Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Dalliance With Somerset Maugham

It began when I was a teenager. We had a little bookshop at my school in Wimbledon, and if you did duty there, you got a staff discount. For someone like me, this was disastrous temptation. We had not long since moved to Sussex, and my father was planning an extension of the house which included more than doubling the size of my bedroom. "How much book shelving do you need?" he asked, innocently. I did the sums, and with a little spare said "67 feet". "Bloody hell! You do know you can't eat books?" But he put the shelves up, all the same.

And the little school bookshop meant I had access to catalogues to root out books that sounded interesting. I think I had already read that Maugham was gay, but more than that, he was called Somerset, which is the county in which we had two wonderful holidays in our childhood (and where I fell in love with a bloodhound called Dominic). His real name was William, and he was known as "Willie" to his friends, but he shrewdly realised his middle name, the surname of a godfather, was a selling point. And one thing followed another, and before long I was wading through the self-pity of "Of Human Bondage" (perfect for a teenager), and then other novels, the short stories, and even the plays. Later, it was biographies - by Ted Morgan, Robin Calder, and Frederic Raphael. I warmed immensely to his cold observation of other people - he had trained as a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital, and it shows at times. I admired even more immensely that he had set out to make a living from his writing, and he did it. In 1908 he had four plays running at the same time in the West End of London. This had never been done before. No one even remembers he was a playwright these days. In the 1930s, he was the highest-earning writer in the world, and edging into Hollywood. With his loot he made another fortune investing in art he actually liked and which, when he sold it, proved his judgement.

Some years later, I was commuting to London again, from Oxford this time, and the outfit I was working for took on a new manager, who was rather fun. He had tried to make it as an actor, fancied his chances of becoming a priest, claimed to have made a marriage of convenience to a famous American commedienne, and was effortlessly gay in a way which people of my own age at the time rarely managed. He was somewhat on the bald side, and coming back from a haircut one lunchtime, proudly announced he'd spent thirty quid on it. "Blimey, I never spend more than a fiver". "Yes dear. It shows." And briefly this banter turned into a little fling, during which I discovered that Andrew had many years previously had a similar one with Robin, Second Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset, and son of the First Viscount who was briefly Lord Chancellor in the 1930s. I was reminded of that innocent song "I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales".

Some time later, and much more innocently, when I was working in Chelsea, I was summoned to meet someone who wanted me to take his mother's funeral. Always happy to oblige, of course, this is the Anglican Way. She turned out to be the second wife of the first husband of Somerset Maugham's only daughter, Liza. Maugham was a complicated old cove, for a gay man, having married, during the First World War, Syrie, the daughter of the original Dr Barnardo. She was a distinguished interior decorator, and there was a blue plaque commemorating one of her homes just round the corner from where I was then living. They named their daughter Elizabeth Mary, but she was known as Liza, after "Liza of Lambeth", Maugham's first novel, which was quite well-received, and which reads well even now, especially if you have family reasons for being interested in the poor in that part of London at the beginning of the 20th century. Syrie was still married to someone else when Liza was born, and Liza herself went on to have a complicated life, marrying twice. The first husband went on to marry the lady I was being asked to cremate, herself previously married. So, there were brothers and sisters and steps and halves all over the place over three generations. One of the grandchildren (after I'd mentioned, during the service, the obvious human cost in a complicated family tree) came up to me afterwards and said "there are eleven of us in my generation, and we have nine different surnames".

It was quite an occasion - there was an earl (son-in-law, he a second husband, she a third wife), and Andrew Parker-Bowles (godson, first husband of the more famous Camilla, now Princess of Wales), and, the icing on the cake, two of Maugham's grandchildren, who bore a strong resemblance to him. In particular, they both reminded me of the Graham Sutherland portrait that hangs in the Tate Gallery which some naughty critic said made Maugham "look like a madam in a Shanghai brothel" (you may judge from the picture below whether you consider this a good look for a man, or a woman; I thought them both handsome). They were absolutely charming, and delighted that I had an enthusiasm for their grandfather's work, and had read the biographies. I even told the grandson (Nicholas Paravicini, father of the now famous musician Derek) a story he said he didn't know, or maybe had forgotten, about Lord Maugham when he was Lord Chancellor, slapping a 100-year secrecy rule on the paperwork pertaining to an embarrassing incident involving Somerset's boyfriend, Gerald Haxton. This incident was the reason they moved permanently to France, where such incidents were not against the law. The two brothers were not fond of each other, but this was, if not a kindness, at least a gesture of family loyalty.

