Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Dun? Certainly have been...

                                                         From the bridge at Geddington
CSNY on the car stereo chirping charming, hippy nonsense about Guinevere and the delights of Marrakesh as I thrum past the Samuel Palmer landscape of a sunlit Boughton House. I park near the Ise ford in Geddington, and because the morning’s so nice, turn down the chance for coffee and cake at the village cafĂ©. In Wood Street a cheerful postie is on the last couple of hours of her daily stint. She’s been treading tarmac since half past six. She doesn’t mind the early start, particularly on an energising spring day like today, even though the breeze is brisk, and she’ll be walking this way with her dogs later on, as if she hasn’t worn out enough shoe leather already. Where the tracks divide I find the Old Brickyard community garden and its totem pole. Geddington’s primary school is just back down the lane: the kids clearly use this opportunity well.


I know villages have their faults. There’ll always be backbiting and gossip and petty squabbles. But at their best they provide wonderfully safe, varied and nurturing possibilities for all their residents. It would perhaps be cost-effective in the long run (less crime, less mental illness) if modern housing developments used them as a model. ‘Joined-up thinking’ has dropped out of our current clichĂ©-bank, but the tensions between developers and government, and the necessity of immediate profit margin mean urban villages will rarely materialise, more’s the pity.

 It’s the fourth Spring of my Walk, and 1000 days since the country made its fateful but perhaps not yet final decision to part company with Europe. Three years can pass in a flash, at least when you’re the wrong side of sixty. The span of human history begins to carry a different meaning, and one begins to marvel at the shortness of time since the first motor car appeared, or a King of England was deposed in favour of a Commonwealth, or Normans underlined their power with a wave of new and larger churchbuilding. Assuming that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred somewhere around AD 32, will the Church celebrate 2000 years since those events? And how? Is anyone in this post-Christian world giving any thought to the matter?

 The stony, easy-walking track leads up towards Brigstock between Geddington Chase on the left and Bright Trees Wood on the right. It’s pretty dry underfoot now, after the abrasive winds of a week or so ago. Precipitation amounts have been annoying rather than functional in the East Midlands. There’s a fuzz of green on the bushes and trees, but the birdsong is sparse. Joyously, it wasn’t so at a quarter past five the other morning. I like to think that the first thing birds do when they wake is praise their Maker with an ornithological Morning Prayer. Why else would they so expand their communication during the morning peak hour?


                                                 Forest management: Geddington Chase

A different and harsher kind of music assails my ears from the top of the rise. As I come up to the crest, a Darth Veda helmet appears above the silhouette of a trials bike. The rider appraises me anxiously as I walk towards him, but as far as I know he and his mate aren’t doing anything wrong. This is a byway, and surely there are no restrictions as to who does what on it? It’s just that they’re, grrr, spoiling my quiet Monday morning walk with their noisome row. They stand aside respectfully as I pass, we say hello, and then they continue their bikers’ yarns in…Polish or Russian or Lithuanian? But here’s the thing. Good old European me, I still find an aggravated bile of resentment rises as I realise they’re not native British.  This isn’t acceptable, of course…it’s unadulterated prejudice, and tribalism, and runs contrary to my ostensible Christian and political beliefs. But to show it for the poor, anachronistic thinking it is requires acknowledgement, analysis and resolution – in short some moral hard work. Nigel Farage has just lost his co-chair of the new is-it-isn’t it ‘Brexit Party’, because she was shown to have a history of poisonous tweeting. Among the more plaintive comments from Catherine Blaiklock’s on-line output was that instead of ‘acid attacks, mobs and mosques’ she wanted ‘seaside donkeys on the beach and little village churches’. The dangerous thing about such rhetoric is the slip from understandable nostalgia to hate by association – a shift that’s easier to make than we like to think. On the other hand, there’s a debate to be had  - and actually we’ve been having it for decades – about how incomers should adapt to the mores of a host nation, whether one is the host or the traveller. I’ll shortly be visiting the Netherlands, as I’ve done lots of times before. I speak no Dutch. All social interaction will probably occur in English. This too is sloppy and regrettable behaviour, isn’t it, suggestive of a British superiority complex?  Last Saturday, the Rev Jun Kim was installed as Rector of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Abington, Northampton. Jun is from South Korea, and his wife Simona’s family are from the Baltic States. The world is getting smaller, and it’s a shock to our ways of thinking, and all of us, including me, will have to get over it. As Bishop Donald apparently mentioned at the installation, parishioners will have difficulty besting Jun in his ability with spoken or written English. Like.

