Sunday, 10 December 2017

Comfort O Comfort My People

‘We and the evangelicals do believe in the same God, after all,’ I once feebly told my spiritual director. ‘But do we?’ he countered. ‘I’m not at all sure we do. When I hear some people on the extreme end of the evangelical wing of Christianity talking about it, the God they describe is really quite different from the one I imagine.’

You can ignore this for most of the time. But occasionally you encounter it stated in so brutal a manner that S.D.’s reasoning seems no more than the plain truth. Here is the core of the Christian message, according to a commentator on a blog post I read the other day.

… both essential elements of the Apostolic Gospel: the terrible truth and warning that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and the wonderful, sincere, genuine command, invitation, and exhortation to all of us to respond to the love, mercy and grace of God by repenting and submitting to Christ in his atoning propitiatory death and life giving resurrection, and thus to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and to be ultimately conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of God’s Son.

Put these strictures another way and I don’t dissent much from them. It is, indeed, a core element of the Christian faith’s account of human nature and the human situation that we are fallen, unable by our own efforts to be holy or to choose the good, to be anything more than moderately acceptable pagans; that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ repairs this damage, and that to be repaired we have to turn to him and allow him to do his work. It’s the same idea, re-expressed. But the phraseology and arrangement of this statement, this creed, is the whole point of it: to ‘put it another way’ would be to rob it of its power, for those for whom it resonates. Wrath and condemnation is its emotional crown, and satisfaction at it the lavish pleasure at its centre. It is, genuinely, a different imagining of God from mine, and I have no doubt from the great majority of all the Christians I know who I call, or might call themselves, evangelicals.

You could say much about this. The phraseology of divine wrath is there throughout the Scriptures; we can see the understanding of what it means widening from a belief in God’s jealous and personal hunger for the loyalty of the people of Israel through a sense that he will punish not just unfaithfulness and ritual transgression, but all injustice. Finally, in the writings of St Paul, it becomes a way of describing an existential state and an eschatological hope, the knowledge that you are radically estranged from God on the one hand, and the promise that evil will one day be destroyed and purged from creation on the other. Wrath refers to both these things. It is not, however, anywhere abstracted into a neat phrase that imputes to God the human emotion of rage; still less that he looks on humans with that kind of rage until they follow a certain specific set of actions. Evangelistically, you wouldn’t use this kind of language: most human beings, left to themselves, aspire to be nothing more than ‘moderately acceptable pagans’, and it is waking to the grand love of God which throws into relief our own unloveliness. Without that, we don’t see the Fall for what it is: and God’s wholesale ‘condemnation’ of humanity looks arbitrary, pathological, and unjust. It’s exactly this process that Paul grapples with in the convoluted, paradoxical 7th chapter of Romans: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died’. It takes a revelation of holiness to show us what’s really going on, and God’s definition of holiness is Jesus. The Church’s proclamation of the Good News should start with him, not with us. The primary fact of the Christian revelation is God’s nature, not our need.

Hearing that ‘we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God’, many people will think first of children. Nobody should doubt, or could doubt if they spent long with them, that small children are as marked by the Fall as grown-ups are; if they are ‘innocent’ it’s because they’re inexperienced, as yet unschooled in the dangers and horrors of the world and how they might affect them, not in the sense that original sin, our common inherited tendency to go astray, doesn’t touch their acts. But virtually every human being will revolt against the idea that God looks at children, at their children in their arms, with rage and disgust. And that isn’t what we see him doing. God incarnate in Jesus Christ gathers children in his own arms, children as deeply wounded by the effects of original sin as any grown-up is, and blesses them.  He makes them the measure of the faith of adults, even though they haven’t made any conscious expression of belief in him (I can imagine extreme Protestants suggesting they might have done, but such would be a fond invention and an unwarrantable addition to the holy text). He does this in Mark 10, and a moment later in that account he can be found looking with love on someone else who hasn’t expressed any faith in him, either – except to come and ask him a question, a childlike act too.

The closest Scripture comes to that ‘evangelical’ creed is a passage in Ephesians 2. ‘Like the rest’, says Paul in that text, ‘we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.’ That phrase, ‘objects of wrath’ is there, surely, yet you see easily how mercy and wrath can, according to the holy Apostle, co-exist in the mind of God, even if not in ours. There is no clear, sequential process. To illustrate this with a picture – in fact, to supersede it by one – which shows God’s expression flicking from contorted frown to beneficent smile as we pray the Prayer of Faith is to traduce the Scriptures, and Him.

I would like to offer that the Gospel is more this: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us the truth about ourselves and the world; and the truth is, that the unconquerable love of God is the great fact of all creation, that the sign of love is the Cross, and that though our first ancestors fell away from that love, and we are permanently wounded by their fall, he has not abandoned us, but in Christ reaches to lift us out of death into his coming Kingdom. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Shifting Perspective

My first brush with political life at University late in 1988 found me plunged into the midst of the merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP. I attended a meeting of the student group attempting at that time to call themselves the Democrats (later to become the Social & Liberal Democrats, and finally just the Liberal Democrats, which is the title which has sort-of stuck): I was instantly given an insight into what was happening as the Secretary of the society, Comrade Tankengine, sat virtually biting his ring-binder, emblazoned with a sticker labelled ‘I’m Staying Liberal’, while the President stood beside him saying exactly the opposite. I got to know Comrade Tankengine fairly well and contributed ill-natured screeds now and again to the satirical-political newsletter he used to produce. In those days I found myself definitely opposed to the European Union, that sprawling behemoth which managed to combine grinding bureaucracy with destructive capitalism. Comrade Tankengine didn’t see completely eye-to-eye with me on that, though he appreciated where I was coming from and allowed me to say it in print.

As I sat with the radio this morning and heard Mrs May and Mr Tusk announcing the agreement which enables the negotiations between the UK and the EU to proceed to the next phase – whatever the ambiguities of that agreement – I thought of how far I’d come, and why. I ceased to think of myself as any kind of liberal, philosophically, long ago, concluding that liberalism was insufficient to answer the difficulties human beings face. The EU referendum campaign last year, in which I havered and hesitated and changed my mind repeatedly until, surveying the massed ranks of madness on the Leave side, I concluded I had to vote to Remain, forced me to face another change in the way I view political priorities.

Frankly, money has become my ultimate concern. Not my own personal finances, which are likely to remain reasonably healthy unless there’s a complete social and economic collapse, an eventuality the UK’s membership of the EU will probably have no effect on either way. Rather I look around me at how hard things are for many people I know, how public services are pinched and restricted, how mean-spirited and sclerotic the benefits system has become, and I really, really don’t want these aspects of British life to become any worse. Spiritually, a downward spiral of resources and services is hardly the kind of national environment which encourages optimism, kindness, and openness to the world: it was disproportionately the poor who voted to Leave. Monetary security, like physical security, reduces the grip of the fear and rage which ever threatens to engulf us. Money’s important, or rather, security is: it produces the things we really value.

