Friday, 29 June 2018

Blacker Than Most

A large and emotion-heavy funeral at the start of the week was held for a young man who despite disabilities had achieved a lot with his short life. Many of his friends came from the deaf community and the service was simultaneously translated into British Sign Language. One of the two Sign interpreters was a woman with a coloured stripe in her hair, pierced upper lip and big boots and clearly belonging to some Alternative community, so that was nice (though you can argue that the Deaf world is alternative enough).

Then today I was carrying out the interment of the ashes of a lady who'd lived in Swanvale Halt most of her life though died elsewhere. It wasn't done through the local undertakers so I had to prepare the plot myself, jabbing my spade into hard, dry ground in the June heat. Four inches down in this bit of the churchyard seems to be mostly stone.

The family group consisted of the deceased lady's two daughters and the husband of one, and four grandchildren. The eldest came in full Goth rigout: makeup, shoes with skeleton-hand fastenings,  parasol, the lot. She looked at me in my waistcoat and jacket.

Her: Do you not get hot dressed like that?
Me: Well, at least you can't ask me whether it's tough wearing black all the time.
Her (trying very hard not to laugh): That is true.

I strove to be as professional as I could but had to bite my lower lip a couple of times. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Not as Black as Some

The concept of leucism among birds and animals was a new one to me until a few months ago when I saw a bird hopping around the bushes at the hospital that I didn't recognise: it was thrush- or blackbird-sized, and white, with a few golden-brown feathers. I couldn't find it in my admittedly small bird books, but eventually discovered that it was probably leucistic, exhibiting a condition in which a beast loses some of its normal colouring. It's different from albinism in which the whole body lacks pigment, including the eyes, which in albino creatures are pink.

A leucistic blackbird visits my garden at the moment, and here he is. He only has a small white patch on his shoulder, but that's enough to pick him out very easily. Although he's a bit of an oddity, he has a mate as I've seen them hopping about together. He's usually about as I say my prayers in the morning. Now last night I neglected to fill the birdbath, and in the current hot weather a bath which is full in the morning has completely dried out by the evening, and so the Not-Quite-Blackbird came to investigate it today and found no water. I decided there were some prayers I could say while carrying a bucket of water, and filled the bath as well as watering the herbs. The blackbird very quickly noticed the change, and came to drink and bathe. I look forward to seeing him about, though I'm not sure how long blackbirds live and how long he will be around. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

It's a Song and a Book

If PJ Harvey has a signature song, it’s ‘Down By The Water’ from the 1995 album To Bring You My Love. I’ve only seen her perform live twice, but on each occasion the unaccompanied words ‘I lost my heart …’ – pitched B, D, E, E - evoked a sort of sigh that went around the auditorium in anticipation of the cathartic ritual of drama and death to come. The song allows the maestra to be as menacing and haunted as she likes (and as everyone else likes, too). She makes jokey references to it, posing with large and small trinket boxes decorated with fish for a photo which has long since disappeared from her Instagram feed. She tries to defuse its power at the same time as acknowledging it.

'Down By The Water' is the Harvey track the Goth world knows best, too. It was the only song of hers my friend Cylene remembered when I asked her – ‘it finishes, little fish, big fish, or something?’ It’s found its way onto compilation CDs and has been covered, more or less pointlessly, by a variety of other artists.

‘Some people think my lyrics are autobiographical to the extent they’ll listen to ‘Down By The Water’ and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her under a bridge’ Harvey complained in 2005. Because that’s what it’s about. Or is it? Like so much of her output, it’s more concerned with mood than narrative. An act of watery filicide makes sense, but how old is the child? When the protagonist sings ‘That blue-eyed girl/Became blue-eyed whore’, is she foreseeing the future, or mourning the past? As a song is composed, clarity takes a back seat to the demands of rhyme and metre, and what emerges can be something more ambiguous and open-ended. In the video that accompanied the single, shot by Harvey’s friend Maria Mochnacz, the singer twists and cavorts underwater in a massive black wig and a dress in the courtesan’s red silk, writing herself visually into the song. There’s a lot going on there, more than Harvey would ever want to recognise in as many words.

