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 16 December 2010

Only Nine Days Left

Not long now. Done your cards? Sent your presents? Got that essential red table runner for your festive board? And more importantly, do you have your Christmas outfit sorted? Or are you still dicing with delusion, and hoping to lose a few more pounds and slip into something new, expensive and the next size down?

I have accidentally hit upon a way of losing half a stone. (That’s 7lb, for any Americans reading this.) Strictly speaking, it’s a way of appearing to have lost half a stone (3.18kg recurring for an Europeans, Australians and Kiwis reading this): get your hair cut off. A radical step, I know, but time is of the essence when you are trying to look hotter than everyone else. Or everyone else in your age and weight category. At 49, we no longer compete against all comers. This is where moving to a Cathedral Close is a smart move. I still pass as something of a fine young filly round here. (Am praying the chancellor doesn’t hear a call to university chaplaincy.)

So, the new barnet. (That’s hairstyle, for foreigners of any nationality reading this.) I now have what my stylist (Andy, Franceso Group, Walsall) describes as an ‘Eton crop’. Rather than an Eton Mess, which is what it was before (my description, not my stylist’s). As I rightly predicted, people have not noticed this radical and edgy new look. They have asked me instead if I have lost weight. Yes—off my hair.

I may post a pic at some stage. If I can find one that doesn’t make me look fat. Or like a slightly butch and frightening version of Julian Clary.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Christmas Letters

More icy pictures of Lichfield for you. Jackie Frost has been at his work, as my older son used to observe in a broad Geordie accent when he was three. He was not a precocious mimic, we were living in Gateshead at that stage. My younger son was born there, and him I couldn’t understand at all. ‘Haway, Mam, draw us a wheel!’ ‘Certainly. A car wheel, a tractor wheel?’ ‘Nooah. A killer wheel!’ And then we moved to Walsall, and they promptly switched to Black Country, coming home from school and telling me they'd been learning about the Voikings.

One nice thing about being married to a priest, apart from moving house a lot and learning many interesting dialects, is that you never have to buy a new jiffy bag. Priests get sent things in padded envelopes all the time. Bible commentaries, mainly. Or perhaps this is a certain sub category of Evangelical priests, who have a Bible commentary habit as bad as many a woman’s shoe habit. I personally do not have a shoe habit. Well, I do. I have the habit of thinking you should be able to buy yourself a nice pair of leather boots for under £25. Which you can—if you skulk about in charity shops. You can also get cheap Bible commentaries in charity shops. Thus the chancellor and I while away many hours in run down town centres on his day off.

Another nice thing about being married to a priest is that you get a house with the job. The heating bills are not so nice, of course. You also get a lot of Christmas cards. These may be displayed in colour groups (white and gold, reds, greens, blues) or by theme (robins, Christmas trees, shepherds, drunken Franciscans—not Wise men, of course, as these may not be properly displayed until Epiphany) and hung in your draughty hallway, where they will flutter and amusingly set off your burglar alarm at 3am.

You may also be lucky enough to get a fat envelope, and you will open it with feverish excitement because it can mean only one thing—someone has sent you a Christmas boasting letter about their children’s amazing A-level results (which they were really surprised about, because s/he didn’t do a stroke of work!!!!) their Grade VIII on the bassoon and starring roles in school productions. There may be photos of various holidays abroad and updates on extensive renovations to their 17th century property (including letting information). Occasionally they commend to you the real meaning of Christmas. At which point (if you are lucky enough to be married to a priest) you will grind your teeth and think I know what the true meaning of fecking Christmas is.

Still, at least I can send my Christmas parcels in recycled jiffy bags. That’s worth hanging on to, isn’t it?

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Life in Narnia

We are living in Narnia. Narnia before Aslan came and spoilt it all by melting the snow. That’s what I always secretly thought as a child, but knew I shouldn’t, because Aslan was Jesus.

I went out for a walk round The Close and then Stowe Pool this morning. All the photographers in Lichfield were out. None of the runners were. I was out for a run yesterday morning, and it was slippy in places. Today it’s worse. I’d be mortified as a judo player to fall on the ice and injure myself. Should know how to land properly by now! The difference is that on the judo mat you are expecting it. Of course, you should be alert when walking on icy pavements, but vigilance is tricky to maintain when everything is so heart-breakingly beautiful. Plus there are mats in a dojo.

Frost was falling like powdered snow from the trees, and landing in a hiss on the holly bushes beneath. I watched a crow pecking at a chunk of frozen bread (or maybe frozen rodent? I didn’t look too closely) and it sounded as though it was eating crisps. The pool is now almost entirely frozen. Bad news for the ducks and coots, good news for Brer Fox. All the cobwebs and leaf edges and twigs were furred and feathered and fanged with frost. Each detail on the Narnian lampposts of The Close was picked out in white.

I may have to apologise to CS Lewis before I’m allowed into heaven, but I still prefer Narnia with the snow.

Monday 6 December 2010

Saturday in Lichfield

Last Saturday I enjoyed my quintessentially Lichfield Saturday experience, i.e., tough session on the judo mat, then an evening gradually seizing up on one of the world’s most uncomfortable chairs during an evening concert in the cathedral.

The judo consisted of a couple of groundwork bouts with my sensei, Keith, who is far too wily and experienced to be strangled by me, but a good enough sport to let me get close. And then not to pay me back by pinning me down mercilessly, the way a lesser man would. Humility, that’s the hallmark of a seasoned judoka. Having nothing to prove, no ego to protect. If you can’t take a good strangle off a girl (without saying ‘I let you do it’), you have much to learn, my young grasshopper. Then I had a spot of randori (free-flowing standing work) with another of my coaches, Heather. We’ve been fighting together for nearly 10 years now, and pretty much know the other’s techniques with our eyes closed. She has youth on her side. I have weight on mine. A couple of extra stone does you no harm on the judo mat, trust me.

And then to the concert. Well, not straight to the concert, obviously. A quick shower and a rummage through the charity shop purchases for something posh. Footwear is the issue, as ever. It’s not far to the cathedral from here, not far enough for a taxi anyway, it being approximately 50m (see picture taken from our landing), but this is still too far if you suffer as I do from hallux rigidus—or in layman’s terms, knackered big toe joint. On a day-to-day basis it’s manageable, unless you attempt to wear high heels. Didn’t even make it to the front door on Saturday. There’s no such thing as an elegant hobble. I’ll have to get someone to wheelbarrow me across another time, but that would have been folly on Saturday. Too icy. So boots it was.

The concert. It was Haydn (Missa Sancti Nicoli, ‘Farewell’ Symphony) and Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, performed by the Lichfield Cathedral Chorus, the choir formerly known as ‘The Special Choir’ (and behind their backs as ‘The Special Needs Choir’, hence the change of name, one suspects); and the St Chad’s Camerata. For the first time they were under the baton of (half of) our new musical director, Ben Lamb. The soloists performed from the tiniest platforms in musical history, but I’m happy to say there were no ugly incidents of plummeting tenors, or injured punters on the front row.

The feeling on the front row was that it was a stunning performance, but that for a man with a red silk lining to his tail coat, the conductor’s shoes were not gay enough. This was remedied during the interval by the canon chancellor, a man with a collection of the gayest shoes on the Close.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Stir-Up Sunday

Today I plan to make my Christmas cake. Obviously, I should have made it on 21st November, as that was Stir-Up Sunday. Stir-Up Sunday is the Sunday next before Advent, when the collect (or prayer, for any ignorant Nonconformists and Atheists who have strayed here by pressing the ‘Next Blog’ button) for the week is ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

Well, this year I missed the boat. Liturgically speaking, that’s probably seven years bad luck. But the cake should taste the same. You will see my preparations all laid out in the photo. I’ve arranged it all so beautifully I may leave it a few more days, just so that I can admire it every time I go into the kitchen to check whether the butter has reached room temperature yet. Of course it has! It’s still frozen. The cookbooks mean room temperature in a normal house. In the olden days before central heating and double glazing you hired a peasant to walk around for a couple of hours with the butter pat clamped in his armpit.

