Sunday, 26 March 2017

Ghosts of Business Past

A strangely fascinating sight around a community are the marks you occasionally see of the advertising signs of long-past businesses. Names and details of shops and retailers painted directly onto brickwork was once very common: I ought to try and work out when it began to fall out of fashion. Perhaps the ability to print signs rather than have them painted was the crucial change, but I get the impression the habit had disappeared long before then. Faded and usually fragmentary, they are spectral reminders of a different state of affairs. 

Swanvale Halt, unusually for a place of its kind, still has a number of shops and businesses, though many fewer than it used to. Next to the Post Office a building which having lain derelict for many years is at last being converted into a dwelling. Fifteen years or so past it was a small bakery, though my suggestion that the new house should be called La Vielle Patisserie has not met with much favour: as it's going to be the new home of the Patels from the Post Office itself our Lay Reader Lillian argued that name should be rendered into Hindi rather than French. 

I say, it's being converted: there's actually not a lot of it left, beyond the side walls of the ground storey. On the outer face of one of the walls is this phantom lettering. There are at least three different letter styles in the sign and I find it impossible to make any sense of it. I'm not suggesting it should have a preservation order slapped on it, but I will miss this tiny mark of continuity when it's inevitably covered up.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Support Network

Fortified by theme parks and new friendships, Cylene the Goth has been doing better of late than for a long while, but she still has her moments. At one of them, recently, music came to her aid - or Spotify's algorithms did, pointing her towards 'Bravery' by Assemblage23. 'I'm really, really pleased that there are as many songs like this as there are in the Goth/industrial scene,' she wrote in Another Place. 'I always do love proudly boasting how for a bunch of "scary satanic rejects" we've got good manners and are very good at supporting each other without judgement'. 

The song itself isn't to my taste, but for anyone with mental health issues simply having those issues acknowledged without criticism by someone else, whether you know them or whether they're at a distance, is a step towards change. Of course the mental health 'system' is naturally dedicated to healing, but too often the sense its users get is that they are being judged and criticised by people whose insights into their condition are clinical and analytic rather than sympathetic, and that there's an unspoken verdict that they're not trying hard enough to be normal. Acceptance by one's peers is very different. 

As if it needed stating again, Cylene's experience suggests how the Goth world can function as a place of healing and support rather than exacerbating and exploiting people's negative tendencies as those outside it often assume. Back in the days when our friend Karla was the organiser of the London Goth Meetup, the introductory blurb on the group's webpage warned that new members would not find misery and introspection there and if that was what they were looking for, they might try elsewhere. I know what she was getting at, trying to combat the image of Goths that too many outsiders have; but a place of sanctuary, and growth, is exactly what many damaged souls find in it. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Back to Malling

You might think that religious communities never change, from decade to decade – and even century to century – and that perhaps that’s their point. But they do, and last year I missed out on my annual retreat to Malling Abbey because the holy Sisters were reorganising the guest accommodation, and in fact I was too woefully disorganised to get in anywhere else either. It was a relief to be back this year for a couple of days.

The guests now inhabit four nice new rooms over the Abbey cloister, looking out onto the Cloister Garth with its fountain and church bell tower behind. The old Guesthouse, which comprised many more rooms, had a certain spatchcock charm, but I won’t miss scuttling along the hallway in my pyjamas wondering who I might meet on my way to the shower, and not being able to move around the room without the floor creaking so much one risked waking the resident next door. It used to be pleasant to have meals cooked for us, but I don’t resent the Sisters deciding that aspect of Benedictine hospitality is a bit beyond them now, and self-catering just requires a little organisation. Frankly I never went to Malling for the food, it has to be said; although a few years ago on the Feast of St Benedict we were treated to rather a nice banoffee pie.

The old Guesthouse is now occupied by the St Benedict’s Centre, a theological and spiritual resource for St Augustine’s College, Canterbury, with a new library on the opposite side of the path. There’s a big car park beyond what was a tall hedge, and a path between the two along which people come and go, making the site feel less isolated than it once did. The Pilgrim Chapel’s quaint rush-seated chairs have been replaced by upholstered red ones, aesthetically horrendous but far more comfortable. There are entry-code doors and PIR-operated lights so you run less risk of serious injury moving around the Abbey at night (of course once upon a time it was assumed you wouldn’t be moving around at night) and so you no longer have to ask the Guest Sister for permission to be outside the enclosure after Compline. Change has come to perpetual Malling; and although as outsiders none of us knows quite what conversations the community went through before they opened themselves up in this way, it must have taken quite some mental restructuring, some reassessment of what ‘Benedictine hospitality’ actually meant.

My time there was good. I arrived in rain, spent Tuesday in lovely sunshine, and left in rain again: seeing the Abbey in its different meteorological moods gives some sense of what living there is like. I managed to pray about things I need to amend in my life, aspects of the life of Swanvale Halt church, and the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament as I sat in the Pilgrim Chapel with the rain beating on the windows. I got through Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church, which reminded me why I read it first ten years ago, and Rowan Williams’s Silence and Honey Cakes about the spirituality of the Desert Fathers. I’ve read that before, too, but it hit home far deeper this time. The book is more than it first appears: far from being just an examination of a time in the past life of the Church, it’s a politely and covertly stated manifesto for what the Church should be now: certainly not adopting too much the models of the manager and theologies of leadership (as though Jesus ever talked of any such thing!), but based rather on the words of St Antony the Great: ‘Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble we have sinned against Christ.’ Of course he takes a book, albeit not a long one, to open that statement out. I realised afresh how superficial and silly my spiritual life can be and the nonsense that sometimes characterises my thinking. I think I have a new glimpse of the reason why there are priests, and why parish priests are in so perilous a spiritual position. I walked to St Leonard’s Well and found it dry as it sometimes is (it was in full flow in 2015).

