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.

Friday, 29 July 2011

WEEK 30--Buying Cigars

Another genuine first: I have never bought cigars before in my life.  And here's where I bought them.  The Chocolate Box in Walsall.  When we lived in Walsall my sons were always amused by the idea of a sweet shop with a dental practice upstairs.  Were they in cahoots?

I have vivid memories of trips to the dentist in Walsall, before I learnt not to take my small sons with me when I was having a check-up.  I was powerless to repress them with my mouth crammed with surgical steel and latex-clad fingers, and was forced to lie there as the older one ran through his 007 impersonations.  'Do you expect me to talk?  No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE! Mwa-ha-ha!' The younger one kept up a stream of observations and artless questions: 'Cool! blood!  Are you going to drill her heart?'  The dentist squeaked rather huffily*, 'No, I am not going to drill her heart!'

But back to cigar buying.  I felt incredibly furtive as I approached the shop.  Was I going to bail out and buy a quarter of aniseed balls, like blushing young men in a bygone era exiting chemists with tubes of toothpaste instead of condoms?  To understand my furtiveness, you need to remember you can take the girl out of the manse, but you can't take the manse out of the girl.  I don't think I've felt this furtive since I was six, and cadged half a tube of coral lipstick from a friend, then hid it under the box tree in the garden.  I still remember the smell of it.

Oddly enough, I have bought cigarettes before, from this very tobacconist's in fact.  But they were a prop for a murder mystery party.  I was a Russian countess, and obviously I needed some pastel-coloured Sobranie cocktail cigarettes to pose with.  I never smoked them.  The cigars I fully intend to smoke (though not inhale).  Hence the furtiveness.  Coupled with that English affliction: the fear of making a fool of myself in a shop by not knowing what I was doing.  Do you buy them by the tin, or by the dozen?  Or do they come in twenties?  Was the correct term actually cigarillos?

Oh Catherine, why oh why, when SMOKING SERIOUSLY HARMS YOU AND OTHERS AROUND YOU?  Basically, because I always feel left out on holiday when the menfolk of my immediate family sit on the balcony puffing their fat cigars.  I shall sit there and puff my thin cigars.  Or quite possibly, let them burn languidly between my fingers.  This is, after all, 'the world's favourite everyday pleasure'.  It says so on the tin. (As far as possible from the picture of a man's throat horribly devoured by cancer.)

Yes, I know I could have bought them in a French tobacconist, but I was consumed by the following possible scenario: me requesting 'Cafe creme' and ending up with a cup of coffee, which I'd then have to drink, because I don't know the gender for cigar, and Grammar School girls don't like to make linguistic blunders; would rather not communicate at all.  I'd then emerge from the shop and have to lie to my family and say I'd changed my mind, because I'd be incapable of admitting my ridiculous tongue-tied English anguish.

I confess, I love the smell of tobacco.  I'm sitting here sniffing the tin.  My current favourite perfume is 'Cuba' by Czech & Speake.  It is not the easiest fragrance to love, perhaps.  You can read the thumbs-down reviews on the perfume website Basenotes (http://www.basenotes.net)  But here's the blurb from the Czech&Speake website:
Inspired by the old town of Havana, its Latin rhythms, smooth cigars, fine rums and exotic beauties, this fragrance bursts into life with the initial top notes of bergamot, lime, peppermint and a hint of rum. Layered with a melange of spicy and floral middle notes, mainly rose, clove and bay, Tonka beans add a subtle softness. The lasting base notes of tobacco mixed with the richness of frankincense, cedar wood and vetiver round off this striking fragrance.
Gosh, I need a little lie down after that.  And maybe a cigar.

