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. 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, part 11: 'The Hope Six Demolition Project' (2016)

In the long gap between albums, PJ began pursuing different paths. You remember the time she took over the Today programme on Radio 4: how it was denounced by the Telegraph as ‘incomprehensible liberal drivel’, and how she very clearly took delight in tweaking the nose of Tory England. I was off work that day, and when I first turned on the radio I thought there’d been a strike or something so the normal programme wasn’t being broadcast; when I realised what was happening, I almost ran round the house waving my hands about. It was delicious. More than that, I maintain it’s a work as significant and revealing as any of her music. It not only made her politics pretty clear (‘People complain that the BBC is run by lefties’, one commentator said, ‘this is what the BBC would sound like if it was really run by lefties’), but it also showed her using her celebrity to shelter others so they could share their non-mainstream views, not just the Assanges and Pilgers who didn’t really need it, but people nobody had much heard of. There was poetry, too, and a range of other projects, to occupy her time.

I was increasingly warm towards this new PJH. Rock-chick Polly I’d never felt much in common with, greatly though I might have admired what she did; arty, leftie, literary Polly was more sympatico. What I wasn’t aware of was the work she was doing in preparation for the next recording: travelling with Seamus Murphy to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington, staying in somewhat rougher hotels than she’d have been used to, talking to people who would tell them disagreeable things, and writing them down in poems and prose. ‘She’s a musician, not a journalist’, commented Murphy later, ‘she’s not used to people crying when she asks them questions’. She saw human bones in a ruined building, confronted sorrow and need, faced her own inability to help. She didn’t have to do this: she could have stayed safely at home writing about the dire consequences of political decision-making, and done it all from books, newspapers and the TV. If nothing else, Hope Six is an unparalleled act of engagement. No mere singer has ever done anything like it.

The resulting album was (as I’ve said elsewhere) almost inevitably uneven as she tried to reformulate those observations and conversations into music, tried to express anger, sorrow and compassion without being patronising, and not always managing it completely comfortably. But it had the power to move perhaps unlike anything she’d done before, because of the reality that underlay it. My first encounter was watching the video accompanying ‘The Community of Hope’, and what I saw – bearing in mind that not everyone did – was a profoundly humanistic, compassionate vision of people creating hope and love in a society that militated against both. Yes, it made me cry, and much of the rest of the album did too: out of it, PJ Harvey emerged as not so much a musical force as a moral one. Some of my feelings have certainly become more definite, more emboldened, as a result.

Strange things were going on at the same time. This most private of artists, who once upon a time refused to use email, now had an Instagram account of all things (possibly due to the influence of her new management), and seemed happy to begin posting monthly playlists on Spotify (‘Brexit Blues’, the second one was entitled). Of course we now live in a world in which everything goes online, and Polly was apparently relaxed about the fact that her friends were going to snap her and upload the results for the globe to see. There she was picnicking with the band in Switzerland, on a beach near Los Angeles in a big hat, or on the hillside next to St Catherine’s Chapel on a beautiful, hot Dorset day. There were nice moments of self-mockery. Interesting for fans in their own right, all these images revealed something else: how her friends love her. The greatest testament to a person’s character is their ability to keep their friends, and Polly has had many of hers for decades, holding their affection, their allegiance.

As I worked to get my head round Hope Six I decided to re-listen to the whole of PJ’s output, the sum of the last quarter-century of This Woman’s Work. I heard subtleties that I’d missed, things I’d overlooked, and now listening to any part of it I couldn’t quite forget the rest. How far she has come. The angry young woman taking blues as far as blues could go and beyond has become something else; and as I watched her sing a Christian folk song at a support event for Julian Assange in June this year –

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus our Saviour was born for to die
For poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I

and gesture towards the audience and then to herself, the ‘something else’ settled into the word transfigured. The past is not abandoned, it becomes the raw material for something grander, and greater. There are fans who desperately want her to give up the politics, but there's a sense in which everything up to this point has been a preparation for what she's doing now. I can’t really say more than that – because there is more I could say, but they aren’t things you can say out loud, not while someone is alive.

My great fear – other than that of some dreadful event, a downed plane, a crashed tour coach, or a lunatic taking a pot-shot at a concert – is that she’ll give up. Her own great idol was Captain Beefheart, Don van Vliet, another challenging musician who eventually abandoned music in favour of art. But she did speak, back in 2007, about being ‘on a lifelong journey to explore what it means to be human through music’, and from that I take comfort. It’s not over just yet, please God.

And that's it, for now. All being well, we'll be at the Brixton Academy tomorrow evening for the real thing. Although I've now so thoroughly built it up I am half-convinced something will go horribly wrong ...

Withdrawal of Favour

'I haven't seen Edna for a while,' commented Lillian, our lay Reader, 'I've tried to contact her, but she hasn't replied'. I said I would have a go, and left a message. The last time I spoke to Edna she was a bit concerned about her health so I was slightly worried that something negative had happened to her. A couple of days later she sent me an email, saying that she thought a couple of recent sermons had taken a political slant, 'and that certainly isn't what I come to church to hear', so she was taking some time away from church but would probably be back before Christmas.

At least Edna isn't ill, I thought. I don't mind this too much, as it's perfectly fair: the God I see in the Scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ is as interested in how we organise our common life as he is in the ordering of our lives as individuals, and sometimes contemplating the Sunday readings does take me in a direction that includes reflecting on the political life of the human community, especially at the moment when we seem to be caught up in so many damaging delusions and fantasies (though perhaps we always are). 'The Lord lays low the lofty city,' says Isaiah, 'Feet trample it down - the feet of the poor, the footsteps of the oppressed'. Ultimately (though I would not say this except under extreme provocation) if you don't like this being talked about, you need to pick another religion. A member of our congregation who not so long ago read one Sunday from the prophet Amos with great relish - 'We will make the ephah small and the shekel great' - was the same gentleman who told me emphatically 'You can't be a Christian and a Conservative'. I wouldn't be so bold (I think cognitive dissonance in this area is possible) and it isn't my place to bully or to present my own views as though they were God's: it definitely is my place to provoke thought and point out that there are such things as falsehood, injustice and mechanisms that have a great influence on the way we live. I'm surprised that it's taken anyone seven years to notice what I'm doing.

Other people who have left the congregation since I've been here as a result of things I have said or done have described me as too theologically conservative, not conservative enough, or took the view that because I'd been associated with the Goth world I was tainted with Satanism. As I say, I don't mind this as it isn't due to anything I would change. In contrast I cast my mind back to the new incumbents' course I went on not long after starting here, and hearing some of the horror stories my colleagues told about relationships in their own parishes broken by a moment of ill-temper or a foolish word. It's those things I think about, and shudder.

Friday, 28 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, part 10: 'Let England Shake' (2011)

(These last two albums I’ve commented on here before, but this account is more about personal response than a dispassionate review, so is a bit different.)

Reticent though Ms H was now committed to being, in Let England Shake she knew she’d done something that was in an entirely different league from her work thereto. You can see the pleasure, the perfectly reasonable pleasure an artist takes in having achieved something close to what they were aiming for, in the interviews she did around the time (she actually winked at Miranda Sawyer). Over St Peter’s Church, Eype, on the windswept downs of southwest Dorset no more than a mile from her home, the planets locked fortuitously into alignment, and what emerged from those few weeks PJ and her musicians spent there was a text of such subtlety, of such beauty, such compassion and such eternal resonance that it defies analysis. The album wasn’t really ‘about’ World War One, notwithstanding the references scattered through its tracks: it distilled the whole history of human conflict into a series of emotional statements given substance by a bewildering range of source material. It was truly magnificent, as simultaneously grandiose and as detailed as a medieval cathedral. The awards and accolades showered down. Two years later she would receive the MBE.

It took some mental recalibration to get used to, as her work always does. Fans of the old rock-style Polly Harvey who’d hung on hoping White Chalk was just an aberration now gave up: an autoharp? seriously? As usual, I was slow on the uptake. There were several tracks that immediately grabbed me, most especially ‘Last Living Rose’ (I’ve mentioned it here before), that aching exploration of what it’s like to love a country, with all its flaws and shortcomings. I watched Seamus Murphy’s video for the song, recognised the cliffs of West Bay and the church of St Cuthbert, Wells, and found myself getting a bit weepy at its humanism – the bookending image of the skeleton in the museum. Other pieces took longer to bed in, but weeping would become something of a habit. The more I listened, the more the complexity and composition of the music was apparent, the more moving it seemed to become. When Polly accepted the Mercury Award, the only artist ever to win it twice, she welcomed most of all the fact that ‘an album like this’ could be recognised: it was good to exult along with her, and take pleasure in the fact that the queen of the alternative was finally being feted in the way we felt she deserved.

Once I’d worked out that Eype was where the album was recorded, I realised that, despite having been to almost every church in Dorset, it was one I’d never visited. On holiday in July that year I went for a lovely long walk around Bridport, taking in St Peter’s (where I just managed not to be hideously overemotional), and had an ice cream at West Bay. This was where it happened, I reflected: and all around, that beautiful landscape, the land Polly reminds us is ‘weighted down with silent dead’. O England my lionheart, you leave a taste, a bitter one. Just by the footpath out of Eype there is a radio mast whose incongruity in those green hills struck me, and I photographed it, later discovering that it had struck the singer too – she included it in a series of drawings. If you look carefully at the portrait photo accompanying the interview she did for GQ in 2011, it’s right in the corner.

She was now disappearing further into her work. One reviewer described Let England Shake as ‘a curiously humble masterpiece’, pointing out that many of the words were not the singer’s own, that she was becoming a medium, vocalising for the dead – a step beyond the multifoiled identities she’d adopted in the past. For live performances, she became a creature of straps and raven feathers, a seeress or a Sibyl, the priestess of an unfamiliar faith. And yet, aspects of who she was becoming were going to move into the light for the first time, despite herself. 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 9: 'A Woman a Man Walked By' (2009)

Now, this was a bit tougher going. In contrast to PJ-and-Parish’s previous collaboration, Dance Hall at Louse Point, A Woman … was recorded in bits over a much longer period and doesn’t hang together anything like so cohesively. If it has any unity, it’s that of two virtuoso performers enjoying what they can do. And ‘enjoying’ is the keyword: this is a recording that mangles styles, moods and expectations with anarchic glee. There’s a lot on it which is comic, though it’s serious more often than the presentation might lead you to think at first glance.

My memory is that I whipped through the album and then let it rest for a long while before returning to it again, which was unfair. I can now appreciate its cleverness and experimentation much more than I did. If nothing else it acts as a tonic against any impression of the maestra as a pitilessly demanding and downbeat artiste who can’t do anything but misery – as if we thought that anyway.

Choose Your Battles

We've talked about the Swanvale Halt Branch Mothers' Union before. Things have not been easy for the Branch, with several longstanding members dying or moving away, and a hard time had finding anyone to do the work the Branch needs doing. A couple of weeks ago the Chair, who had decided to retire, asked me 'what I was going to do about the MU'. 'We could close the branch, or amalgamate it with another', she went on. After a bit of thought I wrote to her setting out all the options, and my impression that, while the purpose of the MU was as a campaigning organisation, locally there was a tendency to become a fellowship group for its members, and Swanvale Halt Branch had to decide what it wanted to be. 

This was intended as part of a conversation with the branch chair, but she promptly read it to the Committee. I wouldn't have expressed myself quite so unguardedly had it been going more widely. While I was on leave I had no fewer than three outraged communications as a result ('There was no bedside manner!' commented one, and there shouldn't have been a need for one), so when I got back suggested gingerly that we call a meeting of the Committee to talk about it. 

