Friday, 28 November 2014

Wonky Vaulting, Swans, Geese, and Monty Python - S. Hugh of Lincoln

Notes from a homily to the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Monday, 17th of November, 2014, 8.30 a.m.

Saint Hugh of Lincoln

[after finding that the Sisters were not in fact keeping this particular feast]

Oh dear! It's such a good idea to check first - I was SO sure you'd be keeping Saint Hugh of Lincoln today. The main reason for this is that for once he is a saint I know something about. I've often come down the hill knowing nothing about about the saint of the day - or rather, nothing until receiving the invitation to come to celebrate on their day, and then swotting up at home - but I trained for the priesthood at Lincoln Theological College, of late and blessed memory, in the shadow of that magnificent cathedral, whose choir is attributed to Saint Hugh's efforts, in the re-building necessitated by an earthquake (and we complain about floods). It's even said that Saint Hugh worked manually on the cathedral - a saint not afraid to get his hands dirty, or to hammer, or break, a nail.

We were shown round the cathedral by one of our tutors who had such an enthusiasm for the place that she wrote a book about it. When we got to the choir, she told us to look up at the vaulting. Fan vaulting is a marvel of symmetry, starting off at the wall, fanning out as it climbs across, then meeting in the middle of the ceiling. Not in S. Hugh's choir. It's wonky. Why might this be?, our tutor asked, and we said the usual sort of nonsense: perhaps it was a very early effort and they hadn't got it right yet? But she pointed out that anyone who can build a wall so high and straight that it doesn't fall over, can easily make vaulting meet. Instead, she suggested, it is deliberate. Look at it, and you will find no pattern - even as you gaze up during the longest and dullest of sermons. "Do not expect to find perfection in man-made things", she said.

It fell to my lot to lead morning prayer at the college on S. Hugh's Day. Normally, anywhere else in the world, this is no big deal, but every service at theological college is an occasion of great earnestness and brouhaha, because each ordinand only gets a go once every few months, and must milk it for all it's worth, and I must have done more research for that 15-minute office than I've done for far more significant things since. During it, I discovered the significance of the swan, which in our chapel window winds itself round Saint Hugh's leg - it was his pet, from a diocesan estate far to the south (in those days, and until 1542 and the creation of the new diocese, Oxford was in the bishop of Lincoln's domain). But one - just one - writer suggested it might actually have been a goose. Now, when someone says that sort of thing in revisionist history, or re-interpretation of the New Testament, our natural response is to say "oh, someone's got to go and spoil it". But it didn't spoil it for me. I like geese. I used to keep them as a teenager - my parents bought me seven goslings when they saw me going mad with boredom, revising for my O-levels (imagine such a thing happening to today's hot-housed little generation!). They thought I was their mother, and followed me in a little line round our nursery and back to their paddock. So for me, that Saint Hugh's swan might have been a goose, added to the story, it didn't take away from it. One thing I can tell you though, swan or goose, it wasn't a male - come spring time, there's no taming them!

Whilst these poultry thoughts were on my mind, I happened across an interesting television programme by accident. These days I tend only to watch television by accident - there are so many channels, and everything is repeated endlessly, that nothing is special any more. This was a film, a performance, not a documentary, about the famous interview of two members of the Monty Python team with Malcolm Muggeridge, and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, just after their film "The Life of Brian" was released 35 years ago. I've seen footage of that interview, and the film was true to my memory of that. The plot revealed - which seems to have been true - that the two old curmudgeons had actually missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which would have made it abundantly clear that it was not a parody of the life of Jesus. How times have changed since then! John Cleese has gone on to become quite possibly the angriest man in the world (that's what forty years of therapy does for you), and Michael Palin, the nicest man in Britain, and a National Treasure. At the time, they seemed young, naive, earnest, rather innocent. The two old curmudgeons seemed lofty, patronising, dismissive, and are of course now dead.

The only bit of "The Life of Brian" that does actually portray Jesus includes my favourite line from it. Far in the distance, Jesus is on the top of a hill, preaching, and in the foreground, a tall person with better hearing, is relaying to those around him what he can catch. This in itself reveals a historico-critical analysis of the New Testament, asking the question "how do we know what they heard, how do we know they heard right, how was it passed on? He repeats to them, "Blessed are the cheesemakers". Says another, "Cheesemakers? What's so special about them?" A third responds, "Oh, I think it can be reasonably inferred to include the makers of ALL dairy produce". In that throwaway line, we have, in a nutshell, 20th century Biblical theology, indeed, theology right now. When our divines look at the question of what marriage might be, aren't they asking whether it's only the cheesemakers who are blessed, or perhaps the butter and yoghurt makers too? I have no idea if anyone involved in the film studied theology at university, but I strongly suspect someone had a very good divinity teacher in the sixth form.

This has been rather a ramble, from swans in Lincoln, to geese in Sussex, from the sermon on the mount, to Fairacres chapel, to the makers of dairy produce. My hope is that, swans or geese, cheese-makers or butter-makers, the kingdom of heaven is big enough for us all, and we shall find Saint Hugh there waiting for us, and pointing up, towards a wonky vaulting, that turns out to be perfect after all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Thursday, 27 November 2014

I Will .... but with a Question

The last few weeks have been on the rancid side of bearable, but today I heard some good news. I had to go out of my way to find it, and it will probably make no difference to us in the longer term, but I discovered that those who go to the register office (or other designated and licensed venue) to "convert" their civil partnerships into marriages will be able to do so free of charge. The charming registrar (who is himself waiting for their anniversary before he and his civil partner convert) explained that Stonewall, the high profile and powerful gay equality pressure group, had argued with the government that as those of us who wanted marriage would have asked for it in preference to civil partnership if it had been available at the time, we had in effect already paid, and there should be no charge. In practical terms, this means that the government (the Home Office, presumably, or maybe the Equalities Ministry?) will foot the bill for the register offices.

Everything has been done in such a hurry, and with so little forethought, that although the registrars know they will be recording conversions from the 10th of December (that's two weeks yesterday) they don't actually know what they will be recording them on, nor for how much they'll be invoicing the ministry. We will get a new certificate, backdated to the original event, but marking that it is a conversion, and changing any details which have changed since (in our case, our address, and the deaths of both our fathers). We will feature in the index of marriages, and the reference will re-direct to the register of civil partnerships. There is no computerisation in place yet for this to happen.

I'm not one to refrain from hurling missiles at the dazzling incompetence, careless talk, and empty promises, of this administration, but that's not what's on my mind just now. Back on the 16th of June 2007 we had rather a special day. It was to have been a quiet one, at the least possible cost (on account of our having the least possible money) but our friends thought otherwise and arranged a whip-round for us which meant we could afford the mark-up for a Saturday afternoon ceremony (most expensive time-slot of the week) and not one, but two, receptions, the first at my old college, Christ Church, the second at the house and garden of good friends just a little way away. There were rings, dressing up, original-design invitations, more guests that we were technically allowed at any of the venues, photographs, even a cake. Everyone called it "the wedding", and referred to it as "getting married". When I mentioned to his father that although the children were hugely welcome, we wouldn't be offended if teenagers thought this sort of thing boring and gave it a miss, I learnt that my godson said he "wouldn't miss it for the world".

So my question is, how do you "convert" or, as many people are expressing it "upgrade", an experience like that? It is irksome to think that the life we have lived these last seven years has been somehow second class. Should we be thinking of the man in the parable at the feast who was asked "friend, come up higher"? Or thankful that a wider world has realised we have had the "pearl of great price" all along?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Friday, 14 November 2014

Hoadly - the Life & Reputation of a Bad Bishop

The joys of Facebook! Notification of a friend's birthday sent me to my Kalendar and there I saw that Brian shares the day with Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761). Not someone many people have heard about these days, but in his own day one of the most controversial men on the bishops' bench.

At Lincoln Theological College, before the dawn of time, I did a paper for my MA on the bishops of the 18th century. It started off as an exercise in statistics - something it appears no one had done before - but became also a study of class and social change, and the church politics of keeping the peace after the horrors of the previous century, and the schisms of the next one. During all this fact-finding, Hoadly stood out as of interest.

There were 161 men who held office as Bishops of the Church of England (which then included Wales - Ireland was audited separately, and Scotland made quite different arrangements). Of these, Hoadly was one of the 25% who lived to be eighty, but, being a Clare College, Cambridge man, not one of the 14% who went to Christ Church, Oxford; he was the only one to hold four diocesan appointments in succession, and was the only one called Benjamin. He was an unlikely candidate for high office because he came from a smallfry family (his father was a schoolmaster) at a time when the episcopate was becoming more aristocratic; because his wife was, rather scandalously, an artist and a friend of Hogarth; and worst of all, he was "a cripple". We don't use the word now, but the great 18th century historian Norman Sykes (who held the swinging title of Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge) did, as recently as the 1950s. The problem had been childhood smallpox, which meant that he couldn't ride a horse, the best way to get about a parish or diocese - in those days sometimes bishops would perform confirmations from horseback - and he had to preach kneeling down, which must have been quite a sight. But despite these handicaps by the age of forty, in 1716, after a succession of swanky London parishes, he was made bishop of Bangor. He went on to be bishop of Hereford, then Salisbury, and for the last 27 years of his life, bishop of Winchester and prelate of the Order of the Garter.

