Monday, 30 March 2020



Last time, I reported the escalation in the pigeon war, but not the detail. My notice asking people not to feed the pigeons had been annotated, "Would you feel the same if this said, 'Please do not feed the homeless'?" and "One love", "Please feed everyone". Perhaps the author was not aware that we do feed the homeless? Or perhaps he was, and genuinely feels that there is no moral difference between pigeons and people? Certainly, it would be disgusting if language about vermin were applied to human beings, the homeless for instance, because all human beings are of intrinsic moral worth, but it is simply nonsense to pretend that there is a moral equivalence between pigeons and people. One love? What does that mean? I know it was a song, years ago (Bob Marley?) but what's it supposed to mean in this context? There was also a long disquisition on a laminated sheet, which referred to pinning and stapling things to trees as evidence of my contempt for nature, so that was attached to the tree by a large strap, which also secured a stuffed Minion to the treetrunk, a cruel and unusual punishment, in my view. I'm glad to say that someone else removed all that, and we seem to have reached a truce. After all, going out to feed the pigeons would be an unnecessary journey.

Meanwhile, Morgan Sindall continue to occupy parking spaces, but lots of people seem to think that parking regulations have become advisory for the duration. I don't think the Council has that view.

A Strange Land

I hope we didn't all catch the virus in those first few days when the supermarkets were packed with people buying loo paper. I was baffled by the sudden emptiness of the fresh vegetable shelves; how can you stockpile broccoli? The trouble was that it was all a bit wild west, and it was impossible to keep your distance, and the supermarkets seemed to have no mechanism for imposing order. Now it's all a bit better, but it can still be confusing; I encountered a queue outside Tesco at the weekend that appeared longer than it was because of a woman waiting for her husband to come out of the shop, and a beggar, both hanging around the line. Interestingly, most of the beggars have vanished, though there is often still one in front of the cash machine at the Chippenham.

Having a wife who used to be a ballet dancer has its moments. Fiona has discovered that Tamara Rojo, the director of English National Ballet, has started to live-stream company class (that's the session that all the dancers in the company do before they go off to their various rehearsals). This started with a number of dancers in a proper ballet studio, but now we are down to Tamara on her own in her kitchen. The first morning, I remarked that it did have the look of a kitchen where all the clutter had just been hidden away, not one that was naturally clinical. Fiona wondered whether Tamara had deliberately had the worktops fitted precisely at barre height, as ours are not quite the right height. Still, she found that you can hang onto the edge of the sink quite effectively, but it's a good thing we haven't got one of those trendy island units, as you could never do class then. 

At St Peter's, we continue to try to feed people. No more sit-down meals, though the first time we tried to do that some of the regulars got in via the side door. The problem is that our clientele are not always easily impressed by rational argument, and the desire of some of them to be helpful can be overwhelming. So, we have had to be strict. Food banks are encouraged to continue, and that's what we have become. We are still getting deliveries from the Felix Project, and are parcelling food up and giving it out. If people have to line up they have to do so outside, two arms' lengths apart, and we're delivering some meals to people. At first I feared that Felix would have nothing, since they distribute stuff that the supermarkets can't sell, and as panic-buying was emptying the supermarkets I was afraid that would mean we would get nothing, but deliveries have continued, if a little eccentrically. Quail, anyone?

So now I have a You Tube channel (do subscribe). With the very considerable assistance of a Lunch Club volunteer I discovered how easy it is to live-stream. I was fussed about getting a decent webcam and so hurtled over to John Lewis (when you still could) only to discover that they had sold out, including online. Enquiries revealed that there seemed to be none to be had anywhere in the south of England. A very kind friend then retrieved her webcam from her mother and sent it to me by post (which was being delivered then) but by the time it arrived I had already done it once using the camera and microphone built into my laptop, and found the results acceptable. After all, who wants to see me in HD? Having got it to work once means that my fear of the technology is a strong disincentive from changing anything now, though I'm sure it can be improved. We shall see. Someone else asked me how to do it, and I had to admit that I couldn't explain because it was really very easy and I didn't remember what I clicked and when. That doesn't stop me doing things wrong, and yesterday we lost transmission halfway through Mass, which wasn't my fault (as far as I know). But, technical glitches aside, we are successfully broadcasting a Sunday Mass, and other services as well, and the feedback is tremendous. I am moved and heartened by the messages that I am receiving back, and I have to say that this is the most positive feedback I've ever received in more than thirty years of ministry. Being able to use the beauty and resources of St Mary Magdalene's is a great benefit in this. It's not the same as normal Sunday worship, because we have no music, and I can't move about, and it's only me with Fiona answering, but we can offer spiritual resources, and an experience of worship that people can share. We even managed to do Stations of the Cross, with me carrying an iPad around the church, which was jolly hard work, and a bit wobbly, but worked. The only cloud on the horizon is that the Archbishops think that this is a bad thing, and that we should only be streaming from our homes. My own inner turmoil when receiving that pronouncement was acute, as I am not a natural rebel, but I am quite clear that my going into church to do this can do no harm, while the good that the services are doing is immense (and much greater than if they came from my dining room). So, yesterday (like many others) I rebelled, for the sake of my people's spiritual lives.

