Tuesday, 31 December 2013

"Gothic: the Dark Heart of Film" (ed James Bell, BFI 2013)

This newest addition to the groaning shelf of books about Gothic was my birthday present from Ms Formerly Aldgate. It is by no means an academic book, rather a survey for the interested layperson, although decorated with weighty names such as those of David Punter, Marina Warner, and Sir Christopher Frayling, as well as writers on movies - Ramsay Campbell, Kim Newman, and the inevitable Mark Kermode - and, er, Charlie Higson and Reece Shearsmith. Many of the essays are very sparky, perhaps precisely because they're liberated from the necessary shackles of an academic framework (you sense that some of the contributors are somewhat enjoying a guilty pleasure), although a few decline a bit into lists of movie titles; however even then one of the chief virtues of such a work is surely that it encourages its readers actually to go and watch some films. I think more credit than is given is due to the book designer, who appears to be a gentleman (or perhaps lady, I don't know) called Chris Brawn, as it looks very good indeed, as one should expect from a book about film. The decorated initial capitals are quite witty. THERE ISN'T AN INDEX.

Monday, 30 December 2013

New To Me

Easily my most unexpected Christmas present this year was this offering from Ms T. What is it, you may ask: an astronomical accessory? a container for a religious relic? Neither guess would be entirely wide of the mark. It is in fact an example of a class of object I didn't even know existed: a fob watch stand. Having a pocket watch is not enough, I'm afraid: the industrious gentleman also possesses a stand whereon to place his timepiece so he can see the time at a glance while beavering away at his desk, answering the day's correspondence and checking his investments. Actually I'm not sure how accurate a picture this really is, as idleness rather than industry is surely the truer mark of the gentleman.

Anyway. This example is very simple but rather elegant and appears to be made of bakelite, and I am almost unreasonably pleased with it.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sacred Journeys - an Insight

I've just finished reading Sally Griffyn's 2000 book Sacred Journeys, which I bought years ago (probably not long after it came out) as it had a chapter on holy wells and seemed to promise a certain insight into the habits and thinking of modern paganism. And it does not disappoint in this respect. Paganism (or at least Ms Griffyn's version or vision of it) emerges as a sort of means of self-exploration and occasionally therapy, mediated through rituals, which are often self-defined, in which landscape plays a central part. Very often these ceremonies are built around a symbolic system which bears some relationship with what medieval people would have called the correspondences - essential resemblances linking elements of the natural world; north-black-cold-earth, for instance. This imagery is then built into the ritual life of the pagan practitioner to provide ways of pondering and dealing with important occasions in life. 
What makes it more than just a means of externalising an internal psychological process is the conviction that the earth, the elements, and human beings are bound together by an 'energy' which can be concentrated on, channelled and occasionally even sensed physically, as when Ms Griffyn reports feeling standing stones throb or hum. This earth energy means that the impressions and feelings the pagan practitioner experiences interacting with the natural landscape are connected to something real and objective: the earth is something that can actually be communicated with, not just used as a means of interpreting oneself. 
Of course I don't go along with this, but I'm pleased to have it laid out in such generous detail. It does lead me to reflect how religious practice, including the practices of Christians, presumably always looks fairly loopy to someone who isn't 'within the system', but to the people who are inside, it 'works', and this 'working' itself becomes a form of validation. Religious and non-religious people alike could do with remembering this.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Storm Past

The parish, and indeed the whole area, awoke on Christmas Day to another power cut, apparently due to a tree falling onto power cables about ten miles away. This wasn't as serious, as far as the church services were concerned, as it would have been on the evening of Christmas Eve; we lit the Lady Chapel with candles for the handful of souls who attended the 8am service, and gave people hand-held candles for the 10am (not that there was a huge number of them), and enjoyed the playing of the piano rather than the organ. It was fine.

Of more interest was whether the traditional Christmas Day lunch for those who would otherwise be on their own at the Baptist Church in Hornington would go ahead. It did, so imagine access to gas ovens must have been possible. The lunch usually concludes with the Queen's Speech, for which the electricity came back on again at 2.20pm, thus demonstrating once again the hidden power of the Monarchy even in our democratic age.

Thankfully I was able to scoot out before that. However by then I had a headache so penetrating I was wincing and biting my lip on my way back to the car. I put it down to tension, but several cups of coffee at a friend's house back in Lamford demonstrated it was mainly down to lack of caffeine ingested over the last couple of days. On Boxing Day, therefore, I did what I'd been threatening to do for ages, and bought a little camping stove so that, in the event of future power cuts and for the preservation of my health and temper and the spiritual wellbeing of others too, I can still have tea.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

UnBearable 2

Yesterday was characterised by storm and tempest, just the same as it usually is on the day I devote to delivering church Christmas cards and taking communion to people who won't be able to get to church today or Christmas Day itself. I didn't want to throw the 'youth club' out of the church into the wind and rain, but with three separate complaints about their antics from different quarters I had to do something. They were all congregated around the sofa in children's corner when I arrived though three of the younger ones were tearing around the building. I read the Riot Act and warned that one more complaint would have them all thrown out wholesale, regardless of who was actually causing the havoc (and of course as in the Garden of Eden every one of them tries to blame someone else).

