Friday, 28 May 2010

Visiting the Dead Things with the Deathly Things

I always argue that there's something inherently Gothic about museums and working in them. You sift the relics of people's lives, and often specimens of flora and fauna, taken out of their original contexts and rendered uncanny as a result. They always contain more stories than can be told, and can retain a link with those stories - raising the possibility that they might heave back to an unnatural life and tell you what you didn't want to know. A museum may be a wunderkammer, but it's always slightly unheimlich.

So there's something peculiarly delightful about an exhibition of unreal museum objects, especially if it explicitly acknowledges the strange nature of collecting and displaying the detritus of the past. Yesterday the London Goths made a trip to the Superette Gallery on Sclater Street to see Many Dead Things by Alex CF. The specimens masquerade as the collection of one Lord Thomas Merrilyn, discovered in a London basement in 2006, and reflect the meticulous and often ill-fated study of a range of imaginary Victorian scientists and explorers. There are dragon's skeletons, vampire foetuses, and chests of equipment and gleanings very disturbingly similar to the sorts of things I used to find in the stores in the various establishments I worked in, full of bottles and instruments.

Alex CF creates, and very convincingly indeed, things we fear exist. The detail in these sculptures and assemblages is painstaking, especially those boxes of kit purportedly rescued from the camps of vanished explorers or vampire hunters. I was reminded of Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful book Finders Keepers, about real collectors of that era. I tackled Alex himself about this but he claimed not to have made any special study of that book or the subject in general - 'I suppose it's the sort of thing we all have pictures of in our minds'. Well, some of us.

Not only are some of the exhibits pretty grim in themselves, but they create an unwelcome fluidity between what is and what isn't real, and offer a dreadful pleasure. And that's as Gothic as you can get.

More about the Many Dead Things project here.

Cultural Sensitivity

Like a whole swathe of schools across the country under the new, tougher OfStEd regime, our parish school was marked down a grade in its recent inspection, partly because it wasn't doing enough to 'foster community cohesion'. Well, it was actually, but couldn't prove it had thought about doing so in a strategic way.

I remembered that this week when I turned up to help with our church After-School Club. Ahead of me was a lady pushing a selection of large boxes on a package trolley. 'Are those books for us?' asked the secretary. 'No, I'm here for Science Club', replied the visitor. 'No high explosives, I hope' came the word from behind the glass. 'Er, no', replied the very obviously Muslim lady, adjusting her headscarf. You could argue that feeling able to make jokes as unselfconsciously as that shows that our community relations are in fact extraordinarily good. You could.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Veni Creator Spiritus

It's a shame that Pentecost Day, the Birthday of the Church - or, as I think of it, its baptism - passes by almost unremarked in the Western Church. There have never been widespread liturgical observances to celebrate the great day of the descent of the Holy Spirit to match the solemnities of Easter. Once upon a time Victorian Dissenting chapels held parades and children's outings on 'Whit Sunday', and the modern Anglican Common Worship makes some attempt to recognise the day with a special (if low-key) rite of 'Commissioning' the congregation to carry on the Church's work, but that's about it.

Looking back some time ago at the old rites of the Easter Vigil (the ritual 'charging-up' of the font by blessing the water, breathing on it, dipping the Paschal Candle in it and pouring in the oils of the Catechumens and of Chrism), I came across references to this also happening on the Vigil of Pentecost. I couldn't find any explanation for this until I asked a well-known liturgical scholar who happens to live in Lamford parish. Originally all baptisms took place at the Easter Vigil, which was the only occasion in the year when the baptismal water would be solemnly blessed, but eventually numbers grew too many and some baptisms were postponed to the Pentecost Vigil; the ritual was repeated that night too. And it froze in that position, rather anomalously.

Swanvale Halt can't exactly match the festivities at the Pantheon in Rome, but I wanted to do something which marked Pentecost as the celebration of the 'charging-up' of the Church as the Body of Christ with the energy of the Holy Spirit. So, after the Creed, we processed down to the font to the accompaniment of a Litany of the Saints, but those saints actually depicted in the church rather than the usual lists, finishing with great holy figures from the parish's past and 'all the holy souls of this parish'. Then I took some of the blessing prayers from the old English Missal rite, judiciously, I hope, cut down as they are pretty long and repetitious, carried out the full ceremony of blessing the baptismal water. We then returned to the front of the church while I read the 'blessing of the light' prayer from Common Worship and we concluded with the Commissioning rite before carrying on with the prayers in the usual pattern.