 The line of the Roman Via Devana probably crosses the track somewhere near here, a military and social artery running in zig-zag fashion from Colchester to Chester. It’s now a commonplace that the arrival of the Romans contributed a lot of extremely foreign blood to the native British stock, though perhaps tempting to make too much of this in terms of sheer numbers. Certainly we have evidence of men and women from far-flung places in the Empire, including Africa, but then again, these incomers may have been more highly educated than the general run of woad-wearing Romano-Britons, and so may have been more likely to leave signs of their presence. Anyway the point’s well made. Being British isn’t just a matter of sharing one’s DNA with 7000 year old bones in Cheddar caves.


Despite a population of not much more than a thousand, Brigstock feels quite the town. The parish St. Andrew’s church serves is large, and the round turret which clings to it reveals its important Saxon origins. It’s said that the number of people living here hasn’t changed much since the days of Henry VIII, when Rockingham Forest was a much greater, coherent reality, and folk would come to the local markets from far around. Inside St. Andrew’s I find two ladies who are preparing the flowers for the funeral tomorrow of  93 year old Kathleen Wills. As the ladies tell it to me, Kathleen was a long time resident of the village and a Catholic, so a Catholic priest is coming to take the service here in recognition of her love of the place and people. This is how it should be. I hear rumours of Anglican churches leaving ‘Churches Together’. As the other Real Donald (not the Bishop!) would say ‘Bad. Very bad.’

 St. Andrew’s has lost its large adjoining Rectory where there was also a Parish Room. They hope that soon, with the Diocese’s permission and some financial support, there’ll be a servery and loo in the church. On my way out, I meet the smiley, friendly Rev. Heather who’s been the Rector since 2017. Her husband Alan is the Associate Minister, and a Church Army captain. I wonder to myself how their breezy, possibly evangelical style will sit in Brigstock, particularly since they live in Stanion (and I imagine old habits die hard, and that Brigstock thinks it has more tradition than Stanion…but this is mere supposition!) Mission or marketing? Change or decay? Stick or twist? Yours, mine or ours?


                                             A new take on a Bishop's Throne: Brigstock

A nineteenth century Brigstock vicar, Talbot Keene, who sounds like a B movie actor, was also a jolly soul, and it’s claimed that he was a poet, though versifier might be a more accurate description. Writing about the ‘rules’ for callers at the vicarage, he said:  ‘If he should be in studious sit, shy/In the study he may sit/But if inclined to laugh and talk/Then in the parlour let him walk/And in the wheel of his narration/Put in this spoke of conversation/Let those who thus shall honour me/Be as at home, and just as free…  Time pressures on clergy were less in those days, hence hunting for good rhymes, shooting the breeze, and maybe fishing for compliments.

 A text arrives from Matt to say his friend Giulia has just given birth, and she and Enrico now have a lovely daughter Vittoria. It’s Lady Day today, the feast of the Annunciation. For an Italian family this seems good timing, and if our friends and relations are any measure, Brexit seems to be promoting a baby boom. Actually, the more I think about this, the more likely a proposition it seems…

 I wander out of town to the Fermyn Woods Country Park, enjoy a cup of tea and a piece of Bakewell amid sundry mums and tots, and look at the pictures of butterflies adorning the walls. I’ve never seen a Purple Emperor, but if you go down to Fermyn Woods in June or July apparently there’s a good chance you will. If the actuality matches the publicity, they must be the most exotic and beautiful of all native species.

