Thursday, 30 August 2018

Sort of Restored

Back in January I reported on perhaps the saddest event of my nine years at Swanvale Halt, though less dramatic than the death during a funeral service - the attack on the icon of St John which took place when some thoughtless youngster held a candle to it and scorched the image. I took it away and put a printed photo in its place, and left the poor icon with the lady who's painting a pair of icons for the church on behalf of a member of the congregation. She examined it, gave it to a variety of other painters who also examined it, and came to the conclusion that nothing much could be done short of sanding the damaged portion down and starting again. How easy would it be to match the paint, I wondered. She didn't think she would feel confident in tackling it, at least.

I brought the icon back a little while ago, and after procrastinating for a while I used the photo I had of it to print and paste on another image of the face, as it was. It's now back in place in the church: I spent a little while praying in front of it, marked it with chrism, and left it. The damage is very visible and has become part of its story. I will see what happens to it, and how I feel about it now, watching from its scarred face in the corner of the church.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Best Dressed Ghost

All sorts of things end up in museum collections, but until very recently I had no idea that Bridport Museum contained a haunted dress. On her lovely blog DownbytheseaDorset Sarah mentioned it in her account of the recent show at the Museum, 'A Change of Clothes' in which the dress in question came out of storage. The story goes that it was pushed through the bars in front of the main door of the museum one night some years ago with no explanation, and no provenance. It's a nice piece - claimed in some places to be 17th-century, though it's not that - and perhaps it's speculating why such a fine item should have been anonymously dumped on a museum doorstep under cover of darkness which has led to the conviction that there is something wrong with it. 'A young woman is frequently seen guarding' the garment, and supposedly a former curator tried to have it exorcised. 

It reminded me that a former curator of the same establishment once told me that they'd been told a doll in the collection was also possessed of a presence. They tried to alert the Anglican authorities who 'treated me as though I needed psychiatric help' and in the end decided the safest thing to do with the object was burn it. I wonder how that fits under the Museums Association's model disposals policy. Did this same person also spread the tale about the haunted dress? For my part, speaking professionally, I think if an object does shelter a malign presence in it you may as well leave it there. At least you know where it is. 

Photo: The Bridport News

Monday, 27 August 2018

Back to Busbridge Lakes

To recover from a Rectory party yesterday - it would have been a garden party but for the weather, which converted it to a house party - I visited Busbridge Lakes, my local Gothic Garden, as in former years, taking advantage of its last opening for 2018, on the August Bank Holiday. The outlook was damp at first, then just overcast, but by the time I was sat next to the lower lake with a cup of tea and a sausage roll the sun was struggling to peek through the clouds. 

It's the tenth year since my first visit, and five years since I was there last. The owners, Mr & Mrs Douetil, have stopped breeding some of the more exotic birds and now concentrate on less rare species, so the lower bird pens are looking overgrown and run-down, but the grounds and pens nearer the house are fine. They're trying to encourage wedding bookings, weddings being where all the money is at the moment.

But I do worry about the follies. The curtain of ivy over the Hermit's Cave is almost reaching the ground ...

And the rest of the magnificent Ghost Walk is getting more and more overgrown. The walls are now almost completely ivy-covered and when you look from the turret on the top of the ramparts the great five-fanged arch of rough stone that forms the entrance to the Walk can't be seen at all (as it should be). The Ghost Walk is completely without parallel in English landscape gardens and someone should really be helping the owners care for this national treasure.

The path to the Doric Temple is blocked by a fallen tree - as I think it has been for a long time. At least it didn't hit the temple itself!

At the top of the hill, Hercules, as presiding genius loci, broods on his plinth.

In her amazing book Gothic Music, Isabella van Elferen (which is also a brilliant name if you're going to be a Gothic academic) suggests that a Goth club amounts to a ritualised means of rehearsing Gothic identity. As I've never been much of a club-goer, I find the same thing going round this Gothic Garden I know well. It is always the same, but not quite the same; I re-acquaint myself with the follies and walks, and observe how other visitors interact with them. There is a kind of calm and repose in doing this, not only due to the water birds making their slow progress across the lakes.

