Sunday, 30 July 2017

O Nothing Can Downcast Me

If I want a dose of good cheer, all I have to do, in fact, is glance across the living room to my windowsill where this little fellow hangs out. My sister bought him for me some time ago and thanks to his photovoltaic cell he oscillates from side to side in an ever-so-slightly mocking dance (‘the effect is far more mocking from the back’, points out Ms Formerly Aldgate). Once the sun is out and striking in his direction, there is no stopping him, no matter what you do. I have been trying and failing to locate the cartoon he reminds me of – a pair of grinning Victorian mutes in top hats and mourning coats declaring ‘O nothing can downcast us’. I know I’ve seen it somewhere.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Tell Me About Your Childhood

As, in some ways, one of the great progenitors of modernity, Dr Freud has always interested me. I recently finished CR Badcock’s Essential Freud from 1988 as my bedtime book and then did some reading around it. I don’t know whether there are many psychotherapists around now who still find Freud’s model of human development through crises of childhood sexuality helpful; I had no idea that the man himself tried to extend his ideas to include the whole history of human culture, relating shifts in social economy to the stages of development he thought he had identified in individual human beings. On the one hand I admire his penetration and willingness to follow his insights, and on the other can see how many of these theories were deluded.

The unscientific nature of psychoanalysis also struck me. I think Freud believed he was proceeding on the basis of evidence, and was as scientific as any other practitioner. After all, much of his analysis ‘worked’, so it had to be true, hadn’t it? But gradually various other psychoanalytic schools, developed by people like Jung and Adler who’d fallen out with Freud, took entirely different paths, operating on a variety of completely separate systems, and these ‘worked’ as well. In this way they are more like religious sects than scientific models. Science moves forward as an interlocking system and insights in one discipline can inform others; whereas psychoanalytic schools developed models of human personality and growth which were completely non-communicating, having no links with each other at all. In this way they seem rather like a series of explanatory narratives – myths, if you like – which might be more or less helpful to individuals, but their objective truth lies beyond the reach of mere evidential proof.

Or does it? I wanted to find out more about Dr Badcock, my book’s author, the doughty champion of Freud who ranked his genius along with that of Einstein. I discovered, somewhat jaw-droppingly, that he renounced Freudianism about ten years ago, like King Clovis ‘burning what he had worshipped and worshipping what he had burned’. It was thinking about autism that had made the difference: if autistic people have none of the ability to police their thinking that the rest of us have, then what they do and say should exhibit the drives and desires Freud said inhabited the human unconscious, but they don’t. Instead autistic people are concerned with very different things. Dr Badcock takes this as proof that the unconscious in fact doesn’t exist, and gave up Freudianism as a result. Even I think that’s a bit extreme.

Well. In our pastoral psychology classes at theological college we were taught not by a Freudian, but by a priest who certainly believed, like Dr Freud, that human beings go through developmental crises and if those crises aren’t satisfactorily resolved at the normal time they will be rehearsed in later life (he just argued they were different sorts of crises from Freud’s infantile sexual ones). We should, he thought, be aware of how this might play out in our church communities and our relationships with parishioners.

I’m sure this does happen and is reflected in the strange conflicts and difficulties to be found in churches. I wonder whether it’s because – cosmic significance of the spiritual life aside – the stakes are so low. It’s generally quite hard to see what church life achieves, and the various practical good works churches can do are generally low-level stuff. Apart from the very few people who are actually employed by churches, their members are released from the constraints that operate in work environments and are freed to play out whatever issues are buried in their habits of thinking.

