Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Outed

The choir at the Midnight on Christmas Eve usually includes a few visitors, among them this year a tall bald fellow singing counter-tenor who I'd never seen before (friend of a couple who teach at the public school up the hill, I think). During the post-service melee, he came up to me and stated the name of my theological college as a question. 'Does it show?' I asked with some rue. 'Fr Albert Couvassier [principal of the college in the '40s and '50s] was my confessor when I was at Durham Choir School', he went on, 'he was a wonderful man.' Then on Christmas Day as the Romans were on their way in to church after our 8am mass Irish Sean, a polite elderly gent who is one of their servers, told me, 'Watching you at the altar took me right back, Father, you celebrate mass just like the priests did in Ireland when I was a boy'. I think this is a good thing though I'm not entirely sure.

Happy New Year!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas in the Parish, 2014

The inflatable balloon star hovering above the nave altar in this photo from Swanvale Halt has become a feature of the Christmas liturgy over the last couple of years. I first bought one I think in 2012 to add a bit of movement to the Nativity service I do with the local nursery, allowing a procession of twenty toddlers around the church following the star to the inevitable strains of Away In A Manger. It seemed a shame to use it just for that, so now it appears resplendent above the Crib or side altar depending on circumstances.

Christmas in the parish went well, thank you. Turnout at all the services was up, though in the case of the 8am and 10am on Christmas Day when last year we were battling against power cuts that's hardly surprising. More unusual was the Cribbage on Christmas Eve when despite the lack of livestock numbers were up by about 60 meaning we used every chair available and some people were sitting on the floor. (Well, I say people, I mean children.) It had better not attract any more or we'll have to do what they did in Lamford and split it into two.

For the fourth year running I finished my Christmas duties on the 28th with the carol service at Smallham Chapel a couple of miles from Swanvale Halt, which I started doing as a favour. It's the only service that takes place in this little estate chapel, sadly, and I take great pride in filling in the slightly damp service register in the freezing vestry. Last year owing to the Prevailing Conditions we only got about forty people there, but this year we were back up to the more usual 70 or so.

It Wouldn't Be Christmas Without It

I've mentioned before how every year a priest gets into trouble for daring to suggest that Father Christmas might not be real and arousing the ire of parish parents as a result. This year the reckless dupe suffering from an excess of literalism is Revd Margaret McPhee of Stalham. Unlike other stories of this kind, Revd McPhee's denunciation was more a slip of the tongue rather than a deliberate statement, which made the inevitable apology more swift if perhaps no more palatable to parents unfazed by the cognitive dissonance involved in the whole Father Christmas business (what their children will have made of Doctor Who this year, I can't imagine). I wonder what the bishop responsible would do with a clergyperson who refused to do the decent thing and apologise for not lying in these circumstances; and also am full of admiration for the fact that one of these stories, at least, seems to happen every Christmas, regular as clockwork.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Thoughtful Gesture


If you happen to have friends who are clergy, or perhaps you may even be a Christian and therefore come into moderately regular contact with a priest or pastor, one way you can improve the quality of their life this Advent season, contribute to their well-being and elevate their spiritual state, is never, ever, to make any reference in your conversation to it being 'their busy time'. As usual with the first thing that pops into your head to say, you can be fairly certain that it's popped into the heads of lots and lots of other people too. The only way your clerical friend can respond to the statement is to affirm or deny it; for instance, I could say how yes, it is busy, but perhaps not as busy as it was once upon a time (I have only a handful of people to take communion to at home rather than about 30 like my predecessor in the late 1960s), and the really tiring thing is to sing the same carols and say the same prayers over and over again until their spiritual beauty and significance is hollowed out and you become dangerously desensitised to the whole Christmas event. And a clergyperson is very unlikely to say that, because it would come across as an ill-tempered rebuke, so they'll probably just use a vague non-committal sentiment of assent that doesn't really express very much at all. Besides, they're also unlikely to have the energy to get into much more of a discussion.
Actually, if you are a Christian, you probably won't be saying this kind of thing anyway, because you will almost certainly have some unspoken insight into the way your pastor actually feels about the festive season. 'It's your busy time', is usually a line spoken by people who don't have much connection with 'church'; I imagine it comes from not really having much idea what clergy do or the things they really deal with, and not really knowing what to say as a result. It's kindly meant, but it's hard to remember that it's kindly meant. At least I think it's kind: like many of the other clichés people use to clergy, it may be seen partly as a way of defusing their awkward presence, to hedge around the God whose demands they embody and assimilate them into something more domestic and controllable. I should think more creatively about how I respond to it - if I can summon up the will!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Pink

Rose-pink is the liturgical colour only on a limited number of occasions in the year; the middle Sunday of Lent and the third Sunday of Advent, when it indicates a relaxation of the fast traditionally observed in those seasons of preparation for great feasts, and, arguably, the Feast of the Holy Innocents 'where local custom permits'.

My rose-pink vestments are still not in a fit state to be used with a straight face, but at the bottom of the oak chest which contains all our old liturgical kit (some of which is very welcome to remain there) I long ago discovered a serviceable pink altar frontal; at least, its main theme is pink, as you can see from the photo. It's a massive, Laudian-style over-all frontal, and is immensely heavy and difficult to manoeuvre around on your own, which may be why it's not appeared for decades. My use of it last Sunday aroused precisely one comment. 'It's good to see that out,' said Brenda, 'Harold and Freda Talbot gave it to the church years ago. We persuaded Fr Derek to use it once but that was about it.'

Friday, 12 December 2014

Mad Sunday

... which is not an official observance within the Church of England calendar, but Swanvale Halt seemed nevertheless to be observing it last week when two big milestones happened inadvertently on the same day. Our 10am Family Service became for the occasion a Family Communion in which we tried out a model of eucharist involving the children at every stage. There were about a couple of dozen children there - thankfully as it would have been even more difficult to do had there only been a handful - and they began by joining in with the procession up from the font where the penitential rite was said, took part in the Gospel procession armed with battery-powered candles which I didn't realise when I ordered them were all turned on magically by me with a remote control, adding another little bit of excitement, sat around me on the chancel step for the sermon, and then did all the business of getting the altar ready for communion. The real star here was Geoff, our head server, who marshalled the children and gave them all their jobs in such a way that it all moved pretty smoothly. There were a couple of hiatuses and awkward bits but for an experiment it worked remarkably well and, with the odd exception (which I may deal with on a separate occasion as it's interesting in its own right), was very well received. This is a bit off-the-wall for us, but similar sorts of service happen not very far away. I borrowed most of the ideas from All Hallows Twickenham, and discovered a couple of weeks ago that St James's Somerton whose former incumbent I know has been trying out something along the same lines.

