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.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Week 5 Joining a Choir

This is not the top secret new thing, (that’s still embargoed) this is just your regular new thing. Regular both in the irritating coffee shop sense of ‘standard’ and the proper sense of ‘taking place at regular intervals.’ There are several things that annoy me about coffee shops. 'Do you want any cakes or pastries with that?' Look, dumb dumb, if I wanted a muffin, I’d ask for one. After all, I mustered the courage to ask for an americano. Or do you suppose I simply hadn’t noticed the array of carbs I’ve just queued beside for 5 minutes? Gosh, cakes and pastries! Hadn’t occurred to me!


My new thing: joining a choir. Or more precisely, voluntarily joining a choir as an adult. I was in the choir at primary school mainly because we got to sing showy descants in assembly. We were hated by the growlers who’d been poked in the back and told to shut up. This was the 70s, of course. Poking children in the back is now frowned upon. It's gone the way of birching. Political correctness gone mad. I was also forced to sing in the Junior House Choir at grammar school for the House Music competition. We all were. Down by the Salley Gardens, miming the high notes. I can remember it word for word: ‘She [mime] me take [mime] easy, as the leaves grow in the-[mime] treeeeee.’

Banishing that memory, I made my way to the Cathedral School music room earlier tonight. On my way I met the school chaplain. ‘I assume you aren’t joining the Ladies who Lark,’ I said. ‘Not without surgery,’ he replied. There were around 30 of us, most of whom I know by sight from around the Close and in the congregation. I should also know them by name after 4 years, but I’m crap at names. I’m increasingly crap at faces these days, too. I am, however, extremely good at blagging. It’s part of the skill set of a clergy wife. Lovely larky ladies, all. Especially those, whatever they are called, who happen to be reading this post.

I unexpectedly found myself free to join this choir when my Monday judo session has closed. I went along interested to see what differences and similarities there are between singing and fighting. Here are my observations. Differences: 1. you sweat less in a choir than in a dojo, unless perhaps you are conducting. Our conductor and trainer is Cathy Lamb (one half of the Director of Music). She, of course, being a lady like the rest of us, merely glows. 2. I didn't have an opportunity to strangle anyone. Early days, mind you. 3. it costs less (a £1 donation as opposed to £5 for a judo session). Similarities. 1. warm-up exercises. 2. Familiar sense of personal incompetence. 3. Unlike Junior House Choir at Aylesbury High School for Gels in 1974, but like rolling around the floor with blokes in white pyjamas, IT WAS GREAT FUN!

Tonight we were rehearsing Psalms 150, and 23 which will be our contribution to the Psalmathon on Sat 5th Feb. We also did some work for a ‘Come and sing’ performance of HMS Pinafore on 5th March. ‘Gaily tripping, lightly skipping.’ What larks in the music room.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Week 4: Top Secret, Press Embargo

This is frustrating. I have done my new thing for the week, but it is so secret that I’m not allowed to tell you about it until after the official press releases. So instead I’ll tell you a bit more about that first new thing I did—karate.

There’s karate and karate, it turns out. According to the fount of all wisdom—and here I mean wikipedia, not my judo sensei, Keith—these are many styles: Budōkan, Chitō-ryū, Gensei-ryū, Gōjū-ryū, Gosoku-ryu, Isshin-ryū, Kobayashi Shōrin-ryū, Koei-Kan, Kuma-Ryu, Matsubayashi-ryū, Motobu-ryu, Mushindo Kempo, Ryū Te, Ryūei-ryū, Shitō-ryū, Shohei-ryu, Shōrin-ryū, Shōrei-ryū, Shorinjiryu Kenkokan, Shōrinji-ryū, Shōtōkai, Shotokan, Shūdōkan, Shūkōkai, Shuri-ryū, Tōon-ryū, Uechi-ryū, Wadō-ryū, Yoseikan-ryu, Yoshukai. (NB. Don’t rely on that list. ‘This article is being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia's deletion policy.’ I bet you didn’t bother to read it, even, did you? Blah blah blah. Skim, skim. It was just martial arts white noise to you.)

