Sunday, 30 September 2018

The Vocation of the Whole Church

Michaelmas Day saw me at a church in Camberley giving a talk about the nature of priestly ministry and location, a shortened version of one I delivered a few months ago, to a group of people exploring their own sense of vocation. I found myself talking about Mary, our former sacristan, the ex-nun who had had to leave her missionary order after suffering a breakdown of health in Africa, but who always saw herself as a detached member of the community - a community which eventually repented its harsh treatment of her to some extent. 'I've always kept my vows, and I've always said my Office', she told me. Michaelmas Day was the date of her taking her final vows, so for me it's the 29th of September, rather than the date of her death in March, when I think of her most: it's become not only the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, but also the observance of the Solemn Profession of Vows of Blessed Mary Fearon. Infuriating sometimes, Mary, but a saint. Saints are often like that. 

At Morning Prayer before I headed out, I and Roy our verger said Psalm 150 together, the psalm set by the Church for M.P. on Michaelmas Day. It imagines the whole of creation joined together in a song of worship to God - 'let everything that has breath praise the Lord, alleluia' - and the angels lead that song. I thought of Mary singing the song of the angels along with them, as we should all pray we will one day. It's the work all Christians are called to do, before and after everything else.

Perhaps it seems a bit childish or flippant, bolting my own experience, rooted in my particular place and context, onto the great experience of the Holy Church, my memory of Mary onto the solemnity of the Angels. But it's only a Christianised version of what I think most human beings do, generating meaning and structure through connecting their own story with something bigger than they are. And it makes my small life with my own small and struggling church part of something beautiful and wondrous.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Green Lung

A busy few days and an errand of mercy on behalf of a friend that sent me dashing through night-time London yesterday (after finishing with the Air Cadets about 9.15) left me with little energy to do very much on a day off. As the weather has been fine I toyed with going out but haven't done so, instead taking a breather at home. It would be a shame to go nowhere apart from the supermarket, though, so at moments like this I'm so very grateful for the fields at the back of my house which slope down towards the Barcombe estate on the other side of Swanvale Halt. It was here I came to think when I visited the parish back in the summer of 2009 to consider whether this was the place I was supposed to be. There's a convenient bench at the top of the slope from where I can watch the dog-walkers and beyond to the main road from Guildford snaking its way along the horizon ridge. It's deeply comforting to see people going about their own business completely unconnected to me, people to whom my presence is invisible and to whom I am nothing at all. It's a great delight.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Auto da Fé

From the vestry I can look across the churchyard to the old people's Day Centre opposite. Yesterday while I was getting ready for the midweek Mass I was stood in front of the vestment press doing exactly that. Roy our verger was ringing the Angelus before the service started.

Framed in the big window of the Day Centre beyond the grass, wall, path and yard, I saw a young chap with a lanyard and ID tag round his neck, looking towards the church. As the dongs of the Angelus rang out, he raised his right hand and made the sign of the cross over himself. There is faith somewhere!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Down the Generations

In the parish of Swanvale Halt is a housing estate we find it hard to have much contact with. A couple of years ago a family both of whose children were baptised in the church moved there, and came to Messy Church frequently along with a family who lived around the corner and who they knew well. I began to think there might be the germ of something worthwhile in this, I wasn't sure what - a home group perhaps, from which something might grow. 

The mother is a young woman who I perceive real potential in: again, I'm not really sure why or what, she just has a sort of strength and definiteness which suggests she might have something important in her, whether in church matters or generally. I've been trying to have a proper chat about where she thinks she and the family is spiritually for some time and I began to suspect she was putting it off because there was something she didn't want to say. 

I wasn't wrong: that something turns out to be basically 'I and my husband don't really believe anything but we think it's important for the children to have some religious knowledge so they can decide'. I hear this quite frequently and am not sure what to make of it. I think that if they actively and positively didn't believe anything they wouldn't be bothered about exposing their children to faith and perhaps I should say so. It's frustrating because I can see their own children saying exactly the same in twenty years, and if there is still a church in Swanvale Halt at all it may well be me that hears them saying it, the result being that in family after family faith never moves away from the childhood level and never actually affects what people do. It's better than nothing, but not a great deal better, and I wonder how to approach it.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Nuns With Pulleys, and Other Fond Inventions

Everyone knows about the Rood of Boxley, don’t they? Apparently it was news to Melvyn Bragg, discussing the history of automata on Radio 4 with his guests on In Our Time, one of whom was science historian Simon Schaffer:

