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
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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
Barton-upon-Bayswater
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
Barton-upon-Bayswater
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.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk to a Funeral in the Big City

It started badly. I have been late for a lot of things lately, as it were. Going to London is a chore - arriving, a treat. But if you don't get the coach before 6.30 there's absolutely no telling when you will in fact arrive. The journey can be done in 65 minutes. It averages 90. Yesterday it took three and a half hours (210 minutes - it always annoys me when newspapers use different statistics for the same thing), and we ended up coming in to London on the M4, wherever that is. I think it involved Chiswick.

One small moment of light relief, as I finished off "Parkinson's Law" and made a start on "Private Eye" (never a Brownie, but always prepared), was one of those clever revolving advertising hoardings. It was attached to a very smart, state-of-the-art, public lavatory in Notting Hill, and it was advertising "The Mighty Bucket". And I thought, "that doesn't sound so state-of-the-art".

I trudged slowly, wearing my suit, and grown-up shoes, for the first time in months, through Mayfair and Soho, passing the American Embassy (I thought it had moved) and the Savile club where I was so briefly, and enjoyably, a member. Three and half hours being longer than anticipated, I headed to the gents in Carnaby Street, but light relief there was fifty pence a go, which I didn't have in exact money, so I went to Marks and Spencer in Great Marlborough Street, passing the doorway of the magistrates' court on the way, where a tipsy friend and I snogged like teenagers after a convivial evening at the Savile, just because we could (it wasn't THAT sort of club, but we were THOSE sort of people). And thence to Phoenix Garden, where I was a trustee, an appallingly hopeless treasurer, and a slightly better than indifferent chairman. It's a beautiful little public space, full of life and peace, in the middle of a city where so many people have lives so empty. There's work being done, and it didn't look its best, but it still looked fine, and I was so happy to be associated with it. In my day, we preserved the Soho Frog, a species as yet unrecognised by science, but known to the locals thereabouts, much, at first, to their surprise.

Quite how Phoenix Garden came to be separated from S. Giles-in-the-Fields churchyard, I do not know, but the two have a peculiar and silly relationship, as the garden is owned by Camden Council and run by volunteers (and the gardener their fundraising employs), and the churchyard is owned by the church, but run by Camden Council. It made sense to me as a curate to be on both boards and try to get economies of scale and things like that that hadn't really been thought of before.

Daubed on the wall of the Grade II* listed Vestry Room was a very pleasing graffito - "Smiles for St Giles", in the style of the font used when we published a chapter (by permission) of Peter Ackroyd's marvellous "London: The Biography" for our 900th anniversary in 2001. It was headed "Crossroads between Time and Eternity". Surely the font business was just co-incidence? I do hope not.

And so to the church, and the gathering of the mourners, some of us fatter, greyer, balder, more stick-wielding and wheelchair-bound, than we were last time, some of us utterly unchanged, but all of us older. I arrived in the parish in 2000 and left in 2003. At the time the rector said he didn't expect it to be his last job. He must retire next year. Turns out it was true what he said later, "I have made too many enemies to be promoted".

Jane was an extraordinary person, loveable in her barminess, full of life and interest, and fascination. The church was fuller than I would have expected for a lady I didn't expect to be as old as 83. Many were family, but friends too, and a good showing from S. Giles folk, including the verger who resigned recently, but came back to give the do his most excellent gravitas, wielding the Rector's Stave with solemn pomp. Of course, when you start to describe the trappings of religion, they can only sound ridiculous, but there is comfort in them. You had to be there. The rector finds it hard to exude warmth for the simple reason that he doesn't have much and has never expected it in return, which is a poor economy to live in all your life. And I sat in the cheap seats knowing that Jane had wanted me to take this service, and that I would have done it just that little bit better, gentler, warmer, more smilingly, and I've also actually thought through what death must mean to Christians, rather than merely thinking aloud, repeating myself about how if we can love someone like that, then surely God must love them even more. It doesn't really work like that, but you have to think it through. He always used to lose his way in a sermon once, now it's twice. And the pause is so long you've forgotten what he said before, to the point at which he need not have bothered saying anything at all.