Then in the evening we had the opposite end of the liturgical scale. The church is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its agreement to share the building with the local Roman Catholic parish, and we decided to mark the event with a service.  I suggested Evensong & Benediction could be something we could both join in without arousing issues of conscience, and so I led Evensong, Fr Malcolm the Roman Catholic priest offered Benediction, our (female) curate did one of the readings and my predecessor-but-four, who started the arrangement in 1974 and is now in the Ordinariate, came to preach. At one or two points I wondered where he was going with it but he veered away from anything too controversial and was remarkably gracious. The RCs found a magnificent Gothic monstrance at the back of a cupboard in their church in Hornington ('most of our people have never seen this', said their assisting server), we had over 150 people there and a massive party afterwards. 

Originally the 40th anniversary service was supposed to be on November 23rd, the closest Sunday to the time when regular masses started at the church, but it turned out that was Fr Malcolm's 20th anniversary as parish priest. We couldn't do November 30th as we have our Service of Light that evening, and so ended up having it on the same day as the Family Communion. One of our churchwardens described the day as 'like being put into a paper bag, shaken very vigorously around and then gently tipped out'.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Wickers Man - Gothic Seminaring

A friend of mine became principal of an Oxford theological college (not the one I went to), and has begun a series of evening 'symposia' for students, not always on Christian subjects, to increase the general levels of gaiety and interest. He asked whether I would come to talk about Goths and Gothic. I could think of no better title for the talk than the one our lay reader arrived at for my seminar on Anglican Spirituality scheduled for this weekend - 'Fifty Shades of Black'. So last week I made my way through the incomprehensible corridors of the institution concerned and figured out how to get my Powerpoint presentation working for the benefit of the dozen or so students, and my friend, who were there. I'd been given the brief not to talk about 'Gothic and Christianity' on the grounds that the ordinands hear plenty about God and could do with a break, but the questions they wanted to ask me began, a bit predictably, with queries over how one reconciles being a Christian with expressing in what one does an instinctual itch in a morbid direction, before moving into far more interesting and challenging discussions about individuality and marginalisation. One student outed himself as a former Goth: he'd been at Sheffield University in the early '80s, the only Christian in a household of Goths trying to work out quite what if anything God wanted him to do there. His experience was not of a subculture with exclusive boundaries - a night out seeing a Goth band, for instance, might be followed by dressing completely differently to hear a reggae act in an entirely distinct milieu. 'Goth now seems completely different to how we were,' he said. 'We didn't feel self-consciously marginal; we felt we were doing and being something positive.'

'That was great, thank you,' said my friend afterwards. 'Let's go and copy your train ticket, and then we can reimburse you. It's the very least we can do', he went on, 'so naturally that's what we're doing.'

Monday, 1 December 2014

Fireworks

This 'news' is nearly a month old, but probably just about worth mentioning. On November 5th we went to the Guildford fireworks, not knowing quite what to expect. People gather in the High Street and are issued, for a charge, with a torch, namely a stick holding a tube of what seems to be sacking coated with red candlewax, the whole thing being about 18" long, which is then, at a signal, lit and held in procession along the streets behind a band to Stoke Park where the fireworks take place. Somewhat incongruously the reddish-pinkish wax seems to be scented with raspberry, or at least mine was. We weren't expecting something as highly organised - the park held some thousands of people milling around a glaring funfair to which we gave as wide a berth as we could. Fireworks celebrations now very commonly include a procession of some kind from a central point to the location of the fireworks, whether that includes a bonfire or not. I don't remember this happening when I was a child: the first time I came across it was when I was in High Wycombe and went to the Downley Bonfire, an event which one of my colleagues who'd lived in the area for over twenty years had never heard of and yet involved, when I eventually got there, a bonfire some thirty feet in circumference and about three thousand visitors. That had the sense of participating in something a bit occult and forbidden. The trouble with events such as the Guildford fireworks, with the funfair, wretched toilets, and inane commentary from local radio that you could very much live without, is that the sheer size means you sacrifice some of the charm. I think that if we're going to do this next year we'll go to one of the villages.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

St Catherine's Day 2015

A small group of people gather in a ruined chapel on a hilltop near Guildford, having gained entry (perfectly legitimately) with WD40 and a few heavy kicks as well as the use of a key, to hold a short service of Mid-day Prayer. I didn't realise that the parish concerned did this at St Catherine's Chapel on her feast day until a couple of days ago, and happily was able to pop along the road to take part. 'That's not fair, there's three vicars here now,' said one gentleman, 'We're outnumbered.' Actually the laypeople weren't, just about. 'Where's the Pilgrim's Stone gone?' one lady asked as we were on our way in, hunting about in the long grass. The Pilgrim's Stone - I envisaged some ancient rock sat here for aeons on the numinous site, gathering folklore and legends. Actually, once I'd located it, it turned out to be a footpath marker put here in 2001.

Friday, 21 November 2014

More Gothic Than You Could Wish For


My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of no fewer than four books published over the last couple of months about Goth and Gothic. Terror and Wonder is linked to the British Library exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of The Castle of Otranto, but it's less clear why the others have all emerged at the same time. Here they are, anyway, in preparation for me doing longer reviews on Amazon.

Terror and Wonder (ed. Dale Townshend, British Library) is of course the 'official' volume in this collection, the assembly of essays accompanying the blockbuster BL exhibition tracing the development of the Gothic imagination over two and a half centuries. It is by no means a catalogue of the exhibition, as such, although a great deal of what was on show also appears in these pages. The scheme is basically chronological, with some attempt to distinguish different concerns addressed by the Gothic at different historical epochs. I found some of Lucie Armitt's contentions in her chapter on 20th-century Gothic a bit contentious, but the book is clearly written and very attractive despite the bit wodges of text.
Gothic: Evolution of a dark subculture (C. Roberts and contributors, Goodman) is a bit odd. It's a very glossy hardback (in fact quite a bit of the cover is silver, although my copy isn't as elaborate as the one in this picture seems to be) and is gorgeously illustrated, but although there is a very welcome (because unusual) chapter on medieval Gothic, the subjects it covers seem to be organised around the enthusiasms of the contributors rather than following a considered scheme. I'd describe the style as would-be weighty, dealing with matters which are normally the preserve of the academy in a not-quite-academic manner. I'm still trying to work out how this book came into being and what the thinking was behind it.
I had to wait a bit for my copy of Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace (A. Harriman & M Bontje, Intellect Books) because the first modest print run of about 700 apparently ran out within a week or so of publication, despite the hefty cover price of £25 for what is a modestly-sized paperback. The text's author clearly doesn't have English as their first language, but get past that and you have a rather wonderful evocation of the early years of postpunk and Goth - a movement which, the book believes very emphatically, was dead by 1992 or so (I need to do some thinking about that). The many people who have contributed memories and photographs clearly have a drive to have this unique moment in their lives and in popular culture recorded, and these missives from a less self-conscious age to ours - in which the selfie is the great cultural expression - show brave young people trying to be different. It has a haunting quality.

