Thursday, 25 February 2010

Visiting Dark Places

On Tuesday I had a disappointment: something nice that was due to happen today wasn't going to happen after all. This began a spiral of unhappy feelings which, I'm ashamed to say, went down rather a long way. I woke up on Wednesday with a lot of back pain reviving nasty fears about a repeat of my slipped disc two years ago, and pain is terribly draining: I'm full of admiration for people who cope with chronic discomfort. Wednesday was a bad, bad day, at least so far as my internal state was concerned; externally, it wasn't particularly rough or demanding and I was even able to get a few things done. By bed-time I'd begun to clamber out of the hole, and this morning I was much happier, helped by my back being almost completely fine.

What strikes me is not that akedia (for it is the familiar demon again) comes down like a black cloud but that the cloud can blow itself out apparently without any external encouragement. I desperately wanted some reassurance but didn't get any, didn't speak to any friends, didn't have any good experiences to dispel the black thoughts. Nor did religion play any role whatever. When I'm in this state no pious thoughts can break through and have any impact at all. God feels not absent, so much as irrelevant: I don't care about him or what he thinks. Religious practice, on the other hand, I think probably does a great deal - saying the Office, going through the motions. I think that probably helps, not at the time, but to generate a personality that is a bit more resistant to the demon's goads and lies. Not much, maybe, but a bit. Then when the clouds clear, I can look back and be thankful.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

For Virginia

Our friend Virginia has an enthusiasm for postboxes. Here's a black one from Swanvale Halt for her.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Goth: Vamps and Dandies

I've just bought and read this new book on Goth by Gavin Baddeley. I've been a bit overcritical about his work in the past, largely through congratulating myself too much for being clever. I'm glad, however, to say that this book is really good. Anyone who ventures to trace the story of such a fissiparous, centrifugal and slippery thing as modern Goth is embarking on a fool's errand - and yet Gavin Baddeley makes it work. I've put a longer review on Amazon.

Friday, 19 February 2010

On Being a Lightning Rod

This week I've taken two big funerals at the crematorium, big enough to fill the chapel and some, attenders standing all round the sides and down the central aisle, and out into the narthex. The first was for a woman who died of an aggressive and nasty cancer in her forties, and naturally there was a lot of emotion. The second was for a man who was also only in his sixties, and carried a certain amount of intra-family tension; he was also a member of the ambulance service and so the local branch's banner was carried ahead of the coffin and there was an honour guard of boys and girls in green Service overalls.

I was exhausted at the end of both these services. I feel increasingly that the priest acts as a spiritual lightning rod on these occasions, and that all the emotion present ends up channelled through you. The size of the funeral makes no difference: I've presided at big funerals where that sense of strain has not been present at all. Nor do tears, on their own, seem to be the deciding factor: some tearful funerals I've taken haven't been charged in this way at all. There is something more subtle happening. It would be interesting to see whether humanist funeral celebrants have the same experience.

The White Set

It being Lent, these won't be out again for a good while, so time for another instalment in our series on the rectorial vestments:

To judge by the style of the stepped cross orphrey on the back, these are French, and perhaps between 80 and 100 years old: they were an eBay purchase. I've had to do a bit of repair work on the shoulders where the silk has frayed, though this isn't visible except close up. The front orphrey, however, was badly discoloured and damaged where the chasuble had been folded up for storage: it doesn't help that the interlining seems to be a calico-like fabric which is prone to stiffness and creasing. So I covered the orphrey with a piece of ivory brocade which I think happily adds some interest to it. On the second photograph you can see the difference between this added fabric and the elaborate jacquard weaving of the original.

And the Point Is ...?

My predecessor left me a letter detailing various things she thought might be helpful to me, including calling my attention to a vast pile of paperwork in the garage/stable which she'd never tackled. I can't resist piles of neglected archives, so I thought I would try.

On the top was a bag of miscellaneous crap left by my predecessor's predecessor (don't worry, it gets worse). This included bits of old appointments diaries, his application to be vicar of Bridgnorth, and papers relating to his own curacy a good eight years before he even arrived in Swanvale Halt. Next layer was a box of files from the period his predecessor spent as Chairman of Governors of the local infants' school. Below that was another box of old copies of Crockford's Clerical Directory, some appalling Christian paperbacks (nothing dates so quickly as religious literature), and strange bits and pieces including a folder of (sadly blank) forms for incumbents to write down the inhabitants of their parish and details of their Christian activity, or lack of it. I'd seen some of these at the church where I used to worship, where a 1950s vicar had scrawled 'Bad family' and 'hopeless' next to most of the names, it seemed. A few of these documents are of the remotest use or interest - papers relating to the repair of the organ, for instance - but most of them are archival poo. Thankfully I am an historian, so I have no compunction in chucking out vast wads of old paperwork. What I wonder about is why twenty-five years of incumbents of Swanvale Halt have not dealt with this before, just added to the pile.

