Tuesday, 30 October 2012

That Time Again

Too many churches near me are holding alternative Halloween events and being very proud of it. There are aspects of the season's festivities which are worrisome - encouraging children to wander the streets and giving a chance for vulnerable people to be bothered, for instance - but none of them are more wicked and unChristian than similar things which happen other times of the year. Not long ago I finished reading Ronald Hutton's monumental study of British folk customs, Stations of the Sun, and he deftly analyses (in so far as anyone can) the exceptionally convoluted history of the All Souls-All Saints period and how begging rituals became detached from other days in the year and attached to this one, and further concentrated on children rather than adults.

Anyway. I was delighted to hear this from Canon Angela Tilby on Thought for the Day this morning (which I accidentally managed to catch). The programme isn't available to listen to yet so I transcribed it:
Halloween’s become a big retail opportunity, third in rank, apparently, behind Christmas and Easter. This is a recent phenomenon: when I was growing up it was Guy Fawkes Night I looked forward to.  Halloween parties were rare and rather mild events: bobbing for apples and perhaps a pumpkin was all that really happened. But today the fun is incomplete without skeleton t-shirts, crooked hats, and swirly-topped cupcakes with ghost eyes. Since Halloween took off the Churches have complained about it, suggesting that it encourages dangerous beliefs in the occult, that it’s frightening, negative, and, of course, another excuse for spending money. An Australian bishop drew a contrast this year between what he dismissed as a made-up festival about death, and Easter, a real-world festival about life. But I think that contrast is too stark. It’s simply not true that Halloween is ‘made-up’, a product of secular times. All Hallows Eve is the prelude to the feast of All Saints, when the Church remembers its heroes and heroines, men and women whose lives were transparently holy. It’s as the backdrop to that holiness that Halloween comes into its own. Halloween is the demonic ride of the unquiet dead, of all that surrounds and threatens us from the buried world, the anarchy of spirits that have lost their way, the pumpkin-head with its orange light challenging the golden haloes of the saints: So you were good? So what. All comes to nothing in the end. I think the problem is that Christian faith has become too bland, too ordinary, to deal with the dark side of life: there’s so much emphasis on welcome, affirmation, inclusion, accessibility, living life positively in the here and now, that we don’t know any more how to deal with mysterious threats from the realm of the dead. It wasn’t always so. Look at our ancient cathedrals and you’ll see all sorts of reminders of the buried world: gargoyles and demon-heads, Green Men staring through thick strands of foliage, imps’ faces as doorknockers. The unquiet dead are around and within us, and part of the Church’s job is to guide us through our relationship with our buried lives, showing us how to contain the chaos – not least, perhaps, by letting it come out in the mocking forms you’ll see tomorrow night. The dark flying things represent our own mourning for the lives we haven’t lived, our guilt at the deaths we haven’t mourned, our dread that our destructiveness could destroy us. In the light of these dark truths the lives of saints become all the more remarkable; they’ve seen through the veils of illusion to a final coherence, a unity of all things in love. So, a scary Halloween for tomorrow, and a glorious All Saints for Thursday.
There's a lot in here which is beautifully eloquent: 'the demonic ride of the unquiet dead'. The metaphor of the 'buried world' is wonderfully Gothic. Yes, that is what Halloween is, although on the level of most people's engagement with it it's a fun communal event and the deeper psychological realities are kept very deep. It is also true that you should always interrogate the practical reasons why a particular custom pertains, and the commercial one is very prominent in Halloween: some people make a good deal of money out of it. But the point is that makes it no different, for that reason alone, than Christmas or Easter, both of which are big commercial occasions too.

I was astonished to be led from this piece to the Australian bishop who Revd Tilby has a mild poke at, and he turns out to be Robert Forsyth, the Bishop of Sydney. I can't find out whether he did actually use the po-faced soundbite the Australian media has ascribed to him; instead what he really says in this interview on an Australian Christian radio show is actually amazingly mild on the topic of Halloween. If that's the opinion of the ultra-conservative evangelical diocese of Sydney, there's hope for the whole Church. Or perhaps they're saner in Australia.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Analysing Siouxsie

Image for Spellbound: Siouxsie and the Banshees
Very gratifying to hear a short documentary yesterday on Radio 4: Spellbound: Siouxsie & the Banshees. Miranda Sawyer actually managed to get to talk to Siouxsie herself, and she sounded sober, which is a rarity these days. Ms Sawyer called attention to the amazing explosion of creativity which characterised the band's first five albums, produced in four short years between 1978 and 1982, praising inter alia the lovely A Kiss In The Dreamhouse which has divided opinion in the past ('sub-hippy drivel dressed up in knickers for the sake of art' was one phrase I remember reading somewhere). It's true that those five albums (and the early singles like 'Hong Kong Garden' and 'Staircase' which never found their way on to albums) established something like an entirely new vocabulary in the midst of popular music, but it's a bit unfair simply to omit everything that came after: 'Peek-a-Boo' created 'Dark Cabaret', for instance, to say nothing of that accompanying video. But the programme was good to hear. You may be inclined to forget how titanic the Banshees were: I still don't think anyone has quite matched them since.

