Sunday, 29 June 2014

Gaudy Night, Christ Church, Oxford, June 2014

"Gaudeamus" is Latin for "let us rejoice",and that's where the name "gaudy" comes from for the periodic parties that various colleges, including mine, hold for old boys and girls. Originally, I think they were just reunions (and with no girls), maybe with a nudge towards encouraging former BAs to apply for their MAs and increase the voting bloc for the Chancellor of the University; these days their function, for the colleges, is to stir up a warm nostalgic glow leading to cash payments or fresh clauses in the wills of the grateful dead.

At Christ Church, they take place every seven years or so, in black tie and gown, with rooms available for those who need to stay the night. So, it was time to dust off the dinner jacket, which hasn't been worn since the last one, in the autumn of 2006, and my gown which has only been worn for extra warmth in the winters. Having been taken out for the day by the Colonel (one of the two Elizabeths I met at Oxford in my first week back in October 1985 and we've been friends ever since) to Stowe Gardens (bonkers, but stunning), I wanted a shower before getting into the glad rags, and must confess to sneakishly hoping that HL would arrive home whilst I was in the bathroom, see the ironing board, and take pity on me and sort the shirt out. And it was so. Except that he shrieked "this bloody shirt is YELLOW". Whoops. Nice to know at least something is aging worse than I am - which became a bit of a motif for the evening. Fortunately there was a spare, which I realised, as I put my cufflinks in, belonged to the first husband of a friend of mine in Romford. I introduced her to the man who became her second husband. And come to think of it, the cufflinks were a present from other friends in Romford, one of my colleagues and her first husband. My ministry seems to have left a trail of divorcees. Curious thought. But as I brought a little of Oxford to Romford, so I brought I little of Romford to Oxford, for Gaudy Night.

The bow tie is always the daunter - if you've not done one for a while, you wonder if you'll still remember how, but Mother's lesson from 29 years ago came back to life, and I got it right first time. It's like tying a big thick shoelace for a big thick child. And so to the bus stop. There appeared not to be anyone else in black tie on the No. 8, but they might have gone on an earlier bus.

And then evensong. Christ Church is a peculiar place because the college chapel is the cathedral for Oxford diocese. Or, there are those who might say that rather oddly, the cathedral has an Oxford college attached to it. Historically there have been tensions between the two entities, leading at one time to serious investigations into the possibility of a divorce, but the lawyers concluded that this would result in a very rich cathedral, and a very poor college, and the boffins lost interest in the idea pretty quickly. Alas, the bus ride was later than I had intended, so I missed most of the service, but as I was checking at the makeshift Porters' Lodge (the original is being tarted up for corporate purposes, I think, as they do a roaring trade when the pesky students aren't there) I met Barry, an old friend from my year, who ended up marrying the other Elizabeth, the Brigadier, and I took their wedding service. My hand-written homily on that occasion is rather flatteringly framed in their downstairs lavatory. Curious to think that back in the 1980s I spent rather more time with him than did the lady who became his wife in 1996. So, we listened to the anthem and a few prayers together, and I took him to see the Bishop Bell chapel, and the altar made from a lump of tree from Windsor Great Park that the Queen, our Visitor, gave us. Bell, bishop of Chichester, and a friend of the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, opposed the saturation bombing of German cities in World War II, and was locked out of his own cathedral by the dean because of it. They say possibly it lost him the chance of Canterbury. It went to Geoffrey Fisher, but no one remembers him, and I'm glad George Bell was one of ours.

It set the tone for the evening, one of tribal belonging. We were drinking under the 17th century vaulted staircase, and eating under the 16th century roof, not as honoured guests, but as members. This was, is, our college. In Latin, Christ Church is rendered as "Aedes Christi" which gives it its nickname "the House", but it has always seemed to me an unnecessary vulgarism, and "aedes" surely is closer to "building or edifice" than "home", so I've never used it, although it appeared on the seating plan and in the speeches. But home it became for those three short years, and unlike the home I grew up in, where no one new ever appeared (after my sister), and nothing new ever happened, a place for making friends, and for learning to party. There was some studying, too, but I left that mainly to the others, I felt they had it covered. They were awfully bright.