The biggest and glossiest book of all is The Art of Gothic (N. Scharf, Omnibus Press). It's also the most ambitious, in a sense: an attempt to delineate and record the artistic output of the Goth world as one of the means by which Goths explore and express themselves. Whereas the chapter on Art in Gothic: Evolution ... is about high art you find in galleries, here you get applied art, which is in some ways far more interesting: there are a lot of record sleeves, but other forms from fashion to furniture, often bolstered by fascinating interviews with the people who actually make these things. Ms Scharf has a very good stab at trying to separate the various streams of influence on modern Goth which affect the way it looks, and even when the categories make you scratch your head a bit you can see what she's driving at. I think this book is an absolute triumph. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Great Unknown


When he retired from his parish about fifteen years ago, Jeff came to live in Swanvale Halt and found a new sort of ministry here, helping out with services when needed and lending his support and advice (without being intrusive) to my predecessor and me. He'd been increasingly poorly and breathless over the last couple of years, and a week or so ago had a series of mysterious nosebleeds. He took communion on Sunday but needed a bit of help getting about, and felt too tired to come to the evening service. For a few nights he'd slept downstairs in a chair as it was easier on his chest. He seems to have died about 4am on Monday morning; his wife found him on coming downstairs a couple of hours later. He was lying on the floor, but appeared peaceful. As very often happens, death has been anticipated but is still unexpected when it actually arrives. 
The Coroner will determine the cause of Jeff's death, but his experience - his thoughts, his degree of awareness, what really happened - remains closed to us until the End. Yet of course this is what we would really like to know. I looked back this morning at Edgar Allan Poe's stories The Colloquy of Monos and Una and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and their attempts to imagine what it is like to die, at least in relatively normal and non-catastrophic circumstances. Tomorrow is my forty-fifth birthday, when, as I told Ms Formerly Aldgate, I will probably be half-dead or even more, and the matter of the manner of my death occurs to me more often as time goes on, yet, of course, I have nothing profound to add to what anyone else has ever said about it. The one experience that every human being undergoes is the one that remains utterly mysterious. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Picked Out


On Friday after Mattins I was heading over to school for a meeting when a man passed me and called me back. 'Are you a Catholic priest?' he asked with a noticeable Irish accent. Well, no, I'm an Anglican. The gentleman proceeded to quiz me about infant baptism and then tell me I needed to repent of my sins and turn to Jesus. I know that, I said, I do it every day. I'm not sure he was particularly listening, because he kept repeating the same injunction to penitence and conversion. 'Go on, say it, say it today'. I always tell people that conversion means you indeed have to be prepared to repent and turn to Christ at any and every time, so there was no reason I shouldn't say it. The man was very insistent, however, that I not use my own words, but repeat his, so I did. 'You've made my day, God bless you,' he said, going off beaming. That's good, it's nice to have made someone's day.


I was due to have lunch with Mad Trevor and although I didn't want much and would rather have gone to the local Wetherspoon's pub he preferred the Beefeater down the road. While we were there a young man came over and sat on the seat nearby me. 'Excuse me, are you a Catholic priest?' he asked, making clear in the process that he was also of Irish extraction, and in the course of answering I referred to the earlier conversation. 'Well, you do have to repent and turn to Jesus', he replied, and we proceeded to have substantially the same exchange, in outline, as I'd had with the first gentleman. A friend of the second man came over, took off his iPod earphones and joined in, having a go at me over women preaching and gays. They knew the fellow from earlier in the day, and apparently all go to a church called Light & Life in Ottershaw, which I think from subsequent investigation is a Gypsy-community church. They asked Trevor what church he went to and were completely silenced by the response that he worshipped with the Mormons, who I suspected he was about vigorously to defend until I curtailed the discussion. 'It's obviously not a coincidence that we all came here today', said the young Irishman, Gilbert, and I didn't think it was. What conclusion God wanted me to draw from the encounters was another matter.

Reflecting back, I was struck by the fact that the earlier gentleman told me several times that I should 'stop praying in other people's words', and yet when I tried to make my own prayer of confession and turning to Jesus he shut me up and insisted I repeat his words. Gilbert, on the other hand, was absolutely definite that Pope Francis 'hasn't given his heart to Jesus', and when I asked him how he knew merely said 'I've read a lot about him, I know all about him'. I suspect what he meant was that he's a Roman Catholic and so can't have given his heart to Jesus in any way he'd recognise. I don't think God actually wants me to go along the same road as my interlocutors.

I'm still not completely sure what I'm supposed to take from my strange meetings, but the thought came to me that it might be something to do with the connection between our relationship with God and our speaking about it. Liturgically sacraments of commitment - marriage, baptism, ordination - include speaking and promising. I tell people, as I say, that we all ought to be prepared at any moment to say, 'I repent and turn to Jesus'. Separate this from the issue of whether people are going to Hell or not, that saying a certain set of words is what rescues you from damnation, and you can see how, because we are physical beings, speaking your faith is an absolutely crucial element of the process (for people who can speak). It's not perhaps what rescues you from Hell, but it does release the power of the Spirit in your life - in the same way that lovers do actually need to say 'I love you' from time to time, that saying it makes it easier to feel. I'll carry on thinking about this.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Reviewed

On Monday I went to the Diocesan Education Centre next to the Cathedral for my Ministerial Review. This is only the second one I've been through (as an incumbent), and the kindly Canon who carried it out made sure it was a fairly painless experience: it was a bit like filling in an aunt you've not seen for a few years on what you've been doing. It's even more painless for me, unlike most clergy, as I have the freehold of my parish rather than exist on Bishop's Licence, which means that, for the most part, the instructions I get from the powers-that-be are more like suggestions.

Although I was deeply sceptical of the business the last time I did it, it did come up with one very practical idea: that I should organise a 'staff meeting' to share the business of leadership a bit more. I was resistant, partly due to distrusting the concept of leadership, partly to not being able to decide who not to include, but having done it I now find it a hugely helpful structure.

Carrying on with broadening collaborative leadership is one of the conclusions of the process this time, too, along with regularly praying for encounters which will enable me to talk about faith with people (that happens far less than you might imagine), and making contact with some ecclesiastical network beyond the parish - perhaps the Society of Catholic Priests - and seeing what arises out of that.

I know this isn't exciting, but it's worth people knowing about. Just think how boring it would have been if I hadn't had the freehold and would have had to draw up a Role Description as well.