Sadly, despite the ‘rights and appurtenances’ promised Mr Chancellor when he was made Prebendary of Alrewas* at his installation at Lichfield Cathedral, provision for a butter-warmer is no longer guaranteed. And in an age where the Church Commissioners are threatening to chop up the Zurbaran paintings for kindling to heat Auckland Castle ready for the next Bishop of Durham (or whatever the fuss is all about) we can’t really complain about the lack of willing peasants here in Lichfield Cathedral Close. I can sit on my pack of Anchor myself, if push comes to shove.

That's my grandma's cake book in the picture, by the way. It has black and white photos and rather austere language. The word 'somewhat' occurs. 'Stir until somewhat mixed.' One recipe calls for 'sal volatile'. This, as you well know, is ammonium carbonate, formerly known as hartshorn, or smelling salts. Not readily come by in the bakery section in Morrisons, so I suppose you'd have to substitute Red Bull, or some other modern stimulant. Or else administer a brisk slap to your cake mixture.

*This is a bit like being made Marquis of Carabas. Sounds poncy, but means nothing.

Monday 29 November 2010

In the Bleak Mid Winter

One of the things I promised myself when we moved to Cathedral Close was that I would never take it for granted. I would also never whinge about any little inconveniences that might come my way, in connection with living in a listed building.

But it’s flipping cold. I cling-filmed my study windows last week. Haven’t done that since Mr Chancellor was a theological college student in Cambridge and we lived in a house with no central heating. And had to cycle a mile and half every morning to Ridley Hall, into a head wind. That is a curious meteorological quirk of Cambridge. No matter which direction you are cycling, it’s always into a head wind. The room in Ridley had a gas fire. This meant you could warm up. Actually, it meant that you could fry your front while your back remained frozen. I used to go and sit in the Rare Books Room in the University Library just to avoid hypothermia. Wait. I used to consult rare books too. I was writing a doctoral dissertation, after all. Then after half an hour I started to think in terms of a cheese scone. If I had the money, I’d go to the coffee shop and buy one. If I was skint I’d go to the locker room and hunt for 10p pieces people had forgotten to collect from their locker refund. Ee, we were that poor.

So in comparison with our Cambridge days, we are really rather warm here. When we put the central heating on. This tends to be when we have guests. I am currently sitting in my study wearing a glamour puss ensemble of silk long johns, trackie bottoms, two pairs of thermal socks, fake Uggs, long sleeved T-shirt, cashmere hoodie, big cardigan and a nice fleecy blanket. I believe the canon precentor wears his coat in his study. I can’t verify that at present, as he keeps his shutters closed to retain any last hint of heat. This is perhaps as well. I gave him a cheery wave in passing back in the summer and he stuck two fingers up at me. Lovely man, the precentor. I may have been carrying a wine glass at the time, for reasons we needn’t go into. (I don’t normally walk round the Close wine glass in hand.) The precentor was on the wagon, so it’s possible he thought I was taunting him. The deanery exists in its own permafrost. The dean’s wife routinely dresses for Arctic weather and then emerges to find it’s actually warm outside. Because it’s August.

But we are not by any means complaining. We are jolly lucky to live here. And if we get too cold, we can always toss another prebendary on the fire.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Misery and Failure: The Writing Life

Well, I feel as though I’m a proper blogger now, having adhered to what I observe to be the correct etiquette, i.e. a flamboyant start, followed by abandoning the blog for months at a time. My excuse—for all bloggers must have one, even if it is only ‘I couldn’t be arsed’—is the evil Netgear. Netgear was blocking google on my computer, and although it was probably possible to navigate round Netgear on google France or some such, I couldn’t be arsed. Anyway, the Netgear problem is now solved.

If only everything in life were as simple as getting a new router. The real reason for my long silence is old fashioned misery. I promised at the outset that this blog would detail the agonies and ecstasies of the writing life. But when it comes down to is, misery is far too valuable a resource to squander on a mere blog. I need to cherish it, brood upon it, steep it in the stockpot of my writerly imagination, until it comes out TA DAH! as fiction. This can take some years.