The class I’m currently enrolled in is Wado ryu, which I believe is Japanese for ‘mad bastard’. Though scanning down the wiki descriptions, I see that in the hard/soft league table, Wado ryu includes techniques in both categories, but is ‘primarily soft’. I glimpsed some mats tonight, but it was a false dawn. They were for the Junior class before ours, and vanished before we started. Bye bye, mats. I love you. I have grumbled about you thousands of times as we put you away at the end of a judo session, but I miss you guys!

Because tonight we novices were learning break falls. Sensei said to me ‘You’ll know this, of course.’ Why yes. I know exactly how to fall on a hard floor. And exactly how much it will hurt WITHOUT MATS. Sigh.

I walked home afterwards. It’s about a mile from the Leisure Centre to The Close, and it takes you down Bird St, where all the restaurants are. Interestingly, this was the street we were warned against when we first moved here. Don’t go down Bird St at night! Very dangerous, Bird St. Binge drinking, fights, you name it. I’d have to say that after Walsall town centre on a Friday night, we found we were able to hold our nerve anywhere in Lichfield. I probably shouldn’t say that in this blog, as I know it’s read by Lichfeldians, and dissing the local crime rates puts people’s backs up. What do you mean, no crime? We have crime! It’s like when Americans sneer at our snow.

Anyhow, as I walked past the smells of garlic and curry, and heard a riff of saxophone from an upstairs window, I realised that I was feeling… alive. That’s what taking up something new can do for you. I recommend it. Hey, man up--it’s primarily soft, after all.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Walking into the Sunset

Sunset over Lichfield cathedral last Friday afternoon. The chancellor and I were taking a turn around Stowe Pool. This is not a new thing for 2011. We are forever walking round Stowe Pool. Or running round it. We run to keep fit really, (in my case, very slowly), but a nice by-product is that we intimidate people by a tactless impression of sportiness. I still find this strange. Although I've been doing judo and running for 10 years now, I still think of myself as a slob. Some kind of body dismorphia, I suppose. A bit like when you're heavily pregnant and you keep turning sideways to let people through doorways. Maybe in another 10 years I'll have got the hang of it.

There are rules concerning the New Things I'm doing in 2011, by the way. One rule is that I have to nominate the new activity in advance. I can't simply observe 'Gosh! I've never topped up the coolant in the car before--that's my new thing for the week!' Next week, I may be joining a singing group on a Monday night, as my judo session has been cancelled. You will be the first to know...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Week 3: Jamie Oliver Party

Week 3’s new thing: A Jamie Oliver Party. I have never been to a party of this kind before, not even a Tupperware party, and you’d think that was part of the proper training for clergy wives. How else are we expected to cope with the aftermath of a bring-and-share lunch? All these years I’ve been making do with clapped-out old icecream cartons. When we lived in Gateshead my childminder kept promising to invite me to her next Ann Summer’s party, but somehow she always forgot. Maybe the thought of the vicar’s wife in the same room as a crate of vibrators was too great a cognitive challenge.

So, Jamie at Home. Look at him in the photo in his casual shirt, offering us a bowl of penne with asparagus! The party was hosted by the precentor’s wife. My first disappointment was that Jamie himself was not there. This wasn’t quite made clear in the invitation. But second only to a nice man in a casual shirt offering us pasta, we like a group drool over some classy cookware, don’t we, ladies? Well, I do. I really like looking at nice cookware. But it turns out that I only like to do this in cookware shops and department stores, where I can look for a bit, and then go. I do not have the temperament for cookware parties. I have learnt this about myself. And a day on which you learn something new is a day not wasted.

It only takes someone asking me to wear a name badge for me to remember what a counter-suggestible old bag I can be. I have been to too many Christian conferences and church study days. Here is a little list of things (apart from wearing a name badge) that I don’t want to do:
  • Turn to the person next to me and share
  • Split up into small groups and share
  • Be the person who feeds back what our small group has shared
  • Write things on a flip chart
  • Brainstorm
  • Say the words of the grace with my eyes open, making eye contact with people
  • Engage in ice-breaking exercises

Happily, after the badge incident, I was only invited to engage in one of the above, the ice-breaker. This was a quiz about cheese. There were about 10 of us. We had to call out the answers. Naturally, we were all competitive, but polite, with the result that even when we knew we’d been first with the answer, we had to wait for someone else to say we’d been first. I daresay I wasn’t the only one who knew the prize was rightfully hers.

