Sunday, 30 September 2012

Think of a world without any flowers

Think of a world without any flowers,
Think of a world without any trees,
Think of a sky without any sunshine,
Think of the air without any breeze.
We thank You, Lord,
for flowers and trees and sunshine,
We thank You, Lord,
and praise Your holy name.
Think of a world without any animals,
Think of a field without any herd,
Think of a stream without any fishes,
Think of a dawn without any bird.
We thank You, Lord,
for all Your living creatures,
We thank You, Lord
and praise Your holy name.
Think of a world without any people,
Think of a street with no-one living there,
Think of a town without any houses,
No-one to love and nobody to care.
We thank You, Lord
for families and friendships,
We thank You, Lord,
and praise Your holy name.

Doreen Newport (1927-2004)

The words of this hymn are almost a prophetic warning about what climate change and mankind's greedy exploitation of natural resources may bring about. Trees are being destroyed, especially the great rainforests which have so much diversity, at a frightening rate. Think of a world without any trees. The use of chemical pesticides may well be depleting the bee population, and without bees, much of the pollenation of flowers and fruit would simply not take place. Think of a world without any flowers,

The oceans overfished, the rivers are either overfished or polluted. Think of a stream without any fishes. And the ecosystems are so tightly nit that a fall in fish supplies, a collapse in fish stocks, also leads to critical falls in numbers of the sea birds which depend on those. Think of a dawn without any bird.

I was hearing John Le Maistre on the radio this morning saying that the trend for milk cows, which fortunately has not come to Jersey, is for cows to be treated like battery animals, feeding, milking, but cooped up, and not allowed to graze freely. He thought this was a step too far with technology. Think of a field without any herd. Animals are still being hunted to extinction across the world, or their habitats destroyed as part of deforestation etc. Think of a world without any animals.

And we live in a fragmented society, in which the old support networks are fast falling. People are treated like cogs in a bureaucratic machine. Old people are left on their own. The pension this year in Jersey will not automatically rise, but will be means tested, so that those who have scrimped and saved all their life are penalised. And yet with careless disregard for mixed messages, the same system attacks poorer people as work shy. No-one to love and nobody to care.

The writer of the hymn was Doreen Newport (1927-2004), and I managed to find out eventually some biographical information on her. It is interesting to note that ecological concerns were behind the thinking with this hymn.

The Kensington Unitarians Newsletter of June 2009 has this information about her by Caroline Blair. It's a wonderful tale:

Early 1970's Emmanuel United Reformed Church - Young People's Group, aka The Urchins.

Our leader was a sunny-tempered music teacher called Doreen Newport - Bunty to her friends but (in those more formal times) always "Mrs Newport" to us. As a skilled pianist and trained soprano, she always had high musical ambitions for us, and singing was a major feature of our activities. The early 1970's were the great era of Happy-Clappy music in churches - out went the Wesleys and in came Kumbaiya, and others which have survived less well; 'He Is My Little Brown Brother' seems, mercifully, to have fallen into disuse.

As well as singing, Mrs Newport, with the perennial optimism of the sweet-natured, believed that we could write our own hymns. "The Urchins are leading worship at Linton," we would be told; "Go and write a hymn about pollution." (I am not sure why the congregation at Linton, who had no minister, should have been subjected to these beastly things, but they were). I think the hymns we wrote were of variable quality, varying in fact from adequate to embarrassing. The moving refrain of one of our hymns ran,

Lord, feed us with thy bread
Until we're old and dead.

(I bet the Unitarian Hymn Book Panel are kicking themselves that they are too late for that one).

On one occasion she decided that we should all write a hymn collaboratively. She had already sketched out a beginning. "Think of a world without any flowers." she trilled, then encouraged us to think of other examples of things that we would miss. She gently weeded out the hopelessly inappropriate - beer, perhaps, or Mott the Hoople - and tried to lead us to think more of spiritual matters. By the end of the session the hymn had taken shape, and was almost ready for its debut in Linton U.R.C. Some months later we learned to our surprise that we had been paid £100 in royalties, and the church elders wanted us to discuss how best this money could be spent or invested. Hey, we were young teenagers. We voted for a huge party, with DJ and unlimited cider. We spent a happy evening striking cool, 'don't-mess-with-me' poses while our parents waited patiently outside with cars.

20 years later, at Pinner Wood School harvest festival I was absolutely staggered when the children broke into song and sang OUR hymn. The deputy head, confronted by a wild-eyed madwoman with bulging eyes, explained in puzzled tone that it is a common part of the school repertoire. So I was less amazed than I might have been when it turned up as number 168 in the new purple hymnbook. Seeing it written down it looks tidier, more thoughtful, more structured, dammit BETTER than I remember; possibly Mrs Newport had more input than I had realized. But there it is, and the credit should read "Mrs Newport and some Urchins who spent the royalties on cider."

No comments: