Sunday, 30 December 2018

It's Not Entirely Over Yet

Some more Christmas images, though not entirely gratuitous ones. As usual my final specifically seasonal responsibility this year was the carol service at Smallham Chapel. The sheep who usually visits the service died earlier this year and her daughter is a bit boisterous, so we contented ourselves with widening the music and the customary trip down to the barn to sing to the bemused animals there. 'Why?' one little boy pointedly asked his father; the answer 'Because the sheep enjoy Christmas as well,' didn't seem to satisfy him entirely. 

Meanwhile, back at Swanvale Halt, I baptised a baby whose family is part-Italian. His grandma left a handful of coins at the crib, which has never happened here before, at any rate.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Christmas 2018

There were two new bits of kit to welcome into Swanvale Halt church this Christmastide. The first was the new votive light holder installed beside the statue of the Virgin and Child on the last Sunday of Advent, when the BVM's role in preparing the way for the Messiah is especially recalled. When I got it from eBay it looked like this:

I knew it was what I wanted because it was exactly the same as the one we have beside the icon of St Nicholas, but when it arrived I found it was unimaginably filthy with grease and gunk. I spent a morning trying to clean it with every substance I thought might have an effect, from washing-up liquid to vinegar. A sort of brassy material was revealed: I agreed with the kind donor who was actually paying for it that we should have it re-silvered, a process which has taken longer than you might expect. Now it is beautiful, and looks like it's been purchased new. You can't see it that clearly in this photo, but Our Lady and Our Lord seem to approve of it.

The other new item was the replacement for our old wooden crib scene. With the unavailability of donkeys on Christmas Eve getting no easier and the 'nativity tableau' we did for several years not being very involving, we decided last year to assemble a crib scene with painted wooden figures. They were placed on the altar but we agreed they looked a bit lost and what they needed was a stable to frame them. John who regularly knocks up such items did his magic again and produced something which looked so splendid I thought it was high time to dispense with the old version which was well past its best.

Curiously the Crib Service was the only one of the Christmas services at which attendance was down - if you believe the figures from last year, which I am not sure I entirely do. The biggest surprise was the Prayer Book communion service at 8am on Christmas Day, which not only drew more souls than any service of its kind since I arrived in Swanvale Halt, but I'm fairly sure more than any 8am service in that time. Admittedly, that's only a grand total of 21, but still. Two of them were under 8, and that's not even counting Ruby the dog. 

Saturday, 22 December 2018


It's a boon that I am able to get anything approaching a day off in the run-up to Christmas, though curiously the last week of Advent (if that's what it is, it depends how you count) is often less busy than the penultimate. I did have a booking in the evening, but it allowed me to pop out and check St Nicholas's, Alfold, right on the southern edge of the county and the Guildford diocese, for signs of Catholicism.

I suspect that St Nicholas's was one of those churches which, as far as High Churchery is concerned, got to the point of a Victorian 'restoration' and then stuck. In Alfold the driving force was the mid-19th-century Vicar, RJ Sparkes, who appears in a dreadfully faded photo in the vestry.

In fact the 'restoration' at Alfold was nothing like as drastic as in other places and the church retains its pre-Victorian feel thanks to its 15th-century pews and massive timbers supporting the belfry. Even the addition of the north aisle merely replaced a medieval one which had vanished over the intervening centuries, and the existing arches were uncovered from within the wall so they are genuine enough.

The fittings of the chancel are a different matter. Here we find a piscina based on a medieval original but in its form definitely Victorian: 

The chancel screen apparently includes medieval bits but its form, too, is modern. At some point it has had its doors removed:

The altar, interestingly, consists of a great slab of Purbeck marble which was dug up from the churchyard by Revd Sparkes in 1845. I'm assuming the tiles are modern, too - though it's not a completely simple matter to tell - if only because they skirt around the altar rather than continue under it.

