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The Salvation Army and Me

They say you should steer clear of politics and religion.  But I defy anyone watching Paul O’Grady in “The Salvation Army And Me” not to be moved.  It’s not just the soldiers, prodigals and those helped by the Army’s hand who’ll feel this.  Having been brought up within it, in my teens I made the reflective and deeply considered decision not to commit as an adult to the Salvation Army, yet it remains a huge force for good in shaping me and my moral compass.  Blood & Fire never quite leaves you, and this is why.

You can’t discuss the Salvation Army without beginning with its sound.  That brass band tradition is priceless, and it spans generations.  It may be our rueful family regret that the space of a few years too many and the effects of age will mean that No. 1 On The Roll Grandad Arthur (95) won’t get to play in the same carol as Grifflet Jr. (5¾).  But during the 1990s we managed three generations on Cardiff’s Queen Street in the same band with my Dad and Grandad, and that’s not bad going.  Uniformed and flag-bearing, Salvationists remain among the finest of brass bands: not necessarily as technically perfect as the finest contesting bands, but musically flawless.  The International Staff Band and its counterparts in New York, Chicago and Canada probably hold their own with the finest of Arban-dissectors anywhere, but I defy anyone to argue that a contesting band can play the melody of a carol or hymn tune quite like an Army band.   The difference, I’ve absorbed then quantified over the years, comes because a band of Salvationists plays the words, not just the notes.  Only with a Salvation Army band are these imperceptible changes of emphasis and dynamic, speed and weight there across every part: unspoken, unrehearsed, and absolutely compelling.

We hand that down, as Salvationist-trained brass players.  As an occasional principal Horn player I maintain that it’s entirely impossible for an orchestral brass section to play the last page of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony – as it should be played – if you’ve never played Deep Harmony in a Sally Army band.  The shaping, swell, phrase and lead that the horn player should give in that magnificent brass chorale comes from somewhere deeper than the German forest, even if Dr Brückner had never heard the Blue Tune Books played on a Sunday evening.  Now, as I rehearse my secular and proudly multicultural beginners’ band of 8-12 year olds I know that I’m teaching the kids to play, as I was taught in a Tuesday night bandroom, with full phrases and the right emphasis on certain syllables, a sweetening of the sound as we shape the line, and that critical knowledge of where (and where not) to breathe.

Salvation Army banding is superb training for music outside the Citadel.  Philip Cobb, principal trumpeter of the London Symphony Orchestra and fourth generation Salvationist, is of course the latest star in that firmament. Appointed to succeed the incomparable Maurice Murphy, the golden sound the most stellar of Star Wars and intrepid of Indiana Jones, Phil Cobb took up the lead seat in Britain’s finest orchestra at the tender age of 21.  He began in his local band.  He played under his Bandmaster father (no mean cornet player he, Dr Stephen Cobb) in the International Staff Band.  He learned his scales, breathing, and the all important sight-reading of hundreds of hymns and marches in the Sunday services of Salvation Army citadels and the streets of London.   By the time the finest of the capital’s conservatoires developed his polish – and probably his transposition – the real brass foundation was already there.

It runs deep and wide.  Some years ago, I found a bond over a pint of London Pride with my fellow inhabitants of a West End theatre pit, when in the pub we realised that we were to a man alumni of the Salvation Army.  A toast was raised to the Fry Brothers and the Founder by a Bass Trombone (Glasgow West YP Band), lead trumpet (Regent Hall YP Band) and French horn (Cardiff Canton YP Band).  We are, in orchestras and pits across the country, what you might term the brass players of the Salvation Army Drinking Reserve.  Even as we smile guiltily when The War Cry comes around the tap room, we’re proud of it.

But at their core, Army bands aren’t solely musical ensembles.  These are community bands with a purpose. They evangelise, they prolytise.  Their purpose was originally to attract the attention of the faithful, the faithless, and all in between.  The original quartet blew along to drown out the drunks heckling a Victorian minister in open-air services.  Many a similarly-titled politician at a late-night Commons dispatch box might wish for the same.   But when an Army band brings traffic to a stop and disturb a Sunday morning with that magnificent racket, I know that although it’s not quite my style of personal faith, it’s highly effective and it’s something to admire.  They have good taste too. If you scratch the surface of a Salvationist you’ll often find a wonderful and quietly hidden lack of enthusiasm for praise bands and the vacuous, turgid blandness of much modern Christian music.  The ultimate compliment: “Wesley always gave a tune strong bones.”

But enough of the music, for the Salvation Army is more than a brass banding movement.  There’s a deeper point that comes across in Paul O’Grady’s series.  It’s about values.

