Saturday, 22 April 2017

Never Again, Please

You will have had days when ‘nothing has gone right’; I’m starting to edge towards the opinion that, when something really disruptive is about to happen, it sends out ripples echoing that disruption and disturbance back and forth, eventually affecting people who aren’t definitely involved in the event at all. Our Lay Reader Lillian says this is superstitious thinking, and a line of thought I shouldn’t pursue, but there you are, anyway.

It seemed, yesterday, like a fairly straightforward funeral service: that of an elderly lady loosely connected with the church, who’d lived a straightforward and quiet life. The service was put together by her nephew and all seemed fine. The day before, however, I realised that, after we’d leave the church, the family graveyard we were heading to was not at Stonemarsh but at Stonelake which is an entirely different place a dozen miles and an awkward drive further away. Oh well. For some reason I got my timings out of kilter and came to church half an hour earlier than I needed to, but that’s better than half an hour late, and there are always things I can be getting on with. Then I discovered that there’d been a misunderstanding about the music, but Malcolm the organist accommodated the mixup brilliantly and all seemed well. About three dozen people were in the church as I and Rhoda the crucifer headed out to meet the coffin.

Coming into church and reading the Sentences I was aware of a commotion to my left. It was Reg, one of the oldest and most loyal members of the congregation and one of the deceased lady’s neighbours, who with his wife had been coming to Swanvale Halt church for more than sixty years, and now slumped in his seat and attended by a couple of people. Once the coffin was in place I told the organist to keep playing quietly while I worked out what was happening. Reg was ashen pale: it wasn’t just an ordinary faint. ‘He said he felt poorly and asked for a glass of water,’ someone said. Under instruction via phone from the paramedics the undertaker’s men got Reg onto the floor and within moments we were into a CPR situation (thankfully not done by me). Others swung into action to sit with Reg’s wife and call other relatives, while I was left to hold him before God and liaise so that everyone knew what was happening. Poor Malcolm must have played that organ till his fingers were stiff, but it’s better than silence. It was only after a few minutes that I remembered that the old people’s day centre over the way might have a defibrillator (they had, installed just over a year ago, but I hadn’t given it a thought since). As I was crossing the car park, however, the ambulance arrived. 'It probably wouldn't have made any difference,' I was kindly told later. No, it probably wouldn't have, but I'll never be sure, now. I should have cleared the church at this point, if not before (although to an extent people were already clearing themselves), but I think I was so concentrated on the drama off to the side, and my mind was so occupied with how to manage events, that it didn’t occur to me until Rhoda suggested people could be given tea in the hall. So the church was, finally, cleared. ‘What are the constraints on your time?’ I asked the undertaker: ‘None, sir,’ he said. Just as well it was a Friday afternoon.

The paramedics surrounded Reg with the armoury of the medical battlefield, and fought, but it was clear enough what we were moving towards. He’d been gone, essentially, almost from the beginning. I spoke to the paramedic who seemed to be senior. ‘Because it’s an unexpected death in a public place,’ she explained – and I never knew this, certainly, which is partly why I’m telling you – ‘he can’t be moved until the police arrive and have sorted everything. Because he’s already dead and nobody is in danger it won’t be a priority call and frankly it could take hours.’ There were two possibilities now, that we move Reg to the church hall and resume the service in church, or abandon the church service and hold the whole funeral at the graveside in Stonelake. However the paramedics consulted and agreed to the first option, while the congregation were taken out again through the side door and back into the main part of the church. I said the Nunc Dimittis with Reg’s wife and a prayer over him, marking that cold forehead with the cross. One of the paramedics was clearly upset: it turned out he’d just had a family bereavement, and so I spoke to him for a bit. I found myself thinking, as we do when middle age gets the better of us, They’re so bloody young.

For a minute I thought we would curtail the service and not sing, but then reflected, no, we need some defiance, some normality. I put what had happened into context, thanked everyone for their patience and forbearance, and began – though it was, indeed, taken at a faster pace than normal. From there I made my way to Stonelake (much of the time behind a school bus squeezing down narrow lanes past Landrovers with their wing mirrors pushed in) and, on arrival at the picturesque but inconveniently isolated graveyard, discovered that I’d left the service book at church so I had to make it up. Mind you, provided you remember to say ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ which is the undertakers’ signal to lower the coffin, you can’t go too far wrong. Then bloody Trevor called me to talk about demons, no doubt, and I was left clutching my phone in my pocket to stifle the ring. What was it doing turned on? When did I do that? The perfect end, that was. ‘That’s the first time something like that’s ever happened to me,’ said the undertaker. ‘A glass of something might be in order this evening, I think, sir, for us all.’