It was all rather good-natured in the event. One typically very mild lady smiled that she'd wanted to 'come round and give you a slap', but as I was determined not to be self-justificatory or defensive and they wanted to get some things actually sorted out about the future, the hour went very positively. Some administrative and promotional changes will take place, I'll help with the latter, and we'll see what happens. 

Now, this should not have happened and is a cautionary tale about what amounts to a private conversation being opened more widely. I could have made a fuss about that, but didn't as there was no point, and the MU committee could have been far more stubbornly upset, but didn't see any point in doing that either. In a great number of parishes this could have been something that would poison relationships for years to come but, as I've had cause to be grateful for in the past, Swanvale Halt is a parish composed of strikingly sensible people. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 8: 'White Chalk' (2007)

‘Not having an immediate impact’ wasn’t an accusation that could ever be levelled against White Chalk. It was as though the musical world was minding its own business, felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned round to be faced with a ghost. Harvey abandoned her guitar for a piano and her vocal gymnastics for a high-pitched wail, part child, part wraith, vocalising a set of unsettling, inconclusive glimpses into realms of the uncanny that seemed to be unanchored from time or place. It was utterly different from anything she, or anyone, had done before. It was sui generis, somewhere between chamber music and folk, but neither. PJH had triumphantly reasserted her claim as a musical innovator, who never rested and who never let her audience relax completely either.

Longstanding fans who’d been following the lady with the guitar for years gulped and decided not to listen any more: not my reaction. Chilly and unwelcoming as this aural landscape was, it was one I felt quite at home in. I was exhilarated at her willingness to strike out into the unknown. Although only the title track explicitly refers to the Dorset landscape, it was the sense that that was where this music came from that hooked me. ‘White chalk south against time/White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme/I walk the valley by the Cerne/On a path cut fifteen hundred years ago/And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones’. If I’d wanted the tender, tough ‘The Desperate Kingdom of Love’ from Uh Huh Her at my funeral, here was a song to join it.

But what I missed was the deeper shift in our heroine which White Chalk signalled. For publicity and performances Polly had herself sewn and buttoned into black or white pseudo-Victorian gowns: the white ones were scrawled with song lyrics, as though she herself was erased, submerged within the dire world she had created. For some time in interviews she’d been talking about ‘getting out of the way of the songs’, and this was the symbolic expression of that sentiment. Ceasing to talk about anything but the work, she began to disappear into it. It’s a strange paradox in the spiritual life that just as you are settled and mature as an individual you discover your next task is to relinquish that bounded sense of selfhood within other commitments, and that this is what love really means. White Chalk was the starting-point of Polly’s self-disassembly, giving herself over consciously to something greater than she was, although it took a while for me to realise it. Whether, in such terms, she realised it herself, who can tell. 

A Tale of Horror

This is not a terribly spiritual post, but perhaps an illuminating one. I have apparently not been the only child traumatised in their early life by a clip from a Keystone Cops movie (which nobody seems able to identify) showing an actor called Charlie Murray, after a fight with James Finlayson (Laurel & Hardy's cinematic nemesis some years later), tied up next to an imminently-exploding boiler, shots of which are intercut with the Cops 'coming to the rescue' in their usual incompetent manner. Absolutely terrifying, and not the last time in my life I would be plagued by boilers. 

Two years before I arrived in Swanvale Halt, my predecessor's husband had concluded the installation of a new heating system for the church, a matter which had taken years and cost quite literally blood, sweat and tears. It didn't take long for the beautiful new system to start playing up and over the intervening years there has been a tediously growing number of repairs and firms of engineers of varying degrees of helpfulness and competence. Eventually the firm that put them in admitted that that particular model of boiler had had continual problems with it and advising that they be replaced. We decided to use some legacy money we had available to do this, though we employed the services of a different company to carry out the work.

Meanwhile, one of the congregation who is a plumber had been investigating some damp areas in the hall which connects our big meeting room with the church, kitchen, toilets and office. He discovered after much excavation that when the heating system for the hall (which is separate from the church's) was installed in 1989 the pipes had not been properly lagged and so were now falling apart. The pipes had been buried under the floor, which looks very neat but makes replacing them virtually impossible, so the old system in its entirety would have to be sealed off and a new one put in. We all gulped and got a set of quotations, eventually giving the job to the same company that was replacing the boilers. 

So that was all done, very efficiently. The replacement of the boilers was delayed a bit after the engineers discovered that they were missing a vital component which the suppliers hadn't told them they needed, but eventually all the piping was replaced and the new boilers were humming away nicely.

The plumbing company boss came to check over the work. He prodded the gable wall against which the boilers were mounted, and found that it was a bit, what in the trade is called live. In fact one of the breeze-blocks could be shifted with a firm finger. The wall wasn't strong enough to support the boilers (apparently it's not unknown for gable walls not to be constructed particularly strongly), and so a girder was rapidly mounted against the rafters further into the roof to brace them. One of our long-suffering churchwardens wearily called the architect who came and checked over the wall, and who, to our unimaginable relief, was of the opinion that it was probably OK and we should just keep an eye on it in case it moved. 

So all was well. Except it wasn't, not quite. Last week the heating system in the hall stopped working. It turned out that the timer had failed and had to be replaced.

And, so far, everything seems to be working. Until it gets really cold, probably.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 7: Uh Huh Her (2004)

Approaching your mid-30s, when you can’t kid yourself you’re young any longer but are not quite unequivocally middle-aged, you might be tempted to reassessment and reformulation. In 2004 I was in the process of being very definitely dismantled and reassembled, training to be ordained at St Stephen’s House in Oxford. These were an intense couple of years with an awful lot going on, and I wasn’t much concerned with the world outside that walled ecclesiastical compound between the Cowley and Iffley Roads. I’d begun to wonder whether I’d ever hear any interesting new music again: John Peel’s show had moved inconveniently late in the evening (and by the end of 2004 he would no longer be with us) and, while we had internet access at college, I didn’t do much with it. I was living off my savings and spending them on music wasn’t a priority. I was also trying my best to get my head around the plainchant we had to sing in the college chapel. All in all, I suspect I found out about and then bought Uh Huh Her rather tardily, and then didn’t pay it that much attention.

