Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Dorset Music

Something, hopefully, uplifting for the end of the year! It came to the attention of folk on the PJ Harvey fan boards that back in the early 1990s she'd taken uncharacteristic part in an overtly feminist music project, the Brilliant Birthdays choir, based in Salisbury. The organiser was Sammy Hurden, who you can see in the only photograph of the choir publicly available, holding the guitar, with the young Polly to the right of the girl in the stripy top. Ms Hurden and PJH obviously kept in touch with one another, because she appears among the voices on 'The Colour of the Earth', the last track from the mighty Let England Shake, and, so the sleeve notes imply, organised the other voices. 

Perhaps this isn't a surprise, as Ms Hurden hasn't moved very far from West Dorset, so she would have been around for that very Dorset-based recording. Her website relates her ongoing work with community choirs, gathering and coaching people to sing pieces that evoke the landscape around them. 'The Chalk Legends', part of the cultural side of the 2012 Olympics for which Weymouth was one of the locations, took singers and musicians to St Catherine's Chapel at Abbotsbury and the church of St George Reforne on Portland. 

You can't get more Dorset than The Hare and the Harp, though. It was inspired by a medieval carving in the County Museum in Dorchester, and was performed in Powerstock church - the piece is in the key of the bells which are rung in the background throughout the songs. It's not just the beauty of the landscape and the woven depth of history which makes this piece so moving, though, but (despite the bolstering presence of a few professional musicians) the commitment you see here to getting ordinary people to make music. A very happy new year to you all.

Monday, 30 December 2019

The Unmaking of the English Working Class

Jan from the congregation told me that over Christmas dinner she and her family had avoided talking politics but eventually couldn’t keep entirely away from the subject of the election. Her great-nephew’s partner, she avers, is ‘a bit slow on the uptake’ and at one point to everyone’s confusion asked ‘So the election, who was it won in the end?’

I doubt most of us will ever attain that degree of merciful amnesia, but the feather-spitting rage some of my best friends have expressed at the result seems to be receding a little, a couple of weeks after the event. It was so very different from the disappointment those of us from the progressive side of the equation find ourselves very often feeling at the result of elections (I can’t recall ever voting for a successful Parliamentary candidate since I first cast a ballot in 1992), and I suspect arose from the unacknowledged realisation that this was the last possible throw of the dice to reverse the 2016 Referendum on the part of those who couldn’t accept that it had gone the way it did.

But there is still much anger, and I do hope that some of the terms people have used about former Labour voters who switched to the Conservatives are not representative of Labour members, or much more sorrow lies ahead. This video commentary by George Monbiot seems a little more positive:

I’m not convinced by all of the analysis, as I would tend not to be by anything Mr Monbiot produces. The disruptive political figures he mentions in support of his thesis are certainly all nationalists, but not all ‘clowns’ in the Trump & Johnson mould: you can’t say that of Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, or Jair Bolsonaro. Nor are these disruptive nationalists all necessarily right-wing, as the Five Star movement in Italy, and Volodymyr Zelensky whose only qualification as President of the Ukraine was playing one in a TV show, demonstrate. The picture of a few wealthy men manipulating public opinion may make left-wingers feel better, but it ignores why those manipulations resonate and succeed. Nor has Finland, despite its campaign to educate its citizens in resisting online nonsense, avoided the wave: it may have a 34-year-old female Social Democrat PM but she has had to cobble together a five-party coalition to fend off the second-biggest party in the country, a nationalist climate-change-sceptic outfit. But Mr Monbiot’s emphasis on the development of local democracy, education and citizens’ involvement seems a plausible response to the inadequacy of national elections at providing ways of dealing with the challenges societies face.

I think there are slight signs that some folk on the progressive side are starting to think historically, and face up to the slow and epochal detachment of elements of ‘the working class’ from political parties they used to support; I’ve also just finished David Cannadine’s sparky 1998 book Class in Britain which examines the historical development of the term, and that has made me contemplate the same themes. Communities in the UK where people worked with their hands and could directly see how their labour supported the income of others, the business owners, attached themselves to the Labour Party as a result of that shared experience; take away the shared experience, and the sense of belonging to groups of human beings who are subject to the same forces, pressures and circumstances weakens, and the conservative worldview that instead stresses independence, autonomy and the rightness of inequality becomes more plausible. Professor Cannadine points out that in her 1989 book The Revival of Britain Mrs Thatcher claimed that she had brought about ‘an irreversible shift of power in favour of working people and their families’ during her premiership, a phrase almost the same as one in the Labour Party manifesto of October 1974. Of course the two texts meant something very different by ‘working people’: they referred to sets of voters motivated by entirely separate experiences, the one of manual labour supporting those who did not work manually, and the other of property ownership and self-reliance.

Even Karl Marx had to admit that there were categories of workers who didn’t comfortably fit into his class analysis, Dr Cannadine points out, and it’s arguable that his attempt to make ‘working class’ into a scientific description of the role of an actual group of people in the process of production was always misjudged. It certainly is now. But if it ever made any sense at all, as summarising an experience of manual work supporting business owners, it now exists only as a memory of members of one’s family having had such an experience in the past. Hardly anyone’s work is like that now, and the processes of ownership and exploitation are far more obscure. The English Working Class, pace EP Thompson, has been unmade. There are poor people, but they aren’t a class any more.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Christmas 2019

As usual, the carol service at Smallham (altar pictured left) concludes my Christmas duties. The little chapel was packed again this year. As for Swanvale Halt church itself, the Crib Service recovered from its noticeable decline in numbers in 2018, and every seat was occupied although it was my turn to lead the children with the wooden crib figures up towards the crib, and for some reason I forgot where 'the south aisle' was. The Midnight was a bit down, as was the 8am on Christmas Day, but the 10am was up. None of this really means that much, on its own!

I am getting quite bored with doing the Christmas Day 8am according to the Prayer Book: all that business of praying repeatedly for the Queen and Humbly Beseeching Thee over and over again is starting to grate a bit. I don't think any tears would be wept if I abandoned it as it was my choice to start it. This year a young couple arrived who I instantly and accurately guessed were Roman Catholics who'd turned up early for their 8.45am mass. They didn't know what was going on.

