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.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

WEEK 8--The Dukan Diet

I wasn’t going to include this, as technically it falls outside the rules (I didn’t nominate it as a New Thing before starting). However, I knew you’d want to hear about it, given that you (judging by my blog stats) are the kind of people who are far more interested in seedcake and gossip than the conservation of Anglo Saxon artefacts.

So. I started the Dukan Diet last week. As you may be able to see from the book jacket, this is ‘The fat attack French women swear by.’ (NB, it is not to be confused with the strangely titled Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. They do. It’s middle class Parisians that don’t. The answer, hardly requiring a whole volume, is simple: they smoke.) If you are thinking of leaving a comment to the effect of ‘You don’t need to diet!’ then bless you, but the NHS Body Mass Index healthy weight calculator said otherwise. BMI of 25.51: ‘This result suggests you are overweight.’

Obviously BMI doesn’t take muscularity into account, and I am incredibly muscular. If I flex my deltoids grown men flinch--though possibly in horrified pity. I am also immensely clever, and have a lot of brains. Brains are very heavy. It’s been scientifically proved how heavy they are.

OVERWEIGHT?! How dare you. You are only saying that, O nitpicking petty-minded healthy weight calculator, because I have carelessly shrunk an inch. I’ve discovered to my chagrin, that I am only 5’7”, not 5’8”, which I have been confidently asserting is my height for decades. It is that lost inch which tips me over the edge into the overweight category. My clothes have all shrunk too, in solidarity. This is very sweet of them, but in no way helps. Hence Dukan.

What is the Dukan Diet? In a nutshell, low-carb, low-fat, lots of water, (see picture. NB the Morrisons pecan Danish pastries in the background are part of the Bloke diet). Other food groups are gradually reintroduced. It is one of those regimes that prompts the following conversation: ‘What? Low-fat and low-carb? Sounds terrible! I couldn’t stick to that. How much have you lost? Really? In how long? Really?! What was it called again?’

The official book has some priceless French moments: ‘If you do not like balsamic vinegar that is a pity as it is more appealing to the senses.’ You can almost hear the Gallic shrug. Chewing gum may help, Dr Dukan concedes, though ‘I do not eat gum myself as chewing is inelegant.’ As a Frenchman his suggested recipes include delicacies like Thon au trois poivrons, and Moules Marinieres. This will hardly do in the UK where we like our diets penitential and dourly Protestant. It can be easily adapted though: just eat a tin of pilchards.

Yes, yes, yes, but does it work? 7.5lb in a week.
What was it called again?

Wednesday 16 February 2011

WEEK 7—Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Below: Pectoral cross and folded cross from the Staffordshire Hoard

This week’s new thing was a trip to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s conservation room. I tagged along with a group being shown part of the Staffordshire Hoard close up and personal. No, it’s not fair, is it? I only got to do this because I’m married to the canon chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral, who has been working with partner groups setting up the Mercian Trail, and organising the Hoard travelling exhibition this summer. It comes to the cathedral in August. (In mitigation, may I just say that I am obliged to attend a great many tedious functions because I’m married to the canon chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral. Plus this house is cold.)

We were able to get a glimpse into the working life of Deborah Cane, the Collections Care and Conservation officer. Each week she has a new favourite Hoard item, as her painstaking work reveals yet more wonders of Anglo Saxon skill. You will see in the picture her tools laid out on her bench. One of them is a little device which holds a thorn. Thorns are the best thing for gently scraping mud off gold filigree, apparently. If you get over-enthusiastic, they break before they can scratch the surface. Thorns and water, that’s the way to do it. Not Cillit Bang. A former museum director in our group nearly passed out when I said that.

The detail on these pieces of battlefield bling is mind-boggling. One theory is that the Anglo Saxon goldsmiths were all myopic. Not much good with a bow and arrow, but they could knock you up a fancy sword pommel as soon as look at you. Some items in the Hoard are still a complete mystery. There are, for example, several tiny gold snakes, some of which have pins on the back. When Deborah put the snake under the microscope we were able to see the rather mournful expression on its face (see below). Perhaps it was based on the face of a goldsmith depressed by the thought that nobody else was shortsighted enough to admire all the detail.

The chancellor was particularly pleased to see the ecclesiastical items, which include a folded up cross (possibly the ornamentation from the cover of a Gospel Book) and a pectoral cross. He nominated these as the things he’d most like to slip in his pocket. I had my eye on the tiny seahorse. Monday was probably our best chance. When the Hoard comes to the cathedral it will be behind bullet-proof glass so thick it would take 5 minutes with a pick axe even to chip a small hole. Apparently, CCTV camera footage from other museums shows crooks hurling fire extinguishers at this type of glass, then reeling back as the extinguisher bounces off and deals them a glancing blow to the head. Talking of glancing blows to the head, the security measures in the cathedral will include our fearsome trio of vergers, armed with ceremonial staffs. You don't want to mess with the vergers, trust me.

Gold, gold, gold! It was an astonishing experience. (I'll create a distraction, darling, and you snatch the cross.) All this (and a lot more) was dug up in a field a couple of miles down the road, just off the old Roman road of Watling Street. Makes you want to buy a metal detector, doesn't it?