I'd said to the Colonel in the afternoon "of course the real purpose of a Gaudy is to see how fat, grey, and bald, the boys are, and how many of the girls have had "work" done". I'm not clever enough to detect female cosmetics, but the chaps did not disappoint - and nor, with my grey hair and whiter beard, did I. Some were quite unrecognisable, ravaged by corpulence and the decay of stress. Some looked just as they did nearly thirty years ago. They wouldn't say that, because one knows one's own body, and at nearly 50 you're a different model from what you were at nearly 20, but some were pretty then, and were pretty on Thursday night.

With my own circle of friends - although we meet shamefully rarely - it was like walking back into a room after having left to take an unimportant telephone call. The last time was nearly eight years ago. Since then, some have had children, lost parents, got new work, retired, I've married and developed arthritis, but we're all much the same as we were long ago. It was a reprise of the freshers' theme "I've made these friends, I'm OK now, I'm not homesick". The comfort of the strangers who become your friends. That's the biggest lesson of going to college. At school there wasn't a lot of choosing friends, you just had to sit next to them in class. At college it was a free choice - or you could have no friends - and I'd choose just the same today.

The food was astonishingly good. Christ Church is a very rich college, so people are surprised that when we were undergraduates the food was crap. As an undergraduate, I looked longingly up to High Table from the low tables, imagining that the great and the good were eating lovely things whilst we ate the scraps. But no, when I was finally invited to High Table years later, the food was crap there too. But there's been Regime Change in the kitchens, and this was not only the best meal I've ever had at Christ Church (which wouldn't be saying much), it was a very good meal indeed.

And then there were speeches. Only two. One, a rather wittering and gabbled thing from someone they say is a poetess from Scotland. The other, a much more measured, and witty, contribution from our de-mob happy Dean who is retiring this summer. Yet another Cambridge man will replace him, alas, but we have been well-served in very different ways by the three I have known. And next time, well, there's someone waiting in the wings who can do a better than indifferent after dinner speech, and knows and loves the place very well indeed. Just saying.

And so to port and fruit, and milling about, and eventually the Senior Common Room until 3 in the morning. Many stories to tell, and to listen to, tragedies and happinesses, and we all plough on. In the small hours I headed for the bus stop fairly sure that the buses had indeed stopped, and so they had, so I walked home to Barton. It took about an hour. In full fig, I was a cross between a penguin and a bat, and when the streetlights caught my shadow, it was like Darth Vader. This being Oxford, no one turned a hair.

I wondered if I was the only one of the three hundred in Hall that night who had signed on at the dole office in the morning. I wonder if I shall still be in seven years' time.

Gaudeamus indeed - until the next time.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days

So said the Psalmist (39:5). And that seems a perfectly reasonable thing to wish. But having spent a day with a friend and her only son yesterday discussing her funeral, because the cancer that was in remission is coming back, I start to wonder.

The old Prayerbook had a clause in the Litany "from battle, and murder, and from sudden death, good Lord, deliver us". But that isn't a very modern view. Yes, we don't fancy the battle and murder bit, although my Great-Uncle Alf, when he'd been married 50 years said he wanted a medal the size of a dustbin lid, then to live another twenty years, and be stabbed to death by a jealous lover. But sudden, we tend to prefer for ourselves, although we know the trauma it causes for everyone else.

But would we want to know our end, and the number of our days? What would we do if we knew? Would it galvanise us into action we hadn't managed in healthier times? Would we go on a grand jape and blow whatever money we had? And if we have no money, what then? Sit in our sackcloth and ashes knowing it will all be over soon?

Of course, there's more to sackcloth and ashes than money. There are people and animals and aspidistras to be thought of, and to make provision for, no matter how meagre. Most of us would like to know we had been thought of in the final plans of someone we have loved. Despite having known and lost a great grandmother, all four grandparents, and a father, I've never been named in a will. Not even in a "and keep clear of that dodgy bob" clause. Of course, my father knew I'd take over his funeral arrangements, so he didn't have to write it down. I guess not mentioning me was a way of introducing an element of doubt, lest I get carried away.