But that's not as boring as keeping the church locked outside service times this Christmas. The troublesome youngsters have been orbiting around constantly, when they should have been tucked up in bed sucking their thumbs and wondering what Father Christmas was going to bring them, and I didn't feel as though I could risk the security of the Crib; justifiably, I think, as the ecumenical Crib which has stood unmolested in Hornington High Street for twenty years was smashed one night. I loathe locking the church against the world outside, but I hope next year we will be back to normal. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Holmbury St Mary

I am not the only clergyperson to find Advent wears one's faith a bit thin and certainly it seems to have left me with less brainspace to blog. I have additional thoughts about the recent political discombobulations but they will have to wait until I can think. However I did have time last week on a semi-day off to drop in at the church of Holmbury St Mary where I discovered another unsung Victorian gem. 

There was no church here until 1879: in fact, very oddly, the village came to be named after it. Before then it was Felday, its only place of worship being a little brick Dissenting chapel. In 1874 the Gothic Revivalist architect GE Street came here with his wife Maraquita and both were captivated by the remoteness of the landscape so near London. Maraquita died soon after they moved to Felday, and although Street married again his new wife Jessie also died very soon: the church is a sort of memorial to them both. Street was a convinced Anglo-Catholic who served as churchwarden at the Ecclesiological Society's model church of All Saints' Margaret Street, and it's no surprise that Holmbury, while not as lavish as that London jewel, is firmly in the same camp. It has a chancel screen (presumably Bishop Wilberforce was less outraged by such things than Bishop Sumner had been a few years before) and a genuine 14th-century Italian triptych as its reredos which Street always intended should go into the church and which - notwithstanding all the new chairs in the nave - renders the view along the church into something magical. 

Holmbury's tradition is watered-down nowadays as it is part of a team with churches that come from a different viewpoint, but as so often happens all the fittings are still there. I'm not sure when the Sacrament began to be reserved, or when the nave was reordered, but at least they resisted the temptation to install an unnecessary nave altar. And those are really the only changes from the church Street would have been familiar with.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Sunday After

Turning up at the polling station on Thursday rehearsing my internal monologue about the weird sociopathic qualities of the leader of the Conservative Party, I was confronted with Selma from the Swanvale Halt congregation, wearing a blue rosette alongside her fellow tellers from the other parties. Selma lost her husband a couple of years ago and has early-stage dementia so she can be a bit forgetful. I wasn’t going to say anything rude to her, was I, or even think anything.

Which is why it’s a struggle to read the LiberFaciorum feeds of the overwhelming majority of my friends who are unimaginably enraged by the result of the election. When it was called, I scribbled a scratch forecast of Parliamentary seats on the back of an envelope, which turned out to be almost precisely what happened; and you tend be less angry if you’re not caught out. It strikes me as ironic that the Left has an ideology that declares the equality and dignity of all human beings, but when any actual human beings disagree with them in practice, those people become stupid, ignorant and selfish. It’s not a good position from which to win their votes the next time round: ‘we despise you, can we count on your support?’ Progressive people also tend to see politics in very moral terms. Electoral success should be a reward for virtue, so if a manifestly unvirtuous person wins an election it's deeply shocking. I am absolutely sure this is an unrealistic approach which underestimates the pragmatic way most people cast their votes, in favour of which political grouping they think will be most practically effective.

I’ve never thought that the media manufactures opinion: people develop their fragmentary, contradictory, often incoherent and inarticulate opinions mainly from their own lived experience. Often that experience is quite narrow, and very few people go out of their way to seek anything beyond it: they’re too busy, and haven’t the time and mental bandwidth. What newspapers (and so on) can do is to make articulate what people feel without necessarily being able to express clearly. So the individual criticisms in the media of a particular politician (for instance) may be quite unjust, but they can express an aspect of their character which is true enough: they become untrue symbols of true things, and if they don’t resonate with anything true, they won’t stick.

I’ve also been struggling with what basically separates people with progressive views of the world from those who see things from a conservative perspective. I wonder whether it is at least partly this. A quarter of a million years ago, we human beings were trying to survive on the steppes of Africa. Our brains, remember, are still there: that’s where we evolved and where we remain in our root responses to things. It was tough work and our basic attitude towards the world would have been insecurity and fear. We didn’t know where our next meal was coming from or whether what security we had would be taken from us at any moment. If you manage to survive in this environment, you can draw two conclusions. Either you have been lucky or skilful. You can emphasise to yourself the role of circumstances and other people in keeping you going, or you can focus on your own abilities and aptitudes in securing your survival. This is nothing to do with actual facts: it’s a story you tell yourself, a way you interpret your own experience.

As society becomes more complex, this root division over how far individuals affect their own fate ramifies, and it replicates in the changed circumstances of history. If you believe that peoples have a lot of control over what happens to them, you’ll be more inclined to support the existing social order as it reflects the natural distribution of ability and effort, and less inclined to take complaints of structural inequality all that seriously. Conversely, if you see individuals as relatively constrained by their environment, you will be sceptical of the claims of natural justice and more likely to accept that people will need help to survive and flourish. Now, most of us can see the virtue in the other side of this divide whichever one we mainly fall on, and we appreciate that it’s not all one or the other. Few of us are so far at either extreme that we could never be attracted by a conservative or progressive party: there are some who are, but not a huge number. Even less does a person's position on this spectrum infallibly determine how they might vote on particular occasions because so much else feeds into that decision. But the basic separation, it seems to me, rumbles below almost everything else, two divergent models of human life.

The point of churches is that we do not, beyond a certain point, choose our fellow members. We are brought together with people whose backgrounds and life-experiences should be quite divergent from our own: they are more like family than freely-chosen friends, although we tend to share more basic assumptions and attitudes with our families. The people in the pews around you will fall on different sides of the control-constraint line, and you might find yourself discovering what your fellow-members in the Body of Christ feel about things in very discomforting ways.

This morning I found myself praying at the 8am mass for both those who were excited by the result and those who were anxious about the future, and lo and behold Marion mentioned the same theme in her sermon at the 10am service. If both of us could come up independently with the same thing, it is probably limply mainstream, but wet though it might sound, a Christian community is given no alternative but to attempt to understand everyone who belongs to it.

Friday, 13 December 2019

And In Other News

As the wind and rain raged around Swanvale Halt church yesterday, the old stones rang to the songs and dances of the Infant School Christmas Production, done this year, for the second time, in two separate chunks for Reception year children and the rest. 'A logistical triumph', I described it in my introduction to the later event, and so it was. This year, the headmistress decreed that the children's costumes should not include tinsel or cotton wool, thus reducing the clearing-up quite considerably. Umbrellas were a necessary defence in the face of the inclement conditions outside (though they are not sure against everything). 

