Thursday, 31 May 2018

Juana Ines (2016)

The first couple of episodes of the Mexican miniseries on Netflix about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Juana Inés, I found intriguing but pretty broad-brush. It was a glimpse into (someone’s version of) a period of history most English people know next to nothing about, Spanish Mexico in the 17th century. Sor Juana is perhaps the greatest figure of Mexican letters, a genius far from neglected even in her own lifetime: the Tenth Muse, the Minerva of the Americas, they called her, even while many of the religious authorities in New Spain chafed and grumbled at the idea of a woman (and a nun!) writing profane verse and speculating on theology. The amazing portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera misleads with its sheer swagger (remember it was painted long after her death) and the most authentic image, created about 1680, is far more conventional while still emphasising the scholarly pursuits of its sitter, but she was highly thought of and clearly had no doubts about her own abilities. The series majors on the conflict of the learned nun and the Church hierarchy, but despite this restrictive set-up it becomes remarkably subtle by the end, an exploration of the nature of the religious life, albeit a contradictory and ultimately inconclusive one.

The show looks wonderful: the various New Spanish dignitaries remarkably resemble their contemporary portraits, and the clothes are fantastic. It’s all a bit static, as a great deal of the ‘action’ consists of characters talking to each other in cloisters, and often via a grille (any conversation between the Sisters of St Jerome and anyone who isn’t, for instance); and sometimes a bit repetitious, as young Juana first becomes the uncomfortable love-object of the desperately lonely and frustrated Vicereine Leonor, and then middle-aged Sor Juana enters into a not-quite-consummated relationship with Vicereine Maria-Luisa. The central relationship of the whole narrative is between Juana and her Jesuit confessor, Fr Antonio Nunez de Miranda, and that goes through thirty years of repeated conflict too until she dumps him and then, at the last, re-admits him. At first it seems that all the ecclesiastical figures are simply bigots, intent on reining-in this contumacious woman. There is Fr Antonio, apparently determined on saving Juana Inés’s soul from her own intellectual pride but full of his own unacknowledged motives; her cynical Prioress at the Hieronymite convent, Sor Maria, who cares mainly about preserving the comforts of the house against interference from outside; and the misogynist Archbishop Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas who seems frankly psychopathic. Only easygoing Archbishop Payo de Rivera, the cleric who admits Juana to her final vows and who likes a good poem and some Indian sweets, comes over particularly sympathetically.

Then after all this churchy and courtly to-ing and fro-ing, we have the last episode-and-a-bit where all these characters emerge rather differently. Poor Fr Antonio, who has spent thirty years harrying and manipulating Juana into giving up her intellectual life yet (as Archbishop de Aguiar points out) never quite forcing her, finally admits to her through the convent grille that he has been at least partly motivated by envy at her cleverness: that he has tried to ‘bring you down to my level’ by using the confessional to get her to stop writing. ‘I’ve never hated you … I’ve always admired you’, he stutters, and then passes through the grille the bundle of Juana’s romantic letters to the Vicereine that could get her denounced, surrendering the last hold he has over her. He gets shockingly beaten up by the Archbishop, and finally succumbs to a fever after a botched cataract operation: it’s not a happy end. When the Archbishop scours the convent for evidence to put Juana on trial, the Prioress is one of the very few sisters who refuses to collaborate (‘At my age, I can’t be expected to remember everything that’s happened over the last 25 years’, she comments innocently to the investigators), and organises the copying of her books so that they can be published in Madrid against the wishes of the colonial Church hierarchy. Finally, it’s the man who should be Sor Juana’s most bitter antagonist, the monstrous Archbishop de Aguiar, who liberates her: he visits the convent garden (overcoming his repugnance of female contact) to tell her she is free to choose what to be – a nun, or in her heart still a courtier, living in her imagination a life she claims to have left behind, to be ‘Juana Inés de Asbaje, or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’. He’s not going to force her. You can see the scales fall from her eyes as she realises how much of her literary endeavour has been motivated less by pure delight in learning than by the very opposition she has aroused. Liberation from pressure means she can lay down her pen. She sells her books and equipment and gives the money to the city’s poor.

Except she doesn’t, quite. The series has to accommodate the fact that, although the historical Sor Juana Inés made a public act of penance and never published again, after she died ministering to the other nuns in a plague, manuscripts and books were found secreted in her cell proving that she never gave up writing completely. The story shows her treating this as a spiritual conflict, an addictive habit she has to combat: she even blames herself for the plague that hits the convent, scourging herself so that the aghast Prioress has to tear the whip out of her hands, and then breathing in the infected breath of one of the sisters so she too can die.

