Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Spring Fair 2016

The storm clouds skirted the field on Saturday for the Swanvale Halt church Spring Fair. We had a minute's shower at about 1.45 (just as the Infants School children were massing for their country dancing), but that was it, and for the rest of the time the sun and the clouds danced around one another, the former often taking the lead role. The field was always busy; we took more in stall fees from charities and organisations than for a good long year; and although it wasn't as warm as last year that didn't seem to put anyone off. At the Messy Church stall they made a massive model of Guildford Cathedral which was, shall we say, hard to miss. It was topped by Angel Barbie, fitted with plastic wings and a cardboard crown, and sprayed gold, just like the real thing. Possibly.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

PJ Harvey, 'The Hope VI Demolition Project' (2016)

When I first heard ‘The Community of Hope’, it struck me as a hymn of praise to the determination of people to survive in a hard situation. Notwithstanding the reaction to that song from some political quarters in the US, I still rather think that. But the fact that it can be read in such violently divergent ways is indicative of the way PJ Harvey’s latest album has been received more generally. Reviewers have hit on entirely contradictory complaints as ways of expressing their dissatisfaction: is she opening up too much? or not enough?

Harvey’s talent has always been expressed (as I’ve pointed out before) through the adoption of masks: she is a ventriloquist, giving voice to imaginary souls. Even the wartime vignettes of Let England Shake, inspired though they may have been by the singer’s research, were works of the imagination. Paradoxically, though, you can only pull this off if your adopted voice makes contact with something inside you, and this gives an insight into the problem people have with analysing Hope VI.

Because here she tries something new, something of an entirely different order – to jet across the world gathering material which reflects the violence human beings work on each other, and to express it musically. The trouble is that her usual talent of ventriloquy is of no use in this project. To announce yourself as the John Pilger of Alternative Music (and Mr Pilger is mentioned in the sleeve notes) is grandiose enough: to ventriloquise the voices of the real, concrete people you may have met along the way would be grotesque presumption, and Ms Harvey doesn’t try, falling back, for the most part, on reportage and observation. Occasionally she takes words spoken to her as the starting-point for a song – as with 'The Community of Hope', or 'A Line in the Sand', which seems to hang around the statements of an aid worker in a refugee camp (perhaps) – but that’s also reportage rather than an attempt to inhabit someone else’s situation imaginatively.

Sometimes the observation she offers us is telling enough to make an impact – the Kosovan woman still looking after her vanished neighbours’ houses in ‘Chain of Keys’*, or the horrific ruin described in ‘The Ministry of Defence’, an image intensified by the brutality of the music that accompanies it – and sometimes it’s not. Even the weakest tracks on the album have great points of interest, such as the lovely lilt of ‘Medicinals’, almost like a medieval carol; but the vision only seems to clear, and the music take off, when Ms Harvey actually abandons reportage in favour of imaginative insight. That happens in ‘The Community of Hope’, which juxtaposes its euphoric title-line refrain against the bleak landscape of urban decay, and in ‘The Wheel’, where a group of playing children inspires a meditation on violence and loss which is both reticent and passionate. The points where she actually speaks in her own, unmasked voice, virtually for the first time musically, are the least successful of all. ‘Dollar Dollar’ describes an encounter with a boy beggar who appears by the car in which the singer is travelling and which is then whisked away before she can do anything: she finds it a haunting experience. There is no mistaking the plaintive, pained quality in the vocal, but it’s not exactly a startling insight, unless at 46 you’ve really never before experienced your own helplessness in the face of need.

Diamanda Galás once talked about the difference between an artist wanting to speak and needing to speak: Hope VI is definitely the former. Bits of it work, sometimes triumphantly, bits don’t, and its failures are, I think, down to its author deliberately turning away from her own genius: an absolutely bold, but not necessarily fruitful path to tread.