Wednesday, 11 December 2019


My friend Fr Thesis in London said on LiberFaciorum the other day:

All Masses over the coming next days will be offered for the political life of our country as we approach Polling Day. Join with us in praying for all candidates standing for election, and for wisdom and insight for those casting their ballot …

To which a chum of his commented:

I always remember Fr Holroyd at St Bart's, Brighton, announcing that he would as usual be saying a Votive Mass for a Conservative Victory on election day …

Often after Morning Prayer we find ourselves touching on political matters, it must be said, and the General Election campaign has appeared, as neutrally as Fr Thesis expresses his intentions, in my prayers when I lead them and in the intercessions when others do. But I would never dare to offer a Mass, or even express a desire, for the hegemony of my preferred party.

This is partly because I am aware that as a parish priest I have a sort of representative function, in a community – thinking of the Church community specifically rather than the wider one – which bears a variety of different opinions. I am reluctant to rope my flock in to my own views, given that the Church as a whole does not express any in this matter. I am still more reluctant to imply that God thinks the way I do: nay, I tremble in case I might speak falsely on God’s behalf, as blessed Paul fears to do in 1Corinthians 14. It could be that in divine providence, there is a point, at this stage in history, in having a truly awful individual leading this or another country: it may be that good may come of it that could not come any other way. Absent a prophetic revelation, I must leave that to the Father.

Yet in many respects we are encouraged to tell God whatever might be on our minds, to share our hopes and desires with him, and then to leave him to enlighten us wherever we might be mistaken. I cannot get past the idea that offering a Mass for a particular election result is tasteless and leaves insufficient space for conscience and disagreement, but perhaps I am being too squeamish. If the State were really under threat of being taken over by an organisation whose aims and methods were clearly unchristian, would I really be so reticent? How far would we have to advance down that road before the matter became clear?

Do go to vote tomorrow! Unless you’re voting for the wrong candidate, in which case stay in bed.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Just Checking

The first time the nurse checked my blood pressure it was disturbingly high, but I pointed out that this was because I'd run to my appointment from the supermarket car park where I'd had to park, the hospital's own being choc-a-block with cars and a dozen more waiting to come in as I drove out in despair to seek a place somewhere else. It was reassuringly normal a few minutes later. I was there for another series of pre-op checks as I have another little issue to be sorted out, along the same lines as I had last year

Other health issues have resolved themselves, mercifully. The disturbances to my eyesight have disappeared and (with spectacular assistance) my sight seems again to be as sharp as it ever was in the past. Perhaps, as my optician diagnosed, part of the problem was to do with blepharitis and better ocular hygiene has sorted it out.

These are only minor matters, and many parishioners as well as my mum seem to spend a good proportion of their time at the doctor's if not in hospital. But turning 50 has had a very unanticipated effect. I have the strange sensation that I ought really to be dead, and any time I have from now on, certainly time spent in relative good health, is something of a bonus. It brings with it a kind of lightness and, if not irresponsibility (surely not!), still a sense of proportion, of my relative unimportance in the great flow of existence. A liberation, then. We will see how long it lasts.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Transdanubian Interrogations

Amisia from Romania was only part of the congregation at Swanvale Halt for a little while, but she made a great impact, not being much like many other worshippers here. She came as carer for a regular member of the church and loyally brought her to church every Sunday so she could meet her friends, having been poorly and isolated for quite a while. Amisia herself was feeling her way forward after some hard times and so they did each other a lot of good.

Not unexpectedly Amisia was Romanian Orthodox by tradition. She told me that her brother had had a terminal cancer diagnosis and she had gone to pray at the tomb of the local saint, St Parascheva, and from that moment he began to improve and today is fine. Like many Europeans she found the concept of Anglicanism a little bewildering and had a lot of questions, not all of which were of a technical nature. Queries that begin ‘What does the Anglican Church believe about …’ are often quite hard to answer because there is not much that the Anglican Church does have definite beliefs about. As I like to quote, the Catechism of the Church of England has 21 pages and 60 clauses; its Roman Catholic counterpart (at least in the edition I have) weighs in at 675 and 2863 respectively …

One thing Amisia wanted to know about was sin. Here, you see, I ran up against the fact that the Anglican Catechism only mentions sin once, in the account of the assurance of ‘forgiveness of sins’ in baptism: nowhere does it say what sin is or what acts are sins. I found myself compelled to define what the Church of England’s general attitude to sin is, which seems to be that it exists and, very vaguely and indefinitely, can be defined as ‘that which goes against the will of God generally or for a specific person’, but, beyond that, mainly leaves believers to work out for themselves what their sins may be. I am certainly very, very reluctant to determine for people what their sins are and to tell them from the pulpit (or I would be if our church had one). I feel that this is the business of the Holy Spirit rather than ministers of the Gospel, and that I am only intended by the Lord to comment specifically if asked to do so. Even then I am loth to do so without having at least some idea why something might be sinful. In a modern and very individualistic world we have lost the sense that acts which apparently only concern the individual have an impact on the community because they affect how a person’s character grows, and exactly how that might happen involves quite a lot of guesswork. I have a great fear of sounding like the late Cardinal Siri, for instance, denouncing women wearing trousers because it ‘caused them to forget their natural function in childbearing’.

I prefer rather, and I think the Church of England prefers, to develop the believer’s conscience so that they can work these things out for themselves. Some sins are obvious in that they cause clear hurt and damage or involve the breaking of promises, but some aren’t. Now writing to the Corinthians the Blessed and Holy Apostle Paul (see how Orthodox my phrases can turn!) says that Christians should not eat meat offered in the temples of pagan gods, not of course because there is anything wrong with the meat or that the pagan gods really exist, but to avoid wounding the conscience of a Christian who might still have residual pagan inclinations: in the company of such a person, to avoid any hint that they might be eating it because it’s been offered in a temple, they shouldn’t eat it. In fact, he says it twice: ‘if you sin against your brother in this way …’ Clearly it isn’t the consumption of the food which is sinful, it’s the thoughtless effect it has on the other person. Now cases of this kind, when innocent acts become sinful in particular contexts, could be infinitely multiplied, and any Church that sought to list them all would be a foolhardy institution indeed. Instead Christians need a Spirit-formed conscience to negotiate the way forward, to know what’s the right thing to do, and when to say sorry.