Jane's brother gave an informative, and moving, because he was moved, eulogy on her life and gifts. Both he and the rector raised gentle laughs to which she wouldn't have objected. And so in the swirl of the prayers and the music, the grief was there, not so much that a lady of senior years who had lived and seen and done much, had finally worn out, but for all of them this year, six now: Charles, our churchwarden at Chelsea, urbane, charming, and better than Christianly kind; Pop, my grandfather, exhausted by it all, at nearly 93; Richard, our choirmaster at Cambridge when I worked there, who produced angelic music for the glory of God; Maureen, "Fenian Moll" the friend I never met, who died too young, and too far away, in Harlem; and Ron, the lovely and loving father of an Oxford days friend, who was wise and gracious. And still the words come back to me from my friend Ian's colleague, another Richard, who said, at Ian's funeral after he had killed himself, "would any of us, to be spared the grief of this hour, have wished we had never known him?" And the answer is no, a thousand times no, if the price of being "a stranger and afraid in this world I never made" is to be bereft of people who have adorned and thrilled it with their grace and generosity and wit, with their love, then it is a price I pay, and pay willingly. Though the account seems empty just now.

After, there were huddlings and gatherings, and kind words at the door, and cheerful drinks and things to eat in the Grade II* star listed "Smiles for St Giles" Vestry Room Café. And delightful Dalma was there, a bookbinder in her working life, now bound to a wheelchair, who bound an 18th century pamphlet for me; military Paul, walking with a stick "I see you have a fashion accessory", "Yes, I kept falling over, it was rather embarrassing"; and chaotic Yvonne who has been through such struggles, reporting her outrage that her neighbours said her last dog wasn't kept on a lead, and "he was always on a lead"; and dry, droll, Mark the newly-former verger adding "it's just that there wasn't usually a person on the other end of it"; and Eileen who has cared for us all in our various ways, and she is black and I am gay, and Jane was racist and homophobic (by the new standards of the day), and we were both there to give thanks for her life - and that must surely say something about all three of us? And maybe about the God who brought us together.

Enough of death, I wanted some life, so I went looking for my young friend Vickie, who has become a mother since I last saw her, to two delightful children. Foolishly, I had forgotten to ask her telephone number, and the timing probably wasn't right either, but I called on her parents and although her mother was out for the day in Southend with Australian relatives looking for other relatives, her father was there, babysitting for little Max, so I did get to see him, and chew the cud about London's decline with Luke. "It's just for the beautiful people now" he said. Well, I have seen beauty in all the people of S. Giles since I first knew it, but I also know what he means: the smart, the slick, the bearers of fat plastic money. And money and more money. Money, though we long for it (well I do), squeezes the lifeblood out of communities, families, friends. Unless we join the rat-race. Well, Parkinson's Law had told me that morning, that at 47, if I haven't made it already, I'm not in the rat-race.

And so, slowly back to the coach stop, but I happened to need some money, but the machines I tried wouldn't give me less than £20, and I didn't have that in my account. I called in at Jill's gallery - a former churchwarden, she had had to rush off after the service - she and her lovely late husband John had had two galleries back then, but times are hard. But she was out at the dentist, poor thing - lovely e-mail from her when I got home - and she always employs such charming staff. John had a maxim about hiring - "will you look forward to seeing them when you come to work in the morning?" There's a lot of wisdom in that.

The coach became packed. The seat next to me was almost the last to be filled. A slim pretty young Spaniard, judging from the text messages he was sending. Not that I am nosy or anything. I meant the messages seemed to be in Spanish. I need no technology to work out if someone is pretty. And then home, through an alleyway I hadn't noticed before. One day I shall write the definitive "Of the Alley Ways, Dark Places, and Lurking Spots, of Oxford"; if it wasn't a short cut, it felt like one.

And so to home, HL, the cats, and pizza. It felt like a whole life in a day.




Monday, 9 September 2013

The Muscling-In of Mary

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 9th of September 2013, 9 a.m.
Being the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, translated

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Gospel: Matthew 1:1-23

The Muscling-In of Mary

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In twenty years of ministry I’ve never had to read either of the Gospel genealogies in public, and what a breathless read it was! In fact, they were a stumbling block on my road to faith, because when I was about 12 I read them, compared them with one another, and decided if they couldn’t agree on the name of Joseph’s great-grandfather, they were obviously rubbish, and you couldn’t trust anything else in the book either. And it’s a slightly odd choice of reading for this feast of Mary, when it’s not actually about her at all. But there’s no accounting for lectionaries.