Schaffer: Medieval Christianity was full of automata … to such an extent that these would have been familiar devices to a great proportion of the population. There are an enormous number of examples of automata in Christian stories told and written down in the middle ages. So it was extremely common to imagine that statues of Christ – crucifixes – or statues of the Virgin Mary – could move … And secondly this was also a real experience in churches and monasteries. By far the most famous example of this in Europe, really, in this period was at Boxley [talks about how the image would move to approve or not approve pilgrims' offerings]… So it’s really important to know that medieval Christianity hinges, if you’ll pardon the expression, on the mechanisation of worship through automata.
Bragg: And it was deception?
Schaffer: It was absolutely deception, so I believe.
Bragg: Inside these Virgins were nuns with pulleys?
Schaffer: True … And you would use containers of liquid … with fish in them, and as the fish moved, droplets would appear and course down the faces of these statues …

The motif of the active image was certainly very common in medieval piety. In The Dream of the Moving Statue (1992) Kenneth Gross describes ‘images that are able to nod or smile, embrace a worshipper or turn away in embarrassment, trick and convert infidels, scare away demons, terrorise thieves and iconoclasts, slap sinful nuns; there are images of the Virgin that can manage to save a falling painter, steal a young man’s wedding ring and seduce him into entering a monastery, even wipe the sweat from the brow of a jongleur who performs in praise of Mary; there are images with enough self-consciousness to instruct the carver who works on them, sufficient resourcefulness to find their way home after being stolen, lost or hidden.’ Lots of stories, yes, but these legends assume that the image could be a locus or vehicle of divine or saintly presence. This is not the same as simply moving in predetermined patterns and gestures, which is what the actual automata people might encounter in churches did, and which people knew they did.

Everyone knew that the Virgen de los Reyes of Seville, perhaps the earliest Christian automaton of which we have evidence, was a mechanical marvel; the attendants of the Baron Leo von Rozmital who saw in Salisbury cathedral in 1466 amazing automata of the Holy Family and the Three Kings, and of Christ rising from the tomb, wondered at them but were in no doubt what they were. The skill of the makers was itself a divine gift, in the same way that a Christian undergoing an operation today might think of the surgeon’s ability to heal as an aspect of God’s work without bringing in any suggestion of special celestial agency.

The Rood of Boxley, a popular object of pilgrimage in the 15th and early 16th centuries (though declining through that time) was a large wooden crucifix visited by a wide range of people of all social classes. Early in 1538 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner, Jeffray Chambers, turned up at Boxley Abbey in Kent to assess it for dissolution, and dismantled the Rood. It was then that he found inside it the mechanism – ‘engines, old wires, and old rotten stocks’ – that had enabled its eyes to shift and its lower lip to move up and down. The monks claimed they knew nothing about the works. The figure was taken to Maidstone and exposed in the marketplace, and then to London where a sort of ritual of execration was held outside St Paul’s cathedral. The Bishop of Rochester, John Hilsey, in whose diocese Boxley was, preached a sermon in which he denounced the fraudulent miracle of the moving statue; a puppeteer wiggled the wires and made its eyes roll to the derision of the crowd. The idol was then smashed. In every subsequent account of the event, the abilities of the Rood of Boxley grew more astounding. Forty years later, writers such as the Kentish historian William Lambarde and the controversialist John Foxe described how it could swivel its hands, weep, foam at the mouth, nod and bend, all for the purpose of approving the monetary offerings made in front of it, or demanding more. A monk would sit inside it, working it by ‘a hundred wires’, said Foxe. By then it had acquired a little friend, a statue of St Rumwald, the Northamptonshire child-saint, another automaton who acted as bouncer for the Rood, testing pilgrims for virtue before admission (if you could lift up this tiny image, controlled by an unseen monk, you were let in, and that too depended on the value of your offering rather than the condition of your soul). The Rood of Boxley became notorious, the most egregious example of Popish trickery in the armoury of the monastic fraudsters.

But none of this is there in the early accounts, nor is the Rood of Boxley one of a vast class of pious impostures. The old Protestant writers, and Professor Schaffer in our own day, imply that it was the epitome of such frauds, but can never point to a single other, because all the contemporary literature makes clear that, as we’ve pointed out, people knew exactly what these things were. The Rood wasn’t ‘the most famous example in Europe’: no one outside England ever referred to it until it was destroyed, and the only person who can be shown actually to have done so was a single German merchant known to a couple of English Protestant letter-writers. As that doughty Catholic convert and writer Revd TE Bridgett pointed out in Blunders and Forgeries as long ago as 1890, when Jeffray Chambers arrived to inspect Boxley Abbey in 1538 he certainly expected to find and remove an idolatrous image, but not one that moved. The discovery of its mechanism was a surprise to him, and what he found, to judge by his own description, was something that clearly hadn’t been in use for years. He never charged the existing monks with having exploited it. William Lambarde’s sensational and at some points obscene account of the Rood, comparing it to Priapus – how like the Reformers to be so naughty! – quotes the monks’ own published account of how the Rood came to Boxley, which itself made clear that it was a mechanical object cunningly made by a carpenter. There was no attempt to claim it as being anything else, or to cover up its nature. Neither commissioner Chambers nor any other of the contemporary Reformers mentions St Rumwald, although one account of the wrecking of the Rood does include Bishop Latimer carrying out of St Paul’s Cathedral an image of a saint which might have been Rumwald, ‘which the country people had said eight oxen could not move’ – you can imagine how that could have been built into the story.

Finally, not even Fr Bridgett points out something interesting about the words of Bishop Hilsey at the destruction of the Rood. Chronicler Henry Wriothesley, who was probably there, describes how the bishop – a good King’s man put in at Rochester to replace the executed John Fisher – pointed out the Rood and its mechanisms, ‘the vices [joints] and engines used in old time’, to deceive the people. In old time? Not in 1538, then? Also, when the Rood was exposed and worked at Maidstone, the reports averred that the onlookers’ first response was to laugh. This is not what people do who think that they themselves have been shown to be dupes, but that other people have been – their poor, ignorant ancestors, before the light of Reform shone on Catholic England. The Protestant story is already retrospective at the moment it is created: it imagines foolish credulity in people its believers have never met.

What happened is surely this: some time in the 14th or 15th century, the monks of Boxley acquire a rather simple automaton of Christ on the Cross, possibly by some quite sharp business practice. The circumstances of its arrival are garbled until the story becomes miraculous, and that encourages pilgrims; its mechanism is possibly never used again from the day it gets there. In 1538 Jeffray Chambers discovers its works and, knowing all about the wickedness of monks, deduces it was used as a money-making racket. Everyone at the time accepts this. Gradually the story accretes other elements and becomes the great exemplar of Catholic deceit, repeated and repeated. But it’s based on nothing. The evidence is that nobody ever tried to persuade anyone the Rood of Boxley moved by divine agency, rather than by human ingenuity, if at all; nobody at the time of its destruction had ever seen it move, or knew anyone who had.

Furthermore, nobody who knows anything about medieval piety would accept that it ‘hinged’ on the presence of automata, rather than on going to Mass, for instance. And as for fish inside statues making them cry – a weeping Madonna sounds more likely (the evening repeat of In Our Time cut that out, and I'm not surprised).

Unless you can prove me wrong!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Take Only What You Can Carry: the music of Rykarda Parasol

Years ago I trawled through Myspace – remember that? – checking out musical artists who used the word ‘gothic’ in their description. As the labels were self-applied, they often couldn’t be taken that seriously. I did, however, think 'Rykarda Parasol and the Tower Ravens' was possibly the most perfect Goth band name imaginable (for its histrionic quality possibly beating my niece’s accidentally-created The Rejects of Lydia). It was only much later that I heard more of Ms Parasol’s output and found I liked it more than I anticipated. So here is more about her. Rykarda Parasol, incidentally, is her real name, which one can consider a bonus gift from life.

Naturally she rejected the G-word as soon as other people began to apply it to her rather than herself. ‘Goth folk’, a label slapped on her music early on, is certainly completely unhelpful. She prefers ‘rock noir’ which is possibly not much more informative since while some of her tracks are rocky and loud, many aren’t; but as it creates a certain cinematic quality by its resonance with ‘film noir’, and by locating the Parasol musical world at the complex, thoughtful end of the spectrum, it isn’t entirely pointless. She describes her work as ‘Edith Piaf meets Nick Cave meets Johnny Cash meets the Velvet Underground’, and you can hear echoes of all those in her voice and music, as well as Siouxsie Sioux, Billie Holiday and Diamanda Galás, but that’s not much of a surprise. Any woman who sings low in her register about problematic topics will pick up those resemblances. Her namechecking Nick Cave is repeated by many reviewers, but again they’re very different; Parasol articulates a female, and less violent, more melancholy, experience, while for Cave women are almost always victims or muses. In fact, the artist I think of most in relation to Parasol is Lana del Rey, though Parasol’s voice is much more hard and her music more complex, and the comparison holds best for her first two albums which, like much of del Rey’s work, seem designed to accompany a night drive along an interstate highway somewhere in the empty US landscape.

Early on she was compared to PJ Harvey and wasn’t put out by the suggestion (‘it doesn’t make me want to throw myself out of a window’), but although, again, there are echoes between the two, Parasol’s style is really very different and her intentions more so. Harvey has spent her (much longer) career squirming uncomfortably in interviews and deflecting any suggestion that her work is autobiographical; Parasol has a Californian confidence and self-possession (once being filmed in bed for an interview with an Oregon-based magazine) and, in contrast, I suspect she exaggerates the extent to which her music is about her. Harvey is absolutely dedicated to the work of being a musician, sometimes to the exclusion of anything else, while Parasol states ‘music is not my life, but because I have a life I am able to give my experiences to it.’ I’m going to resist the temptation to pit the two artists against each other, but will return to this particular topic.

