Monday, 30 December 2013

Thoughts on Forces of Nature on a Wintry Walk - 30.12.13

It was a late departure. It had been pelting with the most attractive rain all morning, and yet, having a few hours to myself in the flat, I delayed going out to enjoy it. At first I thought perhaps I had missed it, but no, it continued pelting. In fact, at one point, and for the first time certainly since we moved here, and maybe in a year or two, I did actually consider turning back, as I contemplated the dampitude of my trousers in the Achilles heel between waterproof anorak and wellingtons. But I am made of sterner stuff, and it was not a choice to be regretted.

I walked up the hill through the playground, thinking, rightly, there would be no one there (apart from a council employee in a van, doing no ostensible work, nor with any work ostensibly to be done) and headed for my favourite subway. Last time - Christmas morning - it was odiferous. Not this time. A veritable torrent was streaming through it. It wasn't flooded, just puddley, and with this really strong current on one side. As it's the lowest point until quite a few yards down the hill, where the water goes is a mystery. As I walked up the slope on the Headington side, I was greeting with not just the rain again, but the traffic spray from the ring-road, flung a good ten or twelve feet from the road itself, and enough to make you soggy. I retreated and took the steps instead. Today at last the final victims of the Christmas weather were reconnected to sources of heat and light in various parts of the country, and it amazes me every time how when nature flexes her muscles, vainglorious humanity is laid low. It's just water, for heaven's sake, but in the right quantities, in the right places, it makes every difference, and there seems to be precious little (at least whilst our rulers remain in Climate Change Denial Mode) we can do about it. There is a nobility in the might of nature to subdue its most powerful child.

And so to Bury Knowle Park, of which I am very fond. A boring vulgar manor house in the middle of Headington, whose only merit is to house the local library, which, alas, is to be known as "Headington Library" rather than "Bury Knowle Library". The house may be plain, but it, and its park, have a pleasing name. My usual bench being occupied by some dastardly interloper, I headed for the perimeter path, one I rarely use, and headed for the Co-Op to buy salt for our dinner (if he's good, I might add food to it), before continuing my peregrination through to Headington Quarry. By now the sun was beginning to shine but the paths and puddles still justified the wellingtons. What was quarried here, apparently, was clay, and the resulting pits have made some very unusual and architecturally interesting dwellings, as every inch of this prime real estate has been turned to suburban profit. It is full of ups and down, unexpected alleyways and turns. Even here, though bourgeois humanity has taken his loot, nature still seems to be calling the shots.

Over the road, and into Risinghurst, the posher part of our bit of "over the ring road" Oxford. A right turn into C S Lewis Way, and so past the writer's house, The Kilns, to his eponymous nature reserve. The Kilns is surprisingly meagre. It's low and squat, with small windows. It has a poorly-attached extension, making it an L-shape on the ground floor. It looks damp. It probably isn't. The notice telling visitors not to knock on the door without making an appointment has been torn up, which seemed meaner than the notice itself. But what the house lacks, the little nature reserve amply compensates for. All of this land was originally Mr Lewis's garden, and other (rather nicer) houses have been built on it too, perhaps providing an endowment for the reserve, and any other favoured projects of a man with no children nor other heirs.

You walk down a muddy path, through a clipped gate, and straight onto a large pond. It's another of those quarry hollows, filled to the brim just now, of course, and surrounded by tall, very English-looking, leaf-bare trees. There was a bike chained to a notice to the right, but no sign of a cyclist, not when I arrived, not when I left. In fact, not a human soul all the time I was there, sitting on a little bench overlooking the pond from its narrow end. The pond is bigger than several tennis courts, but smaller than a football pitch. I may not be a lot of use on scales and distances. And so I sat, thinking my thoughts about something quite other, occasionally noticing the antics of the mallards and moorhens, when a flash of unmistakable blue made me pay attention - a kingfisher. It dived, splashed, bobbed straight up, and disappeared again into the bank opposite. Kingfishers, unlike waterfowl, do not have natural lamination, water makes their feathers damp and heavy, that's why they have to dive, and fly out of the water, so fast. It's also why you never see them bobbing on the water like ducks; they would sink. And then it flew closer. And then very close. Twenty feet away from me, and looking me right down the beak. Stunning awe and wonder. If you've never seen one, they are tinier than you can imagine: apart from the fish-stabbing beak, about the same size as a sparrow, but transfigured by colour, the blue on top, the russet below, the black and the white, and I dare say others in between. They are the most tiny, dazzling, forces of nature you can see. It was about to set off - I wasn't disappointed, this had already been a bonanza of a show - but it hovered instead to a higher branch. It reminded me of the hummingbirds we saw in Brasil, the ferociously beating wings, the absolute control of the air. They call the hummingbird the "beija-flor - the flower-kisser (of course, the verb comes before the noun, rather as when His Lordship says "stop bus", but that's languages for you).

The journey home required another subway trek, this time under the A40, but this one is near the Sandhills Park and Ride commuter and commercial line into Oxford, and out to London, so it's never odiferous. Emerging on the other side, the cold, ferocious winter sun was blindingly bright. It reminded me of the other day in the car when the sun was so fierce that we had to stop the car. The force of nature.

Rain and sun and quarries and kingfishers. What a little creature a man is, and how blest to enjoy them all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2013

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Thoughts on a Walk to early mass on Christmas Day

Thoughts on a walk to early mass on Christmas Day

I like Headington. It's the township out of which Barton, where we live, was carved - after Headington Quarry and Risinghurst. Our bit is rather new, but it has old parts. The village church is in the oldest part, and is indeed one of the oldest parts itself. Dedicated to Saint Andrew, it flies the blue and white saltire from its tower in all weathers and seasons, lending a faintly subversive, independent air to this most respectable of suburbs. The church has aged well, with the help of a well-heeled congregation, so its ancient stones are upholstered by much newer carpentry and stained glass, and its parish priest was decked in a most shimmery and pleasing golden poncho for the occasion.

Dawn was just beginning as I made my way up the hill. There's a local church here in Barton, but they are too friendly. Almost as if they're after your soul. Or at the very least your name on a rota. So it was up the hill, and under the ringroad through the rank-smelling subway and out of lumpenproletariat Barton and into the Groves of Bourgeoisie. Funnily enough, the first road you come to, after Barton Lane itself, is the inspiringly named Ash Grove. But as you plod closer to the moneyed heart of "Old Headington", the houses are bigger, stonier, and walled. I noticed a most impressive chimney and was surprised that I'd never seen it before. But it was a trick of the light - it actually belongs to the furnace of the John Radcliffe Hospital some way away. It's hard not to wonder precisely what goes into a hospital furnace, and once you've started, you wish you hadn't.

The service was (mainly) from the Book of Common Prayer, so I knew it, which was just as well as no one thought to proffer me a copy. Apart from the smiling vicar, the congregation, of about 12, all looked as if they'd had lemons for breakfast. What an attractive thing this Good News of ours must be to make everyone so happy! I arrived just in time to hear the end of the Gospel - "and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Always spine-tingling words. I detest the clutter of Christmas, but like any true Anglican, I'm a sucker for the Incarnation, the sine qua non of all our theology. There was no homily, and the Gloria was at the end, as it should be, so we rise from our knees, to end the service standing and ready to go out glorifying God in his world. I exchanged brief words with the parson, complimenting him on his outfit - "if a vicar can't shimmer at Christmas, when can she?" he replied, jovially.

And so back, through the now-bright lanes with views across the valley of glorious bright, sharp, winter countryside. I passed Mather's Farmhouse - from which our street in Barton takes its name - and noticed the prettiness of the sparrows in the climber round its door. If you can get close enough, these are such delightful little finches. A blackbird singing in that rude, outrageous way they have. A fat old wood pigeon in a tree looking for all the world as if it had won the lottery, or at least done a very good deal with the taxman.

And so to home, and cats and Christmas, greeted by a smiley vicar and adorned by cheerful birds, freshly fed on the Word made Flesh.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Thoughts on the Mystery of our love for Animals - 21.12.13

The 'Pider Under The Step

The 22nd anniversary this last week of the death of our family's springer spaniel, Gunner,
has started me thinking about the place and role of animals in our lives. People can have strong opinions for or against sharing our homes with other creatures. On balance, I'd say most of my friends are in favour. Less so my relatives. Whether this is representative is hard to know, as perhaps those of us who are animal-friendly are drawn to other people who share the same enthusiasm and sentiment?

For me it all started with the 'pider under the step. My late father was trying to play football with me in our little garden in pre-genteel Cobham, in Surrey. Well, football was a lost cause in any case, but on this occasion it was lost to the sheer fascination of the spider under the kitchen door step. I remember the garden, and the step, and I have other memories going back to that time, which ended when I was about three, but this memory I think is strictly speaking one I have borrowed from him. To his credit, he gave up on the football, and came to have a look at the 'pider with me. It was the beginning of a shared fascination which was a big part of our friendship.

One memory which I know to be true is from about the same time. It was a garden, possibly an indoor one, at some kind of department store, which had a pond with pathways over it, full of goldfish. This was immensely fascinating. I remember the huge size of the fish - they weren't koi - which reflects my own smallness, so I know it's a true memory. And of course, there is the added thrill of giving one's parents the panic of possibly toppling in and drowning, and how embarrassing that would be in public on a Saturday afternoon.

From then, it became an enthusiasm for animals of every sort. I was not so grand and intellectual back then to dismiss the popular ones - the polar bears (one, Pipaluk, was born at London Zoo when I was two, just in time to help me learn to read - I still have the book), giant pandas, tigers, gorillas, and the rest. A schoolfriend dismissed my interests as those of a "woolly naturalist", but fascinating too were the creepy-crawlies underneath the rockery in the garden of our house in Wimbledon, newts, butterflies, Chinese alligators, tortoises and turtles, snails, and a host of others. When I was about ten, I think, I was determined that we must find a toad. These days I would head straight for the Houses of Parliament, but then it was a matter of marshalling my father and his car, and stopping at every pond and muddy ditch we saw, overturning stones and fallen bits of tree, and all in vain. Then one day, on a visit to friends of my parents in Bexhill-on-Sea, I found a toad in their garden. In jubilation, I brought it in to show the grown-ups who were having tea after lunch; it was sitting apparently calmly in my cupped hands. And then it pissed. Toads are not very big, and I don't suppose my hands were then, either, but altogether, the toad and its panic measure, filled them. I fled to the garden door, to spare the carpet, and my ears the sound of adult guffaws. "Woolly naturalist" indeed!

