Thursday, 31 August 2017

Turing Test

Image resultWe all got an excited email on Tuesday announcing that the Diocesan Offices are about to move. For years they've been crammed into a Georgian house on Quarry Street in Guildford. The time I went there with Debbie the ordinand for a scary meeting we were shown into a tiny box room for our discussion with the Powers-That-Be: we had to crouch to get in through the door. It wasn't ideal and moving must have been on the minds of the denizens of Diocesan House for quite some time.

The new offices are being rented from Surrey University. I imagine the Powers have debated long and thoroughly how wise a move this is, leasing a property rather than buying one. It may be intended as a temporary arrangement, though temporary arrangements have a tendency to become less than transient. Moving out of the offices at the Cathedral, currently occupied by the Education and Parish Development departments, rather than concentrating all the diocesan business there, also seems counterintuitive. But there you go.

The most important thing, however, is that the Diocese is moving to Alan Turing Road. This means that every time certain churches in the area want to send something to the offices they'll have to write the name of one of the UK's most prominent gay martyrs on the envelope. Of course that will only chafe as much as I hope it will if they know who he is.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017


One of our curate Marion’s more interesting achievements has been to establish an ecumenical prayer group which meets on the second Monday evening in the month. This doesn’t sound like anything very radical, but it’s the mix of people that makes it unusual. It’s settled down into a gathering of Anglicans – coming from a mainly Catholic-side-of-centre church, remember – and Charismatics from various church communities round the area. When it became clear that managing the different styles and expectations presented some challenges, I helped Marion think through it and devise a very minimal ‘liturgy’ to provide the meetings with some sort of shape (basically just a gathering and closing time of quiet and the Lord’s Prayer). Those challenges are still there, and Anglicans who come have to have either a sympathy with noisy, passionate Charismatics, or exercise a great deal of self-control; but the group still meets, nearly two years later.

I don’t have the opportunity to attend very often, but I was able to come to most of the August gathering. I came in a bit late and sat in the circle just as the prayer was at its most Charismatic mode, the attenders from those church communities and one of our congregation who is furthest in that direction dominating the proceedings. The main concerns were that Swanvale Halt church, in particular, should experience revival. Anna, who belongs to our congregation, often chafes about what she perceives as our lukewarmness and reluctance to talk about matters of faith, and mentioned that to God: ‘Lord, please change us so that we’ll be more willing to be open about our faith, and set this place on fire, so that everyone around us says, What’s going on at the church? They’re all excited and talking about God!’ I wondered whether that’s really what people would say, and, further, as I often do, how far God gets a word in edgeways in the Charismatic mode of prayer, and how far it’s more about us than him. Having said that, only to listen and never to speak is also to pray incompletely: you may find that you are not really listening to God at all, merely eavesdropping on your own thoughts. Speech takes the uncertain motions of the Spirit and brings them, or what we take for them, into the open and tests them. Those motions must be named, as they are in the liturgies of the Church, and gain a power as a result: we are physical beings, not mere minds. I suspect I am not as willing as I should be to speak about the things of the Spirit, and it has taken me long years to find even some way to do so in my own voice.

But – ‘revival’? What would ‘revival’ in people’s faith – assuming they require it – look like? And would it really bring the success Christians of a Charismatic (or even Evangelical) bent dream it might? Nearly forty years ago that doyen of Evangelical hymn-writers of a former generation, Graham Kendrick, wrote

Restore, O Lord, the honour of your name,
In works of sovereign power come shake the earth again,
That all may see, and come in reverent fear
To the living God, whose kingdom shall outlast the years.

Restore, O Lord, in all the earth your fame,
And in our time revive the Church that bears your name.
And in your anger, Lord, remember mercy:
O living God, whose mercy shall outlast the years.

Dumping in a reference to God being angry is almost demanded for lyrics that emerge from that stable, but the rest of the words are equally striking. Although the powerful lyric appears to be about God, in reality it’s about us, about our needs and desires, about the desperate yearning to be in charge again, not for anyone else’s benefit apart from our own. And beneath them is a dreadful insecurity. We are in with the boss, aren’t we? So where is he? What’s going on? And forty years of singing this hymn and praying these things later, God still has yet to do it. Instead, all the traffic is, apparently, in the other direction, so much so that you would be forgiven for wondering what on earth God is up to, or whether he’s there at all. But ‘revival’ is the answer. Wave our hands harder, sing louder, and the gays will go away, and the Kingdom will come.

