Sunday, 15 April 2018

Visionary

It was the Annual Parochial Church Meeting today. This is when the church assembles to elect its lay representatives, the churchwardens, receive their report, and note the accounts and other important matters. It's also a chance both for incumbents to say what they think about the church, and vice versa. Because Swanvale Halt church is full of lovely people they tend to say good and encouraging things. Almost as the parting shot of the meeting, after I'd looked back at the past year and forward to the next, Amanda put her hand up and got the microphone passed to her.

'I was thinking about our church the other day and I saw it as a mountain, and climbing up the mountain was a tiny figure, which was you! After listening at this meeting to everything that happens in this church and all the people who are involved in it I think that mountain is more like Everest. You must have the Holy Spirit bearing you up on the wings of an eagle in order to get any grip on it at all. And it's not just you, but everyone who plays any part in God's work here. We pray that the Holy Spirit lifts you and everyone else up too.'

It was on a different level from the standard questions about drains and roof tiles!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Harez Rvnn1ng

Gothic works partly by suggesting lacunae in our knowledge and by unsettling our sense that we understand how the world works. The artists who took part in the musical subgenre known as Witch House adopted just this tactic. Like many such coinings, arguably including Goth itself, Witch House was originally a joke that became a more-or-less accurate descriptor, applied to a sort of hiphop or DJ-produced dance music that majored on the slow and downbeat, and distorted and uncertain sounds. Much of the imagery associated with it is occultic, but without the openness of bog-standard Satanism, drawing instead on the eerie and inexplicit, more Blair Witch than Rosemary's Baby. DJs usually employ pseudonyms but artists in this little corner of the music world went further, distorting their names with typographical symbols which made it harder for internet search engines to find them, so that their work had to spread more by word of mouth. Real identities weren’t always clear.

I probably stumbled across Gvcci Hvcci (the ‘v’s are pronounced as ‘u’s) thanks to a Youtube algorithm and it – she? he? they? – illustrate the point very well. The original eponymous set of tracks emerged in 2011, featuring an apparently female voice and some extremely violent lyrics about the abuse and exploitation of males that remind me oddly of some of Ms Galás’s imaginings. Nobody seems to know for certain who Gvcci Hvcci was, where the record came from, or what happened to the artist subsequently. A handful of tracks have come out in later years bearing the name Gvcci Hvcci, but it isn’t clear what relationship they actually bear to the original recording, and whoever it is who claims to be Gvcci Hvcci on Facebook and spends most of their time trying to flog t-shirts almost certainly isn’t the person who produced the music in the first place.

There seem to be three main theories about the artist’s identity:

1. Gvcci Hvcci was the project of a group of musicians including a DJ/producer who goes by the name of Maxwell Velocity. That collective is no longer involved but the name was then used by others.
2. Gvcci Hvcci was devised by a young DJ from Brooklyn NY called Christopher Glockson: the voice is his, digitally altered. He died suddenly aged 20 in July 2012, and subsequent tracks were made by others using the name.
3. Gvcci Hvcci was an unnamed woman whose music was produced for her by Velocity Productions. For personal reasons she put about the rumour that she had died, since when the name has been used by others, perhaps with permission, perhaps not. Some suggest the original singer was Kendra Malia, part of a Witch-House outfit called White Ring, and is now a young woman called Megan Vanmale. When Gvcci Hvcci tracks were performed live on a couple of occasions a female hiphop artist called Madeen Phresh did the vocals. Any videos of these events have since been taken down from Youtube and other places.

All these stories show the problems that arise when all available information comes from internet sources, and none of them authoritative – comments on Reddit and Youtube, free-edited statements on Last.fm and Facebook profiles. Anyone can lay claim to a name if nobody who actually knows the truth wants to step in and sort it out. None of the accounts seem completely convincing. The Max Velocity on Facebook appears to know the person currently calling themselves Gvcci Hvcci, but the concerns of both seem a long way from the style and content of the first few tracks, short, unsettling and uncomfortably violent. You can find rather moving pictures of Christopher Glockson with various mainly black-clad young friends at club nights in Brooklyn; he was gay and often applied the term ‘bitch’ to himself on Twitter, but to me the original vocal, while distorted, sounds definitely female and I wonder whether a late-teenage male, gay or not, could imagine himself into the mind of an angry young woman quite that deeply. Perhaps people prefer to imagine a male artist rather than face the discomfort of an extremely disagreeable sort of female fantasy: conversely I’d sooner that, than think I’m listening to a man making it up, which for me would leave a bad taste in the mouth. Or a worse one, anyway. Megan Vanmale, meanwhile, was a would-be Gothy model from Boston, or Vancouver, or somewhere, about 2010; the statements that link her to Gvcci Hvcci also name the EP on which the original tracks appeared as $wagged Out & $cuba Divin, but this was a five-year anniversary compilation of all the music in which the artist was alleged to have appeared, issued in 2016. She may be running the Facebook page and the Soundcloud account in Gvcci Hvcci’s name, but who knows. It could be anyone.