I was a regular at London Zoo from the late 1960s, and remember seeing Chi-Chi the giant panda there shortly before her death in 1972. My oldest memories are of animals and even buildings and complexes which no longer exist. Being indulgent people, my parents would take me to the zoos within reach of London - Whipsnade for its rhinos, Windsor Safari Park for its killer whale, Woburn for its bongos, and Fritzi the hippo, amongst many other beautiful creatures. And we went on holiday to places near some of the best zoos in the country - Bristol (okapis), Chester (Indian elephants), Marwell (Siberian tigers), Howlett's (gorillas and snow leopards) - and stayed on or near farms which had their own marvellous fascination of poultry and cattle and donkeys and dogs.

Livestock of our own were longer coming. My sister had a much-neglected rabbit, Fluffy. My father and I caught some "tiddlers" (sticklebacks) in the Thames one time (he had to catch me several times during the expedition), but they didn't last long in a tank, and I didn't much mourn them. There were Tommy and Fred, the tortoises who, rather embarrassingly, ran away. Then in 1977 along came Claudius the Hamster. I don't recall his having very much character, and what there was, wasn't very pleasant, but he didn't smell, and rarely bit, and when he died in 1979, I was heart-broken. Two years later George, his daughter, died too - she had been the product of a mating with a schoolfriend's hamster. I happened to have an enormous crush on the friend at the time, but I'm not on the couch today, and we're not going there. George was little more pleasant or interesting than her father, but her death, which was sudden and dramatic, was a sorrowful trauma.

But by then we had a consoling presence in the house. In the autumn of 1980, Gunner arrived. We had done immense amounts of research to find a good-natured, child-friendly, all-rounder breed of family dog, and we got it just right, he was perfect. And we were lucky with him, too, he was scrupulously fastidious, and very quickly house-trained. He even agreed to use only one particular patch of the garden for deposits, which made tidying up after him very easy. When my parents were trying to sell the house the next year, we (my sister and I) and Gunner were locked in the front room while viewers looked round. He banged on the door repeatedly to go out, and we told him to be patient because he wasn't allowed. It was only when the viewers left that we looked behind the sofa to see why he'd been banging on the door. More fool us - he'd given us every chance. One special blessing of Gunner's arrival was that it coincided with our Grandad's departure. We didn't know he was dying, although in retrospect with increasingly chronic lung disease after a lifetime's smoking, it was pretty obvious, but he adored puppies, and there are few dogs more puppyish than a spaniel. He had had one of his own as a child, many years before, when he was living under the kitchen table as a deposit on a debt to a "friend" of his father. Two of the sons of the house ran the puppy over with a cart as a laugh. Over later years, he had many dogs, but none who lived to old age - they moved house so many times, the dogs were usually given away when they passed the puppy stage. He adored Gunner, and the feeling was mutual, as absolutely no one else would let Gunner lick their ears.

And then we moved to Sussex, which was a change of scene, and lifestyle, of birdlife, and places to walk. Gunner now had half an acre of garden to run round (the day he found a dormouse, which ran up his ear, and hid there, with him manically trying to find it, until it could leap off to the safety of a rose bush, was delightful in every way - I'd never seen a dormouse, still less one that could provide such panto), but even so he preferred to be out and about - new smells, please! We could never walk him safely off the lead - in Wimbledon for fear of the roads, in Sussex, for fear of sheep farmers and their shotguns (they only have to return the collar, no questions answered) - but he and I walked miles and miles through the Forestry Commission woodland, and onto the South Downs, and saw pheasants and partridges, and hares, and deer (Japanese imports, but beautiful nonetheless), and kestrels, and bluebells, and violets, and cowslips, together. All new things we hadn't seen in London. And at home, I kept geese (Pompey, Wombat, Josie, Tiny, Pegleg, and the ill-starred Trotsky and Adolf).

Then there was a long, long, break. I went to Oxford, and obviously no pets were allowed there (although Ben O'Flynn smuggled his beagle, Tracker, in and out of the college in a holdall, with the connivance of the scouts and porters) and then to a life of bedsits and small flats and sharing with people who were not generally very animal-friendly. Back, home, Gunner grew old and died, so did the cats, which were brought down from London a few years after we moved to help with the rats and mice who found the geese just as interesting as I did. A new dog, Bertie, a cocker spaniel, came along. I had four jobs in the Church of England, but only the first afforded me a garden. At the time, I was toying with the idea of getting a bloodhound, a breed with which I had fallen in love on a farm in Somerset when on holiday many years before, but I dithered (they are very slobbery) and my next job came with a first floor flat in the middle of Cambridge.

It wasn't until leaving the paid ministry and its accommodation that at last I acquired a pet of my own. Or rather, being a cat, she acquired me - or us. It was New Year 2011 when we first saw Cleopatra in the arms of a young couple who had rung our doorbell and wondered whether she was ours. We weren't allowed animals of any kind. As we chatted, she broke free, and zoomed round the house, entering every room, but perfectly tractably being handed back. A few nights later as we put the rubbish out, a small dark shape hurried in, and never left. It was as if she had cased the joint, and we were Chosen. A few months later, Ruby came along, originally intended as a Fathers' Day gift for my father, who rather liked Cleo, and His Lordship didn't understand the convention that you don't give live animals as presents without prior consent. So, Ruby stayed, and then we had two, and I wouldn't be without them. When we had to move in June, from a convenient ground-floor flat to a less convenient first-floor one, I was convinced they would move out and find a better offer. But no, they are prepared to suffer the inconvenience of the new regime, and once again, we are Chosen. It is rather a nice feeling.

So what is this business with animals all about? Over the years, I've been a member of various clubs connected to London Zoo, the Otter Trust, the Parrot Society, the WWF and its present incarnation, and the RSPB. The domestic enthusiasm is backed with a national and a global one. Most of us who like them at all, like animals in general, and some animals in particular.

With pets, for some, it may be a sort of power. Dogs, of course, lend themselves to this more than cats. Dogs have owners, cats have butlers. Fish and birds have fanciers, which always seems amusing. But if power is the key in any relationship, something hasn't grown right. At its best, any relationship must have something to do with love. We are fashioned capable of many different sorts of love, and sometimes the supply - as we see when a new dog or cat or budgie or aspidistra or rowan tree or friend comes into our lives - seems inexhaustible. And with other creatures, there is the fascination of differentness, wondering how they think and feel, and whether and in what respects their experience is like ours. They can provide an undemanding company - some food, access to the garden, a walk, a cuddle, some idle banter; they ask for very little, but we don't feel alone with a cat sleeping quietly in the corner of the sofa.

John Donne said "all divinitie is love or wonder". Love we have seen. And the wonder? That all comes down to the 'pider under the step. I hope never to grow out of that.

Richard Haggis
December 2013

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Paying for Care - Letter in the Daily Telegraph, 17.12.13

Dear Editor,

If the chaotic inflation in house prices over the last thirty years is to have any good effect, it is in providing capital for care in frail old age for those lucky enough to have been able to buy their own homes. That the elderly rich should [sponge off] take from the state in their declining years without being required to sell up and fork out to pay their way, is surely anathema to every Conservative principle.

Yours faithfully,

Daily Telegraph, 17.12.13 (my original words in [])

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thoughts on a Walk with the late Queen Mary

Royalty has always fascinated me. This has a lot to do with genealogy. When I was relatively young, I had three favourite books - I, Claudius (Robert Graves), Lord of the Rings (J R R Tolkein), and Victoria R I (Elizabeth Longford), and they had one thing in common - in the back of each of them were extensive family trees, which I could copy and re-draft to my heart's content. The Roman Imperial family is so incestuous and multiply-married, that it is almost impossible to draft it on one (large) sheet without repeating names (although I did once manage it!). Tolkein's family trees lost a little by being made up. But royal family trees are manageable. They are not generally too incestuous, apart from the Habsburgs in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then they become absolutely hilarious (and finally concentrated genetic defects into the Spanish branch to such a degree that they died out, which is funny in itself - they were so grand that they could only marry other Habsburgs, and it was their own undoing).

The British royal family has never shied from cousin marriages, but has preferred not to repeat the process too closely over successive generations. It's as if someone is keeping quite a close eye on the quality of the bloodstock - in much the same way as I suspect Her Present Majesty pores over the bloodlines of her racehorses. As both the Queen and Prince Philip are descendants of Queen Victoria, it was immediately easy to see how. They are also, and more closely, descended from King Christian IX of Denmark, although in different generations, but as the Queen's great-grandmother was a Princess of Denmark, and Prince Philip before his marriage a Prince of Greece and Denmark, that too wasn't tricky to trace. What I wasn't expecting was that King George V and Queen Mary would be cousins. This was delightful, because I took a shine to Queen Mary from quite early on.

It began, I think, with a book of cartoons ("We Are Amused") published, no doubt, in the Silver Jubilee Year (1977), and a depiction of contrasts - Queen Mary and the new Queen Elizabeth (known for half a century in her widowhood as the Queen Mother). It is very simply drawn, but in a few lines the cartoonist has shown a difference in style - Queen Elizabeth is all curves and smiles and a gay tiara, Queen Mary is all stern lines and a severe toque. It is marvellously done. I instantly preferred Queen Mary. I have never been drawn to try drag, for which the world gives an intermittent sigh of thanks, but if I ever were, hers is the style I'd aim for. And that is what I wanted to learn something more about, so a little while ago I sent off for the official biography by James Pope-Hennessey.

