Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Navel Gazing

Over the months I’ve been secretly rather gratified to see traffic on this blog go up. It’s helped to think there might be souls out there interested enough in my varied maunderings to look up Mopsus and read. When, all of a sudden, the stats underwent a colossal reduction – a 75% decline in pageviews over the night of 19th-20th May – I was surprised by how personally I took it. It was a bit like the occasion when I lost my Facebook profile. Likes and pageviews are, we tell ourselves, not an index of personal worth, but their obvious quantifiability gives us a little emotional blip which kids us into thinking it’s the real thing. It’s the existential equivalent of refined sugar, a tiny but very pleasurable sensual hit which bears little relationship to proper nutrition. 

My friend Karla works in the online industry and reckons the decline is simply due to a shift in Google’s search criteria. She told me with a sense of weariness, ‘keeping up with Google's search algorithms to ensure that content ranks well is the actual full time job of a number of my friends. The fact that this is a profession gives me existential angst if I think too hard about it, mind’. Ah, the gods of our new world. ‘It’s essentially just another branch of advertising - an industry which doesn't really do anything,’ commented Ms Formerly Aldgate, and we found ourselves boggling rather more at the woman who makes a living making up new hashtags for wedding couples to use on Twitter. Looking back through the stats, I observe that things really took off in October last year, curiously just when I began my couple of weeks' regular posting about my musical journey with PJ Harvey. The individual pages themselves didn’t receive unusual levels of activity, but that may belie the way people came across them.

Well, I could happily post about the Dorset songstress every day. A little while ago, for instance, an LA-based photographer snapped her outside a coffee shop, suggesting that she’s been staying at the apartment in the city she cutely refers to as her ‘holiday cottage’ before heading back to the UK for an engagement at Lancaster University which my friend there Dr PostGothic is unspeakably excited about, as well she might be. There you go. But you don’t want tittle-tattle like that, do you? No, you want self-doubt, angst, vestments, and damp holes in the ground. In so far as I care what anyone wants, he says unconvincingly.

Sunday, 28 May 2017


A lot of churches have a memorial book of some kind. Ours at Swanvale Halt is particularly intended to help remember those whose ashes are buried in our Garden of Remembrance but there are other names in it - not many, only about thirty. This is partly because a lot of the time the book has to stay closed, and so it's not found its way into the consciousness of most people, and you've never been able to come into the church during the week and look at the names. It sits shut in its display case. 

You might wonder why, in turn, that is. It's because my predecessor decided, very generously, to have a display case made for the book precisely so it could be left open during the week without danger of defacement or theft. Unfortunately there was some mistake in the measurements and the book didn't actually fit in the case. Only in the Church of England, you might sigh, although it puts me in mind of other incidents like expensive satellites whizzing off uselessly into outer space because the programmers were measuring in centimetres and the engineers in inches. It happens.

Now we have a new Memorial Book, partly paid for by our ex-churchwarden. It looks gorgeous: it's massive and heavy and leather-bound and gold-tooled, and when open will fit snugly into the case in the north aisle of the church. But it needs the names copied into it from the old book. That's expensive. So, in a moment of weakness, I said I'd do it: I have calligraphy pens, I find it relaxing. Then we have new names added professionally.

The book has sat in the Rectory for weeks, silently reproachful. My reluctance to approach it hasn't been predominately for lack of time. Instead, the prospect of marking those dintless pages with my pens has become more terrifying the closer I approach to it. I cleaned out the pens. I drew a border line around the title page; I marked out the lettering in pencil. I waited.

And yesterday the book was marked. My heart was positively pounding. The result would, I suspect, make any proper calligrapher burst into tears. But it will answer, and now I have scant excuse for not pressing on.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ta-Ta Tanz Macabre

It was via my friend Madame Morbidfrog on Facebook that I discovered my favourite London Goth club night, Tanz Macabre, is no more. DJ Faith, who ran it, posted:

I have spent some considerable time since the closure of Canal 125, looking for a new home for Tanz Macabre; one that meets the very specific criteria required for the night to continue on it's own unique path. I have investigated many venues but unfortunately have not been able to find one that 'ticked all of the boxes' within the set time frame. This, in combination with other lesser factors, has led me to make the decision to bring Tanz Macabre to a close. I have achieved more than I ever hoped for with the night and I think that the time is right to end on a high, without the fear or possibility of lowering standards or repetition.

Thank you to Lucia for being the 'Hostess With The Mostess', Ben for being my fellow resident Dj, Paul for being our very regular guest Dj and to all of those who came before him. I want to thank everyone who has worked with us behind the scenes or contributed to Tanz Macabre in any way and helped to make it London's longest running independent Gothic night.

Most importantly, I would like to especially thank everyone over the years who has attended, supported and joined with us for 'An Evening Of Terpsichorean Terror'! With seven venues over eleven years, it has been a combination of Ghost Train and Roller Coaster & I hope that you have enjoyed the ride. : )

I first found my way to Tanz in the middle of 2007. Once I and Dr Bones had called it a day, I decided to re-establish my links with the Goth world, mainly in order to have some social life beyond the ever-so-slightly cloying environment of the Church. After Mass at Lamford one Sunday I donned my pseudo-Victorian gear and caught the train to London. The venue was the Arts Theatre Club in Frith Street, Soho. You’d disappear down a staircase off a usually busy London street, into the Stygian depths – that was a proper Gothic experience, that was – have your hand stamped and emerge into the tiny space that somehow managed to cram in a bar, fireplace, piano (which I think I actually witnessed someone try to play once – sadly not Ms Death-and-Taxes who is actually quite an accomplished pianist) – a wee dancefloor and a couple of cushioned C-shaped seats around tables. On busy nights, moving round was something of a challenge, but it was always fun. That first night I was on my own, and knew I think nobody else there at all, and went back home relatively early too, but in that couple of hours surrounded by loud music and sable-clad revellers (and cake, it was clearly someone’s birthday) I could feel stress and unhappiness draining gradually away: to be somewhere I had no responsibilities, with nothing to do but look and listen, and disappear into the umbrageous surroundings.