Then we had a short DVD clip. I think this is similar to the Alpha course format, only with Jamie, not Nicky Gumble. (I have never done an Alpha course, as I know I would end up having to kill someone, and important though Alpha probably is, it’s not worth a life sentence.) Then our Jamie consultant took us page by page through the 66 page catalogue. I fear this may be why I drank a bit too much of the precentor's wife's Alsace. There was some nice kit, but I don’t actually need anything else for my kitchen. O reason not the need! goes up the cry. Nothing I actually coveted enough to get my credit card out, then.

Or else I was too grumpy to covet. This can happen, believe it or not. Wrath always trumps greed in the 7 deadly sins league table. I am a very nice kind clergy wife, but I do have a ‘DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!’ button. In fact, the only time I have ever yelled at the chancellor (we don’t come from a plate-throwing background, either of us) it was that exact phrase. He was teaching me to drive at the time. After this I was taught by Colin, from the BSM, who made me cry once by demanding that I reversed round the same corner repeatedly until I mastered the skill. He then bought me a carton of orange to cheer me up and told me a dirty joke. This took him a long time, as he kept checking after every sentence that I wasn’t offended (he knew I was a clergy wife). I couldn’t even reassure him by saying, ‘Look, mate, I’m unshockable. I’ve been to an Ann Summer’s party.’

Saturday, 15 January 2011


And here it is. Grandmother's seedcake. Admire the specialist tea cosy in the background. Each newly ordained priest is presented with one of these by the bishop after the service, and they process out of the cathedral wearing them on their heads like mitres. Obviously, the chancellor can no longer wear his liturgically, as he is a canon these days, so the old one has been relegated to domestic use. His new one reads 'More tea, Reverend Canon Doctor?'

For those of you who prefer a more conventional approach to facts, this tea cosy was a Christmas present from the Director of Music a few years back, when they were naught but a humble assistant sub-organist and an alto lay clerk.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Week 2: Seedcake

And so to the opposite end of the challenge spectrum, from martial arts to home baking. This was a suggestion made by my judo coaches, having heard about my brush with karate. I think they are hoping I’ll take the cake in to judo tomorrow and give it to them.

I have made many cakes in my time, but never a seedcake. So seedcake it is. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea. They always had one on the go in Swallows and Amazons. It was one of their staples, along with pemmican. When my mother read the books to us when we were little I always pictured seedcake as the thing budgies ate, a compacted lump of sesame seeds, perhaps formed into the shape of a bell, and hanging in the cage beside the cuttlefish. (Our next door neighbour had a budgie called Wee Jockey. ‘Wee Jockey!’ was one of the things he could say, in his odd little creaky Scots accent. He would also address himself rhetorically in his mirror: ‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ Actually, he was the campest budgie I’ve ever encountered.)

It turns out that seedcake is quite different from how I’d imagined it. I followed the recipe from my grandma’s old baking book, Cake Making in Pictures, by Muriel Downes of the Cordon Bleu Cookery School, first published in 1957. The recipe is called ‘Grandmother’s Seed Cake’, as you may just about be able to see from the photo. I doubt my gran ever made a seedcake in her life. She was a more a cream horn and brandy snap kind of woman.

The recipe was clearly one of those things you made when your hens had laid more eggs than you knew what to do with, in week when you couldn’t afford to buy any dried fruit. 5 eggs, half a pound of butter, 13 oz caster sugar, 1/2lb plain flour and three teaspoons of caraway seeds. I had to buy the caraway seeds specially. They have ‘a nutty, delicate anise flavour and a pungent aroma with notes of orange peel’, according to Schwartz. And they are ‘delicious with vegetables.’ ‘Why not try stir frying with cabbage and bacon and a knob of butter?’ the label muses further. ‘Because I am Muslim/Jewish/vegetarian/vegan’ springs to mind. I can’t help noticing the total absence of reference to cakes here. But this is arguing from silence. Neither is there a health warning saying ‘For God’s sake don’t put them in a cake, they taste disgusting!’

The cake is in the oven as I type this post. A 'very moderate' oven, GM 3. (I'm going to file 'very moderate' alongside 'rather unique' and 'extra virgin' in my baffling phrases list.) It will be ready in an hour and half. I daresay it will be delicious. And if not, I’ll give it to my judo coaches.