The quaint 19th-century painted reredos has been banished to the south aisle. It depicts an array of saints of varying relevance to the church - Peter, Nicholas (probably), John the Evangelist, and George - which is a gesture in a Catholic direction, but no more than that. It was perhaps removed at the same time as the 'elaborate painted diaper patterns and figures' on the chancel walls, described in the Victoria County History in 1911 as being 'recent', were covered up.

I didn't see any vestment presses, though perhaps they hang the tat up in a locked cupboard, but there are some coloured brocade altar frontals in a cabinet in the main part of the church (I thought it might be covering up a radiator). 

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Cutting Edge

The rain held off just long enough for us to gather at the Grassward Park estate to sing twenty minutes' worth of carols this evening. In the end I thought a top hat would be a bit de trop but hung a lantern off a beech branch I pruned from the tree in the garden because my head kept bumping into it, lending a little bit of Dickensian atmosphere to proceedings. There were a dozen of us, including Daniel with his trumpet adding some instrumental oomph beneath the more or less wavering voices. I said that delivering the leaflets the other day was probably the evangelistic point, but having made that point we did actually have to do some singing, and was prepared for absolutely no reaction on the part of the residents at all. However we gradually gathered an audience framed in their warm doorways and even some applause when we finished. That's a fresh expression of Church for you.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Mistaken Millinery

On the edge of the parish is a brand-new estate. There will eventually be more than sixty properties but they're not finished yet. However enough are complete and occupied to make us consider how we might make contact with the new residents, and Christmas being upon us we thought we might go carol-singing there. That's nice and gentle and Anglican. So I went around delivering leaflets so people were warned this would be happening (and arrange to be out if they chose). 

I found the last occupied dwelling, with the incomplete houses and empty plots beyond it. A couple of chaps were manoeuvring around a tipper, and one gaily hailed me in an Eastern European accent.

'I thought you Indiana Jones!'

I boggled a bit. 'You have hat!' he went on, grinning. 

My black wool-felt fedora is nothing like Mr Jones's leather bush hat, and the closest I have to it is my waterproof. I wouldn't have thought my black wool overcoat would be very practical garb in his line of work, either. Mind you, in my teens I toyed with the idea of being an archaeologist, always more a matter of standing in mud up to your knees in return for a few mouse bones and less of Nazis in search of mystical powers. However I decided I preferred my history indoors and became a museum curator instead. That doesn't require any special form of headgear although my colleague Mathieu the education officer sometimes wore his tricorn.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Break a Leg

My brain feels thoroughly scrambled at the moment and I struggle to string words together in coherent sentences let alone contribute anything much to this blog. So I do nothing more than share a photograph from the infants school Christmas Production whose two performances this year - one for Reception, one for the older children - followed swiftly on the heels of a big funeral service for a former member of the church. The first edition came with a drama of its own when Mary managed to move her chair back unseen by a teacher and fall off the staging. She was fine and got a big round of applause when she took up her position again.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Two Views of Goth Music

It was a stinging Amazon review.

The book’s primary weakness is that the authors proclaim in a self-aggrandizing manner that their work on goth is the only scholarship to deal with the music. This is absolutely untrue … 'The Music of the Goth Subculture: Postmodernism and Aesthetics' by Charles Mueller from 2008 … is full of musical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork, but the authors completely ignore it. …The book does not take into account any of the latest thinking concerning subculture theory. … Last but not least, many of the threads and arguments do not line up because the authors treat goth as a continuous phenomenon when in reality goth died in England during the late 1980s and what passes for goth today is really separate from what came before it.

The book this reviewer, ‘ChasM’, is referring to is Isabella van Elferen & Jeffrey Weinstock’s 2017 volume for Routledge, Goth Music: from Sound to Subculture. It didn’t take much inductive reasoning to work out that ‘ChasM’ could easily be the spurned author, Charles Mueller, himself. Although I found Dr van Elferen’s previous book on music in Gothic, Gothic Music: Sounds of the Uncanny, tough going I also liked much of the analysis, so the harsh review only convinced me I wanted to read the new volume. ChasM avoided the eye-watering price tag of £115 by borrowing it through an inter-library loan, whereas I managed to get a secondhand copy for £12, so that was something we had in common.