What interested me at the time was the scornful language used against the little cripple who presumed to accept such high offices - all very political in those days - and with which Professor Sykes colludes. He even contradicts himself, in one book repeating the slur that Hoadly never even visited Bangor or Hereford, and yet in another, noting that he at least tried to reach Bangor by sea, and quoting a letter written on "the eve of his Episcopal Visitation of Hereford". A very good history teacher at school has given me a lasting suspicion of "great" historians. Like most of the bishops, Hoadly spent most of his time in London, and the House of Lords, to which he was appointed because of his skills as a controversialist in the Whig cause. The "Bangorian Controversy" was started by a sermon of his in 1717 about the relationship between Church and State, which staunchly defended the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament over the Church, a situation which pertained until very recently. In 1928 a new version of the Book of Common Prayer was rejected, against the advice of both archbishops, by a House of Commons full of (according to one commentator) "Jews and jobbers". These days it seems, the C of E will pick and choose which of Parliament's laws it wishes to obey.

At the time I was hopeful that I might turn his story into a doctoral thesis, and ideally, a film. Looking at the bibliographies, the former has already been done. Maybe I shall have a crack at the latter some day (film-making is in the family, after all - my distant cousin Paul Haggis got an Oscar a few years ago). If I do, it will end with a long shot of Hoadly in Winchester Cathedral, preaching in full fluent flood of rhetoric, on his knees. He was a man who fought against the odds, and won.

I attach below his portrait by William Hogarth which from time to time hangs in the Tate Britain collection at Pimlico. I think he has something of the look of that other fine-living, modern Latitudinarian, John Mortimer.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"Brideshead Revisited", and the Malign Influence of Religion on Love

Just finished watching (again) the DVDs of the TV version of this novel, first broadcast in 1981. I'm very pleased with the set - my mother collected tokens from the Daily Mail, got them for free, and sent them all to me. HL loves it.

We've been watching the lot over the last few nights. HL is taken with sets, and costumes, and locations, and scenery, and snobbery. I am too, but I am quieter about that, and pretend it is more about the heaving sub-text of religion pitted against the human soul.

In an inept nutshell, the story is of an English aristocrat, with much land and a magnificent Palladian palace, who falls in love with a Roman Catholic woman, converts, and marries her, and has four children, whom she controls from afar with the pitiless rod of her own faith. Of the four, the most dashing is the second son, Lord Sebastian Flyte. His university friend, Charles Ryder (born into a far more prosaic family), falls in love with the boy with a sense of wonder, and when that all falls apart, falls in love with his sister instead.

They are all unhappy.

It fascinates me that Evelyn Waugh, himself a Catholic convert and a divorcé, should have written something so utterly convincingly against the religion he had chosen.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Saturday, 8 November 2014

If Memory Serves

My memory has been on active service for the last 46 years that I am aware of. I know for a fact that my earliest memories go back to when I was two years old. Obviously, I don't remember everything from back then, nor most since, as that way madness would surely lie, but I have now reached a stage in life where I am less and less sure of my memories. I have passed out of a time in which I knew I was absolutely right, into a time in which I am far less certain; and the time will come when I shall be absolutely certain of things that didn't happen the way my memory presents them.

This is all private and personal, but it can affect nations too, and in this year of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, our national memories are likewise complicated. We find the event being fought over. On the one hand, we have those saying we must cherish this time of "service for King and Country", celebrate bravery, and sacrifice, and duty, and patriotism. On the other, we have those who look at our foreign military adventures right now and wonder whether anything has actually been "remembered" at all. Didn't Victoria's Imperial army have three wars with Afghanistan and lose them all? And hasn't Blair-Brown-Cameron's just done the same?

We speak of them "laying down their lives", and "we shall remember them", but neither is really true. Most were conscripts; many of them spoke of doing their best to get away with their own lives, and not to fire a shot that would end anyone else's. When you listen to old soldiers talking about combat they eschew the language of bravery and heroism "there wasn't time to be afraid" they say. They did what they had to do - they were "only obeying orders". That was the defence that didn't wash for the Nazis at Nuremberg. And do we remember them? How can most of us, born long after those grim times?

The poppy field installed in the lawn of the moat at the Tower of London has been hugely popular - 4,000,000 people have seen it, they say, over four times the number of young men whose deaths are commemorated by it. But that war ended 96 years ago. My maternal grandfather, who died last year at nearly 93, served in World War II, but being born in 1920, knew only other people's memories of the one before. He said three of his uncles died in the Battle of The Somme alone. I have photographs of two of them, kindly-looking, innocent chaps, one almost forty and unmarried, the other more a boy. So, Pop grew up with his Grandma Evans grieving the loss of her sons. It didn't stop him enlisting before the second war even broke out. The perpetrator and victim of a disastrous wartime marriage, Pop came into our lives late; I grew up not knowing him and his family's story, as did my mother, his daughter. War exacts its human cost in many ways.

My other grandfather lost his oldest brother to the influenza epidemic that followed the Great War - he had travelled with the Royal Navy all the way to Australia, to die there in 1919. He had other brothers who enlisted and served, one who served in the Royal Navy for nearly thirty years, but it left him with an abiding suspicion of a country that will send young men needlessly to their deaths. When the second war came, he was exempt from service as he had his own business, and he did his level best to get other people out of war service. In my great-aunt's case, he got her out of military service she'd very much have liked to be in - anything rather than live with her family in dreary Battersea.

They say one of my father's cousins was killed in London during the Blitz. The dates fit, so it's probably true. But that's the extent of the blood cost of that war to our family - and no one alive remembers that cousin (she was a teenager). My father was only two when the war ended, and he too is dead now.

So, who, what, am I remembering? I sponsored (do I really just mean "bought"?) one of the poppies at the Tower, and am looking forward to receiving a piece of history in the post some time after the installation is harvested. I care deeply that 888,246 innocent young men died in that appalling war, for the British Empire alone, and nearly half a million in the next one. I care that there was a next one, despite all the suffering undergone by all parties the first time. And I care that British troops are still in service around the world - in my lifetime, in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya, now Syria, and countless other peace-keeping missions for the UN.

It is not the sorrowing recollection of people I have known and loved. War has not touched my life in that way. It is history, but history with lessons to be learnt for the future.

If memory serves.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"1984" - and all that

On a bright cheerful afternoon last week, in the house of a friend who was away on holiday, I finally finished re-reading George Orwell's "1984". The first time was about thirty years ago - I have a little book somewhere that would tell me precisely (sad, but true), although I know for a fact I will not actually have read it in 1984; 1983, or 1985, but I'm far too contrary to have read it at the right time - and my memory of it from then was favourable in general, but dim on detail. I don't know that it's a particularly good novel, but you might argue that it's not really a novel at all. As political polemic for the Cynical Party it is excellent.

That morning, the 5.30 and 6 o'clock news had announced that the National Grid faced its greatest risk of shortages this winter for seven years. This might lead to what they called "blackouts". Well, I thought, that's a curious thing, I thought a blackout is what you get when you haven't eaten enough and stand up too quickly. But what they meant was "power cuts". This, for anyone who remembers the exciting days of the first Miners' Strike and the Three Day Week back in 1973-74, is a loaded term, redolent of the defeat of government by organised labour. So, the National Gridites had tempered their language to avoid provoking the government, yet, by the 7 o'clock news the government had issued a statement that there would be no blackouts. They gave no reason for countering the expressed opinion of those who knew what they were talking about, simply flatly denied it, without evidence.

It seemed to me this was an exercise in "newspeak" at the very least and possibly even "doublethink". To say that this or that is so, when manifestly it isn't, borders on insanity, but if a government does it, they are not called to account.

The same week we had a warning issued by the Foreign Office - but not by the Foreign Secretary - that the government's recently-adopted policy of drone-bombing in Iraq and Syria would put British citizens everywhere at risk of reprisals (and the purpose of all these interventions in the Middle East has been, since 2001, to keep us safe). This followed the House of Commons debate, and vote, in the course of which the Prime Minister promised us a campaign that might take "many years". It's hard not to see this as "continuous war", another feature of Oceania, Orwell's imagined state. "War on Terror", precisely because it is war on something that does not actually exist, can be precisely that - like the "war on drugs", which, though it has constantly failed, and been shown to by a Home Office report that was instantly dismissed by the government, leading to the minister's resignation in frustration, need never end. The government has a bogeyman to frighten us with for ever.

Oceania is one of three power blocs in the novel, the others are Eastasia and Eurasia, and is always friends with one and at war with the other, and it doesn't seem to matter which is which so long as there's someone to fear. The same week we had the spectacle of our Prime Minister posturing that he didn't know about a £1,700,000,000 bill from the EU, and certainly wasn't going to pay it. We also heard about billions of pounds of investment in the energy supply in the UK by the Chinese government. Are we soon to have new friends, and new enemies?

A little while before, Alan Milburn's report on social mobility was published. In a nutshell he said that in the UK social mobility has simply stopped. There is a class of people who will never rise about their present status; their are sent to school without being educated; sent to work, without being adequately remunerated; aspiration is stifled because it is pointless. Orwell calls them "the proles". They have public executions and Victory Gin - "bread and circuses as the ancient Romans would call them - and that keeps them subdued enough to accept their lot and not cause trouble. We have the television - another element in Orwell's fantasy - the lottery, cheap booze, and cheaper Chinese imports.

The food banks which have emerged all over the country as a compassionate response to the real hardship of the poorest citizens - many of them actually in work - are taken as a sign, not of the failure of government economic policy, but of the success of the Big Society, presided over by the smiling, complacent, slightly flushed, patrician features of Mr Cameron, our very own Big Brother.

Is it entirely fanciful to suppose that all this while the British people have been sleepwalking into Orwell's nightmare?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014