To be honest, I wasn't all that hopeful. "Official" biographies are likely to be heavy on detail, and access to records, but thin on real critique, and I thought the book's only real merit would be some unfamiliar photographs. I was very happily disappointed in this expectation. The prose flows at a pace, and despite the author's obvious regard for his subject, he pulls no punches about her failings and weaknesses, complexities and contradictions, and I found myself being drawn in to her story, and drawn to her character. After quite a long time reading - it's quite a long book - I was left pondering why I had enjoyed it so much, and I think here's why.

Princess May of Teck was born as a poor relation to two royal families. Her father, Francis, Duke of Teck, was a scion of the royal house of Wurttemburg, but, because his parents' marriage was morgantic (the father royal, the mother merely noble), he was excluded from the succession. So, he wasn't much of a catch, and was on the look-out for someone else who wasn't, and he found her in Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her father, the first duke of Cambridge, was a son of King George III, so Mary Adelaide was a first cousin of Queen Victoria, in that remarkably thin generation considering that King George and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children. She had an allowance for life from Parliament, but no capital, no prospect of ever inheriting her very fertile cousin's throne, was thirty years old, and more than merely buxomly overweight. In her kindly family, she was even known as "Fat Mary". But to everyone's delight, these two also-rans made a go of it, and had four children - Princess May, and then three sons. As well as eating all the pies, Princess Mary Adelaide was also a party animal, and a spendthrift. Prince Francis was an enthusiast for furniture and decoration. Within no time they were massively in debt, and on the brink of her teens, Princess May accompanied her parents into exile in Europe at the firm suggestion of Queen Victoria, and her mother's brother, Prince George, the second Duke of Cambridge. The Duke was head of the army, and the Queen was head of everything, so there was no arguing. I had had a hunch that the "poor relation" status was very important in the formation of Queen Mary's character, and Mr Pope-Hennessey confirmed this richly.

After their rehabilitation in England - and it can hardly be stressed how enormously popular Prince Mary Adelaide was - the family's star rose markedly when Queen Victoria was looking for a consort for her heir's heir. This was a new thing. Kings and Queens, well-upholstered though they were, didn't live so long in those days. Victoria had grown bored of German princes (whatever would Albert have thought?) and wanted someone closer to home for her grandson to marry. But she wasn't that keen on the nobility, either. Princess May of Teck was perfect - royal, British (born and raised, ignore the genealogy), and malleable. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, although he had a certain debonair look, wasn't much of a catch. Half-witted, louche, and unpredictable, he would probably have made a less than indifferent king. Fortunately for England, the Grim Reaper played an early card, and Princess May was jilted some months before the altar. There then followed a fascinating grooming process, in which it is quite clear Victoria intended to hang on to May, and to fix her up with Albert Victor's brother, George, Duke of York. He was actually a much better bet. Less of a party animal, a bit solemn, but dedicated and devoted and dutiful. And grateful. Both of them took the bait, they married, and the Queen was delighted. They remained married for the next 42 years. Despite both coming from rather warm families, and having decidedly gushing and clinging mothers, George and May were personally diffident and emotionally awkward. Their expressions of love were made in letters, not face to face. King George told the BBC person about his broadcast of thanks to his people for their enthusiastic kindness in his silver jubilee year (1935) that they must move his words of thanks to the Queen to the end, because if he had to say them at the beginning, he wouldn't be able to continue.

HSH Princess May of Teck became HRH the Duchess of York, and settled herself into a most engaging new task - discovering, and re-inventing, the monarchy. She had a very strong sense of history (Mr Pope-Hennessey doesn't fault this, although he trashes her taste in art), and of her own descent from George III, and saw in the trappings of the various royal households models of how royalty can be lived. Her great-grandfather was famously nicknamed "Farmer George" and it is either fortuitous, or great good sense, that she chose this as the style on which her own royal family would be modelled. She and King George lived at "York Cottage" on the Sandringham Estate, not a cottage in the language that you or I might use, but a bagatelle compared to Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle, or even Sandringham itself. I don't think it was a plan, certainly not at first, maybe not ever, but its consequence was to make a domestic monarchy. Not, like the Scandinavian monarchies (which, like our own, all survived the wars and other tempests of the 20th century) one of riding bikes in public, but one which wore crowns in public, but sat on sofas having tea in private. And, just like the bicycling Scandinavians, we knew that, and she meant us to.

The reasons for this are interesting. There is her own family's financial disaster, but also an awareness which few British princesses will have had until then of what it was like to live poor. Princess Mary Adelaide, for all her taste for the high life, took her children not only to gawp at the poor, but into their homes. She, and her daughter, sewed and embroidered, for the sake of children whose mucky feet they had actually seen. Clearly she found something attractive about what we might think of as "normal" domesticity. I doubt she ever had to cook, but were occasion to demand, she would have risen to the challenge. She was content to spend night after night boringly at the palace with the increasingly ungregarious King, but on the other hand, when there was royal work to be done, she would be decked out in pearls and diamonds to impress the empire of which she was Empress. She regularly wore a brooch made from two of the smaller gems cut from the Cullinan Diamond. Her Present Majesty and Princess Margaret referred to them as "Grannie's chips". Together, they were over 100 carats of first rate gemstone. Yet, when the war of 1914 broke out, and she had rallied her sewing and embroidering forces for the troops - within two days! - she had a radical re-think the next week when she was warned that all this freebie knitware was putting women out of work. So, she re-drafted the operation. That I think is remarkable in English history - for a crowned queen to have an understanding of the economics of the poorest household, and wish rather to improve, than to undermine, its circumstances.

Queen Mary arrived at her throne with a very strong sense of what the monarchy could be, but also with a sense of how it must change with the times if it was to survive. Her own mother was popular in the 1860s, when her cousin Queen Victoria, in her self-indulgent widowed seclusion at Windsor, was lighting the fires of republicanism. She knew that monarchy had to be seen, had to be charming, had to listen. And it had to do its duty. In her husband, she found the perfect partner for her enterprise - George V was just about as dutiful a monarch as we have ever had. When he had to appoint a Labour Prime Minister and cabinet in 1922, for the first time, he wore a red tie for the occasion, in the hope that it would make his new ministers feel at home. He learnt to use the radio, and to do it well. And he and Queen Mary were seen from time to time as grandparents, mainly to our present Queen, and her sister Margaret. Queen Victoria was never a public grandmother - a mother of nine, she much preferred her Empire to her family.

Queen Mary also had a profound sense of needing to learn, which I found most endearing. Like most girls of even merely aristocratic class, she knew her education had not been a priority. She was fluent in French and German, but that was about as far as it went, but throughout her life she was a culture vulture, fascinated by galleries and paintings and sculptures, and by the theatre and productions both old and new. "The Mouse Trap", Agatha Christie's play, which is still running in London after over sixty years, was Queen Mary's idea. Every time she went on a foreign jaunt, in her youth for novelty, in later life, for duty, she brought books with her, and read them, to learn about the places she was going to, most dedicatedly about India, which she visited as Princess of Wales in 1905, and again in 1912 for the Delhi Durbar, where her husband became the only English monarch to claim his title to India actually in India, in person. And even then, she gained approbation in certain quarters for wanting to know not only what went on in the "purdah" of the gentlewomen, but also the lives of the ordinary women of her Empire.

She was no firebrand, of course, and her interest in change came up against inflexibilities, one of which was her elder son's abdication. She simply couldn't understand it. Here he was, a pampered boy, who'd had every opportunity, never had a worry for himself, nor for anyone he cared for, been to university, travelled the world, seen and done things she never could have, and all he had to do by way of repayment, was his duty. She had married a dead man's brother, and learnt to love him (and she never forgot her feelings for Albert Victor, however naive and slight we might think them from our lofty vantage point). And here was her son throwing away a crown and an empire for a woman so indecisive that she had been divorced twice. In her own writings there is heavy censoriousness for his dereliction of duty, but there is also a mother's concern that he has paid over the odds for damaged goods, who would never make him happy. The Duke of Windsor has described his mother as "icy", but he has also used fonder words, and he may not fully have understood, being a rather selfish man, quite the position he had put her in.

The abdication was a disaster, but one from which the royal family rose in triumph - thanks largely to the late Queen Mother, and her daughters. For years England had known a loyal and dedicated, but coughing and poorly, king, and now it had a family again. Like his mother, King George VI took on a role that was now expected of him, with no great relish, but with distinction. Queen Mary retreated to the background, although she broke convention by attending her son's coronation. And the Second World War made all things new, for everyone in the realm (if they survived). One victim was her nephew-in-law, the Duke of Beaufort, with whom she was billeted in evacuation during the war at Badminton House. She didn't like the ivy. So it was cut down. There were worse losses in the war.

She lived to see her favourite grandchild become Queen. She would far rather not have done. George VI was the third of her sons to die before her, and the famous photograph of her with the Queen Mother greeting the new Queen on her return from Kenya after the King's death, is hauntingly sad. She left the strictest orders, knowing that she was dying, that it must make not one whit of difference to the coronation festivities, which happened two months later in 1953. Duty, always. Even in dying.

I was wrong about Prince William's title. I had thought Cambridge wouldn't be used again so soon. I had reckoned without Queen Mary's towering influence on our modern monarchy, on the House of Windsor. Her elder brother was made Marquess of Cambridge. Her mother was Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her Present Majesty was making a point - she's one of "granny's chips" off the old block.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Thoughts of an Accidental Radio Listener

Thoughts of an Accidental Radio Listener

I must have been a teenager when I discovered the listings in the newspaper and found that radio, as well as television, had a schedule, that things happened when it said they would. So I explored. I mainly wanted comedy, I still do, but I discovered much else by mistake. One of these discoveries was the late John Ebdon (1923-2005). He broadcast programmes on Radio 4 under the title “A Sideways Look …” and it would make my case better if I could say I can remember some of them. But I can’t. What I remember is that I listened. To the subject matter, and to his lovely voice, and that voice was the key. He spoke as if he knew something you wanted to find out, as if he had seen something you wish you had. From the comfort of your armchair, he transported you to a world of discomforts and questions and inconclusions, which left you thinking; and that was his purpose - to leave us thinking.