A few days ago I mentioned the survey the Church Army was conducting into the way Messy Church works. One of the questions asked ‘What would be the most appropriate way of measuring discipleship among your Messy Church families?’ and provided some ideas – reading the Bible at home, taking communion, giving financially, ‘using and discovering their gifts in ministry’, changing character and changes in lifestyle. Leaving apart the challenges in quantifying some of these characteristics, I’d be happy for ‘revival’ to be judged in terms of any of these measures. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

An Act of Benevolence

The ritual of the pouring of the coffee is an integral part of a visit to the café opposite the church: one of the waiting staff will come over and pour a thin stream of hot water over the coffee grains in the filter paper, in a very slow circular motion so the maximum amount of coffee is infused into the cup. This doesn't happen at the village's other café round the corner where my filter coffee arrives already in its mug, nor do I get a choice of coffees there - Brazilian and Ugandan are on offer at the moment at the first establishment. But the village businesses should be supported, and so I share my patronage between the cafés.

Yesterday Maggie, one of the waitresses, came to my table with the usual filter. 'This has already been paid for,' she told me. 'There was a family seated at that table behind you, and on their way out they said they'd pick up the bill for your coffee! Shall I tell you when they next come in!?' I had no idea who they were, and didn't recognise the little boy with them as one of the Infant School pupils. I wonder whether I looked especially impoverished, although if I'd been all that impoverished I wouldn't have gone there for a coffee.

Il Rettore used to claim that offers to stand a priest a drink were an etiolated translation into a modern setting of the practice of buying indulgences, shorn of its theological underpinning. My friend Martin, another ex-resident of the parish of Lamford, commented via Liber Faciorum:

It may be uncommon for the clergy to be bought coffees in the South of England, but not so in working-class Glasgow. My pal Jimmy described to me how his enjoyment of an Aidirie v. Celtic game (in the pre crowd-segregation seventies) was spoiled by the succession of Celtic fans leaning across him to speak to the priest sitting next to him. "Can I buy you a pie, Father?"; "Can I buy you a coffee, Father?"!

Although perhaps lingering cultural memories of the doctrine of Purgatory were stronger in Catholic Glasgow in the '70s than in Agnostic Surrey some forty years later.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Garden Museum, Lambeth

My journey to London yesterday was delayed by 45 minutes and so rather than plough across to see Leighton House in Chelsea as planned I stayed in the vicinity of Waterloo and went to the Garden Museum at Lambeth, which I've wanted to visit for some time but never got round to. The Museum has only just reopened this year after a major refurbishment and is determined to recoup some of its costs with a really quite steep entrance charge, but I braced myself and found it, well, worthwhile for someone who likes museums. Gardens are at a premium in Lambeth (although the Archbishop of Canterbury next door has an extensive one) so you might wonder what the museum is doing here. The church of St Mary in which it is set is the resting-place of John Tradescant, 16th-17th century gardener, collector and naturalist: his house was just round the corner and housed his 'Ark', the first 'museum' open to the public in Britain. Much of his collection was snapped up by Elias Ashmole and so is housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but some of it is here. An enthusiast came to visit his tomb in the 1970s, was shocked by the state of the derelict church, set up a Trust to buy it, and eventually the Museum opened in 1987.

I've said before that the refurbished Ashmolean is one of the most beautiful and exhilarating museum spaces I've ever seen: on a smaller scale, the Garden Museum is now another. The fact that it's set in a church building complete with monuments, stained glass, and even a highly-unusual marble immersion font dating from the early 1900s, adds a spectacular quality which the swooping staircases and mezzanines of the display spaces emphasise. The displays themselves are done with enormous flair and some of the collection really is delightful.

For a few more of the Queen's pounds sterling you can scale the church tower and survey the cityscape from a hundred feet or so up, peeking into the Archbishop's windows and observing workmen on the buildings around having their tea.

Finally in a courtyard - an island of the old graveyard - formed by the dramatic glazing of the new museum café is the tomb of the Tradescants. It's been reconstructed over the centuries, but the carvings apparently follow closely the designs commissioned by John Tradescant the Elder's widow. Naturalist he may have been, but did he really believe in a beast like this?

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Beyond Messy

Sheila, who organises our Messy Church (and a variety of other things besides) is a super recruiter.   Her team is the perfect balance of older and younger members of the congregation, people who’ve been around for ages and newcomers, core churchgoers and those who are on the fringe of church. I don’t attend the planning meetings very often, but I went to the last one because it was a bit unusual, not just plotting the next session but also discussing how the whole thing works more generally.

