Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Amazing Grace and Pigeons

I can’t sing if my life depended on it. I’d be the first to admit that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Apart from learning the play the recorder on wet lunchtimes at school and reaching the stage where I could squeak out a more or less recognisable version of the British National Anthem, I would say my musical accomplishments are negligible.

It has never been a problem. As I’m fond of telling myself, I have other gifts. I’m good with figures, can take a decent photograph, and tell a good story. These days I even manage to make what I like to think of as a living by doing just that.

But I love to listen to music, good music, and I am in awe of those who produce it. Not so much the stylised, intricately staged and electronically enhanced forms of music usually belted out at concerts (though I do confess to having bought tickets for Bon Jovi next summer), but the more spontaneous and unadorned variety. Acoustic guitar, choral singing, opera. I don’t even start to pretend to understand the technical merits, but it will invariably stop me in my tracks and I just listen.
That’s what music is for? Yes? For listening to, enjoying, relaxing. And those who are able to provide the rest of us with such richness enjoy my undying admiration.

I want to share with you a surreal experience I had perhaps fifteen years ago. 

In a past life I was a regeneration manager charged with investing huge dollops of tax payers’ cash to restore old buildings and breathe new life into disadvantaged neighbourhoods. I worked in an area of inner East Leeds in the north of England, and my patch was dominated by a huge, derelict church.

Mount St. Mary’s was – still is – a grade 2* listed building. The Pugin architecture earned it that honour, and it was, in its day, the largest religious structure apart from cathedrals in the Roman Catholic Church in the UK. No small claim to fame.

But with such accolades come massive restoration problems. The architectural listing severely limited what could be done with the disused building, the costs of repairs would be astronomical, and the place was no longer required for the purpose it had been built. It was, quite literally, rotting away.

But despite the holes in the roof and the piles of pigeon droppings which covered just about every interior square inch, the acoustics in the old church were, we were reliably informed, nothing short of miraculous. They were perfect, quite, quite stunning. Places of worship are, in part, built to house performances of theatrical magnificence so I suppose it stands to reason. Even so, Mount St. Mary’s was alleged to be a cut above the rest.

And to prove it, enter one Maggie McDonald, mezzo-soprano, international singer and renowned voice coach. For reasons I cannot now recall, Maggie very kindly agreed to come to the derelict church and test out the acoustics, with a view to helping make the case for converting the place into a rehearsal venue for choral singing. She  brought her own Scottish Widows cloak and accompanied by only myself, our PR agent and a photographer, she picked her delicate way through the rubble and guano to reach the space where the magnificent altar once dominated the congregation of Roman Catholic faithful. I stood, transfixed, among the dereliction and decay, and marveled as Maggie belted out a perfect rendition of Amazing Grace to an audience of three, and an indeterminate number of pigeons.

No doubt about it, the roof might have been shot to pieces and the stained glass windows long since gone, but there was not a thing wrong with those acoustics.Shit, I can still here her now...


  1. But what happened to the church after that? I'm afraid I know it wasn't miraculously repaired, or you'd have said so.

  2. Fabulous story and wonderful photo of the church. But I agree -- I really want to know if the building was saved.


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