When he signed off from his broadcasts, Mr Ebdon used to say “Well, if you have been, thanks for listening”. That was utterly winning. “Of course we’ve been listening, otherwise we’d not have heard you!” But then, have we really listened, or did we just let the radio burble in the background while we got on with something else? But it was his gift and his charm that with John Ebdon, we had indeed been listening, because he had found us something interesting to think about, to imagine, and he had thought some of our thoughts, and imagined himself, and ourselves, into the stories he was telling.

Writers must capture us with the cold written word, warm it up, and bring it to life. The television confronts us with sweating reality. Radio provides a space between the two: if you have the sort of voice which can imply the question behind “if you have been, thanks for listening”, and know that the answer is, “yes”.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Thoughts on a Walk through Bicester Village: When is enough, enough? - 23.11.13

When Is Enough, Enough?

"You'll hate it" said my friend Derek, and he wasn't far wrong. Bicester Village is a "retail outlet", which seems to mean an awkward place to reach where manufacturers sell off cheaply their over-production. It is very "designer". I realised quite early on after meeting HL that one difference between us was that his clothes had labels on the outside, and mine on the inside, if at all. But needs must, when the Devil drives, as they say.

The devil driver in question was my mother, who had, with her friend Lynne, braved the journey to Oxford for the first time since my father died the April before last. She's a perfectly good driver, she's got the how, but she likes to be told the where. She asked me to find them a guesthouse nearby to us here in Barton - I found a nice clean one in Headington, 10 minutes' walk away - and to book a place for a meal, and to brace myself for a trip to Bicester Village, which Lynne is very fond of, the next day. I booked a table at what is now a gastropub in Old Headington, but when I last lived nearby, twenty-odd years ago, was a dire dive. It's called "The Black Boy" and the pub sign is a horse's head. It wasn't, twenty years ago. The fact that it has been discreetly changed to reflect modern sensibilities would have amused my father immensely, as would the fact that the taxi driver who took us there was Asian. This was part of the point. It might count as dark humour. The manor houses of Headington - of which there are a surprising number within a relatively small area, bourgeois retreats, rather than the hub of landed estates - were places where once a "black boy" would have been something of a status symbol in the household. Times, fortunately, change.

After dinner, Mother and I went for a walk along the road to view Ruskin College, where I am a schoolboy once again, based in yet another of Headington's manor houses ("The Rookery"), but with what Prince Charles would call a "monstrous carbuncle" on one side, but one which we both agreed was, despite its very different style, in keeping, curiously, with the original Georgian building, whilst having an integrity of its own. Lynne didn't join us for a walk. She is an enthusiastic driver, and so has lost the use of her legs. However, we'd had a lot of chat over dinner about the genealogical work I'd been doing on her parents - who had been babysitters for my mother years ago, and honorary grandparents to my sister and me as we were growing up, so while we walked, at least we felt we had left her plenty to contemplate until the taxi returned.

So, we went from an evening of talking about our roots, the workhouse, the London and Kentish poor, Irish peasant farms, the energy and hopefulness of immigrants, and briefly about Ruskin, set up to provide educational opportunities for those denied them by the class system and the oppressiveness of toil, to set off the next morning to a temple of Mammon for the rich, and those who would ape them. It is a measure of the success of our lowly forebears that we were able to be comfortable in this succession of lavish emporia, and disdainful of much that was on show at reduced, but still obscene, prices. I had a crash course in the mystery of the handbag. Lady Bracknell had a point. I must have seen over a thousand handbags this morning, at an average - reduced - price of £150. Mother found one that delighted her (for rather less than £150), and said rather pleasedly "AND it's made in Britain".

There's no question that this spending creates work, and the work makes wages, and wages make spending, and spending makes the economy grow. But I couldn't help wondering who can afford these things at any price, never mind the full one. And who would, if they could? And then I saw a Waterford cut lead crystal vase. It was marked down from £1,000 to £650. If I were a rich man, I might, just might, have splashed out. I spent more this summer getting a second-hand car repaired, and repent every penny of it.

And so, just as every person has their price, so too we have our values. My first lodger in Seven Dials, Louise, of Louise Burger fame (you'll have to wait for the book to come out) worked at the National Gallery, and said of things of beauty that one way of reckoning their expense was to value at £1 every glance at them that gives you pleasure. I spent her first month's rent on a Persian rug which has returned a rate far in excess of that these last twelve years.

What I wonder is how permanent the cult of shopping can be? Can the planet really sustain a custom of endless re-invention? My rug, and, if I'd bought it, that vase, would be in my will. But some people go shopping every week. Does there come a time when enough is enough?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Baywater, Oxford
23rd November 2013

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Moon, the Stars, and Little Us

Littlemore Parish Church

The Window for Sunday, 24th of November, 2013

The Moon, the Stars, and Little Us

There has been a waxing moon lately – well, there is most months! – and the stars have been much in evidence. A friend and I have been pooling our ignorance about one particularly bright and low star which we think is the planet Venus, and no matter how wrong we turn out to be, that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. Since moving to the edge of the city, beyond the ring road, in Barton, the countryside and the skies have become much more apparent to me. It’s been a sort of earthing, that includes the heavens.

In his novel about Saint Francis of Assisi (“God’s Pauper”), Nikos Kazantzakis writes of Brother Leo who discovered God because he had no wife or family to demand his time and anxiety, and he could lie on the roof and gaze at the heavens. He found God through indolence, having the luxury to notice and think about things everyone else was busily taking for granted.

And what astonishing things they are. Just look up at the night sky, if you can escape the street lights for a moment, and see how crowded it is. There is no map I’ve ever seen which is as full of towns and cities bustlingly demanding our attention, as the heavens are full of stars. Kindly friends have tried to explain the constellations to me, but I am a bit dense in this regard, and all I can see is shining wonder.

And who am I, a tiny morsel of mortal humanity, amidst all this celestial wonderment, to be contemplating what God has made? The theologian will say, and truly, “you are a child of that same God, made in his own image and likeness, and that sense of wonder is God’s too – what you see, God sees, and God knows that it is very good – and you’re not so bad yourself, but don’t let it go to your head”. Theologians can be quite “earthing” too.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2013

Monday, 11 November 2013

Fear, in the dark, in Barton, 11.11.13

Sitting on a bench in the park, in the twilight, in my luminous yellow donkey-jacket. Slender, young, lady, emerges from the shadowed damp and muddy path, walking purposefully. Just as she passes me, she presses a button which illuminates her mobile telephone, which wasn't ringing, and says "hello? yes, I'm on my way, not far now ..." And I am left thinking, "you have nothing to fear from me, but it's as well that you think you might". And also thinking that is rather sad.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembering - and Forgetting

On Remembrance Sunday in 1990, just as the first Gulf War was brewing up, I held back in the church hall as the others trooped out to the War Memorial, with the scouts, the British Legion and the rest. Eventually a lady of senior years and I were left behind.

I asked her why she hadn't joined them. She replied: "My father died in the Great War. Now they are planning another. They have remembered precisely nothing." I have not forgotten that.

The Rev Richard Haggis


(The Independent, 07.11.11)

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Power of Memory

Walking to the C S Lewis nature reserve in Risinghurst yesterday afternoon, I thought to check my wrist to make sure my watch was there. As I did so, I realised I remembered, quite clearly, putting it on. There was something about the clasp on its new strap, which isn't quite right, but will do until it wears out. I've had this little watch several years now, and have put it on most days, certainly several hundreds of times, maybe over a thousand. Where does one's memory store such things? Does it throw out all the old observations which can be of no use, like a librarian discarding supplanted editions of a reference work? Or are they really all still in there - untold little mental images of such a simple daily action? If so, whilst the brain could hardly be considered practical, it's most certainly astonishing.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Doggers. Well, that was a surprise. I first came across the word in a Channel 5 documentary, but the second time was this week, when walking around Risinghurst and towards Shotover. I found C. S. Lewis's house, "The Kilns" - not nearly as nice as it looks in the film "Shadowlands", and the little nature reserve he left to the locality. Presumably it was once his garden. My goodness, what a garden! Ponds, and dells, and high trees, and light and shade, nature nurtured, and all sorts, such a beautiful place. And these doggers, apparently, are large and ancient rocks, which (presumably until quite recently) the locals could help themselves to from Shotover Hill and adorn their front gardens with them, or use them to dent the car bumpers of incompetent motorists. Logging, and dogging, and frogging - the old boy had them in spades. I never read his children's books and didn't like his theology, although I fell for his tragic account of bereavement "A Grief Observed". That little volume speaks the agony of the human heart in loss. Maybe walking in those exquisite grounds, alone, and knowing he would always be so, sharpened his wits to write honestly something of the mystery of love, and life, and God.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk in London: The Madness of the People

London was the city of my birth. Just. When my parents were married in 1964, Wimbledon was firmly in the County of Surrey. By the time I was born in 1966, it had been shunted into the London Borough of Merton, and was thus part of Greater London. My parents, on the other hand, were proper Londoners, my father born in Fulham, my mother in Paddington. Of my grandparents, my father's father was born in Kent but grew up, and lived and worked and died in London; his mother was born in Battersea; and my mother's mother came to London from Ireland in the late 1930s or just into 1940, and never left. Further back, the earliest of my ancestors to be born in London was Alfred Samuel Haggis, born in Fetter Lane, on the edge of the City, in about 1820.

