The Gospel According to Avis
‘It’s true when people say that music takes you to a place that your rational mind can’t reach.’
At the beginning of the day the whole family might be able to hear me. I tend to sing in the shower. The cleansing and purity of the water seems to bring me closer to God. It helps me pray. I find myself listing the ways in which I’m grateful: for family, for friends, for work, for the freedoms we take for granted in our country. And I sing.
A shower has such a lovely acoustic and recently I’ve found myself singing a classical piece, Vivaldi’s Gloria in D.
Glória Gloria Gloria… in… excélsis… Deo
But my first choice disc on my desert island would be Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1. which epitomises my love for my husband John and my children, Jermayne, Sarah and James.
What is it about music? It’s had a profound effect on me for as long as I can remember. There were no trained musicians in our family, not even anyone who played an instrument, but our home was surrounded with song. I can’t think of my parents without seeing them singing along to songs off the radio – pop, reggae, ska, calypso.
Sitting down to eat, in our house on Grosvenor Avenue, Islington in the 1970’s, there’s my mother Juliette, my dad Vernon, my older brother Desmond and my younger sister Jackie. I see Dad striking up a song and now everyone is joining in, we’re all doing the harmonies. Perhaps it’s Marcia Griffith with Dreamland, a beautiful feelgood reggae track.
‘There's a land that I, have heard about,
So far across, the sea…’
Or maybe The Beatles, 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' one of the first songs I remember hearing with a reggae influence. We carried on singing as we cleared away and did the washing up. And on Saturday mornings, when mum and dad went to Ridley Road Market to get the weekly shop, the three of us children did our chores to music. My job was to sweep the floors, mop the lino, dry it, polish it and buff it. Before starting we went through Dad’s great pile of vinyl albums looking for some music to put on while we worked.
I remember one morning coming across an album I’d never seen and I’ve no idea how it got there: Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A. I put it on the turntable and couldn’t believe this beautiful sound: adagio, mellow and sweet with this yearning quality. It still makes my heart soar. Later, our primary school head introduced us to classical music… so this was what that Mozart album was about.
When I was eight or nine, I remember, one day, running, distressed, all the way to school, because my mother wouldn’t let me wear a particular dress and now my brother and sister had set off without me. I have no childhood memory of being quite as upset as that morning but when I finally got to school, and found my space on the floor in the Assembly Hall, there was this extraordinary orchestral music playing, Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’, and it took me to another place. It was like a spiritual revelation and this sense of calm and peace came over me.
We went to church at St Jude’s on Mildmay Road. I found it boring and perfected the art of daydreaming but I also came across more wonderful songs.
Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
We sang at Campaigners too, on Tuesday nights, in our uniform of pale blue blouse and beret with the motto on our badge, ‘Unto him through and through’.
Desmond, my older brother, collected the latest songs to play on his sound system at parties. He and his friends would talk over them which we called toasting and later became em-ceeing and then became rap. As we became teenagers British reggae was emerging, amazing singers like Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson, and once a week we gathered around the radio to listen to DJ David Rodigan. Desmond held his tape recorder in front of the radio pressing down the two buttons for ‘record’ to capture each new song.
Calypso and ska had been important to my parents, but this new Jamaican music was just as influential for my generation. I hadn’t really thought of myself as different to anyone else until then. I don’t think I even noticed I was black until I was about seven. But now, in my teens, this music gave me a sense of the two cultures I was a part of: a British English one and a Jamaican one. The music helped me become aware of the politics of race and inequality. It helped me understand why, for example, my brother would be picked up by the police for ‘stop and search’ - just because he was black.
Dad never spoke about this kind of thing but mum did. She believed education was the way we would cross the hurdles put in our way. For me this music was a celebration. ‘Wow, I’m black and it’s great, we have our own music, we have our own style and fashion.’ It made you feel good. It was an amazing episode in my life when music helped me understand my identity as a young black woman in Britain.
Church, though, was less amazing and round about now my sister and I stopped going. Looking back I think I was leaving behind a faith that was not really achievable. It was about following rules but never being as good as you needed to be to get in to heaven. It left you worried for yourself and anxious for people you loved. It was a faith in which you were doomed to failure.
It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later, after I’d met John and we had our children, that I felt a call back to church. I tried a few. At one an older lady complimented my singing and said, ‘Why don’t you join our choir?’ It was small enough not to be intimidating: the vicar’s wife on keyboards, someone on drums and four of us on vocals. I loved that choir but less so the services. Maybe I just got easily bored. Maybe I missed our Sunday family walk on Hampstead Heath. John doesn’t do God and he was, shall we say, not unhappy when I stopped attending.
But I felt I would try again and one Palm Sunday I showed up here at St Luke’s. It was a bit chaotic. We were inside, but had to go back out again, into the garden, so that we could come inside again, this time singing and holding our palm crosses. But it was welcoming and the beauty of the music and singing had me straight away. I felt at home.
Faith had always been very black and white for me, about being good enough for heaven, but those sharp distinctions have fallen away. I think of my husband, who calls himself an atheist, and I ask how someone with such honesty and kindness and integrity, would not go to heaven? What difference should it make because one of us goes to church? I see that faith isn’t about how good you are. I fail every week even though my intentions are good. I lose my temper or I’m lazy or I don’t deliver on my promises, the usual things, and it’s so powerful for me, at the moment of absolution in our service, when I hear those words, ‘God forgives you, Forgive yourself, Forgive others…’
I say the words to myself and repeat them. A reminder that I don’t need to beat myself up, that I’m forgiven, that while I failed at things in the past week, the failure doesn’t define me and there is another week coming. I feel released from that sense I grew up with that being a Christian is about being good and obeying rules. I acknowledge my failings, but I’m working on them. I’m a work in progress - like everyone else.
I understand now that experiencing God is not a Sunday event but that God is present with us all the time: in this room, at work, on the tube, in this conversation. And nowhere more so than in singing and music.
In the church choir and in Vox Holloway, our community choir, I find something divine in music. It’s true when people say that music takes you to a place that your rational mind can’t reach. I find the singing heavenly, the joy and purity of it, the privilege of being in this wonderful mix of voices.
It’s like a legal high, a beautiful hit, and it takes me to a place of pure joy. In the shower or in the choir, music is a gift that transports me to a place of paradise.