Then just before 4pm the power went off across the area, and that meant the church had to be emptied no matter what the weather was like outside. The Rectory had its electricity back on by 5, although the whole postal district went down again in the small hours and wasn't reconnected until about 1.45. There is standing water everywhere and the roads have been nightmarish; the Co-Op opposite the church has had to throw away all its chilled and frozen stock. But at least power was restored, and we were able to go ahead with the chaos that is the Crib Service as usual, packed out with over 300 people.

Just to add to that, I came back to church about 3pm to check the power was indeed on and found that at least one of the water extinguishers had been set off, soaking the floor, the font was blocked with crayons (I'd emptied it to prevent water fights), baubles off the Christmas tree were smashed and there was damage to the reredos behind the high altar - how that was managed I can't imagine.  I suppose the problem is that the church is a unknown space to these youngsters: a place where rules are unclear and where, in consequence, there aren't any rules. The answer is to educate them, but I'm not sure I have the time or the aptitude. Anyway, it seems that I will have to lock the church outside service times for a while, until the miscreants go away.

'You do seem to get stressed,' commented Ms Formerly Aldgate, and it's true that things have got a little on top of me at various points and my temper has not been of the mildest.

Still, we survive. Forward to the Midnight, to smoke and Merbecke!

Saturday, 21 December 2013


If this bear seems, as he does to me, to have a somewhat sceptical expression - 'So you say', it appears to me he's thinking - it may be because of the experiences he'd undergone not long before this photograph was taken. I came to church to say Evening Prayer and lock up on Monday evening and discovered that the bear, who normally sits at the back of church in the children's area, seemed to have undergone an unexpected full immersion baptism. At least, that was the deduction I drew from the facts that he was remarkably wet, the font was the only source of water immediately apparent to the casual onlooker, and that the remaining font water was lower in level and grubbier in appearance than it had been earlier in the day. Events hadn't stopped there: to all appearances the bear had then gone on a triumphal progress around the church, to judge by the pools and splatters of water here and there, and the damp patch in the midst of the main altar.

The teenagers who have lately taken to hanging around in the church porch and who we jocularly refer to as 'The Youth Club' denied giving the bear any assistance in the regenerative sacrament, despite having been in or around the premises all afternoon. Whoever was responsible had midway through the proceedings seen the immediate problem of soaking a teddy bear in water and decided to try and mop up the moisture with copies of the diocesan newspaper, meaning, as a former churchwarden confided to me, that at least someone found a use for it.

The bear came home with me and spent the next day or so drying out in my boiler cupboard, a less spiritual and certainly not as interesting an environment but possibly a more practical one. Than being dunked in a font, I mean.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas Jollity

... or something like that. Our friend DiamanteQueen, who assembles amazing Gothic adornments for the person or the home, recently came up with a range of Christmas wreaths and I decided to buy what she described as the 'Steampunk' wreath. There isn't really that much Steampunk about it apart from a cog or two; but then nor is there a great deal specifically Christmassy apart from the tinsel and a bauble. Rather it has an Autumnal feel with the purple and brown leaves, and I was delighted with it. My friend Ms Formerly Aldgate, spotting the tiny wooden teacup, summarised the theme as 'Time passes, people die, and everything stops for tea'.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Not All It Seems

I am thinking about where to go on hols this year, and thought I might like to try Norfolk as I don't know very much about it at all. Looking on the online lists of available cottages The Coach House at Tatterford Hall near Fakenham appeared to be quite fun. It's set in the Hall gardens and looks out over a statue, small formal garden and little gazebo. It's built in the same brick-and-flint style as the Hall itself.

Now I like to have a bit of a check before I book a completely unknown holiday cottage, just to see what the surrounding topography is like, and the wonders of Google Earth allow you to do this. Streetview has no images for the Hall itself, but of course you can look up a satellite view and this is what it looks like:
The Coach House is just to the lower right of the Hall, on the south side of the drive which is the whitish area right in the centre of the photograph. So far so good.