Had I done so, I would have found Polly Harvey in a similar reflective state. Uh Huh Her is the end of one phase of her musical journey and the beginning of another, mirroring what was going on in her life more generally. It gathers up some of her most characteristic themes and ideas and then points on towards something new. To complement the valedictory air she decorated the sleeve with a selection of self-portrait photos taken over many years, documenting the masks and guises she’d worn in her career to that point. Once the accompanying tour was done, hitting 35, she would put her rock-chick persona back in the dressing-up box and would never bring her out again, fashioning something very different in her place. 

Uh Huh Her is another recording I’ve come to reassess relatively recently. Then, it definitely felt as though PJ was marking time, and I didn’t put in the work the album required to appreciate what was happening. It’s too disparate to make the same immediate impact as some of its predecessors, wonderful though some of its tracks are. And, anyway, I was being plunged into a new world myself, and too busy mentally to spare Ms Harvey’s progress a lot of thought.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Talking the Lingo

'I'd like you to have a word with Mike,' said the email from my colleague, 'who is trying to discern the Lord's hand upon his life.'

I felt like replying 'Do you mean, "he's trying to work out what God wants him to do?" ' but I am rather fond of my correspondent and thought that would be a bit snarky. But I do hope nobody falls into this sort of language when speaking to real people, as opposed to just clergy.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 6: 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' (2000)

More nonsense is talked about Stories than any other bit of PJH’s output. It was her ‘New York’ album, it was her discovery of optimism and contentment after years of misery. It’s true that she said she wanted it to be ‘sumptuous’, ‘lovely’, and ‘beautiful’, and the music was much more conventional than any of her work thereto. It’s true, also, that it’s still, far and away, her most commercially successful recording. But close listening reveals how, beneath that, it’s deeply conflicted and ambiguous, asking, over and over again, whether love is really enough to counter the horrors of existence, and never reaching a clear answer.

At the time I didn’t really give Stories the benefit of a close listening. I was too much biased by all the ludicrous pre-publicity which seemed to be intent on crowing about Polly’s new-found ‘normality’, which, it would turn out, was as much of a mask as any of her other guises. A mainstream music world was rejoicing in the apparent capitulation of one of its sharpest thorns-in-the-side. I also found Thom Yorke of Radiohead’s presence on ‘This Mess We’re In’ entirely troubling, as I’d concluded from the example of Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes some years before that getting your famous chums to perform on your records is a sign of impending creative exhaustion (PJ fans like to praise the demo version of this track which only has her voice on it). I could tell that Stories was beautiful, and I could thoroughly enjoy some of the pieces, not least the way ‘This Wicked Tongue’ hurls bitter accusations against God and yet locates existential conflict inside as well; but the album’s subtleties would pass me by until much later. At the time it felt rather as though we were on the brink of losing a fellow trenchmate in the war for truth and beauty. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she’d decided to go out on a high note and hang up her guitar afterwards. I was, of course, and thankfully, very, very wrong – although, as it transpired, the guitar’s days were indeed numbered.

[The picture is the one Harvey and Maria Mochnacz suggested as the cover for the record. Had Island Records agreed, I wonder whether all the reviewers would have taken the view of it they did. In the event, as we know, Island threw up their hands in horror, and Harvey & Mochnacz sent instead a snap of the singer in New York which they contemptuously described as 'Posh Spice out shopping' - and so the die was cast ...]

Friday, 21 October 2016

This Hasn't Gone Away

Loathe the Brexiteers as I do (and especially the smug, arrogant, deluded fantasists on the Tory backbenches who seem to think that the rest of the world will give Britain whatever it wants simply because we’re so brilliant), I can’t join in with the desperate hope that the Referendum is going to be reversed. I know people make themselves feel better by sharing stories suggesting that might be a possibility (and perhaps it is); but simply overturning what happened in June won’t make the divisions in this country go away. A great part of the population of the UK has felt ignored and marginalised and has expressed that in pathological ways, and some of them will have been my parishioners who I have a responsibility for: those opinions won’t magically dissipate if we somehow stay in the EU after all, and in fact may well intensify as the poor (mainly) have their wishes trampled over by the well-off yet again, and are told once more that they are ignorant and unacceptable. We have a problem, a problem which isn’t essentially to do with the EU. Even behind what seems to be brutal and nasty opposition to ‘immigrants’ lies genuine resentment about change, inequality and powerlessness. We still need to deal with this, don’t we? The only alternative is just force, that one side ‘wins’ and enforces what it wants. Is that really the way forward? The Civil War option? And if it is, what do people who think of themselves as ‘liberal’ make of it?

If the vote does get reversed, it won’t be any kind of triumph. The defeat has already happened. I still haven't worked out what, as rector of Swanvale Halt, I might do to mitigate it.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, part 5: Is This Desire? (1998)

By 1998 I was working at Wycombe, settled and secure and in a much more stable state than I had been when Polly Harvey first came my way. As the time came to release her next album she claimed in interviews to be a lot happier, too, not that when Is This Desire? finally emerged there was much sign of it. The record marked a new departure into electronic sound, and a different texture of (mainly) dreamy, blurred-edged images and scenarios which seemed to slip past the listener one after another, but underlying it all was the same focus on the malign and uncomfortable, occasionally lapsing into the old violence. But what struck me most powerfully was one of the quieter, most intricate tracks: the third, ‘The Wind’.

