As many of you will have heard, Robert B. Sherman passed away, last week, aged 86. With his brother Richard M. Sherman, he wrote songs for films many of us will remember from their childhood, such as – among others – Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
My own, personal favourite, will always be ‘Hushabye Mountain’, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It has comforted me on many occasions.
My father took me to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the cinema. I must have been about four. I did not like the film. Moreover, for weeks afterwards, I was scared of going to bed, in case the spindly-legged Child Catcher kidnapped me while I was asleep. As an antidote to my fear, I replayed the tune from ‘Hushabye Mountain’ in my head. There was something comforting in its wistful undercurrent, something that made me feel safe.
As the years went by, I shed my childhood and, with it, my fear of the creepy Child Catcher. I forgot my favourite lullaby.
About ten years ago, Chitty was produced as a stunning musical stage production in London’s West End. My friend Bret Jones, played one of the Inventors but – more notably for me – understudied the Child Catcher role. When he went on, I promptly bought a ticket. I cannot emphasise the therapeutic value of seeing one of your best friends dressed and acting as your childhood Bogey Man – talk of ghost-busting. Michael Ball played Caractacus Potts. When he intoned ‘Hushabye Mountain’, memories of my childhood, and what little I could remember of my father, began tugging at long-forgotten parts of me, and reminded me of sanctuaries I had once built for myself, but which were now all dusty and covered in cobwebs. Too frequently, it is adults who tell children that they are unhappy. Children often do not realise how miserable they are. It is difficult to be self-aware in the land of dreams and imagination. It is when you grow up, that your refuge of fantasy is demolished, and you find yourself standing out in the cold, alone with your unhappiness. Michael Ball sang the lullaby with warmth, his velvety voice highlighting the underlying sense of longing for that magical place of safety, where all worries ebbed away.
Later, that year, through a set of complex reasons, I found myself in Taiwan. I was in bed with a fever made even more intolerable by the 35°C heat and 100% humidity. I had just lost my job, I had almost no money, I did not know anybody and spoke no Mandarin. It was the Ghost Month, when the Taiwanese say spirits walk the earth. The month when you do not travel, swim or get married; when people burn incense sticks outside their shops. My own overheated brain was projecting images and ghosts which mingled with the reality around me. My mouth felt parched, and I thirsted after a glass of iced Oo-long tea, with a dollop of sugar syrup swirling at the bottom, but did not have the strength to go down four flights of stairs to the nearest street vendor. However, more than anything else, I longed to feel the cool East Anglian drizzle on my face. Outside my window, the sky was permanently murky – thick with pollution. I pictured the dramatic colours of the windswept Cambridge skies. I longed for the bright green of the Fens, and for the gentle sway of weeping willows. I had never felt so homesick in my life. To drown out the buzz of the air-conditioning unit, I reached out for my portable CD player, and pressed Play. Michael Ball’s voice drifted out, singing ‘Hushabye Mountain’, and kept me company, watching over me. I allowed myself to be wrapped up in its coolness, and fell asleep under its spell.
Once I was back in London, one evening, I went to see my friend Bret in Chitty, again. This time, when hearing ‘Hushabye Mountain’ felt like a confirmation that I was home, safe and sound.
Last year, I was cradling my friend Jo’s four month-old daughter, Lotte Rose, in my arms. It was bedtime but Lotte Rose was not convinced. So to make the Sandman’s job easier, I sang to her. I sang ‘Hushabye Mountain’. She stopped fidgeting, stared at me with her stern blue eyes and, within a couple of minutes, was on the boat to dreamland…