Saturday, 30 March 2019

Final Acts

Bill is dying at the moment. Two years ago he watched Reg breathing his last in the traumatic funeral service that was supposed to be for someone else entirely, as the paramedics battled around him, and muttered, 'Let him go, let him go.' Now it's Bill's own turn. The last time I saw him in hospital, he could just about say my name and the phrase 'I go in and out', which cost him a lot of effort. A week later, lying in bed instead of sitting beside it, he couldn't say anything no matter how hard he tried. He looked dehydrated to me, his lips dry and flaky, but wouldn't or couldn't take any water from a straw, and happily a doctor came by so I was able to tell her: she would put him on some fluids, she said. The doctor gone, Bill's eyes mainly looked forward rather than at me. I assured him of the love of the parish and of God for him. And he started to cry out. I couldn't tell whether it meant laughter or distress. I have known the most faithful people, and Bill is nothing if not that, collapse into numbness or rage at the end, as though they never really believed it was going to happen to them. But whatever he felt, he couldn't communicate to me in any way I could understand. It was under the chain of inarticulacy.

There is nothing peaceful about this slow death. It's a battle, a concluding struggle to the end of a long life, as the body closes down. I suppose it's unreasonable to expect anything else, and we should brace ourselves for it: anything else is a bonus. But what a damnable business it is. In humanist terms, are there any earthly pleasures that can balance the terrible process of leaving them?

March 30th is also the 27th anniversary of the release of Dry and so I have listened to it again in line with my devotional programme. The unfocused rage behind it was helpful. 'Happy and Bleeding' is about a specifically female experience, but there was something applicable about some of the lyrics:

This fruit was bruised
dropped off and blue 
out of season ...
Long overdue
too early and it's late, too

If it were not for the Cross, for the divine sharing in the human sorrow, I would not be here doing this, I can tell you. Even with it, holding on to faith is a near thing.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Opting Out

Although our visitors to the church on Monday were pretty young, I was aware that talking about weddings nevertheless raises some fraught matters. For all I knew, among those sixty children might have been some who had two mums or dads in their family. So I said that the Church of England only marries people of different sexes, and that's why the service looks the way it does, but people of the same sex can marry each other elsewhere. 

Of course not everyone is happy with children being told this. I can't see, however, that one's moral opinions, regardless of what they might be or where they come from, give one the right to opt out of reality, still less to pretend to one's children that reality is different from what is the case. In this jurisdiction, people of the same sex can marry: it is wrong to shield children from this truth, or for clergy of the Established Church to gloss it over as though it did not exist.

(A friend of mine pointed out that all Germany's Muslim MPs voted in 2017 to support same-sex marriage, which is the case: 'being part of a certain demographic doesn't make you an idiot; being an idiot makes you an idiot', she says reasonably. Although I note that all those MPs come from Turkish backgrounds, and Turkey, until its current leader's efforts, was the most unMuslimish Muslim country in the world, and proud of it). 

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Safety First

The visit of two Year 4 classes from the local junior school to the church yesterday went quite well. They were here to look at Christian weddings and the promises made as part of them. I put together a programme which took about an hour to deliver and they weren't too restive. I knew lots of them from Swanvale Halt Infants so that helped. The first question I asked was how the building made them feel. One boy said it made him feel old: 'I'm not very old,' he stressed (he was 8), 'but I first came here one year, and then the next year, and then the next, so it makes me think how old I am now and how time goes.' A serious place on serious ground, you see.

At the end the children had 15 minutes or so to look around the building. I let them into the vestry by groups and the thing that seemed to catch their attention most was the safe. I heard one girl discussing with her friends how you'd need a hair grip to pick the lock. This is very advanced for 8, I was sure they don't normally cover basic burglary until Year 5.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Spring Sun

Do you remember the magnolia I planted a couple of months ago? That one potential bloom has now opened and looks like this:

I am so delighted that this has happened. All across the parish the magnolia trees are in splendid bloom and I am full of joy that my sapling has added to the glory albeit with just one flower!

But the other garden flowers have been joining in. The banks are full of primroses, which I can't see lasting this year long enough for me to be able to use them to decorate the Altar of Repose; the deep pink of the camellias and the delicate pink-white of the prunus blossom adds to the colour.

After the morning's services and lunch, the afternoon was too sunny to spend entirely at home. I've often been to Waggoners' Wells but this beauty spot not far away always affords some pleasure no matter the conditions. The line of ducks was obliging and the Wishing Well flowing plentifully. All very recuperative.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Caught Speechless

The induction of the new incumbent of Steepmoor was going so well, and it should have done with three bishops present. We were singing a modern hymnette which I thought was perfectly acceptable until we got to the bit which implored God to 'win this nation back', and I found myself unable to carry on. 