That deliciously Gothy name of the Tower Ravens refers to a band lineup which Parasol claims only existed temporarily and with which she never recorded. She says she began writing music in about 2001 and one interview suggests she was asked to join a band whose singer had absconded, only to find herself its lead and eventually the sole remaining member, since when she’s assembled shifting groups of musicians to play her compositions. Parasol’s first venture into recording, a sort of calling-card really, was the 2003 EP Here She Comes ( gives a date of 2005) and there have been four full albums since. What she was doing before then, given that she was 33 when the EP came out, has never been touched on. She ran an art gallery-cum-performance-space called The Hive in San Francisco for a while, and says her natural abilities lie in visual arts but how she may have used them commercially over the years is anyone’s guess. She pays for the production of her music herself (somehow), and mainly plays piano and guitar though has ventured onto other instruments, especially when trying to do as much as possible herself on her third album, Against the Sun.

You might get the impression from the very name Here She Comes and the record artwork, all of which follows a similar pattern, that Rykarda Parasol’s work forms an unfolding, preconceived project, but this would be misleading. The first song on the EP is titled ‘Here Come Misery I’ and there is clearly a joke here, but while each recording has a distinct personality, reinforced by the artwork, they seem to follow Parasol’s own sense of journeying and are apparently themed retrospectively. Each picture features what we must assume is Parasol’s body, obscured by some living thing. Our Hearts First Meet (2008) has as its motif the yellow rose, appropriately as Texas forms the backdrop for some of the songs; the album is a spare, wistful exploration of the American South and conflicted feelings and experiences, the style alt-country as much as anything else. Two years later For Blood and Wine followed, whose emblem is the poppy, the state flower of California where Parasol and her family live, and a symbol of sleep and intoxication; the music is lusher and more grandiose (‘One For Joy!’ has a cabaret feel and Parasol’s voice veers between Siouxsie Sioux and Emilie Autumn). Against the Sun (2013) turns introspective, the songs quieter and pared down. The title is a joke, a reference to Parasol’s own name, and its symbol is the mushroom, which grows quietly in the dark: even more playfully the image of the singer on the sleeve carries a giant mushroom to shield her. Here the setting is international, reflecting the fact that Parasol wrote much of the music in Paris: Paris, Kiev, and hints of other places crop up in the lyrics. The ‘fourth in the series’, The Color of Destruction (2015) is themed around red coral, which Parasol invests with meanings of passion and life, and explores the choice between ‘drowning or burning’ – the ship’s going down anyway, so will you just sink or set it on fire first? The orchestration is smoother and more assured than ever, and she invites guest voices to take part (though ‘Swans Will Save’ (FBAW) is sung by a little girl). The whole twelve-year sequence forms an impressive and coherent progress, something most unusual in popular music.

How this relates to the artist’s own progress is uncertain despite her insistence that her work is autobiographical. Some tracks refer to experiences she’s talked about directly. ‘En Route’ (OHFM) arose, she says, from the death of a former boyfriend in a motorcycle accident, while ‘Take Only What You Can Carry’ (ATS) refers directly to her father’s survival of the Holocaust. However, Parasol herself suggests that the flowers and other things that obscure her form on the record artwork make the point that what the listener is getting is not – usually – straightforward reportage, but something more nuanced and skewed. The four albums depict a maturing from brittleness and sorrow to determination and courage: on TCOD, she says, ‘Ms Parasol's narrator at last opens her heart up to the world without concern to be loved, but to love’. But confessional though that all sounds, the reference to the ‘narrator’ is a distancing mechanism which the singer uses more than once, in interviews as well as publicity. Instead I think what she is doing is exploring how her own life and experience intersects with human experience as a whole, and the histories of America and her family: those are the subjects rather than herself, as such (hence her rejection of the description 'Americana' applied to her early work: she sees herself as tied to something wider than nationhood). For instance, the title of the gloriously sad ‘I Vahnt tou beh Alohne’ (ATS) is a joke about Parasol’s own Swedish heritage: her mother, like Greta Garbo whose line it was, is Swedish. And yet the song is clearly embodying something serious and real, emotionally if not factually.

But is it any good, you may ask? Many listeners may find Parasol’s work too pretentious and self-conscious to bear, but I don’t mind pretentious when it’s spiced with irony and musical interest. It’s a fine line to tread, admittedly. Listen to ‘The Loneliest Girl in the World’ (TCOD), a track which calls out for ridicule if ever there was one: the orchestration is grandiose, the vocal mannered, the lyrics scattered with French. In the accompanying video Parasol wanders the streets of Paris with a handful of red balloons and an unreadable expression like the Mona Lisa come to life. This is almost micky-taking, but not quite: the near-humour makes the sentiment acceptable, and in fact a lot of music that deals with complex subjects is like that. By the time you get the stuff recorded, the original emotion that provoked it has been polished and rounded until you really do need to acknowledge its performative quality somehow. That’s all fair, I think, but you might not be able to swallow it, nonetheless.