But look! I'm pretty sure I've never noticed this little archway before, glimpsed through the bird pens. I wonder what it was intended to be.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Praying Against

The monthly newsletter of Churches Together in Hornington came my way and with it the customary introduction from the chairperson. 'We need to get together more to work for the town, and to pray for the town', he said, as he does in some shape or form every month. 'I have heard', he went on, 'that there is a group of people who are meeting to pray against groups in Hornington which are not Christian.' 

I wasn't content to put that out. I presumed he was happy that said group of people was meeting, though without any context it was hard to work out. I had a suspicion he might have been thinking of the 'spiritual awareness group' which asked to use our church hall not long ago and whose money I refused on the grounds that what the organiser was actually planning to do was equip members to 'tap their psychic potential'; or the potential pagan-Wiccan-Druid meeting which is being bruited about on Facebook. He was indeed, so I altered the text to 'praying to reduce the influence of non-Christian spiritual groups', which made me a bit less uncomfortable.

I felt I could have a go, if called on, to explain my version to an ordinary secular liberal person who feels that all religions are basically alike, and can't everyone just get on with one another? You can't expect Christians to welcome people dipping into Wicca and psychic experimentation, I might say. Those people are God's beloved children who he longs to reach out to, and here they are wandering around in delusion of their own making which could even do them damage. So it makes sense to pray that the work of delusion and falsehood, as we see it, is impeded and the people who might be tempted to join in with it find their attention diverted in a more healthy direction by some conversation, some happening, some encounter. We're praying for angels to stand in their way and whisper in their ears, not for the organisers of the meetings to have a car accident or something. But that, you see, sounds less like praying against, and more like praying for.

'Don't worry,' an evangelical parishioner told me when the issue of the spiritual awareness group came up. 'We'll pray them down. We've done it before.' It's been a year and they haven't managed it yet, it must be said.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018


Word on the StreetsWord on the Streets is a digest website of Christian news on whose mailing list I seem somehow to have got. It does come up with some interesting posts and today my eye was caught by the one that referred to policies in Hungary promoting the welfare of families. Unfortunately the source was, a virulently anti-homosexual and anti-Pope Francis Catholic website (how amazing the world has become, when Catholics can set up websites so openly contemptuous of the Pope!), whose interest in the matter derived from an address given by the Hungarian minister for the Family to a schismatic Academy for the Family set up in the name of the late Pope John Paul II, in opposition to the official one still run by the Vatican. The speech majored on how abortion and divorce rates had fallen in Hungary as a result of public policy, and as I am not someone who regards divorce or abortion as positive things I was interested - notwithstanding the source or occasion of the article. But, equally, I have always felt deeply suspicious about Christian rhetoric surrounding 'family life', and I want to get my head around such matters. 

I knew that Hungary has a vigorously conservative government, yet many of the pro-family policies cited by Lifesitenews seem positively socialistic. In accordance with the privileged position of family life under the Hungarian constitution, they seek to balance the demands of work and family, and include generous tax allowances, paid holiday camps for children, and utility discounts. Some benefits which on paper seem astonishingly openhanded - the payment and interest-free loan, for instance, amounting to about £60K, for couples under 40 who agree to have three children - are not quite what they seem, but there is no doubt that, overall, Hungary has chosen to prioritise parenthood and childrearing over other social goods.

Yet this is not a recent thing. Paid maternity leave for three years has existed in Hungary since 1967 and in fact recent changes have been introduced precisely to encourage more parents back into work on a part-time basis, which is likely to raise the levels of children who take part in formal childcare, currently half the rate in Hungary of the European average. There is some controversy about the effect of current measures on the economy and the disproportionate benefit to nice, middle-class Hungarian families of the state's policies, as opposed to the poor and especially those from a Roma background. 

Not that the Hungarian government would be bothered by that. Although the pro-family policy has been a consensus matter for decades, its current bite derives from Hungary's demographic decline, the emptying of its rural areas, and the perception among its nationalist politicians that the country is at the front line of Europe, called on to hold the line against Islam, and the immigrant tide that brings Islam with it. This comes across very clearly in the way the government promotes Hungary. I imagine the conservative Catholics of Lifesitenews wouldn't be bothered either: authoritarianism with a Christian gloss is just what they hunger for.

