when everything goes away and you’re just there – an amazing feeling.”

To me, performing that role in our local church near Guildford at the age of ten exactly forty years ago, it was the single most nerve racking experience of my life.  I was at the head of the choir as we processed slowly up the nave towards the choir stalls.  I could hear my voice gulp at every word.  Strangely, afterwards, everyone said they never heard my gulps and I think they were telling the truth; it was the sound of my own nervousness audible only to me.   So nervous was I, in fact, that singing solo felt like a kind of out of body experience, an extreme hyper self-consciousness, perhaps.  The voice I was hearing was not the sound coming out of my own mouth.

In 1974, Christmas began the moment I reached the end of that first verse.  Like the King’s choristers who have sung that solo, I always look back upon ‘my solo’ whenever I hear it sung today.

Watching religiously

As a child, I never watched Carols from King’s  – we didn’t have BBC2 until 1973 and BBC1 or ITV probably offered a more entertaining alternative.  But over the last twenty years or so, I have watched it regularly, religiously, you might say, such that Christmas would seem incomplete without it.  It almost feels as if I have always watched it, so powerfully does the service connect with Christmas past as collective memory, as liturgical tradition, as television institution and with childhood memories of Christmas and carols in particular.

John Rutter put it perfectly when he said “For an enchanted hour and a half the world seems to stop and we are in the realm of Christmas where everything is perfect”.  Yes, it does feel as if there is a quietening, a feeling of peace descending… Transmitted in the very late afternoon, it has become the setting for a warming mince pie and a glass of ginger wine with my partner before we both depart to our respective families for Christmas.

Images show rehearsals for Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College

Singing Together: Archive on Four

Tx 29.11.14. 8.00-9.00pm, BBC Radio 4

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If traditional songs like ‘Donkey Riding’, ‘Bushes and Briars’ and ‘Tree in the Wood’ ring bells for you, the chances are you might have first heard and sung along to them on BBC Radio for Schools’ Singing Together broadcast for over five decades on Monday mornings at 11am.  Sprightly, rousing and, above all, jolly summed up its approach to singing.

Saturday’s Archive on Four allowed Jarvis Cocker a fascinating trawl through a history of the series prompted by a personal quest to unite his 1974 pupil’s pamhlet with broadcast recordings of the songs.  He does so thanks to a cassette tape in the back of an old school music cupboard.

‘Singing Together’ survived for so long because it was well loved by generations of children.  It fought off BBC bigwigs’ criticisms that it was insufficiently erudite and later adapted, sometimes awkwardly, to schools’ ethnic diversity and the constraints of the national curriculum.  But ultimately, ‘Singing Together’ died because its inherent simplicity was regarded as old fashioned, too straightforward for the demands of a changing world.

As Jarvis says – “Singing always helps” and at the end of the documentary, there’s a chance for you to do just that.

Singing Together on BBC iplayer
BBC Magazine feature
Lightstraw – a selection of charming covers to pupils’ pamphlets  from the 60s