I got back to church, found Marion the curate, who’d agreed to sit with Reg’s body, and the police, just as he was about to be taken away. I tolled the bell - ninety times, for him, sounding out across the centre of the village – and said Evening Prayer. As I read the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 13 I found myself exhaustedly saying ‘Pharoah took six hundred pickled chariots’ instead of ‘picked chariots’.

As well as the loss and the shock, which rippled out through the parish very quickly, I’m left with stunned gratitude at the way so many people acted throughout the drama, the professionalism, the kindness, the courage. God knows what I would have done had it just been me. But it wasn't, it was the Body of Christ at work, even those who didn’t know they were part of the Body of Christ. And I will remember the things I failed to do right. It’s just as well that today is sunny, and has brought more and very different work. God rest your soul, Reg Hand, our brother, and may we never see another day like that one.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Michael Ramsey

Checking, I find that official portrait paintings of recent Archbishops of Canterbury never seem to be that good. David Poole's of Robert Runcie makes him look like a cross between a minor official at the court of the Jade Emperor and a duchess on a commode. William Narraway's of Donald Coggan is at least appropriately dull, while June Mendoza's of George Carey manages to convert his usual expression, rather like someone who's just poured curdled milk in his tea, into something quite benign (I can't tell you what I think about Dr Carey as it's too uncharitable for this blog). These make the recent one of Rowan Williams by Victoria Russell look really very palatable.

My spiritual director has (or had before he retired and moved to his London flat, I can't recall whether I've seen it there) a sketch for George Bruce's portrait of the great Michael Ramsey, and that's not that good either. Ramsey is one of S.D.'s great heroes, and he's one of my 'minor patrons' as well. I'm not quite sure why, apart from his being such an attractive character, the most saintly occupant of the Throne of St Augustine, arguably, for many a century. The painting gives him a weaker character than in fact he had: this man looks so blithe you can't imagine him rocking any kind of boat or being a steadfast defender of one who needed it, whereas, while Ramsey was a gentle man, he was a strong one who was willing to defy nasty newspapers and challenge dictators. What the portrait does capture is his customary and endearing state of ramshackle disshevelment, stole, cope and hair all over the place. Ramsey was not the kind of Anglo-Catholic whose every pleat was a prayer and never made a gesture out of place: he was so clumsy he could barely handle a teacup. As a child he exhibited some very odd behaviour - running around his room hitting the walls being a favourite - and today he would almost certainly have been diagnosed with some dyspraxia-like condition.

I've just finished reading Owen Chadwick's biography of Michael Ramsey, a strangely old-fashioned book considering it was published in 1990, and Chadwick was only 74 at the time. I hadn't realised that Ramsey had been a very strong and political Liberal in his younger days, and had deliberately renounced the idea of a political career - which was offered to him - in favour of being a priest, on the grounds that the Christian life actually presented a greater opportunity for changing human relationships for the better than organised politics did. Something to reflect on as the UK enters another and entirely hopeless general election campaign.

I usually include Michael Ramsey in my prayers on Mondays, asking his intercession that I may keep focused on the things that are important. I need quite a lot of help with that.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

'Post-Millennial Gothic' by Catherine Spooner (2017)

Over the years my friend Catherine Spooner has produced a series of books about Gothic which never fail to entertain and fascinate, from her doctoral thesis-based Fashioning Gothic Bodies to her chapter on the book as Gothic artefact in the British Library’s 2014 catalogue Terror and Wonder. But her brand-new work for Bloomsbury, Post-Millennial Gothic, tops them all, and, in its staking-out of an entirely new territory in the field, virtually everything else as well. This is why.

