The night we felt like proper carolling chumps

PUBLISHED: 10:17 16 December 2017

Keith Skipper's Beeston carol singers were not as well organised as this lot...

Keith Skipper's Beeston carol singers were not as well organised as this lot...


Keith Skipper remembers an eventful night carolling round his Mid-Norfolk village.

Taking cheerful little liberties with some of our favourite carols on local rounds in the 1950s prompted little more than gentle frowns of admonishment from those in charge of lamp-lit troubadours.

It required a more risky taste for adventure in a packed chapel for harvest festival celebrations when the urge to suggest “All is safely gathered in, some is troshed and gone to Lynn …” rose like a quivering shoof of corn travelling by elevator to top of the stack.

Perhaps an outside setting, wind ruffling hedgerows and cattle lowing just over the way, lent itself better to “While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated round the tub …”. Indeed, by the time we reached the pub, quick snatches of “Arrest these Merry Gentlemen” and “Thirsty Noel” seemed perfectly composed for the occasion.

Harry Dawson’s hurricane lamp had a mind of its own on a rare outing, hissing and swinging at the end of a pole last employed on springtime gardening duty. Bertha Naylor’s accordion was soon pulling her along, opening notes punching holes in the country darkness.

Although this instrument would have been more at home in a Ploughshare Inn singalong, it did serve us better than an ancient violin forced into service on previous outings. It roused every dog in the neighbourhood along with a few broody hens to form a rival choir.

Bertha borrowed the accordion because she accepted a harmonium on wheels was not a practical alternative to a keen but uninspiring fiddler on the hoof. Veterans of these carol-singing marathons knew the importance of conserving energy and enthusiasm.

Just a couple of verses from Away in a Manger for households with young children. An abridged version of As With Gladness Men of Old before eight o’clock for Aunty May in The Street. Anything short and melodic for Walter and Polly. Walter always hauled back the curtain and recalled contributions of other years.

We had to present a united and unflagging front at The Major’s large residence, simply because a good performance would earn much-needed refreshments along with a considerable boost for party funds. He expected two carols, the lantern light above his front door going on to indicate he had heard the first and was anticipating the second.

He was Church. We were Chapel. But a pioneering ecumenical spirit laced mince pies and cocoa. We knew he sent oranges and sweets to the Sunday School bunfight. A note in the collection box to cover all the coins drew murmurs of excitement although the grown-ups as usual pretended not to notice. My mate Ernie was almost moved to contrition for inviting shepherds to wash their socks by night.

There’s something eerie about signposting It Came upon a Midnight Clear in pitch blackness. It was after such a rendition at one of the homes on the fringe of the parish that I urged two good friends to help me form a breakaway movement as We Three Kings of Close Harmony.

We headed for the other side of the village, strung out around the old aerodrome, appreciating the official warblers were most unlikely to get this far. Our aim, honestly, was to add any financial bonus to the kitty for our forthcoming Sunday School party.

Our repertoire was limited without those sheets Harry had distributed and then recovered as we stole off into the night. Our musical dovetailing was highly erratic, three hesitant voices finding each other somewhere in the middle of a verse rather at beginning or end. Frankly, it was more Donald Peers, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine than the Methodist Wandering Minstrels.

We collected two clear-offs, three you’ll wake the kids up and four complaints about interfering with Radio Luxembourg reception before a widow, deaf and frail, eventually answered bangs on her door with a bemused smile and crumpled copy of the Christian Herald.

She insisted we take it and then asked if we’d seen the Tote Man. We promised to keep an eye out for his bike. It never materialised – and nor did reward for our final rendition of the evening when we spied a white blob in the blackness. We poured ourselves into Silent Night.

I was volunteered to knock on the door. No reply. A dog agitated at the end of a chain. Another light went on several yards behind. A man emerged to put us right.

We’d been carolling the cowshed.

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