But while waiting for Goth Music to arrive I sourced that 2008 thesis from the Florida State University’s website – they let you download it for free – as well as Charles Mueller’s other two articles from the French musicological journal Volume. One, ‘Were British Subcultures the Beginnings of Multitude?’ (2012), only mentions Goth in passing; it’s mainly about the attempt by political sociologists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to update Marxist analysis by re-describing the existing powers of economy and culture as 'Empire', to which they oppose the emergent democratic and libertarian force of 'Multitude', and this is all very well but not Goth-focused. The earlier article, ‘Gothic Covers: Music, Subculture & Ideology’ (2010), though, is an interesting examination of how Goth musicians adapt the music of others to their own purposes, and the light this sheds on the characteristics of Goth itself. This leads to some worthwhile study of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ album of cover versions, Through the Looking Glass, a work most people denounce, and that’s valuable in itself.

That leads us on to Mr Mueller’s thesis. It starts from Dick Hebdige’s work in the 1970s, which posited the Marxist case that subcultures represented forms of working-class resistance against social hegemony. Mueller stoutly defends this basic outline against later analysts who saw no great radical purpose in subcultural activity in general and Goth in particular. He argues that first-wave Goth was one sort of response to the social, economic and political conditions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, relying, he says, on a hundred or so interviews with subcultural participants: ‘my informants were emphatic in the belief that subculture in England was connected intimately with economic, social and political forces … far beyond simple consumerism or teen rebellion’ (55-6). ‘Bands used Gothic signifiers and aesthetics as a way to sharpen and continue the social commentary of punk … and embraced seduction and feminine signifiers as subversive devices’ (vii). Mueller’s interest is exclusively in first-wave Goth and he continually refers to the style in the past tense, while admitting towards the end of the thesis that Goth does survive in the UK, a paradox I’ll return to later.

One of Mueller’s concerns is to identify what makes Goth music Gothic, a worthwhile question as it’s something Goths themselves endlessly discuss; he recognises that the range of styles included under the umbrella ‘Goth’ had ‘from the perspective of timbre and sound … no consistent set of musical characteristics’ (9). Instead his detailed analysis of tracks by a range of early Goth bands leads him to conclude that the element that most links them is a concern to evoke ambience and mood using whatever effects the artists take to hand: Goth music was subversive of power, parodic, tended to camp, and drew inspiration from the wider Gothic tradition, and that was what connected its expressions rather than any formal musical qualities (138-9). It’s the musical analysis which seems the most impressive part of this study: although perhaps that’s the result of this non-musician being somewhat bamboozled by talk of chord progressions and intervals!

Van Elferen and Weinstock’s book begins with a similar undertaking. The authors met beside a pool during an academic conference and got round to discussing the perennial topic of what Goth music actually consists of, and out of that conversation the book arose. Strictly musical analysis forms a part of Goth Music, but the authors approach the subject from a completely different direction to Mueller’s; rather than start from the history of Goth (which would be the obvious tack to take), they begin instead with two contemporary Goth events, Dracula’s Ball in Philadelphia and Gottertanz in Leipzig (part of the bigger festival Wave-Gotik-Treffen), and think about what the Goth experience consists of. ‘Each event is defined by the music presented, the music is extraordinarily different in each venue, and yet both events are ‘goth’’ (43) so the unity cannot come from any technical or stylistic elements of the music itself. Neither, despite the centrality of social ritual to the subculture (‘horror film samples … corsets … and the scent of patchouli are as much part of goth musical reality as [the music] … Goth music is intricately linked to listening practices and social situations’ (51)) can it derive from any other such element as these, too, are colossally diverse. Despite its apparent inconsistency, Van Elferen and Weinstock are still convinced that ‘music is the glue that holds the goth scene together’, not just ‘one equivalent subcultural practice among many’ (11).