On my bookshelf now there is a framed postcard of St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury. We’ve been going there since I was little: my mum sent me the postcard in 1991 when I was at college, and when Polly was just strumming her guitar for the first time as an independent artist having left John Parish’s band to set up her own, and nobody outside her immediate circle had heard of her. That place meant something undefinable and deep to me, as did, strangely even before I was a Christian, the saint to whom it was dedicated. In my old university notes there are scattered Latin lyrics to blessed Catherine of the Wheel, copied from obscure works on liturgy and medieval poetry. Why her? My spiritual director asked me that, and I don’t really know. Something to do with her bloody legend (which isn’t that bloody at all compared to some virgin martyrs), her strength, her intelligence – a big part of the story – and that brooding chapel on the hilltop above the chill of Chesil Beach, in some ways my spiritual home.

So I listened to ‘The Wind’ – a low blush of synthesisers, and then, the devastating, whispered voice: ‘Catherine liked high places, high up on the hills’. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and still does. ‘She built herself a chapel – with her image – her image on the wall’. Could it be true? This person who meant so much to me, singing about this place that meant so much to me, and this figure (albeit turning that figure imaginatively inside-out)? It couldn’t be otherwise, could it? Could I have got it wrong?

Of course I hadn’t. The chapel has found its way into Polly’s art; she mentions it to journalists who have come to Dorset to smoke her out (as she does St Catherine – ‘patron saint of spinsters’, she remarks deliberately); she visits it, as I do when I can. Obviously it’s nothing special: it’s merely that two disparate people have developed the same kind of relationship with the same landscape and the charismatic features within it. It’s no surprise, and I’m hardly alone: twenty years later, that landscape is now bound inseparably to the lyrics of ‘The Wind’, for everyone from Goth novelists (Miss Gish, look her up) to the Dorset tourist board. So I tell myself, at least, to keep my head.

Naturally I enjoyed the rest of the album, too.

Rising to the Challenge

Something actually churchy to vary the current diet.

Hornington Junior School, unlike Swanvale Halt Infants, is not a Church school and so our links with it are much more tenuous. I never assume that I have a right, as such, even to go into the Infants School, and there is always the possibility that the head teacher might eventually decide I am an idiot and not want me around. So my sense of being granted a privilege is even stronger on the rare occasions that I’m invited into Hornington Junior: lots of our Swanvale Halt children progress there when they leave the infants, and it’s good to be able to meet them again.

Year 3 were asking ‘What do Christians think God is like?’ in their RE class, and as their class teacher is an agnostic she decided to ask us whether we might come in and talk to the children. I put together a little presentation about how the ancient peoples knew what their gods looked like because they made statues of them (the children had recently been studying ancient Egypt so they gleefully recognised Anubis and Horus), but the Israelites believed there was only one god and that he didn’t look like anything at all, that he was everywhere all the time. We talked about the difference between answering the question ‘what is X like?’ by referring to appearance or to character (not in such terms, for 7/8-year-olds), Moses and the burning bush, the Psalms, and how meeting Jesus had changed people’s minds about what God was ‘like’. I showed them pictures showing how people had tried to imagine the Holy Trinity and said that if they were a bit confused by that idea they weren’t the only ones.

Finally I tried introducing RS Thomas (having tried Dante for six-year-olds back in Lamford, this seemed no more ambitious). ‘He says “God is the footprints on the shore” … what do you think he might have meant by that?’ I asked. Frankie, whose family are fairly regular congregants at Swanvale Halt, put up his hand. ‘I think he meant’, he said, ‘that God is always there but we can never quite see him.’ It couldn’t get any better than that, could it?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 4: Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

After the huge success of To Bring You My Love, Polly reacted rather typically by doing something defiantly uncommercial, something that without that success under her belt she’d never have got away with. Her collaboration with her friend John Parish imagined an end-of-the-line sort of place where lost souls gathered to relate their melancholy memories against some strikingly avant-garde musical and vocal accompaniment. Her determination not to market the record as ‘a PJ Harvey album’ meant it slipped past a lot of people, including me. I found out about it from my friends Sadie and David, who’d shared that astonishing night in the Chatham flat, and who went to see it performed, with a dance company, in Oxford, a show that left most critics bemused. When I got around to hearing it, I found Louse Point hard going, although with the passage of time I’ve come to realise how clever and interesting it is (that would be the case with Harvey and Parish’s next collaboration 13 years later, too). There was no missing the dark glee of the piece though, not when it included such songs as ‘Taut’, in which Polly hisses maniacally in character ‘Even the Son of God had to die, my darling!’, more than once.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 3: To Bring You My Love (1995)

Around these years I was first identifying myself as both a ‘person of Gothic sensibility’ and as a Christian: I was confirmed in May 1995. Not unnaturally I looked around for kindred souls who might give expression to similar interests. That sort of combination was there in Diamanda Galás, it was there (mildly as far as religion was concerned) in Siouxsie Sioux, it was there in Nick Cave whose music I’d been introduced to by a university friend five years before. I wasn’t sure the punky, aggressive Ms Harvey quite belonged in that company, though I would have been very pleased to think she did.

The Banshees’ final album, The Rapture, came out early on in 1995, followed within a month by To Bring You My Love. It was a complete, gorgeous shock, as though the baton had been handed on. Harvey had – not for the last time – almost completely reinvented her musical approach, having ditched her band and producing a silken, velvety record which exchanged rage for sorrow and anguish, a soaking swamp-blues soundscape that, as if to confirm everything I so wanted to be true, was drenched in Gothic and smoked dry again in a desperate, deathbed religiosity. ‘I’ve lain with the Devil, cursed God above’, Polly growled on the title track: Well, haven’t we all one way or another, I thought. ‘He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name’, she moaned on ‘The Dancer’, and the overwrought, luscious melodramatics made me fall apart a little inside. It was everything I could possibly have wanted it to be, and I felt like swooning whenever I listened. This was the baleful soundtrack to my heart (or a part of it).

A few months later I and two visiting friends were sat in my flat in Chatham watching my ridiculous tiny black-and-white TV: a late-night music show, I can’t recall what. We looked on open-mouthed as PJ Harvey and Nick Cave duetted on ‘Henry Lee’, coiling round each other as they crooned about vengeance and murder. Oh, come on. What was happening? Was she somehow psychically following a script that we were all writing for her?

