Saturday, 31 December 2016

Swanvale Halt Ecouerée

There was once a Lebanese rapper who went by the name of Clotaire K: I am no fan generally of that genre but liked a couple of his tracks I heard John Peel playing in the early 2000s. French is an ideal language for rap, lending the fundamental daftness of the form a profundity by its unfamiliar distance: it may sound less impressive if you actually are French, of course. Clotaire K combined rap and the French tongue with a variety of (literally) Arabesque touches which added up to something quite beguiling. ‘Beyrouth Ecouerée’, one of the tracks was called, ‘Beirut made sick’, but literally ‘de-hearted’: a reminder of the days when that once-grand city and its long, gradual disintegration was at the centre of the world’s concerns, a time which seems a long way away now. It was a startling image.

As buses trundled out of East Aleppo evacuating those who wanted to leave I thought of ‘Beyrouth Ecouerée’ on my way down the hill to church, just before Christmas. The buildings of this parish are so familiar to me. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to imagine mortar shells and bombs falling here, blowing them to bits, eviscerating a community and the familiar signs and marks by which it understands itself: there goes the butcher’s, the old cottage opposite the cul-de-sac, the railway station, the church. Or the children at the centre of it, not just general, abstract children but real ones, the ones I know from the Infants School and elsewhere, maimed and damaged by mines and bullets and rushed to the Royal Surrey Hospital, a hospital made chaotic and dangerous as bombs fall around it, too. The children here are not that much different from the ones there. Swanvale Halt with its heart cut out. Or anywhere, it could be.

Of course Beirut, once as much a byword for horror and destruction as Aleppo is now, is doing OK these days, a place where people flee to rather than away from. A heart refound. Happy New Year. 

Friday, 30 December 2016

Holding On To Both Ends

Partway through the morning’s printing and copying, I discovered that we had no white copier paper in the church office. For heaven’s sake, it shouldn’t be hard to keep stocked up with such basics, I chuntered to myself, and headed out to the Post Office to buy a ream of 80gsm white. In the church I met Karly, who I’ve seen in and out over the last seven years. ‘I’ve got terminal cancer, I’m so frightened’, she blurted out. We sat for a bit while she unloaded some of the hurt. ‘I’m only 32 and I’ve got nothing to show for my life … I came out of prison and was really going to turn things around. I hadn’t had a drink for 14 months and now I’m drinking again. I don’t even like it. This is my punishment for everything I’ve done.’ Karly had to see the doctor that afternoon and then tell her family. ‘My mum knows there’s something wrong. How does that happen? I’ve got to try and do something good so people remember me well’.

I feel no more confident at dealing with these emotions than anyone else would, apart from making it clear to Karly that what she’s undergoing isn’t a punishment. I’ve told her to come back again and we’ll speak to try and work out what she might do with the time she has left, but I don’t know whether she will. For some reason this strikes me very hard, harder than when my lovely college friend Sean had the diagnosis which led to his death at 38. How do you even begin to assimilate news like this? How would I?

In the evening it was the annual Christmas service at Smallham Chapel (as in the photo), part of my routine even though it’s outside my parish, having taken the service, shockingly, for six years now. For some reason there were more people there than ever, and about 8 souls had to stand at the back. Lots of people told me it was their first visit, including a family who’d just moved into one of the farmhouses on the estate who all solemnly crossed themselves at the blessing, always a good sign. Two small girls played clarinet and flute for the quiet carols. ‘As a lapsed Catholic with a lapsed vocation,’ one man said to me, ‘that service and what you said had more real religion to it than many a cathedral’. And I hadn’t said anything earth-shattering, just the usual kind of thing about God coming to take part in all the mess of human life, born in the less-than-propitious (or sanitary) surroundings of an animal stall. But you somehow have to hold together children petting a sheep to the sound of a clarinet on the one hand, and on the other a young woman being told she’s going to die: otherwise religion ends up far from real, far from true.  

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Knowlton Rings

As the light failed towards the end of a bright Boxing Day afternoon we managed to get to Knowlton Rings, another of my favourite Dorset places, on the way back home from my mum's birthday. It's a site that invariably appears in any book or account of numinous ancient places in Britain, a Norman church strangely set in a henge monument many centuries older, the pared landscape of Cranborne Chase around it scattered with bowl barrows. Some will talk rashly of ley lines and earth energies, but what the thinking of the builders of St Michael's Knowlton truly was is anyone's guess. 

These places seem timeless, and across the years my photographs of them barely differ apart from the varying moods of weather and light: I have one from 2010 taken from almost the same angle as the above shot, with my dad just leaving the ruin. I was looking after him for a few days when my mum was in hospital, trying to find things to do that would distract and not distress his fragmenting, dementia-disfigured mind. Time does, nevertheless, affect these ancient sites, biting the walls and sprouting encroaching plants, but much more slowly than it does us, so we can imagine that they stand changeless, compass points of who we really are.

'I hope you don't mind me bringing you here', I said to Ms Formerly Aldgate. 'It's peaceful', she said, which of course it is. 

Sunday, 25 December 2016

All Over Again

Attendance at the indefatigable Crib Service was down a bit this year, although part of that fall may have been due to ‘accounting error’ – two different people doing the counting, one of whom tends to err on the side of generosity, and the other regularly underestimating. The other services were all up a bit, enough for them all to feel upbeat and encouraging rather than threadbare, even the 1662 Prayer Book service this morning at 8am, and a high proportion of the congregations weren't regular members of the church.

Every year I tell myself I need to revise the order for the Midnight Mass, and every year I forget as soon as it’s over: I must do it this year. The benefit of celebrating the mass facing east was revealed at the Midnight as the thurible came open while I was censing the gifts and sprayed ash over everything. The choice was whether to empty everything out and start again, or soldier on and cope – given that time was ticking I picked the latter, and scooped the ash out of the chalice with an extra host. Clearing up, I got to the bottom of the hosts in the ciborium and found a little pile of ash, which having again screwed up my fortitude I ate in case there were fragments of bread in it (rather than go to the palaver of burying it). I’m still here so presumably no harm done. Of course all this was entirely hidden from the congregation and you are not to tell anyone, especially not if they are wearing a pointy hat or a purple shirt.I am filled with gratitude for all the lovely people I am privileged enough to have around, the players who act out the Nativity at the Cribbage with such gentleness and sensitivity (especially when this year a collection of small girls came up impromptu to inspect the baby), and the servers and helpers who make everything work so smoothly despite me mucking it up now and again.

At four-ish, having been to the local lunch for those who would otherwise be alone (I escaped before Citizen Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor's speech), I got down to the church to say Evensong. I sat and prayed through the prayer slips left at the candle stand and the stars written out at the NCT nativity service and the Blue Christmas extravaganza a few days ago. A strangely child-like hand relates a prayer ‘to help me get rid of my fear of death’. Someone else prays for their father with dementia and their mother who cares for him. There are a scattering of memorial prayers for lost loved ones: one says ‘blessed are the broken-hearted, for they will be reunited’. A child I know thanks Mary for having Jesus. And so they go on, all the way through the pile. A few I can’t read at all and just commend them to God. For being able to take part in these prayers, ‘privilege’ is hardly the word. Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Blue Christmas

It seems to have developed in the USA, the Blue Christmas idea: a church service that acknowledges that Christmas isn't all children singing and general loveliness, but is bloody hard for a surprising number of people, because of bereavement, bad circumstances, or many other reasons, all of which seem to be thrown into pitilessly sharp relief by the surrounding standardised mirth. These people still quite want to mark the season, but don't necessarily feel able to buy into the whole package (and 'buy' is an apposite metaphor). So many conversations I have with people around this time of year revolve around similar feelings, feelings which go unrecognised by what happens in church. 