They find their way forward by borrowing the notion of the chronotope from 20th-century Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. A chronotope is an artwork’s setting in time and space, the range of spatial and temporal associations it evokes. Gothic in general – although van Elferen and Weinstock don’t discuss this explicitly – deals with the intrusion of the monstrous into improper places and times, and human responses to it. Goth music, a more concentrated artform than novels or film, also creates windows into other realities and jars them against the familiar, or takes a familiar world and introduces the monstrous into it: it explores our relationship with these other times and places, or monsters, which can be characterised by desire or revulsion or both. It dislodges time and dislocates space, and its chronotopes are thus in critical dialogue with the everyday present. The authors identify five typical chronotopes that can be used to analyse Goth music (86-7). I’m not convinced that their distinction between the ‘intimate’ and the ‘expansive’ versions of the past or the future are very helpful categories, but the larger point is well made: like Mueller, they are trying to direct attention not to the surface details of Goth music but to its effects and intentions.

Further, they argue, particular chronotopical fantasies are reflected in corresponding substyles of Goth and, therefore, in the subcultural practices (such as fashion choices) that gather around them: ‘the temporal and spatial dislocations of goth musical chronotopes … find imaginative instantiation through associative clustering, which then prompts particular social actions and practices that further develop the world of the chronotope’ (120). Phew. To put it in a more concrete way, if you like listening to, say, neo-medieval or dark folk substyles of Goth music, you’re more likely to dress in a way that evokes a fantasy version of the Middle Ages or the pagan past, to be a pagan, and to go to crossover events with medieval re-enacters and LARPers, stay in a tent (probably not made of real animal skin as you are likely to be a vegan), and drink mead out of horns. You are very unlikely to be a stompy Cybergoth in towering boots and multi-coloured plastic hair extensions, as that fits in with an entirely different, future-directed fantasy and a different sort of music (not that you might not dip into both on separate occasions). Yet there is still a family relationship between all these versions of what Goth is: ‘the consistent distinctiveness of goth subculture inheres in the shared fantasy narratives clustering around the defeat of time and mortality’ (123). I’d argue that ‘defeat’ is a misleading word, but otherwise this is surely right and explains why Goths can always acknowledge each other as fellow-travellers while appearing completely different and listening to such wildly divergent stuff. Well, almost always.

This is very, very good, as it picks beneath the argument I sometimes hear from some older Goths that ‘Goth is about music, not fashion’ and complaints that 'people have become clothes-horses'. Setting up music and dress (or any other subcultural practice) as antagonistic elements within Goth misses the point that both are expressing and performing an underlying discontent with things-as-they-are, and an underlying awareness that not everything we desire is uncomplicatedly positive. That’s where the unity, and the point, is to be found.

At last we come back to ChasM’s criticisms of Goth Music. Is he right to be peeved at the Mueller thesis not getting a mention? Although he’s correct that it was indeed an ‘academic treatment of Goth music’ prior to van Elferen and Weinstock’s book, they don’t actually claim theirs is the first in toto, only that they are taking an original line. There is virtually no crossover between book and thesis and nothing, frankly, the earlier work could have contributed to the later, so a passing mention in the introduction would have been about as much as could have been expected. But there is no fury like a writer scorned!

Pointing out the lack of ethnographic research in Goth Music is fair: it struck me, too, that there is a gaping abyss in the book between observation, and theory based thereon, and any material deriving from Goths’ own experience (except the authors’). It would have been good to have something that reflected what subcultural participants themselves think they are about and the relationship they have to their music and their schmutter, and any subsequent work that examines the validity of van Elferen and Weinstock’s ideas should at least have a go at this.