 I follow the path over the fields towards Stanion, the last section of which passes through a newish plantation of smart, greening birch. On its far side a short field leads up to modern houses in front of St. Peter’s church. At first I don’t see the path which leads into the churchyard on an angle from St. Peter’s close. A Northamptonshire old boy asks me if I’m walking to Geddington (rather wearily, as if he has to deal with a score of people every day for such purposes – which he may well do…) He wants to point out the direct route but adds that if I really want to see Stanion village, I can take the path by the church wall. I assure him I really do but then am disappointed to find the church closed. Disappointed because I know that inside there’s a seven foot whalebone which legend has it came from a ‘dun cow’ so productive and large that it once kept the entire village supplied with milk, until a witch did away with it out of jealousy.  The Dun Cow story (which has lent its name to quite a few pubs) crops up quite a few times through the Midlands, and Stanion isn’t the only church to display a whale-bone as supposed evidence of bovine fecundity. It seems possible the remote origins of the tale may be in the defeat of the Danes (= Duns…whalebones…)


                                                           Birches near Stanion

In 1944 Stanion and its church starred in a short film you can still watch for free on-line courtesy of the BFI called ‘Springtime in an English village’. If you have seven minutes, please input the title to your favourite search engine and be moved. I’m not entirely sure all the footage was actually shot in Stanion – the hills in the opening ploughing sequence don’t immediately seem right. As the BFI’s short description comments, the intentions of the film-makers aren’t clear – it was made for ‘colonial’ use, and the little girl crowned Queen of the May is perhaps rather conveniently Afro-Caribbean, one of two apparently in the school at the time, so maybe there were propaganda purposes in its making. But in its depiction of innocent childhood and a now distant, different time, to this viewer it’s almost unbearably touching, poignant and beautiful. I wonder if any of the children who appeared in it are still alive. It’s quite possible, and it would be wonderful to have their memories of the event.

 The Sprouting Times:  18 km. 5.3 hrs. 13 deg C. Brisk north westerly breeze at first, veering north-easterly and then dying in the afternoon. Two churches, one open. One stile. Nine gates, and three bridges, two over streams and one over a road. Blackbirds, sparrows and tits. One marauding pair of kites. One very handsome hunting buzzard. No woodpeckers despite the woodland walks tho’ Sue saw a yaffle in the garden early in the morning and a team of goldfinches the following day.  

I always thought I knew my tribe
Could recognise the accent of someone from North West Kent
Could depend on a common liking
In Politics
But these days it’s confusing.
Everyone wants to belong
But only to a tribe they design for themselves
Like Groucho Marx said
None of us want to be members of any club that would have us.
It’s sometimes the way I feel about your Church.

 Father, we know we are one people under your care.
Draw the warring tribes together from your many mansions
To sing in glorious agreement and harmony
In your eternal choir.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Family Business

I think perhaps this posting shouldn't be here. Maybe it’s too personal. It’s not about the Diocese of Peterborough. It has no connection to the Church of England – not directly. But this story finds itself in the long narrative, because I could have been reporting to you from somewhere out in the country near Corby, but instead I’m in what was once called North West Kent. And secondly because today I find myself in a different role. I’m a needy, importuning customer/consumer, like others I come across in the visitor books of Peterborough churches . It’s March 8th, and fifty years ago to the day my mum died of a metastasising breast cancer.  It was a long and arduous road to death. She was forty seven, my dad a few months shy of fifty. I was seventeen, and an only child. Today I want to heal some memories.

 The drive from Northampton to Erith is unpredictable. If the motorway gods are unhappy it can take three or four hours, but I arrive in Northumberland Heath an hour early, and so drive down the narrows of Brook Street to Erith cemetery. I park next to the office in the western part and peer through the windows to see if anyone’s there. Yellow dungaree’d Mick materialises behind me and asks if he can help. I explain I’m looking for the grave of my paternal grandparents. He puts in a call, kindly Jo looks up a ledger and tells me the grave’s number is DD 118. Mick takes me into the middle of the cemetery, and we find William and Isabel. I haven’t been here for nearly sixty years, but the grave is roughly where I imagined. It’s not in great condition. I can just about make out the names on the low surrounding kerb. The concrete on the top is failing, and there’s a small hole in one corner, revealing the void underneath. This state of affairs is a bit near the knuckle.  I’ve recently expressed myself forcibly to fellow-parishioners about the state of the War Memorial in Weston Favell. A couple of years ago it was given Grade 2 status, and there’s been considerable enthusiasm for cleaning it, jacking it up and generally giving it a botox and blow-dry. I’ve taken the opposite view – memorials are what they are, and should be allowed to fall into dignified decay, unless there’s a health and safety issue. But - of course - I don’t feel at all the same about something with the name Cross on it.