The Temple I

This may not look very much, but it's the first step (I almost said 'hesitant step', but it's actually rather a permanent and insistent one) in the construction of my next garden ornament, the Temple of Reason. It is, however, literally a step, as it's the base for everything else to rest on. I have never laid concrete before, although I vaguely recall my dad doing so when I was young, and as a four-foot square bottom layer of a silly garden feature this is fine; were it a driveway or the footings for a shed it would be horrendous and better instantly smashed up and forgotten about. It's just as well it's going to be covered up with another bit, whenever the weather is dry enough for me actually to get on with it. It contains about eight 20-kilo bags of concrete mix, and it astonishes me how much you get through. I'm still not completely sure how I'll make the pillars.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Goth Walk XXXIII: A Very Victorian Scandal

On a moderately sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-October, a crowd of people on the steps beneath a railway arch not far from Embankment station listen in (fairly) rapt attention to a man recounting the legal battle between Lady Colin Campbell and her husband a century and a quarter ago which rocked polite society at the time. That man wasn't me, but the Young Lord Declan who I know when he began the Goth Walks tradition in 2007 had no inkling that we would get as far as this. I marvelled at his ability to keep track of all the characters involved in this particular convoluted tale - I certainly got confused at a couple of points.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Tales from the Autumn House

Another post from long, long ago while I catch up. My LGMG friend Ms Valery recently collaborated with an artist friend of hers, Mr (or Monsieur, technically) Renaud Haslan, on an art installation exploring the theme of Autumn. Tales from the Autumn House occupied the Belfry gallery at St John's Church, Bethnal Green, a very striking little venue created from a narrow space beneath the bell tower of the church, only accessible up a winding and slightly vertiginous staircase: it strangely feels considerably older than its actual early 19th-century date, being entirely undecorated and rough-walled. I went along one evening to help read poetry.








A combination of words and images delicately evoked melancholic and valedictory reflections, helped by the occasional sound of wind, chiming bells, or strangely non-committal and ambiguous music. St John's itself was worth a visit, too. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Norfolk Museums

Given that it's a month since I was in Norfolk, this really ought to be my last post about my holiday, but I did want to share some snaps of the museums I visited. Looking back I realise there were only three, as Norwich City Museum is closed on Mondays when I was in the town, and the Bishop's House at Dereham was, in early October, already closed for the winter - like a great deal of Norfolk, as I discovered; trying to buy a cup of tea anywhere near the seafront in either Cromer or Great Yarmouth was quite a challenging exercise. In fact, the three museums I visited were all pretty good, whereas normally I come across at least one that's a bit below par.

Sheringham Museum is an oddity: it's based in a very new building (though not a purpose-built museum one) and the ground floor is dominated by three lifeboats; more general local history is upstairs. Upstairs even further you find a viewing platform enabling you to look out to the windfarm far away in the North Sea, and a display by the company that operates it telling you how it works and why windfarms are jolly good things. Personally I am quite well-disposed towards them but not everyone would feel like that, I suspect.

Apart from the lifeboats the most striking element of the ground-floor displays, which concentrate on the fishing industry, is this presentation of fishermen's jerseys (ganseys, they are called locally), apparently the leftovers from a bigger exhibition exhaustively examining the art and technology of the jersey. In fact none of these dates back earlier than the 1970s but I gather they age rather quickly.





Sheringham is not just about fish, however, having been discovered as a holiday destination from the 1800s, and upstairs visitors are presented with this rather fun illustration of the Victorian hotel and guest-house world. The dress is gorgeous.

Round the coast, Great Yarmouth has a large, well-organised 'heritage sector' and the main local history museum, Time & Tide, is big and impressive (and also a bit on the pricey side, but then there's a lot of it). There are a great many Victorian paintings of ships and fishing life generally, a dark, grimmish reconstruction of a 'Lane' which somewhat frustratingly you can only glimpse from an upper gallery, and some very amusing material relating to the holiday industry. I liked this poster, especially the fact that the young lady is impeccably made-up for a dip in the sea.






One of the more disconcerting aspects of museum-visiting is starting to see your own life appearing in the displays. I recognise far, far too much from this case: one of my aunties had pots with faces just like that in about 1975.




Lastly we find ourselves at The Ancient House, Thetford, a delightfully creaky building heady with the odour of old wood. Here too the displays were interesting and well-put-together, including the incongruous presence of Frederick Duleep Singh, the son of a deposed Maharajah who bought a Norfolk estate and rather exotically settled there - Frederick bought the Ancient House and presented it to the town as a museum. The display text is interesting in itself: I remember a school of thought when I was doing my museum training twenty years ago which held that text should be written with an almost haiku-like simplicity and that sentences should always begin on a new line, a bit like this:

Bingley Brumpton is a very old town.
Near the church archaeologists have discovered
remains of a Roman house,
and there have been people living in the area ever since.
Now the population is about 25,000.

... and so on. I haven't seen museum text written like this in simply ages, and assumed it had completely gone out of fashion. I did try to adopt the same technique for some years, but it's actually very hard to do it and still convey the information you need to get across.

My favourite objects at Thetford are two colossal busts of the emperors Tiberius and Otho, apparently brought back by some aristocratic idiot from the Grand Tour and popped on top of Thetford's theatre where they remained for many years before being transferred to the Ancient House. They have a wonderfully Mannerist grotesqueness. I was particularly taken by Otho who looks like he's not only eaten all the pies but possibly the baker as well.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

That Time Again, Again

A couple of years ago I mentioned signs of shifting attitudes to the festivities of Halloween apparent in a variety of Christian contexts. That seems to have carried on this year. Our curate sent me a link to a statement by the Scripture Union which takes the same very sensible line that Halloween is a safe way for children to deal with scary and frightening aspects of existence, and reassuring (presumably Christian) parents that 'dressing as a witch doesn't mean that your child is going to enter the world of the occult'. For this November's Family Service last Sunday (strangely well-attended) we took the decision to tackle mortality, and as part of explaining the differing aspects of the season - Halloween, All Saints and All Souls - curate Mary brought in a truly monumental carved pumpkin which she and her family had acquired from a florist's in Devizes where they happened to be on holiday last week. 'I've been making pumpkin soup. And more pumpkin soup, and more pumpkin soup', she explained.

We had one bold group of trick-or-treaters call at the Rectory, three diminutive witches met at the door by Ms Formerly Aldgate and appropriately rewarded for their courage in coming up the scary dark drive to the big shadowy house.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Derailments

On Tuesday, a bright, sunny morning here in Swanvale Halt, I set off to go down to the church for Morning Prayer as usual. In the driveway of one of the houses on the flat part of the hill I saw a cat. Now I do not have a cat, although there are a number of felines who prowl around the Rectory as it is a substantial island of No-Cat's-Land surrounded by lots of catted households; I don't even like cats, as I don't especially warm to any animals (though I have a soft spot for snails). I certainly don't know much about their normal behaviour.