So, London is mine, and I belong to it, as it to me. Walking through, lately, for my training sessions with the CAB in Pentonville Road, through streets, and past buildings, which in many cases I had known from childhood, others from moving to work here for a few years at the turn of the century, was an exercise in both nostalgia for the past, and revelation of the present. One can only hope for the future. The dentist, in Tavistock Place, where I had a fluoride treatment which has kept my teeth in better condition than I deserve these last four decades; the optician in Wigmore place who prescribed my first glasses; the jazz club in Soho where I saw George Melly, and heard his rasping breathless singing, and his outrageous lewd jokes; the church I came to love as the most beautiful building in London, tucked away, under the shadow of Centrepoint, forgotten, and not loved enough, either before, or since. The assignations, the rendez-vous, the dinners, the operas, the exhibitions, the galleries,

It struck me afresh that London is full of everyone. We have, in happier times, prided ourselves on being a welcoming people. My own patch, Seven Dials, at the top left corner of Covent Garden, named after the seven roads which lead off a tiny little roundabout, welcomed first the Huguenots, and then the Irish, in the 17th and then 18th centuries. After that it was a free-for-all, although we claimed one of the first Indian restaurants in London (about the time of Independence and Partition). Within a few hundreds yards of my flat, you could eat Indian, and Chinese, and Thai, and Indonesian, and Korean, and Persian, and Indian, and Italian, and Spanish, and Greek, and American, and French, and every variety of English foods.

Whether we have always welcomed the people as warmly as their cuisines, I don't know. We certainly haven't been sounding all that welcoming of late, with our anxieties about who to let, or not to let, onto these shores. My walks in London this last week were instructive on that count. Within yards of each other, in Fitzrovia, I found blue plaques to Simon Bolivar, and Hector Berlioz. Each was only in the building for a year, but that year was deemed worthy enough to note and remember and remind others about. And just round the corner from the CAB, in Percy Circus, was a blue plaque to none other than "Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, or Lenin" who lodged there in 1905. If I remember rightly Russia was at war with Japan that year, and there was a domestic uprising. There's a frisson of historical irony to think that while all this was going on at home, Mr Lenin was sheltering in a foreign city, as the lodger of an English duke.

And within the sightlines of that plaque were council blocks named after Paul Robeson and Ernest Bevin. It's easy to forget that Mr Robeson was regarded as a dangerous socialist in his own country in his day, and that Mr Bevin, barely literate though he was, was regarded as one of the more effective Foreign Secretaries of the 20th century. And here they are, commemorated within paces of a man whose infinitely vaster legacy was as infinitely more malign. I recall reading that Bertrand Russell met Lenin once and described him as "the most evil man I have ever met". Curious how atheists just can't help resorting to religious language.

And then there were people to learn about. Not far from Messrs Lenin, Robeson, and Bevin, was a plaque to Edward Irving "founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church". Well, I learnt a little about this when I was at S. Giles, as both our PCC secretary and one of our churchwardens were Catholic Apostolics, and both very good and devout men indeed. The warden, Peter, was also warden of the Catholic Apostolic trust that owned their vast church in Gordon Square, which for a long time was borrowed by the chaplaincy of the University of London, but then there were differences about the ministry of women, and it was loaned out to Forward in Faith instead. Urban myth has it that Catholic Apostolics tried to stay around Gordon Square, because this is where they expected Jesus to come and collect his faithful at the second coming, and the church had been deliberately constructed on shallow foundations so that it wouldn't tax the might of the almighty to raise it entire into the air. Bonkers, really, but Peter really did say "one had rather hoped it would have happened by now", and he meant it. It turns out Irving had nothing to do with the founding of the church itself, although he was a fringe, trouble-making, radical, who perhaps laid rather more substantial foundations to make it possible. It is all but extinct now.

The other was a complete surprise - the Grant Museum of Zoology, in University Street, just off Gower Street. This is named after (or as the Americans rather foppishly say "for") Robert Edmond Grant, a Victorian scientist and collector, who left his vast collection of specimens to University College, London, and others added to it. It is the last such museum of its kind, and the most macabre, and wonderful collection of bits of dead creature. There are pieces of Dodo, skulls of mammoths, the skeletons of a dugong, and a curling python, the extinct quagga, and thylacine, and countless tiny things, including a whole illuminated room of creatures on slides, just to make the point that most of what lives, we can scarcely even see.

Maybe that's the thing, I wondered, as I trudged to the coach-stop along the backstreets to the north of Oxford Street, that most of what lives, we don't see. The foreigners in our midst, we don't see, and we don't mind - heaven knows, most of us are descended from some of them! But London, of all cities, has welcomed the outcast, the stranger, the foreigner, and though the people I pass on the streets on my way back to another city (although also on the glorious Thames) may not look or speak much like me, they are, if they choose to be, Londoners too, and for all I know, Londoners more! Under the benign and watery eye of Old Father Thames, we can all belong, and none need be endangered. I do so very much hope it will always be so.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Michaelmas, 2013

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk through London: the Lie of the Land

A 5.30 start, a walk in the dark, and very soon the rain, to the park-and-ride (no discount for those of us who don't take up a car park space), and so to the big city for a day's training with the Citizen's Advice Bureau at their headquarters in Pentonville Road. I'd only come across Pentonville Road before in Monopoly - it's one of the pale blue ones on the side between Go and Prison. Possibly appropriate. But the walk began at Marble Arch, quite the other end of the Monopoly board, in the Duke of Westminster's Mayfair estate. He inherited this from a Mary Davies, a scrivener's daughter, many years ago, who caught the eye of the Grosvenor heir (they weren't dukes then, they weren't rich enough) and in the fullness of time they married, and as a dowry she brought a "swampy mead" for cattle in a most unpromising place on the very far west edge of London. That swamp is now Mayfair, and Mary from the Dairy is remembered in Davies Street, and her senior descendant is very rich indeed.

Normally, I would keep heading towards Soho and S. Giles, but my appointment was further north, so I strayed onto two other ducal estates - Devonshire and Portland. They are the Cavendishes, and Cavendish-Bentincks, so one can only assume they must have been united in matrimonial money at some point or other. Grand squares, and wide streets, nearly all now occupied by business interests of some kind of another. Portland Place has quite a showing of consulates and embassies and High Commissions, and there are one or two other more worthy presences, but generally, this is now about big money, when once it would have been about places to live for those with comfortable incomes. I stumbled across Wigmore Street where I was taken for an eye test at the age of ten, and the optician diagnosed what another had prognosed when I was a toddler, that I was very short-sighted. I walked around the shop wearing those rather spooky diagnostic frames, and asked my parents "are you really meant to be able to see all this?" It was quite a revelation. I cried at the thought of a life sentence of wearing spectacles, but now, although I could not do without them, I don't think I would, either. They have become a part of me.

And so across the boundary onto a fourth Ducal estate, the Russells, Dukes of Bedford. My beloved parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields was in their patch, although the church was founded in 1101, long before anyone had heard of anyone called Russell. Not even Russell Brand. The Russells invented Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, and pocketed the change and built Woburn Abbey with it. The Bedford Estate is a bit downmarket, though, compared to the other ducal fiefdoms, as some bits, like Seven Dials (where I lived as a curate) and "the rookeries" (where New Oxford Street was built to cover them over) were dead rough. A Victorian writer observed of Seven Dials "there may be as many as thirty persons dwelling in one room, strangers both to hygiene, and decency".

There is one lovely little feature of the Bedford Estate which I remember with delight from when I lived nearby. In Russell Square, there is a rather modern building, erected under the auspices of the University of London, whose heartland it is, which has two plaques on its front wall. One is a solemn apology for going ahead with the edifice without the proper consent and approval of the Russells. The other is a glowing architectural award for excellence. Someone's little joke at the expense of the coroneted landed interest.

And so further through the London Borough of Camden, and over the border into Islington. And yet another ducal estate, one I wasn't expecting, but the Northumberland Arms, and Great Percy Street, and Percy Circus, must surely indicate that the Dukes of Northumberland had a claim at one time at least, to this rather mankier estate. But there appear to be other estates too - council and Peabody Trust ones - marked by tall, handsome, blocks, making good use of the land available, and making it available to all and sundry, on the grounds that common decency demanded everyone have a little bit of space to call their own, and not to have to share it with twenty-nine others. It seemed to me that Islington Council may still have many tenants of the kind for whom these blocks were originally built.

There is a leveller here - rich or poor, all live in tall buildings, and none have any but communal gardens. At one of the primary schools which came within the scope of the William Shelton Educational Foundation (of which I was briefly a trustee), the headmistress explained the importance of the school playground - "most of the children have nowhere to run and have had little practice, and so the accident book is full of injuries from children running into walls they reached rather sooner than they expected. They learn fast." Such allocation of the land was the only way to fit so many people into such a small space, and to do so with both decency and hygiene. I doubt that - these days - the smart apartments of Mayfair and Belgravia are (in the main) massively bigger than some of the council flats of Camden and Islington. You pay for the address, not the space; the postcode snobbery which greases the wheels of the grasping property market, and not just in London. Property is one of those peculiar investments in which absolutely no one has to do any work to deserve the profit they make (and for remarkably little risk). It is enough merely to own, those around you will do the rest, and prices rise.

And so to Myddleton House, the headquarters of the CAB, although they are soon to move to the even more upmarket City of London. Many of those landowning aristocrats were philanthropists too, as were Peabody, and those who built the council blocks, and they must surely have hoped that these many years later there would be no need of advice for those who can't afford to pay for it, to ward off poverty, control debt, discover their legal rights, and so on. But to their dismay, these things are needed more now than ever, in our complicated, fast-moving, times. So, I had crossed five ducal estates, in the nation's biggest, darkest, richest, city, to learn how to stand up for my fellow peasants against the might of power, land, and money. O how times have changed!

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Baywswater, Oxford
September 2013

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Thoughts from a Hat-less Walk along the Ring Road, from Cowley Centre to Barton-upon-Bayswater, 22.09.13

It was meant to be a cycle ride. Not of my own volition, but HL decreed it was good for me, and that we would go to the Tesco garage, pump the tyres up with appropriate wind, and I would cycle home. The nozzle didn't fit the valve on the front wheel. Ha! But by then I had it in mind to be useful, so I walked down to Cowley Centre, and bought a few things needful, and then trudged back, at first through the no-mans-land of Cowley-Headington, and then onto the no-questions-asked of the ring road. Probably four or five miles all told. Having intended to cycle home, I had brought my helmet, but not being able to use it, I was hat-less in the scorching nearly-sunshine of the Autumn afternoon.