Sheila had just filled out a survey for the Church Army, who are conducting research into how Messy Church functions across the country. Meanwhile the Diocese has also produced some research about Messy Church specifically across this area. Whereas the idea of Messy Church is that it reaches out to people who never normally come anywhere near a church, in the Guildford diocese this is less true than in other places: here more attenders at Messy are churchgoers in some other way, and this is what we find in Swanvale Halt. Meanwhile I’d tabulated details of everyone who’s been coming over the last two years so we can identify who our real regulars are.

One of Sheila’s team is a mum whose elder daughter has just finished at the Infants School and apart from Messy the only occasion they come to worship each year is the Crib Service on Christmas Eve. ‘Lana, you’re the guinea pig on this,’ said Sheila. ‘If we were to start talking about, say, offering Messy Church parents an introduction-to-the-Bible course or something like that, would you feel you were being pressurised?’ ‘No’, answered Lana, ‘My first reaction would just be “no time”’, and she went on to explain in some detail why this was the case and why she suspected other parents in her position would say the same. Work, family visiting, children’s parties and activities, work, work. ‘It’s a Surrey thing,’, she agreed.

We wondered whether, in fact, offering parents anything ‘extra-curricular’ in the faith-building and discipleship area is a non-starter until their children reach at least the upper part of junior school. The trouble is that the children usually abandon Messy Church, and therefore their parents do along with them, rather before that happens. Keeping in touch with people until they reach the point where life actually allows the Spirit a word in edgeways is the challenge, it seems. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

An Icon of a Different Kind

As it is the summer break, and the schools are out, the church occasionally becomes a place of refuge for various young people who do not always behave as we would prefer they did, especially when it's raining, as it has a lot this year. Clearing up after one such incursion a few days ago, I discovered this. It is an unconventional portrayal of Our Lord, but none the less sincere, clearly, for that.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Dahlias and Damsons 2017

The Village Show, as I've said before, is part of the church's community-building agenda in Swanvale Halt. It provides a way in for a great variety of people who would never normally come into the church building, but equally importantly it encourages a sense of common interest and endeavour, a meeting-ground for old and young, and offers an entrée for people who've come to live in the area. 

My role in this extravaganza is to take a few photographs, a representative group of which you can see here; to wander about and chat to people I know and occasionally come up with a reason to collar someone I don't; and to act as a generally supportive and encouraging presence to the team who stage the whole event. Then somewhat awkwardly, given how little I've had to do with everything up till then, I come on at the end and award the prizes. In this, I suppose, at many, many degrees of removal, I'm representing my boss, the Queen. 

In the meantime, I try to occupy myself vaguely usefully. I worked out what I might say at the Tuesday morning mass. I filled in the service register for tomorrow and prepared the bits and pieces for the baptism that's due to happen. I have to be around, present, with nothing much to do but unable to do anything else. Today I came up with the phrase 'intense inactivity' to describe it.

The gentleman with the splendid waxed moustache (worthy of The Chap) and the pith helmet didn't win anything, though I did suggest we should have a prize for Best Moustache next year, as something which is grown. He's American and only recently come to live here.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Internet is at least Partly Great and I will Defy Anyone who Says Otherwise

There’s a Holy Well at Hethfelton House near East Stoke, in Dorset, and I wanted to find out more about it. I know it appears on the first Ordnance Survey map of Dorset in 1811, but that’s it. Hethfelton House isn’t mentioned in Pevsner’s Buildings of Dorset, and there is no other clue in anything I have here. The assumption is that it was an 18th-  or early 19th-century garden feature.
Within a few minutes of discerning Googling I was able to find:
  •           An article from Country Life which gave a little history of the house
  •           An extract from Hutchins’s History & Antiquities of Dorset about East Stoke, with some details of the development of the Hethfelton estate
  •           Both of these mentioned Dr Andrew Bain, owner of Hethfelton around the right time and the probably creator of the Well (he ‘much improved the estate and grounds’). He was also awarded the gold medal of the ‘Society of Planting’ for planting thousands of conifer trees on the estate
  •           Dr Bain’s biography as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
  •           The reference to his award from, not the ‘Society of Planting’ but the Royal Society of Arts: its Transactions from the period is included in Google Books
I can't imagine how long this might have taken without the assistance of the otherwise so dreadful algorithms that rule so much of our lives; dibbing around in far-flung libraries may be pleasant, but it doesn’t half use up one’s allotted lifespan, and I might well never have found out these details at all. At such times, the tyranny of Dr Google seems benevolent indeed. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Making Assumptions

I see I don't have time to write the complicated blog post I planned, so here instead, to celebrate the day, is a dramatically sidelit photo of the plaque of the Virgin and Child we have in Swanvale Halt church. Made in the early 1900s by Mary Watts, it has a suitably Italianate look to it despite originating in the Home Counties. And of course, Jesus looks about as baby-like as Brian Blessed playing the Emperor Augustus in I Claudius, which is an authentically medieval/Renaissance approach.