‘Bullet in the Head’ was one of the original Gvcci Hvcci tracks. ‘Back from the dead, I’m back from the dead’ sung whoever-it-was; ‘I’ll smoke that shit till my eyes turn red/ The only way to stop me is a bullet in the head’. The record cover (I don’t know if there ever was a vinyl record or just a digital release) shows, indistinctly, a naked woman, apparently dead, lying face down on a bed. The Gothic tropes of death and revivification become part of the narrative of the artist, allowing whoever’s using the name now to write on Facebook ‘I died again’ and others to respond ‘Shoulda stayed there bitch’ and similar helpful comments. After seven years, Gvcci Hvcci has attained something of the quality of an urban legend.

PJ Harvey has her own version of this, revolving around an eerie track from 1998 called ‘The Northwood’, included on the CD of her most commercially successful single, ‘A Perfect Day Elise’. Anything to do with going into the dark woods is spooky to start with, but this folk-inflected fragment has its own mysteries. It starts with a horrible squeak, its production quality is dreadful, and it tails off after less than two minutes: ‘I went into the deep Northwood/ Because a fire was in my head’. Most strikingly there is a male voice on the recording, credited to ‘James Lynch’. Nobody is sure who he was and rumour naturally fills the gaps: some say that James Lynch is a pseudonym for Harvey’s former partner Nick Cave, while others posit that the voice is in fact that of Harvey herself, lowered to sound male (the reverse of the motif in the Gvcci Hvcci stories). The vocal is odd, but I suspect that’s not the explanation. I tend to take the view that the song was probably recorded in the back room of a Dorset pub and the tape then discovered a couple of years later at the bottom of a holdall, and ‘James Lynch’ – if he isn’t the painter of the same name known for depictions of the Somerset and Dorset landscape – was just someone Harvey grabbed from the front of the pub to take part. Someone might let the truth slip one day.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

If You Go Down in the Woods

Not far away from Swanvale Halt, sequestered in the Surrey hills, is Summerstock, a medium-sized estate based around a big house set in woody grounds. Here the owners have established a sort of mini religious theme park. You visit and find the woodland and ponds scattered with grottoes and statues. There's a charitable trust supporting religious education, including a variety of open-air dramatic presentations about the life of Jesus which take place not just locally but in London. Every Friday Summerstock hosts the Stations of the Cross, following a route around the grounds; the Stations were designed by a group of art students from Italy. Local clergy are asked to come and lead the devotion, and last Friday that meant me.

We started at 7am: gosh, it was cold. I should have brought my gloves although I was glad I thought of taking wellies. There were about ten old hands including a retired Anglican parish priest and his wife and a smattering of local Roman Catholics some of whom I knew, and they led me around rather than me them as I had no idea where to go next. It took about half an hour (I gather I was more reticent than some clergy as I kept being thanked for giving everyone 'time to reflect', which could be interpreted as a double-edged comment) and then we went back to the house for tea and hot-cross buns. I decided not to use my somewhat lacerating version of the Stations I usually employ at church, as this was Easter Week, but to have something slightly more upbeat and resurrection-focused.

The little Chapel of St Francis where we started reminded me of the similar one dedicated to St Joseph at Errwood I saw on holiday in Derbyshire some years ago: there's the same sense that you're stepping back into a style of devotion which is somewhat in the past now. 'Whenever a Catholic church closes,' the Anglican priest told me, 'Ann and Paul [the owners] buy up all the kit and move it here,' and you can tell.