A few nights ago I finished "Here and There", a collection of Maugham's stories re-published in 1948, and containing one of my favourites "The Verger". It must be thirty years since I last read them, and I have since parted with almost all of my paperback library, but they were just as absorbing all these years later. I noticed now, which I didn't then, a more pointed harshness in his observations about women, and wondered if he might have been a misogynist. His mother died when he was eight, and he kept a photograph of her in his bedroom all his life - something of a gay male stereotype of the time. But he seems also to have had many women friends. One, on a visit to the Villa Mauresque, in company with Noel Coward and Beverley Nichols, famously turned from gazing at the gardens, to her host and fellow guests, and said "oh, Mr Maugham, this is fairyland". Looking more closely, I think he is just as rough with his male as his female characters. The difference is that, a generation later, I am different, and read differently.

Maugham died in 1965, before I was born, a Companion of Honour, but not a member of the Order of Merit, which he had yearned for, and far short of the Nobel Prize (although it would be hard to make the case that John Galsworthy's work, which did win, was worth more). By his own account he was in the first division of the second rank of English writers. By then, he had alienated his daughter by adopting his secretary as his son (possible even with an adult in France, apparently) and trying to winkle her out of his will. He also wrote some spiteful things about his ex-wife in a memoir. In his latest years - he was 91 when he died - he had started to show signs of senility, and had long since given up writing stories.

I like my heroes with feet of clay. Maugham was uninterested in saints, and would find a person foolish if they tried to make him out to be one. But as an observer of sinners, he has few equals. And whilst I never got to sit at those feet of clay, life dealt me a little hand which almost adds up to a dalliance with the not-quite-great W. Somerset Maugham.

William Somerset Maugham,CH, painted by Graham Sutherland, OM

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Hare

One of the nicest parts of central Oxford is the Covered Market. It's by no means the cheapest emporium in town, but it is full of interesting things, like butchers' shops, which in the killing season are festooned with the hanging corpses of game, and the only fishmonger in town (there used to be two) and Cardew's the tea and coffee shop (twice the size it was when I first came here in 1985), and a greasy spoon caff, some smarter eateries, and twee little shops for the tourists, and I could go on. One of my favourites is a tiny little shop that sells things made from wood.

I've bought a few things there - a walking stick with a cobra's head handle, a little holding cross for a Christening present to a child from a family so low church he wasn't actually being Christened, a fruitbowl with a handle carved out of one piece of (sustainable, of course) teak, and a clever little mystery box with sliding panels and a hidden key (because HL didn't like the rather more rustic fruitbowl). And there was much else to be tempted by. But one thing I couldn't understand was the hares. I'd only seen a wild hare once, before last year, many years ago shortly after we moved to Sussex - I could take you to the precise spot, on Angmering Park Farm Estate which belongs to Lady Herries, the daughter of the 16th duke of Norfolk, the heiress who could inherit a couple of ancient baronies, but not the dukedom and Arundel Castle. Here in this little shop, hares abounded - recumbent, howling at the moon, a trio dancing round a mirror, and in all sorts of sizes. What sort of person buys a wooden hare? I wondered.

That was last Spring (2013), and at the end of May my mother and I and her friend Sylvia went on a great expedition to the wilds of Lincolnshire. This is not something most people would choose to do, but both my mother and Sylvia had ancient parents in the county, and it made sense to kill two old birds with one stone, as it were. It was a drizzly, miserable sort of day, the sort I love to go out walking in, rather than being cooped up in even the most comfortable car, and it was something of a trepidatious undertaking, too. My mother had not seen Pop for well over a year, since my father had fallen ill and died. I had not seen him for even longer - maybe twelve years. He had only returned from Australia in 2006, after 43 years in Perth, and chose to settle in Lincolnshire where he has a niece, with his daughter and son-in-law. Lincolnshire is not easy to get to from Oxford, and no invitation was ever forthcoming. This didn't bother me unduly, as for the whole of my childhood - and my mother's - Pop had been a stranger to us. He left my grandmother before my mother was even born, their wartime marriage (Friday the 13th of February 1942, not that Christian people believe in omens) unable to sustain the pressure of peace. Grandparents are an acquired taste, one best acquired in childhood, when one is at one's most forgiving. I knew my other three grandparents well, and loved them, but I don't know that I would have selected them to be my friends in adult life, if I'd not known them as a child. Pop excused himself from that duty, and what may perhaps also have been a pleasure, just as he denied himself the responsible and joys of fatherhood until he met his second wife, who arrived with one daughter from her first marriage, and then they had a child of their own, my half-aunt. But I don't know that children ever particularly interested him. He liked cars, dogs, and the war.

This was a duty call. We had been told by my aunt who was provided round-the-clock care for her father, that he was failing. Curiously, apart from "vascular dementia", there was nothing actually wrong with him, but somehow he qualified for palliative care nurses to give her a tiny bit of rest from time to time. He was coming up to his 93rd birthday, and until the last couple of years, had been in entirely good health, and mentally as agile as he'd ever been. So this was to be the last time we would see him. I went to support my mother, and a little out of curiosity. My sister has no time for men who neglect their children. My now-dead father was of like mind. I am more tolerant of the past and its complexities, and certainly I'd regard actually being married to either of my maternal grandparents as a living hell. They chose badly, back in 1942, but over seventy years later that was not to be held against a dying man.

Despite the rain, and the inevitable traffic rain causes, the journey had its compensations, one of which was a stop-off in Ely. Mother and Sylvia wanted tea. I wanted to drop in to the cathedral, to see if I could take a photograph of the wonderful memorial tablet which speaks of the departed having "exchanged time for eternity". And somehow I drifted into a bookshop, and found a slim volume on East Anglian genealogy, which as I have roots in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and had a book token in my wallet, was just the thing.

Then it was back to the big smart car - Sylvia very gamely drove all the way, despite not long since having had a hip operation - and off along smaller roads through Norfolk. "Very flat, Norfolk" people are fond of quoting from Noel Coward, as if that's a criticism. I rather like it. Also the rich soil, which produces vegetables rather than cereal crops, and which only gets better as you turn the corner into Lincolnshire. And then, through the drizzle, sitting on the back seat, looking across a field of cauliflowers, I saw it - a hare. It was a slow windy road, so we weren't going fast, but even so, it was the most fleeting glimpse, just a few seconds, but long and close enough to know for sure from its size, its ears, and its gait, that it wasn't a rabbit. For some reason that utterly delighted me, and I started to have a good feeling about this trip.

Arriving much later than we hoped, Sylvia dropped us off at the inn nearest to our cousin's village, and went off to see her mother at her nursing home, where there were rooms for family to stay overnight. We visited Cousin Barbara, whom I'd met only once before, in London, with Pop and my aunt, and met her husband for the first time - a man who'd lived all his life in that little village (Pop's family all came from Lancashire). Pop was not well enough to be visited, so we postponed that ordeal to the next afternoon, after lunch in Boston, with Sylvia, and her mother, Margaret, and Barbara. I'd never been to Boston before, nor seen it's famous "Stump", which isn't a stump at all, but an implausibly tall tower on an already enormous church. It was drizzling like anything yet again, so after lunch, I left the grown-ups to it, and went exploring. I was using a postcard of the Stump as a bookmark last night. I rather liked Boston, its church, its market, and Margaret, who, although nearly 95 and deaf as a post, had taken the course of always smiling, so although you couldn't have a proper conversation, you felt that if you could, you'd have liked one another. Shrewd move on her part - or perhaps merely the end result of an always-sunny disposition.

And so to see Pop. We were greeted warmly by Lynda and Mal, with tea and excellent home-made carrot cake. Clearly they were both worn out by the ordeal of looking after the old man for so long. My step-grandmother, Jean, had died suddenly in 1999 (of lung cancer - she was one of the ones who'd never smoked and die of it anyway to spite the statistics), and so it fell to Lynda to look after her father. Thinking about it later, he'd been looked after all his life - by his mother, by the army, by my grandmother, by his mother again, by Jean, and now Lynda. It wouldn't have occurred to him that it could be any other way. He was not blessed with immense powers of imagination.

Mother went first, and then invited me upstairs to see him. There had been a faint recognition of her. Bear in mind, there would be relatively few long-term memories for him to draw on - he never knew her as a child, nor me, so I didn't have great expectations. I have to say he looked good, I've never seen a dying man look better, with his familiar mop of wavy white hair, and his rosy cheeks. He'd evidently lost weight, and clearly had deteriorated since my mother's last visit, but I had been prepared for a shock I didn't get. Mother introduced me - "Do you remember Richard, your grandson?" "Not really". Well, that was a pretty lucid reply! And then he drifted off to sleep for a little while, as I stood by the window, looking at the lengthening shadows of the few tall trees edging the adjacent potato field in the afternoon sunshine. Then he perked up from his drowse, and looked right at me, and said "Richard". How's that for short-term memory? Despite my low expectations, I was chuffed, and the more so because it pleased my mother, who, like most mothers, has always cared infinitely more for her children than herself. We had done our duty, and Pop had risen to the occasion.

On the journey home - they dropped me off in Cambridge, so I could take the cross-country coach back to Oxford, rather than fiddle through London, or back from Sussex - I kept thinking of that hare I had seen in North Norfolk. I had a feeling, which I was fighting both with my faith and my logic to resist, that it had been a good omen, because what could have been a solemn and dark journey of resentful duty was redeemed. Pop died three weeks later to the day.

When I got home to Oxford, the next time I had an appointment in town I went to the Covered Market and to the little shop of wooden things, and bought myself a hare. We were in the throes of moving to a new flat, and much in need of a bit of luck. Now I knew what kind of people buy wooden hares, and rather surprisingly I turned out to be one of them. We have been very happy in the new flat, and a week or so after we moved in, on a walk into the countryside, I saw a couple of hares in a meadow.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

You know you're getting older when the police officers look young ...

.... but the flashers? Because that's what happened to me on Sunday afternoon, in broad daylight, in the alleyway that leads up from our flats to the church at the top of the hill. The culprit of this indecent exposure was about eight.

It's not something I've ever experienced before, and I can't say that at other times in other places and with different personnel, it would have been remotely upsetting, but this was rather different. I was walking up to Headington to the shops with my friend's dog, Sandy, who was staying with us for the day, and saw two small boys on the path ahead. One was standing rather oddly in the middle, as if about to have a pee, which was curious, because it was the middle of the path, and that's not what most chaps do, and it was also uphill, and you don't need to be wearing sandals to know that's daft. A few paces after I had passed them I heard "Oi, Mister!", and turned round to see the boy with his trousers and pants round his thighs, gesturing at his evidently very prepubescent genitals, who then shouted "Wanna suck on this?" My primary instinct was to get fast away, so I shouted a rude retort (a friend suggested "I've sucked on bigger peanuts, ducky", but that might not have been entirely kind) and Sandy and I continued our walk.

But it rankled. It was just two boys of a certain silly age being silly, one, with his willy. But why me? Do I look gay? Shorts and sandals are eccentric except in high summer, but not exactly camp. I'm no Elton John, and I'd audition badly for the Village People. Or was it the dog? Sandy is a bichon frise, which is by no stretch of anyone's imagination a paragon of butchness, and having been forcibly shampoo'd by HL that morning, she was at maximum fluffiness. Was she the reason? But so what? Shouldn't anyone be free to go about their lawful business unaccosted by small boys and their smaller penises? And I started to wonder what it might be like for an older generation of gay man, going home alone, or, worse, to his mother, after such an incident. Or what if it happened to someone who didn't have a clean CRB certificate in the filing cabinet, and lived in fear of persecution and the rattling cage of ancient sins? And where did the kid learn the language from? A friend suggested the internet which, given that I virtually live on it, it's absurd I didn't think of. But what if it had been from home? Aren't we meant to say and do something when children report or display untoward sexual behaviour?

So, I did. The next afternoon I went into our local CPSO office here on the estate (we say "on Barton" here, which is very amusing and peasanty), and said I wanted to report an indecent exposure. They were remarkably calm about it - to be honest, I was expecting to be laughed at, or put on a register myself. The lady officer said I could make a formal report, but it seemed to me that would make a big and possibly lasting deal out of what was only passing silliness. Then the male officer asked "what was he wearing?" I couldn't honestly answer, as I have no memory for people's clothes or haircuts, or cars, or all the things they hold most dear, and have caused much offence thereby. "Might it have been blue shorts with a white T-shirt?" "Not impossible, but you really are leading the witness!". "I think I know the boy, and his family. I'll have a word about not making a fool of himself in public".

Well, well. I was deeply impressed that the officer knew the patch so intimately, that I was listened to, and taken seriously. I doubt anything like it will happen again. And I get a tiny buzz of satisfaction from the fact that years ago when I was working with the Lilac Project in the West End of London, we reported back to the Home Office that much though we appreciated that the police enjoyed doing "intelligent policing" (which is not actually a contradiction in terms, I've seen it done, and it is most impressive), the local residents wanted to see uniforms on the beat. We were not, I'm sure, the only committee to make this recommendation, but that is how the Community Police Support Officers came about. My first suggestion that, given we had the headquarters of Equity (the actors' union) in our parish, out-of-work actors should just be issued with uniforms was quietly ignored.

Civic duty done. A rather peculiar experience. One I very much hope never to experience again. But I do hope that officer does remember to have a quiet word, because there are people round here who would not respond with caustic words, but with a good belting. Maybe they chose their victim well.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Take The Wood Away

A Homily for Holy Cross Day
for the Sisters of the Love of God
Convent of the Incarnation
Fairacres, Oxford

In twenty years of doing this sort of thing from time to time, I cannot recall ever celebrating or preaching on Holy Cross day, so I hadn't thought about it much before. This is lax on my part because when I was first at vicar school in Lincoln, and on placement in St Botolph's church, there was a very good question about the cross. This church is one of relatively few St Botolph's churches - another is the Boston Stump, also in Lincolnshire - and rather high, with much to look at. Archbishop Michael Ramsey's great-uncle was vicar there in the 19th century. One morning the vicar had invited a class from the local school, and we three children from the theological college, to look round the church, and then ask questions. One small boy asked - pointing at the rather splendid figure of Christ crucified on the rood screen - "why do you always show Jesus like that? It can't have been a very happy time in his life".

At first sight, a naive, innocent, sort of question, but you've got to admit he has a point. I have a friend who can't stand the Eucharistic Prayer we are presently about to use (B, in Common Worship) because it speaks of Jesus opening his arms wide for us on the cross. She said "the cross is an instrument of torture and execution, not some kind of cosmic cuddle". Were King Louis XVI by some extraordinary chance to become a cult, it would be like choosing as his symbol the guillotine.

But how else are we to represent Jesus, what other symbol could we use? An incarnation, a baptism, an empty tomb, miracles, healings, exorcisms? Yes, all vital parts of the story, and true, and glorious in art and iconography, but you can't put them round your neck or in your pocket.

One of the things the cross does is to make us look up, which it seems to me is a fundamental religious instinct in all people. Our readings today pick this theme out - the bronze serpent that Moses made and lifted up so that by looking on it, his snake-bitten people in the wilderness would be healed, and in John's Gospel we read that Jesus likewise must be lifted up - on a cross - to bring about eternal life. Listening to the obituaries of Sir Donald Sinden in the last few days I was struck by how his interest in churches was sparked by a grandfather who was an architect - "always look up in churches, that's where the interesting things are". This was true of the first church I got to know - Christ Church Cathedral, as an undergraduate - which is a fascinating enough place, but on a first visit you can miss the most marvellous windows in the spire. I have no idea what, if anything, they depict, they are far too high up, but the colours are glorious, and when they catch the sun, their glory is reflected on the stonework opposite.

And looking up at the cross, what do we see? The figure of Christ crucified from your refectory here comes to mind, which once was in the prioress's office, but seems so very fitting presiding over a larger space, one from which it can be seen from different angles. It is a haunting and compelling carving in wood, originally, I believe, from Africa, and over the years I have seen many things in that figure. At first, more often the dereliction of death, and the brutality of humanity. Later, the possibility that through suffering and death, there can be hope, and new life. Even at times the possibility of a shy child opening his arms to be hugged, and asking you, and me, if we will be the ones to do it. All are images of a vibrant vulnerability.

This figure has no cross, just Jesus, and we can imagine the rest. Take the wood away, and the cruciform Christ is free to embrace us all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Motes, Beams, and Humility

Notes from a homily not delivered to the Sisters of the Love of God on Friday morning, owing to a diary cock-up.

Luke 6:39-42

"He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye."

