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.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

First Quarter Review

Well, today marks the end of the first quarter of 2011, and of my first three months of New Things. A little review seemed in order. Part of my motivation for this New Year's Resolution is undoubtedly the fact I turn 50 this year. Once you are 50 you apparently enter a new social grouping indentified by your local council and suitably targeted: The Over 50s. I first registered this a month or so back when getting changed for judo. I found myself studying a poster encouraging old people to 'Stay Active!' and 'Keep Fit!' It featured the usual activities: gentle aerobics, smiling in the swimming pool whilst wearing a rubber hat, carpet bowls. Fine if you're old, not my kind of thing. But then I caught sight of the words 'Over 50s.' Wait a minute, that's nearly me!

My fear, and I'm sure this is shared by everyone, is not getting old so much as getting boring. My theory is that if I take up new things I will remain interesting to myself, and hence interesting to everyone else. Nonsense, of course, as anyone who has had to listen to me drone on about my struggles to master sokuto fumikomi will testify.

This quarter has been a mixture of one-offs and things I will continue with. The one-offs have included such diverse things as viewing ancient skeletons and baking my first seedcake. There have been visits to museums and ordinary urban parks. The keepers are the choir I have joined (Ladies Who Lark) and karate (spoiler alert: first grading this Sunday, which I designate a New Thing in advance and will blog in due course.)

Of course there have been times when I've thought Oh hell, I've got to invent something else new. (Clean the windows? Nah.) And it's been a chore. But over all it has been a good--I was going to say 'discipline' but that sounds too worthy--a good fillip. There, another new thing. I have never used the word fillip in a piece of prose before. I will now go away and check I'm using it correctly and it isn't a euphemism for self abuse. New things are around us all the time, the road less travelled, the cake less often baked, the word seldom used. Give it a go. You'll feel better for it. I may even try bowls.

Friday, 25 March 2011

WEEK 12--A Visit to The Museum of Childhood

About 10 years ago I tried to visit The Museum of Childhood at Sudbury, Derbyshire. It was closed. This morning I finally achieved my ambition.

Sudbury Hall is owned by the National Trust and, as you can see in the pic, is the kind of place where you expect to encounter Mr Darcy plunging into a pool, or Mr Collins scuttling from his vicarage to dine with Lady Catherine. But first things first. The chancellor and I went straight to the tea room, where we had coffee. He had a slice of fruit cake and I defiantly ate a low fat yoghurt (more on the rigors of Dukan in a later blog). Afterwards we visited the museum.

A lot of time is inevitably spent shouting 'I had that exact same Cluedo set!' or sighing over dolly's tea services. I was particularly thrilled to see one of those cheap wooden dolls from Poland (above) that were common in the 60s. They were the kind of thing my sisters and I used to buy when fond relatives gave us a ten shilling note each. They came in a plastic bag and you couldn't really play with them, because the clothes were glued on and their big red shoes were just paint. Before long the arms broke from their sockets. Most exciting of all, their hair was made of cellulose! That's right: highly inflammable! At any moment the doll's head might burst into flames! This never happened.

There were a few surprising omissions. I didn't see Barbie or Action Man. Maybe this was a policy decision? More astonishing was the absence of Look & Learn from the 1970s bedroom. What, no Trigan Empire? No Wild Cat Wayne? The bookshelf (see pic) was a checklist of the girlhood classics: Polly Anna, Five Children and It, The Borrowers, The Box of Delights. I don't recall reading 52 Stories of Pluck, Peril and Romance for Girls by Alfred H Miles, mind you, but I will if someone gives me a copy. I read and greatly enjoyed A Toast Fag and Other Stories a few years back. My sons still like to quote bits of it. 'I'll settle your hash any day, you moon-faced cuckoo!'