The other day at Toddler Group Sheila told me ‘Stephanie is on the warpath. Somebody’s been cleaning the silverware with Brasso and she’s furious.’ I made my way to the vestry where said Stephanie and Brenda were busy cleaning. ‘Sheila tells me there’s been an issue with the chalices, they’ve been cleaned with Brasso or something,’ I opened. ‘It’s not that,’ said Stephanie, who didn’t seem more outraged than usual, ‘there’s wax on them. Mary [the late former nun who was our sacristan for years] used to tell people to wash the chalices with hot water and I think some of the cleaners are using the water they clean the candlesticks with to wash the chalices, so the wax gets on them.’ ‘I’ve tried to tell everyone about how to go about the cleaning,’ put in Brenda, ‘but some just don’t listen or forget and Sheila’s so deaf I don’t know what she picks up on or not. And then there’s Adela. I’m only here this week because I can’t rely on her to turn up when she’s said she will so I always come along in case she doesn’t. Which she hasn’t.’

And of such stuff is the therapeutic community of the church made. Transference ahoy. You could argue that, in this case at least, we could just do away with all the kit, and there would be no cause for argument. But then we would not have the opportunity to exercise patience and to learn understanding and to develop humility by remembering that we all exhibit the same sorts of frailties, just in different ways. And ultimately that’s (part of) what Church is for. I think Dr Freud would term it the victory of the Superego, and would not entirely approve.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

We're Off to See the Bishop

After the meeting introducing the proposed new parish share system that caused me so much upset, and some subsequent consultations, I wrote to the bishop outlining the things I was unhappy about, including some of what he specifically had said. 'Frankly I eventually wanted to throw myself under a bus,' I'd told S.D. when I saw him in June. 'Why', he parried, 'didn't you want to throw the bishop under a bus? That would seem like a far more positive response to me.'

As a result of the letter the bishop suggested I come and see him, and I was there this afternoon. It was the first time I'd been upstairs in Willow Grange, the Bishop of Guildford's house, since the occasion eight years ago when our former diocesan told me I should think about Swanvale Halt as a possible next step in my 'career'. The bishop told me that I wasn't the only one to have been unhappy with the language used at the meeting - that line about moving away from a funding system 'which punishes growth and rewards decline' - and apologised for it. He didn't swallow my point about the funding changes representing another stage in a very long-term process of centralisation, stating that 'if that's the impression people get, we have to do something about that'. The bishop took some time explaining again what the reforms were intended to achieve, when I didn't have any particular issue with them as such, and regard something along their lines as inevitable quite apart from matters of equity. He had meetings booked in with clergy from other parishes which were going to be significantly more affected than Swanvale Halt, and who were very unhappy indeed. However the conscious motivations of the actors in an event are often very different from the context in which that event takes place and which sets its parameters, while the actors often find this hard to grasp. They may even not like it when someone else points the context out.

The bishop didn't object to what I'd said that much, although he didn't go along with my analysis. It was a perfectly agreeable hour - not that I ever really expected to be flung into an oubliette or find my head skewered on a railing outside Diocesan House. Fighting my way home through the rush hour traffic was far less congenial. Did the bishop finish our meeting with more understanding than when we started? I certainly found him less guarded than I'd expected, but we will see. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Friendship Forever

Despite what I may have done last year, it isn't really kosher these days to take photos of lots of children in a public context in case they may be identifiable, unless one happens to be a parent of one or more of them. However, at the annual Infants School Leavers' Service, and other school events, I often find the audience - sorry, congregation - as interesting to snap as the children themselves. 

There are other aspects of the occasion which make a worthwhile photo too. The entrance area to the church was scattered with the discarded shoes of some of the young performers:

The liturgical centrepiece of the leavers' service is the distribution of Lion Storyteller Bibles, which the church buys and the school office marks with the name of each child heading off to junior school in the Autumn. I read out the names, hand the Bibles to the head teacher, and she passes them to the children, shaking each one's hand. It makes it a sort of graduation ceremony. You can see the Bibles piled on the altar in this photo:

I got the name of the excessively tearjerking song last year wrong: it's 'Friendship Forever'. I was emotionally prepared for it this time, but it still tugs. I wonder how many of the children I will get to see much of again - and doing what, as the years go on? Assuming they do. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Printer Preferences

Naturally, I didn't ask Microsoft to update my operating system - I was perfectly happy with it as it was. Actually, that's not true: one is never perfectly happy with an operating system, one merely fears that change will be, as it usually is, for the worse. And so it proved this time, as it has before. The Windows 10 Creators Update made it difficult to do a number of things I'd got used to doing, and I regularly discover a lot of my nice fonts have disappeared, although I now know a little trick which seems to restore them every time that happens.