*The recording of chant from Decani monastery at the end places this in Kosovo; and I imagine the Father Sava referenced on the sleeve notes is Father Sava Janjic, Abbot of Decani and a leading voice for tolerance and reconciliation during the collapse of Former Yugoslavia and the period since.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Honour of the Drape

My Dad was a Ted, which was why I picked up this slim book from the sales stall at the local library (one of my main sources of books). I have a couple of photos of my Dad from 1956 (when he was 17-18). He didn’t have a great deal of cash and I suspect the longish jacket he’s wearing in the photo with my Mum was his own father’s, or something inherited at any rate. In a little passport-type photo he has a tie and something under his jacket, probably a cardigan rather than a waistcoat – an expedient adopted by less prosperous regional Teds. Incongruously he’s also wearing what seems to be a dufflecoat, which wasn’t part of the style, but there you go. Apparently older chaps would scathingly remark about Teds ‘a spell in the Army’d sort ’em out’ and that seems to be what happened to my Dad as a couple of years later after his National Service his quiff was a bit less obvious and he’d ditched ties for anything but very formal occasions. ‘We were Edwardians, that was where the name came from,’ he told me, so I knew that part of the story.

A couple of things struck me from the book. It’s written in a more committed way than one normally expects, certainly. Mr Ferris, the co-author, is very scathing about anyone who suggests social change in Britain got going in the 1960s rather than during his father’s youth in the ‘50s: ‘listen to their drivel for long enough and you end up believing it’. I recall my boss at the Royal Engineers Museum saying exactly the same thing. He remembered his time at St John’s College Cambridge: ‘some of us had come back from bloody Korea, and we were being told to wear silly little academic gowns and that we had to be back in by 11pm. We weren’t putting up with that.’

Mr Ferris also maintains that being a Ted wasn’t – isn’t, for those who still are Teds - mainly about music or about clothes but about ‘a way of living and thinking’. ‘That’s just the kind of thing a Goth would say’, remarked Ms Formerly Aldgate, echoing my first response exactly. It’s a sentiment that trips easily enough off the tongue or pen, but it strikes me as a fairly empty one. In the Goth context anyone who wanders into a Goth club on more than just a one-off basis – especially if not accompanied by a regular – is expected to join in, and joining in means at least wearing black – and I doubt Teds would be any different; possibly for them it would be all the more true as Goth lacks the aggressive working-class edge that Ted had. Its brand of rebellion is very different. For both, though, insisting outsiders do adopt the style, regardless of any statement that clothes and music aren’t the point, is about maintaining the safe subcultural space where questions don’t need to be asked nor explanations given, and perfectly understandable.

Mr Ferris, son of a Ted, who adopted the style in the mid-1970s, is an adamant champion of latter-day Teds and accordingly contemptuous of anyone who abandoned the style; but if there ever was a subcultural style that had its epochal moment from which the world then moved on, New Edwardianism was surely it. Born out of the marriage of an elitist British reaction against American culture with US zoot fashion, at a moment when media, economics and social change favoured it, the early-to-mid 1950s was its natural soil. Again, Goth differs from other subcultures because of its linkage into an artistic and literary tradition that stretches back centuries (millennia, you could argue), but the way it looks has changed at different moments over the decades: most Goths now, if you can find any at all, don’t look how they did in 1982. They were of their time too, and time moves on because society moves on (one of my favourite books, Robert Elms’s beautiful The Way We Wore, about his own journey through fashion from the 1960s to the 1990s, describes and expresses this truth to perfection). This is what makes essentialist analyses of subculture and narrow defensiveness about what they are and aren’t a bit daft. 

At one point Mr Ferris gives an account of the 1970s Teds who battled Punks on the streets of provincial towns: ‘rightly or wrongly’, he says – and it doesn’t take much insight to guess which side of that dichotomy he falls on – ‘they believed they were fighting for the honour of the drape’, the most ludicrous sentence I’ve read in a good long while. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

He Knows All The Secrets

People in a moment of crisis often find their way into the church, have a tear and a conversation if I (or a colleague) happen to be there, but very often - as I may have said before - that conversation may be affected and indeed prompted by alcohol and also tends to mark the end of the Church's interaction with that person as well as the start. It's far rarer for anyone to want to share important things outside those stressful moments and I always have a sense that most of my dealings with people are marked by a frustrating degree of superficiality.