At first I was intrigued by what seemed like a strategy that reduced negative experiences for human beings - abortion and divorce - not by the usual right-wing approach of closing down access to these options, but by lessening the social stresses that led to them, that made it easier to look after children, and to contemplate looking after children. A little bit of reading, instead, leaves me feeling sullied by contact with the realities of 'Christian Democracy'. Headlines are one thing: but who is not having abortions and not getting divorced, and why?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Marrows & Marigolds

We wondered how the Swanvale Halt Village Show would turn out this year. Surely the gardeners and allotment holders of the parish would have laboured under insurmountably adverse conditions as the rain refused to fall and the ground grew ever harder under the pitiless gaze of Phoebus week after week. But no: entries were only marginally down on last year, and included festooned fuschias, a gargantuan marrow, and, for the first time I remember, cacti which of course have no issue with weather which is on the desiccated side. 

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Deco Demolition

On Thursday I was in Poole for my aunt's funeral. It was all fine, thank you, and as she'd been very poorly for a long while it wasn't that sad an occasion. We drove to the Salterns Hotel in Lilliput where the wake was being held, me tailgating my sister who was being directed by our mum who actually knew where to go. The car park seemed to be full so I went and parked over the other side of the main road and then made my way back to the hotel. This took me along Salterns Way, where I boggled at the Modernist and Art Deco-styled buildings and took photographs of several. Then along Lagoon Road to the north I spotted a building which I was sure I'd photographed back in the early 2000s when I was doing my little survey of Deco buildings in southeast Dorset. When I got home I compared the photos I'd just taken with the ones in my archive, and realised how radically the streets had changed.

12 Salterns Way, South Haven, is still there: 

But, most curiously, many of the buildings have been extensively remodelled. Here are nos. 9, 11 (Seascape), and, in the process of being built, 13, back in the early 2000s. No.9 is now gone completely, but Seascape and no.13 ...

... now look like this. You can see the remains of the old buildings within the footprint of the new, but the slightly boxy Seascape now has curves and big vertical windows, while no.13's staircase tower is now higher, it has two sets of windows, and they're tinged green. The house is now called 'Decadence' (very 1920s, darling). 

Further along is no.30. Here is its appearance c.2003, a modest little property with a nice circular stair tower (you can see these elsewhere in the conurbation) and some horizontal windows:

It took me a while to identify no.30 still surviving - just about - inside the shell of the grandiose buildings which now occupy the site of it and no.32 next door: 

At least I think it does. The staircase tower seems still to be there, much refashioned and now mirrored by the rebuilt no.32. Round the corner in Lagoon Road is no.9, which used to be called Lucky Star. 

Boxy and not really very Deco, it still seemed to be in a genuinely 1930s idiom. It's now encased in something which looks much more the part:

But not every building I photographed fifteen years or so ago has made it through, even in an etiolated form. 1 Salterns Way, the most modest and lowly Deco structure in the area - and all the more interesting for it ...

... now appears to have been replaced by this jazzy Modernist experiment. Ah, all it needed was a lick of paint. Even the silver birch trees have been replaced by those awful palms that die every few years:

What this reveals is something very interesting for those of us who have an affection for Art Deco architecture, something I've noticed before. The general public, and the jobbing architects who build its homes, are aware there is such a thing as Art Deco, and that it signifies glamour and modernity. They know what it's supposed to look like; and when they actually encounter it, all too often it isn't Deco enough. The consumer wants more glamour and excitement than the real past can provide. 

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Dark River (2017)

Had it not been for PJ Harvey I wouldn't have watched Clio Barnard's latest movie, as she sings the theme, 'An Acre of Land', the arrangement of which she put together with the film's composer Harry Escott. You can find other versions of this old folk song around, treating it as a jaunty little bit of whimsy, with its fairytale imagery of ploughing the field with a ram's horn and reaping it with a tooth-comb; that seems to have been how Ralph Vaughn-Williams regarded it when he put it to music. As we might expect, PJH takes this charming rhyme and turns it into a baleful vision of something approaching madness. If the commission didn't inspire her to begin her planned poem cycle 'about a haunted sheep farm in Dorset' it's yet another instance of the strange synchronicity which marks the singer's life.