However this cat, which at first appeared to be sunning itself on the driveway, was clearly not being normal. Firstly cats don't tend to lie around in the early morning; secondly its eyes were half-open yet it showed no sign of interest as I passed. Closer examination revealed it to be shaking and trembling. Having got down to church and rattled through the Office I then consulted the vet along the road and came to retrieve the cat. It had a microchip and turned out to be owned by a family I know who live just round the corner from where I found it; it had been knocked down and was too badly injured to survive, unfortunately, though no damage was evident externally. I still remain surprised that with all the people who must have passed by the spot over the hour or more the cat (Basil, apparently) must have been there, nobody did anything about it. Are people simply very unobservant, or observe but without any curiosity about what they see?

There was due to be a funeral on Wednesday and a guest organist, a local music teacher, was playing for the service. She'd never played our organ before and wanted a practice, so she came to the church as I arrived for Evening Prayer. There are two keys that open up the organ case and the door into it. Somehow while removing one I hooked the smaller one which fell off and promptly vanished. We both agreed that the plonk it made didn't sound as though it had made contact with the floor, and speculated that it might have fallen into the choir robes and got caught up in a hem or pocket. We spent twenty-five minutes checking every robe, scouring the floor, moving everything on it,. and emptying bags and boxes. Twenty-five minutes. Eventually we found the key, not on the floor, not in someone's robe, but lying on the beam above the hook. Somehow it had been flicked by the bigger key in such a way that it had fallen upwards. You couldn't replicate that if you tried a hundred times. Demons are probably the answer.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Superstitious Reverence

It was the small midweek Mass yesterday, just the eight of us to mark the feast of SS Simon & Jude. Discarding the planned theme for my two-minute homily I spoke instead about the idea of Simon and Jude as companions, about the importance of discovering God via our friendships and relationships, and how I increasingly thought less during the Eucharist about the great theological truths of the Christian faith and more about the actual community of people around me. Ironically, after that, as I was giving the Host to Ray - 'the Body of Christ preserve your body and soul to everlasting life' - a tiny flake, a miniscule fragment, of wafer flew up and adhered to the flesh of his palm above the fingers held out actually to receive the Host.

In that infinitesimal object is contained the whole of creation: the novas and nebulae, the tempests and seas, the teeming galaxies. Sufficient to cover every sin from Adam to the Last Day, it sits on the hand of a man in an obscure church at this one moment nobody knows or will remember, ready, probably, simply to dissolve in a tiny tear of sweat, or disappear into the air. The Cross crosses at that point, that second, the eternal mark and method of the divine will opening out through time. Ah, grace. Grace is everywhere.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Salle

'There's this gigantic church in the middle of nowhere, I vaguely remember visiting it', said Alec from the LGMG once. I was fairly sure this was Salle - eccentrically pronounced 'Saul' - which coincidentally enough is one of the handful of churches now looked after by a former curate from Swanvale Halt, translated to darkest Norfolk a few years ago. So while I was on holiday I went looking for it. You glimpse the place as you approach along the lanes, but then with the gently undulating landscape and the intervention of trees it disappears until you turn the corner and are right on top of it.

The little guide leaflet (an earlier full-scale booklet is no longer available) very accurately predicts the visitor's first reaction by asking with its initial words 'Why so big?' This church is colossal. It may not be quite as huge as some of the Norfolk buildings I mentioned in previous posts, but the contrast with the empty space around it, shared merely with an old Victorian schoolhouse and a cottage or two, and the vacancy of the space within, make it seem even bigger. The answer to the leaflet's question is either the long one provided by Simon Knott in a wonderful introduction or the short one, that it was built by a consortium of medieval aristocrats who wanted a bigger church than Cawston, the next door parish. The regular congregation nowadays is about seven, but the truth is that this building wasn't constructed with the needs of a congregation in mind: it was a space for guilds and chantries, and a demonstration of the wealth and power of its founders.

The church was in a state of thorough disrepair by the end of the 19th century but benefited from a very restrained and antiquarian-minded restoration thereafter which left the building with the minimum of addition and amendment, mainly the windows (including St Catherine with her fancy hat) in the north transept and a couple of bells. Nothing has been repainted, recarved, replaced, or otherwise tarted up, and the woodwork and stonework have a strangely bleached quality which only increases the sense of age and space. October has been mild this year, but with no heating of any kind I imagine the church gets challengingly cold as winter draws in.

The Norfolk churches site has far more comprehensive photographs of Salle than I could take, and mine here do no more than give a flavour of this awesomely grand, spare building.




There is even a copy of a map of the church glebe which shows a field immediately west of the church by the name of Well Pightle - so there may have been a holy well here once.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Norfolk Wells

Now, Norfolk is not a county known for its holy wells and apart from a small, hard-to-come-by monograph written in 1978 by a Mr M Burgess for a long-defunct local history journal that covered Suffolk as well, there's nothing written about them. But, fewer and perhaps less-regarded than those in other parts of the country though they may be, they are there, and I saw some of them when I was away.




This is the Round Well, on the boundary between Costessey and Teverham on the outskirts of Norwich, photographed on a wet afternoon as the light was going. It's marked on the OS map although I know nothing of its history; however that's a splendid obelisk and urn on the top.  I wonder whether in origin it may have had a connection with St Walstan (see below)?






Not strictly a holy well but clearly originating in the same sort of milieu is this wonderful and very grand 'reservoir' next to All Saints Church in Upper Sheringham, constructed by the lord of the manor to celebrate victory over Napoleon in 1814 (a bit prematurely, as it turned out). Apparently the spring water comes from just above the church.



The Calves Well lies along a track along the hill south of Sheringham. At least I think this is it: there was nothing else remotely watery along the whole length of the lane that bears its name.



Continuing the theme of weed-filled pools, this is the Pettywell not far from Reepham. It sits in front of an old farmhouse which bears the name.




St Withburga's Well at Dereham finds a place in every list of holy wells, and is an absolutely classic example, rising just west of the church. It has an association with the legend of the Anglo-Saxon princess whose name it bears, though there are suggestions that in origin the well was a fourteenth-century grotto which has been turned into something else. It's railed off, understandably, as there's a steep drop down to the water and no obvious way of getting to it safely.

St Walstan's Well at Bawburgh is another long-famed holy spring which is associated with the legend of St Walstan, supposedly having risen where his body rested on the final stop along its journey to be buried. The well stands in a little glade just north of the church, private but with public access. Nothing about it looks very old: I wonder when it was restored and changed from the open round well you can see in old photographs.

