Friday, 2 December 2011

Think of the Children

I am gradually collecting all the instalments of the famous Haggerston Catechism composed by Fr HA Wilson in the years around the War and published in seven parts in later years. They aren't very common as they were printed on floppy paper, and having bought the sections that survive in reasonable numbers I'm now down to the rarer ones; the volume on The Lord's Prayer is on Abebooks at the moment for £90 ...

The striking thing about Fr Wilson's catechism classes was that they comprised a two-year introduction to the Christian faith for children, spread out over a full 120 sessions. There was an assumption, probably in those days not completely unrealistic, that children would be there on most of those weeks. They also must have been pretty attentive for any of it to go in.

We have an after-school club at Swanvale Halt that runs for an hour on Wednesday afternoons in term time. There are never more than a dozen children (whereas it's clear that Fr Wilson expected many more than that at his catechism classes) and we start with a paper-based activity, have a story, craft activity, run-around game and prayer at the end. Imparting any information to the children, even in the form of a story, is like pulling teeth. Getting them to be quiet long enough to get a word in edgeways is sometimes an achievement, as it was this week. They clearly don't think of our sessions as 'school' in any sense. None of them are maliciously rude, they're just enfuriatingly silly and it's difficult to know how to approach it: we adults continually comiserate with one another after it's all over that 'we never behaved like that with grown-ups' and therefore I don't think we know what to do. A conversation with the headmistress, who commands the entire school in whispers, may be in order!


We have a new colleague in the clergy team locally who is looking after the daughter church of Hornington Parish Church. She led Morning Prayer the other day, on the weekly occasion when we gather together to say the Office rather than doing so in our respective churches. We read the unwieldy wodges of Scripture that the Lectionary foists on us daily, and our new colleague asked if we'd like to share any reflections on them, not something we're used to. There was silence and to kick things off she made a very proper, pious statement about trust in God the connection of which to the Old Testament reading I couldn't quite see. I then said I'd found that particular reading completely incomprehensible until I remembered how a New Testament passage had taken up the imagery. The Rector of Hornington commented how the reference to trees had made him think of Christmas trees which were much on his mind.

Perhaps it's because, alone among the other clergy locally, I am single that I reach the point where I can't stand the sound of my own voice. There are moments when I'm attempting to lead prayers, for instance, when disgust at the appallingly trite agglomeration of reorganised Christian clichés that's coming out of my mouth threatens to overwhelm me completely. 'Oh for God's sake, shut up', I want to tell myself. That's one of the reasons why I like the Office, because they are not my words, I'm not constantly having to produce stuff, but can just listen to God for a while. Does anyone else ever feel the same? Perhaps I may find out.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Electro Swung

A few friends of mine from the Goth world attended White Mischief a couple of nights before Halloween. White Mischief has been a predominately Steampunk event since 2008 but the last outing had (so I'm led to understand) a considerable dollop of music that has come to be called Electro-Swing, some of which, some of which I stress, I find myself quite fond of as well.

How people come across new genres and styles is always interesting. In my case I was sojourning with my parents over Christmas in 2008 and caught the festive edition of Jonathan Creek which featured in a garden party scene a trio of close-harmony singing ladies in vintage hairstyles. These were the Puppini Sisters whose Myspace profile I swiftly looked up. The song they were singing was 'Spooky', and they also did (and do) both covers of modern pop and classic songs from the swing and big-band era in a fairly staightforward style - though their version of 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B' is so fast, a full minute quicker than the Andrews Sisters', that some vintage fans can't take it. Some of their stuff, however, came under the category they themselves, lacking any other label at the time, referred to as 'swingpunk': music that took a swing-era idiom and updated it with modern rhythm and production. 'Crazy in Love', with its initial sample of 'Puttin' on the Ritz', was a prime example. Eventually I got around to buying a couple of their albums on Amazon, which, in its helpful way, suggested I have a look at White Mink/Black Cotton as well.
Obviously what caught my eye was the reference to the iconic ER Richée photograph of Louise Brooks, 'Kansas Cleopatra'. What caught my ear when I actually listened to it, however, was a number of pieces that, like 'Crazy in Love', melded vintage music samples (and sometimes more sophisticatedly musical motifs played in a vintage style) with contemporary instrumentation. In particular I found myself rather adoring Gry and FM Einheit's 'Princess Crocodile' and 'Jolie Coquine' by Caravan Palace. I now know that White Mink/Black Cotton was crucial in consolidating and spreading the whole idea of Electro-Swing beyond a few experimental tracks and turning it into a genre.

Of course it's begun taking off hugely and feeds into the burgeoning vintage scene as well. A lot of electro-swing is heavy and strongly rhythmic, and can be seen as a close relative of house or hiphop, but Caravan Palace and other bands do play real instruments. I've just come across Michael Biboulakis and Nina Zeitlin's 'Is That Too Much To Ask' which, as well as the heavy beat, features a clarinet, bass and trumpet/. The closer an interest you take in the music of the past, of course, the bigger the temptation is to adopt other aspects of the past's styles too, especially when there are pre-existing organs such as The Chap encouraging you to do so. Have a look at Caravan Palace's video for their second single, 'Suzy', to see how they succumbed. It's rather gorgeous.

'After an evening of Steampunk and Electro-Swing it's good to get back to Goth basics', commented a friend on Facebook after coming home from White Mischief, linking one feels with some relief to an online deathrock radio station. Other Goths can't get enough of the stuff; another friend talks of 'rescuing electro-swing from the house crowd'. I suspect it's the genre's tongue-in-cheek quality which appeals so strongly to the mischievous side of Goth as well as its creativity and references to the past, and elides very smoothly into other varieties of dark-tinged music such as Sepiachord and Dark Cabaret: compare both the sound and look of The Scarring Party performing 'No More Room' and the Diablo Swing Orchestra, for instance.

On its edges Electro-Swing goes very poppy, and shades into some of Caro Emerald's brilliant output, most notably 'That Man' which I've even heard being played on Radio Co-Op in the local Swanvale Halt branch; or The Correspondents who, I'm afraid, are slightly too soft for my tastes. This is bound to make Goth fondness for it a controversial matter in the scene. But we've been there before, and will be again.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Against Nature (1884), by JK Huysmans

I've just finished Against Nature, the great decadent classic novel which Oscar Wilde lifted into the narrative of Dorian Gray as the pestilential book which opens up to Dorian a world of sin and decay. I actually found it rather fun. Le Comte Des Esseintes's efforts to alleviate his boredom through obscure Latin literature, perfume-making and liqueurs, obstructed all the while by migraines and a gippy tummy, are amusing, bordering on the hilarious, provided you don't mind the overwrought prose (which the introduction assures us is an attempt to imitate Huysmans's French). It all seems faintly ludicrous - although real-life eccentrics have been known to go to parallel lengths in the pursuit of their enthusiasms - and Huysmans packs his anti-hero off back to Paris for a more sensible way of life at the end, though how well he will take to it is doubtful. A charming little confection.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Martyrs in Hackney

I thought I was never going to get to the Elevator Gallery, with only 20 minutes to go before it closed and White Post Lane in Hackney Wick winding darkly down from the station. Finally there was an A4 notice pointing the way and, just as I was again despairing, another which meant I did, finally, locate Unit 9 on the Hamlet Industrial Estate and the exhibition I'd come to see, having had to miss the opening night a few days before. 'Martyrs' looks at the theme of martyrdom and suffering for a cause - or just suffering - with especial reference to some of the more extreme stories of Christian saints. Some of the work on show was cathartic mental-illness art, all very well but nothing technically special. The highlights were the treatments of saints produced by Consuelo Giorgi whose lurid photography decorates the exhibition poster, and by Matteo Alfonsi. Their styles are very different but as both are Italian Goths you can guess where they're coming from.

Consuelo's images are ultra-glossy, brightly-coloured photographs with an awful lot of blood in them: the poster has St Apollonia in the process of having her tongue cut out by an unseen torturer whose arms reach from behind her. There is a rather witty statement in her picture of St Cecilia: Cecilia is patron saint of music and musicians, supposedly not-quite decapitated in a botched execution and left dying for three days, and if you go to the catacombs in Rome you can see the statue of her laid in the position she died in. Consuelo poses her Cecilia in the same way ... only lying on a piano with music ready. Matteo's saints are depicted in a strange, stylised pop-art style and look like they've stepped out of Slimelight moments before. I like his St Apollonia with her halo tipped with torn-out teeth; the only problem is that he's seen a pair of what he thinks are torturer's pincers and doesn't realise they are sugar nippers, but then I don't suppose he's ever worked in a small local museum with a whole box of the wretched things.

Despite all the blood and dismemberment, like the Catholic iconography they draw on, these Gothic treatments of saintly martyrs don't really involve any real pain; pain is hard to depict in any case, but these ladies (there is one St Sebastian in the show) are serenely beyond physical feeling. I'm not sure that's what happens to genuine saints.

Monday, 14 November 2011

We Shall Remember (most of the time)

At 9.20am on Sunday I opened up the computer file containing my Remebrance Sunday sermon, to find there were only two paragraphs of sermon there. God alone knows where the rest of it was; I'm now unsure I even wrote it. Consequently I had to busk it from a quarter-page of scribbled notes, not that it seemed to damage the occasion too much.

As I've said before Swanvale Halt doesn't have an outdoor war memorial and some of the congregation (including the children who are in uniformed organisations) were away taking part in the great civic extravaganza in Hornington. That notwithstanding, we had 100 people there yesterday morning; I don't know where they came from. Actually I do and none of them were there solely for Remembrance Sunday, though I've no doubt people made a special effort to turn out. Very good, anyway, and a good few children to lead our Act of Remembrance complete with Last Post. The organist played Crown Imperial as the recessional which really gave the instrument a going-over. Jocelyn's organ-ising always sounds magnificent but it only ever blows a gasket when he's playing it, too.

Going, Going, Goth

I was at Reptile again on Saturday evening, and it was quiet. There were a number of other things going on that night which diverted people elsewhere, but it was noticeable that the Minories was remarkably less busy than it was back in October, even taking into account the fact that I left early, as I always have to.

Somebody told me there that The Coven in Luton has closed, and another alternative rock night at a pub in, I think, Abingdon or somewhere that way is also coming to an end after fifty years as an off-centre music venue of one sort or another. Back in the capital, Vagabonds, another Goth night which has had a rocky time after moving from the very pleasant surroundings of the Barrowboy & Banker near London Bridge last year, is struggling on until New Year's Eve and then giving up too. The alternative scene waxes and wanes over time, and of course tough economic conditions also encourages a shake-out, but this is a lot to lose around the same point.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

St Seiriol's Well, Penmon

Here's something a bit nicer. On holiday in Wales I went to Penmon, on the eastern tip of Anglesey (or Ynys Mon as they insist nowadays), having wanted to go for a long while. This was the monastery of St Seiriol, one of those shadowy holy men of the Dark Ages who founded religious communities through the Celtic lands. It feels as though it takes a long while to get to, though Penmon isn't really all that isolated and Anglesey isn't all that rough. Before long there was a daughter settlement over on Puffin Island a mile or so out in the Irish Sea, and that must have been a bit more challenging, as though the monks felt life on the not-quite-mainland wasn't tough enough. The legend was that whenever the brothers fell out with each other a plague of mice would eat all their food, so perhaps Puffin Island was where they sent the specially fractious ones.

Today Penmon is an odd sort of place. You park in a rough car park and a rotund cove in a beanie hat toddles out of a hut to collect your fee. All around are the monastic relics, including ruins, a very grand dovecote, and the church with some more modern cottages built onto it around a little yard, and beyond them remains of quarry workings and derelict houses. Then there's a little path which takes you round the corner towards St Seiriol's Well.

This is one of the loveliest religious landscapes I've ever visited. The rock forms a natural enclosure, the well huddling beside them, and the remnants of what may be circular monastic cells scattered around. Were they the actual dwelling places of Seiriol himself and his early companions? Well, that may be wishful thinking - and certainly the well-house itself was substantially rebuilt in the 1700s - but it at least has the feel of those remote times. It is a bit neat and tidy, a bit like a theme park display of Dark Age monasticism, but there is a beautifully romantic sense of contact with antiquity. And, after all, St Seiriol did walk this greensward even if he may not have laid these precise stones.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sad Day

My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease about two years ago and since then the progress of the disease has been shockingly rapid, although looking back we realise he had the first signs of confusion, of something not being right, eight years ago. Last May my parents came to visit and stay with me for a few days, managing to negotiate the train journey from Bournemouth (not having done such a trip for forty years or more); today my mum decided she couldn’t cope any longer, and has booked dad into a room at a local care home with every expectation that he will not be back again.

Of course she feels appallingly guilty, but there isn’t any realistic alternative. She can’t manage, I and my sister can’t do it either, live-in help wouldn’t work, and dad now needs someone watching him all day and night. At Beech House he won’t be able to hurt himself or damage anything, and can either sit or wander as he wants, which is all he does at home. We will be able to take him out on walks and as the GP told my mum, ‘your relationship will actually improve’.

My relationship with my dad has never been terribly close, and the shame is that as I’ve got to an age and state in my life that I feel I could perhaps have got to know him better, that’s no longer possible. Despite not being a believer he was so proud when I was ordained, and I will try to remember that. Last year when mum had an accident and I had to stay and look after dad for a week was I think when I came to terms with the state he was in, so now I have a degree of equilibrium about it.

Doubt only sets in when I think about something that can’t be answered, which is the question of what is actually going on in his mind. Now and again I can have a short conversation with him that seems to make sense, before confusion takes over again, but what does confusion mean? Is it simply an inability to express or process thought, or is he really unaware of who is around him or where he is? He certainly seems to have forgotten after a couple of days back home after his last period of respite care that he was ever away. What is it really like for him? He can’t tell us.

"Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist"

You read this headline and the first thought is how completely self-parodic it is. Then you reflect and think, well, you know what Dr D is driving at. Jesus is, in many ways, a great sceptic, a great questioner of tradition and observance, a rationalist. You can understand a degree of fellow-feeling the good Doctor might experience when he contemplates our Lord.

And then you think a third time. The trouble with the proposition of ‘Jesus the Sceptic’ is that, if that’s how he appears, that’s how the Church represents him, because the Church’s representation of Jesus is all we have. We only have the Bible stories to judge his 'intelligence' by, the same Bible stories that insist he was the Son of God and came back from the dead. As Christian scholars have generally accepted for some time, there simply is no ‘real’ Jesus who can be pitted against the Jesus of scripture and tradition – at least, none we have access to – quite apart from how silly it is even to imagine as a game lifting a human being out of their own time and context and dumping them in another one. Jesus, in atheist terms, isn’t alive today and couldn’t be, because if he was he wouldn’t be the Jesus we think we know. But Dr D, nothwithstanding his other virtues, does have a simplistic approach to anything outside his field – especially, as here, historiography and philosophy.

On Not Being Able to Tell

The Family Service always worries me: even if the subject is heavy the children need to be involved in some way and it helps if it’s something people can’t remember us doing twenty times before. The games or illustrations usually involve me making something rather frantically on a Saturday afternoon after a trip to the art shop in Hornington.
This Sunday I began, got a couple of children up to the front to help me, and realised having got part of the way through that I’d left part of the stuff at home. This was after having had to start the service late because I thought I’d sent the reader the text being read, and discovering I hadn’t. There was no rescuing it: I had to send the youngsters back to their places and carry on as best I could. The congregation found my discomfiture very amusing – ‘It makes you human’ was the kind remark though when Mad Trevor referred to my talk, a very sketchy and knockabout take on the history of interdenominational relationships, as ‘the entertainment’, I felt I should have torn my alb. I really don’t like the idea of worship, even the more informal and unstructured kind, as ‘entertainment’ rather than something which directs us towards God.
Yet during the talk I mentioned how all human organisations can split and divide, from political parties to knitting circles, and how the fact that churches usually manage to keep going despite all the differences between their members is little short of a miracle. One lady told me her parents were nearly in tears having just begun re-attending their own church after a particularly acrimonious and horrendous falling-out. There’s no predicting where and how what you say is going to hit.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd

I recently finished reading Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, a narrative woven around the figure of 18th-century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and the very strange churches he built in the fast-growing London of the early 1700s. Poet Iain Sinclair had speculated ten years earlier that the Hawksmoor churches formed an occult pattern in the London landscape pointing to hidden and dark meanings. Peter Ackroyd took this idea and turned the historical Hawksmoor into Nicholas Dyer, secret Satanist intent on encoding his beliefs into the churches he was commissioned to build and consecrating each one with a blood sacrifice. Meanwhile, in our own time, the novel shows detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigating a series of incomprehensible murders centred on those same churches and gradually becoming unhinged by his findings. Hawksmoor is an elusive, nightmare-like story in which nothing is really resolved, no answer provided for the mysterious interweaving and mirroring of times and events, and the only information we are provided with is that there is an unseen pattern behind the visible world which shapes what happens into recurring forms. The book is thin on plot, heavy on atmosphere, but moves compulsively towards a doom-laden conclusion. It reads very well, in a horrible way; a love-letter to Fate.

Monday, 31 October 2011

She Did Down By The Water. With The Sticks

This is almost the only picture I managed to take at the Albert Hall last night which actually shows any features. I was wedged right up in the circle to see Polly Harvey perform. It was her first time there too ...

Nearly twenty years have passed since first hearing 'Sheela-na-Gig' on John Peel's Radio 1 show, and this is, amazingly, the first time I've ever seen her perform. I only managed it this time thanks to the good offices of Minerva McHenry from the LGMG who alerted me to the concert - and then I could only get one ticket! Sorry Min, and thank you.

The bulk of the set was of course extracts from Let England Shake but there was plenty from the back catalogue; in fact the performance will send me back to some of the songs again, as they seemed to sound significantly different from my memory of them. The strange, ethereal melancholy of some of the material on Let England Shake and White Chalk was augmented by the percussion and guitars and had far more weight and solidity than I remember.

Swathed in black and apparently balancing a dead raven on her head, Polly was a virtually static presence, isolated from the rest of the band, until she got out her percussive sticks for 'Down By the Water' and on another occasion wove back and forth before eventually disappearing into the darkness at the back of the stage. During that track she was virtually demonic, delving back down into the low, swamp-water voice she hasn't recorded in for several years; then at other times (during 'Dear Darkness', for instance) a shaft of green light struck down and turned her upturned face into something utterly unearthly. As ever, she seems to be opening up a window into an experience beyond the moment of the performance.

I was glad she chose not to put 'Last Living Rose' at the end of the set, as I suspected it might be, because it makes me cry, and cry I did. Good to have some space to recover ... Sadly this whole episode will do very, very little to shift my obsession.

It was an odd evening all told. On the platform of Westminster Station on the way to South Ken I bumped into Ms Frenzel from the LGMG who is normally based in Germany and was only back in the UK for a week, accompanying a friend to Victoria, and then at Waterloo afterwards I spotted a young woman who happened to be Fleur de Guerre, of The Chap as well as other things. She didn't seem too displeased to be recognised.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Reckless Disregard for Public Safety

The Metropolitical Cathedral Church of the Diocese of London is currently closed because some people are camping outside it, for reasons which evade most outside observers, but rather smaller churches have their issues too. Recently our secretary alerted me to a paragraph in the latest newsletter from Ecclesiastical, the church insurers, advising that churches remove votive candle stands unless someone was in the church to keep watch on them.

You can see what they mean, but for us it would mean not having candles available outside service times, and that's the case for most small churches. This, I suppose, as much as waffly 'Celtic' spirituality, is why you see alternative means of expressing prayers becoming more popular - prayer trees that you hang a bit of paper from, prayer pools you put a pebble in. None of them quite measure up to a candle, in my opinion, the symbolism of light and hope. But a metal stand, placed on a tiled floor, is only a fire risk if people take the flame elsewhere and positively set light to something. A possibility, but less of one than faulty wiring.

Barely a day goes by at Swanvale Halt but I find some candles have been lit over the course of the day, and sometimes the lot go. This seems to me so important a means of expressing prayer, most especially for those who are on the edges of the Christian faith and whose belief is inarticulate or unformed, that I can't envisage depriving them of it; and I can't think of an easy alternative. I can only hope God feels the same way.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Goth Walk XXV: The Cock Lane Ghost

Last Saturday, to mark the conclusion of my holiday, I took the LGMG on a history walk looking at the story of that 18th-century fraudulent haunting, the Cock Lane Ghost, for which I donned my Georgian clergyman's gear (although the gown isn't exactly authentic, being a rather basic modern academic gown rather than ankle-length and gathered at the cuffs as a proper 18th-century one would have been). The sun shone as we made our way from the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell and meandered through Smithfield, Newgate and the City, concluding down by Southwark Bridge as we recalled other made-up spectres and wondered whether poor Scratching Fanny had indeed died the natural death she was supposed to have done. Dr Johnson, Hogarth and Horace Walpole all cropped up in the story, and when we visited Bartletts Court where Fanny and William Kent had lodged and I described the seances where the supposed ghost was contacted by what is now the standard method of communicating with spirits by raps and knocks, even though nothing survives there from 1762, a metal pillar presented itself as an ideal source for sound effects - 'Knock once for yes, twice for no!'
Photograph by Mr Christian Zaire.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Other Priest's House

Poking around an antiques shop in Llanrwst on holiday I was very surprised to find a mounted A4-size watercolour showing the church at Shapwick and a couple of cottages from across the river Stour, not far away from where I come from. The back bore evidence of several reductions in price and now it was down to £5, so I bought it in case the museum at Wimborne, the Priest's House, where I used to work, would like it - they cover Shapwick among other villages and when I was there we always complained that the outlying parishes were woefully under-represented in the collection.

Last week I took the painting in to the Museum and they were very glad to have it. The Curator, Emma, recognised my name from the archives: in 1991-2 I was responsible for computerising all the museum's collection records and so my initials should have been in about 15,000 separate places. My favourite recollection of that work is still coming across an index card which simply bore the words 'OBJECT. Donor: Commander ?', a record I diligently popped on the computer in the pious hope it might actually one day be connected with an actual Thing.

Among the jobs I had to do was to examine and list all the items in the external stores. These included a vile, freezing hut which contained boxes and boxes of archaeological crap from various excavations, among them four or five ice-cream cartons full of corroded nails from the Tarrant Hinton Roman villa (I didn't list the nails individually; never make an archaeologist, me). Then there was the Long Shed: a store as ominous as its name sounds. This black, leaking wooden structure was lined with shelves, the topmost of which were devoted to wooden machinery moulds and patterns from the Witchampton Paper Mills, vertiginously piled and threatening to collapse at a breath, sheltering the biggest spiders in Christendom. It was a charnel house for objects, which sat in the dark recesses of the shelves, gradually rusting and rotting. I was supposed to treat a wooden shotgun stock for woodworm, and decided the thing was already so badly damaged I just dunked it in the tin.

All these buildings, along with the garden machinery shed and the Tea Room (which was held together with layer upon layer of green gloss paint) have been swept away and the museum is having new stores, tea room and schools room provided for £900K courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund. It's very exciting, and I may even be able to go back for the grand opening in July next year.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Village

Portmeirion haunts the imagination. Its bizarre appearance in The Prisoner makes it seem a landscape of madness, both surreal and incarcerating, like a dungeon covered in icing sugar. So while in North Wales I had to go and look round.

I found it, in fact, immensely funny. It's entirely fake, but completely delightful, with nothing like the nightmarish note it had in that paranoid TV series. It's full of architectural jokes, conceits, like the grand Palladian villa (a pink one!) which actually hides a bungalow behind it, little bits and pieces salvaged from all sorts of buildings, plonked in a completely different context, and then, more often than not, gilded or painted turquoise. You could spend your whole day here taking photographs, and I'm sure some people did. No one view can do justice to the place, it's simply too varied.

Of course everyone knows rogue architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who constructed the place, wanted it to be 'delightful' and to make people smile, but I'm sure his playfulness went even further than most realise. Look about you in Portmeirion, and you see faces:

Or perhaps that's just me ...


I went on holiday to North Wales the week before last. I'd intended to stay in Ty Capel at Rhiwddolion last year, but that never happened for one reason and another, and I was very happy to make it there for five days this year. This is Ty Capel:

And this is what it looks like inside:

Ty Capel is a former Calvinistic Methodist Chapel which eventually became redundant in about 1960 and was taken over by the Landmark Trust in 1967. They've converted it to a holiday cottage by inserting into the big empty space a gallery with beds beneath which are the bathroom, kitchenand hallway. Rhiwddolion used to be a village, with enough people living there to support both the chapel and a school associated with it. Naturally there was originally sheep farming (as there still is), but it was the slate industry that brought people in greater numbers to this remote area. Slate, however, was relatively short-lived, and so was the prosperity of Rhiwddolion. Now there are two inhabited houses, and three properties owned by Landmark - and lots and lots of ruined slate cottages, silent evidence of what was once a thriving community of human beings.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


This is Goth club night Reptile at the Minories in London, about 9.30pm last night. I was very surprised so many people were there, as I've been along here before and it's got to 10.30 with no more than three souls in the place. I know it doesn't look exactly throbbing here, but it did pick up quite a lot.

I may have got my memories confused, because the Minories used to house an allegedly different but substantially the same club night, Invocation, at the same hour, in the same place, a different Saturday in the month. Cancelling one of the evenings seems to have been a good decision. There was a band playing yesterday, and though industrial metal music isn't my thing really, it's curious how competently done live music can be entertaining even if in recorded form you wouldn't give it house room.

This isn't from Reptile, but from Tanz Macabre last week. I thought my friend Cecile's syringes-and-flowers hairpiece was terribly creative.

A Privilege

For the first time ever, I was called to the bedside of a dying Christian while they were still conscious. This gentleman was a former local Scoutmaster who has had cancer for some time and was clearly in the last days of his life. All they wanted me to do was to say some prayers, which I did while his wife sat at the foot of the bed. He was very weak but joined in as he could. It was so very different from the awkward, uncertain situations I usually find myself in once someone is really incapable of responding, and it was an honour to be there.


I was very pleased to buy these recently:

The little plaster cherub came from an antique shop in Kingston I visited with Cylene. The hideous Javanese mask (I don't really know if it's Javanese or not) came from a local charity shop for £2.50.

Crystal Balling

The Bishop has been 'visiting' the Deanery with a certain degree of world-weariness as it wasn't originally his idea. He has attended acts of worship (some rather eccentric ones), viewed various examples of churches engaging with communities (I took him to the Day Centre next to the church where various of our congregation work or volunteer, and was disappointed Sister Frances of the Cross wasn't there to tell him about her stroke as she does everyone else) and 'encouraged the clergy and laity in their mission and vocation', which is lovely.

First of these events was a Deanery-wide eucharist at Hornington parish church last Sunday evening, which I attended before zooming up to London to Tanz Macabre to wash my brain out with some loud music. I couldn't help looking around and reflecting that in twenty years' time half the people there would be dead or at least not able to do much in the Church. Yes, people do tend to get more religious as they get older, and yes, some churches have moderately successful evangelistic endeavours, but the level of loss isn't going to made up on current form, and to imagine some sudden reversal in social trends which will lead to rapidly increasing numbers of people in church is just that, imagination. It's not going to happen. The diocesan bishop encourages us to 'resist talk of decline as inevitable', but the purpose of growth seems to be so that we can keep everything going as it is and not have to face change.

So over the next generation the Church of England will almost certainly face a demographic crisis in which there will simply not be the people or the money to keep everything functioning as it is, the hierarchy, the churches, the structures. At Swanvale Halt the age profile of the congregation is fairly high, so I think we will face this same trough within the next ten years or so. We will have to face serious questions about what we do.

However, Swanvale Halt has something not every church now has: an incumbent priest with freehold. I envisage that, as things get worse, parishes will be amalgamated and churches will close in a desperate effort by the hierarchy to salvage as much of business-as-usual as possible. And, here and there among the wreckage will be a diminished band of clergy with freehold, saying No. Because freehold means we can't be moved, gotten rid of, or have our parishes reorganised, without our agreement, until we reach the statutory retirement age of 70.

What I suspect (and hope) will happen is this: as significant parts of the Anglican Church reel and stagger twenty years from now, Swanvale Halt and churches like it will have been through their demographic trough and will be coming out the other side. Age will take a whole echelon of people out of the church within a relatively short period, and it will feel different, be a significantly different community; and that will be the beginning of new growth. Nothing to do with whether I perform well or badly, really, though I imagine I could stymie the whole thing if I was seriously crap. But that will only happen if clergy with freehold can hold on and preserve the core of those church communities. Which is why I suspect (unless God shouts very clearly to the contrary) the folk of Swanvale Halt will have to put up with me for some considerable time!

I could be wrong, of course.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Flogging a Dead Emotion

My friend Cylene, who has her problems, asked me last night why she should get a hard time from her psychologists for cutting when self-flagellation was an acceptable and even encouraged practice in certain Christian traditions. Cutting is(at least for her) equally ritualistic, she maintains, and brings a feeling of catharsis which can be seen as therapeutic even though most people are very disturbed by the practice.

I've never read very much about pain-inflicting practices within the Christian Church, nor have I spoken to anyone who's ever admitted practising them. Extreme groups like the medieval Flagellants were usually regarded as being illegitimate by Church authorities, though I'm not sure whether that was more for their bizarre practices or their tendency to slip into heretical beliefs. More mainstream instances are more mysterious. Karen Armstrong talks about it a little in Through the Narrow Gate, her narrative of leaving a pre-Reform Roman Catholic convent in the late 1960s, and of how dissatisfaction with 'the Discipline', as beating oneself with knotted cords was known, focused her issues with the religious life in general. She concluded that, at least in her case, it twisted sexual feelings in an unhealthy direction and confronted her superiors with the conclusion, but it's clear that The Discipline was intended not to deal with sexual feelings alone, but with all the other 'worldly' emotions and thoughts aroused by the intense experience of community living: resentment, anger, or just boredom. It was, I suppose, a means of processing negativity in circumstances where there was no safe way of expressing it, and converting unhelpful emotions into physical pain allowed them to be connected with the sufferings of Jesus.

Like most forms of self-harm, it seems to me (and of course I may be wrong, but Cylene agrees) that cutting is also a means of processing negative emotions. Anger and rage towards people you rationally don't want to damage can be dealt with in a very formal, ritualised way by self-damage: the feelings are psychologically so unacceptable that rather than face them they can be converted into something which, because of its ritual nature, is more contained. 'I'm frightened that if I don't cut I might hurt someone', Cylene says. The danger is that, if you happen to have suicidal feelings (which is rather likely), the ritualised, contained business of cutting may take you further than you originally intend. But, considered on its own, I think she's right: there's not much to separate it from self-harm in a religious context.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts

Long ages ago, one of my great predecessors in the parish sent a group of his folk on the diocesan course for lay Readers. 'You should get a degree in theology after all this', he said on them reporting back, 'this isn't what we need in Swanvale Halt.' Being the kind of character he was, he set up his own training course and produced a whole set of 'Lay Pastoral Assistants' who were sort-of communion-ministers-plus. Over the years this group of people not only performed a liturgical and pastoral role but also took on leadership responsibilities including furnishing a number of churchwardens. It struck me that what the then Rector had done was begin what big Evangelical churches tend to call 'leadership courses', creating a set of people who were trained not necessarily for any particular role but encouraged to feel they had the confidence to take on things when they came up.

I decided to have a go at this, and came up with what I called 'Nuts & Bolts'. It's not intended to have that much of a spiritual element, but more to introduce people to the practicalities of what the church does and why. We begin on a Saturday morning with Morning Prayer, so that introduces people to a different sort of worship without laying it on very heavily - and also the idea of reading the Bible publicly without much preparation. So far we've covered what the Church is for, the history of the church in this parish, and types of ministry; this week we'll examine church properties, timetable, and regular events. The idea is that people will emerge the other end with a greater sense of ownership and knowledge about what the worshipping community they're part of is actually up to. The problem is that so far almost all my takers have been people who already have a good deal of responsibility in the church or who are, realistically, past doing so. I can only hope that we're setting a sort of marker by doing this and that in years to come it may fulfill more of the purpose I envisaged. As with so much else that I'm doing!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Be Vewy Vewy Quiet I'm Hunting Wabbits

I came out of the front door intending to go and look for 4-stroke oil for my new petrol lawnmower, which I've concluded is the only sort of thing meaty enough to tackle the huge Rectory garden. There was a cat, and something running away from it which was clearly not a cat. I peered under the car where it had hidden, and discovered a long-haired, short-eared rabbit.

Where had it come from? More to the point, what was I to do with it? It was clearly a pet rabbit, and I could only hope hadn't come very far so I might stand a chance of reuniting it with its owner quite quickly and not have to look after it very long. I don't overly like animals, and find the idea of caring for one unacceptably stressful. It's bad enough checking whether the fish in the pond are still alive.

I eventually shooed the rabbit into the garage, left it with a bowl of water and some cabbage leaves, and drove to the big vet's on the far side of the village to seek advice. They told me not to give it lettuce, whatever else I did, which immediately got me worried whether I had sealed its fate by locking it in the dark with some cabbage. However they lent me a cage and some straw and told me to call back if I couldn't find who it belonged to.

By this point I was cursing my lot, having had my afternoon entirely disrupted by this completely unexpected event. Being called to Widelake House to give the last rites or something is within the usual parameters of the clergyman's lot, and even some sudden disaster befalling the village (as happened a few years ago when there was a fire in the sheltered housing block next to the church and the inhabitants had to be billetted on various members of the congregation) is acceptable, but pet rescue is another matter. However, these curses were nothing compared to what was about to escape my lips when, in an attempt to separate the rabbit from the potentially lethal food I'd left it with and unsure whether or not to put it in the cage, it ran past me whereupon the garage door fell down and clouted me on the side of the head. Interestingly, the people I've told this story to assumed I was about to tell them it had decapitated the rabbit, and were relieved to find it was only me that was damaged.

My staggerings around the drive clutching my temple and crying imprecations against the rodent could not help but attract some attention, if there was anyone around. After a minute or two during which the rabbit seemed to think it was playing a game involving retreating under the car at the most irritating moments, one of my neighbours appeared at the bottom of the path from the houses to the side with her two young sons in tow (ironically she's the stepdaughter of a member of the congregation). They looked strangely as though they were looking for something and, on my querying, it did turn out to the rabbit. His name is Mo, which should really be short for Mown Down, but there you are.

It's over 24 hours later, so I think that if I had any intra-cranial haemorrhaging it would have been apparent by now.

Afternoon Tea at the Soho Secret Tea Rooms

The Soho Secret Tea Rooms, above the Coach & Horses in Greek Street, aren't terribly secret, although access is via a steep staircase behind the downstairs bar, which does make you feel as though you're going to do something rather disreputable instead of just having tea. The Goths liked the idea of going there and so with a lot of faffing about involving dates and deposits to book the private room, I organised it. In the end only half the attenders actually turned up, which, given that I'd sent out several messages warning people to update their response on the Meetup site if they couldn't come because numbers were limited, did not please me at all. Anyway, those of us who were left enjoyed ourselves being stuffed with sandwiches, cake, scones, and of course tea, in lovely vintage surroundings with sofas and doilie-draped tables and being serenaded by Ella Fitzgerald. Mr Valentine even treated himself to champagne to celebrate his new job.

We are actually enjoying ourselves in the last photo, honest we are.

Hadrian the Seventh, by Fr. Rolfe

I've just finished reading this (though not in this particular edition), which has sat on my shelf for ages. It is, famously, a wish-fulfilment fantasy by failed aspirant priest Frederick Rolfe, in which the Roman Church changes its mind about ordaining George Arthur Rose, the character who represents Rolfe himself, having spurned him for twenty years during which time he has eked out a wretched living as a journalist and other things. Rose is then almost accidentally elected Pope and proceeds to reward his friends and punish his enemies, purge the Church of its wealth, its aspirations to secular power and its 'Keltic' influence, and then carve up the political settlement of the globe, re-erecting the Holy Roman Empire in the process.

It's a fascinating mixture of some quite good writing and some god-awful rubbish. There are passages where Hadrian becomes almost believable, though barely anybody else is. Rolfe clearly hated the Irish and the Scots (and there's a bit where Hadrian denounces, pontifically, any attempt to retain the Welsh language on the grounds that the Welsh are a conquered race and so don't deserve it), and in fact hated most Roman Catholics too. But most of all he hates anyone on the political Left, and his depiction of villainous Socialists as the most venal, ignorant, self-seeking and corrupt semi-human beings you can conceive is virtually unworthy of being committed to print. An enchantingly pathological book.

Arbour Master

A new improvement to the Rectory garden: an arbour looking out from the top of the slope out over the valley to the hills beyond (at least it will do once I've cut back the sycamore seedlings). It took ages: anti-worm proofing, painting in an acceptably 18th-century shade of green, and then dragging right to the top end of the garden before assembling it. I eventually got fed up with the process of drilling holes for screws and then getting blisters inserting them, and just got some bloody big nails and whacked them until the thing was basically in shape.

Late Bank Holiday

In keeping with what is now an ancient tradition, I invited a selection of LGMG friends over to consume the produce of my garden and what turned out to be a quite heroic quantity of gin over the weekend of the August bank holiday, and of course it was lovely. It's comforting that drink will enable a disparate group of people to get on with each other. I had to go to a station (not Swanvale Halt station) to rescue Cylene, whose inability to negotiate the British rail system is unparalleled, and came back to find Mr Valentine, Ms Narain, Ms Orphanides, Mr Boulton, Mr Garnett, Ms Luczak and Mr Webb being disgraceful Goth stereotypes and playing a card game called Gloom.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lowering The Sights

Last week I had a very serious row with somebody who attends the church occasionally but who I have a lot of dealings with. I will spare you the boring details, but they involved his overdraft and tangled family relationships, and his rejection of the way I went about trying to assist. Because of who this person is and the way they have reacted, I have decided I can’t deal with them, at least for some time. Our last meeting left me shaking, and in fact I was shaking even as I recounted the story to our church secretary this morning. He has, so far, respected my request to stay away from the church and not contact me, which I’m grateful for – especially as it hasn’t been so easy in the past. I’ve yet to talk it through with my spiritual director.

Of course the problem is still with me all the time, and I feel divided between, frankly, some relief that this individual isn’t around and guilt at feeling relieved. I stood at the altar on Sunday evening listening to a visiting priest from a neighbouring church invite the people to confession: ‘Jesus says, before you offer your gift, go and be reconciled’, and of course with this person I am not reconciled, neither can I be until I sort out my own reactions and recover from what has been a horrible experience. The words of forgiveness I pronounce over others cannot but ring somewhat hollow. And even forgiveness, in the sense of understanding how both I and the other person may have got things wrong, can’t on its own bring about reconciliation.

Yet I can’t just ‘leave my gift at the altar’, and abandon public worship until this is sorted. There is much in our lives which is never ‘sorted’ and stands no chance of being. To refuse to preside at worship once might actually have a tremendously salutary effect on the congregation, but you couldn’t keep doing it, and frankly there is hardly a time in my life when I’m free from one sin or another. The other morning there were scant minutes to go before the start of a service, and the people reading the prayers and scripture readings were nowhere in sight: I fell instantly into angry and self-pitying thoughts which were all guiltily dispelled when they arrived. I wonder whether this, as much as the inconvenience of keeping a fast, is why early-morning Mass developed – so the priest wouldn’t have had as much time to screw anything up. As so often, I can do nothing other than throw myself on the Mercy of the Court.

Friday, 26 August 2011

St Augustine's Well, Cerne Abbas

St Augustine's Well was one of the very first holy wells I ever visited, over 25 years ago, and since then I've been back many times. I've seen the retaining wall around the enclosure collapse and be rebuilt, a carved stone seat appear beside the pool, and one of the ancient lime trees leading to the well, the Twelve Apostles, felled.

I returned a couple of days ago. The lower branches of the lime trees were hung with multicoloured ribbons, and there were a number of people around including a family with three young children, but the well is in a very sorry state. It's virtually dry when there should be a foot or more of water, and the stones which line its base and are normally seen through bright, cold spring water are coated with horrible mud. The stream which usually runs down the street and makes Cerne such an attractive place is full of grass and weeds, and the duck pond is a shadow of its usual self.

This seems sad, but Cerne has had its rough times before. The little display on the history of the village in the church mentions how there were hopes that the railway was going to come through the Cerne valley in the 1850s, but in the end the Somerset & Dorset line was laid along the Frome Valley and linked Dorchester and Yeovil that way. The coaching trade which was so important to Cerne (you can still spot a number of houses that clearly used to be inns) fell away, and by 1900 the population of the parish had dropped by 50% - an astonishing statistic.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Dorset Gothic

I spent a lovely couple of days in Dorset at the start of this week. Since reading the book Nightmares in the Sky I have become morbidly sensitive to gargoyles, these strange beings that inhabit a world above our heads. Near where my sister lives in Wimborne is this house, which someone has chosen to decorate with a variety of corbel-stop heads - ten of them, to either side of each window. I say 'chosen', because a couple of faces repeat themselves and I imagine they've been bought out of a catalogue of some kind:

There's nothing fake about the gruesome cow-skull carved on the doorframe, however.

Meanwhile, in all my years of visiting Wimborne Minster, I've never noticed this floriate skull:

While I've also managed to avoid the Congregational Chapel in the town, which seems uniquely grim and threatening:

Cerne Abbas Church has a crop of absolutely demented gargoyles, and a very pleasing Gothic chair:

St Osmund's church at Evershot boasts gargoyles which are equally as unhappy as Cerne Abbas's (especially the one which has lost its head but gained a wasps' nest), but one of the houses in the village has a much more benign one:

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Out From Under the Stones

I've always been able to tell people what a pacific, placid church Swanvale Halt's is. Nobody ever criticises anyone else. Well, last night we had the first sidespersons' meeting in three years; sidespeople are officially assistants to the churchwardens and, in most churches, this means getting books ready for services, welcoming people who come through the door, and keeping an eye on anyone who may need help.

I was amazed by the little rancours that have obviously been slumbering for ages! Among them were:

- the accusation that we keep running out of service leaflets. I could only remember this occurring once since I've been at S.H., but people maintained it often happened, including two weeks ago. I thought this was odd as we'd printed the usual 80 service sheets and according to the sidesperson who did the counting there were barely 70 people in the building.

- a discussion about the need to have a table in the entrance area to assemble books and leaflets on. One of the sidespeople described an extraordinary dance around the book trolley she found herself engaging in so as to avoid people coming through the door while simultaneously getting books ready for the next few. 'Well, we used to have a table', said another person, 'I had a row with Miriam Block [my predecessor] about getting rid of it. She said it was divisive'. Another longstanding church member couldn't see what the problem was.

- my favourite memory of the evening: we were going through the sidespeople's rota and the names of the two people who set up for the Taizé service came up. 'They won't do anything else', said one former churchwarden with a tone of barely-suppressed contempt, 'They came once when the services had been changed and found it wasn't Taizé and I asked whether they would help with the service and they wouldn't and left. So they won't do anything else.' It turned out this was during the chap's last stint as churchwarden, and therefore at least eleven years ago. We speak a lot of guff about the Church being 'a family', but how true it is: we nurse tiny grievances over decades, just like real families.

I find myself hugely pleased with this outbreak of minor rankling in the congregation. It's all very well slopping around words like 'love' and 'community', but it means next to nothing without a bit of grit. How can I learn seriously to love the people committed to my charge unless there are bits of us all which aren't entirely loveable?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Garden Party

I threw the Rectory garden open to the parish for a tea party on Sunday and people came and enjoyed themselves (as did one of the dozens of cats that periodically visits). Some even braved the nettles and brambles and wandered up to the top of the garden, having misidentified Melpomene as the Virgin Mary.

Messy Church out and about

We took Messy Church to a Swanvale Halt housing estate this Saturday and had about forty people turn up which I thought was really good. The local community action group lent us their gazebo and tables and our volunteers ran the activities. Religious content was deliberately low but the children made animal pictures, faces and models to add to a 'Noah's Ark' which is now on show in the church.

Monday, 1 August 2011

I'm Distraught

On Friday morning I was surprised to receive this in my email inbox:

"God’s anathema upon the Church of England
General Synod of Your Church resolved that “homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church”.
You have rejected God’s laws and the authority of God the Creator and Supreme Lawgiver.
You no longer call evil evil, a sin a sin, an abomination an abomination. You exchanged the truth for a lie and turned the Church of God into a synagogue of Satan (Rev 2:9).
The fruit of perversion is no blessing but a curse and self-destruction. The apostatical Church of England has ceased to be a blessing for the nation and brings down a curse upon it as well as upon all Europe.
The Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate, by authority of the apostolic and prophetic office before God and before the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the true Church of Christ, hereby declares before all Christians of the world (Mt 18:18): The anti-Church of England is no longer the Church of Christ but spiritual Babylon and the harlot of antichrist (Rev 17:1-6). We hereby call upon every member of this Church to be converted, to repent and to go out from that spiritual Babylon (Isa 52:11). The spirit of antichrist cast the Spirit of God out of this Church. All who want
to be saved must separate from this anti-Church because it leads the deceived souls to eternal damnation in hell. This anti-Church has become a synagogue of Satan (see Rev 3:9; Rev 2:20-24) and preaches a different gospel. “Even if an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:8-9) By reason of apostasy from the Gospel of God, God has cast this curse upon the anti-Church of England.
On behalf of the Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate
+ Elijah

Apparently everyone has had these, and the Patriarch was thoughtful enough to send a copy to the Queen as well. His Church hasn't been going very long, but in a couple of months, what with calling down God's wrath upon both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury and who knows who else, he's managed to excommunicate the great majority of the world's Christians. At this rate, there'll just be him and the Westboro Baptists left. And I have an idea that there will be some slight matters that divide them, too.

Nightmares in the Sky

While on my trip to Worthing last week I visited Badger Books and discovered (as well as a copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho to replace my old one that went astray some years ago) this amusing work:

It's a luscious photographic examination of gargoyles - in the broad sense of faces on buildings - to be discovered in New York and environs, and in his introduction horror novelist Stephen King has some interesting thoughts about what these generally horrific creatures represent:

'Gargoyles, with their dreamlike, hideous array of faces, may well serve much the same purpose [as they ever did]: as a way of venting the mental waste material made up of our hidden fears, inadequacies and even our unrealised and mostly unacknowledged aggressions ... they are dark throats, dark gullets, dark drains from which accumulated muck may spew - and thus be dissipated.'

And, mark you, 'even when you don't see them, they are watching you.'

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Worthing Museum

Last year I went with the old people's outing to Worthing, and I did the same yesterday. I think I've exhausted the possibilities of the town, now, I have to say. Anyway.

I went to the Museum. You're not supposed to take photographs in the museum, I know, but this bit of the costume display was irrestistible (though you may have to squint to see the Tudor-style woodwork properly):

And if you look carefully at this case of jet Victorian mourning jewellery, you'll see that the brooch in the middle is in the form of a little ruined Gothic arch ...

Kensal Green - Beauty and Bile

A couple of weeks ago was the Kensal Green Cemetery Open Day. I'd never been to Kensal Green, and it's usually treated as an informal get-together for parts of the London Goth community (my friend Ms Sandells had set up her jewellery stall among the other stallholders next to the Anglican chapel. The monuments were absolutely gorgeous; Kensal Green is the British cemetery that manages to get closest to the over-the-top grandeur of the European necropolises such as the Pere Lachaise. Some of the tombs are like little cathedrals complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles, while at the other end of the spectrum are modern family mausolea which are best described as 'chalets for the dead'. I went down to the catacombs, whose most disturbing elements are the sense of decay - rotting leather and lead, rust, chemical reaction continuing around you - and the weird realisation that all the little chambers for coffins, or lacunae, are privately owned and so not even the cemetery company has keys - anything could be in them, the ideal setting for all sorts of mystery stories. There was even a man in a top hat offering rides on a penny-farthing: I always thought 'Goth on a bike' was an oath, and that irrestistibly came to mind. Not sure what exactly he was doing there, but as a friend of mine said, 'Where else can you ride a penny-farthing around and not look out of place?'

Sadly memories of the day are a little soured by the discovery that the young woman going round asking Goths questions and taking photographs with the justification that she was 'researching subcultures' turned out to be an aspirant journalist whose piece about the Goths at Kensal Green for an online magazine was a snide, nasty catalogue of insults (and misquoted me). Why do such people bother?

Sunday, 10 July 2011


We had a derisory turnout at 8am this morning, so it was nice to have a relatively full church at 10. Then we had even more for a baptism at 12, of the great-granddaughter of a member of the congregation. Present among them were her sons (and therefore the baby's great-uncles) who run the cycle shop where I get my bike seen to, the ladies from the bakery in the village where I get my iced buns and bread for our ex-nun sacristan who is confined to barracks at present with knee trouble, and the couple getting married in church next month who turned out to be former neighbours of the baby's dad. Isn't that lovely?