There is a minor theme in a lot of modern Evangelical hymnody which deals with 'the nation' and the hope that it will return to God. I've long wondered what people think this might mean. The United Kingdom is a secular state with a Christian symbolic discourse in the form of its monarchy and established Church, and I rather prefer that combination to the toxic coupling of religion and power you find in the USA or, currently, Hungary. Souls turning to Christ is one thing: the idea of a nation doing so fills me with horror, because it will not be Christ to which it truly turns but an idol of its own imagining, generated from its fears and desires. God only ever had a covenant relationship with one nation, the people of Israel, and never gave any indication that he planned another. That role passed to the nova Israel, the Church.

Which brings us to the next bit that made me fall silent. 'We are your Church, and we are the hope on earth'. No, we very emphatically are not. If the Christian Nation theme teeters on the brink of blasphemy, this jumps gaily in. Only Christ can ever be the hope on earth and to place that hope anywhere else - even in a supposedly Spirit-filled body of believers - is going to lead you down paths with flashing warning signs above them. 

Surely Christians, and most particularly those who call themselves Evangelical, can't have failed to notice how questionable this stuff is? Or are they so caught up in emotion that they don't pay any attention to it, even while they sing it?

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

They Came, They Saw, They Made Suggestions

Barely any families ever come now to our Family Service, the non-eucharistic and slightly less formal service we hold on the first Sunday in the month. Not so long ago this was not the case and a few times back in 2014 we hovered close to a hundred souls in church a fifth of whom were under 16, but times change. I want to do something useful with this slot, and something less formal than a mass but not focused on children, as such. I increasingly feel that 'formal' versus 'informal' is the fundamental dichotomy around which people who don't know that much about church life think, rather than 'high church' and 'low church' or anything like that; and the core of 'formality' is reading things out of books or leaflets, something which people don't do on any other occasion. Moving away from that sort of formality, and providing something for people who find it alienating without forcing them to seek it outside the parish, means installing a screen to project words and images onto.

We thought about doing this during the big refurbishment of the church in 2012, but in the end decided not to go ahead. Last year when Dr & Mrs Abacus came to visit I talked about this with them and the Dr. came up with a back-of-a-fag-packet design for how a screen might be mounted on a beam which could hang down at the side of the chancel arch and then be fixed in position by a pulley-and-rope system. Dr Abacus is an old hand at such practicalities and this sounded both plausible and cheap, but I couldn't find anyone who would advise on it. I arranged a visit by a cheerful young fellow from a company that installs audiovisual systems in churches who told me how much it would be to put in a drop-down screen behind the chancel arch - the trouble being that the arch is quite sharp and you can't fit more than an 8-foot screen across it without it being very intrusively visible when not wanted, nor do the sight lines in the building make it very easy to see. 

Finally today a couple of helpful consultants from the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the body that advises on works in church buildings, came to help me think through the matter. Once they'd managed to find somewhere to park (no easy matter in itself in Swanvale Halt at the moment) it didn't take them long to suggest a very obvious option - placing Dr Abacus's screen against the wall above the choir stalls, so instead of being lifted into place it could be swung out across the chancel arch and fixed. That would allow something much wider if need be. The aisles could have subsidiary, portable screens on trolleys. We could go for one of those amazing glass screens that hangs permanently and invisibly in place, and is projected onto from behind, but those are pricey.

Why couldn't I think of that? Well, that's what other people's brains are for, I suppose.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Brighton Museum

My journey back from West Malling last week took me on a detour to Brighton, mainly to visit Mad Hatters in Trafalgar Street as my old fedora is getting a bit rough after a few years, and I can only get the style I like there (they had none but have kindly offered to order one and post it on). I had lunch at a marvellous little greasy-spoon café and then visited the Museum with some bemusement that I'd never done so before. 

The building is part of the Pavilion complex and consequently is a bit nuts. Gorgeous encaustic tiles accompany you up a staircase at the rear of the grand central atrium, and on the upper floor Moorish arches open into vistas of distant galleries.

This is a big municipal museum and gallery, and one in a town with a distinctive personality. The displays are very eclectic and there is no coherent story, rather a collection of glittering fragments, but everything is sort-of there, from fishing boats to Prinny and his Regency pretensions, Mods and Rockers on 1960s beaches to a moving examination of contemporary trans identity. There are strong archaeology galleries, and rooms of global cultural artefacts put into human context rather well. We've already mentioned Paula Huntbach's 1980s Goth gear which occupies a place in a show about how gender and identity are expressed in niche clothing.

However I thought the crowning glory of the museum is that great central atrium, devoted to a ravishing collection of twentieth-century decorative art. It's a charismatic space, spectacularly rendered with some of the most sumptuous kit I've ever seen in a single museum gallery.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Goth Past and Future

I was excited to hear about this book on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, and having waited until a copy came up for sale whose price didn’t make me wince I was more excited when it arrived through the post. There are things wrong with it, and I will dispose of those first; I am also not convinced about aspects of the authors’ core argument, but that’s not necessarily a problem with the book as such, so I’ll relegate discussion of the actual case until later.