Monday, 9 April 2018

The Devil's Bargain

John Gray, the philosopher, likes to be provocative. On the radio over the weekend he could be heard puncturing the confident belief of liberal-minded people, so described, that free societies and free economies are so inextricably linked to technological progress and prosperity that populations eventually demand them, and that there is consequently an inevitable movement in political culture towards liberal democracy. Not the case, argued Gray: authoritarian government and economic progress sit more comfortably than liberals think, and populations are worryingly ready to exchange personal liberty for the degree of security and prosperity that they find desirable. The world's remaining liberal democracies are being lapped by the waves of authoritarianism, and the tide may well rise higher, especially if another economic shock of the kind and degree of 2008's recurs. 

Although I think the economic part of Professor Gray's case is overplayed, a lot of it is true. When the Syrian war was just starting, I remember reflecting that the democratic rebels were never likely to achieve much given the degree of support President Assad appeared to have within his country - support which always seemed to baffle the liberal bits of the British media, but perfectly explicable when you thought of the Islamic fascism that non-Muslim Syrians (and plenty of Muslim ones) calculated was the most likely alternative to the brutal but at least secular regime they already had. And so it has turned out. This didn't stop said liberal media elements talking up the chances of the rebels, painting their familiar picture of repressed populations yearning to throw off their particular yoke. In fact, my mind casts even further back to my first few weeks of university when I was collared by a group of supposed Iranian democrats touting for support among British students: 'the victory of the resistance is imminent', their literature claimed - back in 1988. Given what most people want from life most of the time, a modicum of prosperity for their family and the peace to enjoy it, you can understand why they make this bargain.

But, rational though it may be in given circumstances when that prosperity and security are threatened, it will not, ultimately, produce the goods you want. Personal prosperity and security rely on law: consistent, reasoned, and universally applied. You have to be sure that nobody, no matter how powerful or influential, can simply take what you have away from you on their whim. Now, no governing class is predominately composed of modest, selfless, ascetic souls who prefer the needs of others to their own: the very business of promoting oneself as the best available ruler militates against such retiring virtues. These people seek their own interests, and part of the point of liberal democracy is that it works to counteract selfishness and the arbitrary exercise of power. Allow the powerful more scope to exercise their power unrestricted, and you introduce more and more danger for ordinary, unpolitical people, more scope for them to be abused and exploited. If one group of people remains long in control, and the means of settling and changing the law becomes obscure and overlaid by personal influence and connection, the whole weight of society becomes more and more skewed in favour of those who already possess wealth and power. Eventually families and individuals can't be sure that they will be left to enjoy what they have in peace. Professor Gray is right that people do often sign the devil's bargain, politically: wrong to suggest that the result is any more stable than the other messy and uncomfortable options. 

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Fair Comment

As she came into the church with her dad, Carrie looked dreadfully nervous. 'I was terrified', she admitted later, 'and then as we started I just thought, it's going to be all right, let's just go for it, and I was fine.' At the door I said her dress looked great and the benefit of the huge train was that we'd get the church floor swept into the bargain.

Carrie and Ted had, for the first time in my clerical career (such as it is) opted to get married according to the 'old service' rather than the contemporary one. It meant a bit of extra trepidation for me as I tried to remember how to fit the choreography Swanvale Halt church demands into the different order of the service. I still think the modern one makes more sense, although the prayer that the bride make herself 'a follower of holy and godly matrons' is rather picturesque.

We got to the bit where I asked the congregation for any 'just impediment' to the marriage taking place and a toddler in the front row began to clap excitedly. I said I didn't think that counted as an objection, though perhaps he knew something I didn't.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Pastoral Lessons

It was a rainy day yesterday. It gave me the first chance to visit Miriam since she moved to a nursing home about ten miles away from Swanvale Halt. The last time I'd seen her, in hospital after her stroke, she'd barely been able to speak: now she was quite talkative, although she kept getting stuck in loops of very short phrases, which might have been a way of coping with the pain she said her knees were giving her. When she broke out of those verbal loops she appeared perfectly cogent. She remarked how warm my coat looked. The manager of the home seemed very concerned with her welfare, but the young care assistant who answered my call on the buzzer, made at Miriam's insistence, was unsmiling and ill at ease. I was there about half an hour. 