Today we are translating the feast of the Nativity of Mary from yesterday, and translating is an interesting thing – much can be lost in translation, and names themselves can be very charged things. I was thinking of the Marys who come to my mind. The first is one of my great-grandmothers – Mary Ann Patterson, whose birthday was last week, known as Polly, in that rather peculiar way that we have diminutives which are just as long as the original name, who died at ten years younger than I am today, having given birth to twelve children, and endured nearly twenty years of marriage to one of the worst men in the world, who unfortunately was my great-grandfather. The name Mary evokes deep sympathy. And being an aficionado of the comedy and songs of the old music hall (which died out before I was even born), I think of Max Miller’s girlfriend, Mary from the Dairy, who resolutely refused to fall in love with him. And I also think of Muscle Marys.

This is a slightly different use of the name, and it describes gentlemen who spend altogether too much time in the gym, no longer seeking to become fit, but actually shape-changing, into muscle-bound hulks. Psychologically, it is akin to anorexia, a similarly shape-changing mindset. The nickname is used to tease those who think they are being hyper-masculine, with a name perceived to be the epitome of femininity. When I worked in the West End, our parish bordered that of S. Anne’s, Soho. Muscle Marys abounded just over the road. It’s not about sexuality, it’s a different sort of thing, but it’s big in the gay subculture. I got talking to a police officer one time, who had responsibility for that little patch of London, and she surprised me twice. First, by saying there can be as many as a quarter of million people there on a Friday or Saturday night. And secondly, by saying there could be as few as two uniformed police on the beat, for those quarter of a million people. “How on earth is that possible, how can you keep the peace?” She said, “it’s very easy. The Romford wide-boys [it still makes me wince when the people of the town where I was a most happy curate are traduced in this way] come in from Essex looking for a fight, and they take one look at the Muscle Marys and think maybe they’ll postpone it just for now. And they don’t have a clue that the Muscle Marys don’t want a fight anyway – they’ve just spent a fortune having their hair done”. And thus the peace was kept.

And that’s the thing about Mary – and Muscle Marys, and Romford wide-boys, come to that - we make a whole load of assumptions, based on first impressions. We look at a beefy chap and think he’d be handy in a fight. We listen to an Essex accent and assume it leads to trouble. We look at simpering Mary in a painting, and assume she’s at least as meek and mild as the child we sing about at Christmas. I used to work with a priest, who used to shudder, visibly, on the mention of Mary’s name in a prayer or a sermon. For her, “Mary” meant virgin, and mother, and don’t make a fuss, and get back in the kitchen; it meant centuries of male domination. And for Christians of a lower (churchmanshipwise!) cast of mind than those of us who are comfortable with this fine statue of Our Lady in the chapel here, the concern is that we’re giving Mary too much muscle. “Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, Co-redemptrix ….” And they hold their hands to their ears and pray us away from them.

The Scripture doesn’t allow us to make such eccentric assumptions – because that is all they are. We know very little about Mary. But we do know that for the Incarnation to happen there had to be a mother, and that was Mary. And she must have done an at least OK-ish sort of job, because the lad grew up and found his vocation and saved the world. We know she cared, because she sent his brothers to bring him home because people were saying he was barmy. She was his mother, she knew he wasn’t mad, but she had other sons and daughters to marry off, and it’s not good for business if people say there’s a loony in the family. But we also know, if we choose to believe Saint John, that she was at the foot of the cross, and that, according to Saint Luke, she was there with the disciples at Pentecost. Not in his life, but in his dying, and after his rising, she got the hang of what he was about, and she wanted to be with the other people who had loved him.

I read something lately about Lord Mountbatten’s mother, a princess of deepest royalty on all sides. She said, shortly before she died, “now I am only known as your mother. And that’s fine.” All we really know about Mary is that she was Jesus’s mother. And that’s fine too. Amen.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013






Friday, 6 September 2013

Don't Start The Fasting Yet, and In Memoriam, Maureen Cullen

A Homily for Holy Communion on Friday 6th of September, 2013, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Luke 5:33-end Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.” ’

Don’t Start The Fasting Yet!