Friday, 7 January 2011

New Thing no 1: Karate

This is a picture of me in my judogi, taken, as they say, in happier times (i.e. in the summer months). Judo, as you are probably aware, means ‘the gentle way’. There’s some cobblers about this meaning ‘yielding’ or ‘giving way’ in order to use your opponent’s strength and weight against them. I now know the truth. Judo is the gentle way because we have MATS.

Unlike karate. Or at least the species of karate I seem to have strayed into in my quest for new things in 2011. I turned up last night in my judo suit (having established over the phone that this was not a breach of dojo etiquette that would require me to commit sepuku), but wearing the lowest grade belt I could find in the dressing-up box (yellow), to signify that I was a humble novice and please don’t kick my head in, all you scary 9 year old black belts. The class was held in the same bit of King Edward’s leisure centre as my Monday judo class.

But no mats, no mats! I haven’t run around on a highly polished wooden floor since gym lessons at Aylesbury High School for Girls. Hideous flash back. At least I wasn’t in navy gym knickers and white aertex shirt. But as you will know, those of you who suffered barefoot PE back in the 70s, it is only a matter of time before the friction rips the skin off your feet. Still, there will be no throwing, no breakfalls onto the wood, I consoled myself. Wrong! Have I picked the wrong kind of karate, or something? I thought it was all fancy high kicks and snappy punches.

My performance so far: utterly crap. I am hopeless at translating verbal commands into physical actions. (I’ve been failing to master a simple waltz for 40 years.) My brain gets in my way. I’m too busy trying to think it through. So wait, hang on, left foot forward, left arm punch, no, yes, is it right arm left leg? I should know from judo that the only way to master new techniques is to have a go, and then another go, and then a thousand goes, until it’s in your muscle memory. But there is clearly a much higher formalised muscle memory content in karate than in judo. In judo you can learn a couple of throws, then have a good old scrap with someone.

And it’s back to scrapping tomorrow, when the Oak Park judo clubs starts again. I will kiss the mat and sob in relief.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year's Resolution

Happy New Year. This is a picture dating from 2010, in the December of Low Temparatures, back when we froze in our listed buildings because we had no secondary glazing and all the radiators were positioned under windows and behind curtains so that the flesh could be suitably mortified. The old Northumbrian saints used to stand in the North Sea. We can be mortified by a trip to the loo at 3am.

The photo features the Snow Choir. The precentor told me he preferred it to the real choir. ‘Cheaper, and fewer wrong notes.’ He was probably feeling grumpy at the time. Because of the extreme cold. But 2011 will be different. We will all be warm and cheerful. That shall be the Close Resolution. My own personal New Year resolution is a revamp of an old one, in which I pledge myself to do something I have never tried before. I will do one new thing a week throughout 2011. This will counter the creeping middle-agedness I find myself battling. This is caused by being middle aged. If you are not middle aged at 49, then frankly, I don’t know how long you are planning to live. The thing I am battling against is not my age, more an inflexibility of attitude. An inner resistance to trying new things on the rather paltry grounds that I have never done that before and I’m nervous, or would feel silly. Which is ludicrous. You cannot play safe and do something new that you have done before, can you?

Some of my new things will be small, some large. I haven’t decided what this week’s challenge will be. I may take up karate. I can strangle someone 15 different ways, but it would be nice to be able to hit people too. Properly hit. I hit like a girl. (I throw like a girl, of course. Mostly foot sweeps and leg techniques. Call round some time and I’ll demonstrate.) I will also watch more Bette Davis films. I shocked a fellow writer by my total ignorance of the plot of All About Eve. As a tribute to my mother, I may make a genuine medieval trifle. She went through a phase about 20 years ago of remarking, apparently out of the blue, that one day she would like to make a genuine medieval trifle. Some research will be needed first. It may turn out that my mother was in pursuit of an anachronism. Maybe there were no trifles before Regency days. Trifles sound Regency. 'La, Sir Peregrine! I'd be vastly obliged if you would take a dish of trifle with me.' But this is what 2011 will be all about: pushing back the boundaries. Learning new things, getting out of the rut, chasing mirages. I’ll keep you posted.