It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin today, or the Dormition if you're being Orthodox in mood (for Roman Catholics, the bodily assumption of the Virgin into heaven at the end of her life is a dogma you have to believe; for Orthodox believers, it's an opinion you are free to hold or not; for Anglicans, it's a phrase that makes a churchperson either compose their face into a blank look or go into a swoon depending which bit of the Church they belong to). As Bishop Mervyn Stockwood once reportedly told an Anglo-Catholic clergyman in his diocese who remarked on the day in question, 'I'm afraid that's not an Assumption we share'.

I dragged out S.D.'s old Marian vestments for Mass this morning, and at the end we said the Angelus prayer at the statue of the BVM much to the delight of some present and the bemusement of others. They ring the Angelus here as the call to prayer before Mass and probably have done since my predecessor Fr Barlow's day, but I'm not sure how many people know the words (or, indeed, that there are any words to know). 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Seeing the Wind

Usually when I sit down and write a sermon it ends up largely how I planned it when I started. Not the other day.

The readings set for this Sunday were from 1Kings, where Elijah encounters God in the 'still small voice' on Mount Horeb after the wind, earthquake and fire; Romans 10, in which St Paul discusses faith and righteousness; and Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter to come to him. I had thought of the wind - which is very present in both the Kings and Matthew readings - as a metaphor for all the things that hold us back and discourage us, which was all very well.

But like many people I'd always been befuddled by that detail in the Gospel story that Peter walks towards Jesus on the water but then 'saw the wind and began to sink'. Why is it seeing the wind that makes him realise what he's doing is impossible?

I found myself thinking this way. It seems fairly clear that, in the mists of unrecorded history, Yahweh God of the Hebrews was a storm deity: that was how they originally conceived of him. Some of the Psalms, possibly the oldest stratum of Biblical text, refer to him in this way; he makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the winds, they say. Gradually the Israelites come to read the calamitous power of the storm not as a direct sign of the presence of God but as an image for his righteous wrath, provoked by injustice and oppression. So when Peter sees the wind churning up the surface of the lake, that's what he thinks of. He remembers his own unworthiness and the awesome righteousness of God; his fears and doubts about his own acceptability are re-awakened ('go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man') - and he sinks. 'Why did you doubt?' Jesus asks him, and his doubts are not about whether Jesus has the ability to enable him to do this impossible thing, but whether he, Peter, is worthy of it. Which of course isn't the point.

I sat and looked at what I'd just written a little surprised. I can't quite bring myself to believe that nobody has stumbled across this gloss on the text before, but I've never heard it.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Mutual Aid

My brilliant friend Karla casually remarks on LiberFaciorum that she’s ‘contributing voice talent to an audiobook of Kropotkin's The Conquest of Bread’, and quotes from him, in the context of a discussion about the horrors of Brexit and the divisions consequent on the Referendum; I think it precisely summarises the distinction, and distance, between representative democracy and genuine empowerment:

The people commit blunder on blunder when they have to choose by ballot some hare-brained candidate who solicits the honour of representing them, and takes upon himself to know all, to do all, and to organize all. But when they take upon themselves to organize what they know, what touches them directly, they do it better than all the “talking-shops” put together.

As I mentioned a few days ago I am ploughing through the Book of Wisdom at the moment.  This morning brought chapter 38 to my attention, an interesting passage as it’s the only point where the Bible – albeit a disputed bit of it – discusses ordinary working life at any length. It’s not entirely positive; the argument is basically ‘Nobody can be wise if they have to work too much. Artisans have a great deal of skill about particular things, but you don’t ask them to run anything, do you? You need leisure for that, to devote yourself to thought.’ But the text does concede that the labourers – the ploughman, the seal-cutter, the smith and the potter – are not only necessary for the life of a community (‘without them no city can be inhabited … they maintain the fabric of the world’), but know best about their own crafts.