The Evolution of Goth Culture: the Origins and Deeds of the New Goths (Emerald, 2018) is dreadfully proof-read. Everywhere there are missing or superfluous letters, stray apostrophes, signs of sentences having been rewritten halfway through but not made consistent, and on a couple of occasions a missing negative which actually reverses the sense of a statement. Although most of the time the authors refer to themselves in the first person plural in a refreshingly conversational manner, on p.126 they revert to standard academic-speak and Karl Spracklen appears merely under his surname as though he was someone else. Given that the authors are proud sticklers in matters temporal and grammatical (pp.69 n2, 76), I’m sure they’re even more upset about being so badly served than I am on their behalf.

Karl Spracklen is a lecturer in leisure and tourism studies at Leeds Beckett University and his wife Beverley used to work as a bellydance teacher and performer. They’ve written a lot of stuff together and with others, and can’t quite resist inserting wodges of that research into the book. The section on the development of heavy metal substyles in the 1990s (93-97) is dizzying and basically irrelevant, and neither explains what heavy metal is, nor how it differs from or resembles Goth. There is some point to this section as the cross-fertilisation of Goth and metal is important, but the rehearsal of the history of the Internet (122-126) is of no use whatever. Equally, we all have our favourite bands and much as I loathe The Sisters of Mercy I can concede their crucial role in the formation of Goth recte in the early 1980s, but the chapter about the band (71-87) seems to be mainly an exercise in Eldritch-baiting, an amusing and popular sport in the Goth world but of strictly limited interest. It would have been more informative to pick a less well-known group and look at what it was that got them started, and how they developed. The book has an odd habit of quoting sources at length, then rephrasing what they have said. All this adds up to a lot of essentially superfluous wordage.

My last quibble is about how to understand Romanticism. I disagree with the Spracklens over the extent to which Goth can be interpreted as an aspect of Gothic more widely, but that’s a debatable matter. They are keen (nay anxious) to paint Goth as a movement of political radicalism and anti-capitalism; I think they are not quite on the mark there, but that’s by-the-by, too. The problem is that wanting to downplay the role of Gothic in Goth and Goth in Gothic because Gothic isn’t anti-capitalist enough leads you astray. For the Spracklens Romanticism, of which Gothic is part, is nothing but ‘insipid’, passive and unpolitical, a matter of swooning women in long dresses and soppy poetry. They blame Gavin Baddeley’s 2002 book Goth Chic for introducing the connection into Goth’s self-awareness (20-21) – unaware, apparently, of Richard Davenport-Hines’s Gothic (1998) which boldly described anyone ever involved in producing or consuming Gothic culture from the 17th century onwards as a ‘Goth’, or Jenny Grey’s Gothic Society (founded in 1990) which made the same link. I’ve had my arguments with Gavin Baddeley, but he rightly points out in Goth Chic that Romanticism was revolutionary – the insistence that individual experience and sensibility, and not objective authority, was the basis of moral order and artistic value – and you don’t get more Goth than that.

But I come to praise Caesar, basically, an apposite phrase considering the splendidly pompous title of the book, alluding as it does to a history of the original Goths in the ruinous centuries surrounding the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The Spracklens show an aptitude for pinching amusing allusions from other disciplines, referring to the ‘Whig interpretation’ of the history of Goth and the ‘Received Standard Version’ of what happened to Goth in the 1990s.

Now, for some time I have been suggesting that there are features in the development of Goth which someone should write about, and here, at last, someone is doing so! The Spracklens take the narrative from the first stirrings of something dark in the welter of post-punk music and activity that came to be tagged ‘Gothic’, through the formulation of the ‘goth’ template in Leeds around the Sisters of Mercy (I’m not completely convinced that’s the whole story, but we let that pass), what was different about ‘goth rock’ compared to early Goth, and what happened afterwards. Once the mainstream music world had got goth rock out of its system, they suggest, the scene went underground, its radical ‘communicative alternativity’ being maintained by fanzines, clubs, and websites – ‘goth fans found community and identity in the goth spaces that were available to them, especially independent record and clothing shops’ (186). This was the phase Goth was still in when Paul Hodkinson wrote his groundbreaking sociological study of the scene for Berg in 2002. However, at the same time the growth of the Internet allowed a global dispersal of Goth motifs and their increasing commodification; Goth became redefined not in terms of music but a broader ‘dark aesthetic’ which could, eventually, be bought off the shelf by anyone: ‘anyone [can] play at being a goth for one video, or one album, or just for one weekend … Dressing like a Goth is now very easy, unless you live in a place ruled by conservative reactionaries or crazy autocrats’ (170). It is – as already memorably described in one of Karl Spracklen’s earlier articles – ‘the entropic heat death of the goth aesthetic’. When all can be Goth, none truly are.