In the end I was impressed by the genuine way the series treats religion when at first I thought it was going to be a bit of a panto. Of course, from a secular-humanist point of view, Juana Inés’s change of heart is nothing more than a defeat, and it’s to the show’s credit that it hints otherwise. Sor Juana and Fr Antonio, at the centre of the maelstrom of misogyny and power, are shown taking the business of sin and redemption absolutely seriously. Both deeply flawed people, they see in the end how it goes to their very hearts. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, says Fr Antonio somewhat pathetically as they talk about Juana Inés’s life at their last confession, which is as much his as hers; ‘God himself is the mystery’, she answers.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Seen in the Wild

I passed them going in one direction on my way to pop a banns certificate through a door, and then met them again coming back: two teenage girls eating crisps. ‘Excuse me,’ said one, ‘Can we take a photograph of you?’ Very, very wary and thinking of what the diocesan safeguarding department might advise me, I asked why. ‘We’ve never seen a vicar just walking around,’ they informed me, 'there aren't any where we come from', and as one pointed her smartphone at the three of us and I saw Snapchat filters decorating their faces with puppy noses and so on I thought that if they didn’t know my name and any image was on a medium from which it would disappear in a few hours it probably, probably wouldn’t do any harm, whatever caption they put on it. They came from London, not Timbuktu or some other place where Anglican priests are in short supply. I tried to persuade them that there are, in fact, vicars everywhere, but I’m not sure they really took it on board.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

This One Theatre of War

It’s already more than two years since I conducted the funeral of the two premature babies that got me thinking about where the line between life and not-life might be drawn, and who determines the status of a pregnancy. If I’d been an Irish citizen on Friday I would have voted for change, but when the result came through I wouldn’t have cheered: the issue of abortion is too fraught with sorrow to feel any joy about it.

As I said then, I can’t think of a blob of cells as a human being in the same sense I am, or you, reader, presumably are, nor does the Church behave as though that was the case, no matter what it says. It does not conduct funeral services for soiled sanitary products after a pregnancy has spontaneously miscarried in the very early stages, when, if it was being consistent, it surely should. Even when a foetus has all the structures which are going to turn into the organs and features of the finished being, even when some of them are functioning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 'alive'. What is life? We find it hard enough to determine the answer at life’s end; its beginning is no less obscure.

A pain-free abortion policy, whether liberal or restrictive, is as much a fantasy as a war in which nobody gets hurt. We dwell in the battleground of good and evil, and in this case women’s reproductive systems are one theatre of war; one in which, ultimately, women have to fight alone. To imagine that the moral war can be avoided by one sort of legislation or another is as unreal as pretending that it isn’t happening, and that there isn’t an issue. We must keep arguing that life is sacred, that every human being should be valued for something more than their social utility or their conformity to one particular model of worth. That can be done even while conceding to individuals the responsibility to decide whether to end it.

One aspect of the vote worth cheering, at least quietly, is the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to keep out of it publicly. It seems finally to have sunk in that its ability to comment constructively on any moral debate is so dreadfully compromised by its past that its only option is to stay silent. I would like to think that the Church of England might also have gone so far along the journey of purging itself of its desire for power and control, but being in a less extreme condition to start with, I’m not sure there is not some way to go yet.

Friday, 25 May 2018

(Inadvertent) Words of Wisdom

The private chapel of the Bishop of Guildford at his house, Willow Grange, has a nice selection of benches for folk to sit on, a couple of icons, and a solid oak table as an altar. It even has a holy-water stoup, a shallow ceramic basin held up by curlicued metalwork. It doesn't have a cross anywhere, curiously enough.

I made use of the holy-water stoup yesterday when the diocesan chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests met at the Bishop's house, for mass, lunch, and a discussion of the Society's aims and Rule of Life. Mass was unobjectionable, lunch was pleasant, and the talk mildly encouraging. We spoke quite a lot about the commitment in the Manual of the SCP to 'catholic evangelism', to using the tools of the Catholic tradition to communicate the Gospel. There were a number of interesting ideas, though the discussion made me reflect on my lack of focus and clarity in my own ministry. 