More irritatingly my old Epson all-in-one printer stopped working. This has also happened before, and eventually on the Epson website I found the complex instructions that told me how to go into the hidden program files and manually delete the now-irrelevant ones so the new device drivers would work properly. That got my old scanner interface back, but a lot of the functionality of the printer has gone. My PC now thinks the printer can do nothing other than 'print' or 'print on photo paper': draft quality options have disappeared, meaning you can't save on printer ink, and the highest-quality options aren't available either. 

To be fair, Epson responded very quickly to my queries about this problem, when getting any reply at all was a surprise, but the nature of their advice was basically 'get a new printer as your existing one is old'. This is deeply dispiriting as there's nothing wrong with the old printer: the day before the update it worked perfectly; it's depressing not because printers are expensive - they aren't - but because it's so pointless and wasteful. A member of the congregation who works in IT brought in another perspective which I didn't realise: 'printer manufacturers have lowered the price of new devices to the extent that they don't make any profit on them; they make money on the ink which is why it's so expensive, so it's not a surprise that they'd just say "get a new printer". Of course it does suggest that eventually there'll just be huge piles of perfectly good hardware lying around. And sometimes big companies like Epson can say before Microsoft issues an update that it will cause this or that problem, but there's no incentive for anyone to ensure that old devices still work.' And at the end of that process sit you and me, cursing in front of a screen.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Synodical Transitions

‘This Synod was the most dispiriting I’ve ever been to,’ an old clerical hand told me the other day. ‘I’ve never felt so marginalised and demoralised. Everybody now speaks a language I don’t, and can’t, and yet it’s a language you have to speak if you want to be heard’ – the language of managerial control, targets and achievement. When I mentioned to S.D. my issues with some of the statements of our diocesan bishop, his answer was, ‘Oh, all the bishops are saying things like that. They’ve been on a course.’

In other news, General Synod was keen to edge the Church closer to where it thinks the ‘modern world’ is. The move to allow ‘full funeral services’ to be offered for those who have taken their own lives was, like ‘allowing’ clergy to lead worship in everyday clothes, another bit of shadowboxing, because nobody has been denying them for quite some time. It’s true that the funeral service of the Book of Common Prayer was ‘not to be used for them that have laid violent hands upon themselves’, but in my twelve years of ministry I have never once used the Prayer Book funeral service and don’t know anyone who has.

The much-heralded call for ‘sexual orientation conversion therapy’ to be banned is, again, less radical than it looks as such programmes weren’t exactly prominent in the Church of England anyway, although they do tend to be associated with conservative Christian circles. It’s more like a statement of a desire to be nice to homosexual people, a statement to which said conservative Christians reacted predictably. Equally, the reports that the Church was about to ‘offer special services for transgender people’ were over the top: all that the Synod did was to pass a motion which called on the bishops, a background paper put it, to ‘consider providing liturgical materials … to provide a pastoral response to the need of transgender people to be affirmed’.

Synod is always an opportunity for conservative evangelicals to showcase their ideological purity. They’d started even before it began, by threatening to walk out over the presence of the Bishop of Edinburgh (the Scottish Episcopal Church is about to begin marrying same-sex couples), and carried on complaining, tabling a whole raft of motions which they knew weren’t going to be passed thus enabling them to write angry blog posts about how their opinions were being rejected. It’s all par for the course now, a bit like the Orangemen who stand around the lock-up in the middle of Walsingham and denounce the Virgin Mary as the statue gets carried past on the National Pilgrimage day. People would be more shocked if it didn’t happen.