But the hazard with such tolerance is that we say the words of the General Confession in the Mass and let them wash over us, as impervious to the Holy Spirit as a stone is to water, like the lady who once said to me, years before I became a priest, ‘I don’t know why we have to confess our sins every week, sometimes I don’t have any!’ I told Amisia that Anglican priests aren't given lists of sins. 'Then how do we know what's a sin and what isn't?' she asked. It’s a quandary I still haven’t found a good way out of (though I can only comfort myself that the Blessed and Holy Apostle Paul probably hadn’t, either).

Monday, 2 December 2019

"A Conscious Effort to Listen"

As chair of our local Churches Together, Marion our curate organised the General Election hustings at another local church today, an interesting occasion in what is a Remain constituency with a sitting Tory MP. It had already caused her enough of a headache when the Town Council decided the Mayor should not chair it and she had to find someone else. A sufficiently independent local figure was located and an alternative venue after the original one couldn't manage it after all. So yesterday afternoon arrived and virtually as soon as the doors opened Marion watched the local Conservative Association pile in and fill all the front seats. She read the Archbishops of Canterbury and York's letter about conducting the election respectfully. 'Very well said!' a Tory councillor told her. He presumably thought the prelates meant someone else, as the Conservatives then proceeded to heckle and jeer whenever the Liberal Democrat candidate opened his mouth. One woman scrunched a plastic water bottle loudly during his answers to questions from the floor until Marion gave her a Hard Stare and then she pretended to drink from it. Shocked by the childishness of it, Marion said she did feel constrained to say that as a floating voter she wasn't favourably impressed. I pointed out that, to be fair, she hadn't been floating in that direction anyway.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Prejudices Confirmed

It is a rare privilege to be able to offer parishioners from Swanvale Halt for the sacrament of confirmation. In fact, with Wilma and Elaine, our two candidates this autumn, my average is now ever-so-slightly more than one for every year of my incumbency. On Sunday evening I took them to the church of Tophill where our suffragan bishop would anoint and lay hands on them and sacramentally admit them to the fullness of the life of the Spirit. It was a great pleasure I was looking forward to.

Tophill is a very inconveniently arranged church from whose impediments the congregation has only just liberated itself by ripping out the pews. The church has only put up with them as long as it has because its Evangelical tradition has led it to hold services in the local school hall as well as the church itself. But now the building is filled with nice chairs which don't actually look too bad. 

I have a longstanding prejudice against the use of drums in church worship. As we began the first hymn on Sunday it occurred to me that it wasn't going to be too objectionable after all, but the moment of hope passed very quickly as the percussion swiftly took over from the gentler instruments, hogging attention and buffeting the ears. We sang the same creed setting as we did at the Clergy Study Day a few weeks ago, and once again I found myself reflecting how pleasant it was until we had to sing some bits over and over again to no very great effect. 'I believe in the resurrection ...' 'Well, I believed in all of it when we started,' I muttered to a clergyman next to me, 'but now I'm not as sure.'

The altar still sits against a marble reredos at the end of the chancel, not moved forward. To my astonishment the bishop - arrayed admittedly in choir dress rather than mass vestments - moved up and celebrated the eucharist ad orientem. I made a point of mentioning it to her afterwards. 'Well, they said they usually do North End but I wasn't doing that,' she said. 'And pulling the altar back when you're the only person standing behind it is just ridiculous. I like eastward-facing. So many clergy preside like they're doing show-and-tell, rather than speaking to God.'

As we all chewed cheese straws and sipped wine some of the Swanvale parishioners who'd come along crowded round. 'We won't have to sing those hymns when we have a screen, will we?' grinned Sandra who runs Messy Church. I said that merely having a screen didn't determine what you projected on to it. Lillian the ex-Lay Reader was more concerned that whatever went on it had proper punctuation.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

St Catherine's Day 2019

Some previous St Catherine's Days the weather around the ruined chapel just south of Guildford has been splendid (though last year, remember, I was at Abbotsbury), but this year was a little challenging and led to a reduction in the quantity of hardy souls who braved it to the top of the hill to mark the solemnity with Mid-day Prayers: there were, I think, six of us, in fact. The other difference from earlier occasions was that I led the ceremony! The priest who usually leads the service couldn't, and asked if I would. Despite the chill and damp, it was, of course, a lovely occasion. Best of all, I now know the combinations of the locks to get in ...

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Christ the King 2019

Some clergy post all their sermons online. I don't very often, but this was a tidied-up version of the 8am homily today, and I thought was almost a blog post anyway.

Readings: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 23.33-43

"The feast of Christ the King was only introduced in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and found its way into the Anglican calendar from the 1970s. So this year is the very first time in the UK that this feast day, when we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ and his sovereignty over all creation, has coincided with a general election campaign.

"Now, far be it from me, brothers and sisters, to influence how you might cast your ballots in any way, even if I could! But that declaration in Jeremiah that God will send his people a shepherd who will rule in righteousness and justice does compel us to think how that’s reflected in the earthly powers who govern us day by day.

"It seems to me that there are at least four kinds of political lies. The first are the kind of lies you tell to get out of trouble, to cover up something you’ve done or not done, and those come to all of us depressingly easily. Secondly, there are the lies you have to tell to avoid bad things happening, what Winston Churchill called not lies but ‘terminological inexactitudes’, like Jim Callaghan as Chancellor in the 1960s saying he had no plans to devalue the pound. Then there are the lies which represent what people want to believe is true, as when political parties say what they intend to do when they know they probably can’t, or when governments say they’ve spent X amount of money on a thing when it takes creative accountancy to arrive at that figure. Often the people who tell that sort of lie actually convince themselves it really is the case. But the fourth kind of lie is the deliberate, conscious attempt to deceive, and that, it strikes me, is uniquely corrupting.

"The whole of human society rests on trust. We have to believe that most of us, most of the time, mean what we say. If we stop believing that, normal human interaction starts to become impossible. It’s all very well to talk about ‘public trust in politicians being at an all-time low’, but I don’t think distrust in politics stays within politics: it bleeds outwards, affecting how we view each other and the kind of society we are part of. I’m not sure our politicians really understand how dangerous it is when they lie, dangerous not just to themselves and their own prospects, but to the whole of society: it corrupts all our relationships by shifting what we think is normal.