Over nearly twenty years of taking funeral services for friends, relatives, and strangers, I've often had cause to wish we made our wishes more clearly known. It's sad how often I've asked "and what about a reading, a song, a hymn?" and the holy remnant doesn't have a clue. I spoke to one family in Romford, of four middle-aged men, about their mother, and they seemed not to know anything about her at all.

And when the day comes for me to exchange time for eternity, will people know what I want? Will they be able to guess? I doubt it. I could write it all down, but will they find the file? And will it matter? No, of course not, because I shall be dead, and they will be alive. But they will want to get it right, or as right as you can get it for someone cantankerous and eccentric.

Or maybe they'll just want to get it over with. So maybe, Lord, don't let me know mine end, and the number of my days, I prefer to live in the bliss of ignorance, just for now. But I will open the file.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Thoughts on a Walk through Old Ground

The thing needful was a spray for my glasses. The last one must have been over five years old. I know only one shop in Headington would have it, and I also knew I could check the opening times to find that on a Sunday it wouldn't be open, but I went anyway, because I needed to get out, and exercise those vexatious ankles and chase the Black Dog. So I checked it, and then the places that were open, all without what I wanted (and who says capitalism works?) and decided to walk back the long way, through Headington Quarry.

The parks were all full of weekends dads doing their thing, and bravo to them, but I detoured to the quieter paths, and found myself following someone who obstinately would neither slow down nor speed up. I had nothing against him, he might have had great charms, I just wanted the path to myself. So I took another detour - haha! And then spilled out onto another road with the same guy going down it. I guess, even if you know the alleyways, Oxford is still a very small place.

So over the ring road to Risinghurst, and passed a nice old couple. In their eighties, I imagine, both acknowledged me with their eyes, the husband (I assume) even said hello. I wonder if they spoke to anyone else today. Maybe there is no great need to speak when you've known one another so long, and seen so much? With the television blaring behind me as I type, that seems an attractive option. Then the turn into C. S. Lewis's nature reserve, and a rather unusual little scene. Another couple, maybe a decade younger, with a man, possibly their son, and possible a decade younger than me, in the little alley that leads to the park. He was showing them something on his handheld computer thing, but when she saw me wanting to pass by, the mother shuffled them both along and out of the way, as if having a nerd in the family was something to hide from strangers.

The pond was tranquil. It has been a languid, humid, hayfevery, sort of day. Much has grown since my last visit, with the trees around the pond vested in a sort of chalky pastel green, full of life, but not quite right for the time of year - if one dares say that the time of year makes any difference now, in the era of climate change. There was a lady duck with four misses ducks, and I thought, being in a pond, she had a good chance of raising her brood without too much threat and malice, at least from the current, and then realised that being mallards, the boys won't show in their plumage until later this year or early next, so perhaps they weren't all Miss Mallards. They are such nasty birds that, if I did get that wrong, I'm glad we don't speak the same language. They're nice to eat though. Just saying.

And so through Risinghurst Park, which is now a cricket ground, the central pitch (is it a crease?) locked off by solemn blue rope. I hated cricket at school - I was allowed to umpire rather than playing, and took every opportunity to say that everyone was "out" so we could go home - but somehow I felt glad that the locals can play cricket if they wish. I'd rather a cricket pitch there than an office block. And years ago I learnt the rules, thanks to the Children's Encyclopaedia Britannica which had the MCC laws of cricket in an appendix, and I knew how to signal "one short", which I only ever had to do once, and the scorer didn't know what it meant.

As I left the field two families arrived (I'm assuming, they could have been preparing for a film shoot), four adults, four children, and one of the adults made far more noise than all of the others put together. She was explaining the idea of "diagonal", as they were going to walk almost diagonally across the field. This was a field, no roads to compete with for noise, and yet at top bellow. No wonder the nation's children are half-deaf.

And so to home, and a slumbering husband, and at least one cat eager for treats that don't happen until later as she knows very well. Sunday is very much a children's day, and there's a great deal of space in this part of town to enjoy it in. Is it cost effective? Should it be cut? What price the quality of life?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Milestones

Today I sent a birthday card to my mother, who will be 68, D.V., on Saturday. A birthday that neither her mother nor any of her four grandparents saw. Today was the first anniversary of the death of her father, Pop. At 92, he was twice my age of 46. He'd lived 23 years longer than my father, who had been 23 when I was born, and who was 23 years younger than his father-in-law. It's just numbers really, isn't it?