Here is a point of agreement with Prince Kropotkin. Ask the people in a referendum whether the country should leave various international agreements it has entered into, and the answer they give cannot help but be uninformed because the question is too big. Gauging the impact of such an action depends on a whole series of enormous sub-questions about which there can be no agreement: there is an excess of information, pointing in various different directions; there are too many precedents. Reason breaks down because data proliferates beyond its grasp. However, ask a factory worker how to improve her environment and she’ll know a lot about that. This is why representative democracy is not the end of enfranchisement, but its mere beginning; when people begin to control the landscape around them, whatever it happens to be, is when they begin to change. And once they get accustomed to the process of self-organisation in one area, so it may develop into others.

It’s hard work, though, and it’s much easier to delegate decision-making upwards to ‘some hare-brained candidate’ who can be praised or blamed as required. Here, I’m trying to edge the church into the habit of thinking about what it wants to do as a community of Christians, but that doesn’t come easy. Even a little tick-box exercise which says ‘these are the options for action, which do you think are the most important?’ seems to be something people are very happy mentally to put to one side. It creates the possibility of disagreement and the necessity of negotiation, and that’s a bit scary.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


There is no recorded date for the installation of the east window at Swanvale Halt church, but I suspect it dates to the late 1870s or early 1880s. There are hints in some of the other decorations in the church that its devotional practice was starting to creep up the candle at that time, but that was probably very little to do with the then incumbent, a bluff former soldier who'd been in place for twenty-odd years by then. The following rector was significantly more in sympathy with the Catholic movement in the Church of England, and this bit of High-Churchery is probably from his time.

It wasn't generally the fashion to install rood screens in Victorian churches until the 1890s, and even then only in advanced Anglo-Catholic churches which were trying to be really authentically medieval, like St Cyprian's Clarence Gate. I think our window was a sort of rood screen in glass, fulfilling the same devotional function of linking the sacrifice of the eucharist with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. It looks like a rood, with Christ flanked by the Virgin and St John; and originally the altar would have stood directly beneath it. The priest would have raised the chalice at Mass right below the image of the angel receiving Christ's blood into the spiritual chalice shown in the window. It makes the point.

In reality, the window doesn't quite look like the picture above, as there are in fact three widely-separated lancets along with a vesica above showing Christ in Majesty. I thought it would be helpful to amalgamate them into one devotional image. Only been here eight years before that idea occurred to me. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

And Soothe Awhile the Harrassed Mind

In the torrential rain of Saturday lunchtime I was called down to the church to speak to someone. This is sufficiently unusual, and the voice on the phone sounded sufficiently disturbed, for me to be slightly nervous and take my big umbrella with me not so much to shelter from the rain as to provide some means of self-defence should it become necessary.

Of course it wasn't: he wanted me to see a friend, a lady living in the village who suffers from schizophrenia. I visited, picked my way through the chaos of the flat, listened, prayed and laid my hands on her head, and promised to write to the GP and the Community Mental Health Team. That was about all I could do, and it always feels very limited.

Nobody knows precisely where schizophrenia comes from, though there are all sorts of theories. The voices people with it hear are very often hostile, critical and vicious, attacking the sufferer with their own fears and sense of unworthiness. Often (though of course not always) they seem to be linked with real critical voices people have got all too used to hearing from others, especially from parents and family. Whether the voices are demonic, as some Christians would assert, I'm not sure: schizophrenia dissolves the boundaries between the self and the world outside the mind, meaning the sufferer hears thoughts (the kind of thoughts that flit through all our minds) as external manifestations, so in dealing with it you are instantly propelled into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of deception and never quite sure what you're dealing with. Either way, the first step in combatting these horrible mental insinuations is to insist on the absolute love of God for the individual, and their worth to him, regardless of what they may have been told in the past. 

Yesterday I met the lady concerned who seemed astonishingly better: almost 'clothed and in her right mind', as it says in the Bible story. I suppose I ought not to be surprised that praying actually had a positive result (of course it may only be temporary, but it's still something), but you do get used to being completely impotent.

Trevor, on the other hand, continues to be a problem. In this lady's case, religion could come in from the outside, as it were, into her situation and supply something solid and objective to reinforce her sense of worth and self; in his, religion is built into the structure of his delusional thinking. It's part of the sickness and it's hard to see far it can help with the cure.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Wearing Faith Out

I know the Roman Catholics and Orthodox insist that what we call the Apocrypha – the texts included in the Greek Old Testament but not in the Hebrew – are just part of the O.T., but they can be quite weird on occasions. At the moment I’m reading through the book Wisdom, which contains some hair-raisingly misogynist ramblings mingled with interesting insights. The other morning, though, I stumbled across something which tied in precisely with the way my mind was moving:

If you have gathered nothing in your youth,
How can you find anything in old age?

