The Gospel according to... (Or, the day I sang for Nelson Mandela).

Friday, 29 December 2017

I don't remember, but I've been told the story enough times that I feel like I do: I am two years old, at my Grandparents' house, and after 27 years, Nelson Mandela is being released from prison. I'm standing up at the TV in that way that toddlers do; as much something to cling on to in order to remain upright as because it was an object of genuine interest (unlike washing machines which were the coolest), and repeating what I'm hearing around the room: "Nelson! Nelson!".

My parents kept the newspapers from the next morning well in to my childhood; they may still be in a bag under their stairs, although I vaguely recollect my Mum lending them to a well meaning teacher and them never quite making it home. I can't really remember how I told them when I found out; I can't really remember how I found out, but there must have been a day, some time about mid-way through the year I was 14, that I came home from school and told my parents I was going to sing for him. For Nelson Mandela.

And then did.

This is that story.


Gospel Choir was the one everyone wanted to be in; it was a religious school, and a lot of the girls genuinely believed in the God we were often singing about, but it was also, completely by coincidence being just a regular South East London secondary, a school of singers.

Chamber Choir was the selective one; the one you had to be invited to. I remember vividly a parents evening, probably around the same time, and a music teacher with very little understanding of me trying to convince my parents that singing chamber pieces in languages I didn't understand was the only thing that could possibly enhance my music education. I resisted hard (I think I did it for about 2 weeks, in which they realised I could not sight read and wouldn't learn fast, wanted to sing loud and soulful rather than soft and slow, and had no aspirations to become a classical singer. Eventually they released me and I went back to a hobby I was far superior at: making the music teachers learn complicated Vanessa Carlton piano accompaniments in the space of a lunch time so I could sing them for no real reason at all).

Gospel Choir, though, was somehow always different. It was music with feeling; music that could move you even when you didn't always believe what you were singing; music about friendship as often as worship, and a choir about making noise. It was supposed to be joyful. It was supposed to be loud. I joined because if I had a choice back then I would have been singing at all times, and it was just another way to do that. I stayed because standing on the makeshift wooden stage in my school's singular music classroom, feeling like you could fall through it at any second, and singing, and singing, and singing became my absolute favourite part of the week.


I did not, and do not, believe in God. I have my misgivings about organised religion generally, but would never detract from something that gives people comfort in a world where damn, we've gotta take it where we can. I believed, though, in the power of music, which when you put it like that sounds cheesy and reductive, but when you live it is as real as the keys I'm typing on. For one lunchtime a week, and extra afternoons where we were pulled from lessons as we convinced our teacher they were needed (the week before a performance, just do a few dodgy notes on purpose. Works every single time), it didn't matter who had fallen out with who; who was lying that they were pregnant; who actually was pregnant. We just sang. For teenagers, we took it very seriously. Maybe because we were teenagers, we took it very seriously. And we were good.

(Maybe really good, actually).


He was coming to open a new wing of Southwark Cathedral. We sang there all the time. (Again, despite not being at all religious, I loved the Cathedral. I went in there last week to do my makeup in the secret toilets you'd only know about if you knew about. It's still sort of magic). But yeah, we were Cathedral regulars, and I suppose as a nod to their genuinely wonderful work with our community, the powers that be had invited us to welcome him. It was a Saturday, definitely, but I think I can speak for us all when I say there was no hesitation at all in putting on our uniforms and gathering outside the school gates early in the morning. When we started Year 7, every girl in the school was given a red Rose pin, to be taken out and attached to our shirts on special occasions (they were massive and garish and everyone hated them. I would definitely wear it now). Nobody could ever find theirs (probably 'cause we stuffed them in rarely opened drawers on purpose); everyone's miraculously turned up that day. I think we took a coach, despite the fact that it was in walking distance. They made us get there hours early.

Our parents were in a contained viewing area. Everyone else was peeking through gates and railings. My Grandad held my Nan up a lamppost so she could see. I didn't witness it, but still I see it every time I walk past. My Mum and Dad had a disposable camera; every now and then I open random drawers in their house and a photo of the side of my face; the side of the Cathedral flutters out.


We sang the South African National Anthem. It's been 14 years. I still remember most of the words.

We sang Children of the Future, a song a school in Wales had commissioned and we shamelessly stole because the internet was quite new and how would anyone all the way in Wales find out?! We pedalled that one out all the time. To be fair it's a tune. (I can't find any trace of it online, which is a shame. That one was our anthem).

(We weren't part of the actual inside-the-cathedral service, but it was beamed out to us on speakers. The bishop forgot to turn his mic off when he was singing the hymns. That was jokes. Isn't it funny, the things you remember?)

He (Nelson Mandela, not the Bishop) was human and funny and got the pages of his speech in the wrong order; made a joke, barely missed a beat. He was tall, I think, but maybe I was just little and in awe of his presence. When I remember him, though, I remember him tall.

We sang loud. We didn't have microphones. We didn't need them.

If it was always part of the plan that we would meet him, nobody had told us. We didn't realise until it was happening.


I still don't believe in God.

We filed past, one at a time. Watched our friends go before us like it was no big deal.

We knew it was a big deal. 

He held out his hand, or I mine, I can't remember.

We shook.

My parents' disposable camera snapped.

My Nan could not have seen that moment, but she says she did.

I still don't believe in God, but I imagine it feels something like that.


Many years afterwards, my Dad's work took him to South Africa. He talks often about how he met people who knew Mandela personally, and visited the places he had been (also something about dancing, but that one needs his visual demonstration. Ask him, if you ever meet). He always ends with "And you met him...".

Yeah. I did. Because of the thing I loved to do most in the world, I got to get up on a Saturday morning, and sing at a beautiful cathedral with loads of my friends for an honest-to-god hero. I just had a moment where I was like imagine if I'd made it all up? 'Cause how on earth did we get to do that? Just because we loved to sing?

How stupid must we be, to grow up and stop making time for the things that make us that happy? Really, is there anything more important than finding your gospel, be it God, or singing, or writing about it 14 years removed, and doing that?

Nah. Probably not.

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