"The Crucifixion is a brutal reading to have on this last Sunday of the Church year. But what it holds before us is an unavoidable truth revealing who Jesus is, what God is like, and our own nature too. The Crucifixion shows us that it is the suffering one, the lowly and despised one, who God vindicates and crowns as the king of all creation. There is no dissembling here, no covering up, and no attempt to gloss over the real condition of things. There is instead in the Cross the triumph of something beyond all human control and power, which does not break down the truth, but makes honesty about who we are the basis for trust and hope. And at that all the powers of the earth should tremble. If they were paying attention! Amen."

Friday, 22 November 2019


After the safeguarding course was over yesterday, I felt compelled to compliment the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer, especially as she'd been battling a cold all the way through the morning. I said I thought the courses were really very engaging and clear now, and how appreciated this was.

'Good,' she said, 'because I remember you were at one course at the cathedral a few years ago and slept through most of it. I kept raising my voice to try and wake you up.'

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Changing Churches

The churches I visit are sometimes at their most interesting when I meet signs of a former Catholic identity in what is now an Evangelical parish. This has happened several times over recent months. 

I'd seen a photograph of the interior of St Paul's, Addlestone, but wasn't prepared for the reality until I managed to get inside during the summer. The building is undistinguished to put it at its kindest, but the east end, while not perhaps what one might describe as beautiful, is at least striking. It's another example of the way World War One advanced liturgical practice and church fittings, as it was reordered in 1919, a fact made very clear by the details of the rood screen. Old photos of the church show a curtained altar in the apse before the triptych of saints flanking the Virgin and Child was installed. There's a 'big six' set of candlesticks secreted below the altar to be brought out when required, and still a curtained aumbry, but it's not clear anything is kept in it any more: certainly there's no lamp burning in that candle-holder.

Not far away from Addlestone is St Peter's, Chertsey, a church now housing what is technically a joint Anglican-Methodist congregation. Some years ago, before I started at Lamford, I and Dr Bones attended a service there and were presented with a massive ring-bound booklet containing a host of liturgical variations covering all the various services. Up at the old high altar are the remains of a mid-Victorian tile frieze apparently showing the Wedding at Cana and now obscured by a later reredos, but more interesting is the side chapel. Yet again this was built as a World War One memorial, this time in memory of a specific person, Nathaniel Cook of Chertsey Abbey House. There's an aumbry built into the wall and a mysterious wooden thing which could be the remains of a hanging lamp which nobody has got around to throwing away. It's now a bit disorganised and doesn't look as though it's used for communion services.

Finally a clergy meeting at St Stephen's, Shottermill, gave me the chance to examine some of the fittings which I'd spotted on a previous visit. This is a fairly mainstream Evangelical church now, with a baptismal pool beneath the nave floor ('As far as I can tell it hasn't been used in ten years', the vicar told me) ...

... but while the building's interior has, like a number of Evangelical churches, been reorientated so that it faces south rather than east, the old chancel remains as a side chapel, still distinguished by yet another post-WWI screen. This one was not a war memorial - it was dedicated to a lady by a grieving husband - but it is dated 1919 and in fact an inscription records its dedication on All Souls' Day that year. In the chancel are signs of former hanging lamps and another aumbry - apparently empty.

Monday, 18 November 2019


The Anglican Church, not surprisingly, hasn't got a rite for the installation of an icon; I'm not sure anyone has, to be fair. But when Hazel, the widow of our retired priest Jim, decided after he died in 2014 that his memorial should be a pair of icons, I didn't want just to have them put up in the church without any fuss being made, so I had to make something up.

The icons show St Benedict and St Edmund; one was the patron of the last church Jim served as incumbent, and the other has a link with the Roman Catholic parish with whom we share our church building. Both have been painted by a member of the RC congregation. I wanted their 'unveiling' to be an occasion we could both share, so thought we could have a short ceremony in between our two normal services on a Sunday morning. St Benedict's Day is back in July; the closest Sunday to St Edmund's Day this year is November 17th, and the date just happens to be Jim's anniversary. 

I wasn't sure how many people would be around and if necessary the little rite was one I could do with one other person. In the end most of both our congregations were present, so it became a cast of thousands, including Fr Julian, the new priest of the RC parish, Marion our curate, Rick the verger, a server from each congregation, and Rob who carried the cross. The choir were augmented by some Catholics. We emerged from the vestry and made our way to the pillar where the icons had been placed while singing the old plainchant Office Hymn for All Saints: 'Father in whom thy saints are one ...'. I said a brief introduction and prayed for Jim's soul before reading a slightly odd but useful passage from 2 Esdras (most of the Apocrypha is a bit odd, if you ask me), then unveiled the icons which had been covered with a corporal. I anointed them, read the Collects for St Benedict and St Edmund: Rick handed me the lamp which I hung in front of the icons and then lit. I said a final prayer asking for God's blessing on the images, and we retreated while the choir sang Rutter's 'The Lord bless you and keep you'. Once in the vestry, it was off with the cope and on with the mass vestments.

I wasn't half shaky by the I got back! I suppose that's what comes from making it up as you go along.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Many Happy Returns

'I wish I could have my life over again,' said my mum when I went to Dorset yesterday for my early birthday celebrations. I am thankful I don't have to, but the splendid cake my elder niece baked for me conjures up the idea of travelling back in time to relive experiences. 'It's bigger on the inside,' she offered. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

Happy Interruptions

Not for the first time I am going through Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's School for Prayer in the hope that something might go in. The best spiritual writings have qualities of definiteness and simplicity and call me back to sense. As I sit in my living room with the book, I am feeling very spiritual for a change.

The doorbell rings. It's Ken, the churchwarden at an evangelical church not far away who occasionally comes to the Office at Swanvale Halt (in the process wearing down my goodwill a couple of Advents ago, through no fault of his!) and now and again even braves the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He's heard it's my birthday (actually it's a bit early yet) and has brought me a bottle of wine. I put away the bag, and settle down once more with Archbishop Anthony.

Moments later, the bell goes again. This time the postman has brought me a box - another bottle of wine, from Dr Bones as it turns out! She remembers that I am a couple of years her senior. My cellar is restocked with no effort on my part at all. I am no connoisseur, but the combined sweetness and astringency of red wine is a great joy I have come to be thankful for.

