Christmas Eve at King’s College – Miracles do happen…

The alarm went off at 7:15 AM so that we could make preparations to get into the queue at King’s College for the Festival of Lessons and Carols. Enrobed in our silk long underwear, corduroy trousers and heavy sweaters, scarves, coats and hats, we were in line by 9:00 AM. The King’s web site informed us that those in line before 10:30 were likely to get in. They start letting people in at 1:30 PM for a 3:00 PM service. The crowd was jovial. We had people from Somerset in front of us and a couple from Ottawa behind us, who just came in from London for the day to attend the service. The porters at King’s kept “scrunching” the line to get more people into the courtyard. Our friend Tessa Gardner came along to say hello to us while she was out on her errands.

About 11:00 Jim Trevithick came along, shopping bags in hand, and found us in the queue. While out on his marketing errands he ran into Martin Rees (that is, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) who told Jim that he and his wife were not using their reserved tickets for the carol service. Jim told us that he was going to go find the King’s Chapel Administrator and see if he could arrange things for us to use the vacant seats. “Don’t get too excited,” he said, “because I don’t know if I will succeed.” And off he went.

About twenty minutes later he came back with a white card bearing the King’s College letterhead, with a handwritten note from the Chapel Administrator, “Please admit two guests of Jim Trevithick to the choir stalls.” WOW! A miracle! It could not have been a better outcome–not only would we be in the chapel for the service, but right up with the action.

At that point, there was no reason to stand in line anymore, so we went to Jim’s rooms for coffee. He then had to start cooking the food for his Christmas lunch, so we went shopping. Back to the flat briefly, then at 2:30 met Jim and we were escorted into the chapel, into the choir stalls (past the hundreds of people who had waited outside all day). We were seated on the Decani side of the choir, in the row behind the basses and altos. I had a perfect view of Stephen Cleobury, the Director of Music, as he conducted the choir. (Very interesting to watch: minimal gestures, and unlike many choral conductors, he never “mouths” the words.) In point of fact–and not in any way to seem ungrateful for such an extraordinary opportunity–where we were sitting was not absolutely the best place to hear the blend of the choir. But who cares, here was little Tim Robson from Scranton, Iowa, in the famous King’s College, Cambridge, Chapel for the even more famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. How could I be indifferent? It was truly an amazing experience.

After the service, I realized that a gentleman who had been wheeled in in a wheelchair shortly before the service was Stephen Hawking, the great physicist and cosmologist. The commissioned new Carol for the service (a setting of “Away in a Manger”) was by Sir John Tavener. (Not one of his greatest efforts, in my opinion.) He was seated on the other side of the choir. Sir David Willcocks was seated in the upper level on the other side next to Jim Trevithick. As we were filing out after the closing organ voluntary, a gentleman let us go before him. George and I were walking away, and then I realized that the man was Francis Pott, the composer of the commissioned closing organ voluntary, an “Improvisation on ‘Adeste fideles'”. So I turned around and said, “Excuse me, are you Mr. Pott?” He said, “Yes, I am, do I look particularly guilty this afternoon?” We had a brief chat, in which I said how much I admire his music, but how hard it is to come by in the U.S. and that it is not performed as much as it should be. The new organ word is brilliant, very difficult, but made a strong impression.

We were invited back to Jim’s rooms for champagne, joined by Jim’s guest, a lovely gentleman named Peter. We were later joined by the King’s chaplain, Richard Lloyd-Morgan. About 7:15 they all went to dinner in the King’s dining hall, and George and I came home, happy with our great good fortune of the day. I fixed Indian dal soup for Christmas Eve supper along with some excellent venison sausages from Waller’s.

The rest of the evening was spent quietly at home.

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