So now I care very little about abstract matters of government and control, definitely if the choice is between two structures which both allow people to participate in governmental and economic processes – say, the UK within, or the UK outside, the EU. The question is what gives people the greatest scope for self-expression, mutual support and organisation, and problem-solving. If they’ve got that, they can cope, and gradually improve their condition, which is as much as anyone can ever expect. Everything else is detail.

It’s a surprise to discover what really bothers me, and how prosaic my concerns ultimately are; chastening, in fact.

"Who cares where national borders lie
Who cares whose laws you’re governed by
Who cares what name you call a town
Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground"

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Holy Well of Eastbourne (perhaps)

Back in the days of the old Source magazine paranormal researcher Alan Cleaver wrote a piece for it on holy wells as 'Wormholes in Reality', places where people might slip from one dimension to another. One of the individuals he mentioned was Donald Dent of Exning in Cambridgeshire, the man who allegedly vanished in 1975 after having visited the holy well nearby, and the other was Jessie Earl, the young woman who disappeared from her bedsit in Eastbourne in 1980 near the area called Holywell west of the town centre. There's only one other mention of Donald Dent online which makes me wonder whether he ever existed at all; while poor Ms Earl's body was found nine years later, meaning that her disappearance was entirely explicable, if, as yet, a crime that remains unsolved. Holy wells had nothing to do with either event, or non-event, yet the Holy Well of Eastbourne has remained in my imagination, and in other people's.

My friend Ms Kittywitch has recently moved to Eastbourne where she grew up, and last week I went to visit her new residence, a nice town-centre flat presided over by her ageing Siamese cat. She had to wait in for a parcel, so as the light faded from the day I went alone to find the Holy Well. 

Although eighteenth-century works mention the Well, and the name dates back as far as the 1300s, its actual location was unclear. Then in 2009 a group of local people identified it as a spring dribbling out of the chalk cliff face not far from the Holywell beach huts. It was cleared up, decorated with a wooden name board and a cup for the water, and even blessed by a Catholic priest (there's a video of this event available). It isn't entirely clear that this is the historic site of the original Holy Well, but, as is the manner of these things, that probably matters less than the fact that people treat it as though it was. 

When I found it, a couple of hundred yards beyond the beach huts, the tides had washed a layer of pebbles and shingle up to the foot of the cliff, inundating the big stones placed there to mark the well-basin. The water was no more than a dribble, and the cup and framed account of the well's history had gone, replaced by a rusting supermarket basket on a ledge: I'm not sure what that's supposed to signify. But the white crags make this an unusual well, strangely untamed, even if I certainly don't fancy sampling the water.





Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Abyss Stares Back

Yesterday morning the passage I was reading (for my own edification) before my prayer time was the healing of the demoniac from Luke 8. For some reason the snippet that impressed itself on me was the fact that the demons infesting the man called Legion 'begged Jesus not to order them to go into the abyss'. From there I turned to my copy of the compilation of spiritual writings, Celebrating the Seasons, which offered me an excerpt from St Augustine's Confessions. 'Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is exposed'. There was no question as to what would form the matter of my meditation later on (it's not always as clear, or as substantial, as that).

Leaving aside all questions as to that the demons really are or what they mean, why do they fear the 'abyss' and want to escape it? I've heard it argued that the unclean spirits, assuming there are such things, yearn to elbow their way into human beings so that they can, through them, enjoy the bodily lusts which as spirits they cannot exercise by nature; which is all well enough, but can't be found in Scripture. If, as Augustine suggests, the abyss is in fact the depth of our true nature, however, you can see why the demons fear it. Our lusts - our 'inordinate desires' - are a means, for us humans, of avoiding the truth about who we really are, and it's the same for them. In the abyss, as in the desert, the desert we enter spiritually in Lent to confront reality at its starkest, we are stripped of illusions and delusions and have no choice but to face the truth. The demons' stock-in-trade is lying and deceit: untruth about what they are and what we are, too. If they were banished away from their distractions into the 'abyss', they would have to face the truth about what they were and had done. They might repent, and no longer be demons. And that they fear. As, all too often, we do. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Extra Candle

‘Why haven’t you asked me to come to Swanvale Halt?’ our bishop asked when I went to see him about the Parish Share proposals in the summer. ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to ask,’ I answered, and eventually we arranged for him to come and preside at our 10am mass on the Feast of Christ the King, which was yesterday. It’s a long time since this happened, though while I’ve been in the parish we’ve had two evening confirmation services. 

The question arises of what you should do with a bishop, particularly what you should do in a moderate-Catholic Anglican church which has been firmly in a modern liturgical tradition since the late 1960s. Look in the old liturgical books such as Ritual Notes and you will find a confusing welter of regulations without any insight into the governing principles that might help you navigate your way. Is our 10am service at Swanvale Halt more like a High Mass or a Low Mass? For the former a bishop requires a whole phalanx of assistant clergy to handle his (or now her) ritual bits and pieces. At least a diocesan bishop within their own jurisdiction does: there are separate instructions for what you do with other sorts of bishop, visiting bishops or retired bishops, or what happens when one sort of bishop presides at a service and the diocesan bishop assists or merely sits and watches. And we will not touch on mitred abbots. I was originally trying to find out what happens to the bishop’s ring, remembering the time at High Wycombe when our sacristan found a little silver stand at the back of the cupboard on which the bishop was supposed to put his ring when he was washing his hands before the consecration, but I ended up finding out about all sorts of other completely bewildering things; even I’d never heard of the scotula, the small candle the bishop has the right to have near him whenever he reads from anything (this requires, of course, another server to carry). 

In the old rites, the bishop does virtually nothing for himself: he has assistants to vest him before the service begins, and even during the service itself, a deacon-assistant removes and replaces his mitre. You can understand this theologically as representing the fact that the bishop does not take authority on themselves, but has it conferred on them by the Church, expressing the identity of the Church in one person and providing the bishop themselves with a physical meditation on who they are. However, that’s an attempt to read as Christian symbolism something whose origin is in fact sociological, a signal that the bishop is Very Important. Having someone (several people, in fact) to help the bishop dress perhaps seemed less weird in a society in which gentlemen had valets, and ladies, maids, and the marking of social hierarchy was more clear; it definitely does seem odd now and even the highest of liturgical functions would feel cluttered and confused rather than enhanced by a group of servers of different ranks fluttering in attendance to one figure. In the modern rites we’ve also abandoned all the complexities of hand-kissing whenever bits of kit are transferred between one ecclesiastical personage and another, replacing the osculae (that’s the technical word) with slight bows which feel far more natural.

