Wednesday, 26 November 2014

St Catherine's Day 2014

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


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


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.