But the museum is also very good on how recent the concept of a carefree childhood is. The life of the child labourer in the Industrial Revolution was vividly communicated. In one room there was a fireplace that children were invited to climb up inside, crawl along a tunnel and emerge in the fireplace at the opposite side of the room. (An assistant was on duty to say 'Not you, fatty,' to any adults expressing an interest.) There were also displays highlighting the lot of child labourers in other parts of the globe today; as well as the hidden burden shouldered by countless child carers in our own society.

After we'd been round the museum we took a stroll down to the ornamental lake. Colin Firth was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear my first chiff-chaff of the year. An inspiring outing. As you can see (below) I got the urge to create my own little museum of childhood in my study. Remember those Eastern Bloc teddies? Loop coming out of their head, coats as fuzzy as bus seats, dangerous glass eyes a baby could swallow and choke on? Ah, they don't make 'em like that any more.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Spring in Lichfield

I walked round Stowe Pool this morning and was struck by the contrast with a frosty walk in December, when the trees all seemed in blossom. As you can see from the picture above, the weeping willows are flowering. So too are the wild plums and the very first of the ornamental cherries.

And the ducks are up to no good again. The pair below were loitering with intent on the deanery wall. Oh, the bad behaviour of ducks in springtime. Avert your gaze! Shield your children's eyes, or you will be embarking upon some complex narrative about how ducks like to cuddle one another. Any bright child will see through this and ask 'But why is he drowning her, mummy?' Or him...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

An Idiot's Guide to the Organ

I’m conscious that it’s a while since I gave you a slice of Cathedral Close life. So at random I will select a topic. The organ. Organs are like Marmite: people either love them or hate them. If you are in the latter category, this post is for you. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to woo the hostile into a life long love affair, by providing a brief history of the organ. (Church organists, look away now.) This Part I. Part II will follow in a later post.

Organs are associated in the public’s mind almost exclusively with church music. And boring church music, at that; ponderous, funereal, menacing. You hear organs in the background of films where doors creak, birds explode from the undergrowth, and the heroine is obliged to flee in her negligee during a thunder storm. The exception is the popular wedding repertoire. I’m sure you are familiar with these pieces, but here are the top five anyway, complete with notation for the musically illiterate:
1. Wagner: ‘Here comes the bride, all fat and wide, stepped on a banana skin and went for a ride’.
2. Mendelssohn: Diddly-dum! [pause] Diddly-DUM! [pause] Diddly-DA-da-de-dadada, da-dum-diddly-dum-dum-DUM!
3. Handel’s ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’: Diddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle, iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-um.
4. Thingy’s trumpet tune: Tah. Dah Tiddle-um-ty tah, dah! Tah, dah, dah, tiddle-um-tumty-tum!
5. Widor: Diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee, dee-diddle-ee.

Today’s cathedral organs trace their origins back to little hand-held keyboard instruments powered by bellows; the sort of thing renaissance St Cecelias are depicted playing. Who could have foreseen what these apparently harmless accordion-bagpipes would become? But as the years passed, they evolved into ever larger and more complex creatures, and in time the player sat at the keyboard, while someone else worked the bellows. It was here that the first seeds of megalomania were sown.

Why stop here? the Ur-organist thought. Why settle for one rank of pipes, when by adding another manual (keyboard), I can have two ranks? Or three? Or four? And wait a moment—I’ve got a pair of perfectly good feet here dangling idle. I could add a pedal-board—and another set of pipes. If only there was a way of getting each manual to control more than one rank of pipes! Quickly, invent me a device, somebody! Organ stops—thank you! Now I can have as many different ranks as I like: brassy pipes, flutey pipes, pipes with a blast like Satan’s foghorn! AT LAST! I shall have ALL THE PIPES IN THE WORLD, from shrew in a spin-dryer down to the rumble of tectonic plates! All controlled by ME, from my Secret Console of Darkness, mwa ha ha!