Our New Testament lecturers, many years ago, used to engage in the entertaining game of trying to identify the "authentic" sayings of Jesus. All I can remember now is that the answer was usually "anything embarrassing, and nothing from John's Gospel". However, I think this morning's Gospel reading qualifies on two grounds - it is marked by humour, and it coheres with a deep theme in other teachings of Jesus.

Because religion is controlled and extolled chiefly by po-faced people, we tend not to see much comedy in the Bible, and yet it's definitely there. It's unthinkable that Jesus can have achieved the following he did without making people laugh, and you don't get the reputation of "a wine-bibber and a glutton" without being able to tell a good story. Even Mahatma Gandhi, with his solemn and steely charisma, had bursts of humour. The one I remember reading was his answer to the question "what do you think of Western Civilization?" "I think it would be a very good idea".

And here we have Jesus illustrating his point with a ludicrous image - someone clattering about with a log over his face, telling everyone else how to do things, and "the trouble with you". When I was doing A-levels and applying to Oxford long ago, I met my Great-Uncle Peter at my Nan's flat one afternoon, and dismissing my academic prowess, he said "what you need, son, is savvy". "I haven't read that in the university prospectus, Uncle Peter, they tend to prefer A-grades", I coldly and sniffily replied. In retrospect, Uncle Peter was wrong about Oxford, but probably right about life, and a bit more savvy might have protected me from a litany of foolish errors of judgement and put me in a better place now. On the other hand, it is highly questionable that Uncle Peter was much blessed in this respect himself. When he grew old and even more eccentric, answering the door to the postman in the nude and so on, no one really thought he was much different from how he'd always been, just more so.

So, besides the humour which speaks of authenticity, there is in this passage a coherence with so many other teachings which are levellers - not, I hope, levelling down, although Jesus does call us hypocrites if we've no powers of self-examination and continue to sit in judgement - but levelling up. He sets us impossible standards of behaviour - equating desire with adultery, and anger with murder - which are surely intended to humble us from our thrones of judgement on one another, knowing that none of us can attain the perfect standard.

If the consequence of such an awareness is a gentle kindness towards our fellow human beings, knowing them to be no more frail than we are, and perhaps in humility, learning to help one another with our specks and logs, that must make the world a better place, and be Good News indeed.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Respecting the Worker

To the Labour Exchange to discuss my stately-as-a-galleon progress towards work that doesn't exist. My new minder was rather self-deprecating - "I'd be quite good at this job if I didn't keep losing paper" - but I think she's rather good. She'd picked up an application pack for a potentially interesting job at a some sort of bunfight the other day, and put it in the post for me (on Monday, it arrived on Friday) and even found, but lost, a flyer about tour guiding. It was rather a nice feeling to be thought of in my absence, so that counts for something, even though I privately consider her task impossible.

And then a leisurely stroll through Oxford's busying streets, slowly crowding with shoppers, tourists, and students, until I'd had enough of them, and headed back to the bus stop. I prefer the back streets, for their charisma as much as their quietness, and was rather unexpectedly accosted by Mormons in New College Lane. Two of them, plainer than usual, and implausibly, given their youth, marked with the badge "Elder". One was German, I think, the other American. I've noticed before that it's rarely any use saying you're a Christian priest to these people, but I did it anyway. They wanted to talk about baptism and seemed very intense that there is only one correct way to do it, as it says so in the Book of Mormon. You could talk about symbolism, the authority of books, diversity of style and practice, and all the rest, but it would be like water off a full immersion. There was absolutely no respect for the fact that I knew abundantly more about the question than they did - obviously they weren't going to agree with me, that didn't matter (although of course, it does to people with that cast of mind), but a little respect would have gone a long way to prolonging the conversation. In its absence I went to find my bus.

Alighting in Barton, at the top of the hillside with the park, and playground, and the view over the fields, there was lawn-mowing in progress. I well remember when we first got a ride-on mower for the lawn in my parents' half-acre garden in Sussex, over thirty years ago. It was red, and replaced the big green petrol mower we had before, which, as it weighed a ton, was quite good exercise when you had to spin it round at the end of each stripe. But the new red toy was enormous fun, and quite clearly the chap in the park was having a ball too, whirling like a dervish.

But I didn't tell him how to do his job.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Just Making Up Numbers - What A Liberty!

