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Write On! Features: A Better World Is Possible by Eithne Cullen

By Eithne Cullen

As a writer, one of the things I’ve found is that things just keep getting better! Since my early success with Pen to Print competitions, I’ve won a few prizes, published two novels and a poetry pamphlet, had opportunities to judge competitions, been a ‘poet in residence,’ performed a spoken word piece at the Battersea Arts Centre and popped up on the internet on World Poetry Day. Another really exciting opportunity presented itself last summer.

In July 2022, Jonathan Rathbone contacted me to say he’d heard I’m a poet and he wanted to see if we could work together. Of course, I’d heard of Jonathan: he leads a number of choirs (some of my friends are in London Forest Choir which he runs and it was one of them who suggested me… thanks Sally). He’s involved in church music in the local area; he’s a composer, arranger, conductor and former Musical Director of the Swingle Singers. I’d met his wife, Helen, and sung in her choir during lockdown. So I thought, Why Not?

Until we met, I didn’t know what to expect. However, Jonathan was warm and friendly and had a clear vision of what he wanted from me. The Parish Church in Walthamstow had been closed for renovations, and a big concert was being planned for its reopening. He was writing the music and wanted me to contribute some of the words. It was an odd feeling. I didn’t even know if he’d like my poetry. But I left that first meeting full of excitement and enthusiasm. In fact, I started working on two poems on the train home.

I had lots of ideas for the ‘welcome back’ concert and wrote poems which included the message of welcome, the bells falling silent, smoke rising from a candle and more besides.

I looked at William Morris’ poetry for an idea about arriving at the church (Morris was baptised in St Mary’s) and used it to make a ‘found poem’.

After The Hollow Land by William Morris

We stopped before the gates and trembled,
for there among the marble leafage and tendrils
were wrought two figures of a man and woman winged and garlanded,
whose raiment flashed with stars
their faces were like faces we had seen or half seen in some dream long ago
we trembled with awe and delight.
And then we walked together toward the golden gates, and opened them…
and before us lay a great space of flowers.

© Eithne Cullen, 2022

I sent off what I’d written and waited.

At the start of the concert, we welcomed our audience in and welcomed people back to the church with these words:

Welcome, welcome
To the church
(and Welcome Centre)
come from the streets and lanes
of the city, of the Stow,
Come in you poor, you injured,
you who are deaf,
you who are blind.
For there is always room,
room in my father’s house.
Come from the byways and hedges;
from Vinegar Alley, from Church Hill,
come, cross the River Lea,
the four o six,
the railway tracks;
come fill my house
till it is full
come celebrate with me.

© Eithne Cullen, 2022

If you’ve ever been to St Mary’s Church, you’ll know it’s surrounded by a very old graveyard. It’s a fascinating slice of history, giving us the chance to see who’s buried there and get an impression of the age of this place. I knew there was a scheme for local people to adopt a grave and bring it back to its former order and dignity. I also knew that the grounds were being carefully kept and there was a rewilding initiative in this peaceful space. I went on a tour of the graveyard and picked up a sense of what was going on there and noticed the activity of the birds and bees, which I mentioned in my writing.

Looking Forward

Adopt a grave to keep it well
plant and weed, respect the dead;
compost heaps and cold frames
between the rows of tumbled stones;
partnerships with village gardeners,
friends around and all the neighbours;
a church creative – gifts are shared,
a place of peace to heal the weary,
a place of safety and protection;
sustaining all of God’s creation

© Eithne Cullen, 2022

At the end of the summer holidays, Jonathan invited me to come and listen to what he’d been working on. In his kitchen, with computer and keyboard all set up, he let me get a sense of the flavour of the music and the orchestrations he was developing. I was stunned by the way words and music were coming together. He pointed out a few tweaks I needed to make and asked for a bit more of some of the things he liked. Again, I went home buzzing with the excitement of the ideas and what was being created. I sent him the things he’d asked for. And I waited again.

It was after Christmas when he told me he was close to finishing the piece: A Better World Is Possible. I knew his commitment to Christmas concerts and services would have made it a busy time for him. He’d been away to a seaside cottage to get on with the work.

When my friend Sally sent me a picture of the printed music – ready to rehearse – I was more than delighted. I joined Jonathan’s choir and prepared for the big event as an alto. It was a wondrous experience, finding the music in the songs that contained my words. And it challenged me as a sometime singer in choirs. I enjoyed every moment.

The big day approached, tickets were sold out. Everything had an added air of excitement. The concert was on a Saturday evening and we had final rehearsals in the beautifully refurbished church on the Friday evening and with the orchestra on the Saturday afternoon. I was beginning to walk on air.

The big event, with the orchestra playing, the choir singing so skilfully and Jonathan leading them all in this beautiful composition, was an experience I’ll treasure forever. Knowing lots of my family and friends were in the audience made it even more special. The piece was a great success and Jonathan called me to the podium to take a bow with him. I carried on walking on air for quite a few days afterwards!

Shortly after the concert, Jonathan shared a review from The Church Times which praised the words I’d written and referred to me as principal librettist – a title I’m happy to own.

The reviewer mentioned the things that stood out:

First, the sheer quality, elocution and meticulous preparation of the choir. Second was the thoughtful imagery deployed by Rathbone’s principal librettist, Eithne Cullen: “songs of liquid gold”; “a warning to toll / in the tower where the bells are still”; “the desert landscape is scorched before its time.”

The memory of the concert and the joy I felt in performing were immense and that little mention in the review was a big bonus for me.

I do hope to have the chance to work on something like this again. It certainly made me think about my writing and my words in different ways.

(c) Eithne Cullen, 2023


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As a writer, one of the things I’ve found is that things just keep getting better!