For around three hundred years, until the advent of the telephone exchange in the late 19th century, the pipe organ was the largest most complex device ever made by human hands. Yokels came to gawp. A cathedral organ was nuclear power, it was stealth bombers, it was the internet. Over the centuries new technology was pressed into its service—hydraulics, wind turbines, steam, electricity, computers. There were those who named it The King of Instruments. And the cathedral organist thought: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Hence the joke, popular in choral circles: Q. What’s the difference between a terrorist and an organist? A. You can negotiate with a terrorist.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

WEEK 11--A Walk in Festival Gardens

I have lived in Lichfield for four and half years now, but today was the first time I've walked through Festival Gardens. I have often driven past it and thought, One day I'll go and walk round there. It wasn't until I went on Google maps just now that I found out what it was called, even.

Now, you may be thinking that this is scraping the barrel of new things to do in 2011. In a way you'd be right. It's not skydiving, is it? It's not hurling an egg at a politician, or running naked round Cathedral Close. Yes, it was a walk on the tame side, I admit. But there is something to be said for exploring those bits of your neighbourhood that you simply never normally stray into. This is especially true for writers. Writers with writer's block.

It is currently unfashionable to talk about writer's block. We aren't supposed to believe in it any more than in fairies, or the God-who-almost-certainly-doesn't-exist. (A blog for another day, that.) I've written this before, but some of you will not have caught up with the fact that writer's block has been disproved. Not by science, interestingly, but by plumbers. You don't hear of plumbers with plumber's block, goes the argument. Ergo, there's no such thing as writer's block, either.

Have these people never had a plumber in? Do plumbers never say 'Oo, sorry, love. We're waiting on those Spanish tiles you ordered'--and then disappear leaving you with a bomb site for four weeks? If your plumber cannot get hold of the right cistern or a shower unit, your plumber will be blocked.

It's very hard core to pretend we're only tough journeymen of the word, crafting books for a living, plying our trade, not pampering ourselves with the luxury of imaginary blockages, like idle dilettantes (dilettanti, for any pedants reading this). But of course writers get writer's block. You get blocked if you're trying to write the wrong thing, whether that's a single scene, or an entire novel. And the best way to get un-blocked again is to stop trying and go for a walk.

And walking somewhere new is especially helpful. You can't force yourself to become inspired, any more than you can make yourself be struck by lightning. However, if you prance about on top of a tall building in a thunderstorm wearing a pointy metal hat, you maximize your chances. In a similar way, you can put yourself in the path of inspiration, by stepping outside your normal routines.

Hence my walk in Festival Gardens, where the blossom is starting to come out on the plum trees, even though the day was as grey and miserable as sin. I am now ready to finish that stubborn chapter I was wrestling with.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Dukan Diet Update

From Krispy Kreme donuts and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.

That's part of the Dukan Litany. Those of us following this regime have temporarily renounced all empty carbohydrates and fats. The first stage is very strict. Pure protein, as near as dammit. After a day of this your body shouts, 'What?! No carbs? Are you MAD? What do you expect me to do here--metabolise my own fat?' The answer of course is, Yes. That's exactly what I expect. After two days you start foraging for pizza crusts in your teenage son's bedroom. Fortunately the horror is mitagated by astonishing weight loss (see earlier post).

But then comes the second stage of the regime, which is less rigorous and involves some vegetables. (Sneer from your sofa through mouthfuls of lard pasty, I don't care.) Hoorah for vegetables. Weight loss slows, but hold your nerve: the underlying trend is still downwards. I have now lost 13lb. This is the kind of weight loss normally only associated with accidentally leaning on the corner of the sink whilst standing on the scales. Or losing part of a limb in farm machinery.

And shimmering on the horizon is the next stage, which holds out the promise of 'celebration meals'... But I am getting ahead of myself. I have also forgotten to mention that exercise is a crucial part of Dukan. You are supposed to walk for 25mins a day. Here again Dukan reveals himself as a Frenchman. 'Ordinary shoes, even ladies' heels are fine for everyday walking to lose weight'. This book is aimed at Parisiennes, not big lasses in the West Midlands, isn't it? Dukan has no truck with the kind of exercise I enjoy, running, fighting and the like. No, walking is preferred for several reasons. '[It] does not make you sweat unduly... There is no need for any sports gear, showering or change of clothes.'