Monday, 16 March 2020


Before the Beak

Regular readers will remember Angry Woman with Dog, who appears from time to time, despite no longer living particularly close; at the moment she is Angry Woman without Dog. The dog was seized by the police last July, when there was an incident with a neighbour, and she has been distraught ever since. Finally, in January, she received a letter charging her with having a dangerous dog out of control and causing injury, and with owning a fighting dog (namely a pit bull) and calling her to court at the start of February. She brought this letter round, not understanding it fully, and her GP and I swung into action. He wrote a letter stating that she was unfit to appear, which I emailed to the court, having had a helpful conversation with someone at the courts service, who told me what we could do. There was no prospect of getting a solicitor in time for that appearance, and so I asked for an adjournment. As the person at the courts service had warned, we heard nothing about the result of that until she received a letter summoning her to the magistrates' court in March, but at least that gave us a chance to get her a solicitor. So, a few weeks ago I walked her to the solicitors' offices, where thanks to her claustrophobia we had to conduct business in a foyer (where the Bishop of Kensington walked past, among others). Blessedly, legal aid was obtained, and so she has representation.

So, the week before last, I took her to court, in the car. Why did I do this? Well, I really couldn't avoid it. I am involved, I am concerned that she gets a fair trial, and she is quite unable to help herself. To do the journey by public transport would be really complicated, and for someone who reads as poorly as she does, that would be a real challenge. One of my most basic observations about all this is how opaque the criminal justice system is, so unless you are familiar with it you may well find it very hard to work out what is going on, and even to follow instructions. It must be a complete nightmare if you are not eligible for legal aid, and frankly finding a legal aid solicitor is not easy. If you don't read well, the paperwork is pretty daunting, and just really unhelpful. No indication of where the court actually was, for instance. So, had I not taken her, she wouldn't have got there at all. We arrived early, to give us time to talk to the solicitor, who was then delayed, so we had plenty of time to inspect the waiting areas. Not encouraging. All very grubby, and despite the building not being very old, the decor looked very tired. It was not a nice place to spend several hours. I was struck by the fact that Angry Woman seemed to be the only native English speaker among the various defendants, which again raises questions about the access to justice.

After a long delay, we were ushered down to a different courtroom from the one we were scheduled for, with space. I found myself sitting behind a large window, the frame of which was much decorated with chewing gum. I presume the magistrates could see me, and my presence perhaps registered with them. Angry Woman's claustrophobia meant she didn't want to go into the dock (which is of course enclosed), but they were quite tolerant about that. We are due in court again in June. Meanwhile the dog is still in kennels somewhere. I suppose it is possible that the dog might be learning better behaviour, but I somehow doubt it. I can see this will run and run.

Decorative Surfaces

The day after going to court I spent with the Institute of Conservation's gilding and decorative surfaces group, at a symposium on the conservation of devotional objects. In the breaks I was able to write a sermon, so my time was used efficiently, and they were very kind about my talk. I tried to be honest about some of the pitfalls we had encountered with our big conservation project, which, to be fair, was not really involving devotional objects, but I made some observations about devotional objects anyway. The room full of conservators and professionals seemed to regard a client as quite a curiosity to have among them, so that was quite fun. They were talking about the ethical issues involved with devotional objects in collections, and seeking to inform or consult the original users, but I pointed out that this was full of difficulties, because there may be plenty of people who claim ownership or use of an object who are not at all the same people as created it (see Stonehenge for an example). I dare say that some Roman Catholics might take the view that they know better than us how some of our devotional objects should be used, whereas I would say that our practice has its own integrity (and has been going on for a hundred and fifty years in this building). There are some interesting discussions to be had.