When PJ Harvey hit 35 she seems to have realised that she’d reached the end of the road artistically, and there was no satisfaction left in simply mining her own feelings, or knocking her imagination against the products of other people’s, for inspiration, and that she had to reach elsewhere. The Color of Destruction is a lovely piece of work, but it’s so assured and smooth that I wonder whether Rykarda Parasol has come to the same point, and what, if anything, might follow.

Monday, 17 September 2018

St Blaise Does His Stuff

The malign effect of colds on one's voice is familiar enough but Messy Church always seems to provide the possibility of strain as well. Although I make sure I'm miked up when doing the talk and I'm only addressing a group of small children who are never that rowdy there usually comes a point when my voice is on the brink of cracking. On Saturday it tipped over that brink and caught me completely by surprise, I think in the course of turning awkwardly between laptop and projector screen. Several glasses of water were rushed in my direction and with a great deal of trouble I carried on and some of my words were heard. 

Sunday brought four services with it. My voice was still ropey when I got up and fragile throughout the 8am mass, but with the aid of some disgusting throat lozenges and, I like to think, the intercession of St Blaise, nothing problematic occurred through the rest of the day. Although I once had to step in and take a service when our former curate lost her voice, and watched it, horribly, happen to our previous bishop in the middle of a confirmation service (most inconvenient as nobody could stand in for him), it's taken nine years for this to happen to me and I would prefer it not to occur again. I must take greater care in Messy Church! A worthwhile maxim generally.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

A Mystery Explained

For six years this little fellow has sat on my stairs windowsill, innocuously enough considering the manner in which I came across him. He doesn't seem to have brought conspicuously ill fortune with him. But I have never known his origins, before he went to the house at Maida Vale which was his previous home. A conversation about haunted mirrors with my friend Ms DarkMorte last week encouraged me to try and found out more. All I could think of to prise open the idol's past was its appearance, Nepalese, I thought vaguely.

A bit of judicious Googling (I always Google judiciously) chased down the truth. In certain parts of northern India, spreading into Bangladesh - so I wasn't too far adrift - a strange triad of deities is worshipped. They are Jagannath, conceived as an incarnation of Vishnu, his elder brother Balabhadra, and their sister Subadhra. They are strange because they are not depicted anthropomorphically: their images have ludicrous big heads with goggle eyes, stumpy bodies, and no arms or legs (my idol is unusual in possessing a pair of little feet). How they became this way, nobody knows. In fact, nobody knows how they developed at all. I think they are local deities, older than classical Hinduism and later assimilated into it, hence their weird appearance. Hinduism can absorb anything, from Jesus to Laurel & Hardy. Black-faced Jagannath, 'lord of the universe', is boss, while Balabhadra has a special responsibility for farmers (I'm not sure what aspect of life Subadhra looks after). The great cart on which the three deities are paraded through the streets on big festival days is the origin of the word juggernaut

I did find a parallel idol being sold by a UK antique dealer - except that this isn't Balabhadra, as claimed. Its face is yellow, so it's Subadhra, the sister. However the style is identical so it must surely have been made by the same person, given that nothing else quite the same seems to exist. It's made in exactly the same way, in wood covered in cloth. That's exciting, but it raises the unsettling question - what happened to Jagannath?

All this time I have lived in ignorance as to the nature of my guest. Now I know what it is, I must confess I look at it somewhat askance as I ascend or descend the stairs, and aim some extra prayers in its direction. What if Jagannath came looking for his brother ... ?

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Providence or Something

A couple of years ago, I had a crisis of conscience over the request from a stranger that I open my house to the family of a Nigerian Christian pastor who were in danger of having to go back to Nigeria. I forget all the details but in the end I helped them out with funding their stay until their eldest daughter's GCSEs were over. 

This week I had a letter from one of the people who was trying to assist Pastor Feri's family: they're in Coventry now, apparently. The area where they come from has been the scene of a dramatic upsurge of communal violence. It's a mess that goes back a long time. The Plateau district of central Nigeria is the home of two groups of people, the Fulani, who are partly itinerant cattle-herders and Muslim, and the Berom, who are sedentary farmers and mainly Christian. There has always been the potential for conflict between these two different communities and ways of life, but more frequent droughts in this part of Africa mean that the strain on its natural resources is increasing: the Fulani herders stray farther in search of pasture, and the Berom farmers encroach on the traditional Fulani transhumance routes. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has poured illegal armaments into west Africa, most particularly into Nigeria, and quarrels that might once have been pursued with knives and clubs are now prosecuted with machine guns.