Mitres and croziers still have to be dealt with, however. I volunteered myself as chaplain for the occasion as I’d never done it before, and before the service started I and the bishop talked through how it would work. We agreed the etiquette would be:
  • Hat and stick on the way in, removed after the altar is reverenced
  • Hat and stick back for the Absolution, taken away after the Collect
  • Stick only for the reading of the Gospel, taken away afterwards
  • Hat and stick for the final blessing and on the way out

I consoled myself that, being from the Evangelical end of the spectrum, +Andrew was unlikely to be very fussy about what should or shouldn’t happen, and in fact might not even know what it was. It all went fine, even if his interpretation of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats as a warning that ‘the nations’ would be judged by God on the basis of how they treated their Christian minorities was one I might question, if I had the occasion.

And the extra candle? The presence of a diocesan bishop presiding at Mass is traditionally signalled by a seventh candle placed among the six on the high altar. We don’t have six at Swanvale Halt, we have two, but I thought this was ‘an innocent and laudable custom’ and, because all our own candlesticks were in use, pressed one of my nan’s into service for the morning. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Festa Caterinae 2017

Like last year, the weather was beautiful for Mid-Day Prayer at the Chapel of St Catherine at Guildford; unlike last year, the congregation included no dogs or under-fives. Earlier on in the day we'd had Mass at Swanvale Halt, and I was as ever hugely grateful for the good souls of the parish who turn out loyally so that I can observe the feast of my patron saint, especially when one was a gentleman who only joined us from the most extremely hard-line Protestant church locally a couple of years ago. There always seem to be six of us present, no matter when the mass is, or what day St Catherine's Day falls on. Next year it's a Sunday; I have a fantasy of saying Mass in the chapel at Abbotsbury, but it may remain no more than that.











The Wheel

In the chapel, Christ's Athene
Holds her wheel
Like a weapon,
Its riveted and silvered blades poised to plunge
And part the millrace of my poor flesh
Like the Red Sea.
‘It wasn’t like that’, she insists,
‘It really wasn’t. Look:
I set it turning, ever-so-gentle -
And all the mute hues of the hills
Are fired by the gold of heaven.’
‘You’re right,’ I say, wide-eyed,
And return down the long hillside to my car
To go on,
Branded with the sign of light.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Pro Ceciliae

The feast day of my patron saint is approaching fast, but this period of November furnishes the festivals of a number of others. There is Edmund on the 20th, brave King of East Anglia who ended pincushioned with arrows by the wicked Danes, and gentle Pope Clement on the 23rd, drowned late in the 1st century with an anchor dragging him to the bottom of the Black Sea. And then, yesterday, the 22nd marks the entry into eternity of blessed St Cecilia.

Like Catherine of the Wheel, Cecilia was usually listed as one of the medieval Fourteen Holy Helpers, and appears luminously in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rood screens in Norfolk. Like Catherine, too, and several other members of the Fourteen - Barbara, George, Christopher, and Margaret of Antioch - notwithstanding her popularity, her cult was suppressed by the Vatican in 1969 and she was expunged from the calendar, at the peak of the Roman Church's embarrassment at the credulous and picturesque pieties of its past. 

This was a shame, not just because it meant losing a branch off the great tree of the Church's devotional heritage but because Cecilia was very useful. In the 16th century she'd become the patron saint of musicians, mainly because of the line from her Acts which became part of the liturgy for her feast day: 'as the organs at her wedding feast were playing, Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord, saying: May my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded'. Musicians need a saint to pray for them, no matter what her history may or may not have been. Chris, our late organist at Lamford, when the new edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory arrived in the church office, would never fail to flick through it and fulminate that organists and directors of music weren't included alongside all the pastoral assistants and youth workers and the like. Since then I've always prayed for our church musicians. 

Cecilia is still there in the Anglican calendar, but only as a minor observance, which means she doesn't get a collect of her own. If you observe her feast day you have to use the Common of Martyrs and stick her name in it, which strikes me as a bit stingy. There are collects for Cecilia online, but they seem to have been written by people who don't know the strict haiku-like conventions that govern the structure of collects. So here is mine, compiled from 'other sources'.

Gracious God,
whose blessed martyr Cecilia sang in her heart
to strengthen her witness to you:
grant that we may join with her in Creation's canticle of praise until the last,
and share in the song of those redeemed
by our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Infidelity Rules

Polling company IPSOS Mori have recently published the results of a global survey into religious attitudes, which I learned about through the Christian information blog Word On The Streets (I'm not sure how I ended up on their mailing list). 'Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world', was how WOTS reported the story. This is indeed the case: in the survey, for all the statements about belief and attitudes towards it, towards people with other or no religious traditions, and towards the relationship between religion and wider society, the aggregate results from UK residents were further along the secular end of the spectrum than the global average. Most Britons feel that religion doesn't play a role in defining them or their country; that religion doesn't make people better citizens; that they don't care what religion people have, or whether they have one or not. They also agree, substantially, that religion is a harmful force in human affairs. Looking at the fuller data, though, you discover that only puts the British in line with most of the rest of Europe: in this respect, if no other, the UK is impeccably European. 

There are some peculiar combinations of opinion. The people of Belgium are those most likely to agree that 'Religion has done more harm than good in the world', but they are also the least enthusiastic about being around people who profess a different religion from them. The most tolerant country in that respect is South Africa, but South Africans are the most likely to agree that religion is important for moral life and that their faith defines them as a person. The Japanese are least likely to think that, but also furnish the lowest proportion of people who think that religion is harmful. Although you can see how all of these bundles of attitudes have emerged, there's no clear proportional relationship between tolerance and lack of faith. 

The question it would, at least in faithless western Europe, have been most interesting to ask isn't here; not 'do you lose respect for people if you discover they are not religious', but rather 'do you lose respect for them if you discover that they are'. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Breeding Pairs ...

... was Il Rettore's not-entirely-complimentary term for husband-and-wife clergy couples. I never cease to be grateful that Ms Formerly Aldgate isn’t involved in Church life to any great extent. She strives to make it to church for Christmas and Easter and comes to the occasional lunch or other event, but doesn’t claim to be anything other than a well-disposed agnostic. It’s useful to have someone around who is an outsider, both in terms of what the Church does and in terms of parish life.

I’d find other forms of clerical domestic arrangements a little bit confining. Of course, allowing clergy to marry and then opening the priesthood to both sexes inevitably means that you will eventually have priests marrying each other, or a priest marrying someone else who later themselves decides that they have a vocation to the ordained life. I’m starting to feel, I confess, a little itchy about this. My edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory is out of date by two years, but with its assistance I can count eight parishes in this small diocese which now have married couples of priests on their staff. The arrangements vary: in one parish the incumbent’s wife was ordained deacon this year, in another the couple were appointed as a unit and are designated ‘Joint Vicar’ in a job-share. Both our bishops are married to other clergy: our suffragan’s husband is a leading incumbent in London, while our diocesan Andrew’s wife was found a parish in the diocese after he moved in. She is by all accounts doing a perfectly good job there, but I wasn't the only one whose eyes widened at the news. There are other clergy couples outside the parish level: one may be an incumbent, for instance, while the other works for the diocese.