Thoughts On Being A Kentish Lad

Well, I'm not, of course; neither Kentish, nor (I sincerely hope and deeply trust) a lad, but Kent is woven into my ancestry, and even incidentally into my own life's story.

I knew my paternal grandfather was born in Kent, in the workhouse in Minster, in May 1908. But even there, there is confusion, because Kent has two Minsters, and both are on islands, one, the Isle of Thanet, the other, the Isle of Sheppey. I don't think Grandad knew this, and assumed he'd been born in Sheppey - it's certainly what went down on his death certificate. But Grandad was soon brought back to London - we always thought of ourselves as London people - and grew up there, on both sides of the river. It was only when I started to do my genealogical researches in 1985 that I learnt more about our Kentish roots.

My father told me about The Thanet Way which marches down from the East End of London to Margate, via Canterbury, and our family tree has incidents all along its route. Grandad's father was born in Haggerstone, Shoreditch, to parents married in Canterbury. His paternal grandfather was born in Margate, to a local mother, but a father born in Fetter Lane in the City of London - and they were married in Kennington, then in Surrey, along The Thanet Way. The founder of this Haggis branch was Samuel Haggis of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire (1796-1846) who made his way from Cambridge through London and down to Margate in the 1820s. He was the first of five generations of fishmongers and fishermen, and I imagine that the fish trade was one of the busiest on The Thanet Way.

One bright sunny spring day in 1985 my father and I set out for Canterbury to do some research in the bishop's transcripts (the copies the parish priests had to make to the local bishop of everything in their parish registers) at the Cathedral Library. We already knew a few things by then, and as we passed the glorious building we wondered if, higher up than either of us could see, our plumber ancestor Thomas Page (1826-1915) might have made and inscribed with his initials the lead gutter hoppers that could have explained why he got a reference from the Dean to move into an almshouse called Jesus Hospital in 1897 (leaving his wife and a daughter behind). I still have our notes from that day, with my father's in his precise, tidy, handwriting. He found quite a lot of good stuff, but I had very much hoped he would find one of my main quests - the baptism of Jane Philpott (1815-1881), the girl from Margate who married Alfred Samuel Haggis (1820-1867) in Kennington in 1839. I gave him the most likely registers to look through, but alas, she'd lied about her age, and so I, looking in the register either side of the most likely, was the one who found her.

I'd not been to Kent before, but clearly Dad was no stranger to it - he remembered family outings to Margate and Ramsgate in the 1950s, and meeting elderly cousins he couldn't place at the time, not to mention a brief time staying with a mad uncle in Hastings. As we drove - and it's a long journey, from West Sussex, across the whole of East Sussex, and then most of Kent itself - he said, as we crossed into Kent "you look and see what sort of place this is". I noted lots of alleyways and sheds and signs of small scale commerce. "Yes" he said "they're all up to something!" He was very at home there. But he'd not been to Canterbury, and was impressed by the place itself, and also by the little almshouse, whose warden kindly showed us round, with no forewarning. Little could either of us know that one day I would be an almshouse trustee myself - but in London, the other end of The Thanet Way.

And so we dug and we rummaged, as I have done ever since. Jane Philpott's mother was Mary Stokes (1773-1863) who was born in Dover, but eventually died in Sheerness in Sheppey, just where Grandad thought he'd been born - a great-great-grandmother whose name he never knew. And we have a cavalcade of names - Page and Young, Belsom, Heywood, Minter, Terry, Sharp - all rooting us into the towns and villages of the Garden of England.

The Jewel in the Crown is Thomas Page himself who had a notebook which was transcribed and of which I have a copy, detailing - in annoyingly ungossipy terseness - the goings-on of Victorian Canterbury. He records nine suicides, a murder, and a hanging, and now I have all eleven certificates, and some further research is planned. Where it will take me, I don't know, and that's the adventure.

