Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE - Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

LIFE - Low Life

Article excerpt

Before we buried her in the cemetery, we attended a brief service in the church hall opposite. When she was alive, my mother's cousin had enjoyed the kind of faith that is pretty much indistinguishable from castiron certainty. What we were lowering into a hole after the service, she'd have wanted us to think, was merely the husk.

The evangelical pastor, an austere old sort with a cruel face who addressed us as 'dear ones' or 'beloved', clearly concurred with this view and trotted us quickly and unsentimentally through the service, starting with the hymn 'Amazing Grace'. An old man with a comic's face faced us from behind the keys of a portable electric organ. Perhaps 30 of us clambered to our feet to the sound of those familiar introductory chords.

I had a chapel upbringing and have sung hymns on and off all my life, but for the past few years I have been dwelling in the tents of wickedness and have fallen out of the habit.

It's certainly been a long time since I sang John Newton's greatest hit. When I used to sing 'Amazing Grace', I never imagined the words applied to me - that I was once blind but now could see, was lost but now found.

I was pleased for John Newton, and I relished his honest gratitude and the plain sincerity of his one-syllable words, but nothing as dramatic had ever happened to me and I was scrupulous about not pretending that it had.

This wasn't arrogance. Goodness knows that a fortnight ago, with about 200 people in a toilet of a bar, I was singing a comic ditty about Avram Grant the West Ham manager paying a visit to a massage parlour with all my heart and soul. When it comes to committing myself to the words of a song, no matter how ridiculous, I 'm not fussy.

I hold back with 'Amazing Grace' because I fear the power of Newton's words, convinced that if I made them mine as I sung them my life's course might dramatically alter.

Singing 'Amazing Grace' at last week's funeral service for my mother's cousin for the first time in many years reaffirmed this conviction. The organist played it as slowly as possible, thereby ratcheting up the hymn's power to maximum. Not everybody sang. Standing next to me was my uncle, who was tricked into attending an evangelical church service two years ago and hasn't stopped complaining about the overblown language he was subjected to ever since. …

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