Briefly, I completed a novel and sent it to my agent, who thought that while the manuscript had merits, these merits did not include ‘actually being a novel’. This appears to be my current working pattern. I identify a cracking good story, then circle round it until I finally hit upon a way of telling that story which is inherently impossible to pull off from a structural point of view. My agent informs me it has failed, I go off and sulk for a month, then I re-write the whole thing as a novel. I am currently on Chapter 2 of the re-write. Perhaps the first draft is a necessary tuning-up exercise? It sounds in tune now, but it’s early days. How would I know? I’m only a writer.

I have also been applying for creative writing lecturer posts at various universities. The pattern is this: I apply, then after months of silence I get a letter from the HR department saying I haven’t been successful this time (which I’d begun to suspect, deep down, as the interview date had come and gone weeks before), but that they hope this does not deter me from applying for other posts in the future. You know what, it kind of does. Not hard to email the unsuccessful candidates when you shortlist, I wouldn’t have thought. But maybe Netgear was blocking them.

I did get as far as an interview at one university. Part of the process was The Presentation Task. This involved a group of people pretending to be an MA class, and me pretending to be a lecturer. The Task was undertaken in a blacked-out drama studio, draped with funereal curtains and menacingly down-lit (in a 'we have ways of making you burst into tears' kind of way). One of my ‘MA’ students was slumped apparently suicidal across his desk. This prompted me to ask if the group was role playing, and whether someone was designated to be ‘the difficult one’. The class stared in surprise. No, they were all just being themselves, they assured me. Then you are plainly just weird, I thought, eyeing the suicidal one. It later emerged was a philosophy lecturer, a Wittgenstein specialist. Perhaps he’d strayed in by accident and was illustrating, via his body language, the importance of showing not telling. In this case, showing he would rather be on holiday than interviewing fluffy women creative writing candidates.

Still, as you can see from the photo, Lichfield is a nice place to be a miserable failure in. This is the view from my front door. My novel, incidentally, is set in a fictional cathedral Close. It is a bold escapist piece of writing.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

A Sliver of Ice

Graham Greene once said that every writer must have ‘a sliver of ice’ in their heart. He was noticing—and being appalled by—his own capacity for detached observation of other people’s grief even while offering them sympathy. But we writers are a cunning pack. We have co-opted this saying to excuse all manner of horrible behaviour on the grounds that we are artists. I give myself permission to ransack your misery for copy. Of course I do! I have a sliver of ice in my heart! You surely don’t expect me to be a nice person. Niceness is for the untalented. I’m far too busy working on my imaginary world to have anything left over for good behaviour in the real one.

Well, I’m certainly far too busy writing my novel to write my blog, anyway. A puzzling utterance to normal people, but immediately transparent to fellow novelists, who are thinking, ‘Aha, she’s blocked.’ There are writers, rather tiresome ones if you want my opinion (I assume you do, or you wouldn’t be here), who believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block, just lazy writers. After all, they chortle, you don’t hear about plumbers with plumber’s block, do you? Which begs the question, have they never had plumbers in? Do they not know from experience that a plumber may start work on your bathroom, then go away for three months leaving you with a gaping hole in the floor and half a bidet because ‘they are waiting for the tiles to arrive’?

Plumbers get blocked all right. They get blocked for similar reasons to writers: if they don’t have the right stuff to work with. If they realise they’ve put the taps on backwards. If they drill through the hot water pipe. If they paint themselves into a corner part-way through an immensely complex not to say baroque metaphor and… Ah, sod it.

There are simply times when you need to leave alone. Wait for the hand-painted Spanish tiles to arrive. For the plaster to dry out. And in the meantime, get on with other odd jobs. Like posting a blog.

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.

Saturday 24 July 2010

What is the difference between a prebend and a prebendary?

You can’t wash your hands in a prebendary. I got that out of a Christmas cracker. It was an Anglican cracker. It had a paper mitre in it and a little plastic novelty tea urn. According to my dictionary, a prebend is either a) the stipend assigned by a cathedral to a canon or member of the chapter or b) the land, tithe or other source of such a stipend.