In the course of this analysis, we are given some real gems. The authors’ exemplar for the commodification of Goth is what has happened to Whitby Goth Weekend over the twenty-odd years of its existence, and they make their case very convincingly (137-153). They are absolutely right to cast doubts (37-38) on the well-known ‘origin myth’ that the word ‘Goth’ came from a joke told by Ian Astbury and others against Andi Sex Gang of the band Sex Gang Children, a yarn which I have doubted for a long while (and which I first read in 2003, long before the 2009 date they quote). There is a fine little section on Goth in Uzbekistan (116-118) and, as well as making it clear that modern Goth differs significantly from what it was in the 1980s, the Spracklens make a stab at explaining why, arguing that the Internet allowed the diversification of Goth substyles and subgenres (129-130). The most interesting claim is that Cybergoth style actually developed out of the experience of using the Internet and associated technology. A lot more work is needed on these statements which at the moment remain just insightful assertions, but at least they are asserted. The methodological approach – a bit of global analysis, a couple of case studies, moving back and forth over the field of study – is entirely appropriate to such a disparate and elusive thing as Goth.

But make no mistake: this book is a polemic. Karl and Beverley Spracklen are very, very annoyed about what they believe has happened to the subculture they love. Their rage at the betrayal of what they want to paint as an anti-capitalist crusade reaches its feather-spitting climax in the chapter ‘Goth as Fashion Choice’ (155-171), especially their attack on a hapless Goth model who calls herself Wednesday Mourning (‘becoming a goth is becoming seen to be just one other way of becoming rich and famous … one way people without power are fooled into accepting the inequality of the world’ (165)), and on Steampunk (‘Steampunks … desire to be elite Victorians fighting for the Empire’ (169)). There’s a deep paradox, they argue, within which Goth is caught at the present time – the desire to signal alternativity versus the need to be acceptable. ‘Goth is not dead, but it has changed so much that it is in danger of losing its meaning and purpose’ (183).

So, The Evolution of Goth Culture is a good book. It tells a coherent story, and examines critically themes which have been becoming apparent for some time, but which nobody has tackled before. Much applause for Karl and Beverley Spracklen is in order.

But are they right?

Three sentences from across the book summarise the argument. ‘Goth in the early 1980s embraced the punk fear of selling out, doing things underground and DIY’; then in the 1990s ‘goth culture started to replicate the instrumentality of the mainstream by constructing its own logic of production and consumption’; and after twenty years of this ‘goth will only survive if it becomes a radical, transgressive and counter-cultural space again … returning fully to its communicative alternativity’ (69, 103, 188). On the one hand, this is a correct account of what happened; on the other, it’s a misreading of that past. I could have called this review Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed, but thought it would be a bit rude.

It is absolutely correct that first-wave Goths made, adapted, cadged, and probably occasionally stole their clothes and bodged together their music like punks. But they did this more because they had no other option than out of a sense of principle, though they may have made a principle out of necessity. Young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s didn’t have much disposable cash, and so there was no market to supply what they wanted. The Spracklens’ account of how this changed to what we have now is, I believe, spot on, although it still needs fleshing-out with actual data. But although they continually describe first-wave Goth as an anti-capitalist phenomenon (as Charles Mueller does, remember), their key evidential text is an article by a music journalist in 1989 analysing Goth, not anything that comes from Goths themselves (67). Turning to my own pet band, Siouxsie and the Banshees were defiant elitists (Steve Severin once dismissed the democratic ethic of punk with a terse ‘No, everybody can’t do this’) who were certainly interested in artistic integrity but also out to make a successful career for themselves, and did. There is very, very little material to demonstrate that first-wave Goth was anti-capitalist as such, except by accident. What it was was anti-conformist and anti-authoritarian, and it’s a mistake to confuse these with economic radicalism. They can be linked, but they aren’t the same.

The Spracklens themselves quote the German band Pink Turns Blue, formed in 1985: ‘we wanted depth, doubts, darkness, eeriness. We wanted to sulk’ (61). So much for the music: as for the clothes, just a couple of days ago I visited Brighton Museum, whose costume gallery contained a Goth outfit worn by Paula Huntbach in the mid-1980s. It consists of a customised black leather jacket, a long black dress with flounces at the calf – not far from ‘Victorian’, although it’s closer to Morticia Addams – spiky jewellery and winkle-picker boots which Ms Huntbach decorated with Klimt-inspired swirls. In a caption, she describes how she would attach bits of old scarves to her outfit: ‘This was the whole important thing to me for Goth … that your clothes looked slightly shredded and old, as though you’d been maybe hanging round in a castle or somewhere gloomy for a while’. Notice, she doesn’t say ‘my clothes were a statement that I wanted to smash the prevailing economic system’: she says they were an expression of a personal fantasy, framed by Gothic imagery. Goth’s was, is, an individualistic rebellion – a Romantic one, dare I say. Pink Turns Blue also expressed a dislike of ‘consumerism’, but experience has demonstrated that this doesn’t mean Goths reject consuming anything, only what the majority consumes. Capitalism can sell you anti-conformity as it can anything else; and, because Goth never had a critique of capitalism in the same way it did of conformism, when forced to choose it makes its peace with the market. Goth individualism might sometimes be sentimental and unrealistic (I think it often is), but it’s at the core of the whole thing.