Tanz was ideal for me, as it opened at 6pm and closed at 11, allowing time to catch the last train home – even when I moved further out to Swanvale Halt, it could be done if I parked the car at an intervening station. I could rush off straight after an evening service and have a good couple of hours there, and still arrive home at a time which was not entirely unreasonable: the same couldn’t be said for the Saturday evening clubs, as they tended not to get going much before midnight by which time I had to be gone.

As is often the way with such events, the Arts Theatre Club owners decided they wanted to refurbish the basement bar, and, while the Tanz organisers assured everyone that they expected their ousting was only temporary, somehow the club never went back. Instead it ended up on a boat moored off Embankment, which had a similarly quirky identity although – for me – never quite the charm of the elegant basement dive I’d got to know. I once took Cylene along and within 15 minutes we were heading back to Waterloo for a coffee as she’d turned dreadfully seasick. When Tanz moved again, it was to Canal 125 in Kings Cross. I and Ms Formerly Aldgate tried it out a couple of times, but while clambering up and down narrow staircases from one space to another offered an intriguing experience you couldn’t see who was coming and going and if you wanted to find who was about you’d have to pick up your drink and wander around. Far more importantly, Tanz not only had to shift venue but also time, to Friday night, which made it feel less special, more like a standard club night and less like the gentle come-down from the weekend the Sunday occasion had been. And of course my life shifted too, and I hadn’t been for ages. So although Faith mentions seven venues in his valediction, I can only recall three.

Running a club of any kind can be a thankless task and I was always tickled when Faith thanked me for coming even though he had very little idea who I was. Tanz – the Soho Tanz – will always be the Platonic ideal of the Goth club I will retain, gratefully, in my memory.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Difference in Perception

A reverse-charge message came to my mobile from my regular interlocutor Karly. I knew not to reply to this – the last time it cost me £4 – so I called her directly instead. ‘Father, can you call me a taxi? I’m at the church and need to get to my mum’s and haven’t got any credit on my phone’. I called the taxi company she suggested. ‘It’s not for me, but for a lady called Karly Talbot’, I said. ‘Ah, this is the same person we tried to pick up half an hour ago,’ said the man on the other end of the line. ‘She was supposed to be going to no.6 Larkspur Road. My driver waited around for ten minutes but couldn’t find her. I can send someone else, but she’ll have to pay for the first callout as well as the second.’ I related this information. ‘But I haven’t called a taxi today!’ Karly protested. It is not my habit to probe into people’s stories – I’ve learned it’s pointless – but just out of curiosity I couldn’t resist asking, ‘So how did the man at the taxi firm recognise your name straight away, and know where you wanted to go?’ ‘I don’t know. That’s scary!’ she answered. It’s not just scary, I thought, it’s bloody miraculous. There may be complex and involved explanations involving unknown third parties, but I didn’t have the energy to get into them. Of course I ended up taking her to her mum’s. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Crossroads of All Things

I say mass in a little side chapel of the church; there's about a dozen of us. I'm facing away from them, facing the cross. I pick up the paten and the chalice as usual. 'This is my body ... This is my blood'. But it's more than that. This is mangled and broken flesh, scattered blood among fragments of glass. It's all the blood shed from the first murder onwards, in one little silver cup. And I can hear sounds in my ears that almost drown out my own voice, even though I know the words better than I know anything else I ever say.

Jesus said the blood of all the murdered ‘from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary’ would come upon his generation. He meant that moment was the crux of all human history. As he was the one through whom all was created, so when he was nailed and killed it was the nailing and killing of all creation, and whenever his brothers and sisters suffered, or would ever suffer, so would he. ‘What you did to the least of these, you did also to me’.

And that means that every time I lift the chalice I lift all the pain of the world, past and future. Through him, I’m linked to all of it. I was warned about that, years ago, but I don’t always feel it. Which is just as well.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The View of the Young

Gatherings of Swanvale Halt Messy Church vary hugely from one occasion to the next. In March we had the highest numbers we'd drawn for two years and more; this month, we had the lowest attendance for two years, and the difference isn't marginal in absolute number terms. I wonder where everyone was.

It gave me a chance to speak to Megan, who is 13 and one of the very few young people who orbits around the church community. She was helping out on one of the craft tables, making spangly sequinned angels. Megan has been coming to the church with her family since she was small and naturally is questioning things a bit more as she gets older. She's taken communion a couple of times at Christmas and Easter, despite not being confirmed, so technically we ought to 'admit her to holy communion' which as far as I'm concerned just requires a conversation to make sure the communicant knows what it's about. 'I'm not sure I believe in God,' Megan said. 'I think there was a person called Jesus, but I look at things very logically and I'm not sure how all the rest of it fits'. Jesus is a start, I said.

I've tried to treat the handful of teens and near-teens we have at the church as a group, but the trouble is that they aren't. They go to different schools, they have a variety of different experiences, and there aren't enough of them seeing each other often enough to develop any sense of common identity. Even when they retain any sort of definite faith, the pull of bigger churches where they might find more young people like them is inexorable. It's hard for me to think my way into their situation, because when I was their age I couldn't abide other teenagers and sat in my room reading books.

Megan and I got on to gender stereotyping. She had two templates for her angels, one clearly supposed to be male and one female, with longer hair and a schematic skirt. Most of the children seemed to think angels are girls. The male figure doesn't appear to have any hair at all. 'They take the view that if you're bald you're male,' Megan told me. 'I asked, What if I lost my hair? and they said, You'd be a man.'