The family who were nearly billeted on me in 2016 come from a district where a large number of people were killed in June this year - figures range from 86 (the Nigerian police's conservative estimate) to more than 230. They didn't include Pastor Feri's mother, who escaped, but did include a cousin and baby, I'm told.

And so Muslims in the Plateau - and in other places - kill Christians and Christians (possibly in smaller numbers, but totting up head counts is invidious) kill Muslims, but this is not Boko Haram country: the Beroms' religion is a way of identifying them and churches are a place to find them, and if they are attacked it is not because the Fulani are trying to wipe out their religion, but because their quarrel is with the human beings who bear it. Notwithstanding that, the death toll is now arguably higher in this conflict than in the civil war in the north of Nigeria in which Boko Haram is involved. 

It isn't the Islamist campaign of persecution that some people would have you, and me specifically, believe. But motivation is probably a minor matter when you have an enraged cattle-herder pointing an AK-47 at you, and perhaps Pastor Feri and his family would indeed have been hacked to collops without my few quid.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

From Below

The old spiritual writers are unanimous: when you are provoked to some wrongful thought by someone else, you should give thanks that they have revealed the corruption that lurks inside your own soul, for if it wasn't there, you wouldn't have felt it. 

Yesterday morning on the way to the Steeple House an immensely violent thought shot into my mind, a picture of me hitting someone who has brought me a lot of trouble over the years. I tell people who are disturbed by the same sort of things that pop into their awareness that this isn't uncommon, that intrusive thoughts, whether violent, sexual, or disgusting, afflict almost everyone from time to time, and that they shouldn't focus on them but push them away and regard them as transient mental trash which you shouldn't pay attention to. However, the truth is that I don't really know how common such thoughts are because nobody really talks about it. Psychiatrists, psychotherapists and spiritual directors may, as they are used to dealing with the minutiae of people's interior lives, but it's hardly a daily topic of conversation, and perhaps there are lots of souls who are genuinely never disrupted by nonsense of this kind. 

My advice is usually that intrusive thoughts don't reflect the real personality of the person they assail: they bubble up spontaneously from the depths of the unconscious and if they represent anything it is the common and disturbing scope of the human imagination. But the truth is that sometimes there's something there. My violent image came from a bedrock of anger against a particular person and while I shouldn't pay attention to it - to the extent that I begin endorsing it and it turns from a thought into a fantasy - I should be aware of, and fear, it. 'He who hates a brother walks in darkness', says blessed John, and I should pray for that buried and denied emotion to be eroded by grace. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Dorset Developments

Slowly, gradually, the utility works are crawling up the road not far from where my sister and her family live in Wimborne, causing angst and inconvenience to the residents of that part of the town as you must now describe an unlikely circuitous route in order to cross the ancient borough. The reason is that the sewers along the road have to be dug up and renewed, all the way from the town centre to the site of the new development on its outskirts, which will include the school my younger niece will eventually attend. The work is going to take months

My sister has lived in Wimborne ever since she left home. Her first house was a nice little starter-home she rather splendidly called Fat Tulips after a mid-1980s children's TV programme. Our parents also toyed with moving there for a long while and finally more than toyed - they had their possessions all boxed up when the sale fell through, and then my dad's dementia intervened: there's no compelling reason for mum to move at the moment. I worked in Wimborne for a time and worshipped at the Minster, which I've always liked. 

But my sister is having doubts. 'Do I want to stay here?' she mused after a busy few days at the start of the new school term. As well as the development described above, East Dorset District Council is planning on 1,100 new homes around the town, quite apart from what might be happening around the rest of the area. 'It's becoming hard to move around already, and there's all this development planned for a little medieval town that you can only get into across two bridges' (one of them being the beautiful Julian's Bridge, hence the picture at the top). 

Only a day or two before I was sat in a traffic queue in Surrey musing how nice it would be to retire to Dorset where things were a bit quieter. Admittedly I was thinking more of Bridport fifty miles to the west, but Bridport is getting very trendy these days. And is Wimborne, little, homely Wimborne, now really turning into an outpost of the crowded Southeast?

Friday, 7 September 2018

Past Occupation

While Goth club nights come and go (mostly go, at the moment), the biggest and most venerable of them all, Slimelight, remains. I’ve only been there a couple of times: I and Cylene intended to make a night of it one year but only the Industrial floor was open and the place was so dead we ended up leaving about midnight. But others would never miss a weekend there. Slimelight is at Electrowerkz in Torrens Street, just round the back of the Angel in Islington, but it hasn’t always been there. A little while ago a friend sent me a link to a film made in 1987 when the club camped out at Holy Trinity Church, Holborn: it was here that it morphed from its former name, the Kit Kat Club (which sounds like something from the 1920s and I'm sure is now a Vintage night somewhere) into Slimelight, as a parody of the mainstream Limelight nightclub which also ran out of a disused church, in Shaftesbury Avenue. The footage has been circulating for some years but I didn’t know about it, nor that Slimelight had had a time using a sacred building (or a former one).