A Group Visit

Amid all the panic, we had a visit from a local branch of Open Age this morning. I had supposed they would be down on numbers, but not at all. They had a successful visit to the church, and then we did them a deal in the cafe, who were pleased to have the custom. There was one gentleman present who had relations who had grown up in the old slums, so I was glad I hadn't emphasised their criminality. He tested me by asking which world boxing champion grew up here, and I think I impressed him by knowing it was Terry Downes, who was baptised at St Mary Mags. They were a cheerful and responsive group.

Bird Life

On the canal, one of the Egyptian geese had vanished, and the remaining one was wandering around disconsolately, but now a second one has appeared, so happiness is restored. They were mating enthusiastically a couple of weeks ago, so who knows, we might get some goslings.

Meanwhile, at St Peter's, my discouragement of people feeding the pigeons has provoked a reaction. First my notice asking people not to do it was taken down, and then when I replaced it, someone spread breadcrumbs in front of our steps. I confess that I have taken to kicking the larger bread rolls into the road, which gives a trivial satisfaction, but isn't far enough away to achieve anything (since they won't actually get run over). Now someone has attached a large notice to the tree berating me for not valuing nature. Oh dear. . . .  .

Friday, 14 February 2020



Regular readers will remember that I was struck, a month or so ago, by the rash of Morgan Sindall vans that were parked around St Peter's; the reason soon became clear. There was an estate agent's office in Goldney Road (about fifty yards away) which was vacated not so long ago, and this has now become an office for Morgan Sindall Property Services. They have a nice yard, where you can park half a dozen vehicles, but that is clearly not enough, and there are always vans parked on the single yellow lines at all hours of the day, together with others in residents' bays or on the double yellow from time to time. Now they each have a permit in the windscreen from Westminster Housing, but it is not clear what this actually permits. I would suppose it would enable them to park on the estate roads of Hallfield or Churchill Gardens, where parking is usually forbidden, and where Westminster Housing is the landowner, but does it give them a privileged status on the public highway? In the end, it is the City Council that administers street parking, and so it is perfectly able to permit its contractors to park in contravention of all normal regulations, but has it really decided to do that? And if it has, might it not be a good idea to think of the consequences, and perhaps ask for the views of the residents whose spaces are being occupied, not to mention the pedestrians and cyclists who are put at risk by dangerous parking?

Amid the Storm

We hosted a fundraiser for The Avenues Youth Project last Sunday at St Mary Mags, in the middle of the storm. Incidentally, was I the only person to be baffled and then irritated by the fact that what they were calling "Storm Kiera" was spelled "Storm Ciara"?  That's not a name, in the first place, and in whose language is it pronounced that way? Not English, certainly! Anyway, the storm wrought chaos, by preventing some of the promised artists from appearing, as they could not reach us. One side effect of that was that the musical director whose train was cancelled was bringing the music with him that he was meant to play, accompanying a singer, so a student pianist (from Guildhall) was asked to accompany, and the music was sent electronically to me, and I then downloaded it and printed it out at home, on my cheap printer where I never bother to correct the alignment after I've changed the ink. I was anxious about that, but the pianist then had to sight-read this Stevie Wonder number and familiarise herself enough with it in about twenty minutes to accompany a West End star. I discovered that the tall, polite young man in a hat who forwarded me the music was Jamael Westman, who was the original West End "Hamilton". He sang nicely, and his two colleagues from the show performed really impressively. It was a great thing for the young people from The Avenues to be rubbing shoulders with these genuinely top-drawer performers, who were also quite charming and unaffected. We also had three young performers from Guildhall, who played and sang really well. Their rendition of "La ci darem la mano" was absolutely charming, and the meaning was perfectly clear without anyone needing a second language or surtitles.