It is true that Goths are now socially acceptable in a way they weren’t when I first encountered the subculture about twenty years ago and certainly when the Spracklens got involved a bit earlier. I’ve already said elsewhere that it’s a shame it took a young woman having her head stamped on until she died to achieve that (I believe the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007 is the single biggest galvanising event in Goth since it began – strangely the Spracklens’ book only has two passing references to it, and nothing in the index). For most individual Goths, the choice to be acceptable comes in the form of getting a job and discovering that having some money to spend on what makes you happy is preferable to the insecurities of other forms of living. Sorry about that.

But if a critique of capitalism has never really been part of Goth, perhaps the Spracklens are right in this – to preserve what Goths really do value, they might have to discover one. The history of Whitby Goth Weekend suggests that without doing so, space to be themselves will be eroded. ‘To feel human, we need to resist the inequalities and injustices of modernity, even if in resisting all we can do is find a space where we can be alternative among others like us’ (188), and that does mean a neverending tension between genuine community and the marketing of identifiers of community. This story, I suspect, isn’t over yet.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Malling Abbey 2019

My previous stays at Malling Abbey have always been in the old guesthouse, or in recent years, the new Abbey Garth rooms. This is the first year I have stayed in the Tudor room over the Pilgrim's Chapel named S. Thomas Becket. It's more spacious than any of the others and has a little hatch that looks into the Chapel itself, its drawbacks being the remoteness from the kitchen, the fact that the toilet is down a precipitous staircase, and the bathroom, if such you can call it, is wedged into what is effectively a cupboard.

Before Malling Abbey cut its labyrinth into the turf a few years ago, I was sceptical about labyrinths: now I always walk it when I visit. The motif of the labyrinth is about the spiritual journey to some still point at the centre, a place of belonging and truth, and the outward journey has often felt a little awkward. You can cheat and just walk across the labyrinth, but if you don't do that, what is it you're doing by retracing your steps along its winding paths, now approaching, now distancing from the centre point, until eventually you leave? I only felt for the first time this year that it must be about taking what you have learned out again: you walk past quirks and obstacles you've passed before, and this time recognise them. It's as much a journey of growth as going inward is.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Misuses of History

Usually I try to avoid getting into arguments with anyone online as there is rarely any point. If I am tempted on the LiberFaciorum holy wells list to which I belong it tends to be because someone has said that they’ve found a shapeless stone that they think looks like the Great Goddess in a churchyard which proves that this Victorian church was a site of pagan worship going back 5 ½ million years or something. Ms V was a different matter.

It all started with an innocent post someone made about St Augustine’s Well at Cerne and the legends associated with it. There is longstanding confusion about this well, which in the past has been identified with the Silver Well where St Edwold set up the hermitage which, according to Cerne’s own hagiographers, was the origin of the Abbey itself, some four miles or so away. This is the sort of thing that actually happened in Eastern Christian monasticism, so it isn’t completely off-the-wall. I mentioned this in case people didn’t know about it. That was when Ms V arrived, and commented:

Archaeologists doubt there was ever an Anglo-Saxon church (or Anglo-Saxon anything) at Cerne. No archaeological remains have been found nor are there any records. St Edwold's Church Stockwood is 15th century, restored in the 17th century, so it's likely his legend was invented quite late (perhaps to help with church fundraising?) at the time when antiquarianism was hitting its stride.

Now this is Dorset, so I am concerned to get things right in my own mind. I and others raised the fact that Cerne Abbey appears in Domesday book and St Edwold is mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum which was written about 1125, so very much earlier than even the 15th century. Ms V batted this away:

Nope, Cerne's "endowments" feature in Domesday. Historians are somewhat cautious about the entry, preferring 'there may have been an abbey at the time of Domesday' since there is no other record. The reason of course is the foundation charter, backdated like so many 12th century charters.

I couldn’t quite believe that someone who appeared to know what they were talking about, or wanted others to think they did, seemed seriously to be arguing that Cerne Abbey didn’t exist in 1086 when Domesday Book explicitly refers to it (the standard text mentions the ‘monks’ of Cerne and the Exon Domesday has a reference to the ‘Abbot’), and that the apparent endowments of the abbey are a different thing from the abbey itself. I mentioned the first Abbot of Cerne, Aelfric, who moved to Eynsham in 1005, and referred to the ‘monastic revival’ under St Dunstan and St Ethelwold which resulted in the founding or re-founding of a slew of abbeys between about 950 and 990. Ms V countered:

What 'monastic revival'? Perhaps you're referring to the period from 1075 until 1225 when English monastic houses were being founded at a rate faster than at any other comparable time in history. … Aelfric was written about by nineteenth century historians but was first published by sixteenth century antiquarians. It's hard to find any contemporary support for your thesis about his time at Cerne.