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Folk Wisdom

Candlestub Clem sat on a chair in church next to the candle stand where he’d just lit a light for his poorly sister. ‘You know me, Father, you know I’m an alcoholic and all that, and yeah, I never went to university, but I lived in Cambridge for twenty years, and you spend all that time somewhere like that, and stuff has to rub off on you a bit, hasn’t it? If you keep your eyes and ears open. My gran used to say to me, take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your gob, and you might learn something. I talk to people about apartheid and stuff, and they don’t know who Steve Biko was. How can you not know about Steve Biko? I could tell you his cell number. People just don’t know, they don’t pay attention. It’s a crazy world we live in, it really is.’

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Diversionary Tactics

Il Rettore is of the opinion, having read the analysis of Monday's meeting I'm intending to send out to the congregation - I think this is a matter of such importance that they need to know about it - that I should write to the Bishop with my concerns. He even stooped to using such Evangelical language as 'the Lord laying a call on you'. Well, I suppose I am the last priest in the diocese appointed with freehold, and perhaps this was why. I described the proposed new funding system to Ms Formerly Aldgate who described it as 'sounding like the Department for Work & Pensions: "rewarding hard-working churches" '. So I have written and now it awaits posting. If the diocese accepts that the language of punishment and reward is inappropriate, that at least renders the 'new definition of fairness' more palatable. We'll see what happens. 

Today was my day off and I went to Dorset to visit my mother and look for wells. I went to Swanage and it was most agreeable, so here are some nice images. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

All Flesshe ys Grasse

On another day, Reg’s funeral would have dominated my thinking yesterday (as it did until the evening). It’s not every funeral service that begins with a preamble from the departed laying out his thinking behind how it’s put together and the spirit with which we should all approach it. His outline notes include the instruction ‘Eulogy (if deserved)’: I have no idea what one does to ‘deserve’ a eulogy, and it’s not my place to decide anyway. The love and honour in which Reg was held was palpable, as was his sense of gratitude and joyousness – though shot through with the extremity of the way he died. I spoke to one of my predecessors as Rector for whom Reg had served as churchwarden in the 1960s: his predecessor had told him how ‘this is such a good parish. You’ll love them into heaven.’

As an antidote, in the evening I went with our treasurer to a meeting about the new Parish Share system the diocese is proposing. Now, this is all a bit complex, but bear with me. The Diocese of Guildford derives more of its £11.7M income from its parishes than any other Church of England diocese, 94% (in Lincoln it’s just over 40%), because it lacks the historic endowments and landholdings the older dioceses have. This means that if churches are subsidised for any reason, the money basically has to come from all the other churches, essentially reallocating resources from a handful of larger evangelical churches to smaller ones. The distortions arising from this system have in recent years been mitigated by a complex arrangement of caps and floors on the annual changes in the sum the diocese demands from each parish. It all means that how the figure for any parish is arrived at is opaque to say the least. The diocese also reckons that the actual cost of each stipendiary clergyperson has been significantly underestimated. ‘It’s not fair!’ the Bishop outlined at the start of the meeting: the system should not ‘penalise growth or reward decline’.

So there is to be a new system. Each parish’s quota will be calculated on what it gets (a vicar, for instance, calculated as costing £55K per year), a share of the common costs of the diocese, and an adjustment based on the relative prosperity of the parish. There will continue to be cross-subsidies, but they will be apparent and transparent rather than covert, and seen explicitly as ‘an investment for growth’. In the future, if a parish in Guildford Diocese is subsidised, it’ll know it.

Well. It struck me that this shift marks another stage in a huge process of centralisation which has gone on for decades. Once upon a time each parish in the Church of England was a virtually independent unit, financially and administratively; occasionally a bishop would turn up to confirm people or to discipline a naughty Anglo-Catholic clergyman but that was basically it. Then in the 1960s clerical incomes were standardised as the parishes handed their historic endowments over to the dioceses to be put into a central pool, possibly the greatest single act of Christian charity in this country’s history and one that nobody really talks about. Gradually clergy also began sending their fees for marriages and funerals into the diocesan pot as well. This financial centralisation should be seen alongside the long effort by the bishops to get more control over the patronage process, that is, who has the right to present a candidate to be incumbent of a parish; and the abolition of the Parson’s Freehold, the incumbent’s absolute security of tenure which is now (except for those who, like me, were already in place) replaced by licences for a term of years. Freehold gave clergy the freedom to innovate without worrying about being slapped over the wrist, but it also gave them the freedom to be alcoholics, depressives, oddballs, or plain idle buggers. Put all this together and the picture that emerges is of a massive and decades-long process in which the parish ceases to be the strategic unit for the mission of the Church of England, and is replaced by the diocese. The diocese’s hand may still be relatively light and respectful of the traditions of each parish, and bishops certainly tend not to behave with the brutal high-handedness that some once did, but the striking thing is that it has a hand at all. This is a shift from a situation in which parishes are given a priest and then left essentially to get on with it, to one in which strategic direction is set centrally and then implemented locally.

I said this, and the chaps from the diocesan offices didn’t like it at all, which suggests to me that I’m on to something. I didn’t at the time take the further step of summarising the proposed change, which I characterise – possibly caricature – as a shift from saying ‘every parish needs a priest and we will provide one’ to saying ‘every parish will have a priest if it earns one, and, if it can’t pay, we will decide what “earning” means’.

The change probably won’t cripple Swanvale Halt church. I and the treasurer guess that, when the new system comes in, we’ll have to find another £5-10K per annum, a challenging but not impossible amount. But far worse and more depressing than the shift in balance from parish to diocese, which is perhaps an inevitable process, is the managerialist and results-driven ideas behind the bishop’s statement about ‘penalising growth and rewarding decline’. What morally pejorative terms those are. The assumption is that a church can grow if only it tries, and therefore if it’s not growing it must be complacent and idle. This new model is very much ‘salvation by works’ rather than ‘salvation by grace’ – payment by results, rather than needs. It works entirely against everything we tell people about their essential value, about God valuing the lowly and weak. Whether centrally-directed strategy and incentivisation will ‘work’ better than hands-off universal provision, or will just accelerate decline, is an open question.