The trouble with being the custodian of an ancient building is that you do have extra worries during extreme weather events. I sat there being entertained, but listening out for any sounds of damage. I noted that the dormer shutters were clattering, which they don't normally do, but didn't hear anything much else. We used the glass sliding doors in the extension rather than the Victorian church door because the gale kept on catching the old door and was making it unmanageable, so that was a useful experiment. I think the logic is that we shall do that as a matter of course, though when the glass porch over the north entrance is built then that will probably become our main door (though not for me).

Strange Lives

Yesterday we had an event I had long been anticipating. Years ago, when Will Stephens was our artist-in-residence (studio in the old sacristy) he introduced me to William Feaver, who had been art critic for the Observer, and was a tutor at the Royal Drawing School (where Will studied). Last year when Bill published the first volume of his monumental biography of Lucian Freud I saw a possibility for a Grand Junction event, and got Will to put us in touch, which he did. So Bill very generously came last night to talk to an audience of over a hundred about Lucian Freud in Paddington, because from 1944 to 1977 Freud had studios in, successively,  Delamere Terrace, Clarendon Crescent, and Gloucester Terrace, and was evidently full of stories of the old  Paddington.

The mere question of Bill's biographical method is interesting in itself, because Lucian Freud simply liked talking to him, and would constantly phone him up, quite apart from letting himself be interviewed. So, Bill soon started taking notes, and recorded lots of their conversations, which Freud was fine with, as he conceived the idea of Bill writing "the first funny art book", Then he read the first two chapters (which Bill had spent considerable time writing) and took fright, forbidding the enterprise in his lifetime, though clearly accepting that it would eventually appear. The volume of material was obviously vast, and Bill Feaver has compounded matters by being a most assiduous researcher, following up the most obscure and tangential figures in the story, which makes it a very big book, but fantastically interesting, and thoroughly gossipy. It is also genuinely funny, as the extraordinary life of Lucian Freud takes shape.

I was asked whether I thought it entirely appropriate for a priest to be discussing such a reprehensible life (in church) and I pondered that one. I think it's fair to respond that I certainly wasn't endorsing Freud's lifestyle, but neither was Bill, but that it's not necessary to be judgemental. Freud's behaviour was contrary to almost anyone's standards of morality, let alone Christian ones, and you can just let it stand for itself, and leave the observer to make their own judgements. Reading the biography, one is constantly struck by the remarkable lack of ill-will shown by most of the women whom Freud had wronged, and actually a sense of the artist's vulnerability. When we saw the show of his self-portraits at the RA recently that is not something that was evident at all; rather we felt the overbearing presence of the domineering artist, but one is just reminded that art and life are not the same. Of course, it's the Wagner question, whether the behaviour (or views) of the artist devalues the art, and Bill and I discussed that a little last night, but there's more that can be said, of course.

It was an excellent evening, at least I enjoyed myself in the role of interlocutor, which was initially very daunting, but then great fun. So all those evenings watching Graham Norton haven't been wasted! It was certainly more Graham Norton than Andrew Neill, which I hope is what people had come for. Stupidly I didn't suggest to Bill that he should bring a crate of books, because he'd certainly have sold some.     

My only regret was that we didn't spend long enough on the odd, criminal world of Delamere Terrace and Clarendon Crescent in the 1940s and 50s, which comes out very strongly from the book. Kenneth Clark commented, "Strange lives" in reference to the people among whom Lucian Freud was living, and while they must have seemed strange to someone as cultivated (and buttoned-up) as Clark then, they sound like lives from another planet to us today. There's more to learn.

Monday, 10 February 2020


I confess to a certain perverse pride when I was able to put "I am on pilgrimage" on my out-of-office reply. It certainly made an impression on some of my secular colleagues.

Of course, it was only what they call a "clergy familiarisation tour" where the pilgrimage operator (in this case McCabes) take clerics at a reduced rate in the hope that they will then lead their own pilgrimage, inspired by the experience. In fact, I would love to do so, but don't see much prospect of getting up a party from this neighbourhood. We are a small church community, and I don't think we'd ever get the numbers required. People might be interested, but £2000 is beyond most of my folk here. McCabes encourage you to announce it long in advance, so that people can save up for it, and pay in instalments, but that argues a degree of organisation which is not often found on the Harrow Road. Because we were being familiarised, the itinerary was one that took in all the big sites, and quite a few others, crammed into eight days, whereas I can see that you might want to tailor your own tour, and probably go for ten days rather than eight to have a bit more space to think and pray.