This weekend found me doing something very unusual – reading a modern thriller (curiously my bedtime book is The Big Sleep, but that’s quite a different matter). Paula Hawkins is very successful, and probably quite prosperous after her last bestseller, The Girl on the Train, was made into a movie; her second novel is called Into the Water, and is written in temptingly short, punchy chapters from the viewpoint of different characters. You wouldn’t describe it as Gothic, although it could be made such by a so-inclined adaptor, because at the centre of the plot is a site in a fictional Northumbrian town called Beckford, the Drowning Pool, where over the centuries a remarkable number of women – always women – have met their ends. They’ve been witches being ‘swum’, suicides, or murdered wives. Most recent in the sequence is Nel, reporter, photographer and writer, who has herself become obsessed by the past of the Drowning Pool and its ‘swimmers’ and who, it becomes clear, is enmeshed in the mysteries, enmities and hatreds not only of her own family but also the community around them. Reading Into the Water is not so much like ‘piecing together a jigsaw’ as watching someone else do it, at some speed. It’s hardly demanding, but isn’t completely vacuous, dealing with the hazards of memory and intention, of history and place, woven around its central motif – of women drowning.

On page 220, Nel’s sister Jules, now living in the family home she hates to look after her teenage niece Lena, describes how

I collapsed, drifting in and out of dreams until I heard the door go downstairs, Lena’s footsteps on the stairs. I heard her going into her room and turning her music on, loud enough for me to hear a woman singing.

That blue-eyed girl
Said ‘No more,’
That blue-eyed girl
Became blue-eyed whore.

… When I woke again the music was still playing, the same song … I wanted it to stop, was desperate for it to stop … I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, but I heard the woman singing still.

Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water –
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.

Half the characters in the book could have sung along with Harvey; it could be that Ms Hawkins merely Googled (as I experimented with doing) ‘songs about drowning in water female singer’ and found ‘Down By The Water’ that way, as it’s the first example that comes up, but it locks the book together suspiciously well: a disturbing, inconclusive lyric, heard as if in a dream.

Of course, as we know, nothing Polly Harvey has ever done is consciously ‘feminist’. But whatever’s going on in her imaginary lament, it doesn’t emerge ex nihilo. The whoredom and drowning has a context; however we read it, there’s a hinterland of sexuality and power. Where’s the girl’s father? Why does her mother feel this way about her? That’s what makes ‘Down By The Water’ perfect as a baleful summary of this book, however Ms Hawkins came across it. As Lena, who plays the song, comments to her aunt, ‘I don’t understand people like you, who always choose to blame the woman. If there’s two people doing something wrong and one of them’s a girl, it’s got to be her fault, right? … Why does the wife always hate the other woman? Why doesn’t she hate her husband? … Why isn’t he the one who gets shoved off a fucking cliff?’

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Two Views

It was a reference in the old Dorset magazine in 1989 that alerted me to the existence of the 'Silver Spring' at East Orchard near Shaftesbury. The name it bore in the Fontmell Magna charter of 932, in which it featured as a bound-mark, almost certainly didn't mean that, but it was a significant site of some kind, with a medieval chapel (long since gone) occupying the field adjoining. In that article, Peter Irvine described the 'stone alcove surrounded by harts-tongue fern' in a way which implied that he'd stumbled across it accidentally, which he clearly hadn't. Even I didn't, the following year when I went to look for it, though my memory is that we found the right site all but miraculously, driving along the road; it was set into a bank at the edge of a muddy, stone-strewn farmyard, an alcove not of stone, I thought, but concrete, with a battered wooden door. This is what it looked like then.

Last year I went looking for it again, after the better part of thirty years. The whole topography of the area looked different from my memory of it; it was tidier and more enclosed. I couldn't work out where the farmyard had been, and went to the bottom of the lane where I was sure we'd been before, into the bleak and functional yard there. There was a massive pile of manure stacked against the bank and I assumed the well was probably behind it, and decided to return when it might have been cleared.