However I found myself rather agreeing with this commentator who admitted himself bewildered, from a liberal point of view, at the sheer lack of theological thought in Synod. Perhaps the Church of England’s debating chamber has never really been a place for deft and fearless analysis of the issues of the day in the light of Scripture, reason, and prayer, rather than for throwing around slogans, political manoeuvring and avoiding real questions. I don’t know enough about it. But as I heard about each of the issues above, I wondered what actual thought lay behind them.

I’ve carried out one funeral for someone who killed themselves. I have had friends who have taken their own lives, and more who have attempted to do so, and have experienced what the psychologists call ‘suicidal ideation’ myself. Understanding as I am, though, it isn’t an unproblematic manner. Often, those who are left behind experience grief with a particular hue of anger and conflict, and the old liturgical restrictions seemed to recognise that. It seems to me that this sense of the uniquely problematic nature of suicide, somehow, needs to be recognised within the liturgy of a funeral service in the same way that it’s appropriate to recognise that a second marriage inevitably involves breakage and damage.

I also have transgender friends. Some have engaged in transition treatment, some are happy to remain biologically one sex while identifying with the other. What does it mean to ‘affirm’ them and their experience in church? Why should this be anything to do with the Church, anyway? What aspect of the Gospel does it illustrate? Are we suggesting some sort of rite-of-passage liturgy on the analogy of other ceremonies such as marriage and baptism, and thus misunderstanding the role of the Church as one of just hallowing whatever human beings do, smoothing the rough points of our lives with a bit of ritual? How does it fit in with a Christian understanding of human identity as something given to us by God, rather than something we choose?

Wanting to be nice to people is not a bad thing. It's a place to start. But we need to rely on something more than just our finer feelings, if only because feelings are so susceptible to change. For all their incorrectness, the conservatives are right to ask for something less thin and jejune.

Monday, 17 July 2017

My, My, Mitres

During my few months looking after the church at Goremead I presented one candidate for confirmation. The service took place in an evangelical parish nearby. I was waiting with the bishop in the vestry when the vicar popped his head round the door. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he said, with no sense that he was asking permission, ‘But I won’t wear a surplice until the communion. It looks so silly.’ And with that he vanished again. The expression of the bishop – properly attired in stole and alb and carrying his crozier – was priceless, as it would be again at several points as the evening wore on. I felt like saying, ‘You don’t think you look any less silly in a suit?’ but that would have been cruel.

I will talk more about General Synod’s July decisions and indecisions later, but I will warm up, as you might expect, by discussing vestments. Synod decided to dispose of the old rule that when celebrating communion clergy had to wear either surplice, scarf and hood (the conservative evangelical option) or the traditional Mass vestments (the Catholic option), and instead they only need dress in a way which is ‘seemly’or ‘appropriate’. It was nice that the Torygraph mentioned Goth services in one of its write-ups of this subject, and perhaps even nicer not only that they got Fr Giles Fraser to admit wearing a Chelsea T-shirt while celebrating Mass (albeit under his vestments), but put up a completely irrelevant photo of a rural church in the golden light of a setting sun, which is how Torygraph readers imagine the Church of England always is.

To be honest I had a memory that the Church had already dealt with this some time ago. In so many congregations, everyday dress is considered de rigueur even for the least quotidian of events (albeit it happens every day) – the re-creation of the sacramental presence of the eternal Word of God in bread and wine – that the rules haven’t actually been enforced in years. This is just catching up with reality.