The ring road is a perplexing thing. I dislike it strongly as a car passenger, as it is boring, and seems needlessly long, but if you look at the map, you see it could hardly be briefer. There's a story - probably only an urban myth - that the City Council had intended to drive the road through Christ Church Meadow in the early 1960s. I'm not sure what this would have added, but it would have taken away a great deal, and as debate raged, the argument finally reached the Cabinet, where the Prime Minister and six other ministers, were all Christ Church men, and that was the end of the matter. In vengeance, the City Council, whenever the college has asked permission to build anything anywhere near the Meadow, has said No, ever since, on principle.

But the ring road is wonderfully treed, if there's such a word. It's funny to think of these vast green giants trying to suck in the disgusting CO2 that the cars pump out furiously all the day, returning the favour only with oxygen that we all need to live our daily lives. I dimly recall someone's epitaph "He planted trees, that others might bask in their shade", and I've always thought that would be a wonderful thing to do. Well, it's been done all along the ring road, and bravo to whoever did that - and, as I'd come out without my hat, I appreciated their shade today.

An old lady came into view, moving very slowly, and as she got closer, clearly with spondylitis and a West Highland White terrier, of similar antiquity. She was leaning on one of those four-poster shopping trolleys, for which someone really ought to have been given the OM - practicality, mobility, utility, all in one - and the dog's lead hung slackly off its handles, as no one was going anywhere fast. And I wondered what on earth they were doing on the ring road. It was a long journey to anywhere useful - like the shops - and it's not the sort of place you'd go to let a (younger, perhaps) dog off the lead for a frolic. But maybe it was because of the path itself: broad, unbothered by cyclists, who have a much broader parallel one to themselves, and safe from jostling and hurrying. She couldn't very easily physically look up, and she didn't, but doggedly ploughed her furrow, the Westie loyally trotting at her side.

And so back through Risinghurst, Barton's upmarket neighbour, and how very apparent that was. I am a creature of the suburbs - could almost have been an estate agent, except that I tell easy lies about the wrong things - three and four bed semis, front gardens, off-road parking, and then a funny little park and playground. Nothing announced its entrance, it was just a gap big enough to get a ride-on lawnmower through, and then a field big enough to play a game in, and a playground in which small people were having fun. Two of them were on one of those slidey swing things that Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) got stuck on a while back, and should have looked a fool, but somehow improved his ratings yet again. There's something Clintonesque about that man. And on the grass there were four perhaps early-teens, one a runty little chap with his shirt off, but remarkably good at kicking the kiddies' football back into the playground without actually getting up from his recumbent position. He caught my eye not for the usual lascivious reasons, but because I thought this is how I must have looked long ago, pale, and thin, and unremarkable, although without the redeeming footballing skill. Not even the most eager pervert would have batted an eye at seeing me shirtless in a suburban park. I hope he was flattered, even though he'll never know the reason why. Soon the shirtless season will be closed, and I shall be commenting on their duffel coats and wellingtons.

And so over the border into Barton, which divides into an East and a West. East is slightly posher. We live in West. In the East there is a Leisure Centre, which I've only ever seen in the dark, and from the other direction, so I couldn't read its label. I went in, and to my surprise, there was a thriving gymnasium (those places always slightly alarm me) and a tranquil swimming pool, and a nice young lady at the desk who rather than just giving me a leaflet, summoned a nice young man to show me round. I used to swim at the local pool, at quiet times, when I worked at Seven Dials, over a decade ago. They tell me there are quiet times at this pool, too, although back then I made the mistake of telephoning them and asking "can you tell me when the schoolchildren use the pool?" and realised only after, what that must have sounded like. I stopped going there after an incident in the changing rooms. It was nothing that would get anyone in the papers, still less the courts, and I should really have found it rather flattering, but I turned tail and fled, and never returned, and have never swum since. The other chap could have done with a hat.

And walking, biking, swimming, and mulling, I made my way home, in the miasma of my imagination. Without my hat.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk in the Countryside: The Stories of People and of Plants

Thoughts from a Walk in the Country: The Stories of People, and of Plants - Today's stroll was pleasantly warm and sunny. I made it as far as Sydlings Copse, but didn't go in, waiting instead for a little while watching the meadowed dell next to it, where I saw hares the first time. The barley is still not harvested, but the two ploughed fields are beginning to show colour again now, a pale, insipid sort of green that I shouldn't much like to have on a wall, but it suits the fields very well. It's a stark contrast for the bold dark green of the high conifers which serve as the crematorium wall, marking a stark boundary, presumably so that some tired and distracted farmer doesn't wander off the field in his tractor and start ploughing up the dead, which would raise eyebrows.

I passed more walkers than usual, including Mr Boxy, again. There was another great strapping fellow with a titchy yapping cocker spaniel, looking apologetic for its behaviour. Dogs can behave how they please in the country. Mr Boxy has a Cavalier King Charles. Both small effeminate dogs, in a way, slightly incongruous with their owners, and I wondered if their wives (or boyfriends!) had chosen them, and they do the walking to get out of helping with the dinner. And there was a lady jogger, lean and fit, so she was obviously good at it, with a very pleasing face, I imagined her laughing very loudly at a rude joke. I like people who do that.

And I looked at the barley, on its Death Row, golden and truly beautiful in the sunlight, and thought, I can't make up a story about you. You have two events in your life, both traumatic and violent - you are sown, and you are harvested. Though you are beautiful, so are the tens of thousands of your neighbours, so if, like the "mirror, mirror" Beautiful People in the human world, you like to be the centre of attention, that's going to be a disappointment. And you can't move, except to grow tall and sway your head in the breeze. It seemed that this is how generations of our ancestors lived - born, died, with a short life in a field in between. No choices, no options, no triumphs, no failures, no expectations. There may have been joy, though, sometimes. Of course, the barley won't know joy. But if so, to my eye, it gives without receiving.

Thoughts from the Countryside and the Picking of Poo

Thoughts from the Countryside and the Picking of Poo: Horsey people are hugely entertaining (when you can stop them droning on about details), and the whole "poo-picking" thing is hilarious. If a friend said their toddler was "poo-picking", you'd think "ick" or "isn't that in Freud?" But this is what horsey people must do to keep the fields healthy, and it's quite disgusting, but to let your animals become ill would be far worse and so it must be done. Like changing nappies, although the subject has a more blunderbuss approach. My lovely friend Hala had allowed her (very pliant) arm to be twisted to take me to High Wycombe for a necessary part for the injured car (grgrgrgr), and as she had horsey duties by the time we were done, I pushed the barrow and off we went. This was a slightly more substantial offering - nothing like as generous as I had received - than it seems, as I am shit-scared (as they say) of horses. There was perhaps an ironic symmetry in walking round a couple of acres of their home with a wheelbarrow full of their shit. And my goodness, what a lot of it there is! I know they are big, but, well, gosh! And I was doing quite well, and then they homed in on me, these two big huge enormous bastard monster horses. "Oh they're quite little and very tame". Oh right. And I was struck between them. One had already followed me round the field like the office pervert nudging my bum. And then it started, in the sense of, I'm lost for words, starting! There was a sort of half-hearted kick, not at me, I wasn't within range of its foot, but the creature's enormous and powerful haunch was against my shoulder, and when its hoof hit the ground, the ground shuddered. So did I. The moment passed, and it was OK. I think she was just looking for attention. Or, Hala said, she fancies the boys. Oh goodness. And "The Picking Of Poo" sounds so A. A. Milne. But had she been a bear, I doubt I would have lived to tell this tale.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk with Mr Mole

Thoughts from Yet Another Country Walk: this series will end soon, by popular despondency, but today we encompassed what I am sure must have been the sublime and the ridiculous, although I hesitate to say which was which, and all were beautiful. There were butterflies in abundance, including one tiny white one, fretting from one barleycorn to another, obviously frustrated by the absence of flowers. In Brasil they call them bobbolettas, one of the very few words I learned. And later, striding manfully forth along the footpath, I was about to squish a molehill, and then noticed it was still moving. I stopped, and was about to walk on, thinking surely the mole has detected my clumperous sandals and is biding his wormy time, but no, it moved again. And several more agains. Obviously, it wasn't the mole's intention to come out into the daylight, just to shift earth from his worm-collecting tunnels, but I thought, what I wonderful thing to see. Honest unnoticed toil, which is so rarely properly rewarded in our lands. And then I thought how much my late father hated moles on his lawn, and to the joy of wonder was added laughter. I could become very fond of the countryside.
Finally had a walk in the local countryside today. Fields of barley, and of wheat, with oats sprinkled round the edges, and the amazing little treasure of Sydling's Copse. Flowers too numerous to list, and two hares japing in a field. And not a soul, not for miles, not for ages, unless hares and meadow flowers have souls.
I don't much feel English, although I mostly am, but today, walking between fields of wheat and barley, with sloes in the hedgerows, and hares in the field, and woods to walk in where there was space to stretch you arms and your voice, if you pleased, and all those countless meadow flowers, and a butterfly I need to look up .... Today I felt English, and very at home.

Thoughts from a Walk in the Countryside: The End of the Affair

Woe, alas, and lackaday, for it was the day, yesterday, when my last, my favourite, field of barley was harvested. There was the field, and there was what in my day "The Wurzels" sang of as a "combine harvester" doing its stuff, and slicing the grain from the stem, and dropping the chaff on the field, and the corn into a skip, which, as I looked at it - it was the size of a removal van - was full to the top. Is it too sentimental to say I was reminded of parents talking about taking their golden-locked kiddy to the barber's for the first time? Yes it is. Positively soppy. But I really do miss the barley, its shy, wilting, demure, heads, looking down from the sun in which they were designed to bask.

"Love is a many-gendered thing" as has been wisely sung, but does it include fields of barley?

It is a question that probably ought not to be asked.

No ears of corn of any species were harmed in the making of this nonsense.