I thought doing Blue Christmas might be helpful. I considered it last year but ran out of time, and this year spent a while planning how it might work. Using material drawn from elsewhere, including from an Anglican church in Teddington which seems to be the closest to us trying something similar, I put together an order of service, consisting of prayers, a couple of readings and quiet hymns, and made up a plainchant office hymn which nobody spotted was a made-up plainchant office hymn. I sang this with Marion our curate's son and despite my incipient cold and his lately broken voice which at the moment wobbles around tenor we managed to get through it, and the Nunc Dimittis. Another congregation member who is a very accomplished musician played the violin. I arranged the church as in the photo, the icon of the Nativity I mentioned a few days ago surrounded by candles and the benches arranged in a semicircle around. Everyone was issued with a paper star to write a prayer on, if desired, and these were left in front of the icon during the quiet bits. 

Marion thought it was 'the best Christmas service this year', which was gratifying, but it only attracted one person who wasn't a regular member of the congregation (who came 'because I heard you were doing it and wanted to see what happens'). It's a far cry from what the Teddington folk said happened there, where lots of people turned up merely from a few flyers left in the pews. It wasn't really intended for those who'd be in church over Christmas anyway. It may be one of those things that everyone says is a good idea but turns out not to work here even if it does elsewhere. We'll see what happens next year. 

PS. Marion took the order of service to someone whose husband's funeral she'd taken and she prayed through it on her own.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

No Blinding Light to be Had Anywhere

This is a very lazy post indeed as it mostly consists of someone else's words, but it's too good to let go by. Dr Abacus points me towards the recently-late AA Gill's account of his conversion to Christianity. I see it as a model exemplar of how to 'do evangelism': always be truthful and don't care too much.

"I am a reluctant Christian. I was once interviewed by Lynn Barber and I told her I was a Christian but not a homosexual . . . she didn’t believe either. “You can’t be a Christian,” she said, in her parlour maid’s voice, “you just can’t.” Well I can, that’s the thing with religion. Absolutely anyone can. “But you’re not remotely Christian,” she continued. “It’s another contrarian affectation.” What, like bow ties? “Yes.”

"I wish it were. Having a dose of religion, in my milieu, at this time, is as awkward and inconvenient as not having it in 17th-century Norwich. It would be so much more socially easy to be a vain fashion atheist.

"I was brought up by atheists. I honestly thought I was immune to religiosity. And I didn’t catch it in a Methodist way after signing the pledge, I began to have vague spiritual unease because of art at the Slade and that really was contrarian. I’d go and sit in the back of churches and feel wordlessly moved.

"There was a family friend, an Irish Jesuit and university professor, who occasionally took me out to lunch and I would confide in him. He was a radical libertarian theologist, which was exciting, and he said if at all possible religion was something to be avoided.
Who would willingly lumber themselves with a book full of medieval rules, superstitions and the possibility of an eternity’s agony by choice? Far better, he said, to adopt a general humanitarian goodness, be thoughtful, charitable and kind and trust in the benevolence of providence to see you all right. He pointed out that, statistically, religious belief had no actuarial benefits: you didn’t get to live longer, or have less cancer; religious people didn’t have prettier spouses, politer children, more sex — quite possibly less sex — nicer offices or better weather. They did, on the other hand, get guilt (point of order here: it’s the Catholics and Jews who get guilt, Protestants and Muslims get shame). And of course remorse.

"You don’t really believe that, do you, I said. “Adrian, I wish to God I did, but I can’t because the space is already filled with a belief in God.” I think I’ve got it too, I said. “Which flavour are you?” Well, that’s rather the thing, I’ve got a formless faith.
He said: “If you want my advice, go with what’s closest to home. Faith is ethereal, the practice of faith is cultural. If you become a Zoroastrian or a follower of Cao Dai, a marvellous Vietnamese Christianity that believes Muhammed, Moses, Louis Pasteur, Shakespeare, Lenin and Victor Hugo are all saints, then you’re going to have to learn a lot of stuff . . . and get over a whole lot of other stuff before you get to the good stuff and it’ll have very little to do with your soul.

"“Weren’t you baptised into the Church of Scotland? I’d stick with Protestantism. Actually, I think it rather suits you . . . low to middle. Anglo-Catholicism would bring out the worst in you, all the dressing-up would get out of control and you’d become an architectural pedant doing brass rubbing.”

"So that’s essentially what I am — a lazy, middle-range Protestant with a mildly pedantic crush on the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer."

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Heresy in Unexpected Places

Image result for holy family iconFor an upcoming service I wanted, or thought I wanted, an image of an icon of the Holy Family, so I did what anyone in my situation would do and went Googling for one. Partway down the page of images came one of an icon defaced with a large red cross, as you see here. What’s that about, I wondered, and it led to this Orthodox website.

Their claim is that this image is heretical and has no place in Christian tradition. That may make you blink a little, as it did me: it’s quite a statement to make, as the picture looks entirely innocuous, touching even. But the argument is this: that it attempts to corral the truth of the Incarnation, that God is come among us and that human life is therefore transformed, into an essentially worldly agenda by creating an image of the eternal Son embedded into a human family, rather than a human family changed by the eternal Son coming into it. It makes Christ marginal in his own story, makes him the son of the couple called Mary and Joseph, rather than the everlasting Second Person of the Trinity to bear and care for whom their vocation is. The website then links this with arguments about the perpetual virginity of Mary, arguments which go back a long, long way (those who doubted it on the basis of some passages of Scripture were ‘enemies of Mary’, said St John Climacus in the 6th century), but I think these are a bit beside the point, especially as I don't have much of a problem with the idea of Mary having borne children after Jesus. 

It was a point which had its effect, though, I have to say. As I looked at the Holy Family icon I could see more and more what this faintly extreme corner of Orthodoxy meant. That image, of Mary embracing Jesus and Joseph embracing them both in an attitude of fatherly, husbandly concern, may well be what happened historically, but that’s not what icons are supposed to depict: they delineate heavenly, not earthly realities, eternal dogmas and not the fleeting accidents of what happens here. And in heaven Jesus is the focus, Mary is eternally his mother, and Joseph looks on supportively from the side. This is not an ordinary family, nor should it be reorganised to serve propaganda that elevates the human family into a religious principle.

So I won’t be using that image. Instead I found this one, from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where better), and that seems more correct.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Duae Divae

Once upon a time I corresponded, via the intermediary of her agent, with Diamanda Galás. I wanted permission to use some of her lyrics in a compendium of Gothic culture I was putting together. ‘Ah yes, this is the gentleman who wrote that lovely piece about me … Of course he can use it’, she said, purring away, I liked to imagine. Phew. I’m not sure what she’d make of this.

I first came across Diamanda Galás in the form of her very uncharacteristic ‘speed gospel’ album from 1988, You Must Be Certain of the Devil, which I picked up at a second-hand record store in Oxford. That recording is pretty accessible, but I swiftly discovered how challenging the rest of her output tends to be. Nevertheless, I could hear a genuinely prophetic voice in her concern for people with AIDS and mental illness, or the victims of genocides the world preferred to forget about.