Some thoughts from a little homily for Saint Bartholomew's Day, at Fairacres Priory, Oxford

When I was, briefly, a student of Social Work at Ruskin College, we had a case study about a child whose father refused to name it. It turned out there was a cultural or religious reason for this, there had to be a ceremony, when the family had been gathered, and the name would be given then. The social workers didn't understand, considered not naming a child to be cruelty, and it was taken into care. Names, and the power of naming, are big themes in our cultural and religious history. The ancients thought that Adam and Eve must have been immensely clever because they were able to name all the animals. Names in the Old Testament - and, like the Saul who became Paul, in the New, too - change, when a new role or vocation arises. Popes take new names. Parents ponder and dither about the right name for their newborns - do they reflect the past, do they "name after" ("for" in American) or do they strike out and choose something original?

The response to "and who are you?" is very likely to start with your name. That's a pretty random thing, really, as you have sixteen great-great-grandparents, and bear the surname (usually) of only one of them (and with no guarantee that you are genetically, as opposed to legally, entitled to it). We come to a feast like Saint Bartholomew's and ask "and who are you?" and the answer is rather thinner. The "bar" part of his name suggests a patronymic, so a sort of surname, but who was he? He was one of the Twelve that Jesus chose. There's a theory that he might have been Nathanael, who appears only in Saint John's Gospel. If you add them up - I tried it once, before I had been taught to read the Bible less literally and with more intelligence - and found fifteen of the Twelve. The determination to identify Bartholomew as Nathanael reflects the desire to tidy that record up, to make it neat, to be sure that there really only were twelve, and we know who they were.

But the attempt fails, and we don't know. Saint Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive (well, alive for a time) in Armenia. Nathanael, in John's record, had a taste for figs, and sardonic humour ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). But that is John's Gospel, and so, in the best possible way, not to be trusted.

What matters about Bartholomew is not who he personally was, but the group of which he was a chosen part. This goes against the grain of the modern mind. We are individuals, we matter, we strive for identity and self-fulfillment, and here's someone who only matters because of the number Twelve. If you or I were invited to a charming dinner party and in the course of it a fellow guest asked our hostess "were't you thinking of inviting those delightfully amusing So-and-Sos tonight?" and if your host said "Yes, but they were otherwise engaged, so we've got Muggins here to make up the numbers", well, we might be rather miffed. We'd rather be chosen for ourselves, not to make up the numbers.

But maybe there is a liberty in this. There is a madness in the modern world about choice and opportunity and that means we have 101 ways to succeed. But also 101 ways to fail. And that weight of failure, lost opportunity, personal diminution, is clearly implicated in the depression, and anxiety that afflicts our age. How liberating NOT to have to be ourselves, to be chosen, not for our wonderful skills and talents and reputation, but just to make up numbers!

And maybe it's in just making up numbers that we will be free to be ourselves, because in God's sums, we count, whoever we are.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Thank You, Fog

“Thank You, Fog”

This is the title poem of a collection by W H Auden. The poem isn’t long, it’s about a foggy and very cordial Christmas in Wiltshire, being cut off from the world by impassable roads and reluctant travellers. He contrasts the pure, clean, English countryside Winter fog with the New York smog, which he lived with most of the rest of the time.

But I don’t need the rest of the poem. The title is enough. The weather has always spoken to me of God, and most of all the air itself. “Breathe on me, breath of God” we sing, and in the fog, the air does just that. It envelops us, touches us, damps out all distractions of noise and light, and makes itself known.

The poem ends “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog”, and ever since I first read it, I have thought it was addressed to God. It is my daily prayer over food, and in myriad other circumstances:

For this food, and the wit to cook it;
For friends to love and share the table, and the silence, with;
For the cat that leaps on me to be cuddled and to dribble;
For the aspidistra who lurks quietly in her pot, knowing she will survive empires;
For the music that makes me think of something, and of nothing;
For the view of England’s fields and woods;
For the mother who stands tall, proud, and purposeful, over the devastation of widowhood;
For the things I’ve seen, the doors that have opened (including Mr Auden’s!);

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2014

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ten Books

The New Testament Gospels
W H Vanstone "Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense"
Austin Farrer "The End of Man"
Giovanni Guareschi "The Little World of Don Camillo"
Jane Austen "Persuasion"

Isaac Deutscher "Stalin"
William Cobbett "Cottage Economy"
Mario Puzo "The Godfather"
S. John of Kronstadt "Counsels on the Christian Priesthood"
H A Williams "The True Wilderness"