The academic sub-discipline of Gothic Studies got going in the 1980s as members of university English faculties across the world decided that the trashy horror-and-thrill novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could tell us important things about literature, society and ourselves, and that the condescension of the Eng Lit establishment over decades towards them was unjust. Some of the authors in the field began to recognise that the young men and women who wore black eyeliner and outlandish fashions and called themselves Goths (or were called it by others) were in some distant and ill-defined way part of the same sort of phenomenon because they played with the same imagery and occasionally even read the original Gothic novels too. By and large, the Gothic Studies academics tended to steer no closer to the Goth world than acknowledging its existence, although that stance was made a bit more complicated as Gothically-inclined people began making their way into the academy and becoming dons themselves.

Now, Gothic Studies is a serious business studying serious things, and has to be to justify research grants, thesis topics, conference fees and book contracts. But Goth isn’t: although everyone knows the stereotype of the morose teenage Goth hanging round the town War Memorial, living a Gothic lifestyle can’t be perpetually solemn: a lot of the time it’s quite frivolous and fun, burlesquing the very serious business of deathliness and fear, and just getting on with life but doing it with a particular aesthetic. The trouble for weighty old Gothic Studies is that Goth is the very filter through which modern Gothic tends to be produced, assimilated, and displayed to the general public, and that’s the bit of the story that Dr Spooner has grasped when so many of her colleagues haven’t.

Hence the subtitle of Post-Millennial Gothic: ‘Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of Happy Gothic’. Happy Goths are likely to manufacture relatively light-hearted Gothic produce, and this and its reception by mainstream culture is what Dr Spooner writes about: as far as the world’s concerned, she points out, Gothic is what Goths do, rather than a strain of literature or a revivalist architectural style, and the elements of that representation with the highest profile include film director Tim Burton (who gets a chapter of the book to himself) and the approachable vampires of the Twilight series. Spooner delineates entirely new categories to analyse what’s going on, the ‘monstrous cute’ and the ‘whimsical macabre’, and traces them through Burton’s work and into street style and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl series of books, among a welter of other influences and instances. The comedic representations of Gothic, she points out, have moved beyond using Goths merely as ridiculous figures of fun to sympathetic acceptance, a shift which parallels the emergence of ‘friendly monsters’ in young people’s fiction and the campaign for tolerance waged in the name of murdered UK Goth Sophie Lancaster (and even more radically Spooner hints at the sociological paradox such acceptance poses to the Goth community: when you demand acceptance, and get it, what happens to any sense of yourself as opposing a mainstream world you don’t feel part of? What becomes of Gothdom's appeal for the marginalised and lost?).

All the book’s chapters, dare one say, sparkle, but the first and the last are the most impressive of all. Distinguishing between ‘Gothic lifestyle’ (what Goths do) and ‘lifestyle Gothic’ (bits and pieces of Gothic paraphernalia imported into the lives of ‘ordinary’ people for decorative purposes), the first chapter traces how the one influences the other via TV shows and the press. The last chapter examines Whitby as the Gothic locale par excellence, its layered Gothic history affecting the way even strait-laced English Heritage presents the town.

There’s an occasional clunky bit of explanation necessitated by assuming, as one is supposed to, complete ignorance on the part of the audience (‘Whitby [is] an historic port and fishing village on the north Yorkshire coast’) but as we have come to expect of its author the book is refreshingly free of clotted technical language and written with a speedy clarity which cracks along at a positively novelistic pace. There aren’t any pictures, but Dr Spooner deftly writes around the lack of visual material. I even adore the index, which has separate entries for pink, glitter, and Lady Gaga.

Post-Millennial Gothic isn’t a mass-market book, despite the appropriate levity of the lovely cover illustration by Alice Marwick – try to spot all the pop-culture references – and I wonder whether it will fall between the stools of appealing widely and being taken seriously. It deserves both for its radicalism and insight. Not so long ago Dr Spooner told me that the English Department at Lancaster University ‘would rather I wrote about something else for a while’, but I do hope they realise what a gem they’ve got.

PS. Here's a video of Catherine talking on BBC Breakfast about Gothic culture and Gothdom a few years ago. For some reason the sound is incredibly low but I got a tolerable level by sending it through my external speakers and putting one to my ear!