What happens when you have bishops who are in a relationship with each other? Everyone rather expected our suffragan’s husband to get a pointy hat before she did, and he still might. How would that affect relationships within the College of Bishops? Married relationships are at least overt, but you can’t just suddenly marry someone, so relationships happen, or might happen, before they become public. In the senior management of a business, you’d expect such relationships to be declared to the HR people to avoid conflicts of interest, but we don’t seem to have thought of that. Typically, the Church of England absorbs more and more of the World’s way of doing things, without adopting the safeguards and standards that, in the World, make those habits tolerable.

Then, of course, there’s the Gay Thing. Homosexual clergy can’t marry, but they can contract civil partnerships; there’s at least one parish priest in the diocese of Guildford who is in one. How is the Church going to cope with two priests in a civil partnership who want to look after a parish together? It will, I think, have no choice but to accommodate them, and one part of Anglicanism will go through the roof as a result. Perhaps this has already happened somewhere, I don’t know.

Now, to be sure, this situation reveals something which was masked in the older way of doing things. In many traditional parishes, it was expected that the vicar’s wife would be in charge of something or other, usually to do with specifically female experience – chairing the local branch of the Mothers’ Union, for instance. At the big conservative-evangelical church of St Aldate’s in Oxford, where Dr Bones used to take me on free Sunday evenings while I was at St Stephen’s House, Rector Charlie Cleverly shares the leadership with his wife Anita, who is designated ‘Staff Pastor’; this reflects traditionalist approaches to gender roles, in which women do the cuddly peopley stuff while a man runs the show (although they do have one ordained woman on the staff now). Some of the parish set-ups headed by a husband-and-wife clergy couple round here, especially in evangelical churches, may work like that.

I never thought the St Aldates model was completely healthy, quite apart from the gendered division of labour it sets up – and quite apart from conflicts of interest and the issues of accountability it raises. The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to represent the irruption of the values of the Kingdom into the fleshly world, and once it becomes penetrated by the World’s habits, something of that otherness, that radicalism, is lost. ‘He who does not hate his father and mother, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple’, warns Jesus hyperbolically; where is that troubling, dramatic, outsider-edge in a Church where husbands and wives (or same-sex partners, potentially), run church communities? Is it not turning into something else, something more conventional and everyday? It’s instructive, if odd, that non-Church people often expect this is how the Church is organised. I once came across someone in Swanvale Halt parish who clearly assumed I would be married to the then curate, and in Lamford I and Dr Bones met a man whose first thought was that we were Il Rettore’s children: it was weird, but you can see where he was coming from - a kind of childlike attempt to conform an unfamiliar structure to a familial model. The expectation is sort of natural, and natural, in any simple sense, is not what we are called to be. I wonder whether the outcome of all this cozification, if the Church of England survives at all, will be to conclude that there was a point to clerical celibacy after all. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

On the Wrong Tracks

Trevor's computer has packed up, so when he downloaded a 'relaxation meditation' he had no means of putting it on a CD to play on his stereo. Could I do it, he asked me. Well, that was a fairly easy, self-contained task. He sent me the email, I popped the audio track onto a blank CD and dropped it round to his flat. How was it? I asked him a couple of days later. 'It's got some funny music on it, I don't think it's right,' he said. 

I am initially sceptical at anything Trevor tells me so when I was nearby I asked whether I could call round, and listened to the CD. Somehow I'd copied an existing playlist onto it so what Trevor got began with Amanda Palmer hollering her head off. Admittedly, not everyone would find that as relaxing as waves breaking on a tropical island.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Widening Circles of PJ Harvey's Reach

In retrospect, PJ Harvey’s 6th album – if you count her first collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point – 2004’s Uh Huh Her, marked a pivot in her work, at least so far. She signalled this in several ways that created a sense of valediction. Firstly, there were the self-portraits in the record sleeve booklet, documenting the masks and guises she had worn up till then; secondly, taking the album on the road, she wore dresses printed with press images of herself taken in earlier years. It was more like a farewell tour than anything else. The music itself, while far from standing still creatively, nevertheless echoed places she’d been before: later on she would admit it was ‘the closest I’ve ever got to plagiarising myself’. She took the opportunity to release several old tracks as ‘b-sides’ (if you can use that archaic language) to singles: ‘Liverpool Tide’ seemed to date from a couple of years before, while the raucous ‘Angel’ and ‘Dance’ came from the early 1990s. Uh Huh Her was the end of a number of lines. It was a mopping-up exercise, and by the time the album actually emerged, Ms H seemed absolutely clearsighted about what was going on. After the tour concluded, when she next appeared on stage, at three relatively small venues in the middle of 2006, she would seem virtually a different performer. She was alone; she wore plain black; she played the piano. And the next album, White Chalk, would be a total, lurching contrast, not just an evolution but a boggling abandonment of everything that had gone before it.

Remembrance Sunday made me want to write about this. I realised how, setting the second Parish-Harvey collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By to one side, Polly’s three solo albums since that great mid-2000s about-face have made me reformulate central aspects of my identity in a way that, however wonderful it may have been, her earlier work never did. Poppies and the Last Post, of course, reverberate with echoes of Let England Shake, that titanic achievement from 2011. But it’s more than LES. As PJH turned deliberately away from delving into her own imagination and reactions and instead has begun stitching together her compositions from other materials, she has reached further and further, redefining successively broader aspects of what it means to be human (what it means to be her, ultimately). I want to say more about the effect this has on me, as I understand it more deeply.


White Chalk reconfigures Dorset. It doesn’t appear to; only the title track refers to anything specific about that landscape, namechecking Lyme Regis, Cerne Abbas, the chalk hills themselves. The other tracks contain little in terms of physical setting – an oak grove, an old milestone, a mountainside (and Dorset doesn’t have those). Yet when she spoke to the authors of the 2006 book Dorset Women she said clearly ‘Really now for the first time on my new album, my new project, I’m singing about Dorset, which has never happened before … I’m embracing it more, the older I get.’ She would write around fifty songs in preparation for what became the baleful masterpiece of White Chalk, and possibly the title track was the only directly Dorset-related one that made it through; yet what survived the filtration was something less obvious – a feeling, an atmosphere. I’ve had a go at critics who were misled by the piano and Polly’s mutton-sleeve dress on the album cover into characterising the album as pastiche Victoriana, but although I don’t repent that intolerance, I can understand the error. There is something Hardyesque about White Chalk, to be sure. The sense of regret, of fate, of something happening in the next room, the fact that every track articulates a female experience (admittedly Harvey would probably deny that, if pressed): it’s as though a succession of Thomas Hardy’s heroines are drifting before us, white-clad and spectral. And somehow when I listen to the keening line ‘Come, come, on a night with no moon’ in ‘The Devil’ I can only picture it being sung beside a dead tree next to a rotten field gate on a hillside above Portesham, or mist-swathed Nine Barrow Down; while the insistent, almost discordant piano of ‘To Talk To You’, sounds to me like it’s being played on the seafront at Swanage, deserted in the rain in about 1905. White Chalk is notoriously comfortless listening, but from its ten songs Dorset emerges changed: an ectoplasmic thread now links its real landscape to its sideways, shadow counterpart, seen reflected in a rainy window pane, a place familiar and intimate, but haunted by human sorrow. I’m not sure I felt before it that ‘these chalk hills will rot my bones’, but I do now. I feel as though I see my county through these visions.