Naturally, when discussing the Banshees, you can't avoid the G-word, and shouldn't. 'I don't know why Goth is seen as being a sort-of joke, really', says Mr Alexis Petridis at 23.00 in the programme. 'I mean, if you look at what Goth is, if you look at what Goth looks like, it's a kind of extension of the way punks looked, it's a slightly more romanticised version.' That doesn't stop Ms Sawyer from opining towards the end, 'Perhaps the Banshees need to be reclaimed. Many, like me, were put off the band due to the ludicrous Goth fashion which trailed along behind them, like the flapping tails of a second-hand undertaker's coat', before honouring their 'astonishingly futuristic, intelligent, innovative music'. She goes on, 'Siouxsie understood, she understands, that underneath our conventional exteriors humans are dramatic, magical, tortured beings, living dramatic, magical, tortured lives.' Well, not Goth at all, then, that.

And tomorrow Amanda Palmer is on Woman's Hour ...

Derbyshire Shrines

One of my holiday days out took me around the Goyt Valley walks. There are two reservoirs damming the waters of the little River Goyt, and part of the landscape is the grounds of the now-lost Errwood Hall, abandoned since the 1930s. I already knew about the little woodland shrine which you can see here, apparently built by the Roman Catholic owners of Errwood, the Grimshawes, in memory of a Spanish lady who acted as companion to one of the Mrs Grimshawe. Inside you can find a tile image of St Joseph in whose honour the shrine is dedicated, a characteristic range of religious tat and also commemorative items (including a pink teddy bear looking out of the window).


I was much more surprised to discover a completely different little shrine overlooking the valley, and right beside the road which swoops down to the reservoirs from the top of the hill opposite. There is a mosaic icon of the Virgin and Child, lamps, and fresh flowers. It turns out that the shrine was built in the 1950s on the initiative of a Roman Catholic priest from Buxton - you can see more of its history here. Would the Council grant permission for such a structure today? Quite apart from any considerations of religious partisanship, it is right next to the road, just on the verge - something of a perilous position for devotees!
Finally, in the village of Stoney Middleton, I found this: a shrine in a niche underneath a row of houses. There is a side road which branches off the main street and goes immediately very steeply uphill, allowing this archway beneath a house which sits next to a small car parking space. The icons (especially of Christ's Transfiguration) suggested an Orthodox inspiration and, as it turns out, the little shrine was assembled by a member of the congregation of St Aidan's Orthodox Church in Manchester. More about it here.

Who would have expected such a collection of sacred sites in this small corner of the world?

Derbyshire, October 2012

I was away for a week in the Peak District and had good fun staying at the Fairy Cottage in Edale. The things I will remember most are my visit to Speedwell Cavern, being propelled along the underground canal by a guide clearly being driven mad by saying the same thing over and over again to groups of visitors; crossing the hills between Castleton and Edale and somehow losing the footpath which meant I had simply to scramble straight up the hillside; meeting two pigs called Billy and Petal; discovering that Matlock Bath is, rather unexpectedly, a focal point of the biker universe; and eating fish and chips in the Nag's Head on a sheet of newspaper neatly laid over a nice plate. However here are some images more closely related to some of my usual concerns.
On the skyline above Matlock you can glimpse Riber Castle. Apparently the ridiculously wealthy developer of Matlock Hydro, Mr Smedley, built this originally as nothing more than an eyecatcher, then when he received public derision for this announced he always intended to live in it and had to build the rest of the castle on the back of the facade. Sadly there was no water supply on top of the hill and so it wasn't a practical dwelling until long after Mr S abandoned it. It became a school and finally a zoo; various urban exploration groups have had a poke around but the building is at last in the process of being converted into luxury apartments so you can't get very close any more. Very dramatic.

This is the grotto in the Derwent-side gardens in Matlock Bath which, I think, is the current outlet of the original spring that gave rise to the spa. It's a very pleasing little Gothick structure, anyway, and I've never seen it illustrated anywhere else.

Wingfield Manor was a real surprise. 'Neither the picturesque nor the strictly architectural traveller should miss it', says Pevsner, waxing lyrical about its fifteenth-century ruins. I drove through the village of South Wingfield and wondered why there was no sign to it. Having crossed a cattle grid and then driven carefully up a rough track I found out why: although administered in some way by English Heritage, it's still part of a farm and admission is only by guided tour. However you only discover that on the EH website (as I just have). I couldn't find anyone there, and the farm itself doesn't show any clear signs of current activity, the yard being full of rusting machinery and surrounded by derelict buildings.
Derby Museum, like most museums, clearly has more stuff than it can do much with. So they've put on a positively beautiful display called '1001 Objects', exploring not so much the history or significance of the Things but their aesthetic qualities. It's absolutely lovely and made me smile.

Meanwhile Buxton Museum contains many - many - objects from the collection of Sir William Boyd Dawkins, redoubtable Victorian and Edwardian naturalist and geologist, so they've decided to recreate his study in the museum. It's fantastic, just the sort of room any gentleman would be proud to have. There's even a top hat.

I had no idea there was such a thing as Derbyshire Black Marble until I had a look around Buxton Museum.