A few days before I spent an hour talking to Victor, who’s been involved with the Church all his life but has found it next to impossible even to come into the building since his wife died after a swift descent into dementia a couple of years ago. ‘I just don’t have any faith left’, he explained, ‘I think I still believe in God, but I don’t care. I don’t feel anything.’ A range of physical ailments had worn Victor down as well. I thought of another member of the congregation to whom exactly the same thing happened: ‘church’ was bound up with the wife he spent years looking after, and while he seemed to go through the experience of her death and the immediate period afterwards with great dignity and grace, everything soon collapsed and it took him two years, at least, before he could appear at church again. A couple of days later I spoke to Miriam who, with her husband, were absolute stalwarts of the 8am mass for years. In her case, it wasn’t his death which knocked her sideways, but the experience of physical illness over the last year which has worn her faith down.

Bereavement in older age isn’t a circumstance uniquely disturbing to people’s faith; I’ve recently had conversations with two much younger Christians who have found it in one case hard and in the other plain impossible to take part in public worship since losing someone close to them. Echoing Victor, Cal told me ‘I haven’t lost my faith, but there’s no feeling there’. It’s odd, and sad, that Christians should feel that lacking an emotional response to religion should bar them from church. Isn’t ‘faith’ precisely a matter of carrying on practising religion even when you don’t feel anything? But, in this state, even the quietest and most low-key of church services will still confront you not just perhaps with the loss of a person who was deeply connected with your experience of churchgoing, but also with your own sense of loss and inadequacy at not being able to summon up the feelings you imagine you’re supposed to have: a different sort of bereavement. It can be unbearably hard to face that.

That’s one factor: another is the disruption to routines which may have been followed for decades, routines in which church and loved one formed key elements. You have to be very determined, or your faith to be very definite and protected, for there not to be some sense of collapse, of the pieces of your life falling to the ground and refusing to reassemble in an acceptable new pattern. Why bother? is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: it always is for anyone contemplating religious practice, but, faced with the challenges of age, it’s perhaps harder to answer. The grind of poor health and frailty, the lessening of the comfort which beauty brings (‘the gradual closing of the doors of the senses’, Gladstone said) and perhaps the weakening of the bonds that tie an individual into human society can combine to make a sort of low-level depression entirely understandable.

Accounts of great Christians who struggled with these challenges I find sobering indeed. Trevor Huddleston, mighty campaigner against apartheid, monk, and archbishop, spent his last couple of years being cared for in his old monastery at Mirfield. He’d been a difficult brother and was a worse patient, hating his frailty and venting his anger on those who looked after him. By the end the man who had done such great works for Jesus Christ of Nazareth could barely bring himself to speak his name.

On the other hand, I regularly meet elderly people who are transfigured, whose eyes contain a purity and serenity which is all but angelic, no matter what life may have thrown at them. In them, faith has become a rough stone cut and polished to a jewel-like brilliance. Is the Book of Wisdom right – that there are foundations laid in our younger years that only become obvious as we get older? That we can only find that rough stone when we are young enough to go hunting in the mud and chiselling out the ore, ready for the final work to be done when we are old and face the real test of who we are?

We’re told a great deal at present about preparing for old age financially; we should also prepare spiritually, building up, you might say, a spiritual pension fund. I have to pray – both for myself and those I love – that we will have done enough work to have a spiritually positive old age; and that, if we don’t, bearing in mind that good or bad fortune will form a major part in how these things play out, those who have the task of caring for us will be kind and look beyond our dry and bitter behaviour. Of whom God will be one.  

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Hope Six and a Bit

This photograph has brought me a peculiar degree of delight, not only because it has Polly Harvey at the centre of it but because of its circumstances. I will tell you the story. It’s a bit long, so make yourself some tea.

PJH is rather used to people not liking her work, but that’s generally either for musical reasons, or because they don’t like her as an individual – or for the latter reason dressed up as the former. Political objections have been absent until last year. The first track from the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, ‘The Community of Hope’, dealt with what the singer along with photographer Seamus Murphy observed on their trip to Washington DC in 2014. At one level, the song is a cynical blast against efforts to regenerate particularly run-down parts of that city: that is what the Hope Six Demolition Project was. It says something about the idealistic cast of US politics that the powers-that-be dared to include the word Hope in its title: such hubris invites disappointment, especially when grand initiatives like this rarely achieve their aims without ambiguity and loss. But that’s what America is like. People genuinely do hope, while in bitter old Britain we’re generally happy if things don’t turn out quite as bad as we feared. But in dabbling with all this, Harvey exposed herself to the fury of those who still wanted to hope, and of those who had an interest in them doing so.