We got to the bit in the SCP Manual which commits the Society and its members to 'seeking the peace and unity of Christ's Church', a Church which - even the little bit of it called the Church of England - comprises trad-Catholics and modernisers as well as Evangelicals of various brands, who are increasingly dominant in the Diocese of Guildford. 'As liberal Catholics everyone hates us', said one of my colleagues. 'Everyone thinks everyone hates them' joked the Bishop, a throwaway remark which I thought was perhaps the most profound insight of the day. It's true: each grouping feels itself misunderstood and embattled, even the big Evangelical churches who have such a triumphalist tone to what they do. They have it precisely because they suspect it isn't true. In recognising each other's insecurity, perhaps, and forgiving its shrill and unwelcome consequences, lies the possibility of kindness and hope.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Data Day

Tick, tick, tick, runs the clock, to Friday when, as every fule no, the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force. Your inbox will almost certainly, like mine, be clogged with endless emails from various organisations asking you whether they can continue to use your data. I'm curious about the ones who haven't got in touch with me, ranging from Hedges Direct, from whom I bought some hawthorn saplings last year, to Gunner Faerber, the German mineral salesman who regularly sends me updates about which interesting stones he'll be peddling in Stuttgart in July or Vienna in October. I don't care, but the mere fact I've got on his mailing list is so bizarre it tickles me to see the emails arrive.

At Swanvale Halt church we have to comply, ultimately, along with everyone else. Our senior churchwarden to whom the task has been deputed is remarkably relaxed about the whole thing, remarking repeatedly at meetings that 'we need to demonstrate that we're doing something, but not have it all done by the 25th'. While this may be true, it appears to translate into not doing anything at all by the 25th, which strikes me as over-relaxed, so I've roughed out a Privacy Policy which we can use for now, based on the diocese's templates. 

As well as the fairly obvious details such as email addresses for various contact lists and sub-groups within the church, we hold a bewildering variety of data. I have some pastoral notes about people, for instance - and remember, we are told to write down accounts of conversations we have with people in difficult pastoral situations - and copies of material used by wedding couples and those seeking marriage licences from the Bishop's Registry to prove their identity, all of which are potentially very sensitive. Then there's more superficial stuff such as lists of who's attended Toddler Group, Church Club at the Infants School, or Messy Church over the years, whether they regularly come to church or not, and so on. None of it is a patch on the notebook I found when looking through the archives of the church I used to worship at in High Wycombe. It was Fr McManus's personal register of all the families in the area in about 1955, with details of names, schools, occupations, addresses, and helpful comments alongside the entries such as 'Bad family' or 'No hope'. Anyway, there's no way all of our data storage can possibly be compliant by Friday ...

In this connection I was thinking today about what constitutes a 'member' of an Anglican church. People on the Electoral Roll are certainly members, but what about those who come along to church yet aren't on the Roll? The ambiguity is that legally everyone in a parish is assumed to be a 'member' of their Anglican parish church. Anyone in a parish has the absolute, undeniable right - with certain protected exceptions - to marry in their parish church. They cannot be absolutely denied other sacramentals, either, although churches have the right to set certain conditions such as requiring attendance at worship or preparation classes before children are baptised. Anyone in the parish, literally anyone, can vote in the election for churchwardens, and being on the Electoral Roll merely indicates that a person wishes to take part in the governance of the church. Article 9 of the GDPR mentions that data can be held without explicit consent for people who are 'members or former members (or those who have regular contact with [the organisation] in connection with [its] purposes; and [where] there is no disclosure to a third party without consent'. Now, as I read it, for an Anglican church that could essentially mean everyone within the parish boundary, covering our pastoral and general evangelistic work. At any rate, we won't be sending out any of those emails asking people to hit 'YES' before the end of the week. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Giant Felling

As I write the saws of the tree surgeons are buzzing through the air of the back garden, bringing down the great eucalyptus. I knew this was going to happen, and indeed it had to - look how rotten the base of the tree is - but it's a sad day.

As I've said before, Shinto is my third favourite religion, and I have enough Shinto sensibility in me to go out first thing this morning to apologise to the tree and the untold thousands of creatures that make it their home. There are tons and tons of wood to be laid down, and I know it its life will find its way into a new form; I may even try to move an ash sapling which is currently somewhere it will never thrive, to take the eucalyptus's place. The earth is robust. But such an act of huge destruction is never anything other than dreadful. Worse, I am told the rowan tree to the side of the house must go as well: its bark is splitting and it isn't in a healthy state. I wasn't expecting that. On bright spring days I've marvelled at the rowan's beauty against a clear blue sky, and now it must fall victim to exigency. 