But I was wrong. Last week the weather forecast was good enough to justify scooting Dorsetwards to take some photographs of wells, and comparing the old Ordnance Survey maps and the aerial surveys of Google Earth I worked out that the well must have been in the garden of a big house just to the east of the lane. 

So last Thursday I pressed a button on a gatepost and the gate I had not dared to enter a few months before, or had not thought it worth entering, swung open. A couple of small and loud dogs bounded up to me, yapped about a bit, and eventually lost interest. A knock on the door of the house aroused no response at all. The neat garden was where the muddy yard had been in 1990. Just beyond it was a small wire-fenced enclosure which looked at though it normally housed birds but now stood open, and from which a pigeon wandered out and looked at me. That was where I found the well, doorless and down-at-heel but still there. Had I been able to get closer I would have tidied it up a bit.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Poste Restante

This may just look to you like a book of second-class stamps, and so it is; but it is more. It is the first purchase I've been able to make from our local Post Office since last October when it was suspended over allegations of fraud. It is not as though our sub-postmaster has been legally exonerated; the situation remains as it was. But Post Office Limited has allowed him to run the business again provided his brother-in-law becomes the licensee; which tells you everything you need to know about the perspicacity of the process. Nevertheless, the Swanvale Halt Post Office is again open, serving my twelve thousand parishioners as it did until nine months ago, and Chandra the subpostmaster and his wife are beaming in a way they have not done for a long time. And I could not be more delighted.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018


The monthly communion service at Widelake House had a great sense of peace about it today. A gentleman I'd never seen before was there, taking a very full part in proceedings and even crossing himself at proper points.

That doesn't mean it was entirely without its slips. When Arthur, who plays the piano, returned the hymn sheets to me, there were the pulpy remains of two hosts, rejected by their recipients, adhering to the paper. I popped them in my pocket for later ...

Consecrated elements can only be disposed of in certain ways. Bread, now the Body of Christ, has to be eaten, burned or buried. Most of the soil in my garden is dry and hard at the moment, but the recent works have exposed a little bare patch to the east of the house and that was where the Lord, on this occasion, was put to rest. 

Monday, 18 June 2018


At the 8am mass this Sunday morning, something happened that had never occurred before, to my memory, in my whole churchgoing experience of twenty-seven years: everyone in the church, apart from the unseen souls of course, was male. It is true that there were only seven of us, but even so; we always talk about the feminine bias of the church experience, so suddenly having a congregation which is entirely composed of individuals in possession of a Y chromosome is remarkable (it's only ever likely to happen at the 8am, though, a service attended at the moment by people on their own).

How I felt that morning was unconnected with the sexual balance of the congregation. After the dislocations of the last week I have never felt so strongly that I was offering the holy sacrifice of the mass for my sins, my particular and identifiable sins, as well as for those of the people gathered with me, and that, unbeknownst to them, they were helping me do so.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Following the Script

My time at Swanvale Halt has been punctuated by a series of bungled pastoral encounters. There was Problem Lady who I let stay in my house and who had to be extracted with the aid of a friend. There was Micky who slept in the rhododendron bush and who had to be expelled after I found him weeing up the front of Boots' one Sunday morning, and Rick the ex-convict (and future convict, as it turned out), who formed a black hole of disruption that affected the church for a while four years ago. There was Karly; I remember the tearful meeting I had with her in church a couple of Christmases ago when she explained she was dying of leukaemia and the equally tearful goodbye she made to her god-daughter a couple of weeks later. She turned out not to be ill at all. With all of these people there has come a crisis point when my patience has come to an end and when I've finally concluded that my interactions with them have been causing more harm than good. 

That happened with Julie this week, as the previous post suggested. It would be tedious to get into all the he-said-she-said details, but suffice it to say that I told her there was going to be no more money coming from me, and help, if help was accepted, would come from the church pastoral team and be to do practical things such as sorting out a birth certificate and a bank account, things she will need to escape her current circumstances, whatever direction she goes in. 