And finally: I'd seen the Mermaid's Head Spring on the OS map in the woods south of Aylsham and went to look for it. I know that very often I find nothing more than a muddy hole in the ground, but always nurse a fantasy as I stump across fields or wade through mud in a wood that the well I'm looking for will have been noticed by some mad 18th-century aristocrat who will have built a folly round it, or will at least have some brickwork or something. As far as the Mermaid's Head was concerned, the fantasy remained just that. If this is indeed it!

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Extraordinary Extraordinary Synod

A return to something more-or-less topical.

The conservative Roman Catholic bloggers hate Pope Francis. They hate the fact that people like him, they particularly hate the fact that non-Roman Catholics like him, because that isn't the business of a Pope. A Pope is supposed to be a mixture between a tribal war-leader and a tribal battle-totem, who encapsulates the sense they want to have of being in a war against a Satanic world. This is why they've been rejoicing over what looks like Francis's humiliation at the weekend when the special Extraordinary Synod on the Family refused to endorse the draft document the Vatican had prepared stating that the Church 'respects and welcomes' homosexual people. You can go to Rorate Caeli if you want this kind of thing, although be warned, it's horrible and depressing.

Of course in fact the Synod didn't actually vote down the draft document, it merely declined to endorse it by a sufficient majority for it to pass, although you could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion from Rorate Caeli that something entirely different had happened. There is every likelihood that when Francis has another go next year he will get his way.

You will recognise a certain pattern here which mirrors the Anglican Church's anguished attempts to sort out how to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate; the pattern of it being very clear indeed which way things are going to go, but there being not quite enough enthusiasm for it to happen in one go, instead inaugurating a lengthy process of to-ing and fro-ing until the vote manages to get over the Church's traditional two-thirds-majority hurdle. Anglican Archbishops are used to sitting in Synods watching their opinions being thrown back at them and votes mounting up to achieve a lack of decision yet again. Anglican Archbishops are used to it; Popes aren't. The Roman Catholic Church isn't. The Roman Catholic Church is far more used to telling itself a completely fantasised story about magisterial consensus and Spirit-guided authority which completely ignores the way structures composed of human beings actually work.

The abiding significance of these gatherings, and of Francis's pontificate as a whole, is the destruction of this fantasy. Francis has gathered a group of people who haven't taken the decision that he very clearly wanted, although diplomatically he refrained from stating too openly that that was what he wanted. Familiar though this way of working may be to the likes of Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, for a Pope, in the context of Roman Catholicism, this is an act of almost incredible boldness and hope. This is the end of the dream world trad Roman Catholics live in, and the irruption of reality, not in terms of gays, not in terms of admitting divorced people to communion, but simply in terms of the way things really are, and always have been. It's the end of fear, the end of control, the end of power, of a certain conception of auctoritas. It's a revolution that potentially puts Vatican II in the shade.

No wonder the conservative bloggers hate Francis: it's a bit like the disorientation that must have befallen Japanese nationalists at the end of World War Two when the Emperor renounced his own divinity. What do you do when the centre of absolute authority refuses to play that role any more? When they get down off the pedestal? Do you try to find someone else? But it's too late. The spell is broken. The old world ain't coming back.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

St Catherine in Norfolk

As usual I look out for representations of St Catherine when I'm out and about and found several in Norfolk. This one is on the 15th-century rood screen in St Nicholas, North Walsham. I only just about spotted it, as holy Catherine is now rather ignominiously covered up by the pulpit erected almost against the screen, which wouldn't have been there when she was originally painted.


Then this one is in the south aisle of Norwich Cathedral. The saint looks about to nod off here, though she has enough presence of mind to wrap her hand in her cloak so she doesn't prick a finger on the spokes of her wheel. Actually the cloak looks strangely like a chasuble, but we'll ignore that. The window was given by five sisters 'in thankfulness to God for a lifetime of happy worship in this Cathedral Church', and I wonder whether the ladies chose Catherine as she is the patron saint of unmarried women.


The last two images here come from the gigantic church of SS Peter & Paul, Salle, of which more on another occasion. This early 20th-century window (one of a set Pevsner gaily describes as 'hideous') seems to show Catherine wearing an Edwardian lady's driving hat, tied under the chin so it doesn't blow off. But it's in ermine and so a bit medieval.


The final image is also from Salle, a bit more of a conventional 15th-century depiction: a tiny window right up at the top of one of the walls. Very sweet.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Old Chapel, Banningham

I thoroughly enjoyed my week at The Old Chapel. Banningham proper, such as it is, is about a mile away from this bit, Mill Road, a dead-straight line of mixed old and new buildings which peters out in the fields and turns into a footpath after about a quarter of a mile. Its straightness gives it a strange end-of-the-world feel, although I can confirm there is indeed something beyond the end of the footpath as I went walking out that way. The Chapel has TARDIS-like qualities, appearing a very compact building outside and managing to fit within its modest space a lofty lounge, double bedroom, kitchen and two bathrooms. In the pattern of Landmark's Abbey Gatehouse and Ty Capel, the bedroom has been put on a mezzanine and the Necessary Facilities beneath it, a neat way of making use of the space. I'm not sure about the history of the building - it's too humble for the Buildings of England to have noticed, apparently - but looks early Victorian or before, the kind of humble structure that even the Primitive Methodists would have scorned after about the 1860s. When the current owners, the Greens, bought it in the early 1990s it was fairly much derelict after being used for various utilitarian purposes, but some of the chapel's former congregation were still living nearby, and behind glass in the bookcase there are some items relating to its time as a working building - including a small penny loaf, which must be pretty stale by now. My stay in the Chapel gave me great respect for anyone who must have played the harmonium for these small congregations: my attempts to keep the thing going while trying to produce anything resembling a tune were not especially edifying.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

"We are a welcoming church"

I spent last week in Norfolk and will be talking a bit about that in the coming days. To get me in the frame of mind (perhaps), here's a grouse! I had no idea that the Norfolk town churches are sometimes so huge, arising from the considerable wealth of the region towards the end of the Middle Ages. They vary in 'churchmanship', as you can sometimes pick out from the fantastic Norfolk Churches website maintained by Simon Knott; St Nicholas, North Walsham, is moderately Anglo-Catholic, with its statue of its patron saint surrounded by candles, as is St Michael's Aylsham, the only church where I've ever seen the traditional Epiphany cypher (20+C+M+B+14, this year) chalked on the wall; St Peter Mancroft in Norwich is the grandest of civic churches; SS Peter & Paul, Cromer, is evangelical, with a fabric 'flame' rippling away in a side chapel to encourage visitors to reflect on the action of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

I'm less sure about the stance of the two biggest churches of all, as St Nicholas Dereham and St Nicholas Great Yarmouth (popular dedication in Norfolk, it seems) were both resolutely shut. I went to Dereham mainly to see the holy well of St Withburga which rises just west of the church, and was frankly shocked to find the colossal building closed. It's rather ironic in view of the edition of the Ecclesiastical Insurance newsletter I found waiting for me when I got home - Ecclesiastical is the not-for-profit Church of England insurance company - which contained a series of articles encouraging churches to stay open, even if it meant (as one correspondent described) 'walking away leaving the door unlocked for the first time'. I sometimes find closed churches put up a note for visitors blaming the insurers for the building being locked, which isn't true. Dereham displays its mission statement, 'to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our community' (or similar words) on its noticeboard, and I'm afraid I mentally made several uncharitable amendments to this.