*A JKR tribute sentence, there.  (Observed Hermione cattily.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

End of an Era

Well, it's been a long journey, from the moment when I opened volume 1 and said to my small son, 'I'm going to read you the first of the two books Grandma sent you for Christmas.'  My son replied, 'I don't want you to.  I won't like it.'  I said, 'Well, I'll just read the first few pages, and if you really don't like it, we don't have to read the rest.'  Son: 'I won't listen.'  Me: That's fine, but I'm going to read it anyway.'  He was hooked by the end of page one.  The adventure had begun.  It ended last night, some dozen years later, with a family outing to the final film, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II.

We were ahead of the game in those early days.  The following World Book Day our son went to school dressed as Harry Potter.  Who are you?  I'm Harry Potter.  Who's Harry Potter?  The following year everyone went as Harry Potter, so my sons went as Asterix and Obelix instead.  They are a classic example of boys who started to read because of JKR.  The books are still there on the shelves, as you can see, read to bits.  Above and below are the grown up books: the poetry, the thrillers, the quantum mechanics.

Book 3 was the first one we went out and bought for ourselves, going straight from school.  Where on earth were the queues at Waterstones?  Did people not know?  Pottermania only really took off at Book 4.  It's book 3 I remember best, sitting on a rug on the lawn one sunny August afternoon, finishing reading it out loud to both sons, now.  I remember crying when Harry's patronus appeared.  I also remember how scary it was, the dementors, and of having to invent anti-Voldemort collects to say at bedtime so that my hyper-imaginative older son could sleep.   And I remember the cassettes, those endless car journeys with Stephen Fry's big voice booming plummily.

Book 4 was the first one our son read for himself, desperate to finish before the curate's sons, beside himself with fury when I got ahead of him by sneakily reading while he was at school.  I have a photo of him at Junior Church, dressed as Ron (hair sprayed red, eyeliner freckles) head bent over his volume.  Oh, the speculation!  Who dies?  Surely not Ron?!  The mean kids in the playground, spoiling it.  How would the series end?  'Then Harry woke up,' was my son's suggestion.  'It had all been a dream.  He was still in the cupboard under the stairs.  He was not a wizard after all.  The End.'

Book 5 was the one where the chancellor scored maximum points for a midnight trip to Sainsbury's to buy a copy on Day One, when Mum had meanly refused.  Book 6, I have no recollection of.  It has fallen, I think, into a black hole in my memory caused by depression.  Book 7 was bought in France, in a shop in Fougeres.  Two copies, as by now there was no way an agreement could be reached between our two boys over who got it first.  This was when we learnt that son 2 could read faster than son 1, heh heh heh.  We have photos of them both nose in book at street cafes across Britanny.  Quite a quiet holiday, that one.

And there were the films, of course.  We've seen them all.  The chancellor famously cried when Neville Longbottom won the house cup for Gryffindor (Kingdom values, the first shall be last etc).  By the final film Hogwarts was no longer recognisable as a hybrid of Durham cathedral and Alnwick castle, places our sons knew well from their early childhood in the north east.  The acting had improved, the special effects had come on.  3D!  Woo hoo!  The end of the last film (apart from the '19 years on' coda) seemed desolate.  The three nearly grown up wizards standing on the wreckage of Hogwarts, alone.  It's over.  We did it.  But there was no reassuring adult presence, no Dumbledoor to explain it all.  It felt like a fitting liminal image for the Potter generation. Your childhood is over.  You are the next generation of grown-ups.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

WEEK 29--Royal Garden Party

 Yesterday the chancellor and I caught a train to London to attend the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace.     We were invited by the Lord Chamberlain because by the time you are a canon chancellor of a cathedral, you in some nebulous way fulfil the criteria.  (I think.)  It's not, however, an event filled with the great and the good of the realm, so much as the ordinary and the good.  This is in contrast to its forerunner--the presentation of debutantes to the monarch.  That's something I would never have had a chance of attending, being only a grammar school gel, and daughter of the manse.  (Rather than finishing school and daughter of a peer.)