Monday, 17 April 2017

Alleluia Again

Strangely the most intense moment of Easter Day came right at the beginning, as I sat with a cup of tea (not a very nice one, as it happened) at 4.30am saying the Office. Once upon a time I would omit Morning Prayer on Easter Day, reasoning that I had to get up early enough without it, but decided eventually that that was a bit lightweight and I should do it all properly. 'Properly' means that the Office comes before Mass. Now it's the beginning of the Resurrection, and it opens the floodgates of joy and thanksgiving - in a very restrained way, of course. Through the whole of Lent, the word 'alleluia' has not been heard in the Liturgy; and from the dawn of Good Friday, the Office itself has been cut to its bones, consisting only of psalms, Bible readings, Gospel Canticle and collect - even the Lord's Prayer is left out. With the first light of Easter Day all the familiar elements, said so often they've worn grooves in the soul, come bursting back and how the heart welcomes them. I often say that gratitude is where the spiritual life begins, and this all shows how wise the Church is in arranging these apparently tiny, irrelevant liturgical details. We don't have to work at summoning up feelings towards God: the liturgy does it for us and all we have to do is let it do its work, because it's the Holy Spirit's work too.

The Dawn Mass at Swanvale Halt drew more people than ever before - only by a couple, but still - and, for the first time, a dog (which did have human owners). As for the main service at 10am, although we didn't quite have a hundred communicants, the stewards counted nearly 150 souls there, which certainly tops any Easter Day since I arrived and probably for many years before then (I will have to check the figures). Where did they all come from?

Friday, 14 April 2017

Via Crucis Est Via Lucis

(This post is going to be a bit spiritual, so skip it if you don’t like that sort of thing.)

It was the Saturday before Holy Week, and nobody had turned up for Stations of the Cross at noon. For the last few years we’ve followed the devotion of the Stations once around the church, and, on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, once outdoors, tracing a short route about the centre of Swanvale Halt and causing consternation to the general public. But not this year! Eventually I went back inside the church and thought I’d better have a bit of a pray as I was feeling sorry for myself.

Of course, I found myself reflecting, it’s no surprise that nobody wanted to lose a chunk of a beautifully warm and sunny day contemplating the violent suffering and death of a man two thousand years ago. It’s quite a counter-intuitive thing to want to do.

That said, I considered, the Passion of Jesus makes more sense against a backdrop of sun and heat than England’s usual meteorological mode of overcast grey. It isn’t just that it feels a bit more like Palestine in the early first century AD might have felt, but that the harsh indifference of nature and the jagged contrast of light and shadow calls attention to the cosmic drama taking place on the streets of Jerusalem and, two millennia later, in the souls of human beings.

And what drama has taken place in my soul, then, and to what result? It’s Holy Week again, in my eighth year as Rector of Swanvale Halt, my thirteenth as an ordained person, my twenty-third as a Christian, my forty-eighth as a mortal being. I follow the same route of the Passion of Christ, say the same words, and try to summon up the same feelings. And I see the same sins besetting me, the same temptations and weaknesses. So much of my thinking is a disguised way of telling myself how great I am, it’s both pathetic and disgraceful. Ah, noonday demon, there you are again. Kyrie, kyrie eleison.

But things do shift, ever so slowly, tectonically like the earth. It’s true that the slow practice of religion affects the way you think, the filters which your mind places in front of the world of phenomena. I’m still ambushed by rage from time to time, but I now have deeper defences against it and I don’t think I’m caught out quite so often. And I do feel a greater sense of wellbeing, and even – whisper it quietly – happiness. This is not just because I have very little, rationally, to be unhappy about, because I never did: yet nothing like those old, truly terrifying episodes of blackness has swept across me for a long while.

It was only partly pure reason that drove me towards believing in God, trying to work out what I thought about the texts of the New Testament and where they might have come from: part of the impetus was the poetry of Christianity, the beauty of it, but that wasn’t the whole story either. An element in my conversion, I know, was existential dread. Belief defused the bomb of meaninglessness that sat inexorably ticking beneath the world, which may seem like a very abstract, philosophical thing to you, brethren, but it was horribly definite to me. Paradoxically, God has so smoothed off the lacerating edges of that dread that I can barely remember what it was like, and I can entertain the idea of not believing any more without feeling too unhappy about it. I can look on the world with a kind of gentle equanimity. Strange that, isn’t it? – faith making atheism mentally palatable. That’s a change, too.