Let England Shake reconfigures England. Far from being narrowly an exploration of World War One, it decontextualises motifs from that symbolic conflict into an account of all war, and nails the identity of England to it, insisting that the inner meaning of Englishness is not only green fields and bucolic landscape, but blood and ambiguity, loss and regret. ‘The Last Living Rose’ begins with cartoonish nationalism and ends with a strange amalgam of love and anguish: England is always something that is passing away, a tide that’s just retreated. ‘The Glorious Land’ bolts together words from a Russian folk song and a lament for the West’s complicity in horror and exploitation with utterly simple words that could be mawkish if the music were not so strong: ‘O America. O England.’ (Eng-er-land, actually, to make it scan). What have you done? What have you been? the song asks. The deformed and orphaned children of the lyrics are the fruit of the war-scarred land, but also of the countries who bring war to it. Nothing is stated explicitly, leaving it to the listener to write specifics into the gaps. The starkly-titled ‘England’ is offered as a revisionist National Anthem. Out of 1932, the sampled voice of Kurdish singer Said-el-Kurdi, an anguished cry for a wrecked homeland, opens in a wail, around which Harvey curls her own, repeatedly and painfully not quite hitting the note until the two voices coincide, which is the spur for her to launch into her own lament, a series of broken, fragmentary statements that culminate in helplessness but also utter commitment: ‘I cannot go on as I am/I cannot leave … Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England/Is all to which I cling’. There are flutes – actually almost certainly electronic mimicry – in the background, referencing the flutes on that other great pop lovesong to England, Kate Bush’s ‘England My Lionheart’. And what has England to do with Iraq, you’re left to ask. I don’t even know what to call this. It isn’t patriotism. It isn’t Bush’s swooning Romanticism. Is it a sort of historicist nationalism, which recognises the vital nature of national identity, but looks steadily and unflinchingly at the truth of it? What I can tell you is that, as my country undergoes a collective nervous breakdown and enters an unreal realm filled with the narcotic fumes of imperialist fantasy, Let England Shake provides me with a means of remaining absolutely English while defying that madness. This flag I can stand and salute.


The Hope Six Demolition Project reconfigures global humanity. Here, Harvey uses the same technique of mingling close focus on human experience with decontextualisation, so the images become universal ones, owned by a common humanity. For instance, the bluesy musical setting of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’, incorporating scraps of Jerry McCain’s ‘That’s What They Want’, might make you assume the original inspiration for the track came from the Washington stage of PJ’s journeyings; but the original poem in The Hollow of the Hand is clearly set in Afghanistan. The songs are not arranged in geographical sections as would have been obvious, and as the book is: so, slamming together disparate vignettes suggests connections and resemblances. Poverty is not just something that exists elsewhere; destruction is not merely a foreign experience. Episodes here and there are connected: there are networks of action and inaction which produce them and in which we are all implicated. The singer moves through them all, but what results is not some empyrean account, delivered from an all-seeing, detached vantage point, but a babel of voices, confusion, incoherence. There is no answer. All that remains is the insistence that this matters, that this side of the world and that are linked by feeling and by causation, that we should open our eyes and look. And I have been looking: not that I didn’t before, but the glowing web of global interconnection is clearer now than it was. Thinking through the imagery of Hope Six, I find myself a world citizen, though not via anything as simple and rationally-apprehensible as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Instead my citizenship is in disjuncture and disruption, in hope and grimy reality. Of that, I see more. The album has sharpened my sight and honed my sensitivity. I am more alert.

Polly didn’t aim at this redefinition of ever-widening identities: the achievement resulted naturally from the more modest interests she wanted to run to ground. It wouldn’t have worked if she had set out to do it, and in fact would have been disastrously vainglorious. I am filled with wonder at how this slight woman from a West Dorset village has managed, without trying, to reshape the entire globe around her own vision, and yet remain herself. She’s been preserved from catastrophic egotism by always remaining in the service of something else, and by her original, quarter-century-old determination to eschew everything that goes with the business of stardom. Fans sometimes complain about her lack of interaction with them, but it is exactly that which protects her from the spiritual dangers of her ambitions, keeping her rooted in relationships which have nothing to do with her public persona. This has shielded her and kept her work uncontaminated by any expectations except her own; and it’s this that’s made her the Voice of the Resistance, raising a hand and saying No, this is not how things really are, this is not how people really are, and the truth lies elsewhere than in your partial and skewed narratives.

At least, that’s how it seems to me, and why I become so misty-eyed at what she’s done. I find that much of my conception of what is most humane, most generous and good, is filtered through ten years of her work. Of course I know that the woman herself is a different matter, separate, sometimes – as she herself admits – as startled as anyone else by what emerges from the recording studio; but that’s where she is. And where next? Where to go once you’ve conquered the world? All you can predict is that she won’t think about it like that. It will be some small thought, some feeling in the air, that will lead her to an unexpected vista, a new and unclaimed territory.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Au Secours!

Coming down the hill to say Morning Prayer yesterday I spied a figure on the other side of the road which resembled the curate. And so it turned out to be. I wondered what she might be doing standing on the driveway of no.16.

What Marion was doing was looking upwards to a first-floor window, conversing with an older lady who was holding a baby. Further investigation revealed that this was because said lady and baby had managed to lock themselves in an upstairs bedroom and the child’s parents were out. What to do? Call the parents? She didn’t have their numbers. Call the fire brigade?

Eventually it was decided that I should go home and retrieve a screwdriver so the handle of the bedroom door could be removed. How to get it to the incarcerated lady? A Colditz-like arrangement of a knotted bedsheet lowered from the window didn’t achieve the desired result. I thought I could aim the implement through the window, although Marion voiced some scepticism.

Now, you probably expect this story to conclude in some calamity, a smashed window or worse still small child. But no: at the third attempt the screwdriver found its way safely onto the bedroom floor and although removing the door handle didn’t effect escape, while I was away fetching my ladder to try and get over the side gate and into the house at the back, the lady managed to use it to trip the catch and get out. We all had a friendly conversation at the door. ‘God bless,’ I said to her on parting: ‘I think he already has,’ she responded.