For more about the Staffordshire Hoard, go to www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
For more about Lichfield Cathedral, go to www.lichfield-cathedral.org/

Close up of snake's head:

Snake brooch (?) and uncleaned brooch with four eagle heads:

Conservation and care tool kit:

Monday 14 February 2011

Lee Abbey

I have just had a wonderful few days away teaching on a Writers’ Conference at Lee Abbey, down in the wilds of north Devon. I’d love to tell you this is a new thing, but too many people recognised me from the last time I was there. Glorious sunshine, unbroken blue skies. (I was teaching fiction.)

You can't tell from the pics, but there were a lot of other people there as well. Maybe they were all inside at the time, eating cake and preserving their complexions from the fierce sun. Lee Abbey is an International Christian Community, and during a communion service we were all invited to say the Lord’s Prayer in our own native tongue. We were only one line in when I realised I was speaking a minority language: Cathedral. ‘Our Father, which art in heaven…’ I was the only person in the room saying ‘forgive us our trespasses’. Maybe the day will come when the language of the Book of Common Prayer goes the way of Cornish.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Week 6: Afternoon Tea at Netherstowe House

Look, oh look! Afternoon tea at Netherstowe House. I took my mate Pauline out for a birthday treat. I am not claiming that I have never in my life had an afternoon tea before. It was the Netherstowe House aspect which was wholly new. I kept calling it Netherfield by accident. ‘Netherfield Park is let at last!’ Maybe we should have worn our Empire line frocks, (which in my case I have not got, Empire line not being a good look if you are blessed in the balcony department) and kept a sharp look out for single young men in possession of a large fortune.

People have been recommending high tea at Netherstowe House to me for ages. It’s a posh hotel tucked away on the north side of Lichfield, looking like a manor house marooned in a housing estate. Pauline and I give them full marks for tea, particularly because you are supposed to book before 3pm, not simply breeze in at half three, mess up the cushions in the lounge and still expect to be served. In my defence, the sofa had seven cushions on it, three deep, and it was impossible to sit down without kicking some aside. I knew the karate would come in one day. Pauline, being a great lady, lounged nonchalantly at her end of the sofa, in a recumbent posture.

Having disordered the cushions to our satisfaction, we then chose to take our tea in another lounge with another sofa, or to be precise, a chaise longue. Not unlike the one Pauline has in her sitting room. We don’t have a chaise longue in the chancellery, but we do have a drop arm sofa. The arm isn’t supposed to drop, but someone large perched on it once.

The service was attentive without being intrusive. I’m sure if we’d asked for a machete to slash back the potted palms, they would have provided it. Pauline and I drank Earl Grey tea, and ate fruit scones (still warm from the oven), coffee and walnut cake, and those chocolate brownies in the pic, with a rococo mound of chocolate cream and fruit on top. Our verdict: To DIE for.

Sunday 6 February 2011

The Top Secret Thing

Lichfield cathedral chapter house

You have been patient, thank you. I can now tell you the top secret thing. In fact, it turns out I could have told you ages ago, but I was not kept up to speed on the cathedral’s press releases.

The top secret new thing I did was to visit the site of an archaeological dig taking place in the cathedral chapter house. That’s not particularly top secret, of course, unless something exciting is discovered. In this case, human remains.

‘Three ancient burials have been unearthed at Lichfield Cathedral. It follows an archaeological investigation in the Chapter House by Cathedral Archaeologist Kevin Blockley. For the last 750 years, two of the skeletons have lain just below the floor of the Chapter House, which was originally built in the 1240s. The dig was in preparation for the Staffordshire Hoard Temporary Exhibition which is due to take place later this summer.’ (For a more complete description visit the BBC Stoke and Staffordshire website.)

The sensitivity here was the whole issue of ‘human remains’ and how they are to be treated. As I looked into the sandy trench that had been dug in the chapter house floor I was struck by the thought that it was more like looking at a fossil than a human being. Curiously unshocking. Dismembered corpse discovered under cathedral floor, yes. Bones, not really. After all, you could probably stick a spade in the grass anywhere round the cathedral and hit human remains.

‘Oh, look, a skeleton.’ That was about the size of it. We had a skeleton hanging in the biology lab at school. At least, I’ve always assumed it was a real one, rather than a plastic reproduction. It’s difficult to make any kind of personal connection with a skeleton, although we've all gotone, and indeed rely on it. Maybe this is all part of the sheer impossibility of imagining ourselves dead. The brain suggests some vague image of these bones sleeping under the cathedral floor, and being disturbed by the archeologist’s trowel. Oi! put that slab back. Some of us are trying to get some kip down here.

If you work in a hospital or a funeral parlour, or if you are clergy, then death is a familiar process. Dead bodies as well as bare bones are a just a fact. Of life, I was about to put. Of death, then. That’s where we’re all heading. It’s just that in our culture recently we’ve shunted it out of the home and allowed ourselves the luxury of not quite looking squarely in it.

How old are the remains? We'd need to carbon date them to be sure. But here's an idea floated by the canon chancellor in the cathedral press release (which I was eventually shown): 'We are very excited about the prospect of exhibiting iconic items from the Staffordshire Hoard in the summer. It is an intriguing possibility that these beautiful pieces of gold and garnet Saxon jewellery will be displayed only feet above what we now know may have been a place of Saxon burial.'