I drove from there to Hornington to buy a camping stove, and drop it off with Colin, who is helping to look after Karly, a troubled ex-offender who is now homeless and who I won't deal with directly after she made scarily personal remarks about me. Marion our curate and a couple of folk from the pastoral team (now we have a 'pastoral team') are dealing with her, but Marion was away and Colin said a stove would help Karly - he's lending her a tent and sleeping bag and has shown her the pitch by the river he used when he was sleeping rough. I dropped it off with him. 'I've told her how to catch rabbits', he told me, and I reflected that catching the rabbit is only the very initial stage in turning it into something to eat, and I don't know that I'd find the rest very easy.

From there I went to visit Tony who is looking after Mindy, a lady suffering with schizophrenia who, Tony says, has been abandoned by the mental health system, in so far as there is one. To my surprise, Mindy was with him in his flat, watching TV. I thought he'd taken her to East Anglia where her family live, but she couldn't find anywhere to stay there and came back. 'I felt much better there, but I couldn't stay', she said. I prayed with them.

Trevor called in the afternoon. He has no money at the moment having obsessively spent all his cash on audio equipment he doesn't need, to go with the keyboard he bought on hire-purchase which he also didn't need. I'd lent him some cash to buy bread and milk. Could I go to the doctor's to pick up his prescription as he didn't have enough petrol to get there and back? and had I any spare toilet rolls he could have? On the way out to collect his drugs I answered a tearful call from Julie whose situation gets no better and who asked whether I could give her a sub, so I took the cash I had, stuck it in an envelope and dropped it off at her parents' before driving to the pharmacy and then over to Trevor's. He greeted me at the door, disturbingly, in pyjama bottoms and nothing else. I handed over the meds and loo paper and refused his invitation to 'come in for a moment and look at something', fearful at what that something might be.

The only encounters I was planning to have were those with Miriam and Tony, everything else was a surprise. In between them I did manage to fit in some work.

I said a couple of days ago that I wasn't sure I learned any spiritual lessons this Lent, and I've realised that this isn't true. While I was at Malling Abbey back in February the holy Sisters prayed at Mass for 'those whose psychological issues make them impossible to help'; I can't imagine who they could be referring to, and I had said nothing to anyone, but it chimed with my situation and I took it as evidence of angels whispering in their ears, which I have no doubt they often do. I'll try to remember.

On my mind in Holy Week was something which occurred to me while I was reading a reflection at our Monday Compline service from the great Anglican spiritual director, Fr Reginald Somerset Ward. 'Join your trials to those of Christ, so that they may be useful and fruitful', he had advised, and I'd thought, Well, that's the kind of thing people say, but what does it mean? How are you to do it? Later it occurred to me that how you do it is to think how events in your life are reflected in events in his, perhaps in a less extreme form (few of us are called to be nailed to crosses, for instance), but like in kind if not degree. Does this help? Perhaps not instantly, not by considering that Jesus went through something similar makes your experience any the less bothersome, but slowly and gradually making you more patient and thankful.

So yesterday I thought about my feelings of spending so much time trying to assist people who in fact were largely beyond any kind of help that I can give. Perhaps I might feel all this activity is a diversion from what I should be doing. But Jesus may, too, have not been a stranger to the feeling that he was wasting his time, including on people who immediately slipped back into the same morass from which he was trying to extricate them. And don't I, sinful, weak and endlessly repeating the same mistakes, stand in exactly the same relation to him? Is this what Fr Somerset Ward means?

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Hayling Island, March 2018

On my last day off before my operation last month (which, I'd half-convinced myself, might be simply my last day off) I decided I wanted to visit the sea. Dorset was a bit of a jaunt so instead I popped down to Hayling Island, which is barely 40 minutes away, with a following wind. I'd never been there and ended up parking near the old church, a few minutes' walk from the beach. South Hayling need not delay anyone very long, but the weather was beautiful. I sat on a bench on the seashore and ate my lunch. The coastline stretches along to Portsmouth and Gilkicker Point to the west. The great monolith is a memorial to COPP, the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, a World War Two unit involved in marine landings around the world. 



I called in at St Mary's Church, a mainly 14th-century building with a newish central dais and some nice modern furniture - although that little table-altar looks a bit economical.

 
I even found a holy well on the way home - St Mary's Well at Sheet near Petersfield, which is in a private garden so I'm not going to share the picture here. It was all very pleasing, thankfully, which at least put me in a pacific frame of mind for what was ahead!