When we arrived in Jerusalem it was colder than London, grey and rainy. I remarked that since the city was grey and rainy and had trams it reminded me of Manchester. Early January was probably a good time to go from the point of view of crowds, but it did mean that you had to take lots of clothes. I travelled with a much heavier bag than usual, but the only thing I bought to bring back was a kilo of Palestinian dates.

We stayed in East Jerusalem, in a Christian-owned hotel, overlooking the walls of the Old City, which was an excellent position. From the hotel roof you could see the "Garden Tomb", and in fact the hotel was said to be the place that General Gordon was staying when he got the idea that the quarry wall behind the "Garden Tomb" looked like a skull. Our guide to the Garden Tomb, a jovial Ulsterman, told us that you would be able  to appreciate it better if the bus station were removed from in front of it, as that has raised the level somewhat. I thought the Garden Tomb interesting, but didn't feel anything.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the other hand, I felt much more moving than I expected. To be in there at dawn (on the Sunday) was a very special privilege. I didn't particularly notice the notoriously bad relations between the denominations, though the Copts were a bit brusque in defending their space. It was hugely moving to be at Golgotha, and see the rock, and to enter the sepulchre.

The biggest impression, though, was of the huge contrast between Galilee and Judaea. Why was that nice, gentle, fertile land ruled by that city in those harsh hills? The sense that God was somehow present in Jerusalem, that God had somehow marked the place out, was increased by the incongruity of the fit between the two parts. Of course Galilee enables you to see views that appear unchanged since the time of Jesus, and it is calm and lovely in a way that is never true of Jerusalem, but I won't say I liked it more, because I love those buildings with their layers of history and accumulated faith.

Of the contemporary state of the Land of the Holy One, not much to say. We drove up to the Separation Wall in Bethlehem, which separates Rachel's Tomb from the town, and saw all the Banksy-type paintings and graffiti on it. You could not help feel the crudeness and the brutality of it. We visited a rehabilitation centre in Bethlehem which has had to equip itself as a full-scale hospital, because their local hospital was in Jerusalem, and now Palestinians cannot easily go there (certainly not in an emergency). The settlements creeping over the hills are hideous, and an affront to international law, but you can understand the state of Israel's desire to survive. Someone said to  me afterwards, "So what is the solution, then?" to which I pointed out that better minds than mine have been working on this for years, but I can't feel optimistic, not while so many Palestinians seem determined to nurse a sense of grievance, and while Israelis insist that they are a special case.     

Monday, 6 January 2020



Some of us remember when local authorities and other public bodies employed their own workforce to do repairs and maintenance, and indeed work in general. Nowadays all that is contracted out, and private contractors do the work. I remember the justification for the change was that private contractors would be more efficient, having to compete for contracts. In practice, local authorities tend to award contracts for several years at a time, and so contractors often get complacent. They know they are unlikely to have any trouble from the council while they are doing its work, and that their level of performance won't actually matter until their contract comes up for renewal.

This explains why F.M.Conway, Westminster's roads contractor, have a compound occupying road space on Bourne Terrace that has been there for months while no work actually takes place. The compound, which is clearly storing materials, is placed on double yellow lines a few yards in from the junction with the Harrow Road, which makes turning into Bourne Terrace much more difficult than necessary, a situation which is exacerbated by some drivers' fondness for turning off the Harrow Road and stopping there. Complaints from borough councillors seem to have made no difference.

The complacency of contractors is demonstrated by the alacrity with which they get their vans repainted to proclaim that they are working for the council. They wouldn't do it if they were afraid of losing their contact. As I write this I am looking at a Morgan Sindall van, which is also branded City of Westminster, and is parked on a yellow line in Chippenham Road in the middle of the day, a place where it has been parked continuously for more than a week. One day last week I counted four Morgan Sindall vehicles illegally parked at various spots within yards of the crossroads of Elgin Avenue and Chippenham Road. Of course contractors sometimes need to park in abnormal places when doing emergency works, but that is not what is happening here; the drivers know that Westminster's traffic wardens will not bother them, and so they are completely contemptuous of parking regulations, parking where it is convenient to them.