It is also true that Goth Music adopts a different sociological stance from the Mueller thesis. Their take on Goth subversion is that it takes the form of personal (though collectively-explored) fantasy, and they don’t examine how this might link into broader political concerns, although the two are far from mutually exclusive. But if by the ‘latest thinking concerning subculture theory’ ChasM means the ideas about 'Empire & Multitude' Charles Mueller lays out in his 2012 article, the last paragraph of that piece makes me most uneasy.  Mueller writes, ‘During the 1970s and 1980s British subcultures often expressed hostility against each other … ignoring how they were united by the same set of concerns for their future and for British society. ... Future subcultures and social movements cannot make this mistake’. Can’t they? This is a manifesto in the form of an analysis. Rebellion may be all well and good, but telling a subculture how it ought to be behaving from your own ideological standpoint is quite a thing to do, and it makes the reader wonder about the assumptions of the analysis itself.

Which brings us to the last point, that ‘goth died in England during the late 1980s’, and that therefore van Elferen and Weinstock are barking up the wrong tree. Now, Charles Mueller’s own fieldwork for his thesis was conducted in about 2006 including, among others, many attenders at the Whitby Goth Weekend that year, and although he doesn’t generally describe who these people were and whether they were longstanding or relatively recent subcultural participants (no actual ethnographer or even humble historian would be so imprecise), some of them must have been around the scene for quite a while, thus demonstrating the very continuity the reviewer denies. Mueller himself states in his conclusion that ‘many of the original participants are still active … and … young people are still involved in goth because the music speaks to them’ (222). Any suggestion of complete discontinuity is simplistic, as anyone involved in the Goth world will confirm.

Just as Charles Mueller concentrates exclusively on first-wave Goth, so van Elferen and Weinstock put that to one side and focus on contemporary Goth, referring to the bands that shaped the original template briefly and in so far as their style feeds into the modern scene; they analyse songs by Alien Sex Fiend and Specimen but only as representative of existing Goth substyles. As regards their fields of study, then, Mueller’s thesis and Goth Music are effectively complementary rather than contradictory.

That said, ChasM has a point. There is more and more justification for recognising a fundamental gear-shift in Goth at some point, perhaps, in the very early 1990s. A couple of years ago a wonderful book called Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace was published, consisting mainly of worldwide images of first-wave Goths with a bit of explanatory commentary. It made very clear how early Goth maintained the makeshift, do-it-yourself ethos of punk, mainly because there wasn’t the scope to do anything else: it was only later that Goths themselves began to make clothing, art and accessories to service their own market. You can see this reflected, too, in the amazing film from Slimelight in 1987 that I highlighted a few months ago. Furthermore as Goth diversified and extended Goths began to encounter and draw into their net elements from other imaginative worlds – from LARPing to the fetish scene to vintage – that didn’t have anything to do with music as such. Van Elferen and Weinstock do make reference to shifting consumer habits within the Goth scene (43-9) but don’t draw out the implications for its history. Charles Mueller insists that the early Goth movement was predominately working-class and he may be right, even if it isn’t directly relevant to Goth Music: that doesn’t seem to be the case now, assuming it makes any sense to talk in terms of ‘class’ in contemporary Western economies. There is therefore quite enough evidence to conclude that something happened to Goth along the way that changed it, but we don’t quite yet know what, or what was the balance in the change between continuity and re-invention.

I found Goth Music exciting in its presentation of a way of thinking about Goth which escapes from the sterile debates Goths themselves often engage in. Yet, as so often, it begs more questions that could do with investigation.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Accessible Worship

In view of our recent thoughts about the worshipping life of young families, the Advent Service of Light last Sunday was quite instructive. This candlelit event can veer in moments from the sublime to the surreal although this year it went off without incident, and all the short pieces the Choir sang were better far than the Rutter Requiem I heard at a concert in the church two nights before (after that, I found that one of the front benches was mysteriously covered in glitter: people suggested this might have been down to the soloist who was also thus covered).