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

After twenty years in the pulpit, so to speak, it’s only to be expected that occasionally, as when I looked at the Gospel reading last night, you think “blast, I’ve done this one already”. And you have to try to listen afresh to what the passage is saying, because even the tiniest gobbets from the Gospels can produce many meanings. So “you cannot make the wedding guests fast whilst the bridegroom is still with them” caught my ear this time. It seems to me in keeping with many of Jesus’s sayings about living in the moment – “the time is coming, and now is”, and all that. But there’s more to this way of putting it – he seems to be telling us to rejoice in the moment, not just live in it, when the happy times are with us, to relish them, for there will be time enough to be sad. In my experience, Christian people are very good at smiling, and not so good at joy, and I’m sure I’m one of them. The default setting is Good Friday, not Easter, and sometimes we don’t even notice that the bridegroom is still with us.

I hope it’s not too radically liberal to suggest that Jesus wasn’t only talking about himself as the present bridegroom. I hope we can apply this teaching to the people in our lives who bring joy, and life more abundant. If so, I had a poignant reminder of this lately, when I had an unexpected telephone call from a friend in New York. Maureen was an unlikely friend, someone I’d never met in person, although we chatted almost daily on the internet, and a few times she telephoned. She had been an editor for Raymond E Brown, the New Testament scholar, and she told me she’s in the acknowledgments page of his wonderful book “The Birth of the Messiah” – there and then, whilst she was on the telephone, I checked “I thought, let’s see if this tricksy New Yorker speaks with forked tongue”, but no, there she was and it was quite true; she and loved New York, and we had a shared heritage in Ireland, so there was a great deal in common. This telephone call was to be her last, as within a fortnight the cancer we had all believed to be in remission, killed her. She made a number of those telephone calls, and to none of us did she say she was dying, as she must surely have known. When she said, of the friends of who introduced us “I’m getting to that wedding somehow”, I think she already knew it would not be in person, nor in this world. Of course, it meant the news of her death was the greater shock, but it meant something else. Why tell us something that could only make us sad, many of us living thousands of miles away and without the means to visit? Why make our last memory an unhappy one? Why start the fasting, while the bridegroom is still with us? And so the last memory is a happy one of cheerful conversation, and I think there was profound grace in what she did. She had bad news, but she kept it to herself, and in doing so, transformed it into the Good News of a joyful friend, living that life more abundant, graciously, to the very end. God give us hearts open to joy, and let us not begin the fasting while the bridegroom is still with us. Amen,

”Fenian Moll”, rest in peace.
Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford September 2013

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Beginnings - The Littlemore Window, 08.09.13

Littlemore Parish Church The Window for Sunday, 8th of September, 2013 Beginnings “Where do I begin?”, I bet you’ve said, maybe in a tone of slight exasperation, when life has become too complex and confusing and downright annoying and someone asks you to explain why. Beginnings are not as easy as you’d think. What about the year? The Calendar begins in January, but the Tax year in April, the School year in September, and the Church year at Advent, as autumn turns to winter. When is it meant to begin? Do beginnings have a set time and date? What about our birthdays? And death days? Who sets them? The Bible likes beginnings and endings. S. John’s Gospel starts with “In the beginning …” and quite near its end, with Jesus on the Cross, has “it is finished”. In the Tate Modern Gallery in London there’s a sculpture by Jacob Epstein of Christ in the tomb, and he named it “Consummatum Est”, which is the Latin for “it is finished”, but it means so much more than that. Because a consummation is also a beginning. It means we have gone on a journey and got to a new place, and new things are going to happen. Since moving to Barton I have become a great fan of country walks in the fields nearby. They have all now been harvested – “consummatum est” – but it is not finished. The grain is gathered in, dry as a bone thanks to this good weather, and ready to be malted, or made into flour, or livestock feed, or whatever is needed. It is not finished, the cycle continues. Like the crops, we all sometimes fail. Unlike the crops, we can pick ourselves up – or let God help pick us up – and begin again. We need no times, no dates, no calendar. And, as God blesses today, we may and must trust and hope, that he will bless and transfigure tomorrow. New beginnings. If we will only let them be. Richard Haggis Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford September 2013

Monday, 2 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk in the Countryside: It's all in the timing