Richard Haggis
September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk with Trees and Ghosts, on Christ Church Meadow

This wasn't the plan. Quite what the plan was, I'm not sure, but I had a meeting to go to at the Citizens' Advice Bureau in town where I'm to be a volunteer, and although a walk was always on the cards, all the other cards were torn up when a bang on the bathroom door whilst I was in the shower heralded the message "I've taken £3 from your percy for the car parking". That was the bus fare, carefully budgeted, as befits someone being trained in "financial capability" by the CAB. There are deep ironies in my doing this, but I'm really hoping that a bit of "physician, heal thyself" might rub off. And I call it my "wallet".

So, a walk it was, my first all the way into town, since we moved to the smart and fashionable suburb of Barton-upon-Bayswater. I allowed too much time, and found myself with a choice, as I crossed Magdalen Bridge, and stood underneath its fine and imperious tower, the first of Cardinal Wolsey's legacies to Oxford when he was the college's bursar, and bankrupted it with his extravagance. He had to flee to the king's service as a result, and did all right after, so they say. The choice was - town, or country? There being nothing we needed to buy in town, country won out, and I headed for Christ Church Meadow, rather than the Covered Market.

It was an easy choice, as I've known the Meadow as a member of Christ Church for nearly 28 years now, and love it no less than the first day I arrived. Perhaps more, as when I came up to university we had lived in the countryside for four years, and I thought I knew all about that, so the rustic charms of the meadow were as nothing compared to the thrill of the wit and banter and friendship of the people I was meeting.

In a quarter of a century, I suppose a tree can grow rather a lot, and that is what impressed me most as I started my walk, just how huge some of them were. And it struck me that a tree is a great explorer. It can't up-roots and wander off to somewhere more exciting, but it can send out an exploratory shoot, and if it's well received, it will grow, and become a mighty branch, and divide again, and turn into something quite unexpected. Most trees, you'd think, are programmed genetically to be of the grow-up-and-broaden-out sort, but so many of these majestic giants had binned the programme and done their own thing, and the beauty was in the unexpectedness of their explorations. No one would want a bonsai tree that resembled an artificial Christmas tree; their charm, as in trees growing wild, is in their twists and turns and surprises. And some of these trees must have been several centuries old.

When I first came to Oxford, I remember my friend Elizabeth's father telling us that since he'd come up to Corpus Christi College (I imagine, in the early 1950s, he's in his eighties now) Christ Church had changed radically in two respects. The library, which had been pollution-crudded grey and black then, was restored to handsome sandstone and whitewash; and the elms of the Broad Walk, which had been planted in the 1660s, had all gone, owing to Dutch Elm Disease (much as they tell us our ash trees are threatened now). I think some of the trees on the walk around the meadow must have been contemporaries of those elms, but their species I couldn't discern.

I passed another turn along the river bank, here it is the tributary of the Thames, called the Cherwell, and had another ghostly visitation, from under the trees. It was the small hours of a balmy and barmy June morning, after a Swansong Party that my friend Nick and I held to celebrate the end of our finals, and the beginning of new things. Somehow, a Beautiful Person and I had decided we must bring the last bottle of port to the Meadow with us, and as the Meadow is vigilantly (and sagely) locked against drunken students, we had to climb the gates to do it. They're really quite tall. With spikes. But we did it, and I dimly remember I was wearing sandals, so I'm quite chuffed with myself. And as we walked in the moonlight I told the Beautiful Person that I'd been rather in love with him for the last three years. I don't know what if he'd have done if the gates hadn't been locked, but he seemed flattered. And then, at my request, he held my hand, and we walked around the Meadow, like the lovers we could never be. And it was there, at that bend in the river, that we sat on the bank and finished our port, and I was gently rebuffed from taking things any further, and that was the end of the story in my moonlit memory.

A few more bends in the river, and there was the little bridge that crosses the Cherwell from the Meadow, to the colleges' boat houses, which are on a little island. After dinner in Trinity Term (summer) when the gates were open, some of us used to walk round the Meadow in our gowns, and talk about great things, as young people who are terribly earnest and interested and interesting and subsidised by the state, used to do. But we'd stop at that bridge and play Pooh Sticks. I don't think I'd ever played Pooh Sticks before. I'm sure I'd read, or been read, the book, but my parents are not of a literal turn of mind, and what was read in a book, stayed in the book. I think my friend Mark might have had a "blue" in Pooh Sticks, a great sporting distinction. A sixteenth of a blue, but a blue all the same. Or maybe that was croquet.

For once, now spoilt by the charms of the Bayswater brook, I didn't bother much with the Thames, the river that flows from the city of my birth to the city I have adopted, but turned instead to the Meadow itself, and the view and sounds across it. The bells chimed at 10, and reminded me of hearing a radio programme I heard in that first term, which played a recording of Oxford in the 1930s, and fifty years before, those bells sounded just the same. And there were the Christ Church cattle, a rare breed, we're told, fenced in with iron, not to stop them wandering off, but to protect them from the folly of the thousands of tourists to whom the college willingly and generously opens its grounds every day. And there was a jackdaw, which reminded me of my friend who grew up in Oxford, and once, in her childhood, had a jackdaw for a pet, and I watched this bird, and I could imagine how. Jackdaws and all the crow family are like parrots - sharp, and clever, and funny, but with a meaner streak, I fear.

My walk was all the wrong way round, of course, not like our postprandial undergraduate strolls, starting from the entrance by the Botanical Gardens in Rose Lane (over whose even spikier, but not so tall, railings, the Beautiful Person and I shinned after our unexpected tryst), and ending with the Avenue, which leads to the grand gateway of Meadow Building, where I lived in my first year. The Avenue's trees are much more disciplined - they grow straight and tall, and don't try to seduce people they shouldn't, although, fortunately, they are so proud and lofty, if the whispering grass had ever tried to tell them, they wouldn't have wanted to know.

And then, amongst this ghostly reverie, a new thing, a path I didn't recall. It didn't lead anywhere very exciting, but it was an innovation, so I had to explore it, of course. It went to the college staff car park, and to the ancient barn. This is a lovely, multiply-listed thing, covered in moss-encrusted thatch, which, we are often told in college reports, really does house barn owls. I'd love to go there at night and see them, but the Meadow is off-limits to all but grown-ups in the dark, lest we fall in the river, or devastate a cow, and the consequences get in the papers. The barn is probably older than three quarters of the buildings in Oxford, and has stood silent witness to countless devastating consequences over the centuries.

This led to the elm-less Broad Walk, and thence past a very pretty little garden whose name, if it has one, I don't know, to the War Memorial Garden. When I first arrived, I thought how civilised it was to have a Garden as a memorial; to commemorate the dead, with life. Of course, the names of the college dead are inscribed in stone on the walls of the vestibule as you go into the cathedral (which is also the college chapel), including three with a surname shared by a man who lodged two doors along from me at interview time. I saw those names, and thought "I don't stand a chance". But I got in, and he didn't. Of course, there was always a garden there, and some bright spark took the chance of the war to re-vitalise it, but to wonderful effect, and it is quite the most marvellous view of the college, looking from the colour and vigour of the garden, over sandstone outhouses, to the balustrades of Tom Quad, and the majesty of the Hall.

One of those outhouses used to be called The Old Brewhouse, and it was where my late friend John, the registrar of the Cathedral, used to live. We once came up with a scheme for a "Hymns, Pimms, and Ham Sandwiches" Party, at which we huddled round his piano, in this tiny apartment, and belted out the glory of God from hymnals stolen (briefly) from the Cathedral, and accompanied by the said refreshments, louder still and louder, as the night wore on. Latterly, it has been called Auden Cottage, because it was the poet's lodging in his last years, when he was an honorary Student (other colleges would call it a fellowship) here. He used to appall, and then bore drunkenly, other members of the High Table with questions about whether they would, in extremis, piss in the sink, until stopped in his tracks by the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, John Macquarrie, who said "not if there's an open window handy".

And so through those tall, spikey gates, I'd once climbed over in sandals, with a man I briefly loved, into the world, accompanied by the ghosts of a wonderful past, anxious for the present, but hopeful for the future.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Thoughts from a Recreational Walk, of Toddlers, Dogs, and Bottom

The recreation ground today, the sort of space with which Barton, like all of Oxford, is well-furnished. It's probably used more by dog-walkers than any others, but there are many of them, so it is rarely quiet for long, and there are other strange souls too, like me, who sit on the most uncomfortable, ancient, benches, and watch the world go by. My attention was caught by a gentleman with two delightful, and very tiny, toddlers, surely no more than two or three, and only a year apart, wearing the lovely bright colours that children seem to have a right to, and adults have to make a statement to merit. They seemed really to be amusing themselves (and mostly laughing their socks off), as their father (I assume; he might have just kidnapped them, I suppose, but if so, he was very relaxed about it) spent the entire time, and it must have been a good forty minutes, with a mobile telephone clamped to his ear. The children meandered about all over the place, and fortunately I could see he was paying attention as they got close to the Bayswater brook (see what an old mother hen I am!). Of course, when you watch a scene like that, you can't help speculating who's on the other end of the line, and I don't suppose it was the children's mother. But no matter, they were having a great time, and he was there.

And then a lot of dogging happened all at once. No, not THAT kind! There was a lady with a very lively black bull terrier, that was having rather a jape, running round in wide circles, until it espied a big fat old labrador. Then it was action stations, as she fumbled for his lead and shouted anxiously in warning "Not friendly!". I'd never heard this before, although obviously I've come across dogs that weren't good with particular sorts of other dog - it's nearly always males being aggressive with each other, but I suppose that is the tragic way of the world, which is why we should aim to have rather fewer of them in charge of things. Mr Fat Labrador seemed to have the Polari on this, and was quite affable about it, put his own dog on a lead, and they cordially passed, Mrs Bull Terrier expressing her gratitude. And just before she was able to depart, another walker appeared, this time with two dogs, a sort of whippet lurcher (rather handsome, I thought) on a lead, and a big fluffy retriever, which was loose. The same exchange ensued "Not friendly!", and Mrs Lurcher-Retriever had got the Polari too. Finally, Mrs Bull Terrier was able to leave the field, and the retriever and the labrador played very nicely together.