Piggybacking on this more general matter, though, came the specific one of the bishops’ mitres. Dr Ian Paul, who is on the staff of resolutely evangelical vicar-factory St John’s College, Nottingham, did a good job of publicising his opinion that the bishops should give up their pointy hats. On his own blog he begins by suggesting mildly that there is ‘nothing very Anglican’ about bishops wearing mitres, and that they’re silly-looking, and works himself up to arguing that they’re a facet of covering up child abuse, which is quite good going. He turned up on the Today programme on the 10th: the editors put him on opposite Ruth Gledhill, enough to make anyone lose their will to live, and he reeled out his potted history of vestment-wearing which Gledhill managed to collude with in a frankly loopy contribution. I was most struck by the bit where Fr Paul described Blessed Edward King as ‘the first bishop we know to have worn a mitre’ (sic) and said he adopted it ‘because he wanted the Church of England to look more like the Church of Rome’. This is both true and untrue. It would be more accurate to say that Bishop King, like other 19th-century Tractarians, believed that the bishops of the Church of England had as great a claim to the title ‘Catholic’ as their brethren of the Roman observance, and adopting the mitre was a sign of that. Far from being a signal of pomp and self-aggrandisement, it existed – as a recollection of the flame of the Holy Spirit which drove the Apostles from their Jerusalem bolt-hole on the first Pentecost Day to proclaim the risen Christ – to stress the Church’s independence of the powers of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Bishops were the successors of the Apostles, the Tractarians argued, not ecclesiastical civil servants in the pay of the State. It seems clear that what we have in Fr Paul is a late flowering of that perplexing anti-Catholicism which thankfully has almost died out even of the crustiest corners of evangelical England – though not completely, it seems. No Popery! is still the cry there.

(Of course, he’s not entirely right about the history of the mitre. Robert Pursglove, Henry VIII’s Bishop of Hull who died in 1579, had his memorial brass in Tideswell Church depict him in full Mass vestments, mitre included, pushing the wearing of one way past the Reformation. The Coggeshall brass of Charles I’s Archbishop of York, Samuel Harsnett, also shows him in one, and he died in 1631. Even when Anglican bishops ceased to wear mitres, they still had wooden ones carried in front of them at their funeral processions.)

I don’t know whether mitres do look that silly: I certainly don’t think they have to. A woeful lack of any kind of aesthetic sense afflicts the modern Church, and as a result we have some awful rubbish paraded about. Archbishop Justin’s mitre gains its bizarre appearance – no bishop has ever worn one of its shape before – from the fact that it was made for someone else with a bigger head, and he had it taken in. I can't decide whether he deliberately decided to make it look ludicrous, or whether it just didn't occur to him. 

Much of the time bishops do not cart their tat around with them, any more than the rest of us do, and they make do with whatever the setting they’re worshipping in has available. Here are our two archbishops at York Minster sporting particularly egregious examples:

Yet Archbishop Sentamu can look splendid given the right kit:

And of course when bishops wore stuff that followed the lines of proper medieval examples, and was put together by proper embroiderers, even the most personally shambolic of prelates looked the part:

Well. Underneath the anti-Catholic prejudice and partial history is a more interesting question. How far should what the Church does be accommodated to what the world expects, and how far should it be distinguished from it? Does the Gospel transform culture, or does it fit in with it? Is it more effective – does it make souls more likely to encounter Jesus Christ – to signal difference, or sameness? I certainly believe that at the centre of the Church there has to be difference, there has to be some sense that God transcends the world, and wants to pull it towards him, and that the Church is anchored there, not here. You might think the result of human beings trying to hook themselves into divine eternity by means of needlework ‘looks a bit silly’. It looks something, anyway. But bodies, with all their silliness, are all we’ve got to work with.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Portsmouth Interiors

While I'm preparing some more complicated thoughts, here are two nice church interiors for you, from my day out in Portsmouth yesterday. Of course the most startling church in the city is Fr Dolling's St Agatha's, now a parish of the Ordinariate, but these are also very pleasing.

The last time I visited Portsmouth Cathedral it hadn't been finished. It is of course an overgrown parish church bumped up to cathedral status in 1927. Now it has a pair of stumpy towers at the west end of its nave, an effect which looks more Rhenish than English. Inside, despite its small size, it's divided into very distinct areas which give a variety of interesting vistas. The most beautiful space is around the high altar. The tester hanging over the (rather tiny) stone table is sort of sub-Ninian Comper (Comper would have designed something far more, well, commanding). The crown-shaped hanging pyx glints in the light, while the bare iron cross and candlesticks are precisely right. Even the cut-out coloured feet (not a permanent part of the design) add something helpful: they look like a splash of multicoloured light filtering from windows which aren't actually there.