The Army has its traditions.  I can understand them, appreciate their value to individuals, even they’re not quite for me.  They are unusual but harmless, and they bind together this slightly barking and brilliantly caring organisation.  The uniform is both a symbol of faith and a demonstration of real personal bravery in many of countries where the Army works.  The flag, the military bearing, all have heavy overtones of a slightly Victorian dash, a religious Flashman-ism in the sense of showing pride and damning consequences, in all the finest glory of that confidence.  The Army has its own vocabulary.  Infants are dedicated, as I was, rather than christened.  Soldiers enrol, ministers are Officers, and the leader is The General (make sure you capitalise both!)  However, the finest of all Salvationist soubriquets is their term for the final journey, and the way they mark the next step of a comrade from this world to the next.

GTJ64223_2A couple of years ago I was representing my employer at the dedication of a memorial, and looking at press pictures of 1913 in Senghenydd (right).  The Army funerals for Salvationist colliers killed in that disaster stood out, for through 100 years of sepia and history, in the greying pain and despair of so many faces in unspeakable tragedy, were flashes of stubborn hope and determined joy.  An Army funeral is both unusual in its optimism and deeply moving for everyone involved.  There will be white ribbon rather than black draped on the flags, singing, and much talk of joy.  Being Promoted To Glory is something they celebrate, and so does their Army.

But the Salvation Army has a worth far beyond how it enriches the individual lives of its soldiers.  It’s a frank admission for me that the Army’s doctrinal stance on gay marriage and freedom of choice troubles me, but no more so than the failure of many churches in wrestling or declining to confront the decidedly un-Christian prejudices of some individual members of their congregations. Total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco is personally a step too far, for all that it is well grounded in the realities of the Salvation Army’s birth.  For me, the good that the Salvation Army does hugely outweighs its theological differences.  I know from my friends that there are many Christian churches whose members fundraise for Good Works, who enhance their Sunday worship with a spiritual fellowship that works for them.  But few of them make the Salvation Army’s fundamental and inseparable link between belief and action.

You could argue that the moral compass of the Salvation Army is unashamedly progressive, and I’d have no problem with that description.  I once worked for a Papal Knight whose simple truth is that it was impossible to be a Christian and not be a socialist at the same time.  I might allow, with a smile, for slightly broader political opinion, but there is a unbending communitarian core to the Army’s principle of living “With Heart to God and Hand to Man.”  It means that the Army campaigns for its values through action, carrying out into the world homeless shelters, community facilities and soup kitchens rather than broadcasting the intolerantly idle propaganda of middle-class condemnation that is all too often the mark of the evangelical right, particularly in the US.  When O’Grady sells The War Cry on Oxford Street the simple translation afterwards is that “this will feed ten meals to ten people.”  Heart to God and Hand to Man, in one sentence.  That’s what a Christian really looks like: a Samaritan rather than a Pharisee.

Aberfan Disaster 50th anniversary

Image: Ian Berry, Magnum.

Images tell a story better than words.  In their incomparable Magnum series of images of the Aberfan disaster, the unsurpassed documentary photographers David Hurn and Ian Berry seared into our minds, in black and white, the starkest of images of human misery.  Unspeakably horrified parents, exhausted mine rescue workers and shocked policemen dig through the slurry and the trauma for their children.  There, in the margins of many of the photos, quietly and understatedly, are the distinctive caps and bonnets of the Salvation Army.  There are hugs, words of comfort, and because it’s the Army’s way, tea and sandwiches.  Heart to God and Hand to Man.

So as we watch Paul O’Grady with pride and the odd tear, I’d make one point.  Whether you believe or not, make sure you donate to the Salvation Army.  Not just because They Looked After People in The War, although they did.  Not just because their music is irreplaceable, especially at Christmas.  Support them because they care all year round, and they’re doing something about it in a time of Victorian values of austerity and hypocrisy, when the defining social themes of a supposedly civilised nation are a bureaucratic callousness against disabled people, and food banks replacing basic support for families teetering one payday from total poverty.  I make no party point, simply a moral one: just as he pledged his war against poverty and vice, William Booth would now recognise DWP targets, human trafficking, and anti-refugee intolerance as modern incarnations of the evils and inequalities he founded a movement to fight.  Support the Salvation Army, because a Christian Mission “With Heart to God and Hand to Man” is what churches everywhere should be.

Personal views of a wordsmithing, sartorialist, horn-playing, state school Oxonian dad, rugby ref, recovering politico, and fan of vintage tailoring, Ralph Lauren style, and sharp writing.

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