Why going to church helped me appreciate the power of words - Ian McMillan

One of my early memories is of sitting next to Noel Marsden in one of the old Jacobean box pews at All Saints Church, in Darfield, sometime in the mid-1960s, waiting for Evensong to start.

The pounding, subtle, nuanced, rhythmic language of prayers left a mark on Ian McMillan.

He’s managed to get hold of his dad’s pit watch, a big one on a chain, and, as Ernest Wiley plays some improvised Bach-lite on the organ, he decides to hypnotise me.

Noel starts to swing the watch and it catches the light from the stained glass windows. “You are getting sleepy,” he says. Frankly, I’m not but I think I might pretend that I am. He begins to swing the watch more slowly. I yawn, partly for effect and partly because perhaps, yes, I am getting a little drowsy.

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Suddenly the Rev Wilfrid Howard is at the end of the pew in his white surplice; he grabs the pit watch and fixes us with a severely holy stare. “You can’t do that in church! We don’t hypnotise people!” he says loudly. Then he gives us the watch back and gestures to Ernest Wiley to start the music that signals the beginning of the service.

Well, old Wilfrid Howard may well be right and they don’t hypnotise people in church, but on the other hand maybe they do because I went to Morning Prayer and Evensong for many years and the language of the services has hypnotised the part of my brain that loves words. Maybe that’s not hypnotism: it could be a sort of suggestion, a kind of learning-by-repetition, a species of cadence soaking that dripped into my brain as I sat on that hard wood.

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I wasn’t, and I’m still not, a particularly religious person, but going to church was the thing we did in our family and I’m endlessly grateful for that because it’s given me an insight into heightened language and the way we might use it.

The service would begin with call and response sentences which thundered through my soul with their rhythmic power; we used the old Prayer Book, the one that has informed the rhythms of English speech for many centuries and so the way we muttered (in me and Noel’s case) our responses felt like we were speaking the voices of our ancestors. We would sing a hymn, something like Hills of the North, Rejoice very slowly and then chant a psalm. Then Mr Howard would deliver a sermon that was so long the smell of burnt Yorkshire puddings pervaded the streets.

And all that old/new, pounding, subtle, nuanced, rhythmic language has somehow, yes, hypnotised my brain into becoming a writer’s brain.

I thought that I wasn’t listening in those pews, but in the end my mind really was.