We blessed the font at the Paschal Vigil too, but not with the full-scale ceremonies, so this marks the completion of my attempt to work out a pattern that restores the Catholic liturgical order and makes coherent sense too: I was very pleased with how it went down. And I wore the new St Catherine red set, but more of that another time!

More spiritually, it was very fitting that at the 8am mass conducted by our curate I seemed to feel the first shiftings of the tectonic plates of my heart about the unpleasant events of seven weeks ago: the first signs of, perhaps, being able to share in somebody else's happiness through my own disappointment. The Mass is where we are all united in one Body, and I stand a chance of sharing joys which strictly don't belong to me at all. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Back in the parish of Lamford, they've just been on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Il Rettore thought he would hate it, but in fact it turned out to be rather fun. All the establshments of the Roman observance they visited along the way knew perfectly well the Lamford crowd adhered to the See of Canterbury - not least because Mrs Rettore was there - and yet at one Spanish abbey Father Abbot actually asked him to concelebrate at Mass. Doesn't that invalidate the sacraments of the entire diocese, or something? Then at Compostela itself the Lamford pilgrims were given a chapel in the Cathedral and Rettore was draped with antique vestments and chalices to say Mass for them.

I think Il Papa should be told. Or perhaps not.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Diabolic Swing

My chum the splendid Ms K took me to the Underworld in Camden yesterday to attend a recital by the Diablo Swing Orchestra. You wouldn't have thought, on paper, that combining metal with swing and fronting it with an operatically-trained singer would be a runner, but what emerges from that unlikely amalgam is something dramatically different, energetic, and fun. At least I hope Ms Loegdlund is trained, or her voice will be completely shredded in a year or two if she keeps doing that to it.

So for your cash you get three guitarists, a percussionist, a cellist, a trumpeter, and Ms Loegdlund who at her blazing height can out-shriek the lot. You get unclassifiable music that heaves and lurches with lipsmacking mischief from nigh-unbearable noise to sinuous swing. You even get my feet tapping, which doesn't happen very often.

The Silence Deeping

As I have in years past, I had the privilege this week of spending a couple of days at Malling Abbey in Kent. It's a place I love to go to because it's so deeply at odds with nearly everything else I do. I can go to Malling and not talk to anyone, if I please; I can even let the Sisters do the praying for me. The depth of the silence here has something to do with the fact that this is not just a Victorian religious house - this was the site of a convent for centuries before the Reformation when the nuns were expelled, only for an Anglican Benedictine community to reoccupy the ruins thanks to the good offices of a 19th-century Anglo-Catholic family giving up their property.

The Sisters have been joined by two new novices since my last visit two years ago, and the blossom is out on the interlacing apple trees.

And the skies were dramatic as I left.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Evan Worse

I'm going to put this on the website, as it refers to the O.U. Lib Dems, but it's relevant here too:

I find myself today in the unusual position of feeling I must defend erstwhile OULD election supremo and MP for Oxford West Dr Evan Harris. As has been recently alluded to elsewhere, it is no secret among some that in those far-off days of the fallout from the merger of the Liberals and the SDP, when we were both involved in Oxford student politics, I and the Dr found ourselves adversaries in certain matters. At this distance I can judge it all as involving questions of style rather than real principle although it seemed terribly important at the time, as student politics often does. Evan was, we found, incredibly difficult to work with, and after he won OxWAb in 1997 I concluded (and was not shy of saying) that he was doing less damage and more good as a backbench Liberal Democrat MP than he’d done at any stage of his political career hitherto. When Charles Kennedy appointed him Party spokesperson on women’s rights it even provided some laughs, which I suspect Good-Time Charlie fully intended it should.

Evan gradually became more and more concerned with secularism, assisted dying, and other such issues. As I underwent a parallel and opposite movement of becoming an orthodox-minded Christian and eventually an Anglican priest, I couldn’t be expected to sympathise much with this, but I curiously respected it. At Oxford Evan talked very little about ideas or beliefs. He did have something of a narrative of what had led him into politics, involving growing up in Liverpool and observing the incompetence and neglect of the city at the hands of the Labour Party, but that was as far as it went. Yet his secularist stance was something he pursued despite strong opposition and which won him few friends; one can only conclude that he actually believes it. I have no idea what led Evan to follow this line, and it would be interesting to find out; it certainly wasn’t anything he ever talked about at Oxford.