The movie was shot by Mak Ma Yuan, who is still DJing at Slimelight, some thirty years later. Naturally it’s shaky, grainy, and indistinct, but so are people's memories. The club was obviously still an excitingly makeshift affair as Goth pretty much was in those days – look at those turntables – and the music sounds like it's coming from a ghetto blaster in the corner. The patrons have more of a punk look about them than you might expect to find nowadays, with a hint of (intake of breath) New Romantic flash. I imagine nobody official knew they were there: when the film was posted on Facebook someone commented that ‘a few weeks after this there was a pic in a Sunday paper of a very disapproving bishop standing amid a sea of empty vodka bottles and beer cans. Turns out he was the vicar from my primary school’. There’s a moving quality about these pictures of young people from so long ago picking their way around musty pews. ‘The toilets haven’t changed much’ put in one viewer, while another suggested that ‘a church would be such an epic place for a Goth club’.

It would, but then it already is: Ara Nights in Salford is still going, based in Sacred Trinity, which is still actually a church, explaining why Ara has such strict policies about alcohol and musical content. Why would it be ‘epic’ for a Goth night to take place in a church, I wondered? I’ve often mused on the conflicted relationship between Goth sensibility and religion, specifically Christianity. Over the last couple of years I’ve become more aware how damaged people are drawn to the Goth world as a means of dealing with that damage, and places like Slimelight, because they draw individuals from hundreds of miles away to attend, concentrate more of those hurt people in one place. Ultimately you have a choice to make in life between what makes for order, stability and the chance of some sort of fulfilment, and what tends towards disintegration, chaos, and harm; and if you are surrounded by too much damage, you may not climb out. You may even find yourself committed to damage as something positive, because it’s all you’ve got. I don’t think Goth was always like that, certainly not in those early days when the Slimelight folk found their way into Holy Trinity, Holborn; but it has that element to it, and in that sense Goth and Church tend in basically different directions.

Yet most of the time there is a sort of respect there, if not for the Church (and why should anyone respect the Church, after all), then for the sense of something transcendent, something of deep and high significance which affirms that human life is more than the merely everyday and material. In the film, Mak Ma Yuan’s massive VHS recorder (‘like carrying a washing machine about’) pans up and down the three great stained glass windows at the east end of Holy Trinity, standing out against the murk, light in the darkness. Goths instinctively know about holding both together.

Of course most old Goths these days do nothing of the kind, they just stay home with their cats ...

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Up in Flames

The most common cause of damage to museum objects (so I once heard) comes at the hands of the people who are supposed to look after them, that is, curators. It was probably some research by the Museums Association, or something, that came up with that factoid and I wonder whether it is still true. The most famous case is the Parthenon Marbles, scrubbed and scraped until they looked as shining white as 19th-century Western art historians believed ancient sculptures did. At Wycombe Museum we had our own version, a chalk angel which supposedly came from the town’s medieval Guildhall and which had been found in the 1930s. There was a picture of it in one of the old published histories of High Wycombe, but the object in our stores looked rather different: at some time its crumbly surface had been stabilised by slathering it with some horrible olive-grey paint, and, if you looked carefully, you could see that someone had outlined the eyes with the nib of a biro (I suppose that might not have been done by one of the staff).

Still, the burning of the Museo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro brought me an echo of the pain the curators and staff there must feel. Great museums - and the Museo Nacional was arguably the greatest in Latin America - are universities of material culture, their collections providing the basis for research. Even more, objects produced by human culture are freighted with the emotions that have surrounded them on their journey to the present, or at least the emotions we can speculate surrounded them. They emerge from the past clouded with often multiple identities and meanings and their eloquence allows us different ways of understanding ourselves. As a curator, your job is to care for these things, to give them voice and, through them, the people who used them or the creatures they represent. To lose so much of that in one event is a psychic shock, a wound that needs to heal.

The beauty an artefact communicates is entangled with this sense of its history, a bit like the way our sense of a partner’s beauty is shaped by the experiences we have shared with them over time. But it remains true that to see a simply beautiful thing slighted, damaged or destroyed also causes a kind of pain, a feeling that it should not be this way, or an imaginative recalling of the violence that brought the damage about.