In case you don’t know, Galás’s masterpiece is the Plague Mass of 1991, a scarifying but spellbinding examination of the malign relationship between religion and disease which uses liturgical texts to align the bodies of those who suffer sickness with that of Christ in the Eucharist. I see it as a Christian meditation of profound meaning and importance. I’m also slightly and scandalously tickled that when I lent it to a Goth music journalist friend to listen to in 2000 she turned it off after ten minutes saying it was ‘the most disturbed thing I’ve ever heard’. I saw the diva herself perform in London in 2001 and again two years later: I felt as though I should have a medal really, with a bar for the second occasion.

My impression was that Diamanda had gone off the boil in recent years. I watched a couple of recent concert videos on Youtube which suggested that the famous multi-octave voice might be getting a bit ropey as she edged through her sixth decade, and failed to find anything new that she may have been doing (actually there was a bit, though her publicity seemed to be somewhat neglectful, and she is still performing – this year more than most). So I hadn’t given her much thought of late, though I continue to pray for her in recognition of her at-least-once-prophetic role.

I had no idea until very recently that Ms Galás had expressed any opinion at all about PJ Harvey. But, in 2009, I see, she remembered back to 1995 when ‘There were friends of mine, drag queens, calling me saying “there’s somebody who’s dressing like you, wearing your hair, studying your vocals, wearing your makeup.” At first I said “I don’t want to know, I’m working”, but then I went to one of her concerts. And I’m telling you, if you’re gonna do me in drag? You’d better be taller than me. And tougher than me. And you’d better be a man.’

Oh dear. It reminds me a bit of what Ms G said about Patricia Morrison, then of the Sisters of Mercy, another very inappropriate comparison: ‘she’s so much taller and fatter than me [I think poor Morrison is 5 foot nothing] and she dresses so badly’. But then you can find film of PJH being terribly snarky about Kylie Minogue. It’s more than a little perplexing that charismatic women musicians feel the need to scorn one another so and, even when they’re outspoken feminists, to enlist gendered imagery to do it.

The Blessed Diamanda’s friends were somewhat misinforming her, anyway: although she and Polly share an interest in extremity and therefore both inhabit corners of the great Gothic continuum, there’s barely any other correspondence between them on any level, musical, thematic, stylistic, or personal. That To Bring You My Love moment in 1995 marked the sole point of convergence, and that’s because they were both looking to something beyond them rather than one to the other: a Goth-girl visual rhetoric that stretches back into the past as far as Theda Bara and the Marquesa Casati, and ultimately to Romantic and Symbolist depictions of ‘fatal women’ in the art of the last quarter of the 19th century. Ms Galás might relate her black ensemble to culture and heritage (‘ever since the age of 12, my brother and I dressed like this. All my relatives in Sparta have these immaculate white houses, and then they come out and it’s black, black, black in the middle of the day’), but, really, no Pelopennese peasant woman ever looked like that. Maila Nurmi may have done, but she was Finnish. One reviewer in Uncut’s recent Polly festschrift says that in the mid-90s she began copying ‘Diamanda Galás’s rictus-grin’, but that’s not what Galás herself took exception to, and frankly as a singer you have to make some fairly funny faces to get the sounds out. She still does that, twenty-odd years later.

Never someone to love so much as to admire from a safe distance, Galás has not merely obscured the truth about herself but actively distorted it, making it hard to warm to the person that might lay behind. She invented a lesbian vigilante squadron, the Black Leather Beaver Patrol, which she would periodically claim she led, and gleefully informed one interviewer that ‘everything I tell you will be lies anyway’. So when the genuinely moving truth poked through the surface – the death of her brother from AIDS, as well that of as her best friend – you didn’t know quite how much salt to take it with. Was she really married to that best friend, or was that another piece of embroidery? Has her father really died in a road accident at the age of 91? That there might be a gap, or several gaps, between appearance and reality seemed very probable from an exchange in the correspondence columns of avant-garde music magazine The Wire in 2000 after someone questioned whether Galás could have studied the subject she claimed at the ‘Scripps Institute’ in California, at the time she claimed. This provoked a frosty, detailed, and clearly furious response from the singer, quite different from her usual dramatic and expletive-laden statements; but a very curious one, which, according to how you interpret the dates she gave, implied that she was an undergraduate at the age either of 14 or 10. Neither of which is likely.

This 2011 concert in Barcelona tells you everything you need to know about my current issues with Ms G. There is no mistaking the virtuosity of her piano-playing or vocalising; in that, in fact, lies the issue. The texts she musicalizes and the songs she covers tend to be overwhelmed by what she does to them. The first number, ‘Anoixe Petra’, is a gorgeous 1960s Greek laika song which she strangles with arpeggiation and vocal gymnastics (it led me to the original, much more moving version by Marinella). There are often absolutely luscious introductions to the songs (her version of ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kanst’ a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath set to music by Liszt, is a case in point) but then the Galás-isms start and the text is swiftly crushed beneath the pyrotechnics. Vocally, it isn’t that she can’t sing gently and intimately, but she steers away from it into a snarl that sounds impossibly comic more often than I suspect she intends. The set concludes with that melancholy standard ‘Gloomy Sunday’, in a significantly more mannered form than the recorded version on Malediction and Prayer (1998): this is an artist of unimaginable talent becoming, perhaps, misled by her own ability.

It’s all frustrating, because when you read Galás’s offerings about life and art, as in the 2013 lecture assemblage of poetry and essays, ‘The Mouth of the Crocodile’, it can be both interesting and moving, and you can see her point notwithstanding the uncomfortably violent expressions she sometimes employs. But despite her insistence on musical radicalism and the pointlessness of standing still artistically (exactly as Polly does), truth be told, she hasn’t shifted very far at all, continuing to deploy the same weaponry she’s been polishing for the last thirty years – unless there are subtleties this non-musician can’t appreciate. ‘Anoixe Petra’ in the Barcelona concert contains elements that are exactly the same as the wonderful performance of ‘Keigome Keigome’ on Malediction and Prayer. I know what she’s trying to do – to capture the incantatory and exorcismatory qualities of texts as a form of activism, as part of a conversation between the dead and the living, and a call to arms, which is all entirely admirable. But I’m not convinced the exercise really achieves that. Sitting at the piano, she’s entering the world of these texts, but can anyone else follow her?

A very interesting-sounding project on the extinguished cultures of the Near East, ‘Nekropolis’, never emerged, but Galás’s website mentions another work in development, Das Fieberspitalso I will do my best to keep tabs on that, and see what transpires. Her significance and worth transcend my queries, and I’ve been sadly neglectful of what she has to say. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

All Is Revealed

Related imageOn Monday, to the general amazement of all, my assembly at the Infants School had a Christmas theme. I talked about Christmas trees and what you might find on top of them. Remarkably none of the children offered 'a fairy': usually someone does.

'Who comes to visit the shepherds in the story?' I asked, only to have a voice shout out from the left among the Reception children 'An alien!' I blinked a bit, ignored that and picked someone else who gave the correct or at least expected response of a corporeal but non-physical intelligence whose existence is devoted to glorifying and communicating the will of God, i.e. an angel. 

