As I fastened my seatbelt and was ready to pull away, I did something I’d not done in months – I pressed play on the car stereo.
It was more from habit than anything else, an unconscious reflex imprinted by three decades of musical motoring. In so doing I randomly initiated the opening drums of Dominion/Mother Russia by goth supremos, the Sisters of Mercy. Ludicrously bombastic, it sounded epic, like I was hearing it for the first time.
Loudly and proudly I sang along to all seven minutes of it as I drove home. And when it had finished, I put it on again.
Needless to say, having not so much as raised my voice during lockdown and having just spent 14 minutes languishing in the earthshaking bassy-baritone range of Andrew Eldritch, I was a hoarse, croaky mess. But that didn’t stop me from trying to smooth things over immediately afterwards by going head to head with Art Garfunkel on Bridge Over Troubled Water, for the final few miles home.
At home, radio is my constant companion but I listen to people wittering rather than singing. That’s because I’m over 40 now and it’s compulsory to buy slippers and listen to Radio 4. But in the car I’m forever young, with 6,500 songs from my youth on constant shuffle on my iPod. Yes, iPod. As I say, forever young.
But because of lockdown there has been no driving. And with no driving, there has been no music. The result? Possibly the longest I’ve ever gone without music since I got my first Walkman in the late 1980s. And with no music, there has been no singing.
I got home all too soon that day but it was just as well, because I was exhausted even though I’d been sitting down for 50 minutes. It felt great though. As an aerobic activity, singing is one of those magic activities that releases happy chemicals into the brain and reduces stress. In the singer, that is. Not necessarily in the folk listening to them.
Until now I’ve never given any thought to the role singing plays in my life. It’s always been there, but only as an unconscious backdrop to my everyday routines. Doing it after such a long break has made me realise how much I’ve missed it and has left me wondering how I went three months without it.
Of course, you don’t have to wait until you’re in a car to sing. You can do it in work Zoom meetings, supermarket queues, job interviews, anywhere really. But personally I only sing in two very specific places – in my car and on hillsides.
I should point out, I don’t mean just standing there singing on a bleak hillside as though you’re in a Runrig video. I mean singing in motion, singing while you’re walking. And neither do I mean just happily humming a tune as you saunter along, nor absent-mindedly singing a catchy chorus or earworm to yourself under your breath. I mean singing. REALLY singing. LOUD! As though nobody can hear you and nobody will care.
I’d be the first to admit that in the absence of alcohol, singing loudly at the top of your voice to yourself, where strangers might hear you, runs contrary to the very laws that govern the universe as we know it. Decades of social conditioning expressly forbid it.
Initially I could no more bring myself to sing aloud on a hillside than I could force myself to deliberately wet my trousers. Comfort, dignity, self-respect, they’re all rather important, aren’t they? But one day, on a gloriously autumnal hilltop where I was intoxicated by that first whiff of winter in the air, something suitably uplifting and anthemic came on the iPod and…it kind of just happened. Yes, singing releases endorphins but so does walking. Combine the two, give them an austere Scottish backdrop and you’ve got euphoria.
I do have some sense of shame though, because unlike that other hillside warbler, Julie Andrews, I am a rubbish singer. So while it doesn’t bother me if the odd person is within earshot, I’d still rather not spoil their day.
And I’m certain they’d rather I didn’t either. Thankfully though, Scotland has plenty of wide open space to go around.
But while I’ve had coronavirus as an excuse for not having sung in my car for three months, the same can’t be said for doing so on hillsides. You see, I really do need the accompaniment. I need to hear the music in my ears. Not to keep me in tune or in time necessarily, but to mask my awfulness from myself.
Sadly my headphones died over a year ago and because I’ve not replaced them there has been no music on the hill. With no music, there has been no singing.
But you’ll be pleased to know that now, after a lengthy absence, I’m feeling emboldened by my recent musical rebirth. I realise what I’ve been missing and I’m suddenly feeling motivated to buy some replacement headphones.
Hillwalkers of Scotland, you have been warned.
Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland