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.