This morning I discovered that one of the other local schools is doing a nativity play in which aliens in a broken-down spaceship do indeed visit Bethlehem, so the intervention on Monday is probably explained by an elder sibling who is involved in that production. Shame really, a spontaneous reimagining of the Christmas story along extraterrestrial lines would be so much more impressive. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Wrapped Up

They were desperate for people to help at the Churches Together in Hornington stall at the town Christmas fair last Saturday, so I volunteered to go along for an hour. When I turned up there were in fact plenty of other attendants but I stayed anyway. We were supposed to be spreading the message of ecumenical peace and Christmas cheer by distributing packs of tea and biscuits from a Christian charity, tiny pots of bubble mixture for children, and wrapping shoppers’ presents. The ebullient member of the Roman Catholic congregation who shared my hour with me didn’t realise that most of the customers who visited us with presents to be inexpertly bundled in shiny paper and wreaths of sticky tape were members of other churches – I did – but eventually a few real people came by too. The very last, just as my hour was ending, was a young woman clutching a pink flamingo watering-can she’d selected as her workplace Secret Santa gift (an appalling custom which causes no end of angst and horror). ‘I was listening to a radio programme the other day which was saying how everything to do with flamingos is very popular at the moment’, I told her, a fashion of which she claimed to be unaware, having just grabbed it in a shop along the High Street. I decided that, along with my colleague, having wrapped that, there was nowhere else to go creatively, and I left to go and buy a helium-filled gold star for the nursery nativity service.ymnalHyman

Saturday, 10 December 2016


Some of the things that bring me satisfaction are perhaps a bit recherché. Last week I was unconscionably pleased to have done something I’ve been thinking about for at least two years. Just to fill you in in case you don’t know, the Great O Antiphons are little liturgical texts used in Advent. Antiphons are refrains used around psalms and canticles during the Office or Morning and Evening Prayer, often said but intended to be sung; they vary according to the season or the occasion. Uniquely, some time during the 8th century the custom developed of having a different antiphon framing the Magnificat at Evening Prayer every day in the run-up to Christmas Eve, based around the prophetic titles of the coming Messiah, each prefixed with the exclamation O – ‘O Wisdom’, ‘O Key of David’, and so on: hence ‘the Great O Antiphons’. In the medieval English Sarum Rite an eighth antiphon was added to the original seven, addressing the Virgin Mary – ‘O Virgo Virginum’ – but the modern rites are more Roman than Sarum, so miss that out and stick to the basic list.

The antiphons are sung to a single chant, but as they are prose texts and not verse the pattern is irregular and each one has to be separately scored and adapted to the chant. Now, the English Hymnal compiled by Percy Dearmer in the early 1900s provides a trad-language English text and arrangement for the Antiphons (and, as it follows the Sarum Rite, includes O Virgo Virginum): this may predate the Hymnal and go back to the revival of plainchant in the Church of England in the 19th century, but I’m not sure. What doesn’t exist, at least in any easily-accessible form, is an adaptation of the modern-language text of the O Antiphons, as included in Common Worship, to the old chant.

So that’s what I did. Surprisingly it only took a couple of hours plonking it all out on the piano, writing, scanning and typing, and here it is. As I say, I’m not sure my sense of achievement is completely legitimate given its tiny scope, but it’s comforting to have managed something, even if it’s only in the field of liturgy (the refuge of the idle, I sometimes suspect).

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Prodigal Daughters

Debbie, our ordinand, now knows where she’s going to go to serve her curacy, and she and I had a meeting to catch up last week. She told me how she’d help to facilitate a meditation session with a group from Al-Anon, the network supporting people who care for those with alcohol problems, working with a secular facilitator. Obviously this wasn’t about religion in any way, but Debbie suggested they retell the story of the Prodigal Son using an all-female ‘cast’ to think about issues of betrayal and forgiveness. They’d agreed they would stop at the point the errant child comes home, but the other facilitator ran ahead and, not actually being aware of how the story was supposed to end, as the parent welcomed the child and offered forgiveness.

When Debbie asked her about it, she said she’d been overtaken by some phrases she’d remembered and couldn’t get out of her mind: ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, suffers all things’. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard them (my guess is at a wedding). ‘It comes from the Bible,’ Debbie gently offered, beginning a conversation about the Bible, about Jesus and about forgiveness.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

This Wicked Tongue Says

Related imageThis probably follows on rather well from last time.

It only takes a moment to say something stupid. Last night it was nothing to do with church, but a Christmas card from someone I know whose bland message for some reason prompted a mean, snide comment from me I probably wouldn’t have made had Ms Formerly Aldgate not been there, but merely thought.

It seems as though somewhere in me is a spring of scorn and cruelty that isn’t directed against anyone in particular, but which can emerge at moments when my guard is down. It’s happened before, rarely but mortifyingly when I remember the occasions. A lot of the time I can forget that it’s there at all.

I sit down with the Bible this morning as usual and read in Psalm 106,

      They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah,
      and it went ill with Moses on their account;
      for they made his spirit bitter,
      and he spoke words that were rash.

I don’t know what it may have been that made some part of my spirit bitter, a long while ago. But it hardly matters: every time that spirit pokes through to the surface I pour a little bit of evil into the world around me. I can only thank God that this time only Ms FA was there and she sees the worst of me anyway and that, perhaps, I’m prepared against it happening again, at least for a little while. But sometimes it seems that I am no kinder or calmer than I was thirty years ago. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

That Was a Lovely Sermon

Image result for applauseThis will probably come across as immensely ungrateful, but I’m thinking today about the business of a clergyperson being praised. A lot of the time you get thanked for doing nothing more than being there, and can mentally brush this off very easily as you know very well it’s nothing to do with you, really. You are God’s presence in that situation in the way anyone could be. But there are also compliments you get for something you have put some effort into and that feels more ambiguous. 

Today was the Family Service at Swanvale Halt, non-eucharistic and aimed at being more informal with elements of interaction and occasionally game-playing in the sermon slot. I had to arrange a projector and screen, discovered I’d left my notes at home with ten minutes to go, and was already feeling under-prepared and ill at ease. It all passed off OK, and people said very nice things, to which I reply as I always do, ‘I’m glad it all worked all right’. Anything which isn’t the Mass and involves unscripted speaking – Family Services, Messy Church, Church Club, school assemblies – I tend to find immensely stressful, even after ten years of leading them and even though nothing I do is really that demanding, and mostly I’m just relieved to have got through whatever it is.

I’m fairly indifferent to what people think of what I’ve done, as I know when it’s been good and when it hasn’t been. This morning, for instance, I covered ground I’m sure I’ve been over before and covered better, and it was far from cohesive. But what do I really want? Would it really feel better if nobody complimented me at all? Marion our curate usually gets a scathing and entirely unreasonable critique from her teenage son and that doesn’t sound comforting. What should I say in response, anyway? I remember advice from ages ago that when being complimented you should put the attention back onto Jesus, but it’s a challenge to do that without being weird. I have sometimes said ‘I just say what the Lord gives me to say’ but find myself putting a slightly sardonic edge on the statement because I don’t exactly receive my words by telepathy. Perhaps praise for the service as a whole is better, but that has an ambiguity about it too: what we ‘enjoy’ may not be what God wants us to take to heart at all.

Of course anyone engaged in any creative activity faces this. Only this morning on the wireless Adam Gopnik was reflecting on Bob Dylan, ‘a man who has known nothing but unimaginable adulation since he was absurdly young [and yet] who adopts a tone of aggrieved ill-will in almost every circumstance’ and concluding that ‘to idolise the indifferent puts us in touch with the first springs of love and religion’ and that ‘charisma’ means not the ability to seduce others but rather not caring at all about what they think. You produce some work: unless it communicates it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to: but, if you craft it to what you think people will accept, it will eventually collapse into mental and spiritual comfort-food. Hence the conflicted relationship with praise.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about Polly Harvey again (not that I really need one), another artist famously indifferent to what anyone beyond her immediate circle of family and friends thinks about her output. When she started out back in the early 1990s interviews with her were a journalist’s dream as she gabbled the first thing she thought of. She soon realised how damaging that was and became equally uncooperative.  My favourite example is the 1995 one with an unsuspecting Swedish music journalist who wanted to tackle her about her noted scorn for feminism:

Journo: I’ve just been reading Liz Evans’s Women, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll [goes on about it for a while]. Don’t you think any of that is relevant to you?
PJH: I’ve never really felt like a woman, I haven’t had much sex, and I don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Apart from that, yes.