These are not interruptions to prayer (or to reading about praying, which is only one step removed) which I can much complain about! In fact as Metropolitan Anthony's words were about gratitude, they seem to become part of the business of spiritual reflection when I come to actually praying. How good people are and how little I deserve it: if I can manage to pray for as much as a minute with any sense of God's presence it's a minor miracle, and these expressions of mindful kindness are small miracles too, tiny reflections of the divine grace which surrounds us and pours endlessly on us. How blessed my life has been to be touched by such mercies.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019


'It is Armistice Day, and, all across the land, clergy will be leading acts of remembrance at 11am', said Lucy Winkett on Thought for the Day yesterday. I and Marion looked awkwardly at each other when we met at church: we'd both heard it, and both thought the same thing: Yes, it's Armistice Day, but I thought we did all that yesterday. 

After I was finished at the Infants School, in shame, I came back to church, struck the bell at 11 and 11.02, and stood silently and solemnly while the toddler group caroused in the hall next door. At least I didn't have to go outside as our Swanvale Halt war memorial is in the Lady Chapel.

On Remembrance Sunday itself, I preached on how we live in a time of tumult and can't even be confident that our civilisation will survive the next century, but that God takes the smallest of our good acts and builds them into the Kingdom.

'I like that', smiled Sandra after the service. 'I'll be dead long before all this happens. I don't need to worry about anything, the world's going to end so there's no point!'

Which is comfort of a sort, but wasn't quite the take-home message I anticipated.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Amazement at The Bourne

I have built up something of a backlog of church interiors to share with you, but something brief for now. On Friday I managed to tick off a whole seven churches, all of which were open with the exception of Good Shepherd, Dockenfield, a lovely little Arts-and-Craftsy building of 1910 and possibly the most architecturally creative of the lot, but which I hadn't expected to be open anyway; in fact before seeing the name of the village on the road sign I'd forgotten it even existed. But the biggest surprise of the trip lay elsewhere. 

St Thomas on the Bourne on the edge of Farnham is somewhere I've been before, but have only been inside the meeting room and not ventured into the church. The building is stripped-down, whitewashed Gothic, begun in 1910 and not finished until the 1920s, World War One intervening. And opening the solid oak doors gave me a distant sight of the most spectacular English Gothic altar I've seen anywhere, let alone in Surrey. If you can hear a mysterious thump, it is the ghost of Percy Dearmer fainting and falling over.

I hadn't numbered St Thomas's mentally as a Catholic-end church, but clearly should have done. I had certainly never expected to find a gilded Virgin-and-Child over an altar anywhere in the Diocese of Guildford. This beautiful bit of kit I suspect incorporates, at the very least, some of the work of Christopher Webb, who was also responsible for a similar reredos at Shalford and who was a pupil of Sir Ninian Comper; Milford has the frame of another one.

At St Mary's, Frensham, as I groped around in the semi-dark unable to find a light switch, I found a card on the table reading 'This is a church where the Catholic Faith is taught'. The card looks like 1950s vintage and I wonder how accurate that statement actually is now. 

Friday, 8 November 2019

Much Study is a Weariness of the Flesh

... so it was just as well the Clergy Study Morning yesterday only went as far as lunch time before we were all released from Christ Church, Woking, to scarper in our various homeward directions. 'A study day like no other', the diocesan authorities had promised, apparently referring to the invitation we'd been asked to extend to laypeople to come along, because there was no other obvious difference from the usual format, and style. A pair of gentlemen from the musical team at Christ Church, armed with a guitar and a keyboard, assaulted 'Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty' until that noble hymn lay down and died, we had a sung version of the Creed that had me begging for it to end as one of said gentlemen led us in yet another repetition of part of it, and then we were ready for the speakers. A fellow called Nick spoke about how the Church of England had been issuing reports on how to integrate laypeople and clergy in evangelism, and working life and church life, since the 1940s and that 'if we're still talking about this in twenty years I shall scream'. I didn't think anything he came up with was particularly groundbreaking, though, but perhaps you can't after seventy years of Church of England reports. Then Paul Williams, the CEO of the Bible Society, outlined how the overarching narrative of the Scriptures could be used as 'a lens to interrogate the messages of contemporary culture': I quite liked this, but it was slightly depressing to hear him suggest that most Christians aren't aware there is an overarching narrative, as opposed to a succession of disconnected bits which they cherry-pick to justify their own ideological viewpoints. In between the two speakers, the Bishop pushed ahead of me (and several more people) in the queue for tea and asked me what I thought so far. I wasn't feeling all that well and couldn't help thinking of the scene in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the Vogon captain challenges the captive Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, catching their breath after the psychic and physical pain of listening to some of his verses, 'either die in the vacuum of space; or [CHORD] tell me how good you thought my poem was'. As I waffled, the Bishop sort of became aware that he'd ended up halfway along the queue and insisted on handing me a paper cup in recognition of the fact.

The point arrived for breaking into groups, as it inevitably does. As we were sat in close-serried ranks of linked steel-framed chairs with very little room to manoeuvre round each other, this proved more logistically challenging than usual. I had forgotten we were supposed to bring along a layperson: Marion was there in her capacity as a chaplain at HMP Send, so the laypeople she usually deals with are not easily able to attend external events, and we agreed that clergy are laypeople underneath, as we are so often told. In our small group we concluded that the 'thing we would take away' was Nick's very touching anecdote of the hairdresser whose way of integrating church and work life was to pray for her customers as she massaged shampoo into their hair. This was a better suggestion than my statement that what I would take away was my cup, to put into the compost.

Finally we were shown a short video about the reorganisation at Church House. Little stylised graphics of happy clergy, laypeople and central staff, and even the odd dog, bounced across the screens to describe how the diocese was being restructured around meeting the real needs of parishes, although the Suffragan Bishop's hairstyle seemed to have changed in her translation into digital form. Wondrously, the presentation concluded without at any point using the phrase 'we've sacked a cartload of people because we can't pay for them anymore'.

Thursday, 7 November 2019


Back in the far-off days of my holiday, I and Ms Brightshades went to Wisley Gardens. We were so suboptimal, we just wandered around taking photographs of pretty things and didn't note down the name of a single plant (I already know some trees, though). Many years ago while I was in Lamford some friends bought me a year's membership of Wisley as a birthday present so I could go there on my days off and relax by reading in the pagoda by the pool, that sort of thing; I think I managed two visits. Well, on this particular day I saw many bits of the garden I certainly hadn't before and the rain only made the landscape shine all the more.