The haunted sense is nothing more than appropriate. Clio Barnard's film takes the idea of Rose Tremain's 2010 novel Trespass, transplants it to north Yorkshire, and gives it a title lifted from a Ted Hughes poem so the viewer should have some idea what they're going to get. After years spent sheep-shearing across the world, Alice returns to the farm she believes her father promised her, to rescue it along with a conflicted relationship with her brother Joe who's worn out by looking after both the land and their father. But that father still haunts the run-down farmhouse, commercial sharks are circling, and it's not going to end well. To be fair, though, it's not as bleak as the book.

As many critics have said, the film is very thinly plotted and there's a sense as it draws to an end that even that minimal story is falling over itself to come to a conclusion. Its beauty is that it takes a group of people who live lives on the edge of mainstream modernity (as Clio Barnard did with her previous feature, The Selfish Giant which I confess I also watched on the basis of PJH's involvement with this one) and treats that experience with both great rigour and great tenderness. It argues that the passions surrounding a neglected Yorkshire sheep farm are as worthy of consideration as any others. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A Nice Try

The young woman called on the church office phone: 'I'm following up the phone conversation we had in January. The books you agreed to sponsor as part of our anti-bullying campaign are ready for distribution to the schools of your choice: they have your organisation's details in the front and we just need to sort out where they're going to go and the payment.' I had no memory of any such conversation and said so. I asked whether they had paperwork describing this agreement we had supposedly had come to: they had, the woman said, and a recording of the conversation which she could forward to me. I could just about envisage I might have had some vague discussion on the phone in which an idea was run past me, and some over-enthusiastic person could have run with that idea, but had there been paperwork even I would surely have remembered. I would wait with interest, I said, for copies to be sent on to us.

A moment's Googling revealed that this scam has been going on for at least ten years. The scammers call charities, social organisations and sometimes even businesses (one case concerned a hairdressers' in Bournemouth) in the hope that, like me, they'll assume that someone somewhere in the organisation has agreed to this, or that they have themselves forgotten what they may have said six months before, and they'll cough up. For bigger companies or charities they send a letter and an invoice for a plausible but not huge amount of money, say £200 or less, assuming that a busy accounts department will simply pay it without asking any questions about it: a fraud that relies on the unreliability of human memory, and organisational un-curiosity. 

Sunday, 12 August 2018

In the Cloud

It’s been a long time since I last had the experience of not wanting to get up for several mornings. I feel ashamed of it, because so many of my lovely friends battle illness and disability and my issues are petty in comparison: I know that, although it’s related to external circumstances, it’s not proportionate to them. I don’t justify the feeling, I just recognise it as a fact.

Metropolitan Anthony said that when he found himself in the cloud, he would open his letters and not even attempt to do anything more active (and, as his biographer Gillian Crow pointed out, that didn’t mean he actually read them); and that if he couldn’t face that, he would read; and that if he couldn’t even read, he would clean his room. I find at these times that even cleaning requires effort. At the moment I’m preparing for a party at the end of the month and want to clean the whole house more thoroughly than usual, and this afternoon intended to do one bit of my unrealistically vast kitchen: at several points in that process I had absolutely to force myself to carry on with it, the main impetus coming from the thought that I couldn’t leave it half-done. What I want to do is sleep, because sleep seems more rewarding than wakefulness.

It is of course a very quiet season in the life of Swanvale Halt parish at present and there have been times recently when I sit and think what I could usefully do next. Perhaps I ought to embrace this as an opportunity and not try to do anything in particular.

This morning would have been the annual open-air ecumenical service at Hornington, had the rain not forced a retreat into the Baptist Church. The worship songs were dull (even discounting for my disaffection, I think they genuinely were) and there was nothing to break through my mood. I did all I could to prevent my indifference hardening into cynicism. There was the opportunity to ‘receive prayer’ in a side room afterwards, and I thought I might do that: just tell whoever it was that I was bare and dry, and hope that it might be a means of God doing something with me. But when I looked through the door, the three Baptist Church members offering prayer were seated in a semicircle talking to each other. I didn’t think I could expose myself to that. I couldn’t walk all that way across the carpeted floor to that group of assessing faces (What’s he doing here?), so I went home instead. As an ordained person I’m used to brazening it out, and I couldn’t face it: what must anyone else feel like?