The word ‘stipend’ in this context means ‘a fixed or regular amount paid as to a clergyman, of completely imaginary money.’ A prebendary is the recipient of such an imaginary stipend. In some cathedrals there are 'honorary canons'. Same thing. It is an honorary post awarded to long standing clergy of the diocese for being a good egg. Or eggess, in these modern days of ours.

Lichfield cathedral has many prebends. These are named after the various places in Staffordshire where the prebend lands were once situated. Places like 'Gaia Major' (pronounced, rather thrillingly, gayer major, and source of many quip.) Each prebend has its own prebendal stall in the cathedral in the choir chancel. This is where the prebendaries sit. The Prebendary of Curborough sits in the Curborough Stall, for example. These rights are fiercely guarded. I’ve learnt that proper etiquette and formal ritual is hugely important in cathedral life. Prebendaries must each sit in their own designated stall.

The only exception is the stall of the Prebendary of Freeford, which is next to the chancellor’s stall. The Freeford Stall is reserved for Mrs Chancellor (as I am known around the Close), and she asserts her ancient historic right to punch anyone who tries to sit there in evensong. Unless of course, the Prebendary of Freeford turns up, in which case he may assert his right to punch the chancellor’s wife. He in turn will immediately be punched by the chancellor.

After this, the precentor, in his role as first canon of the cathedral, may if he chooses, punch the chancellor. Obviously, the dean may punch anyone he feels like punching, up to and including the bishop—unless they stray outside the cathedral precincts, in which case the bishop’s own punching rights come into force and he may punch the dean. In fact the bishop of Lichfield may punch anyone anywhere within the boundaries of the Lichfield diocese, apart from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, or the queen. Finally, every few years the leaders of entire Anglican Communion world-wide gather at the Lambeth Conference for a mass punch-up. I hope this is helpful in clarifying Anglican protocol.

To be honest, I just made all that up. I don’t go around punching people. I prefer to strangle them. But that’s just me, I’m a judo player. I actually have to be quite careful to keep judo and the cathedral in separate mental compartments. There is a lot of bowing in the cathedral, just as there is in martial arts. If someone bows at you on the judo mat, it’s a signal that they are about to attack you. This is not the case when people bow in the cathedral. In the cathedral they generally attack without warning. That is the Anglican way.

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Close is Foreign Country...

...they do things differently there. They speak a foreign language. Even those fluent in Anglican-speak need to get their ear in to understand the local dialect of a Cathedral Close. Firstly there are the bits of technical jargon, often abbreviated to make them even more impenetrable to the outsider. ‘Mag & nunc’, ‘can and dec’, ‘volly’.

Before I go any further, a little disclaimer: I am naught but an ignorant Nonconformist in origins, daughter of the Baptist Manse. It is possible that one or two errors may creep in to this blog. I have already been informed that it would have been the Royalists trying to climb into my back garden via the moat, as the Parliamentarians mainly attacked from the south. Yes, yes. I'm a novelist, not a historian. AN historian, I should say, to head off any more nit-pickers. Pedants seem to thrive in the eccentric conditions of your typical Cathedral Close. They don't watch 'Doctor Who', round here, they watch 'Doctor Whom'. I get a bit fed up with pedanticism, to be honest. (Ooh, nearly got you.)

The terms mentioned above are concerned with the Choral Foundation (music stuff), and mean ‘Magnificat and nunc dimittis’ (the two anthems sung at Choral Evensong, i.e. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ and ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’.) ‘Can and dec’ refer to the two opposite sides of the choir aisle, and by extension, the two halves of the choir who sit facing across the chancel (top bit nearest high altar). This is a historic arrangement which enables the lay clerks (choir men) to smirk at each other when the Psalm for the evening contains the verse ‘Neither doth he delight in any man’s legs.’

‘Can’ is the precentor’s side (the precentor being the canon in charge of music stuff) and ‘dec’ the dean’s side (the dean being the one in charge of everything). There is some Latin explanation for can and dec, but you’ll have to google it. (It will ask if you mean Ant and Dec.) If I'm not careful I will end up with parentheses within parentheses, like Russian nesting dolls, and you will get bored and start looking at porn instead. I daresay you can buy an iPhone cathedral phrasebook app to help you navigate your way round the linguistic labyrinth.