Journo: Is it true that you never interact with your fans?
PJH: Never.
Journo: Not even to –
PJH: No.
Journo: You don’t like interviews, do you?
PJH: They mean nothing to me.
Journo: Don’t you even use them to –
PJH: No.
Journo: What’s that written on the back of your hand?
PJH: It says ‘serum’. I’m not going to tell you what that means, either.

Eventually journalists gave up trying to winkle stuff out of her, and she grew less prickly, so by the late 1990s interviews were conducted more along the lines of ‘Do you have any other message for a grateful nation?’ Now she doesn’t do them at all. But unlike Mr Dylan, PJ remains impeccably polite even under insufferable provocation (such as being seated next to David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s TV show), and gracious if reticent in accepting the accolades that come her way: she manages to combine ‘indifference’ to passing opinion with grace, and unsurprisingly that’s what has more influence with me.

Given that I’m very sensitive to the danger of playing to the gallery, are people responding favourably to what I serve up because I am, or because I’m not, due to the 'adulation of indifference'? Having people listen to you, and listen avidly, is somewhat intoxicating and therefore dangerous. I suppose all you can do is keep firmly directed somewhere else (in my case, towards God), in the same way that Polly keeps the focus rigidly on her work rather than on the way it’s received. You can do that without being rude, though, and perhaps what I need to take into account is that what people say to me is a reflection of where they are: of their own receptiveness and grace, more than of anything I have done.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Some Different Music

We celebrated St Catherine's Day last week by heading out to see The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing at the Star in Guildford. Having both seen them before some years ago we knew what we were getting and wondered why they were straying to Guildford to play in the back room of a pub (there couldn't have been more than 60 people there - was it really worth everyone's while?). Still, it had to be done. The said back room, helpfully called 'The Back', is a long, narrow and awkward space for a band, accessed by negotiating the staircases and mezzanines of the Star's appealingly maze-like interior, but it meant we could loiter at the back and still see something. I don't much enjoy stand-up comedy, so I found Andrew O'Neill's warm-up routine only intermittently effective, and neither of us was ever going to respond to all the silly encouragement to the audience to bounce around the limited space, but the set was fun. The Men's lead singer and saw-player Andy Heintz had a tussle with cancer last year and is only just recovered, and has swapped his pith helmet and red military jacket for a bowler and tattered Dickensian urchin coat with a touch of makeup that makes him look rather like the Tiger Lillies' Martyn Jacques after a very late night. The new album, Not Your Typical Victorians, has a more political edge than their previous stuff as well as being more musically interesting, and I rather liked pieces such as 'This House is not Haunted' and 'Third Class Coffin'. I felt like taking Mr O'Neill to task on his lyric insisting 'Jesus was a Cockney (even though he didn't exist)', but I'm glad someone is doing this kind of thing.

PS: I forgot to mention that the audience included remarkably few visibly identifiable Steampunks. 'I thought all that business of sticking goggles on a cheap fancy-dress top hat had finished', opined Ms Formerly Aldgate.  Truth be told, the few folk dressed up looked more like Morris dancers than Steampunks, but it can be a fine line, I suppose.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

What Happens When Priests Get Together

It's like an episode of Father Ted, of course.

- Were you ordained in Guildford diocese?
- No, I used to be at Wantage.
- Ah, were you there when Frank Frinton was there?
- No, he'd already gone to Birmingham by my time. My rector was Fr Bendybus.
- Is that the same Fr Bendybus who was at St Frottage-by-the-Gasworks with old Doddy Manhole?'
- No, there was a curate who looked like him though. But you can tell Fr Bendybus because he's got the, y'now, the thing.
- Of course, the thing, I'd forgotten.
- How could you forget the thing?

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Playing Host

Before 2013 it had been back in the 1990s that Swanvale Halt had hosted a confirmation service. Apparently the 2013 gig went so well that our Area Dean asked us to do it again last Sunday. It was a somewhat smaller affair because the whole Deanery could only rustle up four candidates as opposed to the 16 we had last time, but our new suffragan bishop was happy to come for that many, or few (she is 'keen to get out and about' according to the diocesan newspaper) and apart from asking to change one of the readings acceded to everything we would normally do here. That meant a touch of smoke and wearing my old gold Roman set to preside.

Bp: What do you want me to wear? I've bought my cope.
Me: Well, we'd normally use a chasuble.
Bp: Ah good, wearing a cope at the eucharist is really hard work. Have you got everything?
Me (opening drawer): Yes, it's all here.
Bp: What's that?
Me: It's a chasuble.
Bp: I've never seen one like that!

Considering the bishop is married to a prominent incumbent in the City of London this is quite a surprise, but doubtless when she does the New Bishops Course they'll explain the differences between Roman and Gothic. If anyone running it knows. I didn't mind at all, as our former diocesan positively blanched when I showed him the Old Gold Set whereas our new suffragan was blithely unconcerned. 

St Rita of Cascia made her presence felt during the proceedings only in the fact that our visitors from other churches of course had no idea what to do at communion (next time I will prime everyone what to expect), and that I, acting as thurifer, and the bishop had great fun with the business of passing the thurible to one another. She'd told me she was left-handed, so I tried to pass it the opposite way round to usual, but we got so confused we both ended up crossing our arms over in all sorts of bizarre ways, biting our lower lips to stop ourselves giggling. Jesus would have done the same. 

As ever Swanvale Halt did itself proud and provided a wonderful spread after the service. The bishop and everyone else who expressed an opinion were fulsome in their praise of the building, the service, the food, and the general ambience. It was a lovely party to celebrate four people's faithfulness. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Ainete Ekaterini

The good folk of St Nicolas Parish in Guildford once more gathered at mid-day to mark St Catherine's Day at the ruined chapel on the hilltop and, unlike last year, I was able to join them. The air was pellucidly clear and blue - the few wispy clouds you can see in this photo were gone by the time we started. We were joined for the first time by a dog, and by the youngest-ever attendant at the service, Dora, who looked to me as though she was between 2 and 3. She was fascinated particularly by the turret on the corner of the chapel: 'I'm in the castle', I think she stated.

Earlier on I'd introduced the Swanvale Halt Toddler Group to St Catherine at Toddler Praise. One little girl fixated on the holy martyr's identity as a princess and her mum ruefully commented that she'd be having that conversation for the rest of the day.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Calling Who?

Image result for diocese of guildfordTo be fair, the Diocese is aware that there is something of an imbalance in the sorts of people who are training locally for the Divine Ministry. Actually there is a whole set of imbalances, but the one that most concerns us here is the great preponderance of candidates from evangelical backgrounds of different sorts. Too monochromatic a flavour to the CofE is deemed to be undesirable, so the ministry department has been gathering together incumbents from various churches they inadequately but comprehensibly describe as ‘central-plus’ to talk about the matter. I offered to host the first meeting, mainly because I knew the bishop would be there and I was keen for him to have an idea what Swanvale Halt parish was like. Il Rettore was there, all the way from Lamford. In fact there aren’t that many outright ‘catholic’ parishes in communion with His Grace of Guildford; probably about half a dozen, so, as I say, ‘central-plus’ isn’t that bad a denominator to delineate a miscellaneous collection of catholic, ‘floral-and-choral’, ‘high’, and not-quite-evangelical churches.