Here's the official summary of the event, from www.royal.gov.uk:  'Garden parties have been held at Buckingham Palace since the 1860s, when Queen Victoria instituted what were known as 'breakfasts' (though they took place in the afternoon). In the 1950s the number of garden parties held at Buckingham Palace was increased from two to three a year. They took the place of presentation parties attended by debutantes, but have evolved into a way of rewarding and recognising public service. They are attended by people from all walks of life.'

Whatever shall I wear, whatever shall I wear?  Quick!  Consult the helpful leaflet.  'Your dress on the day: Ladies: Day dress with hat or Uniform (No Medals).  Trouser suit may be worn.  Chains of office may be worn.  National Dress may be worn.'  The UK doesn't really have a National Dress, does it?  Unless we go down the Morris Dancer route, or the shorts and England shirt, socks and sandals combo, which renders Englishmen instantly recognisable abroad.  The chancellor consulted his iPhone and declared that there would be no rain in London.  I think it shows some greatness of spirit on my part that I shared my tiny pink umbrella with him when the heavens opened.

By the time we got off the train at Euston, we could spot other attendees.  Just follow that mauve fascinator and it will lead you to the palace!  The queues were immense but moved quickly.  After showing two forms of ID (one of which MUST be photographic) we entered the forecourt and made our way in to the palace.  Photography was not permitted.  The pictures here were taken hastily on the way out, before I was told off by a policeman.  As we shuffled through the grand entrance hall, our feet sank into the dark pink carpet, just as they would sink into the lawn later on.  (Sensible footwear recommended.)  White walls, gilt cornicing, a glimpse of portraits.  Then out into the gardens.

Day dress with hat for ladies is open to wide interpretation.  Long, short, tight, voluminous.  Hats ranged from microscopic to cartwheel.  I myself sported a little black pillbox hat; easy to stuff in a commodious handbag before and after, but treading that fine line between retro glamour and cabin crew.  The most astonishing head-gear award was won by a creation which might have been designer, or alternatively, an imaginative use made of an pheasant run over on the journey down.  The vibe was uniform day at Ascott.  The air smelt of trampled grass and perfume.

Now then: the tea itself.  Cucumber sandwiches--but naturally.  Also egg and cress. Cakes and pastries, all exquisite, but none easy to eat delicately while wearing black gloves.  The marquee was about 100m long, with serving stations down the full length, making it tactfully possible for porkers to return for second and third helpings without looking too obvious.  Tea, iced coffee, or apple juice.  

Two bands were playing at opposite sides of the lawn, taking it in turns.  The Yeomen of the Guard appeared to 'hold ground', then National Anthem announced the arrival of the Queen.  We glimpsed her emerald green hat.  Then it rained.  We walked round the ornamental lake, and ate a mulberry from a royal mulberry bush,   avoiding purple-cassocked bishops wherever possible.  Later we sheltered under a tree eating vanilla icecream as the band played the theme tune from the Archers, pretending we hadn't recognised Lord Coe standing next to us.  What could be more English?

It turned out that we'd accidentally stationed ourselves on the route taken by the departing Royal Party.  We were held back and shepherded by an army of equerries in morning suits.  The National Anthem again, and here they come!  It's very odd seeing these ultra familiar people pass in front of you, in the flesh.  A woman on the opposite side to us took out a hanky and wiped her eyes.  I wondered by what route she'd ended up here?  What public service had she rendered?  Something more deserving than marrying the future canon chancellor of Lichfield cathedral at the age of 22, perhaps.

Then back out through the palace onto the forecourt, where all the cameras came out.  Tsk tsk.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

WEEK 28--Late Night Concert


As promised, New Thing no. 28: a late night concert in the Lichfield Festival.  Last Wednesday at 9.30 I joined the audience in the Lady Chapel to hear the pianist James Rhodes perform.  It was just beginning to get dark.  At present there's a good view of the sky through the plain glass and I was able to watch the sky darken--an interesting reverse experience of the Easter morning 5am service, where the light dawns a pale grey through the windows.