St Catherine appears in a Victorian window in Bakewell Parish Church. She also has a chapel dedicated to her in the crypt of Derby Cathedral, but no images there.

Edensor Church, on the other hand, contains the maddest and most outrageous of funeral monuments, that constructed in the 1620s to commemorate the two sons of Bess of Hardwick, William and Henry Cavendish. An empty suit of armour, a trumpeting angel and scary putti flapping about the pediment, a Gorgon's head and a malevolent owl, and, at the centre, the respectively skeletonised and shrouded figures of Henry and William themselves. Just think, before the church was rebuilt in the 1870s this would have stood behind the altar.
And finally, a very odd church interior. I went to Stoney Middleton to see St Martin's Well, aka the Roman Baths, and had no intention of visiting the church until I saw it. It has a small, perfectly ordinary 15th-century tower at the west end. In the 1700s the rest of the church burned down and, for some bizarre and now lost reason, it was decided to replace it with an octagonal nave. The pews all face wierdly in towards the centre, though there isn't anything in the centre: the font is off to one side and, as you can see, the altar sits in a little alcove which functions as the chancel. The church history has a photograph of what it used to look like until a reorganisation in 1953, when the pulpit, organ, and radiators were all moved out of the way and lots of clutter cleared out.

Goth Walk 28: Dickens's Dark London

It's a long time ago now, but back in September I did another Walk for the London Goths. Mr Bishop suggested that, it being Charles Dickens's bicentenary, someone should mark that occasion, and as I can't stand Dickens I was clearly the ideal person to do so.

In fact doing the research was very enlightening. I decided early on that the best way of tackling it was to take some of Dickens's most gloomily eloquent descriptions of places in London and themes in its history, and tie them together with a very loose narrative. It brought home to me how so much of his work was driven by a sense of social conscience arising from that traumatic early experience of his father ending up in the Marshalsea debtor's prison, and Dickens himself having to work in a blacking factory. So my view of him rather shifted and that was what I wanted to put across.

In the end the date selected was Sunday September 23rd. This was so that Ms Vale could run the social side of the Meetup, and that particular day was the only one in the course of three months she and I could both make. That Sunday saw easily the worst weather in London so far this year. I got to the starting point, the George Inn in Southwark, to find a handful of people huddling away from the torrential rain and violent wind outside. I wondered whether, if the handful remained a handful, we could justify simply staying in the pub and doing all the readings there. Dr Bones even made it from Oxford and brought Boots the dog with her, introducing him to the underground as well as to some of the worst weather he can have experienced. 'We don't normally allow dogs indoors,' said the young man on the bar, 'But considering ...' Eventually the group reached the amazing total of about twenty attenders so we did indeed set out, blown and battered down through Southwark, past the Cross Bones Graveyard and along the Thames to Blackfriars, across to St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe and Newgate, and finally along Fleet Street to finish up at Gladstone's statue just opposite the site of Dickens's publishers. People were kind enough to say that the meteorological conditions added to the atmosphere.
Photograph by Mrs Alyson Pacanowski.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Inside and Out

The readings for this morning’s Mass were from Job 3, in which poor Job curses the day of his birth – ‘Why offer life to those who are bitter of heart?’ he cries – and Mark 9, in which Jesus berates his disciples for offering to call down fire on the Samaritan village that won’t let them stay. In my little homily I talked about suicidal feelings and not judging people by the circumstances of the moment.

On the way home I was crossing the railway line and was puzzled to see a woman standing on the track talking into a phone: unusual thing to do. As I passed she called me back and offered the phone out to me. On the other end was a police receptionist, and in the course of talking to her and the woman I worked out without too much trouble that she’d had a couple of drinks and was threatening to throw herself under the next train, as her sister had a few months ago. There wasn’t going to be a next train, however, because the signalman had already held all the trains further along the line. I kept her talking until the police arrived (in two cars and a van) and bundled her off to the local mental hospital. Of course she called me every name she could think of, but then if you’re genuinely determined on offing yourself you don’t tell anyone about it. I have to say the (all young male) coppers handled it superbly as far as I could tell, very clearly following an established procedure for such incidents. It was a strange synchronicity of the world inside the church and the world outside, and I suppose that had I not been dressed in clerical gear the woman would never have stopped me.

They Do Things Differently

I happened to speak today to a member of an Anglican religious order who spent some time in South Africa and who told me about the way certain ecclesiological controversies had been managed there. ‘The ministry of women was sorted out in one day,’ he said. ‘Nobody was forced to do anything, everyone against was accommodated, whether you were a bishop, a priest or a parish. Deacons, priests, bishops, all voted for at once, no fuss, no agonising, and they’re just about to appoint their first female bishop. Here, it’s just mess and pain and disaster.’

‘And as for gay marriage,’ he went on, ‘the South African government declared everyone had to marry same-sex couples. They weren’t going to give anyone a conscience clause, Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever. The Archbishop said, well, the Prayer Book won’t let us do this. And he simply suspended the marriage licence of every Anglican priest in South Africa. Result, chaos: nobody could get married in an Anglican church. The State gave us a conscience clause in a week. Here, it’s going to take years of heartache and handwringing.’