We chatted through a couple of meetings about what might be wrong. My thinking is that, at the moment, catholic congregations tend to be small and find it hard to develop the sense of excitement, involvement and wellbeing that bubbles over the top of the pot in the form of people seeking to explore a sense of vocation. It happens, of course, but not that often. Smaller churches are likely to be finding it harder to keep the show on the road (not a very Christian concept anyway), and so, on the whole, it feels less fun being a Christian in them than in a big church throbbing with souls. I suggested that if the diocese really wants to increase the number of catholic-minded ordinands it needs to pick a couple of likely parishes and work on them in the long term, put resources into them, send them curates even when they don’t qualify under the existing rules and subsidise youth-and-families workers even when they don’t have the money to pay for them, that sort of thing, and not expect to see much return for ten years or more. Of course they won’t do that, because it’s too complicated. The powers-that-be from the department talked instead about publicity and vocations events, the stuff they know they can do without shaking things up too much. It’s not just institutional inertia: they’re as overworked as everyone else.

At our second meeting the incumbent of one of the more prestigious churches in the diocese boldly told them they’d got all this the wrong way round (he’s long since given up any thoughts of being a bishop so can say what he likes). ‘We keep talking in terms of individual people’s vocations to this and that’, he said, ‘when I’ve becoming increasingly aware of the common nature of the enterprise. We discover our priesthood, if that’s what we’re talking about, as the Body of Christ together, not as individuals on our own.’ He’s got together a group of people who he’s identified as likely characters, not to fill any particular roles, but to think about how the parish might assist its people in realising their own vocation as members of the Body, meeting together regularly over the course of six months or so running up to Easter. The group (‘I wrote to 14 people but we’ve ended up with 12, coincidentally’) hasn’t got much of an agenda as such, and isn’t aiming at identifying people to send up into the diocesan system of vocations-discernment (though that might happen), but about affecting the way the congregation thinks.

It all sounds a bit vague, but I rather like it. It isn’t actually linked to any particular kind of church identity at all, but sounds like the sort of low-key, discursive and open-ended venture that could work well for the sort of people who find themselves in smaller, non-evangelical churches, and at least has more roots in the life of the Church than roadshows and mailshots. We have other fish to fry at Swanvale Halt at the moment – many, many others – but it will be worth remembering.

(And anything will be an improvement on the truly shuddersome images you can discover, mainly emanating from our Roman brethren, by merely asking Dr Google to search the word 'vocations' for you.)

Friday, 18 November 2016


A bit of a filler, today. A couple of weeks ago on my day off I went to Odiham, undeterred by the rain. Odiham is a large village with what Pevsner would call 'a main street of a distinctly urban character' a few miles to the west of Farnham. It has a castle which I went to see, albeit what seems like a surprisingly small one for Henry III's sister, resident there in the mid-1200s. It is very, very ruined indeed, with only the bare indications of windows and features, but the authorities keep it tidy and have installed a sort of steel and glass canopy in the entrance which looks rather handsome (though is hard to photograph convincingly, so I haven't).

And then there's the Basingstoke Canal, which skirts Odiham and provides a pleasant walk to the north of the village, and parallel with it. Notoriously the Basingstoke is often low in water and boats are restricted in how far and fast they're allowed to move along it, and although this stretch of the canal is navigable, several parts are very narrow and it doesn't look as though much traffic has been along it in months. 

In the churchyard at Odiham is a Pest House, a tiny one-room cottage where you were put if you were suspected of suffering from some appalling lurgy to see whether you died or not: I'd heard of these before but not seen one in the brick, as it were. And, on my walk, amid the tedious Union Jacks and St George's Crosses flying in the gardens of various tidy houses, I saw a bold-striped flag of blue, black and white, which turned out to be the national ensign of Estonia. One lives and learns. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Who Is Sent My Way

A middle-aged professional gentleman sits in my living room talking to me about his spiritual journey and his sense of being called to be ordained. I'm one of the local vocations advisors, my role being to meet with people who feel a call to some kind of 'authorised ministry' in the Church and to help them work out what that might be, if they aren't already sure. Most of the ones who come my way are from an evangelical background, some from a non-Anglican one and who have been directed to this or that evangelical Anglican church to be gently inducted into the ways of the Church of England. This man, however, is very much an Anglo-Catholic, which is unusual. He has a devotion to a rather obscure European shrine of the Virgin Mary, rather than Walsingham like everyone else, which is also unusual; his experience of Anglicanism runs the whole gamut from All Saints Margaret Street to St Mary's Bourne Street (a bit unfair but you know what I mean). He has by his own admission a somewhat rambling style of discussing any particular topic - our discussions are punctuated by statements such as 'how did we get there?' and 'what was the question?' - which is rather fun. I listen to him and hear curious echoes of other people I've known over the years, including me. 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Later in the day Evening Prayer is interrupted by a young man who comes through the darkness of the church to tell me he's decided to become a Christian as a result of going to a Traveller-oriented church meeting some miles away. It's not convenient for him to get there regularly, so he asks what time our services are. I listen to him and conclude that plunging him straight into the deep waters of a Swanvale Halt Sung Eucharist is probably not what he needs at this stage, so I say I will make enquiries locally and get back to him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I head off for an evening at the Air Cadets to go through the enrolment promise with nine new recruits aged 12 to 14 or so. We are wedged into a tiny classroom as I go through the things they will have to say. They're brilliant, actually, and I have a great time, quite apart from what they may think of it all. When I mention that when Mr Trump becomes President of the US he will also have to make public promises, they all groan and cough. It takes me a while to twig that the most articulate of them, disguised in short hair and identikit combats, is a girl. It's rather exciting to have a group of teenagers listening to my every word, no matter how inadequate and bluffing those words sometimes are, and I must make sure it doesn't get too exciting. They are not my cadre of acolytes! 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Mess and Un-Mess

This is my new favourite image of the church, drawn by Sofia for her visit to Messy Church on Saturday. I think the figure may be me, although it's not completely clear. 'I have allwais been happy when I have been to Mesee Church', she comments on the reverse, and she seemed fairly happy on this occasion. It was our highest attendance at M.C. for nearly two years, though mainly because it was wet and a selection of Toddler Group families agreed that they were going to come along for something to do.

Our Messy Church has evolved over the seven years it's been running. Intended by its originators as 'church for people who don't do church', we've never found that that is the case: instead our congregation tends to be a mixture of church families, members of other churches, and only a minority of folk for whom M.C. is their only contact with Church life at all. It functions instead as part of our children's and families work more generally, and there's a lot of crossover with the Toddler Group and the club we run at the Infants School. We've noticed over the last couple of years that the children are on average getting younger, which is probably a function of the fact that our Toddler Group has been doing well and producing more contacts.

So that was that. Sunday was something of a contrast as I was drafted in to lead the main Remembrance service at Hornington as the parish church is in a vacancy at the moment. As in most places, we start with a parade and wreath-laying at the War Memorial in the park and then go back to the church for a service. It's all fairly standard: town band, councillors, uniformed organisations of sundry sorts and varieties. It was the ATC's turn to carry the Union flag this year and I like to think they acquitted themselves pretty well. I have of course had a lot of relevant thoughts running round my mind lately in preparing my sermon for what's always the biggest congregation of the year at Hornington. I was going to allude to intra-national conflict and the need for reconciliation but gradually thoughts provoked by my recent intensive immersion in PJ Harvey's work took me back to the nature of Englishness, war, and how God's judgement differs from ours. This was going to be my Let England Shake sermon, although it would be unlikely that anyone there would recognise the submerged references scattered through it. I did wonder whether this was all terribly self-indulgent, but thinking and praying didn't result in anything else coming to my mind so I went ahead. 