I walked over the memorial slab to Bishop Kenneth Stevenson; the day before moving me in to Swanvale Halt rectory, the removal men had shifted Bishop Stevenson out of the Bishop's Palace in Portsmouth. 'He had a lot of books', they said, with some ruefulness.

Later on I found myself at St George's, Portsea, an 18th-century church in a square, now surrounded by post-War (and in fact mainly post-1960s) flats and houses. Of course I rather like my churches full of statues and candles, but the gentle simplicity of this space, with its colouring of soft pink and mint green, punctuated by the old cross and candlesticks against the east wall, the altar table, and the candle in front of the Blessed Sacrament off to the left, is welcoming and calm. They worship in the round here, which again is not my inclination, but it seems appropriate to the space. 

(photo from the church website)

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Dorset in July

Two days of great contrast: well-hunting on Monday, a journey to a variety of sites I'd visited many, many years ago and a few that were new to me, was accompanied by scudding clouds and quite a bit of warmth at times. On my customary pilgrimage to Abbotsbury I missed the usual turn and found myself going down White Hill instead of through Portesham, opening up a breathtaking vista along the coast east to Portland and westwards to the red cliffs of Devon, vanishing far, far beyond Lyme. That evening Ms Formerly Aldgate warned me over the phone that the next day would be a downpour, and so it proved when I and my mum went for a drive to Lulworth Cove. 

As I toiled up the hill towards St Catherine's Chapel I passed three black women struggling under rucksacks and camping gear. They came in to the chapel while I was in the middle of the office hymn to St Catherine, so we had to have some kind of explanatory conversation given that what I was doing was a bit unexpected! Griot Chinyere from London and her friends from the Shanti Chi company are dedicated to helping young people of African heritage from the inner city, particularly if they have mental health or behavioural issues, establish a sense of identity through storytelling, especially in the setting of the English countryside. I'd met them on a sponsored hundred-mile walk along the South Coast path from Exmouth to Worth Matravers. Strangely - although I have come to put some weight by coincidences - their next storytelling festival in July is at Parmoor Farm in Frieth, just yards away from the former Abbey of St Katherine whose black vestments I of course inherited and use. 

In such ways the modern world interacts with the fossil landscape of what we are now supposed to call the Jurassic Coast. On the second day, the rainy one, I and my mum ended up in Lulworth, another scene from my childhood, and it furnished another example. Back in the 1970s you parked up in a field and walked down a tiny street to the Cove, and there was nothing much there for visitors despite the geological fame of the great agonised folds of rock visible in the far cliffs. Then the Lulworth Estate, fresh from refurbishing Lulworth Castle after a fire in 1998 and looking at the potential of the several hundred thousand souls who found their way to the Cove each year, bucked up its ideas and built a visitors' centre and shop, and around the same time a rather grand restaurant opened between the car park and the old street. Since 2008 the Castle grounds have hosted the music event Camp Bestival, which can draw about 30,000 people. We found Lulworth packed even on a July Tuesday in term-time, as folk fought their way against the wind and rain to and from the shore. A group of about twenty teenage girls seemed to be carrying out a school tourism project, noting down on clipboards the number of Bed-and-Breakfasts and asking people where they'd come from. It's a far cry from a field and a one-room shop selling a few postcards and a couple of snow-domes with crabs in them. What would the dinosaurs make of it all?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Exercises in Overlooking

Going boating with Dr Bones on Saturday afternoon was a sort of little bit of holiday before my holiday started. I and Ms Formerly Aldgate drove up to Lower Heyford and helped the good Dr and Adrian (and Bones the dog, of course) shift the fair vessel down the Oxford Canal to Thrupp, where we met and had dinner with Ms T. We even managed to help with the locks. 