And it’s on God that I try to focus. Ultimately my value comes from him, from what I am in his eyes, not in the eyes of the Church of England. It doesn’t make me feel that good, though.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Child-saints rejoice you, small immaculate souls"

The thought occurred to me that I might mention the newly-canonised visionaries of Fatima during the consecration at mass this morning, but I realised I couldn’t remember which two of the three children it was. Was it Jacinta who was canonised yesterday or Lucia? I asked the Roman Catholic parish priest as he was on his way out (we share the church building with the Papists). Scandalously, he didn’t know either. The office computer and Professor Google came to my aid.

There are other child-saints in the annals of the Church, of course, but they’re mostly a bit distant (the Holy Innocents, for instance), or actually adolescents (St Agnes, St Pancras), or completely legendary (St Romwald, who preached a sermon on the Trinity as a newborn and died at the age of three days). Siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto are the youngest saints declared in modern times, dying during the influenza epidemic of 1918 at the ages of 7 and 9 respectively. This only became possible after the Vatican relaxed the rules a bit in 1981: previously candidates for sainthood had to have achieved a degree of maturity, but now the regulations recognise that a child can be ‘precocious’ in faith and awareness. In fact, the resolve of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints crumbled in this respect precisely because of the campaign to canonise the children of Fatima. 

I've never paid that much attention to the Fatima manifestations, partly because I'm not that much of a Marian devotee and partly because they've become so embedded in the imaginary world of ultra-reactionary Roman Catholicism. There are still Catholics who believe that the Vatican has suppressed texts of the visions revealed to the three children in 1917, texts that suggest the Church of Rome will go into apostasy and that the end of the world will follow soon afterwards. Even leaving aside the conspiracy theories and nutcase enthusiasms, the illiterate peasant children who met the Virgin Mary in the pasture outside their village so epitomised the piety of their culture and age that they’ve become (literally) icons for that piety, a sort which is a bit of an embarrassment to modern Catholicism. The surviving photographs of the children (here, for instance, or here, or here) do show them somewhat as eerily adult and theatrically pious, though perhaps that’s what coming across the Virgin Mary in a field will do to you. It would be fairer to reflect that they’ve been dressed up in their best clothes by grown-ups, and their disconcerting expressions are what any poor children would have adopted when confronted with a camera around that time. If you look at photos of British schoolchildren lined up in classes just before the First World War, they scowl in the same way. They’re just being serious. One gets the slight impression that the children were already icons even during their lives, and, while nobody doubts their genuineness, they were clearly surrounded by an awful lot of people who had certain expectations of them. As an antidote, compare this photo of a tired St Jacinta being carried through a crowd. She’s not enjoying herself much, is she?

But the point about children is that they aren’t that serious, and roping the visionaries of Fatima into grown-up ideas of what religious people should be like would be a shame. Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia (yet to be canonised, her) would have run about and played and laughed around the early twentieth-century village of Aljustrel like children everywhere. Thankfully some of the art that’s emerged around the children is less weighted with the significance they must have had to bear at the time of their visions and since. The tombs at the Fatima basilica where Pope Francis went to pray are actually rather nice, especially the statue of St Jacinta, surrounded by stylised hills and sheep.

I hope the holy children of Fatima will, in their sainthood, be allowed to be children. Because that’s the radical, subversive quality of their witness: the fact they were poor, and the fact that they were young. Contemplating them might remind us more of God’s clear bias towards the child and the childlike. It might act as some reparation for a Church that, at the same time as it idolised some children, ignored and damaged others: the shadow side of the festivities yesterday in Portugal.

As for me, I’ll wait for the canonisation of Blessed Antonietta Meo, who was even younger than the Marto siblings: she died of cancer at six in 1937 a year after having a leg amputated. She looks like a little Louise Brooks. She would skip in front of the tabernacle at church and say ‘Jesus, come and play with me!’ and I defy you to repeat that without your eyes stinging more than is dignified for a grown-up.

Friday, 12 May 2017

A Confident Priesthood

On Monday evening it was the Archdeacon’s Visitation service at the Cathedral, where all the churchwardens from the parish churches, of all ages, shapes, sizes and churchpersonships, go to swear undying allegiance to the Bishop and hear the Archdeacon preach a variant on his usual sermon which, he always stresses, is not about drainpipes and insurance policies. One of our Swanvale Halt churchwardens is new this year, and this was her first proper engagement. Two more would follow in quick succession this week: a safeguarding training evening and a church council meeting. Gosh.

I sat during all this and contemplated the pillar next to me, which I realised was covered for some distance up in strange, small parallel scratch marks. A mischievous angel whispered in my ear that these were, according to legend, made by Bishop Reindorp as he marked off the days until his retirement, gnawing the hem of his surplice during Evensong. I will have to spread this fact now. On reflection, I’m not completely sure it was an angel.