 William died before I was born. Isabel knew me briefly as a baby before she too passed away, in 1952. William, so my aunt says, could be a difficult man. So could my dad. So, I’m assured by my family, can I. Isabel was by all accounts kindly and emollient. She gave birth to five sons, so in such a testosterone-filled household, she probably had no choice. I wander the cemetery’s eastern half, and look out towards the just-visible Thames across the old gravel workings, now given over to landfill. I reflect on the rightness of my grandparents being buried together. The ashes of my parents are twenty miles apart, which in retrospect seems a poor reflection of the love they had for each other.

 John meets me outside Northumberland Heath’s Baptist church in Belmont Road. It’s thirties’ red brick looks much the same as it did, just a little more weathered, like all of us. John is sporting a ‘Bob Marley:  Revolutionary!’ baseball cap. He’s a little hard of hearing. I think his wife Grace, who looks after church bookings, has briefed him, but he still carries a faintly puzzled air. I’ve had a bit of difficulty setting this up. An e-mail to the pastor remains unacknowledged after three or four weeks. And Grace and I only made final contact two days ago, after some hiccups. Well, I suppose the request was unusual.

 John lets us in, and I take in the surroundings. The art-deco pews went long ago, to be replaced by nice blue cushioned chairs, ecclesiastical space-for-the-use-of. The communion table has moved forward, and the area over the baptistery is now a concert platform. There’s a drumkit in one corner, and sundry amplifiers, and a keyboard, the usual kind of thing. In the early nineteenth century there were occasional tussles between clergy and gallery bands. The bands would sometimes get out of hand, and the clergy had a job shutting them up: the musicians had come to think of worship as ‘their’ prerogative. And then someone invented automated barrel organs, and the clergy saw a chance to wrestle back the initiative – or so the story goes. It helps to have worked in the pop/rock business to understand the potentially dangerous significance of ‘worship bands’. It’s extremely difficult not to make the music about ‘me, me, me’. Its extroverted nature and the secular model draw attention to the ‘performer’, however hard he/she tries to give God the glory. Choirs and organists aren't by any means immune from this kind of thing, but at least, even in American evangelical churches, we tend to put them in funny furbilowed clothes so they don’t get too uppity. Just like the clergy.
Behind the band kit is a grand piano. It doesn’t sound too bad, so I work with that. For my mum, and with John (who has tactfully settled himself two thirds back) as a congregation, I sing. Firstly, ‘O Rest in the Lord’ from Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’, which she sang more than once as a solo in services, when she was already quite unwell. I imagine she was very scared and uncertain, and the music was a way of shoring up her faith, as it would be for me too. Another piece Mum sang, though with whom I can’t remember, was the ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ duet from The Messiah. I may even have accompanied that. In private she would sing a ditty from the CSSM chorus book. ‘Why worry when you can pray/Trust Jesus, he’ll find a way/Don’t be a doubting Thomas/Rest solely on his promise/Why worry, worry, worry, worry/When you can pray.’ I do not sing this for her now, but instead ‘Great is thy faithfulness’, which is a hymn which carries great personal meaning, with its triumphant couplet ‘Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow/Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside...’ I can’t remember whether Mum liked this, or which hymns were sung at her funeral. I was too shell-shocked. But I do know it was sung when we said goodbye to her mother, Ella May.  I read from John 20, describing Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the empty tomb and the gardener, and though I’ve managed to stay focused and dry-eyed through the music, my voice cracks as I read the account of the disciples’ encounter with resurrection. I finish by singing my own version of the Nunc Dimittis.