The journey started in dramatic fashion with screaming as Dr Bones lifted the first tyre buffer out of the water where it was protecting the side of the boat, and found a crayfish squatting in it. I hadn't thought a woman who happily deals with animals once they are dead would be quite so scared of a small live one, albeit one that can nip you if you get too close to it. I offered my assistance and eventually tipped the creature back into the water. It was then that I learned that boaters who come across American Signal Crayfish (of which this was one, Dr Bones recognised its body markings) are not supposed to put them back in the cut, but kill them, a messy and upsetting process which needs either a brick or a pot of boiling water. This is because they carry 'crayfish plague' that affects native species. We decided we hadn't seen it.

I was reminded of delivering a banns certificate to a couple that morning only to be told by a man who was either the groom or the bride's father that they weren't there, but now had their own home elsewhere. They hadn't told me that they were moving; technically the banns being read while they are actually resident somewhere else could be problematic, but if Dad hadn't been in, or I'd decided just to put the envelope through the door rather than knock, I'd've been none the wiser. I decided that in the interests of sanity I should probably recover my previous ignorance in that case, too.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Sola Fide

Our curate Marion has reached the end of her curacy, although we breathe a huge sigh of relief that the diocese has decided she can stay on until her husband retires from his current position at a local school, which should be four years. She can do this because she is what the Church of England calls a Self-Supporting Minister: that is, she works for free. The Church likes SSMs. What she will actually be now that she's technically no longer Assistant Curate (SSM) isn't yet clear, but nomenclature is a comparatively minor matter.

This is what she gave me to celebrate the conclusion of her training, to add to my mantelpiece of religious tat 'in the interests of theological balance': a Playmobil Martin Luther. It looks distinctly more mild-mannered than the real thing would have been.

I'm very pleased to see I fall within the intended age range, otherwise I'd've had to give it back.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

A Challenge

The small girl with her mum and little sister accosted me while we were waiting to cross the road. 

"Why do you always dress so smart?" she said. I overlooked the adverbial use of an adjective, taking the view that grammar was beside the point of this encounter. "Why", she went on, "don't you dress like me?"

I considered her spotty t-shirt and leggings. "Well", I offered, "I like the clothes I wear, just as you probably like the clothes you wear." I did think that communication might be opened up with the bishop were I to start dressing like her, but I didn't say that.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Mark of the Maker

My friend the Heresiarch once accused me of ‘living in a medieval never-never land’, and it’s true that, when the music emanating from the little ghetto blaster in my university bedroom wasn’t Siouxsie and the Banshees, it was the Walkman Classics recording of the Carmina Burana. I remember calling up from the Bodleian’s bookstacks the great facsimile edition of the Carmina and musing on what the original would be like. A lot of my actual studies concerned the Middle Ages, though none of it, necessarily, medieval poetry. That was decoration, or, more strictly, a deeper layer.

In the middle of this time I heard a programme on the radio: the Wednesday Feature on 24th May 1989, it seems, in which Brian Redhead profiled Helen Waddell. She was, I learned, the translator of the Carmina (in fact, only some of those lyrics), a figure of great intellect who never quite achieved what she should have done, and whose academic career was curtailed at its outset by the demands of an invalid stepmother, and at its end by illness. The Wandering Scholars was her masterpiece, bringing to the public a world of medieval lyric whose existence the generally informed person had barely suspected before (it was only several years after its publication in 1927 that Carl Orff began setting selections from the Carmina to music, but there doesn’t seem to have been any connection). Only intermittently attached to any university, Waddell trampled the boundaries between disciplines as though they were of no relevance: she was a poet, historian, novelist, dramatist, editor, translator. She melded into my sense of the Middle Ages, a sweet concoction which was being fed by other streams, including music a little more accurate than Carl Orff. The mingled scent of blood and roses. Brian Redhead didn’t talk about her Christian faith a great deal, as I remember, but that phrase used about her by a relative which gave her first biography its title – that she bore The Mark of the Maker – was evocative enough to stamp itself into my mind.