So it was a great surprise to visit someone who is due to be baptised as they are acting as godparent to a young relative. We talked about the service, what it involves and what it means, and the business of being both a godparent and taking those promises on board for yourself at the same time. My interlocutor then took the opportunity to describe all the problems affecting the family, over about half an hour. Depression, money worries, tension, disability, medical negligence, all laid out in a sober and straightforward way: 'I'm sort of in the middle of all this, but you just have to get on with it, don't you?' We even prayed about it all as it seemed appropriate to do so, not something I always introduce into the conversation.

This knowledge will lend the christening service a distinctive quality, to be sure. I go to visit families and really have very little idea of what's going on as quite naturally people put on their best face when the 'vicar', or I suppose any other professional, calls. Suddenly I remember the christening I did some years ago after which one of the godparents went home and murdered his partner.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Another League

I'm still looking for a green dalmatic for the church. But it probably won't be this one currently on eBay.

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Boss's Birthday

You can argue that Her Madge is Chairman of the Board of the Church of England and we are all being thoroughly encouraged to use her 90th birthday, spread, as royal birthdays are, throughout the convenient Spring and Summer months, as a means of talking about her faith. You can see the point of this: there are few other heads of state who are so sincerely and publicly Christian as the Queen is, and there have indeed been occasions when her own personal faith has poked through the official Anglican carapace of the Monarchy into clear view. The book you see illustrated here, The Servant Queen and the King She Serves, was produced by the Scripture Union as part of that effort, and we were all sent copies by the diocese. 

It is, let it be said, a game attempt to direct attention to the links between the Queen's work and her personal beliefs. In a way the slimmed-down version for schools is an improvement on the full one as it describes more clearly the liturgy and symbolism of the Coronation service that meant so much to the Queen and has shaped her life subsequently. I am toying with the idea of doing something here in Swanvale Halt that looks more directly at that liturgy, and its connections with the apparently humbler, but spiritually just as grand, liturgies which the rest of us take part in - baptism, matrimony, ordination.

As I say, a game attempt. But one which almost inevitably, no matter how decorated it may be in funny stories about Tommy Cooper and Saudi princes, can't avoid the reverent sycophancy which the subject-matter demands (again, the schools version is a bit better in this respect). Probably the most grating declaration in the book comes when we are shown a windswept monarch stomping along a beach with four corgis: 'She employs 1200 people', the caption tells us, 'but feeds her own dogs'. Well, bona. I can't help reflecting that a couple of dozen generations ago her ancestors would have been feeding their employees to the dogs, but then part of the genius of the British establishment has always been to ignore actual history while constantly banging on about how important it is. As somebody who is neither a republican nor a monarchist (my King sleeps in Leicester), I also can't help the feeling that concentrating on the personal faith and humility of this individual monarch diverts attention from the nature of the institution of monarchy, and I would quite like people to think about that as well. 

We discussed at the Staff Meeting what we should do to respond to the diocese's call to mark the Queen's birthday and use it as a means of talking about the faith. The meeting has a general leftish bias and there was a bit of reluctance evident, but we thought that perhaps we could get something for the garden around the church and use that a means of celebrating the event, which is rather like many communities marked the Jubilee a couple of years ago. However the chap who manages the garden is a definite republican and told me 'the obvious thing would be a plastic corgi', which was entirely unhelpful.

Interestingly I had lunch yesterday with a friend who is (partly) an employee of the Queen - even more directly than I am - and he said they'd been told not to celebrate the event with anything more than tea and cake as it was 'not an achievement'. I wonder whether this represents the opinion of Her Madge herself?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Brevity the Soul of Bureaucracy

On Sunday we had our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, always an event people anticipate eagerly ... In theory it marks the lowest tier of the structures of the Church of England. In theory, too, there are in fact two meetings: the meeting of the Vestry which elects churchwardens and in which technically anyone in the parish can vote, and the APCM proper which does all the rest - elect members of the church council, receive accounts, and hold the officers of the church to account. I also take it as an opportunity to deliver a bit of a review of the last year and to look forward to the next, which can be fun to do. 

To say everyone sat in silence would be an exaggeration as there were murmurs of appreciation and assent now and again, but we managed to get through the whole exercise in less than forty minutes. I am not sure whether this is more because people are happy with the way things are in the church or whether they're simply cowed. Some of my colleagues are now competing to see how short their meetings can be.