And that’s it. It sounds trivial and grudging to say I’ve done my duty, but I have. I'm so grateful for what my mum gave me: a joy in life, a desire to smile even in adversity, a delight in music and words, and a faith. I wish she could have seen what the last five decades have brought, and that she could have met Sue and Matt. I thank John and bid him and the church goodbye. I was dedicated here as a baby (not christened!). I struggled my way through Sunday School here, kneeling on the dirty boards of the hall floor to crayon pictures of Moses in the bullrushes on the little school chair ( no, no, silly – on sugar paper, on the chair!). I learned to cheat my way around an organ here (electronic, primitive and made by ‘Jennings’ from Dartford, who also more successfully made Vox amplifiers with their never-better-emulated tremolo settings). I was baptised here by full immersion. I was grudgingly admitted to church membership too, although because I couldn’t summon up a real ‘conversion experience’, it was made clear they thought I was a second-class Christian. 'Maybe you'll get there one day, lad...'

I harbour no regrets or resentment but it’s quite possible I’ll never come back. The place has changed, and so have I. The memories are good and bad, painful and healing. Nowhere now will you hear the full-throated sound of a congregation packed to the gunnels roaring out, in the aftermath of the Graham crusades, ‘And can it be, that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood...?’ male voices to the fore. The egos of contemporary drums and guitars are in danger of drowning out the corporate expression of the Church.

 I walk the streets for a bit. The houses crowd round the church now. The old Brook Street school has gone, where the great Alan Knott learned his basic wicket-keeping skills. The Pheasant pub, whose predecessor was the oldest inn on ‘The Heath’ has fallen on hard times. The yeasty smell of the bread factory still hangs in the air – it carries the Hovis name now, though I don’t think it always did. The wide open space of the rec is still available for dog-walkers and footballers. Long ago it was the site of the Workhouse, the ‘Spike’ which gave Northumberland Heath its still remembered nickname of ‘Spike Island’. I stroll up Horsa Rd, where Mum and Dad rented their first house together, and on to Emes Road where in a small council house the Hutchins family was raised. If anything it’s a little more upmarket now under private ownership. I pass the cottage hospital where I was born, and then double back to Bexley Road, where in the fifties there was a Co-op with its funny tin tokens and a Woolworth’s too, piles of knickers and bras in an open cabinet for anyone's fingers to sort through, but where now, in the same buildings, can be found tanning salons, tattoo parlours and betting shops. What’s so striking is how close everything is. The Crosses of Hind Crescent lived a literal stone’s throw from the Hutchins. Hospital, school, shops, church were all within the bare three quarters of a mile length of the community. And without television, or cinema, life revolved around the church for many, three or four nights a week, and twice or three times on Sundays. Even the pubs came under the eye of the Church. My dad once told me that he used to hang around their entrances as a young man, not gasping for a pint, but carrying a bible and singing hymns with the Band of Hope.
I leave by way of passing the first house my parents owned, at the unfashionable end of Parkside Avenue down towards Slades Green. They didn’t stay there long. They always had leafier places in mind. The place is scrappier now than it was then. Other communities are moving through, aware their sojourn by the railway embankment is temporary. All things must pass.
As I drive back up the A2, through Blackwall and round the M25 towards ‘my’ chosen patch I ponder how we can better serve those whose memories and needs draw them back to the places they and their families knew in the past. I’m not sure we’re doing a great job. How many churches have alumni associations, to keep in touch with students as they move away from home?

 And more generally, as all humanity flees from its centre, like a universe exploding from its first nucleus, increasingly isolated in our own individual worlds, yet receiving a confusing multiplicity of messages from those disappearing into the infinite distance around us, I wonder yet again how we can ‘do church’ more effectively. Same old stuff. My mum and dad were for ever asking the same thing, six decades ago.
Next time, back in Northamptonshire...
In memory: Betty May Cross nee Hutchins: 1921 -1969.