As we sang the first hymn I realised there were piping childish voices raised among the adult ones. In the front row was Caelyn (3 and a bit) from Toddler Group and her very young mum and dad (or they seem very young to me) who I know have absolutely no Church experience whatever. What were they doing there? What had inspired them to come to this service in which, notwithstanding the picturesque qualities of candlelight and lighting, nothing really happens apart from very trad music being performed? How would they respond to the carols and readings, some of which are positively Apocalyptic? I intoned the Advent Collect: 'Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now, in the time of this mortal life ...'  'He's singing!' I heard Caelyn point out vocally.

She wasn't alone, either, as after a while another Toddler Grouper, Teddy, appeared at the front of the church on the opposite side, having apparently insisted that he and his mum move there to get a better view. He gyrated about the end of the bench a bit but did it silently.

The end of the service came when, to the strains of 'Hills of the North, rejoice' we all processed out of the church with lit candles and through the garden into the hall. Not many of our candles remained lit, but somehow Caelyn's did, and once she noticed that some were out, she insisted on going round relighting them for people, subsequently stationing herself in front of the door to catch anyone coming in who required this service. She did it with such solemnity that many of us had to bite our lower lips to maintain the proper demeanour.

Monday, 3 December 2018


Having recommended it to other people several times, how it can have happened that I had never actually read for myself CS Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters I can't imagine. A couple of weeks ago I visited the local 'community amenity site' (that which once upon a time was called a tip) which, like others of its kind, has a little junk shop now attached to it and where I found an old Fontana edition of the book. 

I've never warmed to Lewis. For me, notwithstanding the insightful, vivid and creative ways he illustrates the traditional formulas of Christianity such that you think about them in new forms, there is a vein of smugness threaded through almost everything he wrote, including the great Narnia sequence. The exception is A Grief Observed, his slim 1961 volume written in the aftermath of the death of his unexpected wife Joy and whose visceral rage against God is a sober corrective to that level, imperturbable faith.

Smugness isn't absent from Screwtape. Behind its description of the pitfalls of the spiritual life, expressed via the imaginary pen of the devil Screwtape, there is the sense that its author does not find himself very deflected by them: they are matters he has got sorted, done-and-dusted sins. Of course this cannot be the case. To describe such disturbances you must have experienced them, and still understand their power. The great surprise to me in Screwtape was the book's psychological acuity, and you don't get that by mere observation, unless observation includes your own reactions. I especially rated Letter 26 on the spiritual dangers of 'Unselfishness' - an aim far removed from the Christian notion of sacrifice and which, Screwtape points out, is capable of producing all sorts of worthwhile mischief in the lives of human beings. 

The true nastiness of the story only pokes through towards the end, as the senior devil's warning to his nephew 'bring us food or be food' becomes horribly prescient. Lewis apparently disliked writing the book and found it a great strain thinking his way into the common mind of Hell. The pleasure that comes with it is the dry one of the appreciation of bare wit and brutal sense, and which you cannot but admire, even while you may not love.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Reflections in Water and Glass

My sister-in-the-Spirit Cylene has recently moved to a particularly benighted part of South Wales ('used to be junkiesville', she says cheerily in her Stateside manner) but her partner is having some expensive medical treatment, paid for by her parents, done in London so they were around yesterday. I took Cylene to Little Venice where we nursed coffee in a canalboat café for quite some time and I watched moorhens trying to nibble algae off bits of floating plastic bag. Despite all the pressures inherent in her new circumstances, geographic and emotional, Cylene seems to have acquired a fundamental sense of rest which she's never had before and I am pleased about that. It would have been hard to be too discontented on such a beautiful day.

Just around the corner is Tournament House: I can't imagine how it can have evaded my notice before now. Built between 1932 and 1935, it has that monolithic corporatist Art Deco swagger that could not have envisaged a building being used for anything but the purpose for which it was erected. The blue sky reflected in its windows adds a sumptuousness.