Not everyone feels this in the same way: some, possibly many people, are indifferent to a sense of beauty and don’t worry about the destruction of objects. You sometimes hear this described in moral terms, that we should be concerned instead about people and what happens to them, not things. This is of course true, but as often happens I rather think the moralism is usually there to dress up a basic attitude as something more than in fact it is, to provide a justification for being deaf to a particular category of human experience. The awareness of beauty and human feeling seem connected in us, and – though I have no figures – I suspect that insensitivity to one is often the companion of numbness to the other.

A great stream of Christian spiritual thought, too, seems to urge us to scorn attachment to anything earthly, and therefore to look at the ruins of the Museo Nacional’s twenty million objects and, like that knotty old atheist Ambrose Bierce was reputed to have done when they told him one of his sons had died, shrug and reply ‘nothing matters’ (or rather, nothing matters but Christ, which Bierce wouldn’t have added). ‘We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen’, says St Paul, and in doing so he echoes thinkers from virtually every spiritual tradition. This is another way of justifying indifference.

But what the old Fathers of the Church called dispassion doesn’t mean indifference at all. No religion based around the idea that God came to share our human life can make an ideal of emotional disconnection from it, not when Jesus of Nazareth is so very clearly deeply involved in the ordinary things of human existence. Instead there is a sense that what we get by purging ourselves of ungodly attachments, of the desire to control and own and grasp, is a deeper awareness of the beauty and preciousness of the created order, including the things that human beings create. We should find ourselves weeping more at the losses embedded in this fallen order of existence, not less, knowing that heaven is not a place of mute and level apathy, but one where the colours are brighter, the forms are perfected, and where every scar and wound is kissed by the Christ. That this happens is a paradox, perhaps, but I think a true one.

Monday, 3 September 2018


Rosie the dog, who you can see in this photo, is in fact quite a regular visitor to Swanvale Halt church. Alan often brings her to the 8am Mass as it fits in with their Sunday morning walk. This week, however, they came to the 10am service, and Rosie was not the only beast present as we'd taken the plunge and held our first Pet Blessing in three years. She was joined, then, by a plethora of canines, a rabbit, a hen and a tortoise; Marion the curate's cat had made herself scarce so she was not in attendance as planned. Once upon a time I was somewhat disdainful of Pet Services, but my resistance has been eroded by conversations with people about their pets and thinking more about the theology of creation and the role of animals: the ways in which we human beings are simultaneously similar to and different from them. In my talk I described how our human work involved speaking for the whole of creation and bringing it consciously before God, and how thanks to the Fall we had to learn slowly and painfully to be kind to each other and to animals too. It was striking that so many people came, including some families we haven't seen for ages, visitors from an evangelical congregation not far away, and folk I didn't know at all. 

A vegetarian family who know Marion well took her to task for going home to chicken for Sunday lunch. I decided not to mention the pheasant I was going to be eating which Rosie's owner Alan had shot a few months before and which had sat in my freezer ever since. It had its revenge in the form of a lead pellet I bit on (at least, the one I found). 

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Bramley Church

One of my fantasy projects, to keep my brain and historical senses ticking over, is to write about the Catholic tradition in the Guildford Diocese, a bit like Roy Tricker did for Suffolk. You often find that churches retain traces of their past contact with the Catholic movement even if they've moved away from it: my 'law' is that Catholic teaching goes first, followed by the liturgy and spirituality that were made intelligible by the teaching, and finally by the fixtures and fittings that were demanded by the liturgy and spiritual life. Some of those are still there even in churches which have long since moved away from a Catholic identity.

On my day off this week I went to Bramley church, whose former incumbent was as a definite although uncombative Anglo-Catholic: he simply got on with his ministry which lasted quite a while. His successor, like my predecessor, wouldn't have described herself as an evangelical, but I don't think stood very comfortably within the Catholic tradition either.

All Saints' Bramley was mostly rebuilt in the 19th century although the chancel, says Pevsner, seems to retain its original 13th-century form and masonry, a bit smothered in modernity. It was refurbished and rededicated in 1911 and currently looks like this:

You can see here the waves of Percy Dearmer-esque Anglo-Catholicism which swept swathes of churches in the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century. In Bramley, 1911 saw the installation of that great golden mock-Italian reredos, the choir stalls, and the rood screen which spans the chancel arch; Swanvale Halt's was put in in the 1920s, after the intervention of World War One. The reservation of the Blessed Sacrament must have come a bit later, and I expect there were probably hanging sanctuary lights which have since been done away with. The church has some rather nice stained glass windows of saints (including Our Lady) installed in the 1880s which indicates some quite considerable Catholic influence in Bramley at that time, too. Of course I haven't related these fittings to the history of the parish about which I know next to nothing: what I saw on Thursday is nothing more than a hint of an interesting past. I suspect that the mild Catholicism of Swanvale Halt (more mild than its rector's!) now stands out because it is the remaining rock left high above a receding tide, and some of the other churches around were probably at one time little different.