And so I remain in the cloud for now. It seems that when I have something liturgical to do I can pretend it’s not there – something else takes over, the Holy Spirit, perhaps. That’s a comfort. But I’m not pushing it, in case it breaks.

Friday, 10 August 2018


A few miles away at Steepmoor they are in interregnum at the moment, and likely to remain so until the New Year. They will soon be losing the curate, too, who is heading off to look after three churches in the central wilderness of the Guildford Diocese. She’s on holiday so leaving Marion to do what she could at Swanvale Halt with the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows I zoomed down the A3 to Steepmoor to take their 10am service.

Except I didn’t really. I knew they had a preacher, which was fine; more than fine, in fact. I didn’t know they had a ‘Service Leader’ as well. He introduced the service, read the Collect, led the intercessions, and in fact was down to do everything until the Peace apart from the Scripture readings. I levered myself into leading the Confession and Absolution although I did spot from the order of service that it was in the permissive form meaning that a layperson could lead it (but in the presence of a priest, technically shouldn’t). I should have let them do everything in the way they expected, really, but was caught out.

It’s an entirely different way of thinking about the Eucharist. In the Catholic tradition (followed by most Anglican liturgical advice) the Eucharist is a single action from beginning to end, and so should be led by the same person. The whole thing constitutes a sort of dialogue, a dance in which priest and laypeople have prescribed roles to play. The representative nature of the ordained person means that they are the ones who speak the words of the Church as a whole, which is why the priest should top-and-tail the service, pronounce the absolution and read the collect, and why the deacon should read the Gospel.

At Steepmoor, which has an ‘open evangelical’ tradition, they have a lower view of ordination and a higher view of lay ministry. This sees the Eucharist as a collection of tasks of which ‘doing the magic’ (the phrase they used) over the bread and wine is only one. Anything else can be done by laypeople – including, at Steepmoor, reading the Gospel, which the preacher did; preaching a sermon and reading the words of Jesus are naturally linked, in this view. I’ve experienced this model of worship only once before, at St Aldate’s in Oxford, and don’t know how widespread it is. 

The instruction that, unless given special dispensation by the bishop, a priest can’t celebrate the Eucharist alone but must have a layperson present, has always expressed to me our mutual dependence on one another to carry out the work of God. The specific roles of ordained people in the liturgy, it seems to me, mark a step further in emphasising the fact that we human beings are not interchangeable. If anyone can perform any liturgical act, ultimately that sort of absolute dependence ceases to be signalled formally. It seems like a liberal and egalitarian approach, but I’m not sure it is: it devolves responsibility on specialists no less surely than relying on ordained people, with the difference that those specialists are locally and informally determined and appointed. They appear to be interchangeable people, and yet signal the importance of skills and aptitudes rather than role, and so aren’t really exchangeable one for the other at all. I’m not at all convinced this is completely to the good.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Our Lady of the Snows

The appearance in the church calendar of the observance of Our Lady of the Snows over the weekend has caused both consternation and amusement at Swanvale Halt. It doesn’t feature even in the Roman Catholic calendar now, having been redesignated ‘The Dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore’ since 1969 when various dubious feasts were struck out in the same wave of rationalism that bore down such beloved saints as George and Catherine. I can’t see why the idea of a miraculous snowfall on the Esquiline Hill on August 5th in mid-4th century Rome determining the site of a new church is prima facie any less likely than a lot of what Jesus got up to. There’s always an illustration from Father Ted, and I’m put in mind of Fr Dougal boggling, ‘Ah come on, Ted. That’s almost as mad as that thing you told me about the loaves and the fishes.’

The point is that Our Lady of the Snows is the only Marian feast day this year which falls on a Sunday and so in the interest of varying the diet it would be fun to include it (and, as I told them at the 8am mass, if you can’t have fun with your religion it’s a mean and paltry thing). It also gave me a chance to bless, and use, the ‘new’ blue Marian altar hangings. These are only new in a sense. We used to have a Marian frontal, an all-over sheet of silvery material decorated with two blue orphreys of lilies on velvet, a set of silver-edged blue stars, and the Maria Regina monogram in the centre, but at some stage in the distant past it had had communion wine tipped over it and was unusable. A little while ago our churchwarden’s sister-in-law discovered a length of dramatic blue fabric in the basement of their house, a house which has a particular spiritual history you will have to take my word about. As this happened right at the time I was thinking about the Marian frontal I thought it might be A Sign. It was probably not A Sign that I should have attempted to make it all myself with my very limited sewing skills but once I’d begun I felt honour bound to carry on. The result is not entirely unsuccessful (especially when all the lights in the church are on, and from a distance) though there are a couple of amendments I want to make, even now. The velvet orphreys, lilies and monogram have been reused, and though I am far from being a Marian devotee God's Mum deserves her place. 