A ‘volly’ is an organ ‘voluntary’ played at the close of a service; a strange term my sons think, as it is involuntary from their perspective. ‘I have wasted hours of my life waiting for the voluntary to end,’ lamented my younger son at the end of one (long) piece. He went on to compose his own volly on his computer software, capturing perfectly the tedium and discord of the French style, and the well-known 'False Dawn Syndrome', in which the piece appears to end several times… but no, another movement. This work came to an abrupt stop with the sound of a gun-shot, followed by a final thunderous discord as the organist slumped dead on the keyboard. Or manual, I should say. My sons have not learnt to love the Cathedral Choral Tradition in all the four years we have lived on the Close. But then, other residents of the Close have perhaps not learnt to love their drumming and electric guitars, so fair dinkum.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Lichfield Dash 2010

In my last post I described the Close as looking 'like a running track'. And on Saturday 17th July, that's what it became for the Lichfield Cathedral Dash 2010. The Cathedral Close has hosted this ‘Chariots of Fire’ style race for 13 years now. You may remember from the film how Abrahams was the first athlete to complete the Trinity College Great Court Run successfully, getting round the quad and beating the noonday chimes. This was the inspiration behind the Cathedral Dash.

The Dash itself, at 12 noon, is entered by elite athletes, all trying to get round the 430m lap in under the 58 seconds it takes the cathedral clock to chime midday. Before this event there is a range of other races. I probably should have said that the Close looks 'a bit like a running track'. The first few yards are uphill. Then comes a long gentle straight stretch slightly down hill, a sharp steep downhill bend round the Lady Chapel, and then a long 'gentle' uphill straight into the strong wind that whistles round Kilcanon Corner (as it's known), before the final lung-bursting sprint uphill again to the finish line. The race is also run clockwise, which for professional 400m runners must feel like wearing your running spikes on the wrong feet. But maybe there's some old superstition about it being bad luck to run widdershins round a church?

This year I and a team of other Catherines entered the ‘Fun’ relay. ‘Catherines for the Choir’—raising funds, as you will have surmised, for the cathedral choir. The inspiration for this came from the very common sight of our cathedral assistant organist, Cathy Lamb, running around the Close, late for meetings. You will see from the photo of Team Catherine--from left to right: Kathy Coombs, Cathy Lamb, me and Catherine Day--that we decided to run in surplices. (Thanks to the Lichfield Blog http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/for the pic) A surplice is a church-related garment. It goes over a cassock, and is probably best described as a long white nightie. Imagine a double bed-sheet with hole cut out for your head. Perfect for running in high winds. Simply take a reef in the side and tack.

The canon precentor (in charge of things choral) was not pleased by our choice of running strip. It was 'Bad'. Whether he meant bad as in 'sinful', or bad as in 'a poor choice aerodynamically', he didn't say. He did, however, graciously lend his trainers to Catherine Day who doesn't own a pair of her own.

Our training for the event consisted of intending vaguely to have a trot round the Close to see what it felt like. That would be organised enough for a Fun Relay, surely? But on the day, pressure of time meant that the ‘Fun’ relay was hideously merged with the Club Relay event. This meant we ended up racing against a team from Birchfield Harriers and other hard-core nutters. I mean athletes. Quite what they made of it, I don't know. Maybe they have never been so insulted in their professional lives. Still, we gave it our best shot, cheered on by the crowds that filled the Close. Early on in my lap I came over all strange, and experienced a blur in my peripheral vision. This turned out to be a Birchfield Harrier scorching past me. It was tempting to nip down the steps to the north door and take a short cut through the cathedral. But I pictured the headlines: 'Canon's Wife in Dash Disqualification Shame.'

And of course, we didn't need to cheat. I’m proud to say that of the teams composed entirely of women called Catherine wearing surplices, we came first. In all other respects we came last. But as the Bible says, ‘The first shall be last, and the last first.’ So maybe when Gabriel is dishing out prizes in the heavenly Olympics, Team Catherine will be on the gold medal podium.

Welcome to my world

Welcome to the weird world of Anglicanism. In particular, welcome to Lichfield Cathedral Close.

