Friday, 31 July 2015

Leading The Retreat!

It's always nice when you have idle time not to have to think of ways to fill it up yourself for once, but to be presented with a task by someone else. So, when the Warden of Fairacres asked me if I'd lead a retreat, I leapt at the chance. That may sound a rather peculiar title to some of you, so I should explain that Fairacres is the name of the place where the (Anglican) Sisters of the Love of God have their Convent of the Incarnation, between Iffley Road and the River Thames, by Donnington Bridge, in Oxford. It's rather a magical place which I've been visiting since I was directed there by a lady on a train on a journey back to Oxford from Edinburgh in 1988. It seemed a bit loony saying "Dear Prioress, I met this woman on a train, and she said I should visit you" but you should always follow your nose in these things, and nearly 27 years later, we are still friends. In fact I wrote a letter to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands about exploring a possible vocation to the priesthood at the same time as that letter. It has been a much happier relationship than that which developed with the Church of England, and is now the only place where I am regularly invited, and welcomed, to preach and to celebrate holy communion.

Retreats, for those who are unfamiliar with them, are times set aside for paying special attention to God. There are lots of different kinds - they may focus on certain approaches to prayer, or meditation on Biblical and especially Gospel stories, they may be self-directed with a good book and a better intention, or directed by talks from someone with a few ideas, and on a good day, a little wisdom to share, or they may be entirely silent, aiming in the removal of all distraction to hear the still small voice of God. I've tended to go for the silent sort, so being asked to lead a retreat was a challenge. I've done it before, but generally for parishioners (other people's) who had heard of retreats and wanted to give one a go, or for students who never had, and thought they sounded an interesting adventure in spiritual seriousness. This was to be for the Companions of the Sisters of the Love of God, what you might call the "groupies", those whose personal circumstances and calling had not led them to join the community itself, but who have found refreshment in its life and witness. So these were seasoned campaigners, all of them far more experienced in the retreat business than I am. And we were to be joined by the newly elected Mother Superior of the order, whose serene presence and leadership of some of the worship, and gently sensible way of exploring ideas and solving problems, was a great boon - although of course, it does rather raise the stakes! I've generally had most of the community in attendance on days when I'd been invited to take the morning eucharist, but that's never more than an hour, and this was to be four solid days of having to be a grown-up, with witnesses. Well "faint heart ..." and all that, and tally-ho.

Our destination was the Llangasty Retreat House, Brecon, Powys, LD3 7PX, it's got a website too, and I've given the full address because it has my wholehearted recommendation. It's set in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, beside an immense lake, which I'd thought must be landscaped, but no, it's an original feature, laid down by our Maker before there were any people around to notice it. Around the lake are the Black Mountains. Rain or shine - and we had both - it was an idyllic location, lending itself to the sort of joy in creation that was to be an underlying theme of my talks.

Choosing a theme wasn't easy, and I struggled for some weeks. The Warden (whose day job is chaplain and fellow of Pembroke College) had suggested I could borrow the notes of the person who was originally going to do it, but had to withdraw. But I've never been comfortable trying to palm off other people's stuff as my own, and in any case, the point of a challenge is to rise to it, and try to do something new. Then, one morning at the eucharist, we had a reading in which the crowd "begged to be allowed to touch the hem of Jesus's garment", and that got me thinking - principally what a godsend that sort of attitude would be to a Safeguarding Officer in these troubled times - and at about the time that Justice Lowell Goddard was announced as the person to investigate the abuse of children by those with power, over a five-year enquiry. And that strikes me a terrible undertaking - necessary, but a great and painful burden all the same. So, and because I've always considered myself untactile, I thought we'd take the theme "Transforming Touch", and have a look at some stories in the Gospels, of touching, and not touching, and see where we went.

Well, where did we go? All over the place! From ancient Israel to the Sistine Chapel, via Romford, and Cambridge, and S. Giles-in-the-Fields, and Chelsea, and Littlemore, and Barton. We looked at the calling to prayer for those far off, and the difference it might make; at the significance of hands in our sacramental actions; at the washing of feet, and the theology and spirituality of walking, and being earthed in the ground from which we were made; we looked at the holding in tension of difficult times and situations, that takes power from us; the challenge to trust our gut, which is the reverberation of the image and likeness of God within us and requires no further evidence nor proof; at the challenge not to cling to what we know, but to grow, into new vocations and responsibilities; and at the calling to become like the little children, whom Jesus touched and blessed, giving and receiving in love and wonder. Not bad for four days! In fact, probably a little too much for four days, and some - like the spirituality of walking - was work in progress. But the audience was kind, and I felt comfortable to share stories with them I might not with a Sunday congregation, even one I knew well, and they laughed at what were meant to be jokes, and sometimes when it was surprising, which is always good.

On those other retreats I had led, the biggest obstacle was the silence. We are a talkative species, which is not to say that others don't communicate in their own many and various ways, but they don't go on and on so. We do. So to spend a few days without conversation, eating in silence together, hearing only my droning words, and the words of the liturgy set out, was completely foreign to those other groups. Eating in silence in particular. I may even have said to a group of well-heeled parishioners from a wealthy part of London one time "you're more embarrassed at the noises you make at lunchtime than by the money you have". For the students, adherence to the silence was almost pantomime seriousness, which was endearing to watch. You had the feeling that even "please excuse me, I have an urgent and distressing need to find a lavatory" would be acted out in excruciating and hilarious mime. On this occasion there was no such problem. Everyone moved comfortably into the silence after compline on the Wednesday evening, and we stayed that way until after the last talk on the Sunday morning, a little before our final eucharist and a talking lunch before we departed. It was rather a special silence, large-hearted, and gracious, and I hope we all felt well-received within it, and deepened in our fellowship. To those who've never tried it, this will sound like so much mumbo-jumbo, to which I can only respond, give it a go.

In between services - morning and evening prayer, a pre-lunch eucharist, and compline (at 8, so still in broad daylight) - and addresses, there was space for walking and taking the air, for making a time to speak to Sister Clare-Louise or to me, and for us, if we weren't needed at those times, also to see the sights. For me, the countryside was one of the greatest pleasures. Since childhood, I have loved at least the idea of farms and farming, and here we had those patchwork fields of the storybooks of long ago, and all day, somewhere, the sounds of the cattle and the sheep, and just occasionally, a donkey braying. Then there were the high hedgerows on the twisty lanes, occasionally breaking at a gate or a natural gap in the flora, into a rustic prospect of fields and woodland. There was a garden centre hidden in a walled garden, and I couldn't resist buying a Toadflax plant, for its name, and for a memento of Wales. Then there was the little church of S. Gastyn, founded by him in th 5th century and pretty much completely re-vamped by Robert Raikes, lord of the manor, in the 19th century, and in the Tractarian style, in the perhaps whimsical hope that "the beauty of holiness" might bring Jesus to the valleys in a way that by then wasn't working so well with the chapels. There is a roll of honour for the dead of the Great War behind the curtain that hides the bell-ropes. Thirty-two names are written there; seven of them are the Raikes family.

And then, having delivered my seven talks, and celebrated Holy Communion for four days in a row, having basked in the silence, and walked in the rain, and finished two P G Wodehouse novels and started a third, it was time to take my leave of my new friends, albeit slowly, as two of us had a lift to Abergavenny railway station, and were met there by two more, so there was company to Newport, where our seat reservation divided us up for the final stage of the journey, to Didcot, and thence to Oxford. The noise and busyness of the stations was a shock after the peace of the last few days, and Oxford's Babel of tongues irksome on the bus back to Barton.

With the kind gift the retreatants made me, I have been able to buy a little camera, with which, had I had it already, I might have illustrated this essay. Another time. For now, happy memories will have to suffice, of a few days touched by God, in the countryside, with friends.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Now That Summer's Here: A Vignette of Two Mothers

You know the school holidays have arrived in Barton when you hear the mothers shouting obscenities at their children outside your window before 11 in the morning. Less so the fathers, which intrigues me, as it's clear they are not all out at work. Maybe they are watching Jeremy Kyle on the television, or perhaps dealing drugs. Or possibly they are just softer-spoken. Or maybe there are fewer fathers on the scene.

It happened this morning. "If you don't shut your fucking mouth, I'm going to shut it for you", the doting mother screamed, already at the end of her tether on Day Two of the summer holidays. It's a curious negotiation to watch, because there is deep affection on both sides, I have no doubt of that, but there's also deep boredom. I can't detect any sense of a hinterland. The children play up because they are bored (absolutely no point mentioning a book to them, even though the library is only a 25-minute journey on foot), the parents respond in exasperation because they have no money, which makes them think they can't make their children's lives more interesting. They don't realise that they don't need to, except that modern children are not allowed quite so much as my generation were to go outside and wander the parks and by-ways and make their own entertainments. I also wonder if they have enough imagination to do so. The television is a great stifler of imagination. But that is middle-age talking. So, the poor souls are shackled with each other, with nowhere to go, and nothing much to do, except bicker and curse. If the children had been better taught, learnt manners, given rules that meant they knew where they stood and weren't constantly demanding more, there would be far less shouting. But I think both the children and the parents would miss it. My parents gave us rules because they had better things to do with themselves all day than to shout at us. I'm not sure these parents do.

By contrast, walking back from the Labour Camp yesterday, along the Mesopotamia path, I overheard a woman and three children. Clearly one was not her own. They were very Oxford, nicely-spoken, questions and answers all made logical sense, no shouting. I couldn't hear it all, but one of the answers from the little girl not the woman's own was "there are mainly white children, but some black children". And then a question "do you play in each others' houses?" And I really didn't like the tone of that one bit. Was it hysterical to have inferred "surely mummy doesn't allow you to play in Sambo's house"? Well, that's what I inferred. Nice, white (and they were all white, and blonde, although in the woman's case this might have been with assistance), bourgeois, Oxford, English, people don't ever say such things, but perhaps they think them, all the same.

They also took up the whole of the pathway, without a thought to passing traffic - like cyclists, and me. No manners at all.

If I'm right - and I am more than happy to concede the evidence is scant one way or the other - which set of children was being mistreated? The victims of sweary banter? Or the victims of insidious racist attitudes?

In twenty years' time, the Bartonites will still be living here in Barton, unless they've been priced out by the property market, swearing at their own children. The Mesopotamians will be running the City and the law, and bringing up well-heeled families of their own. Each class passing on its ways and values, and attaining "survival of the fittest" (and the destitution of the rest) without ever achieving evolution or progress.

It was a sad thought.

But perhaps I'm wrong.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Monday, 20 July 2015

Of the late Owen Chadwick, the Order of Merit, and Beer

The Order of Merit has fascinated me for years. It was invented in 1902 by King Edward VII because he wanted to wear a medal round his neck, in addition to all his other stars, sashes, and bangles, because his evil nephew, the Kaiser, had one. So, he designed an order for 24 people - open to men and women equally - who have achieved distinction in civil or military life. To start with, in those Empire days, half the OMs were military. These days, there hasn't been a military member since Lord Mountbatten, who was assassinated in 1979. They have included all sorts of characters - heroes of the Boer and First and Second World Wars, poets and painters, historians and philosophers, scientists and architects. The roll includes the names Kitchener, Nightingale, Jellicoe, Fleming, Trevelyan, Berlin, Eliot, Hodgkin, Britten, something like 180 of them.

But in all this time, only three priests. One was M R James, the ancient historian and ghost-writer and Provost of Eton, another is Lord Eames, the former Archbishop of Armagh, and the one in the middle was Owen Chadwick, who has just died at the age of 99. He was a church historian, Master of Selwyn College Cambridge, a Cambridge University Professor, author of many books, and widely respected not only within the university but within the Church of England.

My first acquaintance with the Chadwick family - which was pretty distinguished all round - was when Owen's little brother Henry was called on to address a group at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, the original speaker having failed to turn up. This was second nature to Henry, having spent ten years as a canon-professor at Christ Church, and another ten as its dean. He strode, majestically, like a prince of the church, and addressed his charming words of wisdom to us, over his imperious nose, and beneath his crinckly white locks. Eric Heaton, his successor, and the Dean in my time at Christ Church, had the nose, and the charm, but not the locks, and somehow you'd never think of Eric as a "prince of the church", but Henry had it to his fingertips.

So, when my kind friend Annette, the wife of the director of music at Trinity College in Cambridge, suggested, whilst I was enduring the ordeal of learning to drive, that we go for an adventure into the countryside, and call on Owen Chadwick, Henry's big brother, I thought I knew what I was in for. I could not have been more wrong. Whilst incontestably in command of his marbles and his library of knowledge, he was the most unassuming, un-princelike person you could imagine. He was also far smaller than his immense, looming, brother - something he had put to good use in his rugby-playing career, apparently. He was delighted to see Annette, whom he knew from Selwyn days, when her husband was teaching there, and appeared entirely happy to see a stranger too. He lived nextdoor to a pub, so he suggested we go and get some beer - he went with a jug, and then we sat in his garden with half-pint glasses. This is the first, and only, time I have ever been bought a beer by a member of the Order of Merit.

We got chatting about this and that, and he was modest about his Reformation textbook which I'd used for my A-levels - I think he said he'd written it for money. Then we talked of the Oxford History of the Church which he'd edited and written with his brother, "such a bully". Then I thought I'd be naughty and ask him about his "authorised" biography of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. "I thought it started out very well, and then it got a little bogged down in detail", I ventured. "It did! I got bored." Well, I wasn't expecting that.

And soon we continued on our way, to the North Norfolk coast, to what I imagine Annette didn't realise was a nudist beach, but it was pretty enough with or without, and so back to Cambridge, having encountered a delightful, if diminutive, giant along the way.

For Owen Chadwick, Deo gratias.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Most Curious Day's Toil

"You only want me for my .... driving licence!" No, you don't hear that often, but that was the key to my Saturday. It is a little-known fact that beneath my surly, green, eco-loving, walk-everywhere, exterior, there lies in the wallet in my back pocket, a full, clean, driving licence. It could hardly be cleaner, as I have never driven a car since the day I passed the driving test - the 5th of August 1999. I never wanted to drive, wasn't any good at it, and have no intention of ever doing so again, unless I move to a big house in the country (which is another way of saying the same thing, like the Psalmist).

But yesterday a driving licence was needed, plus the person to whom it is attached, as my friend James needed to go back and forth between his late mother's house which has just been sold, his own, and a charity shop. He has done a rather curious thing which is to buy a car - a most enormous car - before actually passing his own driving test, so he has a toy he can't play with unless there's an adult present. At nearly 40 I trust he will find these words deeply offensive. I'm guessing the car was a good buy at the time and it made sense to seize it, and he has a very good plan to secure that licence very soon, through one of those intensive courses over several days. As a seasoned passenger over many years, I am a stern judge of car drivers and I can say with no dissembling after being driven some miles on various different kinds of road, that he most certainly deserves to get that licence.

But until then, I come in handy! The first problem was getting to him, as obviously he couldn't come to pick me up. He lives in Greater Leys on the edge of Oxford one way, and I live in Barton on the edge of Oxford a little further another way. We're both outside the ring road, and so in estate agents terms, decidedly on "the wrong side of the tracks". The ring road is possibly the dullest road in the world. I dislike it intensely, and I particularly dislike it on warm mornings when on the one side that has a footpath, there is absolutely no shade at all. I wore long sleeves, to try to protect the peeling remains of the birthday tan I collected during my birthday lunch on the terrace at my mother's house in Sussex a week ago. My Panama hat has a broader brim than my last one, so that provided protection not only for the tips of my ears, but also for the end of my nose. So, I didn't feel burnt when I got to the Leys (the walk is just over an hour), but I very quickly felt muddled, lost, and furious.

Blackbird Leys was invented after the war, with council houses and a couple of tower blocks, to stuff the poor into from the redevelopment of the centre of town, which the developers intended to make nicer - by moving out the poor people. For six years, HL and I lived on the edge of it, although in a later development than the original settlement. Greater Leys was invented when Oxford was running out of places for poor people to live because even Blackbird Leys was getting gentrified by the right-to-buy and the children of the people who lived in the smarter parts of town wanting homes of their own. It's on the site of the old sewage works. It is the most higgledy-piggledy arrangement of streets and mini-parks and what nots that I have ever come across. It makes precisely no sense at all. James said it is because four different companies were given building rights. I think the illogicality of the place is so consistent that it really reflects the fact that none of the planners, nor anyone on the council giving permission to build, knew anyone who would live there, and would never need to find an address there.

But eventually I unravelled the spaghetti and found the house, and the enormous car, and James, and his daughter, and off we set. The emptying of a home when someone dies is a melancholy thing, and to return to a place where you've been a welcome guest at lunch, and see it almost empty, and without its soul is a reminder of mortality. My friend died in February. But it must be done and things had to be shifted.

There were hitches. The "white goods" were all wired in to the wall, rather than just plugged in to sockets, and having sold the house, it seemed a bit risky to chance causing an electrical fire before the completion date. So, calmly, that part of the mission was dropped. Other things were deemed not worth the effort of shifting. Nonetheless, we did shift a lot. I'm not a natural labourer, and particularly since being ill a few years ago, haven't all that much in the way of what you might call strength, but I can be determined with a job that seems possible.

In the midst of our endeavours, having dropped off a load of small furniture and kitchen stuff at the charity shop in Headington, it was time for lunch. Where? Well, what do I know about going out to lunch? I normally don't even bother with it on my own at home. But I dimly remembered a country pub a kind friend had taken me too, so off we went. We found the village. But not the pub. I felt more than a little foolish. James, finding the whole thing highly amusing, consulted his telephone, as the young people do these days, and discovered the White Hart in Old Headington - about a quarter of a mile from the charity shop we'd left some time before. Scampi and wine improved my spirits and dispelled my sense of being an utter fathead unable to find the simplest pub without cocking it up, to misquote the late Peter Cook in "Here Comes The Judge" (and if you haven't heard it, find it on the internet, it is quite brilliant).

And off we headed to find some strapping materials to make the lid of the boot behave when things too big for the back of the car were shoved into it. James's daughter is rather an engaging child, perfectly prepared to say you're a twit, but also to think about any eccentric questions you might ask before coming to her conclusion. We had a conversation, whilst her father was in Homebase buying strapping materials, about bottoms. I'm not entirely sure how this came about. It might have started with our lunches, and how, having eaten scampi, I had consumed several creatures, when her burger might perhaps have contained the meat of only one. She suggested it was probably the cow's bottom she'd eaten, but then said I'd probably eaten the little prawns' hearts. And she might well be right, I don't know the biology of a prawn. But I didn't see much need to be sentimental about either - and looking out of the car window pointed to an arriving customer and said as much about his bottom. And several others. She seemed to find this rather funny. She had a basket of Barbie and Ken dolls, in various states of undress, which I affected to find quite shocking, and insisted that she clothe them at once. Then, for distraction, two ancient ladies arrived, and I said "I bet their combined ages are 180 - so what's the average for the two?" And although she got it wrong first time, she knew it was wrong, and instantly corrected it, and we had a conversation about the confusingness of numbers. She'd said 60, which is of course related to 90, and to 180. People who are good with numbers won't understand why this is confusing, but it made sense to us. And then her father returned, and we could stop this nonsense, and spare his only child the ravings of a madman.

And in time the work was done, the shiftable things shifted, some of them donated to the good cause of the hospice where their owner spent her last days, some valuable driving experience (not least to a non-existent pub down windy country lanes) had been clocked up, my licence had done more sterling work than in the last sixteen years, and it was time for the walk home. It was just as hot, but no longer in such direct sunlight. On the dreary ring road I passed two young ladies who, inexplicably, swapped their sandals with each other, as I passed. What was that about?

I can only assume that they had a story to tell. I hope I have.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Thoughts on a Walk Back from Being Experimented On

Fret not, this is not a bit of Dr Mengele, these experiments take place at Nuffield College, under controlled conditions (albeit in a room which, now I think about it, would be a fire trap). They are amusing little experiments in game theory, designed to test out how far we'd all risk our own fortunes for the sake of larger ones by being nice to other people. A bit old hat, you'd think, given the last 25 years, but the experiments are fun, and as they are essentially gambling, they don't count as work, and they are rather diverting.

They needed to be. The morning had begun with my determination to go out to the Barton Job Fair. I set out at 10. The Job Fair set out at 11. There was time in the interim to cash the remains of our car in Headington, and come back to an enormous queue. I don't like queues. In fact, I don't like crowd scenes of any kind unless I am wearing something absolutely ridiculous and everyone is saying "thank you Father, that was lovely". I'm not even sure I enjoy those very much. I walked round the block - a block around which I know the way more than most, having very often walked our friend's saucy little Bichon Frise on that route.

But there was nothing to be done. I queued. I signed. I was sent to the Dole Scrounger Table (to prove to someone that I'd arrived). The slightly older chaps behind me said "1,000 vacancies, my arse, that means there are about five". Well, that seemed a bit arbitrary, but walking round the "fair" it didn't seem there were so many rides in town. I got chatting to a policeman about how fit you need to be a PCSO. And then foolishly said I was on one of the committees that recommended their introduction, long ago. He thought asthma and arthritis would probably disqualify me. Then I chatted to someone from "Blackwell". Anyone who knows Oxford will associate the name with the wonderful (well, not so wonderful these days) old bookshop in Broad Street. But no, this chap was into "construction" and he was here to speak up for those who are developing a slice of local Green Belt land. I don't approve so much of slicing up the Green Belt, but I rather liked this chap, and we talked far too much about the failure of the government to invest in infrastructure during a recession, and how difficult it was to free up brownfield land, which already has all the utilities. Well, he seemed a most sensible fellow. "They make them all pass the exams at school - but our industry is crying out for people who are actually useful!". He was Welsh, so say it again, it sounds better still. He said his son has just graduated from Aberystwyth, and he's got no job. I said "I've got two bloody degrees, and I haven't work for years". I could have worked with him.

And then to the game theory test at Nuffers. I love these things, mainly because, even when I don't understand them (although I almost did today), they make me feel clever. And maybe I am adding to the sum total of human wisdom. The room's horrid though, artificial light it doesn't need, and very stuffy. Fortunately it was over within the 90 minutes threatened.

And so, fortified with by £15 of gambling money, I headed back to Waterstones, which had earlier been too busy, to buy another P G Wodehouse book - "The Prince & Betty" (1912). It had been too busy earlier, and I had to loom over another customer who was peering at that lowest shelf before my eyes focussed properly on the title clearly enough to say - "Oh that's the one I want". And he, being foreign, said, most politely, "oh, excuse me".

I was less patient with the massed ranks of foreign students and tourists in the streets on my way home. I was almost curt with one group. And, worse, to another elderly couple who were reading with myopic intensity the stone in the wall of Balliol College which records the site nearby where three great Anglican martyrs were put to death, I very nearly turned their little necks round and showed them to the place itself (having, of course, crossed myself with a prayer of thanks for their sacrifice, and happier times, mostly, since).

Soon I found myself in Mesopotamia. It's a walk, between the centre of town and the shadier end of Marston, that I've only lately discovered. Literally, the word means "between rivers", I believe, and so it is, although maybe "streams" would be more apt. Either way, it's a very pleasant stroll, and once, one glorious morning, I saw a roe deer buck in the meadow there. No, not a muntjac, I've seen them, it was definitely a roe deer. And today, I saw a pheasant, in all his summer glory, and thought there was no more to come.

And then. Well, frankly if a chap has the body of an athlete, takes his shirt off, and chooses to run in the skimpiest of shorts, he has to expect to be looked at. He knew I was looking, and I hope he felt chuffed about it. In fact, I think he expected nothing else. In fact, if I had a body like that - and there really was very little not on show, bearded, discretely hirsute, and rippling abs - I'd have been very chuffed with it too (I have a beard). He had a sort of American or Canadian vivacity about him (hard to tell from a naked torso and skimpy shorts, I acknowledge), but he might have been home bred. But one way or another, he was dazzling enough to slow down to an almost stop until he'd passed. And then to look again after. A lady cyclist following gave me a wry smile. Saucy thing.

On to Marston, where an implausibly young father (no idea if was cute or not, quite frankly, I'd been cuted out by the nearly-naked guy) was guiding his daughter to the corner shop, holding her scooter on his shoulder, in a teensy bit weary way. "Red kite!" she shouted, "34!". He said the number at the same time, and I warmed to him at that moment. Then he asked when she would stop counting the kites: "155,000". "Do you think you saw the same kite more than once?" he asked, as I crossed the road and never found out the answer to this statistically interesting question. In the field I'd just walked through, and they'd just walked near, a pair is to be seen every day, so he had a point. It reminded my of the wicked old rector of S. Giles-in-the-Fields (who am I kidding, ONE of the wicked old rectors!) who used to add up all the attendances at services, lectures, Holy Communion and the rest, and say that this or that many hundred or thousand people had been to church over the year. Generally, it was the same person coming to church, once a week, fifty times.

And so up the hill, past the cemetery, and to my favourite church (at the moment), S. Andrews's, Old Headington, to light a candle for a friend who isn't well (but seems to be getting better). S. Andrew's candle was lit today. It isn't always. I must find you a photo of him. I rather like him.

The last strait home was a little odd. I don't like sharing the pavement with anyone. I looked ahead and saw someone coming forwards from a sideroad, but then he crossed, and I thought he'd go the other way. But he didn't. I recognised him from the queue at the Job Fair earlier. He changed his route, followed me, overtook me when I slowed down, and then disappeared.

Where's the Game Theory in all that?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Friday, 3 July 2015

Twenty Years On

On this day [I started writing this yesterday, the 2nd of July] in 1995 I was ordained a deacon, with eleven others, in the Church of God at Chelmsford Cathedral, by the bishop, John Waine.

A deacon is a peculiar thing - you're allowed (and I was expected) to wear the dogcollar, to bury the dead, and to assist at services, but otherwise "no bloody use at all", as my training vicar so kindly put it. Deacons were once, the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament tells us, an order in their own right. In later times, a "deacon's year" became a sort of apprenticeship before becoming a priest (and "useful"). Lay readers, and deaconesses took on the deacons' role, and it seems to me that untidy boundaries have still to be tidied up - but that is just my mind, maybe some things simply don't need to be tidied.

Nan, and her sister, Auntie Marie, and Auntie Margaret (my godfather's widow) were all there. I was to speak later at all three of their funerals. So was my childhood friend, Teresa. I spoke at hers, too.

It was a journey of discovery. The funny thing about vicaring is that you can't have a practice go. When you're ordained, that's it, the collar is clamped round your neck for all time. My vicar said - because the summer is boring with the schools off, and most of the congregation on holiday - "this is just your quiet time to get used to wearing the collar and being treated differently". And so it was. Wise man.