I noticed that there was an older image from 1999, so inquisitively I clicked on that. Rather to my surprise, in this earlier photograph there is no Coach House:
Surely not, I thought. The area where the Coach House should be is a bit dark and obscure so I couldn't be completely sure that there wasn't some kind of building there which has been subsequently built up and altered. I decided to check on the old Ordnance Survey maps held on British History Online. Here's the relevant image. It's only a tiny bit of map, so the resolution is a bit chunky, but you'll get the idea. 
Not only is there no Coach House, there's no Tatterford Hall itself. None of it exists. The only coach the Coach House has ever seen will have been one that pulled into the drive by mistake. Somehow had I booked this, I'd have felt cheated. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Goth Walk 31: Tell Me Strange Things, the enigma of Fr Montague Summers

We went walking again on Saturday, about 25 or so of us, starting at the Chequers in Duke Street, St James's, and concluding a couple of hours later at the British Museum, to chase down the life of that strange, perplexing and contradictory character Montague Summers, writer on the theatre, the Gothic novel, and most notoriously aspects of the occult. It was fun despite the stress of being somehow separated into two groups by the near-impenetrable crowds of shoppers around Regent Street and having to spend ten minutes or so getting back together again! I was I must confess on the brink of throwing down my book and giving up, and have never been so relieved to see any group of people as when I glimpsed my missing colleagues halfway down Argyle Street. Will I do it again? Well, every time I tell myself No, and am persuaded otherwise by the exhilaration of entertaining people - provided they are entertained. I have an idea for a walk about the Gordon Riots, but it will take a long time to summon up the energy to do it.

Photo by Mr Marcus Tylor.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Move On, Please

On Thursday (my day off) I had the radio on as I usually do and caught (bits of) the morning 15-minute drama on Radio 4. This week it's been another series of HighLites, a comedy series about a pair of incompetent hairdressers in a Northern town whose almost complete and sometimes criminal disregard of professional standards is covered up with bluster and bravado. This run of episodes features the elder hairdresser Bev's attempt to moonlight as a wedding organiser. In Thursday's excerpt, Harriet, the vicar, calls in for a trim and finds herself somewhat at odds with Bev as to the arrangements for the forthcoming nuptials. 

Oh dear. Harriet may have a Yorkshire accent rather than the singsong Derek Nimmo intonation one typically associates with comedic vicars, but in all other respects she could have stepped out of All Gas And Gaiters or in fact any media representation of the clerical state from as far back as the 1950s. She affects shock at ordinary human doings; she quotes very, very familiar verses from the Bible at people who have no interest in having the Bible quoted to them with the sort of simpering condescension some adults direct at children, and with the implication that the Scriptures are a collection of wise saws from the same stable as Aesop's fables. She resembles no vicar I have ever, ever met.

That's just depressing. I find the ideas the author has about how weddings work actually worrying. In the show Bev and Harriet come to verbal blows over the vows Bev has devised for the ceremony, some of which are drawn from The Lion King. 'I can't allow the ceremony you have designed to take place in my church', Harriet flusters. What gets missed out is that she can't not because of any issue of conscience, which is what the drama suggests, but because it would be against the law. The marriage service, including its vows, is a legal ceremony whose wording is not allowed to be changed by anyone, whether clergy or not. You could argue that depicting women vicars as just as much idiots as the men is a step forward for equality; but misrepresenting the fundamental assumptions behind the business of marrying people shows an ignorance which is truly contemporary. Everything's basically a matter of individual preference, isn't it, so how can church weddings be any different?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Secondary First

I'm used to taking assemblies at the infants school. I wasn't at first, but that's not too much of a problem now. I know the format: make sure they're not completely passive, ask them questions they can answer, try to have a Thing for them to look at (not always possible), tell a story and say a prayer. It's OK. Really.

On Tuesday I engaged in a different-order school visit. At church we have a pair of home-made posada figures which for the last couple of years have made their way around various houses in the village. This year it was arranged, quite without my involvement, that they should visit the local secondary school, Widelake, and stay behind the reception desk for a day or two. It was further suggested that I should go in and talk to the children about them.

Once I preached at the local private school at the top of the hill, but no matter how many hundreds of boys that involved they were the sons of gentlefolk and were serried in pews in a gigantic Gothic chapel while the restrained liturgy of Prayer Book Evensong lay like a comforting blanket over the proceedings. This was different. This was 500 or so teenagers in various states of disshevelment in a secular school, and what's more I actually see some of them round about the village.

It was fine, actually. I got the impression some of them were actually looking at my Powerpoint show about the Posada custom, about Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem and the difficulties they might face traversing the same territory today, though I'm not sure how much went in. But it was an entirely polite and sober affair. I even found it rather more congenial than talking to six-year-olds, if I'm honest.

Afterwards one of the teachers brightly informed me that there was a Mexican student in the school who'd be talking about Posada in one of the classes. Good, that would at least give an opportunity to correct the mistakes I'd perpetrated.