And whilst this canine soap opera was playing out, a hefty young couple - teenagers, I think, maybe early twenties, it's so hard to tell - plodded ponderously by, evidently salad-dodgers and strangers to any faster form of exercise, knock-kneed by the sheer force of gravity. I'm no body fascist, but I notice bodies, and am always a little surprised to see the lardy young - I thought you need to get to my sort of age to have the sort of weight your doctor has a word with you about. But these two suited their bodies, and, it is not the purpose of all bodies to be slim, despite what the telly tells us. In the eighteenth century to be a person "of bottom" was a compliment: it implied sturdy stoutness of mind, means, and purpose. These two would have been highly regarded in the eighteenth century. The boy had draped his broad posterior in jeans slung at mid-buttock, in the modern, inexplicable style. The girl wore pale pink leggings (I think they're called) which didn't leave imagination as an option. As the Dog Saga came to its quiet and peaceable end, these two were just moving out of my focus on the path, but I noticed Mr Jeans casting a confidently caressing hand over Mrs Leggings's bottom.

And I thought, everyone has been rather nice to one another this evening, and we'll all go home, having rather enjoyed our walk.

Richard Haggis
September, 2013

Thoughts on Walking on a Moonlight Night, and a Rainy Morrow - What A Difference The Day Makes

The other night, my walk was after dinner, rather than before, an experiment with inculcating tiredness in the interest of sleeping when normal people do it. It was coldish (at least if you wear shorts and sandals until November, saying recklessly "oh, legs don't get cold"), and wet, but in between the clouds there was a strong moon, and it wasn't dark. The familiar paths, in the dark, became strange. I knew where they were, but the colour had gone, the view, the perspective. Well, of course it had, it was dark. But slightly more than that. My barleyfield, the last one to be harvested, was standing, just stubble now, under the moon, and shimmering in a way it had done in the daylight under the sun, but then golden, and flagrant, and honest, and now silver, and shifting, and alluring. Obviously, being a pious Christian parson, I don't believe in horoscopes and the Zodiac and all that voodoo. But they say persons born in the bit of July I was are affected by the moon, and by silver. So the fact that when I see the moon I can stand transfixed by it for ages, and that I've always adored silver in coins, and cutlery and walking-stick handles, is purely coincidental. I think there are things one might do for silver one would never do for gold. Or maybe that's just me.

But changed it was, in the moonlight, eerily so, changed into the world of the creatures I never see on my daytime walks, a world much more full of life than the daylight one I live in. And the next day, all was changed again. More rain - no direct light this time from sun or moon, just overcast grey cloud. And changed again, this time by the plough, or rather, the ploughshares on the back of a huge tractor. I had noticed lines marked in the field the day before, about two feet across, and couldn't fathom what they were about. And when the farmer is not goading his shire horses along, but sitting nine feet above you in an air-conditioned chamber, wearing headphones, you can't exactly stop him to find out the why and the wherefore.

So the glistening, mysterious, silver of the night before was quite literally turned over to mud. Beautiful mud too, in its own way. Honest, and in the now-old-fashioned sense, literally earthy. Ready to become something new, a new harvest. A different kind of mystery.

What a difference the day makes.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Thoughts from a Morning Sitting in Church for "Ride and Stride" Saturday

The church is my former parish - but still affiliated! - church of SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore. It's actually rather difficult for me to be affiliated to any church, because as a priest, I am not allowed to be on the electoral roll, which is for laypeople, and as someone without Permission to Officiate from the Bishop, I cannot be ex-officio as a priest who worships and sometimes serves there. For a couple of years I have served on the PCC, but by co-option, as I am not allowed to be subjected to the forces of electoral democracy. It's an odd position to be in, but I am an odd person, so perhaps I have found my place.

"Ride and Stride" is quite a fun fundraising thing that happens once a year, when people walk, or cycle, to as many local churches as they can, with sponsorship, to raise money for the church of their choice. It's a nice and good thing, a chance to open the doors, to welcome strangers, to get on your bike, to get some fresh, and possibly holy, air.

Littlemore parish church is of marginally more interest than most, because it was built at the behest of the saintly, and now officially Blessed, Cardinal Newman, in his earlier manifestation as a Church of England vicar. It was part of his parish of S. Mary the Virgin, in the High Street in Oxford, an example of a most peculiar parish boundary, as the locals had to trudge past other churches to get to S. Mary's - and it's a good three-mile-trudge. I had wondered why they didn't go to those other, closer, churches instead, until someone explained that if they had, they'd have been liable for tithes at both, and Littlemore folk have never been rich. So out of the goodness of his heart, the Reverend John Henry decided they must have a church of their own, to save them that long walk on a Sunday morning, and perchance to increase the prospect that these slightly dodgy and dubious rustic yokels might go to church at all. One of our visitors this morning is a welcomer at S. Mary's, and he said visiting Littlemore was on his wish list (sensible, and lucky fellow, to have ticked something off on such a list - we should all go and do likewise), and I showed him the board of gratitude behind the font listing all the benefactors that Newman scrounged money off, included those Tractarian luminaries, John Keble and Canon Pusey, his mother and his sisters, and even the undergraduates at Oriel College, the parish patron, of which he was a fellow. Newman's last sermon as a Church of England parson (our theology says he remained an Anglican priest to the end of his days, although he chose no longer to exercise that ministry) was from our pulpit, and entitled "On The Parting Of Friends".

Visitors did not arrive in torrents, which allowed me time to pace up and down the church rehearsing arguments for a Manifesto I am writing, of which more anon. The first caller was a lady from Barton, with whom I had received communion only a few weeks before at a weekday service. She remembered me, which was impressive, as I only dimly remembered her. It had been a service with laying-on-of-hands for healing, which, as I had an uncomfortable medical appointment later in the day, I was disinclined to participate in. There are only so many healing hands you can bear to have near you in twenty-four hours, I find. But she was a sweetie, and being chaperoned by her son, who was riding her old bike, a hand-me-down, whilst she was riding rather a smart new one, which he'd given her for Christmas a couple of years ago. It hadn't often been out, and as well as making sure his mother was safe on the roads, I think the son was glad to see it used. She arrived a little before the 10 a.m. official start, having already logged in at the Catholic church down the road - "You can't really interrupt Catholics when they're praying, can you, they're not like us?", and so I said I'd gladly falsify the returns and put 10, but she said, "make it 10.02, because I said 10 with the Romans". Happy to oblige.

Littlemore is known in Oxford for the Lunatic Asylum which is now a building in private and commercial hands, and used for very different and commercial purposes, but an imposing, and grand, and rather fine edifice. It's reminiscent of the Lincoln Asylum which became the Theological College at which I started to learn how not to be a vicar. The village retains its links with mental health, however, and we have visitors, often, who are being treated for various things at the hospital and other therapeutic units here. A youngish lad came in, and, although I asked where he was from, and he said somewhere near Wantage (I don't drive, I've frankly no idea of the map), he volunteered that he was staying at the hospital. I thought that was rather brave. I know a little bit about mental illness, and it's not an easy thing to admit to, to a friend, never mind a stranger. He twitched a bit, and he was obviously under the influence of some quite heavy-duty medication, but he was lucid, and interesting, and interested, and nice. Of course, we all say that before we get stabbed. But I would seem to have lived to tell the tale. I showed him the memorial to the Cardinal's mother who laid the foundation stone of the church in 1835, but died in 1836 before it was finished. We agreed that for a lady to do such a thing in those days was pretty unusual, and rather splendid. And, having ascertained that he was an animal lover, I showed him - so far as I was able, as I couldn't work the lights (the vicar later told me they are disabled at the fuse box because they've started coming on on their own, unbidden, and expensively!) I showed him the marvellous brass memorial to a previous vicar who was famed for his pet macaw. He called the bird Archdeacon Paley, and it often had letters published in local and national newspapers. I believe it even had an entry in the Diocesan Directory. Both vicar and parrot were equally stroppy, by all accounts, and they died within weeks of each other in 1996, the one at less than 60, the other at less than 30, both before their time, but having made a bigger mark than most of us can hope to do in twice as long. And then my unwell friend looked at his watch and needed to go, and thanked me for my time, when he'd been far more interesting than I, and called me "Sir" which was remarkable, but there wasn't time to say I have a name. And I wished him every blessing for a swift recovery and a return home, because we'd agreed in conversation that hospital is a place you don't want to stay in for long, if you can possibly avoid it.

Next in was a practising vicar. Even had his collar on. Shameless. And three other people in tow. I was trying to fathom what the links were, and at first I thought they were all his children, a tall skinny boy, and two small girls. But one of the girls had obviously been sponsored for the ride, and her name on the form they have to sign was different from his, and the other girl, and the "boy" didn't sign at all. I think now perhaps the younger man was in fact his son-in-law, and the girls, his grand-daughters. He had known Father David, the parrot-man, but never seen the memorial, so that was a bit of fun for him. Their next stop was the Catholic Church of Blessed Dominic Barbieri, who received our Anglican vicar into the Roman Catholic Church. The parson was explaining this to the youth club, and I interposed "basically, a poacher". We were all Anglican enough to find this mildly amusing. I said their rather modern church was much to be envied. Asked why, I had to say "It's not pretty, unless you like that sort of thing, but it has loos". They understood. I had already regretted the flask of coffee HL had lovingly made for me, at least twice. Fortunately, no one can see, on the south side ...

And last, we had the human dynamo, who was already on his second column, he'd been to at least fifteen churches already, and fully intended to do at least as many more. Even so, he took the time to look and listen, and then zoomed off, saying if you want a challenge, try the alleyways of the housing estates of Abingdon - his own route was meticulously planned long in advance, with maps and sliderules, and perhaps even horoscopes. I was left breathless.

And then it was time to go. What a funny way to spend four hours! Deo gratias.