Of course it didn’t last, and that pitch-perfect Polly-and-Nick haute Gothique coupling was over within months, very much not fun for either of them. What remained was the sense that we were all part of this uncanny community of feeling that was locked together by what she was doing. But she wasn’t going to be contained by our expectations: she had other places to go, and it was up to us whether or not we followed.

Park Life

Cylene the Goth has a new(ish) friend who works at Thorpe Park. Through her she’s discovered a sudden, overwhelming and apparently life-altering interest in theme parks. They’ve been to Alton Towers together (where Cylene spent the first day screaming and begging for it to stop) and Portaventura in Spain. ‘We should do something different’, Cylene said to me, different, that is, from our usual fare of coffee, complaining and charity shops, ‘we should go to Thorpe Park’. I have reached middle age never having been to a theme park, not a real one; never having been on a rollercoaster. The offer of cut-price tickets actually made it sound realistic. ‘Because I’m mad I can get disabled entry, too’, she pointed out, ‘so we can avoid the queues for the rides. You’d count as my carer. There are some advantages to being mentally ill.’ So together with the ‘nutcase pass’ it all amounted to quite a reasonable package. If I was ever going to do this, I could hardly do it under such advantageous conditions. OK, I said, much to Cylene’s surprise, and we went last Friday, as I was still on holiday.

The first ride took place entirely inside, in the dark punctuated by coloured flashes of light. It was unspeakably terrifying and I wasn’t sure I could actually face any more. ‘That was the easiest ride in the park about from the tiny children’s ones,’ Cylene pointed out. ‘Look, I’ll ease you into it gradually.’ By the end of a day of tension and terror I was able, by a colossal effort of will, to keep my eyes open all the way through the final ride, something I hadn’t managed before: it was, nevertheless, absolutely horrible, and the catharsis and exhilaration Cylene talked about I felt not a moment of. ‘Funny, I find I’m less frightened if I look’, she said, ‘it helps to see what’s happening.’

But the point of this post is not my own reactions, but my friend’s strange epiphany. Cylene is a newcomer to this world, too. Back in Albuquerque as a child her parents promised to take her to a theme park, then drove straight past it and went somewhere else. It was by no means the most horrible thing they did to her, but it was an act of wanton betrayal she has nursed through the intervening quarter-century. Now I see this usually misanthropic soul whose imaginary landscape of comfort is a post-nuclear-apocalyptic ruin – happy. At one with the world. ‘That’s park life’, she explains. She has thrown herself imaginatively into the park experience, and can reel off statistics on ride usage and the characteristics and approaches of the different manufacturers who actually make the things; but that’s the kind of impressive commitment she customarily applies, to everything from perfume to the history of handbags to acrylic paint for her art work. More strikingly, the park is now for her something of a spiritual space. ‘I’m interested in the presentation, the engineering, the whole way it works. No other species has done anything like this. It’s a place that simply exists to make people happy, harmlessly. Here I don’t even have a problem with children being around because they’re all focusing on something else.’ I hadn't really thought of any of this: it's a set of remarkably benign insights. She’s decided she would quite like to work in ride maintenance, and it might be very good if that could happen.

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 2: Rid Of Me, 1993

I can pinpoint the very day I bought Rid Of Me, as it’s in my diary – coincidentally, October 30th, also the day I saw Polly perform five years ago, and the day I will (D.V.) this year, too: and from Square Records in Wimborne, as well, a more appropriate place than any bar Beaminster, perhaps. I wrote then that the album was ‘proving wonderful’, but gave no hint why I chose to buy it. I must have heard John Peel playing tracks from it, and may also have worked out by then that Ms H was Dorset-born. That’s nice, I thought, nothing much has come out of Dorset since Thomas Hardy.

Rid Of Me takes the themes and methods of Dry and escalates both: it’s an almost relentlessly violent, extreme recording, and although I knew nothing at all about music even I could appreciate intuitively how far outside anything mainstream, how jagged and desperate it was. The imagery helped: on the record sleeve – well, it was a cassette tape, imagine that! – Polly was captured by photographer friend Maria Mochnacz naked in a bathtub, in the act of flicking her head backward, a great mane of black hair coated in a silver sheath of water, her eyes half-closed – those black brows, that defiant nose, that expression which is no expression at all. There was no attempt to look glamorous in any conceivable way. This wasn’t someone presenting themselves sexually, but a defiantly strong-minded person in a deliberately vulnerable context.

And I suppose that was the appeal. Why should this woman’s work, this murderous music which opened out of a very definitely female experience (though not ‘feminist’, as she always wanted to stress), mean anything to me, an Oxford-educated male museum curator? She didn’t even dress it up in swirly Gothic romanticism like some of my other enthusiasms, but preferred straightforward brutality. In fact, looking back at my diary then, 1993 seems to have been a turbulent year. I was halfway through my first proper job at the Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne, busily applying for others, and still convulsed with the same anxieties that had plagued my adolescence – it would take a year or two yet before I began to calm down emotionally. I was bewildered by a series of abortive attempts to attract the interest of various women I met, and negotiating relationships with friends, the presence of my only ex-girlfriend and what was going on in her life, family illness, politics, and religion. There was a lot happening: though exactly why I might have felt such deepseated anger which found sympathy in the parallel anger of a young woman from Corscombe I can’t really guess from this remote standpoint, but it did.

And so it stayed, for a while. I didn’t read the music press, didn’t keep up with the publicity, had no idea what anyone was saying about PJ Harvey and how she was perceived: all I had was the music, and that was probably a good thing.