My Grandad left Kent in time for his brother (who died a baby) to be born in London in 1910, but there are other entwinings. My mother's parents were married in the same register office in Ramsgate on (Friday) the 13th of February 1942 as my Grandad's aunt had been in 1895. My maternal grandfather died a year ago today. Not sure if he ever went back to Kent.

And a few years ago, when my life was in tatters, my partner at the time, the tall and kindly Australian Andrew, was living in Erith in Kent. For a time, the keys to his flat in a grim tower block there were the things I most valued. The late comedian, Linda Smith, said of her home "Erith doesn't have a twin town, but it has a suicide pact with Dagenham".

So, I can't really claim to be "A Kentish Lad" like Frank Muir (it was the title of his autobiography) but Kent is woven round me, from churches and registers, through plumbing and metalwork, through a taste for Dover sole (the last meal I ate, in a smart Knightsbridge hotel with my grandmother who was married in Ramsgate 44 years before) and Whitstable oysters, wired into my genes, a rootless root, on both sides of my ancestry, up and down The Thanet Way for nearly two centuries.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Journal of a Dole Scrounger - June 2014

The Jobcentre(+plus - they are very particular about their +plus) people kindly intimated that a course was on offer that might help me in my quest for gainful employment. They said that if I didn't kindly accept their kind offer, my income might be stopped for an unspecified period of time. So I kindly accepted. The nice lady at Jobcentre+ suggested I bring my CV and see if I could get some advice for how to deal with the seven year gaping hole in my employment record, which seemed utterly sound to me. Then, the day before, another nice lady telephoned me to ask whether I was still intending to turn up, and to say it wasn't really about CVs, but about "self-esteem". Ho hum.

So, off I set, at quarter to eight on the Thursday morning, because I had to sign on that day as well, and the course started at ten, and the traffic on the bus at Headington Roundabout is treacherous in the rush hour. Of course, normally, unemployed people lie in bed all day watching Jeremy Kyle, and I was just doing this for sport. As luck would have it, the bus sailed into town half an hour early, so I had time to falsify my returns in my little "what have you done to justify your existence?" booklet, before walking in to the dole office just after the doors opened at 9. I somehow can't bring myself to join the queue waiting outside. With leisurely haste, they let me sign for the money from the insurance scheme my taxes have been paying for all these years, and I still had time to loiter about a bit. I went into the Register Office to ask whether under the Equal Marriage Act everyone's marriages go down in the same register. Turns out, they do. That surprised, and pleased, me.

And so to A4e. This outfit is an independent company hired by the Department for Work and Pensions (prop: The Rt. Hon. Mr Iain Duncan Smith, MP)to facilitate (for profit) unemployable people back into employment. "Private Eye" has for some time been remarking that they make precisely no difference to a person's chances of actually finding a job, compared with just looking for themselves. I approached the whole process with an open mind.

The most striking thing at first was the hugeness of the office building. It's a great big monster, with a massive staircase, and two lifts, occupying space for several families, and doing, as far as I could see, rather little. The same was true of the office space itself, on the first floor. I counted at least eighteen desks, of which no more than six were actually in use, but presumably all of them were being paid for by our taxes. But it was a nice, light, airy, calm, unbusy, sort of space. You could almost believe the people here were civil servants. But they weren't.

And so to the bizarre crooked room in the corner where the twelve of us were to be taught how to esteem ourselves. It was poorly lit, L-shaped, and the one window was only onto an internal fire escape, through which one couldn't actually escape in the event of a fire. Truly, "design by committee". We were rallied by the lovely and robust Ann, who in another life could have been Theresa May's Good Twin. There was a likeness, in both looks and manner, but with a definite undercurrent of kindliness that the Bad Twin doesn't have. We spent the next two hours dealing with administration. Forty-five minutes were devoted to deciding who was there who shouldn't be, and who was not on the list, but could be, and who was utterly kosher, but still needed to sign twice anyway, and proving who we were with identification documents we had not been asked in advance to bring. Then we had procedures, having to tick boxes to say we were sure that we were not going to be harassed or bullied, bombed, or set fire to, without prior permission in triplicate. There was to be no smoking in the building (I wonder, is that a new thing in public office buildings in 2014?). We were even warned about Weil's Disease. This was a bit of a surprise. When I was a student, a quarter of a century ago, we used to call this "rat syphilis" (you've got admit it's more catchy) and you got it from bad punting. However, we were warned sternly, on the first floor of an apparently waterproof and vermin-free building, to be wary of stagnant water, and the diseases that rats might find, and carry, from it, to bite you. Well, that was helpful.