After a bit more banter about Domesday and what is in it, Ms V went on:

Yes, Cerne Abbey had acquired an impressive array of landholdings by 1086, a mere two decades after the Norman Conquest. It's clear that religious houses were being established at this time as I already said, the eleventh century is the great age of monastic foundations.

Having stated Cerne Abbey probably didn’t exist at the time of the Domesday survey, she was now referring to its ‘impressive landholdings’, and her earlier description of the monastic upsurge of ‘1075-1225’ becomes ‘the eleventh century’. I abandoned the struggle at that point, having worked out what Ms V’s argument was and that I didn’t seriously need to be concerned with it. But in reply to a list member a bit later she came up with another not-entirely-uncontroversial statement:

All we have to go on are "histories" written several centuries later by antiquarians peregrinating around. They had to create a native English church with no discernible debt to Rome and they did a brilliant job.

Against my own better judgement I asked what she meant. What she meant was

The forging of a native church history was required when an English church was established in the sixteenth century, one that would emphasise a disconnect with Rome. … No actual evidence has ever been found of a Celtic monastery. I'm trying to find out if physical remains of an Anglo-Saxon monastery exist anywhere. Archaeological reports tend to fudge their findings … How to account for the archaeological lacuna?

I brought up the case of Monkwearmouth. Ms V rubbished the archaeological data, saying the great Rosemary Cramp had herself described the results of her dig as ‘woefully inconclusive’. The only evidence of the ‘purported monastery’ at Wearmouth was documentary, she argued, and therefore not to be trusted: just ‘antiquarians peregrinating around’.

Was my entire view of the development of the Anglo-Saxon Church wrong? I felt slightly as though I was going nuts. A little Googling revealed perfectly well-attested monastic remains at such sites as Bath, Glastonbury, Hartlepool and Lyminge as well as Wearmouth. Rosemary Cramp might have used the words ‘woefully inconclusive’ about her excavations at Wearmouth but in her colossal summary of the work there for English Heritage she has an entire chapter about ‘The Anglo-Saxon monastic buildings’. It seems disingenuous to use her authority to undermine her own conclusions. I wonder whether Ms V is simply a sophisticated species of troll.

It is possible to argue against all this evidence. That what appear to be monastic buildings aren’t; that inscriptions referring to monks and nuns don’t; that single-sex cemeteries from certain archaeological strata aren’t monastic, but something else. But to do so you really should come up with an explanation for what the ‘something else’ might be, and also attack the documentary evidence convincingly, given that documents and archaeology seem to corroborate each other so often.

Gentle reader, be clear about this: there is no Anglo-Saxon monastery whose existence is as well-attested as Monkwearmouth. That’s because England’s first historian, Bede, was a monk there, and it’s where he wrote The History of the English Church and People. He refers to his home abbey, and many others, frequently. He wrote a more detailed, separate account of its early abbots, all of whom he had met. To dispose of all this evidence, you have to argue that the manuscripts of Bede’s books are later forgeries attached to his name (not that there is much evidence of his name apart from his books): but there are at least seven manuscripts or parts of manuscripts of the History dated to the 8th century, and two more from the 9th. Can we really believe there was someone sat in a study in Tudor England churning out this level of forgery, good enough to deceive modern palaeographers? Given that the study of palaeography relies on comparative analysis of manuscripts whose dates are known, to dismiss Bede’s History you have to argue further that the whole corpus of Anglo-Saxon documentation is fake, and that when archaeologists have dug stuff up which appears to suggest the existence of monasteries, they’re being deceived by the texts into seeing what isn’t there. I call this (and phenomena like it, such as Holocaust denial or arguing that the Emperor Constantine wrote the Bible) ‘irrational scepticism’.

Archaeologists do make mistakes. One notorious example is the Dark Age Celtic monastery Ralegh Radford believed he had uncovered on Tintagel Island in Cornwall in the 1930s. Radford was a great man, but he was wrong about that, and sadly maintained those wrong conclusions long after everyone else had decided he’d been mistaken. Tintagel still appears marked as an ‘important monastery’ on a map of Dark Age Britain in Donald Matthews’s Atlas of Medieval Europe published in 1983 – a copy is on my bookshelves – so that error was a long time a-dying. But it’s worth noticing that there is no documentary reference to a religious house at Tintagel; what deceived Ralegh Radford was what he saw and his own romanticism (an occupational hazard for an archaeologist), unshaped by any expectations generated by texts. The texts, in their silence, were right, and I suspect they are right about Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, Bath, Glastonbury, Lyminge, and so on, and so on – and even about lowly Cerne Abbas.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Mortal Signs

No matter what the investigators of felt, I find it no surprise that Goths show the same sort of variation in their attitudes to the fact of death as everyone else, something that Goths themselves are probably quite surprised by too. Decorating yourself in the signifiers of death doesn’t imply any particular view of it, or even, I fear, any greater-than-average willingness to confront its reality.