One of the great joys of being a bit of a Philistine is the fact that so much of the classical music repertoire remains unknown to me.  This means that I can come to a performance with a mind unsullied by memories of previous brilliant interpretations.  I was very keen to hear James Rhodes, having read interviews he's given.  He was also billed as 'The Jamie Oliver of the piano', which momentarily raised a hope that he'd be performing naked.  This proved not to be the case.  

One of the disadvantages of being a bit of a Philistine is the shameful desire for a tune to hold my hand on the journey through a piece of music.  Or failing a tune, a verbal guide, someone to tell me what the hell is going on, what I'm supposed to make of it all.  The poet Michael Symmons Roberts (aka Uncle Mike in this house, him being married to one of my sisters) tells of a reading he did once, and when it came the time for questions, a woman asked despairingly, 'But what do you mean?'

Explaining what he means is the great gift James Rhodes bestows on his audience.  As well as his playing, of course.  He brings us living programme notes.  The Chopin piece, for example, was written for a singer he was languishing for.  'If he'd written it for me,' remarked Rhodes, 'I'd've totally gone out with him.'  This type of commentary bridges the gap between concert platform and the street.  Good work, that pianist.  I had a wonderful evening.  

Sadly, my companions were hamstrung by their musical erudition.  Here's a sample of a post concert conversation--Me: 'Did you enjoy the Beethoven?' Friend: 'Actually, I thought it was rather messy.'  Me: 'Did you?  Well, it's not a piece I'm very familiar with, so...' (i.e. never heard it before in my life) Friend: 'Oh, I ADORE the Waldstein!'

I was fortunate enough to hear another pianist last night--Boris Giltburg, playing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  This time it was the theme tune of Brief Encounters, or Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2, for the more highbrow among us.  I tried to listen intelligently and discern if this was messy or second rate; or in fact, as brilliant as it struck me as being.  I checked in the interval.  Yes, it was 'all right'.  But the conductor, Kirill Karabits, 'was better than the pianist'.  

I'm inclined to cling to the bliss of my musical ignorance.  If I relinquish it, I'll have to start despising Handel and adoring Parry.  I believe a memo went round cathedral circles on this subject, but happily I never got it.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Novel I'm Writing

It's a fantasy detective novel.  I've always wanted to write detective novels, but the thought of all that research has always put me off.  Police procedure.  Forensics.  The legal system.  Then having to set it somewhere plausible. Write what you know.  A chilling psychological thriller, set in the grim underbelly of Lichfield.  Hmm.

I read quite a lot of detective fiction, and part of the thrill is reading about places I know next to nothing about.  Southern Louisiana.  California.  New York.  I love not getting the cultural references.  What's a twinkie bar?  What's dirty rice?  What's naugahide?  What are cordovan loafers?  I have no idea--but that's all part of it.  It's the crunchy textural detail that makes this other world vivid.  It's alien and exotic, but I absolutely believe in it.

Maybe this is why it occurred to me one day that I could sidestep all the forensic research if I invented a fantasy setting for my detective.  I still have to convince the reader that this actually happened, of course, that this is how people behave, what they believe, eat, drink, how this society functions.  But nobody is going to sit there harrumphing about my ignorance of the Crown Prosecution Service.  I'm heartened that Word seems to have been fooled.  It keeps underlining my made-up place names and giving me smart tag options.  Palatine Square--add to Contacts?  display Map? display Driving Directions?

I'm in the home straight now.  My wondrous narrative arc and chapter-by-chapter plan has crumbled to dust, I'm sorry to say.  It bore so little resemblance to what I ended up writing that I've abandoned it.  It crossed my mind halfway through that it would be helpful to know who the baddie was.  Genre convention says you can't just pull your villain out of the hat in the penultimate chapter.  You have to put him or her in early on, then cunningly fool your readers into trusting them.  If your fiction is essentially character driven, as mine is, then plotting is always going to be a challenge.  The subconscious knows (you tell yourself).  Unfortunately, the subconscious is not very articulate.  There's a lot of staring blankly at the wall involved.