Marion said she would inform her husband, who runs several sports teams at his school, about my throwing skills which she thought might warrant inclusion on the cricket team. I was less sure, not only because my success was flukey but because lobbing a screwdriver in at a window is more akin to darts than cricket, and I don’t think darts is a suitable pastime for a clergyman. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Walke of St Hilary

During my Autumn holiday in Cornwall in 2013 I visited St Hilary near St Michael’s Mount. In 1932 this tiny village became the focus of national attention after a group of Protestant activists gained access to the church, acting, they averred, under the authority of a court order, to lever, break, and remove a number of disputed fittings which had been introduced into the building by its vicar, Fr Bernard Walke. It was the last great cause célèbre of the Anglo-Catholic movement, occurring at a time when nobody apart from the hardline protestors really cared, when it was clear that the Anglo-Catholics were not engaged in a sulphurous conspiracy to drag freeborn Englishmen bodily into the thrall of Rome, but were (mainly) hardworking priests trying their best to bring the light and colour of Catholic Christianity to what were often among the most difficult parts of the land for the Anglican Church.

Walke had arrived at St Hilary in 1913, upper-class but erratically-educated, firmly Anglo-Catholic but socialistic and pacifistic in his politics and married in his personal life. He and his wife Annie never had children, though they were very fond of them and adopted a collection of Austrian refugees as well as taking village children under their wing from time to time, including Joan Manning-Sanders, whose artistic ability (the Walkes were friends with lots of artists) led Bernard to encourage her to paint part of the Life of St Endelienta on the screen in the church; as Michael Yelton writes in Anglican Papalism, probably no other Anglican priest at that time, Anglo-Catholic or otherwise, would have thought of allowing a twelve-year-old to decorate his church.

All these enthusiasms led me to enrol Fr Walke as one of my Minor Patrons, but it was only recently that I read his autobiographical Twenty Years at St Hilary, written when he was recovering from TB in a sanatorium at Trehidy. This once well-known book confirms everything I thought about him. Walke’s humility, endless generosity of heart, and love of the people and land he cared for all those years shines from every page. There is not a trace of waspishness or sarcasm, even when he describes so prickly and difficult a character as the perpetually maddening Fr Sandys Wason, ex-vicar of Cury, depicting him, rather than an idiot, as a wanderer from another sort of world. He always puts the most gentle and generous interpretation possible on the actions and character of other people, from the tramps who call at the vicarage door and spin a yarn to gain his charity to a City magistrate dealing with children from slum homes. He has a chapter about ‘Donkeys’ (he kept a number and rode several around the parish over the years), and quotes William Blake.

How Fr Walke managed to fit in all his many activities and projects, from writing Nativity plays to trying to establish a children’s home in the village to an ambitious venture to run the Cornish mining industry on Christian-Socialist lines (called, in strangely Tolkeinesque fashion, the Communion of the Ring), when he seems to have spent much of his time in and around the vicarage garden, quietly observing, I can’t imagine. My years spin by and I have less and less idea where they have gone and how they have been spent.

It’s a little while since I read Twenty Years now, and though I remember getting awfully weepy at various points I’m not sure I can now find them. Perhaps there aren’t any passages which, on their own, are especially moving: it’s more the effect of a gradual rising tide of faith and faithfulness revealed in the pages which overtops the vessel of the reader’s awareness every now and again. Bernard Walke saw heaven in his parish, the clouds of human weakness and muddiness parting surprisingly often to let the glory of God shine through, and everything which was less than glorious he managed to offer to God for him to deal with. The human beings he met were of the same company as the saints of old Cornwall, or the global Church, depicted in the paintings and statues of St Hilary’s, even if very few of his parishioners quite shared his vision of Catholic Christianity. He knew that the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood bound them all together, made possible this fiery gentleness that saw fallen human beings as Jesus sees them, and it didn’t matter that not many others knew it.

One day I must go to see Bernard Walke’s grave at St Erth. For the time being, I ask for his prayers that some of the qualities of his ministry might be present in mine, and, as a truly and not falsely humble person who from his heavenly vantage point now knows his true qualities, he will not refuse.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Industrial History

Ms Formerly Aldgate couldn't quite credit the story I told about my mum assembling lipstick cases when I was little in the early and mid 1970s. We'd been discussing illnesses and in the past mum has sometimes blamed the work for sparking off her rheumatoid arthritis, though I'm not sure it would have contributed. You could blame it for being numbingly dull, repetitive and exhausting. And it was outwork, of a kind which barely exists in developed economies now, though it's by no means uncommon elsewhere. I thought it was worth telling you about.

US cosmetics firm Max Factor was a major manufacturer in Bournemouth at one time, and this website gives an insight into its West Howe factory, together with some brilliant photographs of the site in 1947, when it opened. The page mentions Edward Webster Ltd of Ringwood Road, another local firm which manufactured some elements of the lipstick cases; what it doesn't mention is that it was Webster which directly employed outworkers like my mum.

Boxes of the components would arrive at our house and mum would assemble them, ready for the cosmetic to be inserted. The metallic 'goldies' that would eventually hold the lipstick itself were the most fiddly element, and I remember mum being very anxious that anyone who helped her should get that right, as they couldn't be put in the wrong way. Dad could never get his fingers round the lipstick components, but occasionally my grandparents would take a bag away to help out (my contribution was strictly limited). What I remember most vividly was the sheer scale of the boxes of parts, which seemed enormous to me and which were huge fun to run my hands through; and the faintly greasy smell caused by the lubricant on the goldies. 

I also remember the sheer amount of time it took, which mum usually spent sitting on the floor of the living room, surrounded by plastic bits on one side and a box of completed lipsticks on the other. Each lipstick had three components, and each batch comprised 15,000 units - 45,000 pieces in all. For that, mum would earn £5. It's hard to know how that translates into modern terms, and I'm not sure how long a batch would take to assemble, although it often took mum late into the night to complete before the deadline; however, even if you assume a fast assembly rate of, say,  3 seconds per unit, that's not a high rate of pay in anyone's terms (perhaps Professor Abacus can enlighten me further). 

Mum recalled that several of her friends and neighbours tried lipstick-assembly out, but decided it wasn't worth their while. It must have been worth hers, to augment my dad's limited income as a car mechanic (I think it may have been the Three-Day Week measure of 1973-4 and the resulting drop in dad's wages which prompted her to start doing the work). But in retrospect there's no escaping how gruelling it was, and I wonder how many similar stories there are in living memory, as it's hardly that long ago.

PS. Professor Abacus has indeed been in touch and informed me that £5 in 1974 would be the equivalent of £48 today, if uprated in line with inflation, or £73 if uprated in line with wages. Assuming my mum spent 12 1/2 hours assembling a batch of 15,000 units, that works out as £3.84 or £5.84 per hour depending which measure you use. I think 3 seconds per unit is very optimistic, and a longer assembly time would lower the putative hourly rate, but clearly the flexibility of being able to earn some money without leaving the house suited, at the time.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Bonfire Night

It doesn't seem right to call November 5th Guy Fawkes Night any more, as the Stuart Popish plotter hardly plays any role in the Autumnal festivities nowadays. I talked about the customs of the season with the ATC on Tuesday, and the mid-teenagers could only dimly remember having heard of the days when children would trail badly-constructed effigies of Guy Fawkes around their local streets asking for 'a penny for the Guy'. Kids don't really need other people's pennies that much now, and even if they do that's not a common way of procuring them. 