In fact the spiritual entity, whatever it was, was misinformed as George Reindorp went on from Guildford to be Bishop of Salisbury. But it prompted me to look him up. Some while ago his former parish of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster produced a booklet about his time there (1946-57) bits of which found its way into an article in the Church Times. A priest who went to the parish in the mid-1950s as a curate had kept Fr Reindorp’s letter to him before he arrived. ‘I want to see your manuscripts [of sermons] not less than one week before you preach’, the prospective curate was advised (and I use ‘advised’ in its strongest sense). ‘Learn by heart a) the Ten Commandments, b) the long Exhortation at Mattins and c) the exhortation from the 1928 Prayer Book …’ and so on, through paragraphs headed ‘Money’, ‘Punctuality’, and ‘The Vicar’s Wife’. I especially like this bit:

A small point with implications. In this parish there is a Vicar, and Mr Shepherd, Mr Case and Mr Todd. Don’t be led off by high-church coddlers into Father this or that. I like the term, but it is not expedient with this parish set in the midst of Cardinal Griffin’s Mission on one side, and a very "extreme" neighbour on the other. Then there are the loveable folk who refer to Philip Case and Bill Todd. Be advised by an old hand. Look polite and say, "Do you mean Mr Case?" It only has to be done once! Only a small point, you may say, but begin as you mean to go on.

Reindorp insisted on absolute uniformity of practice among all the clergy of the parish, and absolute uniformity of opinion, at least in public. ‘Don’t let it be dreamed that you could think differently from the Vicar on any important matter, although in point of fact you could willingly murder him’. In fact, he told curates that they were in their training parish to learn and not to think.

And then there’s the bit at the heart of the whole thing:

Above all, be prepared to challenge anyone. You are not ordained to be liked. When you leave St Stephen’s more people should love God than when you came, even if they can’t remember your name, and though some may not come to that knowledge till long after your departure.

Of course the curate in question, Timothy Raphael (later an Archdeacon) ‘found this maddening’ a lot of the time, but recognised in Reindorp someone who knew what he was doing, and in whom others could have similar confidence. ‘He cared about people rather than ideas. He had no great academic ability, nor claimed any. No one has ever infuriated me more, given me more, or supported me more.’

My own practice is less directive, partly by inclination, partly because of the time we live in. I inherited my first curate at Swanvale Halt and Marion came to us as what’s known as a Self-Supporting Minister from a moderately Evangelical background: she probably won’t have a parish of her own to run, and I wouldn’t have felt it appropriate to enforce on her complete uniformity with what I do (I have put in her final appraisal, however, that her disinclination to wear a maniple is an area for development). All that stuff from Reindorp’s letter about clergy being addressed as ‘Mister’, too, comes from a very bygone age in which the authority of the ordained person was deemed to be suitably maintained by a sense of distance.

But sometimes I wonder that I am not firm enough about some things. I want to believe that I choose my battles, and the issues that are worth drawing an absolute line on are few, but that can be an excuse for a laxity that does nobody any good. You’ve got to communicate that this business of the spiritual life is important, that choices have to be made, and that they are serious; and perhaps that requires not that a parish priest be rigid about any particular thing, but give the impression that he or she might be when it matters, and has no thought of being popular. ‘When you leave Swanvale Halt, more people should love God than when you came’.

(Most of the nicest pictures of George Reindorp available online seem to come from his famous Christmas cards, which usually showed him doing something priestly (including talking to the Queen), but they’re copyright to Getty. This one is from Guildford Cathedral, and shows him keeping an eye on the Supreme Governor of the Church of England signing the deed during the consecration of the Cathedral in 1961. He only wore his fantastically gigantic mitre once, on this occasion, before Mrs Reindorp told him it looked ridiculous. ‘The vicar’s wife’, he wrote in his letter to Timothy Raphael, ‘seldom interferes’; but, one might add, when she does … ).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Surrogate Opinions

Now and again an idea for an assembly at the infant school bubbles to the surface which could go horribly awry. This Sunday at church we kept the feast of St John at the Latin Gate which is of significance to us, and, rather as a few years ago when I told the pupils the story of St Nicholas eating three children in a pie, I found myself being inexorably drawn towards telling them about St John being boiled in oil (of course the point of the story is that he’s all right, just as St Nicholas brings the children back to life). It was all very over-the-top – the Lives of the Saints as re-told by Roald Dahl – and was rewarded by gasps of horror and ripples of laughter at the right points.

But the point of this post is not that at all. As usual I went to the staff room for tea after assembly. Normally the conversation among the teachers, when not concerning the activities or achievements of this or that child, is about diets or what they’ve done over the weekend: yet on Monday it was the presidential election in France. The defeat of Marine le Pen was discussed with something like hysteria-tinged relief, which I thought was a surprisingly engaged reaction for a group of teachers at an infant school in Surrey none of whom had a particularly close connection with France, who I’ve never heard discussing politics as such before. Everyone I know was relieved on Monday, because I don’t know very many right-wing nationalists: the eclipse of Ms le Pen felt like a little chink of light and reason in a world which has seemed gripped by a sort of collective madness since last June. So the staff room at Swanvale Halt Infant School was no different in that respect. But it only struck me later that a fulsome endorsement of an election result in France is a way of expressing what people feel without wading into the painful and possibly divisive marshland of British politics. We can all safely have a go at Marine le Pen: our own situation is a different matter.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Many Roads Lead

By now, the capacity for one moderately sensible human being to blame and castigate another for not being good enough according to their personal standards shouldn’t amaze and distress me, but it does. It seems that we identify the hypocrisies of others to reinforce our own sense of worth and justify our own choices, which, as no human being can hope to be absolutely consistently ethical, are just as likely to be full of inconsistencies and moral holes.

‘You can’t be a feminist and a Zionist’; ‘you can’t be a socialist and a carnivore’; ‘you can’t be a Christian and a Conservative’ are all examples I’ve heard lately. Of course people are all these things, and more, including perhaps more troubling combinations. Such inconsistencies, if that’s how we should we think of them, may be down to personal experience – which particular injustices we feel most keenly – or deliberately not thinking about some issues, or to ignorance about them; blind spots, conscious or not. Certainly how we actually behave is constrained by practicalities: a person only has so much time, energy and money, and what they devote them to is never down to a completely free choice between all the possible options they might select from, if all other things were equal. As I get older I worry less what people care about, and more that they care about something. It helps if that ‘something’ has the capacity to open them to caring about wider things, but whether it actually does is due less to any intrinsic qualities of the thing, whether it’s trade-union activism or fly-fishing, than to the spirit with which the person approaches it.