A family I knew from Farncombe Infants were there so I could rope them in to begin the theme of how we think about ourselves and others. 'How would you describe yourself in three words?' I asked master Lee, sitting with the Cubs. 'Confident, chatty and cheeky,' he offered, having been coached by his Mum to say that and nothing else, and from there it was into the meat of the thing. I'd requested a lapel mike rather than using the pulpit - I do dislike pulpits, though we had one at Lamford, and for this occasion of all occasions which can so easily escalate from reverent solemnity into unrelieved pomposity, preaching from a pulpit is just too much. 

I think it was all right. Our MP had the affrontery to be complimentary, but then I suppose that's what he's there for and would have said the same had I read out a script from an episode of the Teletubbies. While I was on my way back to the car I was called back by a quartet of elderly medal-decked people who thanked me very heartily which is the memory I will be grateful for. They addressed me as 'Father', though I suppose I had been wearing my biretta, which I always do when I mean business. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016


Here’s a small diversion. I’ve just finished reading Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings, a compendium of extracts and commentary tracing the effects on human imagination of scientific and industrial change between the 17th and 19th centuries. Jennings was a leftish journalist, film-maker and critic who died in 1950 before Pandaemonium could be finished, and it wasn’t until 1985 that his daughter and friends managed to get a version published by Andre Deutsch; curiously the book looks older than that by about twenty years. My copy is ex-library stock, so that was probably where I bought it.

It was only when I’d finished the book that I paid attention to the inscription on the fly leaf. ‘David’ and ‘Charlotte’ were clearly two people involved in the making of the book, so this copy wasn’t just a gift but a gift of particular significance. There is, however, no hint in the text as to who they were: an editor, a publicist, staff at Andre Deutsch? How our lives move around and through the traces of the lives of others.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Cyrus is My Shepherd

'Guess who your niece found behind the car park at Waitrose today,' my sister texted me on November 1st. Knowing my younger niece's preferences my first thought was a fairy, and I hadn't banked on the real answer, Donald Trumpkin, as you can see in this photo. Like the real thing, this one is impressively orange-hued. Unlike the real thing, it can just be taken to the compost heap once you decide you don't want it anymore.

My Goth friends Amanda (who is American by birth) and Paul have a small son, Ryan. Amanda had a conversation with him yesterday:

Ryan: Donald Trump is a bad man. I'm going to kill him and his huge army and then I'll get the biggest present and he won't be able to cause trouble.
Amanda: I don't think killing is a good thing to do, Ryan. It would be better to take him away without hurting him.
Ryan: We could send him to the moon, but then he would make the aliens leave.

(When Ryan was a baby, he would laugh heartily at the Dementors in Harry Potter. He's hard to intimidate).

Yesterday, too, as we all struggled to assimilate the new world we are suddenly thrust into, the clergy of the Hornington Deanery gathered over lunch for Deanery Chapter. We gingerly tiptoed around the topic of nuclear holocaust ('I haven't given the red button any thought for years', said one priest, 'I'm doing it now') and focused rather on the chocolate cake brought along by a retiring colleague. One local incumbent pointed out that there were plenty of instances in the Scriptures of God using unlikely rulers for his own purposes. 'I really don't like that kind of theology', countered another. 'I'm not saying Trump was elected because God made it happen,' said the first, 'only that God can make use of anyone he wants.'

This is of course true, as far as it goes. God brings the armies of the King of Assyria into Israel because Israel has proved faithless, then crushes Assyria in turn by the new empire of the Achaemenids. King Cyrus arranges for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and gets called 'Messiah' by the prophets, no less. The trouble with this simple picture is that it was painted retrospectively as the Jews analysed their own history to see where they'd gone wrong and where God's hand had been in the events of several centuries: whereas we have no such perspective and are just guessing. We can indeed have confidence that (ultimately) 'in all things God works for the good of those who love him', as St Paul puts it in Romans, but that doesn't mean he actively plans particular events. We are still given the capacity to screw it all up if we choose.

Sadly, in a fallen world necessary qualities are entangled in a single human soul with facets you would sooner not have. More radically, those negative aspects of a person's character may actually be the reverse side of the beneficial ones (think of our discussion of the bloodymindedness of Phil Shiner and his ilk a few months ago). The times may call for a leader who perceives something nobody else does, and has enough self-belief to push a response through against universal scepticism: and only the Lord may know what that is. But alongside self-belief often go ruthlessness and arrogance, over time if not at first. Such is the business of the world we have, rather than the one we might choose to have.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Over the Water

Image result for death valleyAlthough I've got friends in the US, and American friends here, I've never been there. However over the weekend I was talking to Cathleen, who's just spent several weeks there on holiday, partly in California, but partly exploring the inland southwestern states as well. Things that struck her most included:
  • How dreadful the food is. 'God knows what they do to the bread'. My friend actually lost weight, which is an achievement for a holiday, because she couldn't eat much of what was served up.
  • And yet, the quantity of food given you. Cathleen went to a Thai restaurant and on being presented with a vast platter of curry she couldn't possibly eat, was told by the Thai-born proprietors that the restaurant critics rate eateries less by the quality of what's served up than by how big the portions are, so they feel they don't have a choice.
  • Apparent levels of obesity, and homelessness. 
  • How shabby a lot of the hotels were, once you strayed beyond the top-level ones in big cities.
  • How limited even the nicest peoples' world-view was:
- Where do you come from?
- London, England.
- Wow! Aren't you frightened to live there?
- Er, no, why?
- Because you've got so many Muslims there.
- Well, yes, there are some Muslims, and there are lots of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, everything. We all sort of get on.
- Don't you have a Muslim mayor?
- Yes, I think he's pretty good.
- But you're not a Muslim!
- Er, no, should I be?

As I spoke to Cathleen, I couldn't help thinking that this doesn't sound like a nation at the top of its game: it sounds distinctly, if obliquely, like one in decline in a very deep way, trading off its past and not making a very healthy transition to a new future. This should be familiar enough to us in the UK, and puts current events in a revealing light.

Having led the world for a century or thereabouts, the US is sliding, relatively and perhaps even absolutely. We went through this, nobody ever talked about it explicitly, and we reaped the results in the EU referendum. Even Mrs Thatcher, who swept aside with energetic brutality so much of the old post-war world which had entirely failed to face up to the truth about Britain's future, was still desperately deluded about the scope of its options. As for the choice the States faces today, Mrs Clinton barely wants to talk about decline at all, probably because she knows she can't do much about it, while Mr Trump talks about it incessantly but erroneously thinks he can.

Not that the rest of the world is doing that brilliantly. Russia throws its weight around but its economy is hollow. China's period of exponential growth is over and it has to work out how to settle down to something approaching economic normality without poisoning too many of its people. 'Well, India seems to be doing all right,' I suggested to the half-Indian Ms Formerly Aldgate when we discussed all this. I wish I could recall the details of her scornful reply.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Interruption and a Privilege

On Friday I was up earlier than I would normally be on a day off as I had to go to the hospital. Whoever was doing Thought for the Day on the Today programme was discussing having a break from digital media as a kind of Sabbath observance which led me into thinking idly about clergy time off and the times I've discovered clergy taking a perverse pleasure in working for weeks without a break. A great priest of yesteryear who worked in Swanvale Halt declared that a clergyperson who didn't take a day off a week was essentially breaking one of the commandments and should 'examine his conscience'. Quite right too, I agreed inwardly as I drank my tea.