Monday, 4 November 2019

No Way Out

A day going past without a phone call, or several, from Trevor would normally be a welcome bonus, but a run of such days started to arouse my suspicions. I tried to call him and heard the phone being picked up and then put down; a second call later in the day went entirely unanswered. The day after, I had a call from a social worker saying Trevor had refused to let in the mental health Home Treatment Team for nearly a week. In his only conversation with the doctors he'd claimed that God had cured him and that he no longer needed treatment, a belief somewhat belied by the complaints from his neighbours that he was shouting and screaming at night. He would probably be sectioned, she said.

This was indeed what happened, and Trevor was taken to the mental health inpatient unit at St Peter's Hospital in Chertsey, where I went to see him on Saturday. The wind and rain battered the buildings making the setting seem even more bleak than it would otherwise be. Trevor's brother was there, in the middle of cancelling one of Trevor's phones (he has had two, draining his limited resources along with the three TV sets and multiple pianos and keyboards, for a long time). I hadn't seen Trevor for over a month: he is unkempt and haggard, not looking at all like someone who has undergone a miraculous healing. He was calm enough, but is now completely lost within his paranoiac world: every sound was turned into someone making horrible accusations against him, he maintained that one of his longstanding enemies from years and years ago had come to the unit to have sex with one of the staff in the shower, that a well-known US TV evangelist had been there 'to break the spell', and that 'the witches' had 'murdered me by stabbing me six thousand times and God had to bring me back from the dead'. He couldn't talk about anything else. 

You may remember that a couple of years ago I facilitated, against the rules, a series of encounters between Trevor and Martin, who believed he could help him. I would have been delighted had this actually resulted in anything, but in fact it went depressingly along the lines I had predicted to myself: a set of long, inconclusive meetings during which Trevor shook and shouted and tried to make himself sick as he knows that this is what demoniacs do, culminating in failure to achieve anything and the would-be exorcist blaming his patient. Martin conceded that all Trevor's manifestations were assumed rather than 'real', but his convoluted diagnosis was that 'he has a demon that makes it look as though he doesn't and is just pretending', and that 'he doesn't really want to be delivered ... Trevor and his demon are like a pair of elderly sisters who live together, always complaining about the other but never doing anything about it. As soon as anyone drives the spirit out of him, he invites it back in again'. In fact, buried within this nonsense is what I think is a truth, which is that Trevor has become so committed to aspects of his paranoid narrative - to the idea that God has made certain promises to him - that he can't escape it. But that's not quite the same as self-induced demonic possession. 

Martin simply abandoned contact with Trevor and now doesn't refer to him; to be fair, he had some professional issues to deal with, but his neglect did involve absolutely not doing things he said he would do. It was the same story with the third Diocesan Deliverance Adviser I got to come and see Trevor: he'd discovered there was a new one and begged me to set up an encounter. We had one meeting; I and the priest agreed that there was nothing supernatural going on with Trevor's situation. The advisor said he would arrange another session with Trevor to go through things with him, but never did. 

So we now have a soul who seems entirely trapped. 'He'll be here a long time', Trevor's brother told me, though the doctors were uncommunicative. I am not sure that I could have done much different over the last ten years, but it's been a learning experience. I only wish Trevor could have learned something, too.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Black and the Gold

Once upon a time, the relationship between All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day was clear. On the first, the Church remembered all those - including the nameless - whose sanctity had propelled them into the immediate post-mortem presence of God, especially those who were recognised publicly by the Church as souls whose intercession could be sought by ordinary worshippers, dwelling spiritually as they did in the curtilage of Divinity. All Souls was for the rest of us, who had first to pass through the fires of Purgatory before we attained the Sublime, and who, far from praying for the living,  required their intercessions to speed our passage through. All neat and tidy.

At least in the fully-developed Western tradition: the East had never got that far, and didn't draw hard-and-fast lines between different categories of Christians. I've long come to the view that the wonderful side-by-side contrast of All Saints and All Souls on successive days in the Church calendar - the Gold and the Black - represent, in a way, our different attitudes to the dead, to perhaps conflicted feelings of thankfulness and joy mingled perhaps with fear, sorrow, regret and maybe even anger. But I hadn't thought this year about the two days embodying different feelings about death itself, even though this is really quite an obvious extension of the theme. If we are Christians, we know that Christ has won the victory over sin and death, and that we are part of it. But equally we know that we do not deserve to be part of it, that we remain sinners, in need of repentance; and the saints are the very first to kneel, and strike their breasts, and say, 'Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner'. Confidence and humility, hope and realism, all work together: together in the sight of God are woven the Gold and the Black. 

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Obligatory Halloween Image

Well, it is, with my usual three lanterns, one to go down to the churchyard - I couldn't locate any suitable turnips this year and had to use swedes, which aren't half hard to hollow out. But there is also pictured a bunch of grapes from the garden: this autumn the vine has actually produced a small crop of fruit which are capable of being eaten without grimacing, provided you avoid the ones which still have a bit of a greenish tinge to the them.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Little Things Please

A small group of elderly ladies make their way from a midweek service at a not-very-remarkable Surrey church. They are all very happy, and not only because they have just met their Lord and Saviour in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The thing that has made them happy is that for the first time in about three weeks they have been able to go in and out of the church's main door. 

While I was on holiday, a pane of glass in the inner porch door was broken. Marion the curate took the photograph left, and thinks it wasn't smashed by a direct impact but by the door swinging to in a gust of wind (it was very windy indeed that day). The investigation revealed that the glass was ordinary plate glass rather than safety glass. 'I can't understand why it was done like that even if it was twenty-odd years ago', said the glazier. I can: it will have been a case of a PCC being told by someone, 'Oh, I know someone who'll do it cheaper than that'. Anyway, it's now all been replaced, and normal service is resumed.

Really, the ladies attending the midweek service shouldn't have been all that pleased about the restoration of Order. Going via the main door requires negotiating two steps rather than the gentle slope up from the hall door, which is the alternative access route, and that's a challenge to some of them. Years ago after a visit to a Sunday service, my friend Professor Abacus advised that we should switch permanently to using the hall door for just such reasons. But the mere restitution of how things should be is clearly enough to trump such minor concerns as convenience. 