Years later I came across a copy of that book, written by Waddell’s friend Monica Blackett in 1973, and yet didn’t read it. It’s mainly composed of letters and has an unintriguing misty reticence about it – despite its date it seems to come from an era twenty years before, never defining, for instance, the relationship between the writer and her unhappily married publisher Otto Kyllmann (it was a non-physical love affair that led to their sharing a house until Helen became too ill). And Waddell herself retreated into the recesses of my mind.

What brought her back out again recently? I think it was just that I wanted to clear my mind with some biography and took The Mark of the Maker off the shelf. That led me to Dame Felicitas Corrigan’s fuller account of Waddell from 1986 which had also been mentioned on Radio 4, though I can’t say that I heard about it then.

It’s hard to exaggerate the literary superstardom which Helen Waddell enjoyed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, all the more stunning for the fact that she, and so many of the people that meant much to her, are now almost completely forgotten. Nobody, including its author, expected The Wandering Scholars and its companion volume Medieval Latin Lyrics to take off the way they did; the reception for her novel Peter Abelard was near-rapturous. For a few years she was one of the most feted figures in the kind of high society that liked to sprinkle a few academics around to transmute the tinsel of glamour (and power – Stanley Baldwin became a friend) into the more precious metals of knowledge and culture.

And there was weight enough there to do it. Waddell knew her stuff, for sure, but what made the difference was that she could write her stuff. Combined with a tremendous breadth of range which could bring apparently disparate facts and artefacts to bear on a single narrative and tease out nuances which a less magpie mind might miss, she had a deep imaginative sympathy with her subjects, whatever they were, even when – as with John Milton – she found them fundamentally uncongenial. She could breathe in a topic until, like a kind of menthol, its scent suffused her and out of that she wrote. Recovering from fever and tended by the sisters of the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1924, she underwent a strange experience in which she became the ill-fated lover of Peter Abelard, Heloise, not as a young woman but in her old age as Abbess of the Paraclete, with Abelard twenty years dead. This vision, if that’s what it was, enabled her to take on the business of writing their story, finally emerging in the novel of 1933, with all the emotional near-drowning that entailed. It was a hazardous undertaking which made great demands of her and left her exhausted, but what fruits it bore.

I now read Waddell’s prose, even the letters Sister Felicitas quotes, and find myself almost scorched by that incandescent passion, that tremendous love of souls, both the ones she knew in life and those she touched through her studies. At times I want to give up any writing at all, so bright hers burns. Through it all was threaded her faith: she never left the Ulster Presbyterianism that raised her, but combined it, tensionless, with a Catholic spirituality – how could so sensitive a medievalist do otherwise? I could joke that such a mixture makes her a sort of honorary Anglican.

From the late 1940s Waddell’s memory began to fail her and that towering intellect succumbed to what we would now automatically term dementia. And here Sister Felicitas (no milk-and-water nun herself, by all accounts) produces the most Christian gloss of that cruel disease I know, so I quote it in the hope it may be useful:

In a world delirious with the invention of more and more powerful weapons …, filled with hoarse noises, … is it not at least conceivable that the Creator of man should, so to speak, demand hostages to overpass time and space, and to dwell beyond the reach of intellect …, in silent solitude in God’s presence? These tithes given to God are called to cease being workers and thinkers, and to plunge instead into the deep silence of their own incommunicable selfhood and spirit to encounter the living God, entirely other yet mysteriously immanent at the inmost centre of every human heart He has created.

One of Helen Waddell’s last translations had been the deathbed prayer of another scholar, King Alfred’s tutor, great Alcuin of York, written as the English Dark Ages dawned into the Middle:

And now,
Beside the shore of the sail-winged sea
I wait the coming of God’s silent dawn.
Do thou help this my journey with thy prayer.

And there are no better words to conclude than those, which are both his, and hers.