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.