At the very bottom, like Hope in Pandora's box, was something rather nice - the old Rectory address stamp, rusty and dirt-encrusted, but a necessity for the early twenty-first century clergyman.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Where are Moody & Sankey when you Need Them?

Ash Wednesday has seen a religious revival sweep the parish of Swanvale Halt. The noon Mass with Ashing had 15 people as opposed to 8 last year and this evening we had 26 up from 15 last year. You just can't ignore the signs, can you? It was probably pee-ing down with rain or something last year.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A Day In Oxford

In fact it turned out to be rather less than a day, as my car conked out on the way to the fair city and I had to be got going again by the good offices of the AA. Anyway, I did all the things I'd planned to do with Dr Bones only not in quite the order we'd planned.
After lunch we went to the Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science. Dr Bones has already visited this as have a party of devoted lunatics from the London Goth Meetup. I thought it was highly amusing and I especially liked the Tank Cathedral model which gives a new meaning to the phrase 'Church Militant'.
I even bought a fob astrolabe which will make an appearance sometime - the closest thing I'm ever likely to achieve to the fob orrery I once offered to commission from a friend, a commission he couldn't fulfill having failed to work out how to convert the gears from something twelve feet across to a version small enough to fit in a waistcoat pocket. Shame.
From there we sampled the new Ashmolean Museum. Of course the Ashmole isn't new at all, it's been there since the 1700s, but it was massively reconstructed last year. For two terms or so while I was an undergraduate the Ashmole's sculpture gallery became very familiar to me as I was passing through it, and past the Alfred Jewel, most days on my way to the Classics Library. The Library moved out to the new Sackler Building a few years ago, allowing the rebuilding of the rather dowdy old Ashmole.
And what a rebuilding. I think this is now the most stunning museum space I've ever seen. Some of the displays aren't finished - we kept coming across objects with no labels or labels with no numbers next to the objects to tell you what they referred to - but the sheer aesthetic is wonderful, with a breathtaking, and massive, central stairwell full of light opening into the darker, intriguing gallery spaces off the staircase. The statue hall off the central well has busts and statues arranged in a delightful irregular sequence that encourages you simply to stand in one place and admire the angles and juxtapositions. And we were very taken with this exploded Grecian redware pot which reminded us of the 'dinner service' art installation at Waddesdon Manor.

Calling this 'The New Ashmolean' is no exaggeration: the place really has been utterly transformed. In fact, the great sculpture gallery is the only part that remains unaltered.
Oxford looks beautiful beneath blue skies and flooded by chilly sunlight (less so at other times). I even warm to the architecture much more than I once did. I'm planning my walk for the London Goths on Gothic Revival buildings, and now whenever I see a pointed arch my heart does a little jump of delight.

Missed It By A Whisker

Many friends will know about my fondness for my patron saint, St Catherine. I keep an eye peeled for any representations of her, and have even gone to the lengths of commissioning two images of her. A little while ago I wandered onto eBay and discovered this lovely 19th-century silk banner with St Catherine on the front, resplendent with martyr's palm branch and wheel. The embroidery was a bit battered but heavy and rather glorious. The back of the banner appears to have had an image of the Virgin Mary once, but that's disappeared, so this isn't a piece in exactly pristine condition. Lovely though.

I thought I'd put in a bid for it. It's a fairly unique item, so anything up to, I don't know, a hundred quid I thought was fair and depending on how the bidding was going I could go a bit higher.

Five hundred and thirty-five pounds that went for. Five hundred and thirty-five pounds. Somebody likes St Catherine even more than I do.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Brushing Sanctity in Camden

When I was at vicar school we were taken to St Michael's Camden Town to look at 'ministry in an urban context'. I was captivated by its gaunt splendour, the run-down interior with its peeling plaster yet palpable sense of being loved. It was holy.

I went there recently, just to see how it was doing, with a friend, an American girl engaged to an Englishman who's just coming to terms with life in the country she's only visited briefly but always felt was home. The different styles of mainstream US and UK Christianity fascinate her as much as anything else. 'You mean you're not obsessed with the Rapture here?' she asked her fiance. 'The what?' 'And you never suffered from the Great Disappointment?' 'Well, we're English, we're always disappointed.'

St Michael's hasn't changed - it's still ruinous and lovely. My friend stroked the great door with its carved woodwork, and took off her hat, though as a girl she isn't required to. She didn't know what a font was, and stroked the stonework of that too. A lady came in to light candles at the great standing crucifix, and knelt to pray. She was barefoot.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Morden Marriage

The lovely Minerva and Declan from the LGMG were married this week. Steve and Jaki were their witnesses. The Registrar seemed to find it quite fun.