Ms Formerly Aldgate and I went to a smallish bonfire and firework display last year; this time, we made it (just) to Hamshott, a nearby village where we eschewed the now-customary elements of torchlit procession and dreadful burgers from stalls along the edge of the field, but enjoyed the fireworks themselves. Hamshott isn't very big, but there were three-to-four thousand people present; I wonder whether this is because people's expectations of fireworks and bonfires have now escalated and only fairly large-scale celebrations can actually match up, rather than the various less overwhelming but more numerous events I remember from forty years ago.



Saturday, 4 November 2017

Lowering the Bar

The great journalist HL Mencken was once asked how he managed to produce so much and where he got the ideas for his perpetual newspaper articles. 'I sit and squeeze my brain until something comes out', he answered.

This workmanlike approach to creativity has always greatly inspired me ever since I heard it, and hardly a sermon-writing session befalls me than I find the words running through my mind. Sometimes what comes out of my brain is nothing very impressive and I have the distinct feeling that I've said it all better, and many times, before. But words still need to be produced. Sometimes the business of a priest is silence. I like those times. But, at least just as often, it is words. 

This week has required quite a number of them. The specific occasions were:

Sunday: a funeral homily and notes for my ministerial review the following day.
Monday: a homily for the All Saints' mass on Tuesday; notes for a staff meeting that we decided to do via email as there was no time actually to meet.
Tuesday: polishing up a plan for a session with the ATC that evening, and suddenly realising I was down to do two sessions, necessitating writing something completely new with the aid (arguably) of Powerpoint; a public statement about 'an extreme pastoral event' in the parish; a homily for the All Souls' Day mass on Thursday.
Wednesday: a story and surrounding discussion for Church Club that afternoon; a set of articles for the public newspaper we send around the parish; writing the liturgy for the Family Service on Sunday.

(Thursday was a day of talking to people rather than planning or writing, and Friday I was off).

Saturday: a homily for the evening service on Sunday.

Now, I am not describing any of this to elicit sympathy: although this week demanded an unusual quantity of creativity, there was just about enough time to get it all done (especially as a couple of time-consuming appointments ended up dropping out of the schedule) and despite it being on the hectic side it's better to be occupied than kicking your heels and castigating yourself for it. What it illustrates is the sort of low-level creativity that clergy are so often involved in. Nothing is very high-powered and had I spent ages polishing my work I would never have got it all done. Not for the first time, I find that the creative side of parish life is on a par with hack journalism: we sometimes have to produce stuff which is good enough and be content with it, squeezing our brains and not being too precious about what comes out. All my stuff this week was good enough. At least I hope it was.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Grapes of Regret


This year the grapevine in the garden fruited more heavily than ever. In the first year I noticed it (I can't believe that was the first year I came here, but perhaps it was) I got a couple of small bunches of edible grapes off it, and, since then, nothing. But this year, this year, there were festoons of grapes, a couple of dozen bunches at least. This was the one with the biggest, roundest, most enticing-looking grapes, so I used it as a test.

The grapes were vile. Almost inedibly sour. I left the rest to the birds, as they seem to like them.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fra' Ghoulies an' Ghosties an' Lang-Leggedy Beasties

'I've always defended Harry Potter', Marion the curate told me this morning, 'but now I'm not sure ...' She was referring to a BBC documentary she'd seen last night about the background to the books, which included an interview with author JK Rowling at the new exhibition at the British Library, 'The History of Magic'. The show includes items such as Ms Rowling's notebooks as well as magical paraphernalia from across the centuries, among them some of the ritualia I found so queasy when we saw them at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, all hanging off the hook of the Potter series (and the timing of Halloween). Ms R wasn't alone on screen: alongside her were members of a family who claimed they were 'fourteenth-generation wand-makers'. This would take their profession back into the mid-17th century, and that doesn't seem that likely to me. Wands seem to come into vogue with the 19th-century magical societies, and you don't see illustrations or read descriptions of magical practitioners from earlier times, cunning men and village wart-curers, using wands (unless there's some confusion with the rods employed by dowsers). Rowling apparently looked increasingly uncomfortable, and felt compelled to contribute, 'Remember that I made all this stuff up. It isn't real.'

Well she might wince. The British Library puffs the show with the lines, 'Have you ever wanted to delve into divination or ponder the peculiarities of potions? Now you can ...' The film the Library has released to accompany the display promises that 'the gargantuan Ripley Scroll' will show visitors 'how to make a Philosopher's Stone', which of course it won't, because there is no such thing, and still less is what the Scroll purports to tell you how to make anything like the Philosopher's Stone of the first Potter novel. Oh, what a killjoy I am sounding. Of course this is all just marketing and will be a long way removed from the inevitable staidness of the show itself, but what's being marketed is unreality.

Conservative Christians make this whole argument ridiculous by implying that every child who picks up a Potter novel or goes out with a group of friends dressed as Spiderman, assorted pirates or ghosts, is going to be invaded by the forces of the Enemy, and in doing so they blind us to the fact that they have half a point, which I think I am only beginning to appreciate. If there is a force of evil active in the world, it can only work through us. Our fears, desires, miseries and delusions are its raw material and it cannot manufacture them on its own: it needs us to offer them up. The near side of the fantasy universe of Harry Potter is fun and at its deepest a narrative of courage and loss; on its far side, though, is unreality and unreason, a universe which functions according to occult rules - as good as none, in other words - a realm of madness. Fourteen generations of wand-makers. I heard complaints on the radio recently about the cruelty of some commercially-available Halloween costumes, and cruelty and madness have a relationship, too. This all takes place within a consumerist economy which is by nature amoral and tends to escalate whatever tendencies are at work in it.  

The BBC website yesterday reminded me of Ghostwatch, the notorious spoof documentary about an investigation of a haunting in a suburban house. I remember seeing that on Halloween in 1992 and, before an allusion to something that I knew was untrue alerted me to the fact that the programme wasn't real, I was as unsettled and disturbed as anyone by what I was apparently seeing and hearing. One young man, of course, was so unsettled that five days after the show was broadcast he killed himself, unable to escape the constant thoughts of ghosts. He had fallen into a vortex of fear from which reason could not rescue him. This, and not any supernatural incursion, is what it means to come into the grip of the Devil. 

Provided the pumpkin lanterns and the cut-out bats and ghosts hanging in festoons are a tiny dose of fear that inoculates us against the disease, all well and good. But it could be that sometimes they light the way to a country where there are no landmarks, where we do not know where we are, where there is nothing but unreality and reasonless waste, and we are right to dread going along that path.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Modern Gothic

It's nearly Halloween, after all.