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The Lamford Oil Men

It was the annual Memorial Service today. Preparing for it I found myself reflecting on how I'd become aware while at Lamford that there was a little sub-group in the congregation of former oil men, all of whom seemed to have worked for Shell - no, silly, not as garage forecourt attendants, but as engineers and so on. I wasn't sure whether they were aware of one another's existence, or how they all ended up retiring to Lamford, but I took the funerals of at least three, I remember. Apart from being connected by their past work, they were of course different people and sometimes had had knocks along the course of life. One had received the Last Rites a total of six times and when I went to visit his wife to discuss the funeral service and asked how she was getting on, she answered 'Oh, it's such a relief!' which is more frank than most people are prepared to be.

I was reminded of the Lamford Oil Men when reading a recent report on the role of the fossil fuel companies in attempting to downplay and undermine the science of climate change over the last few decades. I doubt the perfectly decent gents whose funerals I took in Lamford had any knowledge of that policy or influence on it, but they were involved in it by being part of one of those companies. We're all implicated in the larger movements of history and society even when we play no active or conscious role at all: they move through us and shape us whether we choose or not. And when our awareness changes and a different perspective become the norm, what then? What seemed perfectly normal at the start of our lives may well beyond the pale of acceptability by their end: we start as lambs, and end as dinosaurs. The absolute impossibility of stepping back from our lives and assessing them objectively has to push us towards compassion and mutual forgiveness, and that perfect, objective view of who we have been and what we have done can only come from a place beyond us, a heavenly place.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Gentleman in England Now A-Bed

This seems like an appropriate heading for St Crispin's Day, although my post refers to yesterday, a feast day of nobody in particular. It was a day off: despite just having been on leave for a fortnight I do still jealously guard my times of recess, acutely aware as I have over the years become of how I absolutely need them. However they are sometimes unavoidably eroded, and so was yesterday's.

I had agreed to do a wedding, not at Swanvale Halt church, but at the grand chapel of a school not very far away. This is something which has happened a couple of times before but always makes me nervous: there is different paperwork to be done, the logistics of the service are not what they are in my humble church, and I feel much less at home. Yesterday was the rehearsal, that's all, yet I lay in bed very reluctant indeed to get up and face the day. It was far more congenial to spend time in that shadowy world on the boundaries of sleep and wakefulness not quite paying attention to the Today presenters quietly chuntering from the radio by my bedside, observing the strange and varied thoughts that crossed my mind, and putting off the moment when reality would begin. 

I often find that the anticipation of doing something is much more taxing than actually doing it, and in fact whereas I should get more confident as time goes on, I find my nervousness is growing rather than diminishing. I am less and less inclined to do anything out of the ordinary, which probably is not very healthy. At least I can recognise it. S.D. has encouraged me to keep a record of my passing moods and though I am very bad at doing it I manage it often enough to be able to observe how mobile and malleable they are. But knowing that my nameless dread is silly hasn't so far helped me stop it! 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Wide Ranging Discussion

By 7.40 nobody had turned up for the meeting. I knew Hannah the churchwarden was singing with a choir, and Daniel the Treasurer was away; I wasn't aware that Alan our friendly plumber had the lurgy and so wasn't coming. Then to my surprise the bell rang: it was Cal, one of the younger members of the church, who'd been delayed by traffic. Usually he's the one from this particular committee who has to be reminded of the meetings, if anyone is. I hadn't spoken to him for a while and big things have been happening to him so I invited him in for a short chat anyway, and he wanted to ask about a very vague plan which various people have mentioned to repair or replace the existing choir and servers' robes which date to the mid-1970s. In the course of this I very incautiously alluded to the fact that, as regards this matter, church members were quite likely to know what they didn't want, but not what they did, a bit like Brexit. Now, I had never given any thought to what line Cal might take on this matter - that of the UK leaving the European Union, I mean - but I am now left in no doubt at all. 

We spent quite a long time, in fact, discussing the absurdities of the situation Britain finds itself in and the various influences which have resulted in said absurdities, before moving on to the iniquities of the European Union. Back in the days of the Referendum Il Rettore relayed the quip of a member of Lamford's congregation that the country seemed evenly divided between those who thought the EU was awful and we should leave it, and those who thought the EU was awful and we should stay in it, so though I may have found myself in the latter camp I am not blind to the institution's failings. I imagine nobody is, even those most deeply involved in it. But it slowly became clear that Cal's attitudes were undergirded by a single basic assumption, that the British are self-evidently good, honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and fated by Nature to succeed, while everyone else - the fundamentally dishonest, shiftless, benighted nations of Europe - is motivated by jealousy of this happy state, and has devised the EU as a means of binding and frustrating the natural destiny of Britain. Of course he didn't state this straight out, or I could have discussed the history of the European Coal and Steel Community and how nobody ever imagined in the beginning that Britain would be part of it anyway; instead it emerged slowly through a catalogue of particular injustices, and it took me a while to twig.

This is a mental environment which seems so weird to most of the people I interact with a lot of the time that I rather appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to it. At least it's not immigrants that seem to be the problem. About an hour after he arrived, I saw Cal off, and poured a gin.

Monday, 21 October 2019

"A Society under the Magnifying Glass"

In contrast to most places you might stay, the Landmark Trust emphatically does not provide you with a large TV and a set of DVDs: instead you will find a drawer full of puzzles and a shelf of books. At the Bath House a couple of weeks ago, I discovered an especially interesting and relevant selection - a Shire album on bath houses and another on Georgian garden buildings (which I own, coincidentally), a biography of Sanderson Miller, and this history of the adjacent village, Wellesbourne. I should have read the whole thing, really, rather than dipping into it, because it probably ranks as the best history of a single place of its kind I can remember reading. 

It ought to be, I suppose, because the author describes it as the fruit of 30 years of research into the history of Wellesbourne across roughly the century leading up to 1920, plus a few codas extending towards the Second World War. It takes one subject at a time, 'Out with the Poachers', for instance, or 'In Debt at the Manor House', opening out of a story of an individual or family to consider a topic more widely. This would be remarkable enough, but it benefits too from the author's versatility in imagining his way into the lives of his characters - for that is what they are - and how they intersect with others in the village and the society beyond. At least, most of the time it benefits: just occasionally you wonder quite where Mr Bolton has got some detail from beyond his fertile speculation. Everything was changing by 1940, and by the time the Boltons moved into the village, he says, all that remained was the memory of the world that had been, for better or worse.

Every community could do with a book like this. 'Naples of the Midlands', by the way, comes from a Victorian newspaper report, and is far from being a compliment!