Milton Abbas

The other Dorset chapel of St Catherine is at Milton Abbas, of course, and I and my mum were there last week. I was so glad she was able to make it all along the woodland path to the hilltop from where you can look down at the Abbey in the valley, as was she. The chapel is usually locked these days, but there are signs that it's being better cared for: the windows are freshly re-leaded and covered by new shiny black grilles. Supposedly the School estate is celebrating the anniversary of Capability Brown who laid out the grounds by, among other works, making a proper path to the chapel from the abbey, though there is no sign of that yet.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 1

On the 30th of this month I will drag Ms Formerly Aldgate to the Brixton Academy where she will have to put up with the practical expression of my long-term devotion to the Queen of Dorset, namely, attending PJ Harvey’s gig there. I will weep and make an idiot of myself during various songs, and she will look at me with pity (Ms FA, not Polly, who will have other things on her mind).

Fandom is a curious phenomenon, but although I know why I find Ms H’s music so moving, it’s hard to put that into anything anyone else may appreciate. There are other performers I admire (the sainted Diamanda, the blessed Siouxsie, the great Kate – all women, oddly enough), but with PJ it’s different. It’s partly the Dorset connection, knowing that so much of the landscape of her imagination is the same as mine (very specifically so, in some cases). It’s partly how she has changed, at the same time (though not necessarily in the same directions) as I have changed. And it’s partly the nature of the work itself, deepening and growing over the course of twenty-five years. It seems ridiculous that I should feel such a sense of connection with someone I’ve never met, and I mentioned this to my spiritual director. ‘Why?’ parried SD with his usual breeziness. ‘You’ve never met Our Lord or St Catherine. Why is this any different?’ Well, perhaps only out of considerations of propriety, as Our Lord and St Catherine, by the nature of their work, make themselves available for such connection, and a pop singer doesn’t, not primarily, anyway, and would have good reason not to welcome it. They just do their stuff. But I suppose they do their stuff at least partly because they’ve been fans too, and know what it’s like.

How did this come about? In the run-up to the 30th I thought I would trace the line, one album at a time.

Dry was Polly Harvey’s first album, released in 1992 when PJ Harvey was a band as well as an individual: it takes her blues heritage and accelerates it with the aggressive energy of post-punk, marinating both in the unaccountable sense of sardonic rage the songwriter seemed to feel, who knows where from. But I wasn’t much into buying albums at that time, and didn’t pick up on Dry as such until much later.

Instead it was early that year that I heard the band’s second single, ‘Sheela-na-Gig’, via that great and lamented repository of the alternative, John Peel’s Radio 1 show. Not being au fait with the possibilities of multi-track recording, I assumed PJ Harvey were a girl group, because of the cross-cutting vocals. I also assumed, as many people did, that the lead singer, at least, was American. (years later she would instruct herself ‘English accent, dammit!’).

There were quite a lot of angry young women singers about in the early 90s, but ‘Sheela-na-Gig’ was something different. This was anger and erudition: I knew what sheela-na-gigs were, after misspending my teenage years stuck in my room reading about folklore and other arcana, but I hadn’t expected to hear them being referenced on Radio 1 (it would have been odd, actually, for an American to have picked up on the motif, in that far-off pre-internet age when you had to discover relevant books to find things out). It was also anger and humour, and anger and conflict: the narrator of the song both despises and yearns for male approval. This was nothing obvious, nothing straightforward; it acknowledged ambiguity and strife. It was really rather worth paying attention to. And so I filed PJ Harvey away in my mind for future reference. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Yorkshire Miscellany

To clear the decks before other matters come to the fore, here's a quick round-up of my favourite sites from my Yorkshire trip. Ruins first: the best (that is, most physically impressive) castle I went to was Middleham, enough of whose massive fabric survives to suggest one of those fairytale castles you see illustrated in medieval manuscripts. It happens to have been Richard III's favourite castle, too, and so has become something of a Ricardian shrine which is why you find a statue of him in the bailey and bunches of white roses about the place.
I saw a variety of ruined abbeys, too, and liked best Jervaulx, which is privately owned and so has avoided the cleansing-and-purifying worthy public bodies such as English Heritage must inflict on their possessions and has the air of a very grand garden ornament - at least, a garden is arranged around it, in and out of the various buildings.
High above the town of Pateley Bridge are the lovely remains of the old parish church, St Mary's, finally deemed unsuitable in the mid-1800s and now beautifully ruined. It's true that the way there is precipitously steep. The yew trees sigh above the gravestones and there is a deep atmosphere of peace.
That leads on to church interiors, if you can so describe York Minster. The glorious grisaille of the Five Sisters Window in the north transept is one of the most dramatic, moving sights I've ever seen in a place of worship. 
While in York I realised I was right outside the famous All Saints', North Street, so had to go in. From here, thanks to Percy Dearmer's protegé Fr Patrick Shaw, the English Use spread across the North. It feels a bit museum-like today, but so beautiful, and pungent with incense in the air. The chancel extends so far into the nave that there can't be space for more than 50 people in the pews in front.
Then there is Snape, where the parish church is in fact the old chapel of the Castle, some of which is still lived in as a private home: there are not many public places of worship you have to reach via a staircase round the back of someone's house. All that sumptuous wood panelling is misleading, as until the later 1800s the place was a storeroom, which, sadly, reduced what we must assume was once a gorgeous painted ceiling to wreckage.
My favourite holy well was the Lady Well at Threshfield, favourite because it was such a pig to find. It shouldn't have been, as Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor in Holy Wells of Yorkshire state very helpfully that it's at Bridge End Farm in Threshfield, through a gap in the wall just between the Grassington bridge and the Linton road. The trouble is, without the aid of the relevant OS map to distinguish them, there are two bridges and the topography at the wrong one is curiously similar to that at the right, and there's even a spring in the wrong place too. Thankfully I eventually worked out the mistake and found this lovely well, still nicely looked after.

Finally, museums. The Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes is best-resourced of those I saw and so should be the best-displayed, as indeed it is. It organises the galleries around the elements of the landscape available to the Dales people - 'Stone, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal' - and so you have no doubt puts five monumental pillars at the start of your journey containing relevant objects. It's very clear, and very good. 