Although you get ordained a priest at the end of your first year as a deacon (assuming you don't blot your copybook, or some noble escutcheon) you remain a deacon for ever, too. You ride tandem, with both orders, both ranks. A deacon is originally a "servant". I have been very privileged in the people and communities I have been allowed to serve as priest and deacon.

When I was first ordained, I'm fairly sure I entertained hopes of lording it over people in some "higher" role. Now I'd give my eye teeth just to be a servant again.

But it is not to be.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

On The Hottest Day Of The Year

"So far", they should say. You never know, it might get hotter. I remember taking evensong in full choir fig on the hottest day of 2003, when, for the first time, the temperature in London reached 100 degrees F. The early radio broadcasts were saying that at Wimbledon today they are anticipating matches in as high, or higher, heat as in 1976.

I remember 1976. It was marvellous. There was sun, and heat, and it went on, and on. Eventually the government appointed a minister for drought (the Rt Hon Denis [later Lord] Howell), and almost at once, the rains fell, and it was over. We lived in Wimbledon at the time, and our garden was pure clay. There was about half an inch of topsoil on which to grow grass - which was my father's favourite crop. There must have been a hosepipe ban, but I remember wondering just how deep those cracks in the clay really were, and whether you could fill them with water, or whether it would eventually irrigate Australia. Well, you certainly couldn't fill them. And then my father stopped me being an eejit.

Today reminds me of my second day in Brasil on my second (and to date, last) trip there. I went out, merrily, for a cheerful constitutional. I had on my Panama hat, of course - it is a little understood fact that the incidence of skin cancer at the top of the ears is directly related to the decline in Panama-wearing - and within half a mile I felt like I was walking through a solid field of invisible treacle. I had to turn back. Today, in sunny East Oxford, wasn't quite on a par with that, but every so often, when you turned a corner, out of the breeze, it was like walking into a block of warmth.

My journey was to the Saltmine, again - for the last time, I hoped, and as it turned out - to complete my little computers-for-twits course. The only way to get there is along the ring road. There is no shade. At 8.30 in the morning it was hotter than the hottest summer day at 2.00 p.m., in a good summer. The trees and hedgerows had not had time to become wearied by the heat, so they were in fine fettle, and good to see, but for the toiling walker, with no consolation of shirtless cyclists along the way, it was pretty stony ground.

But, but, but ...! I passed the practice test for module 4 (of 4) on my computer course with 87%, and that was quite enough for me, so chocks away, and I did the real one and got 90%. Japes! On the hottest day of the year. My tutor seemed to want to drag out my departure, and I had to fill in forms which would have been fulsome in their praise for the LearnDirect outfit, if only anyone else could read them. How odd to offer a computer course, and then ask for handwritten feedback.

And then I was free! Yay! To go to the bank and shift money around for the rent and other bills, almost all of which will be late. And I was naughty. I treated myself to some king prawns in garlic and salt and chilli peppers from the little takeaway just underneath the bank. I figured in that heat, they would continue being cooked all the way home, and certainly not lose heat. This proved to be right. And they were lovely.

What shall I do with my bit of paper when it arrives in a fortnight (apparently, I have to collect it in person!)? I shall probably feel a bit like Neville Chamberlain when he came back from Munich with another bit of paper. All very well, so far as it goes, but it contains no commitment from the other side. I shall apply for administrative jobs, for a few weeks at least, with a spring in the steps of my typing fingers. Some of what I have learnt I shall use for my own purposes in personal accounts, and doing genealogy and other enterprises involving fiddling data. There is a certain charming confidence in knowing that things you thought you might not be able to do are actually rather easy. And it is morale-boosting in middle age to know that the old dog can learn the occasional new trick. The brain is not as razor sharp as once it was, but it is not dead yet.

At the weekend I shall be older (49); whether I shall be wiser is for others to judge; but for now, it's terribly, terribly, hot!

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Sweatwater, Oxford
July 2015