This news was not well-received. I remember the day I refused to give Rick any more money, and he stood outside the Co-Op screaming at me, 'What the fuck am I supposed to do now?' Karly did the same, though via text; I don't think the message I got from her phone in which the only distinguishable words were 'Go fuck yourself! You can just fuck off!' were actually directed at me. Instead she informed me how evil I was, how I shouldn't call myself a Christian, how I was a fake priest, and how I would be exposed. Julie said all of these things, too; I could almost predict her lines. Like Karly before her, she threatened suicide: 'My death will be on your conscience and I will haunt you forever'. This is the last resort of someone who knows they have no other leverage left. A sinful part of me wanted to tell Julie how closely she was repeating Karly's complaints, given how much she hates her. 

They are right. I should never have got into the position of supporting them in this way and would not do so now. These pastoral collapses represent the last results of my early naivety in parish ministry and the seductive delusion of the image of the old-time parish priest dishing out largesse to the poor which, however much I consciously reject it, is still there in the back of my mind. They are finally working their way out of the system. If there's anyone I really need to apologise to, it's the community at large for facilitating the lifestyles of disruptive people and helping them to avoid facing the truth. 

The surprise is that I don't recall anything ever being said about this sort of thing at my theological college, during my curacy (really) or in the training the diocese offers (though such situations feature in honest representations of Church life such as Rev). Perhaps everyone feels equally uncomfortable about it. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Cyclonic Motion

We have had an instance of pastoral success lately, the ‘Team’ having supported Carly on her journey of rehabilitation and into Council supported housing a few miles away. Of course it may all go awry but she’s made a remarkable change (which was partly enabled by me stopping interacting with her!).

I wish the same could be said of Julie. Although her car was removed from my drive before Easter, she is still enmeshed in the same set of toxic relationships with an abusive partner and her family. When she told me earlier in the week that the Council had agreed to fund a tenancy for her if she could find a place, I boggled as this was the opposite the housing officer had told me a few weeks before. Oh well, it was her best chance of escape, I thought. She’d got a flat not far away to look at, and I agreed to take her. Having heard nothing five minutes before we were supposed to be there, I phoned and discovered she’d had another titanic row with her father. I refused to let this chance of change slip away, went round to the house, calmed her down, and took her for a rearranged appointment. The pretty young woman from the estate agents who seemed apprised of Julie’s situation smiled and gave her a hug as we left (I think estate agents all have stocks of young people to do viewings who are attractive enough for you to be well-disposed towards them no matter what your own sex or tastes, but not so stunning that ordinary folk might resent them). The following day it all fell apart. The Council denied it ever was the case that they’d agreed to support a tenancy for Julie in this area as that would not remove her from her existing relationships: her explanation that she didn’t know the flat was in Hornington was not exactly convincing, as it’s barely a quarter of a mile from her parents’ house.

I began reassessing many of the things Julie had told me over the years. One of the things I’ve had to get used to is that there are people, often the most vulnerable and difficult ones, whose cognitive processes are significantly different from mine. There are lots of individuals who don’t have the kind of filter I regard as normal, and just say the first thing they think of; it has an emotional truth, but that’s all. They don’t interrogate what they’re about to say before speaking. Then again, the most generous interpretation to put on some of the things that Julie has said is that she knows what she would like to happen, and believes, somehow, that if she behaves as if it was going to happen, magically it will, and everyone will fall in line with it.

Over the last couple of days I have, finally, been able to speak at length to the housing department and the local domestic abuse support charity. Everyone is in agreement that Julie needs to be removed from the area and the cycle she’s in, for her own good. I’m no longer going to do anything that enables her to maintain that cycle.