I’ve probably picked the wrong moment to launch this blog. This is cathedral summertime. The choir is on holiday, the Lichfield Festival has just finished, everything has gone quiet. Apart from the cathedral clock, which still chimes every quarter, day and night. In our first week here I must have heard every last ding-dong, and was sure I’d never get used to it. But you do, of course. Now if I’m away from home I feel adrift when I wake in the night—where am I? what time is it?

So, the choral year has ended. It will begin again in September, roughly following the English academic year. The church year, however, operates on a different calendar—from Advent Sunday (at the end of November) to Last Sunday before Advent. How many calendars do I inhabit these days? The tax year, the calendar year, the choral year, the church year, the academic year. Calendar overload. Maybe this is why I sometimes feel adrift in the decades as well.

Lichfield is in Staffordshire. That’s ‘North’ to Londoners, ‘South’ to Geordies, and ‘bang in the middle of the country’ to anyone looking at a map. People tend not to have heard of Lichfield. It floats around, gets located in Leicestershire or Norwich. In former centuries Staffordshire was part of the old Kingdom of Mercia, and is currently best known as Land of the Staffordshire Hoard (or the Lichfield Loot as we prefer to call it round here). The Dean was all for having the entire cathedral floor up to see what we could find. We discovered an Anglo-Saxon stone angel under the nave a few years back, possibly part of St Chad’s tomb chest. The angel is displayed int he cathedral chapter house, alongside the Chad Gospel. This is an illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript, older than the Book of Kells. (How can people not have heard of Lichfield?)

This blog is my unofficial take on the Close. Here’s how it was today: I went out on my usual run this morning, more slowly that usual, after Saturday’s Lichfield Cathedral Dash (more on this in my next posting). Big lorries had drawn up on the paved area at the West front ready to cart off sound equipment and staging after the Festival. The wine tent was being dismantled. Putting up the wine tent is an ancient Lichfield rain-making ceremony. It ensures that the entire ten days of the Festival will be wash-out. Somebody seems to have cocked up this year, tangled some guy ropes, maybe—there were a couple of dry days.

As I rounded the fenced-off East end, dust from the masons’ site drifted like smoke. I could hear hammering and the whine of stone cutting machinery. Blocks of different sized pinkish sandstone lay in piles waiting to be crafted. The Lady Chapel, currently bristling with scaffolding, is shrink-wrapped in white plastic while essential renovation work goes on.

I headed off the Close along Reeve Lane towards Stowe Pool. New broods of ducklings bobbed among the lily pads, and baby coots screeched. On the far side of the pool stands St Chad's church, with St Chad's Well. St Chad himself used to walk this route. It was humid and bright and windy. Sunlight came blinding off the ripples. I plodded on, past Minster Pool (which used to be the Bishop’s fish pond in days of yore), then headed into Beacon Park, (undergoing renovation as well), and from there, back onto the Close via the road entrance. This is a three mile route. My husband, who has GPS on his iPhone, informs me that it's only 2.9 miles, actually. Normal people refer to this as 'a three mile run', however.

In medieval times the Close was heavily fortified. There would have been a gatehouse where cars now drive in and out. At the bottom of our garden lies the old dry moat, where Cromwell’s soldiers tried to break in when the cathedral was under siege in the Civil War. The cathedral with its three spires stands on an island of grass. A road loops round, like a running track, and buildings from different eras line the sides of the Close.

When I reached our house I sat on the wall in the hot sun, face a glamorous shade of tomato, feeling that life was good. Running defrags the mind. So does brisk walking. Worries are a cloud of gnats. If you keep moving they can't settle on you. There is also something important about sticking to the same route. I have run and walked those three miles alone and in company, in all weathers, in all frames of mind. This consoles me, somehow. I feel echoes of the same thing in the round of the church year, in going week after week to choral evensong. It accumulates associations and resonances. There is also that sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, of walking in pathways carved out by generations of feet, paths that will still be there when we are long gone.

For more about the Lichfield Cathedral, visit http://lichfield-cathedral.org/
To get a feel of the city of Lichfield, visit http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/