Great Yarmouth church - which calls itself a 'minster', inaccurately but not unreasonably considering it's the biggest parish church in England by floor area, is even more vast, and even more closed. When I arrived in the town there was a graduation ceremony or something going on, so I thought I'd come back on my way back to the car park. I did, and found it shut. Walking around the building, and noting the positively terrifying west front two of whose three towering gables you can see in this picture, I discovered this is the only church I've ever encountered which has barbed wire around the roof. True, it's only around the flat roofs of the vestries at the east end, but even so. Are the residents of Yarmouth really that bad? To judge by the style of the little plastic signs which warn potential ne'er-do-wells about the barbed wire, it's been up there possibly since the late '70s. The wire, which is that type with razor blades rather than spikes, is now rusting nicely so trespassers run the risk of tetanus as well as lacerations.

I note that Simon Knott hasn't been able to get into Yarmouth Minster yet, either.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Messing About

I like this collage our last Messy Church gathering put together. The Last Supper might have gone so differently had there been cake, especially, if you look at the relative sizes of the food and the figures (even Jesus), cake this big.

In his book Sacramental Worship with Children Fr Simon Rundell, late of  the much-lauded St Thomas the Apostle, Gosport, says 'If our liturgies are creative, innovative, and yet still correspond to the shape of the liturgy, and are done in sincerity and authenticity, then the liturgical police should not come knocking at your door in the middle of the night'. I bore his words in mind as we broke a lot of rules the other Saturday and did communion at Messy Church. 'As we know', remarked one of my colleagues a couple of weeks beforehand, 'you can call it an agape and do whatever you like'. The trouble is that if you call it an agape nobody will know what you're talking about, so I merely said as we began whatever it was that we were going to do, that the Church was gathered, God was there, and whether it was a real communion service or whether we were just pretending was up to them to decide. However, I pointed out, 'If you ever meet a man in a pointy hat who says, "Hello, I'm the Bishop of Guildford", you are to swear blind that nothing happened.'

Everything passed off with great quietness and dignity and the simple service - following, as Fr Simon would put it, 'the shape of the liturgy', was much appreciated and worked very well. I know that many of the people I trained with, and many others besides, would probably throw up hands in horror at this debasement of the holy rite of the Eucharist (if it was a eucharist, which of course I am honour bound to dispute). To an extent I know exactly what they might mean and sympathise. As my experience of Christian life and ministry has gone on the ideal of the Eucharist as something which expresses the mind of the Church, something we all serve and in which we discover God, has grown. You don't muck about with that because it isn't your property, which is why I cavil a bit at Fr Simon's use of words such as 'creativity' - I don't necessarily regard creativity, as such, as a liturgical virtue. However, within the liturgical experiments suggested in his book, as, I hope, in our 'Messy Communion', there is a very definite determination to concentrate on what God is doing, not on what we think, feel, or are trying to do, which I would hope is the essence of a Catholic liturgical approach, no matter how wacky the form appears to be.

This will be in the forefront of my thinking as we start to consider how Swanvale Halt church responds to the social shifts which are necessarily forcing change on virtually all sorts and brands of church. The liturgy is how God speaks to us, and is not our plaything to do with as we choose. But we have to make sure, as best we can, that there are people there to listen to him.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Habemus Episcopum


Many people across the diocese had a peculiar email on Thursday from our suffragan bishop inviting what appeared to be everyone on any kind of diocesan mailing list to Evensong at the Cathedral on Friday 'to welcome a significant Visitor'. It would be very odd, we thought, to announce a new diocesan bishop this way, so who might it be? Jesus? A former parishioner from Lamford commented 'It's me, but I wanted to surprise everyone'.                                                                                                                           In fact, as it turned out, the mystery guest was indeed our new diocesan. Andrew Watson has been Bishop of Aston in Birmingham for a bit and seems to be a sort of moderate Evangelical in the way his predecessor Bishop Christopher was a moderate Catholic. He has four children as Evangelical clergymen are apparently supposed to, although his wife is also ordained which is a bit more unusual, and ran a very big church in Twickenham. He's written a book whose title The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus makes you want to run away and hide under a stone, although another one (The Way of the Desert) offers more in the way of hope. And you do find stones in the desert.
I was very fond of our former diocesan Bishop Christopher. Although I found his keynote policy, the diocese's 'Common Purpose' statement, a bit wide of the mark, he obviously cared about the local churches and knew about the clergy, and you were aware that he knew his stuff. I was once told that Christopher's predecessor Bishop John was persuaded to allow and actually take part in the technically illegal service of Benediction at the Cathedral because he didn't know what it was, but the Dean assured him that everyone would enjoy it. 
Bishops have less influence on their dioceses than they may like to think, and thanks to the wonderfully anarchic mechanisms of the Church of England that influence can more often (sadly) be felt in making life uncomfortable for people rather than anything positive. I suppose a bishop who was really committed to making a difference could embark on a process of change in the diocesan administration, or even insist that parishes produce mission plans as many already do and we are groping in the direction of doing in Swanvale Halt. But churches are so diverse, clergy are so diverse, the work of the Church is so diverse, and the work specifically of bishops is so ridiculously disparate that it makes it a very hard thing to do.
While we were in the early stages of the business of seeking a new bishop, we were all asked what we wanted. I've only really just worked it out. As far as clergy are concerned our bishop is supposed to be the diocese's Father In Christ, and what I think I would like is somebody I can love as that without feeling too clearly fraudulent. I wonder whether Bishop Andrew will fit that bill.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

More Follies


I have for some years carried the first edition of Gwyn Headley & Wim Meulenkamp's Follies on holiday to help me locate worthwhile structures in whichever area I may be visiting. The other day I found a new edition (well, new-er - the very end of the 1990s) in a local charity shop, right beside Edward Gorey's The Gashleycrumb Tinies as it happened. It's entirely different, written as a gazzetteer rather than a narrative, and whereas the original was characterised by a fine style of writing which in some cases, I've found, is almost more fun than visiting the buildings themselves, this new version perhaps reflects another couple of decades of its authors hunting out mentally-unsound architecture, and has an edge of hysteria running through some of the entries. There are places where G & M admit this themselves, and it's very pleasing to observe. It's also pleasing to find a couple of follies I have noted before, such as Chapel House at Blackfen, making their first appearance in the pages of the definitive handbook of Britain's nutty structures. Queen Adelaide's Grotto at Rame still eludes their attention, however.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making of Nations


What’s a nation? A group of people share a set of images and references, habits of mind to which they continually return, things which may or may not have happened to them, memories true and memories false; the only stable element in that nexus is the geology and weather of the place where they live, interacting with memory and experience. Such a group of people become a nation when they share a territory large enough to be a polity, and then the shared images and references become the means by which they debate and contest over what to do with their shared resources. That’s all a nation is. It has no stability, no coherent identity. The memories may not be true, the nexus of references has nothing that connects it except continuity. Just co-incidence.