This seems to have been yet another instance in which my generous instincts – in terms of accepting what people tell me as well as dishing out money – have turned out actually to have effects which are detrimental to the recipients and the community more broadly. It’s happened repeatedly, though I am much more cautious now about being inwardly duped by the model of the parish priest sorting out people’s problems. You would have thought that clergy being sent out into the world would have some grounding in this kind of thing; I wasn’t a callow youth when I came to Swanvale Halt and emerged from the somewhat protected environment of a curacy, but nevertheless I’d come across little of this directly and hadn’t learned how to protect myself. I still don’t know quite why I get so angry and disorientated by the disorientation around me, when I need to be a sign of calm and order. Something to discuss with S.D., when I finally get round to visiting him again.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Passing Music

Following on from my discussion of weddings last time, most clergy are finding that they do far fewer funerals these days, too. It's now quite a rare occurrence for me whereas when I arrived in Swanvale Halt I was conducting probably two services every three weeks, and I get a little bit edgy each time now, like I did when I was first ordained. It was like that at the service I led last week, though in fact there was little that could go wrong. The deceased lady had chosen her own hymns and one of her daughters had written a eulogy which I read out. We had a poem by John Masefield, and the Bible reading was Psalm 121, so I was able to bind both those together with the lady's clear and expressed love of nature with how the natural world mediates the presence of God. Several people said afterwards how good they thought it was, whereas for me it was a bit of an open goal: it's not always as easy to come up with something convincing to say.

The last piece of music, played as the chapel emptied, was 'The Heart Asks Pleasure First' from Michael Nyman's soundtrack for The Piano. The last time I heard this haunting song played in a public space was when I lived in Chatham more than twenty years ago; it was regularly played over the sound system in the shopping centre I used to cross through on my way home from work at the Royal Engineers Museum up the top of the hill. It often made me feel like waltzing (in a naturally melancholy way) across the polished floor. I didn't do that last week, nor did I remind anyone that the title comes from one of Emily Dickinson's bleakest poems -  which, equally naturally, I know off by heart. 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Rites of Passage and Other Mission Opportunities

Couples have to be determined to get married at Swanvale Halt church. This is not because we have a parish policy of making them somersault through a hoop backwards whistling 'The Star Spangled Banner' to qualify, but because it takes a hard-nosed bride to choose a church where the first sight she and her new husband will see as they emerge after their marriage service will be the supermarket across the street. If they have the option of a church set in a field or a nice cobbled street, they tend to go for that (also we have no car park). That's why we only have two weddings this year, one of which has already happened.

In my last year at Lamford I did no fewer than twenty-five weddings, because I was looking after Goremead as well for eight months and we had a good few there. Fifteen at Lamford was probably average. So I was most surprised to hear from Il Rettore the other day that the parish's wedding tally for 2018 is four. This is quite a decline in nine years. Il Rettore wonders whether the fees are putting couples off, as the choir and bells do cost a certain amount as is only fair, but it can't be just that. You can refuse the frills if you want. At Swanvale Halt I offer couples the chance of a choir turning out for a very modest fee, but in nine years the offer has, I think, only been taken up once.

The Church of England has had a number of initiatives over the years - the Wedding Project, the Christening Project, and - yes - even the Funeral Project - to promote best practice in providing these rites of passage. We are supposed to be friendly and welcoming and understand better what it is that people unfamiliar with church may expect and want out of the experience, so that it's as user-friendly and accessible for them as it can be. This is of course good for all sorts of reasons. It hasn't, however, stemmed the catastrophic decline in the numbers of weddings, christenings and funerals most churches conduct. 

I've had plenty of positive feedback from our dealings with the couples who come to us to be married, to baptise their children, or to conduct the funerals of their loved ones. I don't think I've ever had any negative feedback although there have been a couple of rare occasions when I deserved it. It's nice to be appreciated. But I'm not sure it makes any difference, at least not in the short term; I'd doubt whether a single person has ended up attending church as a result of coming to one of the services I've conducted, however good their experience was. 

There is a gulf between how people feel as a result of their lives taking them inside a church building, and incorporating those feelings into altered behaviour. I remember Dr Bones reporting a conversation she'd had with the cleaners at the university department she worked at many years ago. 'If my vicar was like Weepingcross, I'd go to church', one said, and gratifyingly for me the others agreed. 'Have you been to your church?' asked the Dr. No, they hadn't. 'So how do you know your vicar isn't like him?' 'Well, they wouldn't be.' People can discount their own immediate experience in the face of what they think is the universal case, and recast it as an exception. 

Of course each priest doing their best to make people welcome and comfortable in their church - which is virtually all of us - is doing a good thing, eroding gradually whatever negative ideas and stereotypes people may have about Christians and how they behave, but you see what a weight they have to shift. It isn't just the actual attitudes and prejudices people have, but also the kind of experiential exceptionalism which locks those attitudes in.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Pontifex Minimus

A visit to Il Rettore furnished me with something to post about at a rather thin time for news. My mantelpiece of religious tat has been joined by an image of Papa Francesco, eternally waving his benediction across the living room - at least when the sunlight penetrates to the far wall sufficiently to charge him up and set him wobbling from one side to the other. I didn't think it really looked that much like him, though Il Rettore commented that it couldn't really be anyone else; yes, I considered, it may be the dressing all in white that does that.

Il Rettore is starting to plan how his retirement may pan out, and although mine is much further away my mind does occasionally turn in that direction too. As I walked down the road from the railway station in Lamford towards the rectory, a place I was once so familiar with, I reflected that I didn't like it a great deal, and that applies to the whole of Surrey, even though there are some very picturesque corners. Dorset, however, perpetually summons, waiting in green patience.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Mysterious Moving Stones of Surrey

It was a conversation at the Family Service planning group meeting this evening which reminded me of something I should have posted about back in February. I was locking up the church and noticed that perched on the angles of the porch woodwork were two quirkily-decorated stones. 

They turned out to be part of a minor craze for painting stones with faces or encouraging messages ('Be different', says the upper one here, with its three owls one of whom hangs below the bar) and leaving them in random places. The idea is to take the stone and leave it in another random place for someone else to find, and you can post photographs of them on various online locations if you should feel so disposed. 

I thought the whole thing was silly but rather charming. I thought it had disappeared after a month or so, like an episode of unseasonably warm weather blowing through, but apparently not. We talked about incorporating the idea into a service. Prayer stones, there's an idea.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Garden Visitors

The tree surgeon told me three things about the hornets: 'there must be a nest nearby', 'you're lucky really, they're quite rare', and 'they're much more docile than wasps.' I wasn't sure, looking at the massive insects hoovering up the sap from the stump of the felled eucalyptus, that I found any of these statements particularly pleasing. I find wasps beautiful, so the hornets, being merely bigger (the 5p is included in the photo for size) ought to arouse similar aesthetic pleasure, but they are unexpectedly big if you're not used to them. I have bad dreams about things like this.

A visitor the garden the other evening was less threatening. I am occasionally visited by hedgehogs (by two, not long ago), but it's rare to have one sniffling around in daylight. In fact this one was on the small side so I wondered whether it was not in the best of health. I had some chicken leftovers from lunch and put them in the back yard, and it leapt on them with a gusto that belied any sense of fragility. It kept circling around the yard for about half an hour, returning to the chicken as though it had just discovered it for the first time, before finally turning down the path and heading off into the ivy at such a rate that I think it must have been pretty healthy after all. 

Finally, this lovely white flower flecked with deep pink is an annual visitor. I have no idea what it is, but I'm pleased to see two this year.

PS. It's nothing more exotic than a peony! Shows how much I know about cultivated flowers.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Therefore We Before Him Bending

Evensong & Benediction for Corpus Christi 2018 at Swanvale Halt took place amid heavy rain and oppressive heat. We first did this in 2016, you remember, when the celebration came at a particularly opportune time: perhaps it always does, as we perpetually need to be called back to the recollection of the presence of Christ, a point which this service makes most powerfully. For two years three souls have gathered for it, including me, but this year there were seven - a revival! - all of us the parish's 'usual suspects', admittedly, whose names I could have written in advance. As I knelt in front of the sacrament on the old high altar and we joined in 'Of the glorious Body telling' the plainchant behind me sounded so much the better for a few more voices singing it. And then the thunder rolled: it could hardly have been more dramatic. Come to our hearts, O Lord.