Monday, 6 August 2018

Inky Blackness

The bottle of ‘Registrar’s Ink Blue-Black’ sits on the desk in the vestry, and occasionally I’ve tried to use it. In theory, you’re supposed to use it to fill out legal documents such as the Marriage Registers as it makes the most permanent mark available. We don’t have many weddings in Swanvale Halt so, as others have before me when they’ve been feeling enthusiastic, now and again I’ve tried to use it for the service and baptism registers, which isn’t strictly necessary as these aren’t legal documents. When I arrived, I remember, the register entries were pale and ghostly, a sort of mucky grey-brown, and when we bought a new bottle of ink they went onto the page splendidly black and shiny – for a while. Then it got harder again.

Pen after pen got clogged up with ink. I washed them out but it didn’t seem to make writing any easier. I blamed buying cheap fountain pens and scaled up to a mid-range Parker (other brands are available). This Saturday morning as Marion got ready to marry a couple later on in the day I offered to write out the marriage registers and discovered that the pen was, once again, uselessly gunged up. I tried to pump ink through it and the nib popped off the end under the pressure.

It couldn’t be the pen at fault so it had to be the ink. What was special about ‘Registrar’s Ink’ that caused these problems? I decided at last to find out.

Old-fashioned black ink – old-fashioned enough to have been used across Europe for centuries – is made from iron sulphate and oak gall. It’s permanent because its corrosive qualities etch its marks into the writing surface, but that means it’s only suitable for dip-pens, and it plays havoc with capillary-action fountain pens. The modern versions of the ink which substitute the old substances with synthetic ones will still clog pens up, and the manufacturers advise that users flush pens out after each use. Even the bottled ink deteriorates over time, which is presumably why it starts looking nice and ‘inky’ and then goes pale and watery.

Why have I not learned this little, practical detail until thirteen years after my ordination and nine after becoming an incumbent? Sense declares itself at last. I’m afraid that on this occasion the registers had to be made out and signed in ordinary India Ink, which would I’m sure be much to the Registrars’ disgust were they to know about it. But then when I arrived to look after Goremead church back in 2008 I found some entries in their registers written in blue biro …

Saturday, 4 August 2018


Another hot and clear day on Thursday persuaded me to zoom down to the south coast again, this time to Selsey. It was quite a long way to go mainly to sit by the sea and eat lunch, but doing so is such a pleasure it was worth doing. The coastline curves round to Eastbourne and I and Ms Kittywitch waved at each other via text.

I hadn't known that the town of Selsey is relatively new, having grown up from the late 1800s on the site of a few fishermen's cottages (some of which you can still pick out) to cater for seaside visitors. The church was moved stone by stone to a new location, leaving just the stump of the chancel at the original site, forming the Chapel of St Wilfrid. The chapel has a variety of interesting modern glass, including this window appropriately depicting water birds, and a much-defaced Tudor tomb (that's St George in the angle):

Not far from the chapel is a footpath leading to the nature reserve of Pagham Harbour. Marshland is a kind of landscape which often has a strange, isolated feel even when it's close to civilisation, and this is true of Pagham Harbour, a long-silted-up lagoon which was once of some importance. The alternate stripes of blue water and green reeds, speckled with occasional far-off flurries of birds, were completely unexpected and made me thankful I went along that path on a whim.

Thursday, 2 August 2018


My discovery of a pile of nice Bargate stone hidden at the side of my garden under a heap of leaves and earth led me to think that the 'Shrine of Bacchus' could be made to look like a proper Roman shrine, and so it now is. More or less, anyway. I would like to get a fountain flowing through Bacchus's mouth but the Shrine is in a very shady part of the garden and it'll need either a battery pump or a very highly-placed solar cell. I'd use water rather than wine, though come to think of it, it could be coloured ...