Which is why I have an attachment to the idea of the Union and great scepticism about nationalism – quite apart from the clear havoc the idea of national identity wreaks around the world. I have Scottish friends who have been shocked and disgusted by their country’s failure to tear itself away from the Union, and sympathise with their usually left-wing aspirations which they dreamt of being fulfilled once Scotland was free of the Westminster settlement. But I do have an itch towards the truth, and if the referendum result revealed anything it was that the idea of a Scotland united in purpose and thinking, a Scotland whose population all wanted the same kind of things in the same kind of way, is a fantasy. That’s presumably why coming down from the mountain heights of the dream is so very hard. Nationalism is all about creating fantasies, about forgetting actual history and differences between people in favour of dreams and illusions. The Scots and the English, like everyone else, have essentially the same sorts of interests and needs which are pretty basic and easy to understand. The fact that the social and economic system they both belong to doesn’t really provide for those needs, or what they perceive to be their needs, is something obscured by blaming it either on the English (if you’re a Scot), or immigrants (if you’re English). Just to bring things tenuously back to religion, we once felt we were a Protestant nation, and in fact a Union of Protestant nations, something which now makes sense only vaguely in Ulster and in bits of Glasgow.

The nature of this was brought home to me years ago by a visit to the National Museum of Scotland when I was simultaneously impressed by the wonderful sandstone building and what was in it and perturbed by the tone of the captions. ‘We did this’, ‘we are such and such a people’, they told me – a race having a conversation with itself about itself, a conversation in which I was very definitely an outsider. Who are the ‘we’? Does it include Scottish people who can’t imagine an ancestry stretching back to the Picts? To synthesise the identity of a nation requires ignoring some questions.

This is the same with the English nation as with any other. I have been wondering since the referendum what Englishness may mean, and what sense it makes to be English. Our lay reader at Swanvale Halt, who has had an international career and regularly visits Spain where she has friends, said, ‘I’ve given up trying to answer that question. I think I’m a European.’ But I do feel English, and wonder what that is about.

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton wrote England: an Elegy back in 2001. Is that helpful? The cover with its cricketer and teacup is almost a satire, and well it may be because there is much in this book to mock. At best it’s an attempt to try and identify what it is Roger Scruton values, rather than what England values: villages, hunting, aristocracy, Common Law. ‘This is not the work of an historian’, he admits, and you may think, well, fair enough, as dreams and illusions may have their own power when enough people believe them; but there’s a limit to the extent to which the trick can work when the illusion fails to match reality.

Roger Scruton’s father was Jack Scruton, the firmly Labour-supporting community activist who fought to defend High Wycombe’s green spaces against the encroaching developments of the 1960s, a fact which I think itself tells you a great deal. I used to work in the museum service in High Wycombe, and researching the history of the town remember being struck by the incredible sense of conflict and disturbance that characterised the time immediately before World War One, a period we often imagine as a sort of permanent Edwardian summer afternoon hung with bees and redolent with the scent of roses. That decade began with riots over the Education Act in 1904 which forced Nonconformists to contribute by their taxes to Church of England schools, and proceeded through footpath and land-access disturbances, attacks on an itinerant preacher which it seemed thousands of people turned up to watch, the Suffragette march through the town which resulted in violence, the 1910 Election Riot in which ten thousand people mobbed the Mayor and the crowds were charged by mounted police with about forty injured, and finally a long, violent strike in 1913 which paralysed the furniture industry. This was one modestly-sized town in a southern county across a mere ten years. This was England, the same England as Roger Scruton’s visionary land of lanes and cricket grounds.

What can it be, then, that my country is? I can’t help turning to Kate Bush:

Oh! England, my Lionheart,
I'm in your garden, fading fast in your arms.
The soldiers soften, the war is over.
The air raid shelters are blooming clover.
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes--
My London Bridge in rain again.

Oh! England, my Lionheart!
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park.
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames--
That old river poet that never, ever ends.
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in,
And keep the tower from tumbling.

Oh! England, my Lionheart!
Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge.
Give me one kiss in apple-blossom.
Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing
In the orchard, my English rose,
Or with my shepherd, who'll bring me home.

Oh! England, my Lionheart,
Oh! England, my Lionheart,
Oh! England, my Lionheart,
I don't want to go.

‘An insane madrigal’, I remember one writer calling this. Imagining a country as a lover, and a male lover who is the object of female romantic desire, is remarkable enough; then you have the cascade of colliding images, Peter Pan, Shakespeare, rain and orchards, Spitfires and funeral barges (from World War Two to Sutton Hoo). There’s nothing coherent here except, perhaps, a sort of lyric melancholia, a vision of something which is caught just on the brink of vanishing, like a dream as you begin to wake up: a sense of squinting back into a past you can only just glimpse, and might vanish completely without the ravens to stop the Tower falling.

And then, inevitably, there is Polly Harvey:

Goddamn Europeans!
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages,
And battered books and
Fog rolling down behind the mountains,
On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.

Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings,
Past the Thames River, glistening like gold
Hastily sold for nothing.

Let me watch night fall on the river,
The moon rise up and turn to silver,
The sky move,
The ocean shimmer,
The hedge shake,
The last living rose, quiver.


Imagined through the eyes of (perhaps, given the context of the album Let England Shake) a soldier thinking of home, this is a far darker and more ambiguous vision, something bitter and satiric – which acknowledges that a nation can incorporate violence, filth and loss, and yet can still be the object of love, as much love as Kate Bush’s phantasmagoria of wassailing and clover. But Harvey’s version of England still finishes with that image of the Rosa Conclusa, the Last Living Rose, the end of an experience, the sense of something passing and disappearing. Is that what Englishness is? A glimpse of ruins through the rain, an everlasting grasping at something eternally being lost? Is that all?