I have to say that I have been surprised by public exhibitions of shamelessness recently. A few days ago, walking home from St Peter's, I was passing a set of big black bins, as an employee emerged from business premises carrying large bags of rubbish. He could see me, but was entirely blatant about heaving these bags of rubbish into the household rubbish bin. He was wearing uniform, so I could hardly mistake which business he had come from even if I had not seen him come out of the door, and it was obviously commercial rubbish.

Meanwhile, a couple of hundred yards away, on Shirland Road, I was walking along one teatime when a man emerged from some flats. he was an upright gent in his seventies, with a tweed cap and a stick, and he proceeded to throw a plastic bag of rubbish at the base of a tree. He did this with no subterfuge or embarrassment; in fact the bag flew past me across the pavement, but he didn't turn a hair. I suppose I was the more shocked because he looked like the sort of person who might be vociferous in complaining about such anti-social behaviour, but instead was completely shameless.

This is the more vexing because at St Peter's we are constantly accused of being responsible for bags of rubbish against the trunks of trees. There are quite often bags left along the pavements near the corner, and people (particularly from the flats next door) assume that our hall users are the ones who do it, when in fact they are not. Our regular users know the rules and know that they are to take their rubbish away. In fact they produce little rubbish anyway. So now I am laminating signs to put up on trees asking people not to dump rubbish, which I expect will have as little effect as the ones I put up urging people not to feed the pigeons.   

Monday, 30 December 2019


Another mark of age is the discovery that an event that you think of as quite recent actually occurred thirty-five years ago. This happened to me on Saturday when I visited the current Stubbs exhibition, "George Stubbs: all done from nature", which announced itself as the first major show of the artist's works for thirty-five years. "Surely not," I said, "I went to the last one, at the Tate, and the catalogue is in the sitting room. It wasn't that long ago." So I checked from the catalogue when we got home; the last Stubbs show was indeed at the Tate in 1984 and in Yale in 1985. You may not have noticed the current show, because it is at MK Gallery, the municipal art gallery in Milton Keynes, but make no mistake about it, this is a serious show, put on in collaboration with the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where it moves in a month's time. Sadly, the MK Gallery doesn't seem to have a publicity budget, so the gallery was virtually empty when we went, for a show that in London would be attracting thousands. It's ridiculous, it's only half an hour from Euston on the train (and admittedly a stiff walk up Midsummer Boulevard once you get there) and it's a brilliant show. Go while you can! They've even got the skeleton of Eclipse, the first great racehorse, which I think used to be in the horseracing museum in Newmarket, and which belongs to the Royal Veterinary College. Stubbs painted Eclipse at least twice and as they are showing a lot of the material from his "The Anatomy of the Horse" it is particularly appropriate to have the skeleton in the show. I still remember the impression that the Tate show made on me all those years ago, a great sense of wellbeing flowing from those serene embodiments of Whig Britain, and this show did much the same on Saturday. Stubbs is still a really top-notch artist, persistently undervalued because he painted so many dogs and horses, but he's so exciting with his bold plain backgrounds and radical compositions. Those are classical friezes there. And how on earth does he get aerial perspective while painting in enamels, for goodness' sake?  His people are usually convincing portraits, too, but I suspect he found animals rather better company than the Whig landowners he was working for. In the end, a lot of those pictures are just absolutely ravishing, and it will enhance your life to spend a couple of hours looking at them.

Milton Keynes, on the other hand, is not so life-enhancing. It's a demonstration of how far we have come that this place, which seemed so progressive and futuristic in the 1980s now seems like a dinosaur. I remember passing through it by various different routes in the years when I used to take the bus from Oxford to Cambridge (and vice-versa); the bus company seemed not to have settled on the best route, and so you saw different bits of Beds and Bucks each time, but I remember pausing outside Milton Keynes Central more than once. Now the whole place seems hopelessly dated and very uncongenial, totally lacking a human scale, and devoted entirely to the motor car. I would have supposed that it would be a good place for cycling, being flat and spacious, but there was no evidence of that when we were there.