Thursday, 7 July 2011


Miss Vale of the LGMG organised a trip to the Globe on Saturday to see the production of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. It was an energetic production, done with great inventiveness and enthusiasm, but as some of the critics have said, strangely unaffecting. Perhaps the problem is with the play itself, some suggest: it's just not really that good. There certainly does seem to be something hollow at the heart of it, and you wonder how far Marlowe, the great sceptic, took it seriously at all. Then again, perhaps the problem is with us. 'You can imagine how terrifying that must have been to people at the time', Miss Vale commented afterwards - not that Marlowe seems to have been very terrified - but that is perhaps the difficulty. What terrors do ideas like 'damnation', 'selling your soul to the devil' and so on actually have for modern human beings? It isn't clear from the play what Faustus does that is actually so very bad, apart from denying God; this is so vastly remote from modern experience that it needs detailed unpacking before you even begin to appreciate what it might be about, and the play doesn't give you that: it assumes you already know. It's a piece from a lost world, and performing it straight leaves it lying on the floor.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bedside Manners

It's been over a month since I've added anything here, shameful really. It was partly because something went awry with Blogger and I couldn't sign in, which eventually sapped my will to keep trying. Then when vaguely interesting things happened they weren't interesting enough to overcome my inertia or I was too busy until the moment, and the vividness such as it was, had passed.

Today I was at Widelake House to take the monthly communion service for the increasingly daft, and before we began went to see a former member of our congregation who is resident there and who I'd been told wasn't doing well. Pat is 98. Until the later part of last year she lived alone in a development of old people's flats until she managed to fall down a flight of stairs. How she escaped completely beating herself to pieces is anyone's guess, but despite not doing herself any dramatic injuries the process of recuperation took an agonising time, stretched out longer than necessary because the powers that be insisted she shouldn't go back home where she could potentially fall down the stairs again. The only place that could take her was Widelake - not an ideal location because it's largely for dementia sufferers and while Pat is a bit confused sometimes she doesn't really fall into that bracket. Still, here she's been since about March and no alternative has arisen.

I went to her room to find it darkened, and Pat in bed, hardly speaking. She's stopped eating and engaging with the world, or that somewhat unsatisfactory corner of the world that is Widelake House. 'Everything is horrible', she said, eyes still closed. 'I want to stop'. I didn't have a great deal of time, so I sympathised, prayed a little while, held her hand and told her to leave it to God. Pat has always been a cheerful person and this wasn't pleasant at all.

What am I supposed to do here? I suppose we have an instinct to try and chivvy people along when they're feeling low, but I've never felt attitudinally very inclined to do that, and on the occasions when it occurs to me to do so the hackneyed clichés die on my lips as I think of them. It seems somehow dishonest. To cope in extreme old age with the removal of things we enjoy, to face loss with cheer, requires a great deal of spiritual strength which you can't just suddenly acquire; and is depression an unreasonable response? All we have to weigh against these losses is the hope of the resurrection. Perhaps that's what those contentless but gentle words 'it'll be all right' hint at. I know that someone saying them to me has been a comfort even when it is by no means clear that it will indeed be all right. I will go back to Pat at some point, but I don't think my job is to try to reconcile her to the pains of this life, but to point beyond them.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Stuff without Story

Lots of things have been going on but I'm not sure how interesting any of them are. I remember two things last week. On Thursday evening I lost my temper with Mad Trevor who called me in the evening after having spoken to me twice during the day (one occasion a half-hour consultation in which I refused to hear his confession after I decided I wouldn't talk to him about religious things any more). He was in an awful state having seen 'a spirit' in the form of a colour 'moving into him' earlier in the day and was now convinced he was 'falling into darkness' and being possessed by Satan. In the day he'd told me God was angry with me for not being friends with him, and that he would 'despise me in heaven'. I snapped, and found myself shouting at Satan to get out. 'It's gone, it's gone' he said. Of course I'd shocked him and given him something else to think about. At least it seems very clear his manifestations are to do with guilt about a particular issue - he's had a long while doing a lot better, and suddenly the delusions surged up again because I wouldn't hear his confession earlier in the day. The whole thing has been absolutely hateful. I feel very much ashamed for losing my temper, but as Dr Bones assured me Trevor is so mad probably nothing I say can do that much harm. I wonder how much he takes in.

A couple of days before I was about to take the weekday service and discovered my clean whites (alb, amice and girdle) were at home, so I had to borrow one of the cassock-albs from the corner of the vestry used by the Roman Catholic congregation who borrow Swanvale Halt church for their Mass on a Sunday morning. They were filthy. All the adult servers' albs had great black and brown splotches of God-knows-what down the side. The only one that was acceptable was the priest's, and that was grubby to say the least. The RCs get significantly more people than we do on a Sunday and I often wonder what it is that keeps them going. Father Brendan is delightful, but he should have retired ten years ago and I wonder he doesn't fall over half the time. The general sloppiness is atrocious. What's the secret? They're not all Irish.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Lady Giulia's Bower

I don't know why I think of the grumpy medieval lady I bought a few weeks ago as 'Giulia', but she has given a bit of focus to the messy and unused area to the southeast of the house. There's a steep rise here because the house is cut into the hillside; to the left is the enclosure where my predecessor kept ducks. I've popped Giulia on the plinth of a staddle stone which sat pointlessly in the former scullery area within the trellis which was the duck run, and taken down some of the fencing so you can go right round out of the back garden, past the statue and out to the front. What I need to do is find a nice climbing plant which can cover up the trellis and fence and screen Giulia off in her own discrete area.

Goth Walk XXIII: Down the Well

On Saturday I had the privilege of taking the London Goth Meetup Group on another history walk around the capital, this time looking at wells and spas. I shall be in a quandary about the next one; I've exhausted all the subjects I can do without looking it all up first ... We were able to visit the well at Sadlers Wells theatre (much to the bemusement of the staff) and at least squint through a window at the Clerk's Well in Farringdon Lane, but understandably all the rest are gone with the exception of the rather splendid Gothic drinking fountain in Lincoln's Inn Fields which finished the walk off. Despite the forecast of 'heavy showers with the possibilty of hail', the weather was perfect. Thanks to Costume Queen for the photo.

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Black Swan

Well, this breaks the sequence of child-friendly movies fairly comprehensively. The Town Hall in Hornington shows films every few weeks and this was my first visit; it has something of the feel of an old-time picture house, with space for only about 150people. Friendly, but I felt a bit consciously the need not to block the view of whoever was behind me.

A triumph of style, certainly; a dripping shank of Grand Guignol - or perhaps Petit Guignol, because while there are a number of moments that make you wince, they are small, little wounds horribly inflicted. But though the damage seems nastily realistic, you're never sure how much takes place in the lead character's disintegrating mind. You're never sure, in fact, right to the end, and the sense of disconnection means that nobody in the story is much of a real character, and nothing they do cuts to the heart, so to speak.

But the style! There is barely a scene, apart from those set outside, when a mirror is not present, and a significant proportion of the time we see Nina reflected in a mirror rather than directly, signifying double identities (the Black and White Swan Queens) and the separation of appearance and reality. Again, for much of the time the camera follows very close behind her, generating claustrophobia and disorientation and putting the viewer in a very disagreeable, implicated position. On the production level it's a huge achievement.

While searching for pictures to accompany this post I found these equally striking poster images, which are both Deco in their style and Gothic in their extremity, so meet with approval on all sorts of levels.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Madness in the Methodism

We sometimes wonder whether mad people design Gothic buildings, or whether designing Gothic buildings turns architects mad. Driving through the Isle of Portland yesterday I came across the Methodist Chapel in Easton, which Pevsner describes as 'fanciful' but I would argue 'completely demented' is more appropriate.

Round the side there's a row of practically insane windows:

And then there's the screaming doorway: