About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Spatial Awareness

This cartoon is by my son. I don't know where he gets his ideas from. It has nothing to do with this post, but it makes a change from last week's random meteriological puzzle. Or indeed, gynaecological puzzle, which is what my spell check is suggesting.

Anyway. I was reading recently that men aren’t from Mars at all, neither are women from Venus. The physiological differences between the male and female brain at birth are tiny. It’s nurture, not nature which dictates that women back into gateposts and men don’t understand cushions. Cushions, the whole concept of cushions, what they are for, why women clog up sofas with the things, so that you have to fling about fifteen aside before you can locate enough sofa to sit on.

Whether it's down to nature or nurture, there are one or two of the old stereotypes I conform to. The gatepost thing, the cushion thing. The whole lack of spatial awareness thing. The other day our newly-appointed hermaphrodite Director of Music, which is to say, a husband-and-wife team Director of Music, showed me round the directorial house. I used to get lost here in the chancellery, but the chancellery is a doddle in comparison. At one point in my tour—which led up and down narrow flights of stairs to bits of the puzzle which never joined up—said ‘I have no idea where I am. I have zero spatial awareness.’

This led to a fascinating discussion about how brains work. Well, it led to me holding forth on my specialist subject area, me, and how my brian works. (It partly works by being endlessly amused by typos, such as that one. I don’t in fact have a Brian at the moment, nor am I recruiting.) My brain, I told the directorship, (who were too polite to yawn in my face, though they did turn the TV on and watch a very tedious programme about Anglo-Saxon artefacts) my brain does not do frameworks. It can only arrive at over-all schemes by the organic accumulation of details. I cannot read a book and tell you what it’s about, what the argument is. Though I can usually remember some interesting and significant facts. Like, there’s a cat on the cover.

The male bit of the Director asked how I plot my novels if I can’t do frameworks. ‘They grow organically from one central scene, or situation,’ I told him. ‘And then it’s rather like planning a journey. You know where you are setting out from and where you hope to arrive, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen along the way.’ ‘They are using 17th century music to illustrate Norman architecture,’ he replied, as the TV camera panned down the nave of Durham cathedral.

I didn’t get round to explaining that finishing a novel is like trying to choreograph tortoises. Or like cooking a banquet. It’s all in the timing. Everything has to be ready at the same moment. You don’t want to end up with raw chicken and soggy veg. This rambling is by way of an explanation for my lack of posts this week. I’m busy with the tortoises.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Hymn and Herself

This is a photo of an upside down rainbow I saw on holiday in Brittany. It has nothing to do with this post, apart from it being loosely speaking baffling. If you can explain it, leave a comment.

My real subject of bafflement is hymns. I grew up in a household with no TV. It was also a chapel-going household. One of the legacies of this is that I know hymns the way most normal people know pop music. Just as people mishear the lyrics of songs played on the radio (cf Hot Gossip’s famous ‘I lost my heart to a draught excluder’) so my sisters and I misunderstood the words of hymns. I remember being puzzled for years by the Advent hymn ‘On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry’. Being a Baptist myself, I couldn’t help picturing the entire congregation lined up on the banks of the Jordan sobbing our hearts out. Why? Why just the Baptists? Because the Anglicans hadn’t repented, clearly.

One Christmas my youngest sister was overheard singing ‘Hairy Demption’s happy dawn’ instead of ‘Hail, Redemption’s happy dawn’. My father asked her what she thought a hairy demption was. She had no idea. But frankly, so much of your childhood is full of bizarre facts told you by adults, why would a hairy demption be any less plausible than the earth spinning like a roundabout, or chewing gum wrapping itself round your lungs if you swallow it? We were also baffled by the line in ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’ which seemed to refer to ‘the witch his mother Mary’. But the best mishearing of all was a little boy in our Sunday School who thought the old song ‘I will make you fishers of men’ was ‘I will make you vicious old men’.

Of course, now I am an adult I have put away childish things. I no longer misunderstand hymns. Well, only on purpose. I’m always amused by the line in the hymn ‘And now, O Father, mindful of the love’, which talks about ‘this food’ (the Blessed Sacrament) ‘so awful and so sweet.’ Like baklava, maybe. Or indeed fudge, such as I have on my desk now—Morrison’s The Best All Butter Fudge, ‘made to an authentic recipe for a rich, melt in the mouth flavour.’ They mean a rich melt in the mouth texture, really, don’t they? There is no such taste as ‘melt-in-the-mouth.’ And in any case, if it didn’t melt in the mouth, it wouldn’t be fudge, it would be chewing gum, or pumice stone. I mention that not at random, but because my youngest sister (she of the hairy demptions) once did attempt to eat a pumice stone. We found the tooth marks.