Here are some of my favourite detective novel writers: Janet Evanovich, Robert B Parker, Harlen Coben (especially the Myron Bolitar books), James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Carl Hiaasen.  See?  Furriners, every one of 'em.

Monday, 11 July 2011

30th Lichfield Festival

Honestly, it's the Lichfield Festival, and the Close is a complete pigsty.  There are 30 of these fibreglass pigs around the city, each hand decorated by local groups and charities.  Behind this fellow (in his fetching Peter Rabbit style jacket) you can see the half-timbered Festival office, the nerve centre of the entire operation, where Festival director Fiona Stuart sits tearing her hair out.

Fabulous line-up of events again this year.  So far the chancellor and I have been to hear the Creole Choir of Cuba, making the cathedral resound with their staggering harmonies and rhythms.  The following evening it was Zic Zazou in the Lichfield Garrick theatre, playing their Heath Robinson collection of industrial-based instruments.  There's not much they can't get a tune out of, these Frenchmen.  Possibly the most moving rendition of La Vie en Rose squeezed out of a deflating balloon that I have ever heard.

Last night I was invited by Peter and Laura Tanter, who had sponsored this concert, to hear the Endellion String Quartet, with Wendy Cope.  They were performing in the cathedral's Lady Chapel, currently plain glazed, while its famous Herkenrode glass is off being restored (please give generously, see cathedral website).  This venue has quite astounding acoustics, as those afflicted by the dreaded concert hall cough (e.g. me and my mate Pauline of Netherstowe House fame) will testify.  Why do you never get a cough like that in Sainsbury's?  I missed the first movement of Haydn's String Quartet "The Bird", as I battled valiantly, eyes rolling back in my head, tears streaming.  The next piece was Wendy Cope's and Roxana Panufnik's The Audience.  Which ends with a poem about... a concert hall cough.

Tonight I'm taking our younger son to a performance of Withering Looks at the Garrick.  He did Wuthering Heights  for AS level, and needs to detox.  I'm hoping that Maggie Fox's and Sue Ryding's spoof will do the trick.

You will notice that I'm not designating any of these things  as a New Thing.  This is because I've essentially done this kind of thing already--we've been in Lichfield nearly 5 years after all--and it would be cheating.  However, I can truthfully say I have never been to a late night concert in the cathedral.  So that's my plan for this week's new thing.  Trouble is, there's too much to choose from.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

WEEK 27--The Clothworkers' Company Court Dinner

The City of London!  Compacted history.  Place names from great literature and the Monopoly board. Ancient and modern cheek by jowl.  Narrow medieval streets with the gherkin lurking on the skyline.  The City is where we were yesterday evening.  A good friend of ours is Rector of St Olave's (Samuel Pepys church) and chaplain of the Clothworkers' Company.  The chancellor and I were there as his guests at the Court Dinner in Clothworkers' Hall.

St Olave's Rectory is a stone's throw from Clothworkers' Hall.  Or to give you a better sense of its proximity, the kind of distance you can walk in ridiculous shoes when drunk.  Not that I was wearing ridiculous shoes.  I spent a large part of the evening with a very big cartoon question mark hovering over my head.  Who or what are the Clothworkers?  Who are these people in medieval costume?  Why are we bowing?  What is this strange silver chalice we are passing round and drinking from?

Similar questions probably flit through the minds of people attending an Anglican cathedral for the first time.  The biggest difference between the Clothworkers' Court Dinner and the 10.30 at Lichfield Cathedral is the quality of the food and wine.  Five fabulous courses were served at the Court Dinner, and if I'd drunk everything set in front of me, I would have needed a fireman's lift home from a passing beadle.  (A beadle is what we know in cathedral circles as a verger.)