I was going to write a blog post about that article some time ago, but realised it was probably going to come close to the anniversary of my operation last year, which in fact falls today. It was, you remember, nothing drastic, but still the first time I’d had a general anaesthetic, and who knows what might have happened. As I’ve aged and drawn almost definitely closer to the end of my life than the beginning, death has become less a philosophical presence in it, and has come more into focus, somewhere towards the bottom of the hill below my house, slowly and unhurriedly making its way in my direction. I’ve thought more about the process of it, the events that will throw me out of this world, whether it will be painful, or whether I will know anything about it at all. It boggles me, even if it shouldn’t, that the two experiences all human beings share, coming into existence and leaving it, are the two we are utterly ignorant about. I know when I am dreaming; will ceasing to dream be something I am aware of? Will I feel the pity of it, that my unique collection of mental nonsense will (so far as this world is concerned) be coming to an end? Will I panic? How will I react? Or will it be like the utter blank of the anaesthetic sleep? Nobody can give anyone clues.

I told the congregation today this. I have lived a mainly happy life, and I have very little to complain about. Untold myriads of human beings have not been so fortunate, and should I ever be tempted to despair it does me good to think about them, and to ask myself why I imagine I deserve anything different. The vast and uncountable mass of human souls have lived and died and left not a trace behind them, many of them not even in their descendants because they died before having a chance to produce any. The ways in which human beings can be suddenly and with barely a moment’s warning thrown out of this life are so many and various they boggle the mind. Three people died in an accident today on the M4, the news might say, four were shot dead during protests in the Palestinian territories, seventeen died in a fire in a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, the death toll in the outbreak of ebola in West Africa reaches 11,000. In 2004 my predecessor in Swanvale Halt organised the church in helping the relief effort after the Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a single event which killed 228,000 people in a few hours. So many souls, wiped away so fast. Why should I expect any greater fairness than they got? And in that I find some strange comfort, and even courage.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Ashes to Go

'The Archbishop of York has pinched your idea!' said Marion the curate in an email to me this Monday. Of course it wasn't my idea: I got it from my friend His Grace of Hoxton and he got it from some Episcopal churches in the USA where it seems to have started. The idea is that you take the ash prepared from last year's palm crosses and used in the Ash Wednesday services out of the church and into the places where people actually find themselves. My Hoxton colleague administered ash to bewildered commuters on the way to Old Street Station. I was going to offer it at the approach to the railway station here in Swanvale Halt, but my chicken heart got the better of me and instead I trialled it in the relatively benign surroundings of the infant school. I got half-a-dozen adult takers in the course of 15 minutes, including one of the staff, which wasn't bad. The children were fascinated. At Church Club in the afternoon the majority positively demanded I do it to them, and their generally boisterous mood, resulting from being kept in all day because of the rain, became positively solemn. I said the traditional words remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return: repent and hear the Gospel and then got them to repeat them over me. It was rather moving really.

The trouble with outreach is that it necessarily involves taking things that are familiar in one context into unexpected places and that always runs the risk of discomfort. My mind goes back to an occasion at Wycombe Museum when we had the bright idea of taking the finds from the local Roman villa down to the meadow east of the town where they were found to celebrate National Archaeology Day. We had some good interpretation, games and activities for children, and a tent we borrowed from the Council. We set up shop next to the main path across the field, and for the next few hours watched everyone crossing the meadow describe an enormous arc as they did their best not to come anywhere near us. 

At least it went better than some other Ash Wednesday efforts ...

(Photo from the Diocese of York website). 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Taking it Slow

Whenever my former partner used to stay overnight, I would marvel at the speed with which she was able to get ready for work, managing to be out of the house barely 45 minutes after getting up. I would normally hear her door open when I was in the midst of my prayer time, having striven not to wake her up any earlier. 

I take a bit longer. At Swanvale Halt church we say Morning Prayer at the civilised hour of 9am, but I am usually up by 5.50 and usually out of the house just under three hours later. This time includes some Bible reading, half an hour's prayer or a bit more if I have been economical in my use of time, diary-writing and household chores. Such a generous degree of slack eases me into the day very, very gently.

The days themselves have been quite busy lately with a lot to prepare for - three funerals in a week (that hasn't happened since I was a curate), the usual services plus a school assembly, Messy Church, two sessions at the Air Cadets, meetings, and two masses for Ash Wednesday today. Yesterday I woke up with an appalling sense of dread and reluctance to move at all, and it took my spiritual exercises to erode that somewhat. I wondered whether this was due to tiredness, in which case, perhaps, it might be sensible to cut down on that generous morning time and spend longer asleep. In fact, it seems to have been down more to a couple of unusual things I had taken on and not done before, and once they were out of the way I felt much better, so there doesn't seem to be any need to change the way I manage the day (at least not at that end of it).

