Saturday 30 October 2010

Monday 25 October 2010

Authentic performance

It is the ‘negligible details’ which make good art and drama, Jonathan Miller suggested when talking at Barton at the weekend.

He read Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts including suffering... takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along and the poem’s reference to Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus where people, animals and ships all seem to be looking elsewhere despite the splash of the white legs disappearing into the green water. He drew attention to the same phenomenon in a different Breughel painting (reproduced above): the Conversion of St Paul appears to cause a slight hold up on the busy road to Damascus rather than the drama of the moment (he said) which founded Christianity.

The highlights of his life story as he told it turned on close observation and on the diligent application of what is discovered by this close observation. It began before he was born birth with his father as a Great War doctor taking seriously the symptoms of shell shock. It continued with his own education, including a Biology teacher who got his pupils on an expedition to squeeze egg and sperm from fish and then observe under a microscope the single fertilised cell divide for the first time. It continues with current publications about and his own observations of the hand movements people make when speaking.

He repeatedly declared himself an enemy of the stylised gestures and cliches of many dramatic and especially of many operatic performances. He dwelt at length on the way humour works by revealing to us something we in fact then recognise. And I was particularly struck by his observation that, although he would often change the period in which a play or opera is set (provided he had researched the negligible details with care), he could never do so when the writer or composer had set it in his own day (where the original negligible details would be unconsciously intrinsic).

Saturday 23 October 2010

St Nicolas' old and new

We have been digging new graves on what was the northern boundary of St Nicolas’ churchyard before it was extended beyond there. In one of these graves the gravedigger had to cut his way past a large stone which he says is the same as the major stones in the church walls (the top picture shows this) and on the other side lower down he found some ancient brick. He also said that the bottom of the deep grave appeared to be at original top soil level. I’m not sure quite what to make of this. Was there a ditch on the edge of the churchyard into which spare building material was flung when some mediaeval repairs were being undertaken? Was there previously a much greater slope away from the churchyard at this point which this spoil and much other later work has levelled off? Meanwhile, the other picture shows the newly installed aumbry in the church just before it was brought into use for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Harrowing of Hell

The reason the Chilian mine rescue caught more than people’s imagination is that it hooks into one of our archetypes, or so I ventured this morning while displaying a picture of this icon.

The risen Christ has broken into hell (the broken doors are in a cross at his feet, the black abyss below is inhabited by the shadows of demons) and has pulled out Adam and Eve by their wrists; the whole of humanity is no longer subject to the destruction and futility of its fallen condition. Below, others await their rescue while two angels bind Satan. Above, Kings (David and Solomon) are among those who watch and welcome.

So the rescue mission is able to drill down and draw the men one by one from what they had described as ‘hell’ and from the darkness which they had begun to think would be their final reality. Below, the medics have gone down to help those who are yet to be brought up. Above, the President, crowds and media gather and respond.

Only in naming the capsule ‘phoenix’ does this parallel appear to miss a beat, but the Christian faith and reaction of those brought up balances this; this really is our story.

In this icon, says Rowan Williams, “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began - not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God. But we are always dealing with the after-effects of that moment, both as a human race and as particular persons. The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future."

In this icon and this story, at the very least we are literally pulled away from ultimate fear and final abandonment. The icon declares and the story makes graspable this possibility, which is why both capture us.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

St Michael's old and new

The painting of St Michael’s, Little Coates belonged to Joseph Chapman and is from about 1890, and the photograph is (obviously) an attempt to picture it from the same spot today. Standing on exactly the same spot proved impossible (it would mean climbing into a neighbour’s garden and photographing his fence) but this is close, and I’ve been glad to get the two churches roughly the same size to aid comparison. I’ve just stuck the pair up in the church near where the painting hangs.

The churchyard has clearly been extended since the painting was made, and the substantial 1913-15 additions to the church paid for from Chapman's legacy make quite a difference too. The huge angel on Chapman's memorial for his wife can be seen on left of the new picture, and a comparison with the painting shows that it was erected quite close to what was then the gate (which is what one sees in the postcard image of it posted on 13th March). The path from the south door to this old gate would have been roughly straight, which explains why it sets off in that direction today before diverting sharp right to where the modern gate is.

Sunday 10 October 2010


Opening the ground to lower in a coffin is a similar act of faith to opening a roof to lower someone on a stretcher. The link was made a few years ago by the priest conducting a burial of a friend. I had not thought of it before. It prompted me to write something printed in the Methodist Epworth Review in July 2005:

All they can do is
to unturf the turf
and break through the ground
to make enough room
to bury this man
who is beyond help

as others once worked
to unroof a roof
and break through dry mud
to make enough space
to lower a man
who they could not help

in desperate hope
he’ll undoubt their doubt
to break through their dust,
discern enough faith
to tell him to rise
beyond need of help.

The phrase around which the poem developed is taken straight from Mark 2.4 where the technical term for breaking through a mud roof is used: ‘un-roof-ing the roof’ or ‘ape-stegas-an ten stegon’.

I have just been reminded of this by a poem in Seamus Heaney’s new award winning volume Human Chain. Miracle grows from his own experience following a stroke of being carried up and down stairs by others.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in -

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

The tiled roof appears in Luke 5.19 where the story is retold for those in another culture and place who perhaps assumed all houses were roofed this way and knew nothing of the flat mud roofs of the Holy Land; a much more precarious place on which to stand and seek to manipulate a man on a stretcher.

The Gospel accounts are consistent in attributing the miracle to Jesus seeing how much faith the men had. I am struck for the first time as I type the two poems side by side by our shared contemporary assumption of the limited or tentative nature of that faith. In the one case, hope which is desperate, which is limited by nature of the human condition, and which mixes elements of doubt and faith. In the other, familiarity with the human condition and incredulity at what is pulled off by their action. In both cases, it is enough.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Roman occupation

I spent today with a Primary School class at a mock Roman Fort on the edge of York ('an open air classroom' was the well justified claim, and the education was all done most engagingly), and these are the only two pictures in which children can't be identified.

At some point normal blogging may resume, but I already have a few days booked out for a Retreat this month, am still covering for the colleague who is off work, and am now trying to follow through what will be the time consuming business of clearing and selling my mother's house for her, so even keeping on top of the minimum essential work and existing diary commitments is proving a challenge.