The last time I looked, the gaunt stump of the eucalyptus trunk was standing out against the clouds, an emblem of ruin. 

Strangely there was also a eucalyptus at Lamford and my successor as curate asked for that to be felled before he moved in. I came back from a visit to find the work in progress, and that was more of a shock. I suppose I have to be grateful, too, that because the perilous state of the tree made felling it a health-and-safety issue, I won't have to pick up the doubtless rather substantial bill. 

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Bride Wore Red

The Bride of Christ, that is, whatever else may have been going on today in the world beyond Swanvale Halt. It's Pentecost tomorrow, so I've managed to photograph the balloons bedecking the church ready for the great festival. I would like to go even more over the top than a couple of lines of balloons between the pillars and some random ones scattered about elsewhere, but it's a lot to organise. Anyway, photograph them close enough and they look really very impressive.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Strong Meat

Cal has only been to Swanvale Halt church once since the death of his grandfather, which hit him so hard: he did make it for the Midnight Mass although the church building, with which he's been familiar since small childhood, now causes a sort of religious numbness. A longstanding friend wants Cal to be godfather to her daughter and invited him to her church recently, and that being so very different from ours seems to have done him good, which I don't mind that at all (as a member of the congregation commented, 'Whether it's white bread or brown bread matters less than whether you're getting something to eat').

Cal came for a long talk with me this week. He described the most off-putting religious experience he could recall, which took place in a church in Bruges while the family was on holiday. Behind the altar was an enormous painting of the crucified Christ with angels collecting his blood in chalices, an image he found entirely weird and inappropriate. A relic of a saint was brought in, 'some bloodstained bit of cloth ... and two ladies in the congregation fainted'. 

Curiously I have to work hard to remember that this kind of extreme Catholic devotion is very bizarre and uncomfortable for a lot of people, I suspect particularly English people, who tend to the undemonstrative and sceptical no matter what their beliefs and opinions may be. Making that very graphic connection between the sacraments of the Church and the sacrifice of Jesus is something that causes me not a tremor, although I might feel differently if it was presented to me six feet high and in oil paint rather than in a little black-and-white old-style Missal print. I thought, too, of my relationship with St Catherine, and that time when I almost burst into tears in Pickering church when confronted by nothing more fleshly than a churchful of tarted-up wall-paintings. That kind of intense concern with any intangible figure is alien to most people, and to be frank that includes Jesus himself. It takes a lot of preparation before you're ready for this kind of gamey spiritual fare, and the great majority of English Christians haven't even begun the journey.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Hidden Figures (2016)

Of course I enjoyed the film, uplifting, superficial and exceedingly well-made as it is, but my purpose here is less to talk about the movie than to think about the nature of storytelling. In common with many films that take their inspiration from historical events, Hidden Figures manipulates time, personalities and circumstances in order to build a more compelling narrative. The characters in it who voice racial prejudice are, in the main, capable of having their minds changed, which makes us feel better about ourselves, and the problems the main characters faced in professional advancement against the fact of their race worked out completely differently in reality. It is not just that storyline which is bent to fit a more heroic and comforting pattern, but the business of the launching of John Glenn’s rocket, too: it is true, for instance, that Katherine Johnson was called on to recalculate the landing co-ordinates for the flight, but she had three days to do it rather than the tense half-hour or so the film gives her.

There is no sense in complaining about any of this, of course, because storytelling is not life. Film, in particular, is such an exciting medium precisely because the constraints of the form force the messiness of actuality into a shape it doesn’t have in life. Cinematic accounts of the life of an individual are often very unsatisfying, because they must either sacrifice truth or narrative energy; movies that focus on one particular episode in a person’s life have a better chance of producing something memorable. I enjoy reading biographies, but such books, too, often have a strange sense either of anti-climax, or unease as you can see the author interpreting the whole of their subject’s life through the lens of a particular part of it in order to create a coherent narrative structure which isn’t always there. The latest examples were Anthony Holden’s The Wit in the Dungeon (about the writer Leigh Hunt) and Anne Sebba’s The Exiled Collector, an account of Dorset landowner and art connoisseur William Bankes. Leigh Hunt’s life frankly went very quiet after the excitement and drama of his trial and incarceration for seditious libel, and its last few decades were marked by universal respect coupled with gentle and uneventful penury, about which there is very little to say, although Holden has a good go. Ms Sebba’s book is more impressive because she focuses very little on the most dramatic event in her subject’s life – his arrest for gross indecency and consequent flight to the Continent – instead concentrating on his lifelong work of filling the great house of Kingston Lacy with artworks: nevertheless, there’s very little known about what Bankes was up to during his exile, and so verisimilitude demands that the story sort of tails away and concludes in a cloud of unknowing.