I have strayed rather from my subject. Anglican hymns are not the same as Baptist hymns, by the way. Baptists do not sing saccharine hymns about the Blessed Sacrament, such as the cathedral favourite ‘Sweet sacrament divine’. They reserve such sentiments for the Lord Jesus. And they certainly don’t sing hymns to the Virgin Mary. In fact, most Evangelicals balk at this, so a merry time was had by them if they strayed into any of the cathedrals of our land last Sunday, as it was the Feast of the (Massive) Assumption. I had my internal Geiger counter switched on in all the hymns, scanning for Papism. Don’t get wrong, some of my best friends are Papists. And some of their best friends are narrow minded Evangelical bigots, obviously. Like me.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Never Swallow Flies

There is just the first hint of autumn in the air. Or if not autumn, precisely, then a sense that summer has peaked and is now on the lazy downward slope. Maybe it was the handful of yellow leaves falling from the lime trees on the Close as I set out on my run; or that certain angle of light that betrays the sun is a little lower in the sky.

Not a bad run, today, although I swallowed a fly in Beacon Park. Flies are a constant hazard for runners. What are your options? Run with your mouth closed? Impossible. Run with clenched teeth? (I do that up steep hills.) Maybe the answer is to keep your eyes peeled for insects and shut your mouth before you plunge into a cloud of midges. But you can’t watch the air and scan for dog crap. Or dogs. Small dogs are a hazard too. You really don’t want to tread on a miniature poodle. It could take several hundred yards to dislodge it from your shoe. You might as well go out running in those amusing animal slippers you see in the shops around Christmas, the ones that look as though you’ve decided to keep your feet warm by burying them in the entrails of a small mammal.

But back to flies. Maybe I should just man up (as the young say) and swallow the fly. After all, it won’t kill me. Unless, like the old woman, I seek to remedy it by eating a spider, and so on, up the food chain, until I foolishly swallow a horse. Which would be fatal. Of course. Instead I ran the next fifty yards hawking and gobbing in a blokish way, so I suppose I sort of did man up.

And from flies it is but a short step to writing novels. Sometimes I feel like a blue bottle at a window. I can see the garden out there that I’m trying to get to. I have a story in my head I want to tell. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again! Maybe I’m doing it wrong? That has to be the way! Look, there, there! I can see it—trees, flowers, fresh air. Maybe if I come at it from a different angle? Maybe my technique is wrong? What if I take a longer run-up? Aim higher? Lower? More gently?

People are always asking writers ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Ideas are not the problem. Ideas are ten a penny. Open your newspaper. Look around your friends and neighbours. Ransack your experience. Beg, steal or borrow. The problem is how to cast your idea in the right form. The material is there, but how to tell the tale—that’s the question. You’d think you could come up with a cracking story, and just tell it. But no. I can spend years circling round Planet Novel looking for a place to land.

But then, miraculously, one day when you gear up for another grim session of window-bumping—and you’re through. In the garden. Woo hoo! What’s the secret? I have no idea.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

'Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield!'

These are the words of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, rather than my own feelings on returning home from holiday in Brittany. According to his Journal, Fox visited Lichfield in 1651. ‘I lifted up my head and I espied three steeplehouse spires. They struck at my life and I asked Friends what they were, and they said, Lichfield.’ This account puzzles me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Fox was pretty much a local lad, hailing from Fenny Drayton, only twenty odd miles down the road. Surely he knew the cathedral when he saw it? Secondly, in 1651 the tallest of the cathedral’s three spires was a mere stump, courtesy of Cromwell’s soldiers. But Fox was writing his Journal retrospectively, many years after the events.

When Fox arrived in Lichfield, barefoot (having left his shoes in the care of some astonished shepherds a mile outside the city), the word of the Lord came to him and told him to cry ‘Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!’. He had a vision of the marketplace flowing with blood. It was market day, and Fox walked up and down prophesying ‘and no one touched me nor laid hands on me.’ This shows the locals up in a good light, considering Fox got much rougher treatment in places for far less provocation.

Fox himself was puzzled by the experience. ‘I considered why I should go and cry against that city and call it a bloody city; for though the Parliament had the minster [i.e. cathedral] and the King another while, and much blood had been shed in the town, yet that could not be charged upon the town.’ In the end he decided that the vision concerned the ‘thousand martyrs in Lichfield in the Emperor Diocletian’s time. And so I must go in my stockings through the channel of their blood in their market place. So I might raise up the blood of those martyrs that had been shed and lay cold in their streets, which had been shed above a thousand years before.’

So there you have it—the Bloody City of Lichfield. The first Quakers were not pacifist mystics silently contemplating the Inner Light which dwells in every human being. They were Bible-thumping revivalists. Theirs was a real End of the World prophetic message. I think Fox would have been surprised to learn that Lichfield cathedral (third spire rebuilt) was destined still to be a functioning place of worship in 2010. He might also be astonished if he wandered into a modern Quaker Meeting House, mind you.