"Rembrandt's Light" at Dulwich was the other recent show. Another excellent piece of work, brilliant curatorship, making something quite special out of quite a small show. The highlight is the Queen's "Christ and Mary Magdalene", which is shown on its own under changing light conditions. The picture of course depicts dawn, and so they bring the lights up to replicate dawn. You see a tremendous amount that way, not least because the lights end up being brighter than you would normally have in a gallery, and so you see things you wouldn't otherwise notice. It's one of my favourite pictures anyway, but I loved that. My friend John painted an "hommage" to it, in the style of Van Gogh, which now hangs in our Sacristy at Mary Mags, as his thank you to us for giving him a show.

Our other Christmas treat was "La Traviata" at Covent Garden, beautiful. Simon Keenlyside on good voice as Germont, and two young Armenians as Alfredo and Violetta. Terrific music, beautifully played, and a great staging (by Richard Eyre, twenty-five years old). I reminisced about seeing the Zeffirelli film, with Placido Domingo as Alfredo, but I knew that was back in the eighties, 1982, as it turns out. We treated ourselves to dinner in the opera house restaurant, and I was amused to see that the menu is ten pounds more for the opera than it is for the ballet. Of course they will be able to justify it, but I rather suppose it's just more expensive because everything connected with opera is routinely more expensive.    

Friday, 27 December 2019


Obviously, one of the signs of getting older is that people stand up to give you a seat on the tube, but I am still very surprised when a young woman offers me her seat. Just possibly wearing the collar may have something to do with it as well, but that doesn't seem very likely in contemporary London.

More alarming though, is to discover that your contemporaries are now occupying great offices in the land which are positions of eminence and seniority. This is very concerning when you have always believed, as I have done, that these are positions for grown-ups, who are a distinct species, quite different from you.  So, as you can imagine, it was a bit disconcerting to discover that Bishop Stephen Cottrell (the current Bishop of Chelmsford) has been chosen to be the next Archbishop of York, because I knew Stephen very well when we trained together at St Stephen's House. He is two or three years older than me, and was in his final year when I started at Staggers, and he was my group leader. Groups were a feature of institutions in the 1980s; we were all organised into groups across the years, with a tutor vaguely supervising us, and we were expected to socialise and support each other. Mostly, though, it was a way of ensuring that certain domestic tasks got carried out (like serving dinner). You got to know your group pretty well. Your group leader could make your life less than pleasant. Stephen was my bishop for a while in Reading, having been appointed to the post instead of the unfortunate Fr Jeffrey John, when the irony was that their views and theological approach were virtually the same, but Stephen was judged acceptable because he is married with children, while Jeffrey was not because he is a gay man in a (celibate) relationship. From Reading Stephen was advanced to the diocese of Chelmsford, which is his (and my) home diocese, for he grew up in Southend, or rather Anglo-Catholic Leigh-on-Sea (which is posher than Southend). I am slightly surprised that Stephen should be put in charge of the Northern Province, as he has spent almost the whole of his working life in the south-east of England, and has always been rather the professional Londoner, speaking a sort of Estuary English  that comes very naturally to him. To be fair, he was diocesan missioner in Wakefield for a while (a diocese which no longer exists), but that's his only contact with the north. I have no doubt that he has been an effective Bishop of Chelmsford, and clearly the Archbishop of Canterbury sees him as a suitable collaborator for York, but you would have expected someone with more experience of the north (especially after Archbishop Sentamu, who is also pretty un-northern). It is amusingly ironic that a life-long Socialist like Stephen should be sent to York at exactly the time that vast swathes of the north turn Tory.

For me, the Archbishop of York should be someone older than me, whom I can respect. Still more does this apply to the Governor of the Bank of England, and I exclaimed with surprise on the tube the other day when I realised from the report in the standard that the Andrew Bailey who has been appointed the next Governor was the same Andrew Bailey whom I knew at university. I remember he was jolly bright, and he was certainly the sort of person who would have gone to work there, but it still came as a jolting surprise, mainly in realising how ancient I must have become. I remember bumping into Andrew in Florence in the summer of 1981, when we were both doing the cultural thing, thanks to cheap student rail fares, but we weren't ever particularly close. We both read History; he was at Queen's, I was at Emma, and he was in the Labour Club while I was in CUCA, but we moved in similar political circles. As I recall, we had common enemies, a coterie of "moderates" in both organisations who hung around together and shared backgrounds of similar wealth and privilege (among them, amusingly, Sir Bernard Jenkin, who is now my brother's MP). We provincial grammar school products gravitated together.