And finally at noon, we got to "Self-Esteem". And this, it seems, is what this little two-day course was all about. My pet nun at Fairacres long ago found and copied for me a song - "Accentuate the Positive" - and really, you might just as well have played that for a few hours. Apparently for every negative there is a positive. I suppose in the same way that when someone dies you say "well, at least they were alive for a time", or when a baby is born, you say "it could have been dead". This is the key to finding work. You have to think you are the bees' knees, and that the job you have selected is the best thing since sliced bread, and the people interviewing you are the nicest Dutch uncles since it was outlawed.

Gradations were allowed, however; it was acknowledged that not everyone was seeking work just now, it was about "how to move on from where you are". We were given the analogy of being in a lift in a tall building, at the top of which was a job, but all the intermediate floors represented progress. I personally detest lifts, for me they resemble coffins. This did not help. We were told to "make choices for yourself, not for the JobCentre". And also to "imagine the JobCentre as your employer". A little contradictory, but if you don't join them together, charming ideas in their way.

And there, one day melds into the next, because we were not give a programme of what to expect, with timings for when to expect it, and even though we didn't have a timetable, it was quite clear that nothing ran to time. When you've taken services at a crematorium you understand about running to time, and delivering what is expected in whatever time is allowed. Each day was broken by the happy interlude of trays of sandwiches, and fruit and crisps, delivered by Pret a Manger. Charming though this would have been, I just needed to escape from that claustrophobic cage for a while, and instead went to sit in the churchyard of S. Thomas the Martyr, Osney, with its beehives, and John Coombe's House, where I used to live, and the graves of some people I used to know years ago. We could, of course, have been advised to bring our own lunch.

A few themes emerged as proceedings went on - Day Two was about "Action Plans" and "Transferable Skills" (incidentally, I have just written a clearer account of proceedings than we were given ourselves). One was that most of us had had a bruising experience at the hands of Atos, the French-owned private company whose purpose was to drive people with physical or mental health problems off the appropriate benefits and into the arms of the JobCentre. In meeting its targets, Atos has of course completely buggered up the JobCentres in meeting theirs, by forcing a lot of unemployables onto the books. When I mentioned to our Cheer-Leader that she would, of course, also have targets to attain, she went demurely quiet. When it came to transferring skills, we were told that just following the instructions to come to the course was a skill in itself. My contribution of "yes, it shows low cunning, and recognition that your enemy is stronger than you are" did not meet with a genuine smile. And we had a lot of nonsense about how as it is illegal to discriminate against you on the grounds of sex, age, race, and whatnot (sexuality wasn't mentioned, which I found interesting, but I don't think was noticed) then there's no point in fretting about it, because you can't prove it. There is a logic to this, but no justice. It is not ultimately satisfying.

We were also persistently told (rain has persisted down less tediously) that just because we have been rejected for a job at one interview, or application, that doesn't mean it will happen again, because it's a whole new world and a whole new you, now! Oh yes. So it is. My observation that we are taught as children that if we don't learn from experience, we are stupid, did not go down well (except with the other children).

We had to fill in an appraisal form which contained precisely no space for articulated criticism, which suggests a certain institutional weak-bladderedness. But we were told we COULD say what we HAD learnt. I said I had learnt that my deep-seated animosity towards this happy-go-lucky floppy-hatted optimistic flannel was either proof that I am still deeply in the grip of the depression that Atos couldn't diagnose, or that they are mad. I don't imagine this will go down well. I don't imagine it will be read at all. Which is why I am writing this.

The last time I asked them for help, they sent me to a lady who said "I think you should make your CV a little less interesting".

This, my fellow citizens, is where our taxes are going.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014