When Portia says in The Merchant of Venice that ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’ she means that it isn’t worn out by being used: a person can’t exhaust compassion through being compassionate. They might become tired by the actions that result from compassion, of course: they might run out of the finite resources we’ve already mentioned, time, energy, or money; but they can never run out of compassion as such. When we learn to care about one person, or one thing, we learn, at least potentially, to care about others, a bit like Edmund Burke’s vision of our ‘affections’ expanding from the ‘little platoons’ we find ourselves in naturally out towards society in general.

You might point reasonably to examples of this clearly not being the case: that close affections, far from promoting general wellbeing, actually narrow and constrain it. The inquisitor loves God and Christians and so tortures the Jew; the mother loves her children, and so pushes drowning orphans away from the lifeboat. Every decision to define some people or things as ones I will care about, defines others as potential objects of cruelty or indifference: creating the Umma generates the Infidel.

I say this is to mistake what’s actually happening. Exactly because we are, in Christian terms, fallen beings, and even our best and purest motivations are fraught and mingled often with our worst, then, when the inquisitor orders the rack to be tightened, or the mother prises the freezing child’s hands off the lifeboat rail to see it slip back into the water, it is not love that makes them behave this way, it is the fear and desire wound up with that love: the fear of loss, the desire to hold on to security or self-image. Sometimes this terrible world presents us with choices in which no option is without some cruelty, while at other times we deliberately harm others out of our own motivations: but loving one thing can never actively promote harm towards another. If we love those we define as close to us, that love cannot itself generate cruelty and indifference elsewhere in our experience: it’s the limitations of our character or of the world that do that. Equally, cruelty and indifference towards those close to us can’t generate more generalised love towards others; though it might free more time to pursue it, as in the case of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, one could reasonably question what was going on in such a person. Equally, the obsessive fly-fisher or My Little Pony collector or, I don’t know, fan of PJ Harvey, neglects their other relationships not because of the nature of what they love, but because of the insecurities and qualities of possessiveness and competitiveness they might bring to it. Cruelty and indifference essentially spring from other soil than love, and vice versa.

I’m learning, slowly, to value the enthusiasms and commitments of others, no matter what they are, and to see what in them is capable of being opened out to something wider: to see where love resides, and where it can grow. If I can give vicarly advice about this, it is: join something. Care about something. Love something. And don’t be too afraid of what others join, care about, and love.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A Contrast of Books

At some point there will be some churchy news to post, but for the time being I take refuge in books. While on holiday I managed to complete a hoary old warhorse of the Gothic brigade, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. I say 'complete', but the only way I could bear it was skipping through at quite a lick. Novel-readers must have had so much more time in 1794 to follow the minutiae of Emily St Aubert's sleeping habits, or lack of them depending on how menaced she feels by the mysterious and threatening goings-on at Udolpho. The book is, of course, typified by ludicrously anachronistic attitudes (it's set in the 16th century but the characters are all clearly living in the later 1700s) and characterisation so broad-brush it's virtually done with a broom: villain Montoni is so much the silent-movie heavy that you can almost see his bristling brows and painted-on moustache, while Emily spends an awful lot of her time swooning. Various people seem to die for no worse reason than being a bit upset, and when Emily and Valancourt get together their conversation is so neurotic you could begin double-handed slapping the pair of them, and never tire of it. There's more padding than a pantomime dame's bra. Emily escapes from the dreaded castle (for the final, conclusive time) about three-fifths of the way through and after that nothing really happens: Montoni's final defeat occurs deflatingly off-stage, and the famous explanation of the novel's grandest moment of horror is so ridiculous you gape at its audacity. Udolpho really is very, very bad indeed.

Thankfully I could then turn to Jennifer 8 Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which I picked up in the second-hand bookstore at Trelissick House: an apparently acclaimed book though I hadn't heard of it. In 2005 the US Powerball lottery experienced a huge spike in winners and only just survived: investigations revealed that the winners had all taken their numbers from fortune-cookie slips bought at Chinese restaurants across the land, numbers which just happened all to come up at once in the lottery draw. Ms Lee, a Chinese-American journalist, was captivated by this story and in the course of investigating it, and how fortune cookies came to be at all (clue: they aren't Chinese), found herself caught up into a gigantic ever-widening spiral of restaurants, immigration experiences, culinary fashions and unexpected wonders. I have no special interest in Chinese food, but Ms Lee's account shines a light into dramatic and unexpected corners, not least how bloody, bloody hard it is to be an immigrant (at least a Chinese immigrant in the US), how likely you are to be poorer than you should be and to die before you should die. I wonder what parallels there are in Britain, not so much for the Chinese (most of whom here have hailed from Hong Kong and so whose journeys have been relatively uncomplicated), but people from other parts of the world. The story is told with a deft, undemonstrative precision that combines personal experience and the techniques of the journalist and the historian in just the right amounts. 

(There is, I suspect, a Gothic novel waiting to be written set around a Chinese restaurant.)

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Cry, the Beloved County

It is the twenty-fourth anniversary of the release of Rid of Me so not only am I wearing my monkey badge but it may be time for another PJH-related post - a rant, really, at the colossal condescension of the rest of the world towards the West of England.

Part of my affection for Polly Jean Harvey is of course the fact that we both come from the same place, from beautiful Dorset, and therefore share reference points in that landscape – sometimes quite obscure ones, like the little lookout shelter on The Knoll at West Bexington where she took Seamus Murphy on their pre-Let England Shake photoshoot in 2010. I’m still trying to work out which church it was that they went to next, whose gravestones she’s standing beside in one of the other photos.

