Bigging up Baby – Frank McNally on birth announcements, biblical and otherwise
An Irishman’s Diary
Call me a sentimentalist, but I can’t quite bring myself to scoff at the excitement of new parents
I see that the latest instalment of Pseuds Corner, the Private Eye column exposing pretentious prose in all quarters of British life, features a recent Irish-flavoured birth announcement from the Times of London.
Most entries are from the more usual suspects, including extracts of art criticism, public relations guff, and overwrought soccer reporting, eg: “Moussa Sissoko,Tottenham’s anarcho-syndicalist, many-limbed enigma, weaves Chelsea into his dizzying vortex of chaos” (The Independent).
But the column also carries an extract from a Guardian obituary for the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, which suggests the originality of that cartoon series “feels almost like proof of the existence of God”. Meanwhile, back at the other end of life’s spectrum, is the aforementioned birth announcement:
“Josephine Carmel O’Connell Stranders Beer was born on October 23, 2018, at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, to Susanna Stranders, 41, and Barnaby Beer, 33. Susanna resisted the temptation to listen to Ride of the Valkyries during labour, preferring Mozart’s Gran Partita. She listens to Bach while feeding Josie. During the pregnancy, Josie’s dad, Barney, a baritone, would sing Toora Loora Loora, an old Irish lullaby, to Susanna’s belly.”
I don’t know. Call me a sentimentalist, but I can’t quite bring myself to scoff at the excitement of new parents, however precious or ostentatious they might appear. Especially at this time of year.
After all, was not the birth of the baby Jesus announced to a mass audience, at least of shepherds? And did that too not boast of a musical element: the accompaniment of “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13) on backing vocals?
In general, surely, this is a season for finding hope in the newly born. Even cynical journalists should not be be immune. The Times of London clearly isn’t: in an era of great challenge for newspapers, it headlines the birth announcements section, touchingly, as “New Readers”.
There is also some mitigating context for the parents in question. Both are well-known in London opera circles, it seems, and the mother has been performing in a production of The Ring this very Autumn.
So the new arrival must have been at considerably higher risk than most babies of entering the world to the strains of Wagner. In the circumstances, while it might be pretentious for the rest of us, putting Mozart on instead would seem almost restrained.
As for playing Bach at feeding time, I have no doubt that, especially when arranged for wind, he can be very helpful.
The bit about the father singing “Toora Loora Loora” to the as-yet-unborn Beer baby was probably the announcement’s least controversial part. Maternal music exposure during pregnancy is proven to benefit both parties. And the lullaby in question is a classic, all the more suitable for babies with Irish ancestry. Why not introduce them to their heritage as early as possible? Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (to quote its correct title) seems to transcend all cultures. It broke out of its Irish-American origins, in Tin Pan Alley circa 1913, to become arguably part of the Great American Songbook as a whole. Revived a generation later by Bing Crosby, it has also been recorded by voices as disparate as Bobby Darin, Perry Como, Slim Whitman, and even the “singing cowboy”, Gene Autry.
One of its more surprising appearances was during the 1976 farewell concert of The Band, famously filmed by Martin Scorsese, in which Richard Manuel and Van Morrison combine to give it a blues-rock treatment. That may have inspired Dexy’s Midnight Runners a few years later when they used a version of the chorus in Come On Eileen.
In the all-time ranks of nonsense lyrics – or “non-verbal vocalisations” if you prefer – Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral must rate highly. I’d have it a place or two behind the immortal “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom”, but certainly in the top 5, and well ahead of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”. “Whack for my daddy-o” would be in the shake-up somewhere too. But that’s an argument for another day.
In the meantime, speaking of Beer babies, readers might remember one of Too-Ra-Loo-Ra’s greatest cameos, in the 1980s sitcom Cheers, when Carla, the tough-talking Italian barmaid, has to sing the lullaby to her baby over the phone. Everybody else in the bar gradually joins in, including Carla’s bête noire Diane, who with typical pretentiousness, adds harmonies. Then Carla announces in hushed tones that the baby is asleep. And then they all cheer and wake it up again.