And I was very grateful for it all, for the rain and for the sun and for these old stones and for Benedictine hospitality, whatever it means in the 21st century.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Three Old Horrors: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), The Haunting (1963)

No undiscovered gems this time: these three movies are pretty well known to most people interested in film generally and the Gothic strain within it in particular. 

Of the two creaky silents, we found Caligari (which neither of us had seen before) the rather superior of the two, despite its very deliberate weirdness: so much so that I wondered whether the version of Nosferatu we were watching was some unrestored print. The scene-changing is so choppy it borders on the inept. Although Caligari is determined to be odd and non-realistic, Nosferatu has an awful lot of irrelevance packed in: given the lack of time available to tell the story (such as it is) you have to ask why FW Murnau wasted so much footage showing us Dr Van Helsing playing with carnivorous polyps with his students, Harker making his way ponderously home across streams and slopes, and Nina mooning about the Westernras' house or the beach waiting for him. The action jerks restlessly from shot to shot in a way which is possibly intended to escalate tension and urgency but without a decent score to help, it doesn't work. Music can make or break a silent film, and while the score for the verison of Caligari we saw was excellent, the Nosferatu music was clunkingly inappropriate and at times veered in the direction of 'Charlie Chaplin meets the Vampires'. There are some great shots, however: I like the view Nina sees from her window of a procession of coffins being carried along the street as the vampiric plague ravages Bremen. In Caligari, the sequence of Cesare the somnambulist advancing from a window towards the sleeping Jane is still creepy after nearly a century, and you can see how it feeds into subsequent horror cinema. 

Naturally the more modern The Haunting is a different matter. I've seen this umpteen times before and always enjoy it, while it was new to Ms Formerly Aldgate. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, but the whole thing is so stylish and reticent - you never see anything particularly horrific and the worst manifestations that befall the protagonists are knockings and turning doorknobs - that any small defects are completely overcome. I hadn't realised quite how sophisticated the camerawork is, constantly exciting and unusual without being distracting from what's going on. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but endlessly entertaining and properly eerie.

Saturday, 18 March 2017


Passing the charity shop on my way to church, a little girl of about 3 and a middle-aged lady were looking in the window, having a conversation about a dress. Then the little girl pointed out a train set. 'Yes', says the lady. 'a choo-choo train. But that's for boys, isn't it?'

I moved on before they started discussing the pole-dancing kit next to it.

A Lack of Humour

In Poole Cemetery, not far away from where this picture seems to have been taken, are my dad's and grandparents' graves. I don't go there very often; my grandad died a long time ago, and my nan was six weeks off her 100th birthday, and I don't feel the loss of them that keenly. As for my dad, when I think about his death my predominant feeling, even after five years, is anger at the injustice and squalor of it rather than any personal lack it leaves me with. My mum experiences the sense of loss much more acutely, and is often at the cemetery to clean the gravestones and reconnect with her parents and my dad, when her health allows her.

She was there at the start of this week, and found the area around the graves roped off with hazard tape 'like there had been a murder'. It seems the Council contractors had been tree-felling and the logs from a large pine were stacked behind the row of graves. She discovered nan and grandad's grave was covered with branches and twigs and there were wood-chippings everywhere. The gravestones themselves were spattered with orange pine resin. It looked, difficult though it is to credit, as though the logs had been cut up while resting on the graves themselves. The flower-holder on my grandparents' grave had been broken. It wasn't as though they were old graves that no-one visits: the dates are 2012 and 2014. 

One of the cemetery staff was nearby and noticed my mum's distress. He found the state of the area as shocking as she did. He tried to clear up the mess, ineffectually. 'I'm sorry, it's all embedded in the stone chippings. You'll have to clear the graves completely and wash it out. And the resin needs more than just water to clean it off.' He would speak to the Parks Department about it. Mum had enough resolve to call the Council herself when she got home, and then me. 'I can't manage this, if we need to do anything more you and your sister will have to deal with it.'

As I say, I'm not a frequent visitor to the cemetery: I go with my mum occasionally when I'm down in Dorset, perhaps once a year. But if the contractors could be so unprofessional and careless in this case they could be so again, so I was prepared to make a lot of fuss indeed.

In the end it wasn't necessary: two days later mum had a call from Poole Council apologising for what had happened and assuring her that the contractors would make the damage good, and I thank God for someone having the sensitivity to see the problem. We 'professionals' endlessly run the risk of getting blasé about the work we do day by day, and have to remember that for those on the receiving end the scale of value is very different.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

What the Garden Says

Today it was about time to mow the lawn for the first occasion this year. I say 'lawn' although most of it is either moss or beds of lesser celandine at the moment, and I avoided the flowering primroses, too. 

Isaiah the prophet says 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news!' The Rectory garden is steep but not exactly mountainous, and the camellias don't have feet in any normal sense, but they are indeed beautiful and always seem like a sudden burst of shocking-pink joy against the old wall next to the grapevine. If they bring any news, it's only 'we're still alive and so are you!' which is probably good, at least for most of the people I know.