Over the last year or so calm, gratitude and affection have been getting the better of me more often. It could just be age, or it could be a genuine motion of the spirit and, although I know that the real test of love is not what you feel but what you do, it is, dare I say it, quite - enjoyable. Where it leads, who can tell? Away from my narrow small self, at any rate, and how great a thing that is.

So Holy Week proceeds, in sunlight or in grey. Behold the wood of the Cross, whereon hung the world’s salvation: O sweetest wood, O tree whose fruit is love.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Stratton Redivivus

It was a surprise that my mum wanted to go out at all, given how poorly she’d been, but it was a lovely day and having seen very little apart from a hospital and her house for about a month she needed a bit of a lift. After visiting Poole Cemetery to tidy up the family graves she asked whether we could go to Stratton, a couple of miles north of Dorchester, for lunch. After not quite an hour driving through a Dorset which looked particularly sumptuous in the Spring sunshine we were seated in the Saxon Arms with very nice (though not the cheapest) food.

My mum has often referred to Stratton through the years. I discover, looking back through my photographs, that we went there in 1989, after which we always referred to it as ‘the derelict village’. It was a wet, grey day, I remember, the sort which doesn’t show any place to its best, but even so Stratton didn’t present that attractive a picture. Windows were boarded up, doors split and open to the wind, mud and dirt clogged the street. The next time I drove through, on my own, about a dozen years later, the village looked completely different: the houses were bright and clean and lived in, there were new developments opening off the main road, and as I looked at the little square with the Saxon Arms on one side and the Village Hall on the other I struggled to remember whether either of them used to be there.

In and out, I’ve thought about the rejuvenation of Stratton, and our visit the other day prompted me to find out more. What seems to have happened is that in 1989 – the year of our first visit – the major local landowner, the Wrackleford Estate, sold some 16 acres of land in the village to a property developer. This isn’t a great deal of land really, but its release led to the population of the parish virtually doubling: more people meant more souls to do things, to get involved in things, and to campaign for facilities and support them when they were provided. That apparently quaint old village pub in fact was only built in 2000, replacing one that had closed a few years before; the village hall was constructed around the same time. The church has a team of bellringers for the first time in decades (heathens to a soul, I expect, they usually are). It seems like a model of how to revive a community, on different lines from how it once was – which is the only way, I suspect, you can. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Palm Sunday Scenes

On a gorgeous Palm Sunday morning we gathered at the Recreation Ground to process along the main street to church. The sky was a perfect, undifferentiated blue, so that the cafĂ© opposite the church was busy with breakfasting customers who gawped rather satisfyingly as the Swanvale Halt parishioners made their way past singing ‘All glory, laud and honour’.

At Mass I was about to begin the prayer of consecration when a wasp plopped onto the altar in front of me. That could be distracting, I thought, I’ll be constantly looking at it to see what it’s doing. So I popped a ciborium lid on it until I could dispose of it, which I did as soon as communion was over, slipping a bit of paper under it and taking it out of the church. Apparently some people assumed it was an obscure liturgical action specific to the day.

At noon a baptism, with three little girls handing me the necessary kit from the table – shell, towel, oil, candles. Amazingly once they’d told me their names I managed to remember.

In the evening I took a member of the congregation being confirmed to a service at a modern church building in Woking. The font amazed: a wee glass bowl supported by three pillars (one steel, two wood, for some unknown reason) set into concrete feet below a strange boxy structure. The whole thing reminded me subliminally of Robbie the Robot. The communion bread came in the form of rolls which resulted in bits spraying everywhere: the vicar of a neighbouring church to Swanvale Halt hissed to me ‘Our Lord is all over the carpet’. I waited until the throng left for cake and coffee, borrowed a dustpan and brush, and swept Him up. There wasn’t as much left as there should have been, trodden, I assume, and taken elsewhere on people’s shoes. I took the remnants home and buried them in the garden.

And a post-Palm Sunday scene: I went to the Cathedral to make my confession, and found the duty canon, the vergers and volunteers all sat on the grass outside because the refurbishment works had closed the building due to ‘unacceptably low air quality’. And that was before I’d even started