As with comedy, liturgy, business ventures, and declarations of love, agriculture is all in the timing. On my walk this afternoon, my first barley field was still intact, golden and lovely, and waiting. Along one of its edges there is quite a thick row of oats. I cannot think they are meant to be there, so I like to think of them as wild oats. Tall, straggly, waving their fertilty about in the breeze, they make me think of hippies - "hey babe, let's chill and make beautiful ... porridge". There's something very naked about the countryside, whether wild or cultivated. I had a case study as I passed into the next field, and there was a chap walking down, just in the process of unravelling his T-shirt to put it back on. Clothed, he could have been anyone. Shirtless, he could have been a model. Or at least a body-double for someone with better cheekbones. This seems to be happening a lot on my walks lately, but the main thing was the field, ploughed not long ago, naked and exposed, and now growing its new crop. People sometimes speak of the land being clothed with this or that crop, the green, the wood. But it's not like our clothes. These are its reality, it's as silly as saying that a person is clothed with hair on his head. You've either got it or you haven't. Chaps understand this. I had thought the other day this must be "winter wheat" and was struck by its insipid green, but today I looked closer, and it's not a corn at all, it's some kind of brassica, now the shoots have become leaves, it's unmistakable. An even better clue, when I started to look properly, was the army of beautiful white butterflies all over it, laying their eggs on rich pickings for their caterpillars, in the last fling of their brief, beautiful, mimsying lives. My friend Tim has had his entire garden crop of broccoli reduced to nothing by these caterpillars. But the crop would have been small, and the butterflies are so cheerful.

The next field was another of the mystery brassica, which can't be for the grocer's shop, this isn't that kind of farmland, so I imagine it's a fodder crop for livestock. And then to my Leah and Rachel, the wheat and the barley, but now the barley is harvested too. The sky today was the most brilliant blue, bright, clear, and deep. I like to think sapphires are this colour, and anyone who wore them as jewellery could guarantee that no one would look at their face. The harvested barley field was as goldenly beautiful in death as it was in life. With the glorious blue feathers of the sky, and the golden yellow of the soft underbelly of the earth, I thought of my favourite macaw, whose colours are just the same.

And so to Sydlings Copse. As I paused to look at the meadowed dell that sits next to it, a gentleman emerged from the copse who greeted me twice. That made me think twice about going in. If I go down to the woods any day, I don't want any surprises at all, still less a big one. But there were no nastinesses in store, and I played the game of seeing if I could identify any of the trees. The first ones, tall, and slender, were ash, I'm sure, I had a much-loved ash walking stick for many years, and the bark is distinctive. And underneath were nettles, wilted and sad, and longing for rain. So, I was in an ash grove, like a favourite folk song from schooldays we were taught by a slightly dubious music teacher who was later moved sideways to the state sector on the grounds that fee-paying parents didn't want to subsidise his boy-spanking habit. (Never happened to me, I was too plain.) Come to think of it, the song might well have been about life being a load of wilted nettles too.

After the Ash Grove was a rather dry meadow, whose flowers, in just a couple of weeks, have become sparser or dessicated. I saw some runways through the grass which must surely have been badgers' avenues. They're not shooting them in Oxfordshire yet, and perhaps there are too few cattle nearby to justify it. If you can. And then a new turn, and some quite different trees. "That's a mighty looking monster", I thought as I spied a vast, thick, trunk, only to see when I emerged from the undergrowth that it was quite dead, with no leaves to help me identify it. A majestic corpse. But then I found a sibling nearby in rude health, and it was clearly an oak, one, as I started to pay attention, of many. The biggest of all must have been seven or eight feet through the trunk at the base, nine or ten higher up, where its branches reached out in tangly directions like the arms of a Hindu god ("like your Nan on payday", as my Grandad used to say). And there were more and more oak trees, and they were in rude fertility, bustling with acorns, far more, a thousand times more, than the land there could ever sustain. Still green, and not yet ready for their own more random, less disciplined harvest.

How many years had the Ash Grove, and the Oak Wood, been in the making? Decades at least, probably centuries. Growing up, fruiting, seeding, dying down, growing again, bare and naked for all to see. And doubtless the barley has been there centuries too. But the acorns will fall when they are ready. The barley will be cropped when the farmer loses his nerve that the good weather will last. It's all in the timing.