But to many other people Dorset is just one element in an undifferentiated West Country. There used to be postcards tourists could buy in newsagents around the county depicting some antediluvian yokel with gigantic wiry grey whiskers and a shapeless hat, gazing vacantly into the doubtless cowpat-spattered distance over a jug of lethal-looking ale. ‘’ave ‘ee bin on Darzet clifftops/Looked on lovely coves below?’, the legend ran, a jangling cacophony of William Barnes-esque doggerel. In fact it was worse than that, because, once you strayed over the westward border into Devon, you could find the self-same postcard, but now reading ‘’ave ‘ee bin on Deb’un clifftops’ as though it didn’t really matter which bit of the West Country you were in, provided you could still get a cream tea. And we don’t talk like that, either. Pirates come from bloody Cornwall.

That’s a vision of Dorset derived from what people outside it think Thomas Hardy’s world was like. The other side of Hardy, as everyone knows, is rain, mud and death, and that edges into a dark, atavistic impression of what goes on west of the River Stour, a kind of English version of the USA’s Deep South, hung with superstition and blighted by social backwardness, where a Londoner walks into a village pub and the place falls silent. In the summer of 1998 the NME sent some wretched journalist to cover PJ’s gig at the Bridport Arts Centre, an excursion which resulted in the following emission:

Perched on a rocky coast in deepest Dorset, sleepy Bridport is Polly Harvey's home turf. Approaching this outpost of rural Britain on humid summer nights, you half expect to encounter the voodoo sprites and feral banshees who haunt her fevered lyrics.

That’s not, I think it’s fair to say, what I have ever anticipated driving towards Bridport from the east, whether along the swooping B3157 coastal road that leads past Burton Bradstock, or the quotidian A35 where I usually spend most of my time waiting for the next bit of dual-carriageway to come up so I can overtake a lorry. I advise readers not to waste too much time listening out for voodoo sprites and feral banshees in the Harveyan oeuvre, either, because there aren’t any, nor can I think of a single one from Dorset’s folklore. And Bridport isn’t perched on a rocky coast, it’s two miles inland in a flat river valley. Perhaps you went to Lyme Regis by mistake?

When Polly first started out, the NME managed to describe her as Cornish when they must surely have known that her then nearest main town, Yeovil, is actually in Somerset. I very recently saw her referred to as Welsh: this is fair enough if you think that everywhere vaguely west of Reading is Wales, though this error hasn’t really been forgivable since the withdrawal of the Roman legions. But perhaps the most offensive instance of this phenomenon comes right at the start of James Blandford’s mid-2000s biography of the singer, Siren Rising. This book is generally respectful if a bit pointless as predictably neither she nor anyone close to her co-operated with its production in any way (I didn’t buy it new, I promise, I found a copy in the Oxfam shop). The chapter about Polly’s childhood is headed, jaw-droppingly, with the line ‘This is a local place, for local people. There’s nothing for you here’. Alert readers will recognise this (adapted) tag as coming from the grotesque TV black comedy The League of Gentlemen. I can only presume that Mr Blandford, and his editors for that matter, were blind to the possible objections that might be raised to a journalist drawing parallels between West Dorset in the 1970s, and fictional Yorkshiremen who shag their sisters and feed unwary travellers to their misbegotten and cannibal offspring upstairs.

The submergence of a complex, varied part of the world which is as modern as any other part of it beneath a range of atrocious stereotypes is, I suppose, not unexpected when geographically-ignorant metropolitan writers reach for something to say that their readers will instantly grasp, but it doesn’t half poke you in the wrong place when you’re at the receiving end of it. Mind you, I was brought up in Bournemouth which you can argue isn’t really Dorset at all so perhaps I have no right to say anything. Sling me another cow pat, you, and take note of this dreadful warning from Dorset pub band Who’s Afear’d (which is, of course, the county’s motto).  And when I say, dreadful, I mean it.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Cornish Wells: Old and Not So Old

It would have been a crying shame to spend time in Cornwall and not to visit any holy wells. As I’ve said before, coming across wells that are new to most people is very unlikely – though not unknown – but such are the numbers there that plenty are new to me. Ms Formerly Aldgate saw some of those I’ll describe with me, while for others I took pity on her and went to see them alone.

Two of this set look very similar to one another: St Just’s Well at St Just-in-Roseland and St Cybi’s at Tregony. There are other wells that share the same sort of construction, built into a wall with a single slab of slate forming the roof, so this is a recognisable type. St Just’s was restored relatively recently (and the path to it laid out with gravel chippings so it gets less muddy than previously) and the old stone surround that you can see in this picture replaced with granite uprights, so that curiously it now looks more archaic than it used to. The Tregony well has an old parish boundary stone in front of it.

St Cyor’s Well at Luxulyan was also restored by the local Old Cornwall Society in 1995. Now, in respect to other sites Old Cornwall Societies have a lot to answer for – but such drastic actions are long in the past. There’s no sense of that kind of well-meaning fakery at Luxulyan, although the very neat stone enclosure around the (now sadly dry) well has the deliberate air of a small public garden. The fifteenth-century well-house, which is a fine example of another type of well structure, has become more a sort of shrine with flowers, tea lights, and a statue – possibly supposed to be St Cyor, though it looks like St Francis to me.

The well at Veryan, called either St Symphorian’s or more simply the Holy Well, is another grand structure but of a different kind. Here, the restoration of the well (also now dry) accompanied the Coronation in 1912, and it looks a bit like a village War Memorial. It was carried out by the then Vicar of the parish, Samuel Trist, and the fabric seems to have been assembled from fragments from elsewhere, making it hard to work out what’s original and what’s additional.