Just as I was about to set off the phone rang. I recognised the number: it was the son of Colin, who I saw in hospital back in August and with whose family he has been staying since he was released and they couldn't immediately find a suitable place in a care home for him (it's as well that Colin's daughter-in-law is a nurse). On Monday he seemed to be fading so I'd visited the house and done everything necessary: 'Thank you so much for coming,' Colin had said, having mumbled through the prayers in between drifting off to sleep and back again. This call was 8.30am so I thought I knew what that would mean, and so it turned out. I went round en route to my hospital appointment, prayed with the family, and with Colin's body. He reminded me of my Dad after his death, despite being over twenty years older. I was so glad I was able to be there, that Colin hadn't died when I was somewhere else or unable to attend.

It was hardly a disruption to my day at all, but salutary that straight after feeling so self-satisfied at refusing to do any work, I should find myself doing work. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Sharing the Love

Imagine my delight when I spotted a middle-aged gentleman in the south aisle during Mass last Sunday inclining his head as the cross was carried past and crossing himself in all the correct places. Someone who knows what they're doing! I thought. It turned out that I should have remembered he was going to be there, as he was one of the churchwardens from Ashbury, visiting Swanvale Halt to collect my spare set (well, one of my spare sets) of black vestments. Ashbury is a small town not far away from us. Fr Charles, the Nigerian-born curate at the church there, is apparently stiffening the Catholic resolve of his incumbent and as a result I had an email a couple of weeks ago from Mr Churchwarden asking whether Ashbury could borrow a black set to celebrate All Souls' Day on the 2nd. I can not only lend you a black set, I replied, I can give you a black set: the one given me by S.D. when he retired a couple of years ago. I take deep pleasure in the fact that such a thing could even occur to you down in the darkest Surrey wilds. 

That made me realise that although I have long since shared with you my lovely black set from Parmoor Abbey (a whole six years since, terrifyingly enough), I have another lot that has never yet found its way onto this blog. So, as All Souls' Day has now just passed, here it is.

Some years ago I was trawling eBay for ecclesiastical tat, not with the intention of buying anything but just amusing myself. And this appeared: I'd never seen its like before, and never have since. The silver embroidery is traditional on requiem sets, but the Art Deco styling definitely is not.

I battled with my conscience as to whether I should bid for it, egged on by some of my Goth chums (especially one with an enthusiasm for Art Deco). I had a black set and didn't need another one. But look at it. Look at it. It is, as far as I know, unique. The Lord remained resolutely silent on the matter, as he usually does. Eventually, as you can rationalise anything if you try hard enough, I reasoned that if I didn't buy it, it would only go to some tat-collector who would keep it in a drawer. As it turned out, nobody else seemed to want it, so it came to me and one day I will pass it on so that it can carry on being used. At the moment I use it for the quarterly requiems at Swanvale Halt and reserve the Parmoor set for All Souls. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

An Abundance

We had three lanterns this year, decorating the wall along the drive. The little one is a rather shrivelled turnip; the middle-sized one that looks a bit like a psychopathic Minion was one I found wedged into the mouth of a litterbin in the village a couple of days ago, untouched and undamaged, so I took it away. The large one I left to Ms Formerly Aldgate to carve and thought at first it looked relatively benign, before realising it had a menacingly sardonic quality about it. Together they made an appealing little group. We had a lot of trick-or-treaters, children who I didn't recognise with their parents loitering in the background. The last batch included a ten-or-so-year-old dressed as a sort of zombie nurse with a zip fastener mounted on her forehead. OK.

Our customary visit to the churchyard to toast the dead was curtailed a little by the presence of a group of teenagers round the corner, who may have been the ones responsible for the trail of pumpkin destruction evident around the centre of the village next morning. That's the second year it's happened, which thereby automatically makes late-night pumpkin-smashing an Ancient Tradition that must be taken account of next time. Ours survived.

Monday, 31 October 2016

And So We Conclude

A few weeks ago in the unexpected context of a meeting at Southwark Cathedral I met an archdeacon who told me that the Brixton Academy is ‘a lovely venue’. The architectural framing of the auditorium certainly makes it unusual, and we wondered why the management saw fit to keep it all in darkness an hour or more before the concert was due to start so people had to pick their way gingerly around or dazzle one another with flashlights. But it was OK, I suppose. Not as plush as the Albert Hall, admittedly. I also fell to wondering, as we constantly had to avert our knees from the traffic of passing concert-goers in front of us, even during the concert itself, how it was that so many people found it impossible to go for an hour and a bit, an hour and a bit that they have had months to prepare for, without a drink or a wee or, given the close relationship between those activities, both. You’ve paid quite a lot for this, why aren’t you watching it?

‘8.30 sharp’ was given as the start time, which I put down as a bit of Harveyism, being the kind of thing no musician would ever say. In fact we kicked off about ten minutes later. Gosh, it was loud. It was pummellingly loud, at least for an irregular concertgoer like me. The subtleties of the recorded music weren’t lost, but turned up so there was no chance whatever of missing them: you couldn’t call the result beautiful, but the power and emotion were undeniable, a complete contrast to the reticence of the Let England Shake concert five years ago. That time, PJ was virtually static: she didn’t exactly chuck herself around the stage last night, but instead, when not blaring on the saxophone, wove to and fro between the nine band members, gesturing in a sort of shamanic dance. It was a big, big production: after the opener ‘Chain of Keys’ the great grey metallic backdrop whose symbolic meaning nobody is quite certain of rose up from behind the stage to dominate the proceedings visually. Whatever it means, it has a certain threatening presence and, more practically, allows a variety of lighting effects to play across it enhancing the ambience of different songs.

Songs? Well, most of Hope Six, four from Let England Shake, two from White Chalk – including the haunting, disjointed ‘To Talk to You’ which offered a quieter if not at all comfortable interlude in the high-volume proceedings – and a couple of old favourites. If PJH has a signature song, ‘Down by the Water’ is it (Alain Johannes did stick duty on that this time), and was achieved in good dark hallucinatory style; ‘To Bring You My Love’ was positively demonic. From way back in 1992, ’50-Foot Queenie’ should have been the most air-pounding track of all but for some reason that was when Polly’s mike let her down, it seemed to me, and quite a bit of it was indistinguishable – not a problem any other time in the set, despite the volume.

We didn’t stay for the encore, so our evening finished with the slow, majestic ‘River Anacostia’, with its imagery of Jesus walking on the poisoned waters by the Washington naval yards. ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ intone the band, intercut with Polly’s plaintive query ‘What will become of us?’ and finally silence and darkness fall: enough, at least, to make a soppy Christian tearful. I wonder what she’ll do next? This tour runs until Reykjavik in early November, starts again with a leg in Australia and Japan next year, and might go to South America though no dates are set yet. That will probably be it, as she doesn’t enjoy touring, doesn’t need the money, and presumably only does it so people can hear the music. Of course I am much more relaxed when she’s at home in Dorset and going no further than the corner shop for a pint of milk. But what then?

I will take away from last night how wonderful it was to see these magnificent works – these liturgies of passion and compassion – performed in front of us. God save the Queen. And I will be quiet now, I promise.