On Thursday Evan lost his parliamentary seat to the Conservatives, apparently as a result of boundary changes, by a tantalising 176 votes; once upon a time I might have nursed a touch of schadenfreude, but that’s long past. It’s the way things work in UK politics – but there was an extraordinarily fatuous and vitriolic column by George Pitcher in the Telegraph crowing over the Dr’s defenestration. ‘Revd’ Pitcher places Evan Harris’s title in quotation marks, as though he isn’t qualified to practice medicine at all - see how offensive it looks when I do it? – describes him as ‘a stranger to principle’, and alleges that his election as an MP was simply a convenience to allow him to pursue his campaign on behalf of the National Secular Society. As I say, I don’t recall Evan saying anything about secularism until long after his election; something unknown has happened to him to convince him about it. But then George Pitcher doesn’t know anything about Evan. I don’t agree with Dr Harris, never have done really, but I can only see someone who has grown as a result of his experience of public office and, probably, working in the medical profession as opposed to simply shoving leaflets under students’ doors. I suppose I’m the naïve one for expecting better from a priest.

Fat Lot of Good That Was

The radio went off marginally before 2am at Swanvale Halt rectory on Friday morning. It had just been announced that the Liberals had failed to win Guildford not far away, and in fact failed to win it in style, so I knew everything I needed to.

We tend to keep quite quiet about politics here, but it is no secret that Hornington, the market town which Swanvale Halt is always adamant it is NOT part of, votes Tory, while the Halt itself is defiantly Liberal. Everyone was curiously subdued when I went down to church on Friday, or cheerful in an 'it's really bad but I'm determined not to admit it' sort of way, the manner you imagine the inhabitants adopting sixty-odd years ago if they'd woken up to find a bloody great German bomb sticking out of the duckpond.

What on earth happened? How did the great Lib Dem breakthrough turn into a worse performance than last time? I don't think it was anything to do with the campaign, with the bubble of Cleggmania bursting, with people having doubts about Lib Dem policies or anything respectable like that. The polls had us level with Labour hours before the elections began: it was a last-minute shift. I'm convinced that all those thousands of people who told the pollsters and the media that they were going to vote Liberal got into the polling booths, stood with pencil poised over the ballot paper, and thought, 'No. If I vote Liberal, I'll get Labour/the Tories', and reverted to type at the last possible minute. It was tactical voting in reverse, a colossal failure of nerve. 'Some people should be shot', said a local Lib Dem councillor who's part of our congregation. I congratulated him on his interpretation of the 'Liberal' bit.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Away With That Bauble

This has nothing to do with Christianity or Gothic, but I couldn't resist posting up the picture. I have a favourite antiques shop not far from me and the last time I called noticed that there was a 'Sold' notice outside - no need to panic, apparently, the ownership is changing but the use won't. I did a tour of the cramped, convoluted rooms in relief, and stuffed into a room under the roof discovered the largest bauble in the world.

Just imagine, imagine, the size of the sodding Christmas tree that goes with that.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Whitby Views

One Goth clothing show from my few days in Whitby - I do like the typewriter so visitors can leave an email address ...

... and another in the lobby of (what was) the Metropole Hotel ...

... and possibly my favourite little group of folks seen out and about. What I like especially is the young lady's outfit, a garment that simply would never have existed in the era she's invoking. How wonderful is that?

At least I assume it's a girl. And lastly my chums at the Cottage pondering a jigsaw in a very Cabinet War-Room pose.

Unwonted Delights

I went walking a few weeks ago and eventually reached the museum of a nearby town, and even were I revealing the names of places local to me I wouldn't do so in this case as I thought the institution concerned was God-awful. In Hornington there's a very humble little volunteer-run museum which is super, a delight to go round. This museum in the county town, however, is dire, with no obvious point to the displays, and peeling and peremptory notices, and the most up-to-date bit, the archaeology gallery, labels list catalogues of objects to be seen in the cases without any clue as to which caption refers to which thing. Having been in the business, I knew what they were, but even though we used to joke that the vast majority of people who visited museums were other museum curators, you should still design your galleries on the assumption that an uninformed member of the public might actually wander in at some point. You can't be too careful.

I did, however, very much like this little Romano-British bronze face:

And upstairs in a darkened room (just right to lie down in so that your brow can be fanned in cases of overexcitement) was this fine display of Victorian maniples:

Look at the spade-ends on that!