Most people’s lives, even those of well-known people, don’t follow the narrative arc that we want from them. Hidden Figures’s story is one of good, quietly heroic human beings achieving things against the odds, and even if the historical truth was blunter and less colourful, that’s a myth we need eternally to tell and re-tell; if we don’t believe goodness and quiet heroism are at least possible we’ll never achieve anything at all beyond bare survival. But conducting funeral services for a great variety of human beings teaches you, if nothing else, that everyone’s life is messy, contradictory, and ends in one of a limited number of variations on the same theme, and that’s not something we very much want to have relayed to us in the narratives we compose.

Why we itch to compose narratives at all is a deeper and stranger matter. I imagine at root it’s an unlooked-for function of the redundantly-developed human brain: the ability to perceive patterns and structures in events confers some evolutionary advantage, and storytelling is a consequence of that ability. Some stories perform the social good of encouraging development and change; some stories, even, may be transfiguring, like that of a God born and dying as human, and that human death being conquered as a tomb is found empty.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

That's Useful to Know

A lunch with Ms T at the Weston Library café in Oxford normally affords considerable amusement, but I wasn't expecting one of the key sources to be our dining utensils. I imagine 'Hcat' on the label is a misprint for 'Heat', but, as two people one of whom is a priest and the other an employee of a Roman Catholic monastic seminary, we agreed that having a tray which is secure against demonic influence is a distinct advantage. 'When I next have lunch with Dr Bones and she starts going on about spiritual warfare,' said Ms T, 'I can just show her the tray.'

Friday, 11 May 2018

Post Narrative

While we were in Dublin my main book for spare moments was Stephen Jay Gould's Dinosaur in a Haystack from 1996, one of the late palaeontologist's collections of monthly-written essays on natural historical topics. Prof Gould's writings are invariably witty, humane, exciting (for a non-scientist), and stimulating in their breadth and range. I can't judge the details of his views on evolutionary theory, but for most people the shades of opinion on that won't matter. For an atheist, he likes to pull religious language and imagery out of the drawer quite a lot, which may be another reason why Richard Dawkins disdained him so much. 

In the essay 'Can We Complete Darwin's Revolution?' Prof Gould argues that, although the great majority of people accept the broad outlines of Darwinian theory as historical fact, they've yet to absorb the philosophical consequences of evolution. He blames  'evolutionary spin doctoring' which seeks to pick from the wreckage wrought by the great wrecking-ball of Darwinian thought a shining nugget of human self-esteem: we may be monkeys' nephews and nieces, but in some vague way the purpose of the whole exercise has been to produce us. No, says the scientist:

I like to summarize what I regard as the pedestal-smashing messages of Darwin's revolution in the following statement, which might be chanted several times a day, like a Hare Krishna mantra, to encourage penetration into the soul: Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life which, if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again.

Evolution, re-iterates Gould, has no purpose; it therefore does not 'progress', because for there to be progress, there must be purpose by which progress can be judged. Evolution does not work for the good of the earth, for the good of species or that of anything else beyond (arguably) individual entities. (Interestingly, though on the face of it Prof Dawkins is more radically reductionist in arguing that the replication of genetic chemicals is the sole driver of natural selection, while Prof Gould maintained that other factors were at work as well, Dawkins would like to retain the idea of progress, at least to describe organisms becoming better fitted to the exploitation of their own environmental niche: Gould would not allow even that). Old-fashioned textbooks or museum displays which pop human beings at the culmination of the tree of life, the end-point - at least so far - are blinding us to the truth.