I have the barely-imaginable luxury of managing my own time with nobody telling me what to do, and have nothing but admiration for the ways people cope when they don't. But I needed the space yesterday in order to function properly, which is another indication that I shouldn't attempt to do anything more high-powered, and why I should retain it.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Healing Waters

It's been a few days of quite some emotional content one way and another, so although Hurricane Freya may have brought trouble to some, she came with benisons to me - I looked out on Sunday morning and thought, This is holy well weather. Overcast, lightly raining, but not cold - I think my impression that these conditions are the right time to visit the wells derives from some of my earliest experiences of finding these charismatic sites, back in my mid-teens when I knew very little about them. Ironically the key moment was a time when I didn't find a well at all, but went looking for St John's Well at Evershot in Dorset, peering out of the window of my parents' car as we drove up and down Back Lane through the rain. I didn't actually discover the spring itself until years later, and what I eventually found on that day wasn't it, but the weather stayed with me. 

After the morning services and lunch were out of the way, I took myself to the outskirts of Guildford, where St Catherine's Chapel sits ruined on top of a little hill, so strangely resembling its grander and better-known (and intact) cousin at Abbotsbury. At the foot of the hill, down a perilously steep little lane bravely lined with cottages, the pilgrim finds a spring. The water pours from under an old wall and past a hazel tree, beneath a tiny bridge that leads to a stone seat, and out into the River Wey. It was once deemed good for sore eyes (like so many sacred springs), but was only called 'St Catherine's Well' from the 1930s onwards, presumably by someone who knew what holy wells were and how they worked. That doesn't matter. 

I plopped a 5p piece into the water, said the first verse of the office hymn to St Catherine -

O Catherine born of splendid line
The lily's likeness you outshine
The noble gift of virtue yours
Your gemlike holiness endures.

- and sat awhile on the seat and watched the rain on the river. Joggers, dog-walkers and couples in wellington boots made their way along the towpath. I felt the rain speckle the back of my hands.

Nietzsche challenged people to identify one moment which could redeem the rest of their lives, a glimpse of something heavenly which made life worth living. This experience is one of mine: sat by flowing water, watching the rain. I've had it many, many times, and each instance is an echo of the others. I am comfortable in Swanvale Halt rectory; Dorset is the landscape of my heart; but this moment, in all its guises, is home. This is what my heaven is like, the place of wholeness, the place of forever.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

House of Deco

We are not in the mood for lengthy or deep analysis of the state of the world, or even the parish, here at the moment, so we fall back on some nice pictures to show you. A trip to London on Thursday found me sat on a stone bench on Oxford Street waiting for my friend to arrive, and wondering whether I'd really never been there before. Otherwise, how could I have failed to notice the grandiose frontage of the House of Fraser store, built in 1937 when it was DH Evans? More details about the architecture and some wonderful images from the store's opening brochure can be found here

I sometimes complain that modern buildings don't have the style of their confident 1930s counterparts, but just round the corner we find 50 Bond Street, now a Mulberry store but apparently built in 2012 for Scottish Widows. Those angular pilasters (if that's an accurate term in this case) are very striking, as is the decision to front the building in green stone. No wonder it won a RIBA award.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Tectonic Shifts

There were in fact two balloons soaring through the pellucid blue sky over Hornington church the other day, but I could only photograph the one. They were taking advantage of the still air and the 20-degree temperatures. There was a day this week when everyone I met greeted me with some variant on the phrase 'Isn't the weather lovely!' and I felt like replying with something along the lines, 'Well, sort of, but it's also very probably a harbinger of the global climatic catastrophe which will cause the destruction of all we currently hold dear.' I didn't say that at all, although I did get into a conversation bordering on such a reflection with the waitress in one of the cafés, and even referred to it in the odd homily. 

Most of my friends are mainly disgustingly liberal and metropolitan souls, and so it was no surprise to find their reactions to the warmest UK February weather on record fell into the same conflicted combination of enjoyment and anxiety; west Surrey is quite liberal too but I was more surprised to find similar sentiments here from young and old alike. The weather has of course turned grey and damp again, but nobody seems fooled any longer by quotidian meteorological fluctuations, and nobody dares to say 'Where's all this global warming, then, eh?' In fact I think there has been a shift in thinking relatively recently, driven by the successive shocks of scientific reports and records breaking. Whether it can translate into the kind of action which will have any sort of ameliorative effect I don't know. I suppose I should lie down in the middle of the main road in Swanvale Halt with a placard saying 'Down with this sort of thing', and a picture of the sun crossed out.