She had long since decided that the keynote of the album would be reportage. In Afghanistan, Kosovo, and now in Washington, she had gathered the remarks and impressions of others and was weaving them into poetry and then into song; this is what she’d done with her previous release, Let England Shake, but this time the people she would quote from were not long-dead soldiers and veterans, but living: they could potentially have their own ideas.

As far as ‘Community of Hope’ was concerned, that original voice came from Washington Post journalist Paul Schwartzman: he tells the story here. Seamus Murphy identified Mr Schwartzman via a mutual contact as someone who could guide him and Harvey around the rougher end of Washington; first they toured the city districts as Harvey sat in the back of the car and took notes, and about a year later Murphy returned on his own and Mr Schwartzman took him out a second time to film the locations they’d visited earlier. The pressman had only a vague idea who Murphy was, no knowledge at all of Harvey, and the parameters of the whole project weren’t exactly clear either. ‘It’s awkwardly difficult to define’, Murphy had told him, because it was. By the time he returned for his solo trip, Murphy was able to give his contact a copy of the book he and Harvey collaborated on, The Hollow of the Hand; in that, and in the resultant video that accompanied ‘The Community of Hope’ early in 2016, Mr Schwartzman was able to read and hear his own words quoted verbatim. If I’d been as monumentally rude to my home city as he had (employing such choice terms as ‘shithole’ and ‘zombies’), my blood would frankly have run cold, but Schwartzman took it in good enough part to write it up: after all, a journalist tells a story, even if it’s against themselves. And neither Murphy nor Harvey had told anyone his name: he’d effectively outed himself.

In a digital age the vituperative backlash against ‘The Community of Hope’, released a month before the album, didn’t take long: Washington city politicians lined up to denounce the singer they’d never heard of. More pointedly Leah Garrett, who runs the not-for-profit local charity actually called ‘Community of Hope’ wrote to Harvey in a tone of sorrow that hid bewildered rage. ‘By calling out this picture of poverty in terms of streets and buildings and not the humans who live here, have you not reduced their dignity? Have you not trashed the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better?’ Of course, even such heartfelt criticisms missed the point that the words the singer used were not her own words, something she signalled very clearly within the song:

Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project
Stretching down to Benning Road -
A well-known pathway of death
(at least, that’s what I’m told).

But some fans, who might have been expected to be more supportive, also found ‘The Community of Hope’ uncomfortable. ‘Poverty tourism of the worst kind’, was one comment I read, ‘in the end, she’s a privileged white woman describing someone else’s suffering that has no effect on her. It’s unforgiveable’. Yet in The Hollow of the Hand, the poem that eventually transmuted into the song is called ‘Sight-seeing South of the River’: it is itself a critique of exactly that remote, privileged viewpoint. Seamus Murphy released two photographs of Harvey taken during that 2014 trip, one showing her looking out of the window of a suburban bus, the other beside the River Anacostia, notebook in hand, presumably scribbling what later turns into the haunting lyric of that name. In the video of ‘The Community of Hope’ there are plenty of little vignettes demonstrating that Murphy, too, did a lot more than just sit in Paul Schwartzman’s car and stick a camera out of the window. But these are easy points to overlook (especially if you want to anyway).

My first contact with the contested song was the video: 
The lyrics detailed the baleful locations in the way Leah Garrett had complained, but degradation and misery was not the impression it left. In it I saw people going about the ordinary and yet profoundly grand work of being human: a young man has his hair cut in a salon with the Obamas on the wall; people go to work; a young woman is baptised in a white robe. There are more forbidding images, too: soldiers cross a landscape, military planes taxi. But around and across them the music soars, relentlessly upbeat. Without the visuals, the song has a bitter, ironic tang, culminating on the line lifted from Schwartzman, ‘they’re gonna put a Walmart here’ – the bitterness intensified by the knowledge that, after the song was recorded, Walmart, who had agreed to build a store as part of the Hope Six initiative in return for being granted commercial advantages elsewhere, reneged on the commitment. Harvey could not have known that, but it’s another example of a curious prescience that’s surfaced at other times in her life, too. But, put together with the video, the song’s sour notes move well down into the mix. It still makes me tearful: to me, it’s a statement of defiant solidarity with the people of Anacostia, not a swipe at them, and through them, to every battling battalion of human beings.