It is his firm opinion that at the outset of his diet, we should 'avoid hard physical exercise [and] competitive sport.' Phooey, I thought. I carried on as usual, jogging, doing judo and karate. And got 3 migraines in as many weeks. Could it be that the good doctor is right? Or could it be that spawn of Satan acesulfame k, the artificial sweetener found in all the fat-free yogurts I've been eating? I knew about aspartame, but this was a new one to me.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

WEEK 10--Singing HMS Pinafore

Last Saturday night I, along with my fellow Ladies Who Lark, sang in a scratch performance of HMS Pinafore. The men's and women's choruses rehearsed in the afternoon, under the baton of Cathy Lamb (sitting crossed legged on front row in the photo). At one point she said 'Just hurl yourself at any note and it will be marvelous!' The entrance requirement for Ladies Who Lark is not intimidatingly high, as I may have mentioned in an earlier blog. But I like to feel we have made great strides. Surely this is the case. Why, at one point during our Monday evening session Cathy was so struck by our musicality that she said, 'You actually sounded like a real choir then!'

The evening was hugely exciting, and qualifies as a genuine first for me. I've always wanted to sing some G&S. As a girl in the 70s one of the highlights of the year was going to the Vale Gilbert and Sullivan Society performance in the Victoria Hall, Tring. The thrill of this occasion for a child growing up in rural Buckinghamshire without a TV cannot be described. To get an equivalent buzz at my age last Saturday's Pinafore would probably have had to be performed off bungee ropes with the entire cast of True Blood. In the nude.

Still, even without naked vampires, it was as I said, hugely exciting. The soloists' parts were taken by members of Lichfield Cathedral Choir, Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir and the congregation. Our cathedral organist, Martyn Rawles, (front row, far right), accompanied on the piano. The hoi poloi got to sing, or occasionally mime, as sisters, cousins and aunts, or jolly jack tars. The event was well-attended which is encouraging, as it was a fundraiser for the Choral Foundation. Singers were charged (or possibly fined) £10. But hey, we got to dress up. I love dressing up. I sometimes almost wish I were ordained. That's me in the photo, extreme right, with an exploding red cabbage on my head. I was allowed to join the photo call on the grounds that I'd written the the narrator's part, which was read by our local ham. Sorry, that should have read, our local MP, Michael Fabricant. I would like to take this opportunity to say that the rude bits were all ad libbed.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

WEEK 9--Recycling my Palm Crosses

This is something I mean to do each year, but every year it gets to Ash Wednesday and I slap my forehead and think, ‘I’ve forgotten the palm crosses again!’

Palm crosses, as you may know, are handed out on Palm Sunday. They may be held aloft and waved in an embarrassed English manner at suitable points in the liturgy. Small boys use them as swords. Afterwards people take them home (the crosses, not the small boys) and pin them to notice boards, or perhaps put them on the dashboard of the car, as an aid to meditation during Holy Week.

And there they remain. For what are we supposed to do with these holy items? Stick them in the bin? Even protestants hesitate here. Someone admitted to me that she does, actually, put them in the bin, but she unfolds them first so that they are no longer cross-shaped. That’s OK then. My default course of action is to collect my palm crosses until I have a huge handful (I found twelve dotted about the house) and then—ta da!—I finally remember to take them to the vergers so that they can be burnt to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

You may have wondered where Ash Wednesday’s ash came from. Is it swept up from the bishop’s grate? Is it made of wood from the Mount of Olives, and ordered from Wippells the ecclesiastical outfitters in a tasteful linen sachet embroidered with a chi-rho? Or is it the cremains of pious priests? No. It is made of last year’s palm crosses. I’m reliably informed that the head verger burns them with his blow torch. Now you know.