The online news branch of media company Vice is known for many things, and journalistic excellence used not to be one of them. Their London office used to produce, in general, snide, ill-informed, would-be-clever clickbaity nonsense that you learned never to take seriously, or ideally not read at all. It was a great surprise to me to hear Vice News journalists being interviewed on the BBC and brought into discussion programmes as though they actually knew something, and even more to realise that the company had gathered a reputation as a committed and serious news organisation. Even the London office got the message.

More than one person I know called attention to this recent article on the UK Vice website about Goth, as part of a series on subcultures. The writer spoke to ten people who identified as Goths (I use that phrase carefully because of what comes next) aged between 18 and 31. They talked about becoming Gothic (‘I felt the boots were wearing me’), their reactions to feeling accepted or disdained (and occasionally attacked) by the wider community, issues of identity, definition and diversity, bewilderment at being assumed to be Satanists, and the effect of the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. Of course there were occasional infelicities (including on the part of some of the interviewees), but the overall tone was supportive, underlining what Catherine Spooner has said in Postmillennial Gothic about the increasing public approbation of Goths and Gothic. What a long way we’ve come since a Guardian columnist could write in 2002 ‘sullen, suburban and witlessly morbid, Goths have lingered like the living dead while other youth cultures have come and gone’, accusing them of ‘infantile notions’, ‘middle-brow suburban myopia’ and ‘paucity of imagination’. Shame it took a young woman having her head stamped on until she died to change that.

I liked what the young(ish) self-identified Goths had to say. Simone claimed that “The scene is becoming more diverse than ever, people are expressing themselves with more freedom than ever before without fear of judgement”. Klinga said 

It seems like the goth scene is much more open and diverse than in past years, there's still a bit of elitism but it seems to be dying out. There's lots of people in the gothic (and alternative) community that are kind, open minded, willing to talk to you and make you feel very included no matter how much of a goth you are. I feel like the gothic culture is much bigger now days, mostly due to the amount of subcultures that were created to the standard "goth" image, such as pastel Goths, nu-goths, Lolita Goths, health Goths... the list goes on.

The young man whose picture accompanies the article, Arcade, is a friend of my accountant Ms Death-and-Taxes, and illustrates the point; he’s wearing New-Rock boots (obviously), but a black faux-fur-collared coat from Bench, which is not usually considered a Goth retailer. Good.

Not everyone is completely happy with this. One person I know who linked to the article is Mal, a Goth DJ who’s been there right from the very beginning, and regards the  changes in the Goth world with emotions that shift between wry and irritated. I greatly honour the man, and his wife Bernice, but his and others’ statements on the matter do remind me of Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra’s track ‘Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed’:

You stay home, mad at the whole scene
For refusing to freeze
In nineteen-eighty-three

Mal is among a class of older Goths who have struggled for years to keep the torch burning, who have battled their way across the country to run and attend club nights playing music that fits that early-80s template. It’s not a surprise that they don’t respond well to these hard-won, scarred badges of identity being taken away from them as Goth transmutes into something less oppositional and marginalised. One person commented rather beautifully:

Goth is goth - pure and simple, the silly prefixes that became are a result of other alternative tribes that may have had the tiniest of dark leanings getting lumped into the ever expanding melting pot. As a result you get so far removed from the initial concept that for many they don't really know what it is anymore or didn't to begin with. I got into Goth in 1991 - I was 13 and really caught the tail end before imo actual goth music went underground. There I think was the changing point. To me first and foremost it's about the music - I wore my clothes, and still do to symbolise who I am, my tastes, the music I love with every fibre of my being - it's what kept me going in my teens when I was chased, spat at, verbally abused etc. It seems now it's all about fashion and no substance and way too much confusion over what actual goth music is.

The tension between ‘concentration’ and ‘extension’ is familiar to any kind of subcultural grouping, including Christianity. When exactly have you strayed so far from what the ‘thing’ originally meant that it’s no longer recognisable for what it was? Where are the boundaries beyond which adherents must not stray?

The trouble with maintaining that to be Goth, Goth must what it was in 1982 is that it never was that even then. I related a couple of years ago about meeting early-80s Goths who described cheerfully going to club nights that played entirely different sorts of music, wearing entirely distinct brands of schmutter, and thinking nothing of it because at that stage they didn’t know that they were supposed to be acting in an exclusive, oppositional way. The very band around whom the Goth world coalesced in many ways – although they were, like true Goths, always horrified by the very idea – was Siouxsie & the Banshees, and their music never stood still. They didn’t have the deliberate, restless need to experiment that PJ Harvey has, true, and their musical referents went no further back than Bowie and Bolan for the most part, but over their 17 years of active music-making they drew in a huge range of influences, chewed them up, and regurgitated them as Gothic. It was dramatically, excitingly creative, and I enjoy discovering bands who, in their own ways, do the same now. What’s the point in sounding exactly like the Sisters of Mercy in 1984?

Admittedly, I’m an entirely fake Goth because I came at it through culture and not through music; although I knew about the Banshees, I’d come across very little by other recognisably Goth bands and tended not to like much of it when I did. And I did it at a time – the mid-1990s – when Goth barely existed. The only Goth I met during the time when I was first identifying myself with Gothic was a young woman who came to the museum in High Wycombe researching local ghosts and who interviewed me on the subject. I started thinking about what Goth and Gothic were, and developed some very definite opinions on the matter, most of which I abandoned when, a few years later, I met some real participants in the subculture, which was just about to swing upwards again, and realised it was far beyond me to control, define, or even comprehend within my knowledge. I abandoned myself to the flow and it was vastly liberating. I was freed to enjoy the welter of incomprehensible and yet mysteriously, miraculously united eclecticism that I found at places like Intrusion, the club in Oxford. In the end, what I found most lovable about that world wasn't the music (most of it didn't resonate with me), or the style (which I never really adopted), but the companionship, a group of people who shared the same referents and language: a sense of home.

When Goth was rescued from oblivion in the late 1990s, it wasn’t early-1980s Goth that did it: it was the pagan movement and the bands associated with it, the internet, and very elaborate neo-Victorian dress styles that only bore a remote relationship with the more punky business of a decade-and-a-half before. The individuals attracted by that then discovered early-80s Goth, but very naturally didn’t see the need to confine their attention to that template. And so we’ve gone on, via Steampunk, Cybergoth, Lolita, CorpGoth, health goth, and all the things that my friend Cylene has tried out that nobody else seems to want to copy. And these subcategories aren’t all a matter of dress: they have ramifications in music, film, literature, art.

The blessing and the curse of Goth is that it isn’t, and never was, an isolated phenomenon: it’s part of a bigger, grander, deeper current in the river of experience and desire called gothic, and will continue to feed into wider culture and be fed by it. It can’t be constrained or controlled by anyone, and I don’t care. I like that about it.