Yet you see what you want to. The church scenes were shot at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, and partway through the video we see its director of music, Michael Scott, drilling the ladies of the church choir in accompanying PJH as the demo version of the song plays on his phone: by the end of the film, they’re singing ‘They’re gonna put a Walmart here’ in the church in lovely harmonies while Seamus Murphy films them from the side. The Washington Post chased Mr Scott down and asked him how this came about. Murphy, he remembered, had been ‘hanging out’ at the church and asked whether the choir might be willing to take part in the video. Now, UTBC isn’t an ordinary Baptist church: it majors on African-American aspiration as much as common-or-garden Christianity. The Jesus painted on its wall is black, and its version of the cross is an Afrocentric ankh. Of course something called ‘Community of Hope’ would fit in with that vision. Mr Scott liked the title of the song. And equally unsurprisingly, when the Post pointed him towards the video, he didn’t see what he’d expected. He’d thought the Walmart line was a bit strange at the time: now, watching the film, he admitted he was ‘highly confused as to what the message is’, and wondered why there weren’t more positive images of his neighbourhood. Even considering Walmart had ratted on the deal to build a store in Anacostia, he pointed out: ‘Somebody has to build a Walmart. Somebody has to work in a Walmart. A Walmart means jobs.’ So what I saw as the most uplifting image in the whole composition had actually been procured under something like false pretences. I couldn’t swallow the complaint that the involvement of UTBC in the song was ‘cultural appropriation’ – ‘an exhausted pop music trope’ – because I couldn’t see them as anything other than embodying the hope of the title, if hope was to be found anywhere, a typical Harveyan ambiguity. They are part of the religious motif that weaves its way through the album, and are, essentially, no more ‘appropriated’ than are the monks of the abbey of Decani in Kosovo whose chanting we hear at the end of another song, ‘Chain of Keys’. They both represent the presence of eternal truth in particular circumstances. But they should have known what was going on – should they? Perhaps it couldn’t have happened in any other way – PJH never explains herself, now less than ever, and how could she have explained a statement deliberately intended to be ambiguous and multivocal – but it left something of a moral doubt at the centre of a great work, a leaky valve in its heart.

She’d been booked to play at the Wolf Trap festival not far from Washington for a while, but it wasn’t until June that the stunning announcement came that she and the band would be joined at that concert by none other than the UTBC choir. First the news appeared on the Wolf Trap website, then on PJ’s own (her management are often a bit relaxed in their attitude to publicity), and then they were singing two days before the Washington date too, at Summerstage in New York. Finally they, and Polly, appeared on her Instagram feed. There is Michael Scott, there are the ladies of the choir who appear in the film, there is the singer.

How did this come about? How did artist and community move from estrangement to collaboration? PJH’s management said nothing, of course she said nothing, the church itself said nothing, without a mention of the concerts on its Facebook page, website or Twitter feed. For a while I toyed with the idea of getting in touch with Rev’d Willie Nelson at Union Temple, but, a couple of days ago, as the cursor hovered over the ‘send’ button beside my email, I decided not to. What could he say? ‘She asked and we said yes’? It’s not my business to pry just for the sake of a blog post: I’m not a journalist, and I’m not writing a biography. All we need to know is that some approach has been made, some explanation has been offered, some bridge has been repaired. There has been boldness and generosity, no matter what has actually happened. And this moral lacuna in the work of PJ Harvey has been definitively closed. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Around Send

It does you good to get away from the house on a day off, even if you don't go very far away. Last week I went no further than the top of the hill above the Rectory where you can sit and gaze out across the valley - even on a rainy day when a family of dauntless dogwalkers were the only other human beings to be seen - but the week before I took a stroll around the canal to the north of Guildford, Send Marsh as my start- and end-point. Even in this landscape, which is not all that prepossessing (it's not Dorset, for heaven's sake) there are still many things to be enjoyed, and more than I expected on an afternoon out.

The Manor sits innocuously beside the green at Send Marsh, a very handsome late-17th-century house and a pleasing surprise to me.

Further along the path is a small pool with this dramatic disused winding gear and now haunted by huge carp you can just glimpse below the surface of the water.

Papercourt Lake is a bit larger. The beds green algae impede the coots and moorhens in their wanderings around the lake, but they make for interesting patterns in the water.