I was lucky to be able to take in a temporary exhibition: an art installation entitled 'Nature, Skin and Bone'. Now, usually the words 'art installation' are calculated to depress my spirits but this was very effective: you enter through a narrow passageway to whispered voices and a low drumbeat into a dark, open space interspersed with arrangements of stone, bone, and bare wood, lit by spotlights. It was as though you were suddenly in the mind of the Stone Age, wondering what it might be like to negotiate a hostile environment, attempting to make sense of the forces determining your life with ritual acts of which all you can see in the installation are the remains. 
And finally there is the Nidderdale Museum at Pateley Bridge, a charming and quite extensive old-fashioned pack-everything-in sort of place with a variety of mannekins who have clearly been pressganged from their previous employment in sundry shops and made to perform new roles. My favourite was this young woman in the costume display, whose significance was not completely clear, but who is without doubt the most catastrophically hung-over museum model I've ever seen. She's got up, she has no idea how the party ended or why she's wearing a corset many times too big for her, and all she knows is that she needs bacon and eggs with an urgency which defies belief.
How she got the late Amy Winehouse's hair is also a bit of a mystery.

Follies, Contrasted

It turned out that lots of people are aware of The Forbidden Corner at Tupgill near Middleham, but I knew nothing of it until I came across a reference in Headley and Meulenkamp, the folly-hunter's vade mecum, and went to chase that reference down last week. The story is that Colin Armstrong and a couple of collaborators dreamt the place up as a private family joke, then decided the joke was too good not to let the public in on, and now it's open all the year round. Somewhere along the way the Council realised that not a brick of it had planning permission, which resulted in a bit of a saga, but unlike that irresponsible fellow in Surrey who had to take his castle down this year, Mr Armstrong brought in enough public support to win the day. And so The Forbidden Corner still stands. 

And it is, quite simply, indescribable, apart from being the maddest garden landscape I have ever come across or, I suspect, ever will.

You enter through a gate which is actually the mouth of some unidentifiable creature, and are then deafened by intestinal rumblings and assaulted by its uvula before being poo-ed out at the other end into a landscape there is no point describing in detail. Labyrinthine paths wander through the woods past statues and walls a door in one of which (a plaque warns you not to go through - you should ignore all such admonitions here) leads eventually to St Cuthbert's Hut, where you will find his Well, a place of spiritual calm - but not before you have been menaced and threatened by a variety of animatronic amusements.

'Cave Aquae' warns this inscription. As you venture closer to inspect the wee-ing little boy, you will discover why you should 'Beware Water', an injunction which applies to many places around the Corner.

Chambers, misleading tunnels and passageways, a temple you glimpse from a variety of viewpoints before working out how to get there (you have to tread perilously along stepping-stones) - and there's no way back through that door ...
Strange creatures, a demented family mausoleum, a mock castle, a variety of architectural jokes: there seems to be no end to this, and certainly it took me a couple of hours to negotiate my way around (most of) the four acres of the Corner. At one stage I was anxious to escape from a long period underground (and find the temple, actually), and thankfully spied a little doorway to world outside. As I approached, it quickly became clear that the passageway to the door was rapidly shrinking: an optical illusion. The gap was something over two feet high. Ah, I can make it through that, I thought boldly, and thankfully did, much to the amusement of the people outside. It is huge fun, and you must go while you still have anything of a child's heart in you.

The other folly I want to tell you about is very, very different. On the map I saw the words 'Druid's Temple', and wondered what that might be as it wasn't marked in the usual Gothic script the Ordnance Survey uses to denote ancient sites of any variety. On the Friday of my holiday I was on my way back to the Temple and thought I would just about have time to chase the place down. It turned out to be somewhere I'd seen photos of, but had no idea was anywhere near my Yorkshire base: a sort of mini-Stonehenge constructed by a landowner in the late 1700s to provide work for indigent labourers. But what a weird, dank spot it is, incongruously islanded in a wood miles from anywhere. 

It may simply have been the time of day and the dull weather, but whatever its lighthearted intentions, it certainly feels as though two centuries of some sort of nastiness have affected the Druids' Temple. The megaliths around the circle form a series of dark chambers, and there is a particularly deep one at the far end; an altar stone, a massive stone table, and a throne fit for a giant complete the picture of what could have been made as a Hammer film set. I was glad to see it, but equally very happy to leave. 

While investigating the farthest chamber, I accidentally took a flash photograph. It was only when I looked over my snaps later that I discovered the words 'YOU WILL SUFFER' scrawled over the far wall. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Temple, Swinithwaite

My residence last week in Yorkshire was The Temple at Swinithwaite, a delightful little folly dating from the very turn of the 18th/19th century. I can't recall quite how I came across it - it's not a Landmark, as it belongs to Swinithwaite Hall about a mile away to the east, and was refashioned and restored as a holiday let in the 1990s. The website doesn't reveal (as far as I can remember) the quite important fact that to go to bed you have to venture outside, leaving the cozy if bijou downstairs room with its underfloor heating and scaling the stone steps to the balcony around the first floor, eventually finding the door into your lovely Georgian chambre. It didn't make a difference to me, and I only faced one morning when I had to brave the rain on first rising, but it might do to some!

Halfway through Monday morning I had a call from the estate office to apologise for a plague of flies at the Temple. Did I still want to come? Well, I was by that stage a considerable distance up the M1 and wasn't going to be put off by a few flies. So on taking up residence I swept them off the windowsills of the bedroom, without thinking further about it. Tuesday evening saw a positively Biblical infestation, requiring disposing of some hundreds of houseflies: after that the problem very swiftly declined. I suppose they must have been coming down the chimney, though what attracted them remains mysterious.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

St Catherine in Yorkshire

This is a gentle start to some posts from my Yorkshire holiday. The Blessed Catherine was not actually that much in evidence, as it happens. She was one of Richard III's patron saints and so her name appears, along with his other patrons, above the canons' stalls in Middleham Church which he endowed, but apart from that there are just these two very sumptuously-coloured windows from York Minster, the first from the north aisle just where you go in, and the second from the chapter house.