A Proustian Week

It all started with the rhubarb. I saw it in the supermarket and just had to take it home, transform it into a baked crumble, anoint it with vanilla ice cream and take a stroll down memory lane.

I’d forgotten about rhubarb. In Italy it’s regarded as a weed fit, at best, for turning into a nasty aperitivo. But where I grew up it was one of the three things to be found in everyone’s back garden. The other things were an Anderson shelter and a dead tennis ball.

So we consumed the rhubarb crumble and I expected no repercussions, except possibly a setback in the waistband war. But it awakened something. I’ve spent much of this week rummaging in the attic of my mind. And one of the things I was looking for was my old primary school song. I’m talking about a song I last sang in 1959.

I looked for lists of school songs. I listened futilely but with great pleasure to YouTube recordings of Forty Years On and Jolly Boating Weather. And then, and here’s the wonderful thing about memory, I caught hold of the merest suggestion of a snippet of one line. It was like locating the soap in the bath water. I didn’t quite have it in my hand but at least I knew it was in there.

All I could remember was a silver dove ascending. Or possibly descending.  Well. Not only did I find the song, I also made a hugely satisfying connection. It was written by one J B Wilson for the Malay College in Kuala Lumpur. They don’t sing it any more because J B Wilson quarrelled with them and went off in a huff.  How did it come to be recycled by a tiny Leicestershire primary school? Pull up a chair and I’ll tell you.

J B Wilson was Anthony Burgess, a writer I’ve always esteemed for his erudition and industry and ability to type brilliant copy while crouched in the back of a van. Burgess’s Welsh wife was the sister-in-law of my old headmaster, William Looker. The Burgesses used to stay with the Lookers when funds were short or they were between cribs and Burgess, the unlikeliest of uncles, conducted a correspondence between his cat and the cat belonging to the Lookers’ daughter, Ceridwen. 

‘Looking for a school song, Willie?’ I imagine Burgess saying. ‘Here’s one I knocked out earlier.’

And here it is.

We offer our youth to the world we build, with courage and truth and love fulfilled. A city will rise that is bright and fair, into cloudless skies and fresh clean air. Proudly we’ll serve and with faith we’ll strain, muscle and nerve and heart and brain. Till wisdom descends like a silver dove. Till evil ends and the law is love.

 World Wide Web, how I do love thee.

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