Also at St Just in Roseland is a second well, which you can find in the churchyard – itself an astonishing place, laid out as a tropical garden. It’s never been claimed as a ‘holy well’ per se, although it’s obviously intended to look like one. The construction is of brick and stone with rougher stones piled over the roof, creating a grotto-like effect, and it was probably also the work of the Vicar who was responsible for creating the gardens in the early 1900s.

My favourite find was St Rumon’s Well at Ruan Lanihorne. I’d never seen a picture of this, and although Cheryl Straffon came here for her book Fentynyow Kernow in 1998 she only mentioned the chute where the water emerges, not the well itself. That lies on private land – I tried to find someone to ask before I went traipsing about, I really did, but failed. This structure is clearly of the ‘grotto’ type. The large semicircular arch is not an old Cornish well-form, though it closely resembles St Ann’s Well at Chertsey, which we know dates to the mid-1800s, and the Dropping Well at Hackfall which is probably 18th-century. Instead St Rumon’s Well has neat stone walls and, mounted along the rim of the arch, a set of quartzite blocks whose striking appearance is now partly obscured by moss. The water doesn’t originate within the well, but runs into it from the west and then out at the front. I’ve since heard that it was rebuilt at some point to keep butter and milk cool, but the fabric is very elaborate for that purpose alone.

In his groundbreaking 1982 survey Holy Wells of Cornwall John Meyrick records a tradition that the Well of St Rumon was actually in the centre of the village rather than here. While looking around I came across another old well against a wall and opposite the church, still full of water and with a broken wooden door. I wonder whether, perhaps, this was the original holy well?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Cornwall 2017

For the second time, I failed to visit Carn Brea while we were in Cornwall: it would have required a strenuous walk to get to the castle on the hilltop, and having already subjected Ms Formerly Aldgate to a long trek the day before I didn’t want to push my luck, so we pounded back from St Ives along the A30 with the dark mass of Carn Brea looming over Redruth’s slate-roofed houses to our right.

But we saw other exciting places. There are no castles or follies in this post, and I’ll discuss holy wells next time, but I know that some of my readers (!) outside the UK like my travelogues, so here are – well – some holiday snaps!

Home for the week was Portloe on the south coast, which still counts as a fishing village because it has no fewer than two working boats: they go out and catch crabs and lobster that then get served as dinner in the Ship Inn up the hill. Our cottage was mere yards from the tiny, tiny, rock-ringed harbour. The centre of the village is surprisingly busy thanks to the presence of The Lugger, an apparently rather nice hotel to and from which guests, staff and supply lorries made their way several times a day down the narrow and precipitous streets. It was very hard to find somewhere to park even when you’d managed to get the car in.

We spent the first day chugging across the Carrick Roads and up the Truro River by ferry from St Mawes to Falmouth and Trelissick House. This came into the occupation of the National Trust relatively recently when the last of the family that owned it moved out, with precisely no furniture, all the fittings having been flogged. So the NT has decided to tell the history of the building by commissioning a set of artworks, which struck me as an imaginative approach to the problem.

I last visited the Eden Project with my sister back in 2001 when most of the plants were about knee high, so it looks a bit different now. Tim Smit’s visionary venue has now bedded into the landscape to the extent that it affects the whole road system to the north of St Austell – 16 years ago, when the location was still very clearly an old china clay pit, Eden had the air of a set the makers of Dr Who would have dreamt of having the money to build – but it’s none the less amazing for that. We had an enormous green curry for lunch (and then later in the day in Charlestown Ms FA insisted we have a cream tea, as a result of which we felt positively queasy). We were struck by the fact that at Eden the children’s meals are not beans on toast and chips and the like, as at almost every other attraction, but smaller versions of the grown-up food, and of this we entirely approve. It's a place for artwork, now, as well as environmental education, some of which is a bit near the edge; in the Mediterranean Biome is a series of statues depicting a 'Dionysian Rite' which, a sign said, featured a skewered human head surrounded by spiked heads of rabbits. The human head was missing, but the bunnies were unsettling enough.

Charlestown – which I remember visiting with my family many years ago – has a private harbour, but you can still walk round it and gawp at the sailing boats before (or after) stuffing yourself with scones and cream.

We made up for the shameful amount of calories consumed on Tuesday with a long walk on Wednesday around the coastal path and then inland and home via Veryan. The sea was postcard-blue in a way you don’t expect of the British Isles.

Thursday took us to Truro and the Royal Cornwall Museum. Before plunging into the extensive galleries we decided we wanted coffee, and found that the cafĂ© to the right of the Museum entrance leads seamlessly and confusingly into the art shop next door, rather like trying to find something at the back of a wardrobe and then coming out into Narnia. The Museum, which began as a means of educating Cornwall in the ways of industry by means of documents and geological specimens but which has long since outgrown that purpose, is full of amazing things, although strangely Cornwall itself is a muted presence in the displays. The almost inevitable exhibition hung on the TV adaptation of Poldark was actually rather good despite our misgivings. The artefact that made me stand and stare in wonder most, though, was George Sherwood Hunter’s 1897 painting, Jubilee Procession in a Cornish Village. I’d never dreamed that oil paint could be turned into fire and light. There’s an otherworldly strangeness in this image that’s absolutely haunting.

At St Ives Ms FA bought some local beer from a micro-brewer called Black Flag: we weren't sure whether that indicated it was proudly Cornish, or proudly anarchist, or perhaps both. At Portloe the harbour facilities (which, a friend told me, 25 years ago consisted of 'a tractor and a big rope') bore a sign saying they'd been refurbished with the aid of a grant from the EU, as did several major roads and other public projects we saw during the week. Of course Cornwall voted 57% to Leave.

And then we made our way home on Friday, pausing for tea at Postbridge on Dartmoor, another location from my childhood. Mercifully, we avoided the attention of the Hairy Hands ...