It was an exquisitely English occasion, i.e. packed with arcane ritual dating back to medieval times, which is loyally upheld, whilst not being taken too seriously.  The Clothworkers' Company, if you are interested in such matters, is the twelfth of the 'Great Twelve' Livery Companies of the City of London, which can trace unbroken descent from medieval craft guilds.  Samuel Pepys was a Clothworker.  This may give a glimpse into how far the Company has drifted from its roots in the cloth trade.  Still, the Hall (the sixth on the site originally acquired by the Shearmen in 1456) sports a very fine golden statue of a sheep, which reminded me of the golden calf of the Old Testament, though nobody was worshipping it.  I was also given a teasel by the chaplain.  Thank you, darling!  Teasels were used to tease wool in times of yore.  Nowadays they can be deployed on spare seats on public transport to ensure nobody sits next to you.

At one point in the meal (chronology somewhat hazy), a tray of drinks is brought round and the waiting staff lean towards you and murmur suavely, 'Do you dine with Alderman or Lady Cooper?'  You, very reasonably, reply, 'I'm sorry?' (thinking Cooper, Cooper, am I supposed to know the Coopers?) The question is repeated.  Panic sets in of a clammy English kind.  Can't ask them to repeat it a third time!  Faux pas ahead!  This is followed by a sudden plunge down to an ever worse level of dread: is another way of asking Do you dress to the left or the right? (whatever that means).  You opt for a non-committal noise, smile blindly and take nearest glass.

Maybe this is how punters feel in the cathedral when the steward asks them, 'Would you like to go up for a blessing?'  The Cooper question is basically just 'Gin or brandy, love?'  There's a long story behind it, but if you're reading this, you'll have access to Google, won't you?

Friday, 1 July 2011

WEEK 24-26 Faffing About

OK.  Faffing about is not a new thing.  Basically, we have now reached the second half of the year, so I am catching up with myself and starting again with a clean slate. This is week 26 of 52, according to the useful website I checked on.  Useful particularly to visitors from other planets a different distance from the sun, and who might not know we operate on a 52 week year.

I the last few weeks I have not been dead, by the way, in case that is the conclusion you leapt to.  My older son thought this when he was 4 and I was late picking him up from school.  There he stood in his little duffle coat, lip trembling, with the teacher saying. 'I'm sure mammy's just on her way!'  (this was Tyneside).  When I finally came panting across the playground he whispered, 'I thought you were dead, mummy.'  The only possible explanation!  She is so reliable, what else could account for it?  That she forgot?

I've been busy, that's all.  Picking the same son up from Durham, as it happens, which for me is an overnight trip, because I need a lie down after driving all the way up the A1(M).  Or the M1, if I'm not concentrating at the crucial junction.  Then we've had visitors from Australia, which meant a sudden burst of housework.  I didn't clean the shower, because they're short-sighted--useful tip there for any lazy slobs.  And I've been writing a novel.  More on that later.

However, I have done a new thing this week, which was to recycle some clothes at the supermarket recycling point.  Normally I stagger into a charity shop with them, saying 'Here, have them all back!'  The problem with this is the thought that the staff will know what kind of crap you have tried to fob them off with, and next time you go in they'll nudge one another and say, 'There she is!  The one that donated a pair of knackered Clarke's school lace ups, and clerical shirt with the sleeves falling off!'

Instead, you stick the bagged up clothes anonymously in the maw of the big skip, raise the handle, hear them thud into the depths, then walk away.  Don't know why I've never done it before.  I've recycled glass and paper, but not clothes.  At Morrisons in Lichfield there is a choice between Marie Curie and Sally Army.  I chose the Sally Army, but in a spirit of fairness I'll donate to the other one next time.  I feel good about this.  Until now the only thought I can recall having about these donation points was to wonder if you could dispose of a dismembered body in them.