Were I not a Christian, I would be cheering such iconoclasm. The other day Radio 4's series Futureproofing produced an alternately fascinating and infuriating episode exploring the effects of technological change on faith. It wasn't as superficial as it seemed to be, let's say. Talking about superficiality, the show's presenters spoke to Professor Steven Pinker. 'Faith is explicitly believing something without a reason,' he opined, which is the sort of damnfool thing anyone should know better than to say, and when asked by the presenter 'What is our purpose?' answered 'Our purpose is to have long, healthy, rich, knowledge-filled, loving lives.' I am at a loss to know where this 'purpose' comes from. Were you to gather the human family together to draw up a document that described what they thought the good life might be, it would indeed probably look something like that, but it still comes from nowhere. In a cosmos devoid of teleology, there is no means of deciding 'purpose' other than arbitrary preference: we are here for no reason, an evolutionary accident, and with no reason for our existence, it can have no purpose either.

But, of course, I am a Christian, and the Church is still absolutely and anachronistically committed to human exceptionalism, to a narrative account of reality that envisages history moving towards a conclusion, and a conclusion conceived in human terms. The majority of Christians who accept Darwinian theory are not certain how the mechanism and the narrative fit together, but don't doubt that, despite the difficulties, fit they must. In the Anglican liturgy, Eucharistic Prayer G puts it in a way it's just as well Stephen Jay Gould never lived to hear:

In the fullness of time you made us in your image, 
the crown of all creation;
you give us breath and speech, that, with angels and archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
we may find a voice to sing your praise ...

In this, liberal and traditionalist Christians will find they have assumptions in common. But there is another way in which Christianity has anything but a narrative of progress. It receives from the past its deposit of teaching, and preserves it: and deviations from that deposit are to be resisted, and perhaps suppressed. While science, as Stephen Jay Gould emphasises over and over again in his essays, proceeds mainly by error and correction, sometimes catastrophic error and radical correction, Christianity doesn't want to progress at all. Even its liberal versions envisage themselves as uncovering the true implications of the documents at its heart and the intentions of its deity. Of course, this is not how it actually behaves; Christians have at all times battered out truth by reassessing what they have said in the past, throwing new facts and experiences against what they think they know, discovering new things among the vast and literally incomprehensible mass of the Biblical texts. Christianity has changed, over and over again, while all the time denying it, and often this has been, just as science does, by making mistakes. Science has been more honest about it, at least.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Sculpture Park, Churt

I was going to write a thoughtful, in-depth post provoked by some recent reading about Christianity and narrative, but it's too late, so here are some nice pictures from our day out on Monday to the Sculpture Park at Churt. This is a ten-acre open-air art gallery which contains upwards of 900 artworks, all of which are for sale, though you'd have to find in excess of £120K down the back of the sofa for the driftwood dragon atop a stone temple. On a beautiful Bank Holiday there were lots of people about also not buying art. The park is skilfully arranged around a series of pools, with serpentine paths linked by steps snaking through the woods, and towering pines providing the perfectly contrasting natural backdrop to the sculptures. There are two set-pieces: one, a Gothic ruin folly provided by Redwood Stone perched above some cascades and rivulets, and the other The Mineshaft, a strange stone block under the trees into which you enter beneath a curtain of beads and then follow a labyrinth into the pitch dark, feeling your way with your left hand and instinctively taking very little steps until the light re-emerges. There was no point photographing that.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Arbores Rectoriae

How beautiful the day has been - although this unseasonably warm weather falling on a Rogation Day when the Church is bidden to pray for the fruitfulness of the earth does provoke sobering thoughts about climatic change and the survival of human society such as were on my mind a few days ago. But I put those reflections aside simply to enjoy the view out of the window beside which I said my prayers this morning; I said my Office at home, it being a Bank Holiday. It is nothing more or less than a parade of trees, green against a sky of peerless blue:

Just edging into the right of the photo is the fig, whose fruit appear in great profusion later in the year but which always fall before they can ripen. Behind it, in full and glorious leaf, is the great beech, the remains of whose flowers are drifting down onto the grass like cherry blossom. Next to that is the oak, slower to get going but now just bursting into leaf, and to its left the lime, which I had reduced in height by about a third last year for the sake of my neighbours: it seems to have recovered from that shock all right. Along the bottom of the photograph, to the left of the beech, we have the damson and apple trees (difficult to tell apart), and then a hedge of laurel and fir and some other stuff, and at the bottom left a small hazel which has objected a bit to the cutting-back I gave it over the winter. Finally, looming over the picture, as indeed it does over the house, is the eucalyptus planted imprudently by my predecessor-but-three in the early 1970s. It is now gigantic, and I have worried about its stability since I arrived when it was nearly ten years smaller; adding to its peril is the fact that it's rotting at the base. The diocese tells me a work-order has gone out for its felling, but I don't have a date as yet. Hopefully no summer storms will blow through in the meantime ...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Spring Fair 2018

That it is a year since our last Spring Fair - and more, as the Saturday previous to early May Bank Holiday has now leapt forward by a week - is hard to credit, but so it is, and this year, as everyone kept telling me, the weather was perfect. I thought perhaps it was too perfect: a long-predicted warm and sunny weekend is liable to send locals to the coast rather than the recreation ground in Hornington to walk around the biggest event in the Swanvale Halt calendar. But at this point it seems as though enough people came to make it a success. We'd had one upset, when the Council decided the beer tent needed a Temporary Event Notice too late for it to be granted, and after (so he told me) informing the landlord of the pub supplying it that it didn't need one. But my wonderful parishioners came up with the idea of supplying cordial instead and that worked splendidly.

The number of stalls was in fact well up on last year, and there was barely a moment unoccupied if you wanted it to be filled. Making my rounds of the field I was waylaid beside a stall attempting to publicise the health-giving benefits of aloe vera, not just as applied to the skin but taken internally: 'People don't drink it for the taste', warned the personable young woman who was the public face of the business after I selected a shot of unflavoured gel, and on trying the experiment I saw her point. The sky was a pellucid blue (almost a painful blue at times), the infants danced and the dogs at the dog show went through their paces. And I wandered about trying to be useful and smiling, and I am glad that's done for another year!

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Not So Nu Goth

Cylene recently bought a new coat, nice, warm and stylish, but with the one drawback that its massive hood kept flopping over her head. I thought it might be from some avant-garde clothing label: 'it's just some mass-produced Gothy coat', Cylene told me, and in fact it came from Restyle, a not-especially-obscure company based in Poland. Its silhouette (see how I can speak the jargon) and the detailing appealed to me and I intended to look it up, an intention I've only just carried out. Here it is. They call it the Future Goth coat.

It's not their only piece with a massive hood. Look at the size of this, a hoodie called Sigillum Dei:

I'll come back to the Sigillum Dei business in a minute. The look reminded me of the videos Liisa Ladouceur produced last year called '40 Years of Goth Style', one for women and one, generously, for chaps, showing a pair of reluctant-looking models being dolled up in a variety of Goth outfits, although I hope nobody really imagines they'll get a clear idea of the evolution of Goth fashion from these short films. Ms Ladouceur's subcultural credentials are impeccable but none of her outfits very closely resemble the sub-styles they're supposed to epitomise: they seem strangely more like an outsider's view. Goths hate the videos, and if you want you can check out plenty of condemnatory replies on Youtube. The problem is less with the clothes themselves - something like all this schmutter must surely have been worn by Goths at some stage - but with the labels she puts on them. Anyway, the last segment of the distaff-side video is labelled 'Nu Goth' and leaves the young woman model looking like this: 

- tights and a vast hood. Describing anything as 'Nu' Goth when Goth isn't a single coherent style to be renewed seems unhelpful to me, but it turns out the label has been out there for years: Megan Balanck included it in her exhaustive list of Goth stereotypes as long ago as 2014. She links it to the musical subgenre Witch House, which we talked about here a couple of weeks ago, and you may note the vaguely occultic decorative elements. The Sigillum Dei is a medieval magical device made use of by Dr Dee among other experimenters - basically Christian, of course, though everything in the Middle Ages was. Ms Balanck and others link Nu Goth to hipster styles but I can't see this, myself, associating hipsterism as I do with skinny trousers, objectionable facial hair, and tweed jackets with elbow patches, none of which I can see reflected in Nu Goth. This young man, for instance, who seems to come from the US, is hard to define as hipster in any way. What he does have is the big hat that many of the Restyle models wear. Restyle label it the 'WITCH' but it looks more like a 17th-century Puritan's hat to me; some of them were indeed witches, of course. 

What I like about this style, whatever you want to call it, is that it draws into the swirling and ever-deepening maelstrom of Gothic a different range of referents and widens the scope of the community's creative energies. I particularly appreciate astronomical references, as illustrated here on the Restyle phases-of-the-Moon hoodie. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Goose is Barely Hatched

It arrived on my doormat yesterday morning. I cannot, as yet, bring myself to open it.

Ascension Day hasn't even passed; perhaps we are, gradually, reaching the point I have feared for some time, when the whole year is Christmas. That's if we last that long, of course, in view of the last post.