Hwyl and halleluias
AT PETERTIDE, I boarded a train at Reading to travel cross-country to north Wales — one change, actually, all the way to Bangor. My long-term colleague and friend Naomi Starkey — the commissioning editor of my last five or six books — was to be ordained priest in the Church in Wales, and she had invited me to be one of the five priests to share in the laying-on of hands.
There was a slight hiatus at my hotel on arrival, as I had managed to push a wrong button when applying online, and had booked for the wrong dates, but, eventually, I was safely installed in the Premier Inn, Caernarfon, overlooking the Menai Straits, and across them to the Isle of Anglesey.
I went into Bangor on the bus the next day, early enough to be able to loiter. Indeed, for 40 minutes I relaxed on a bench in the sunshine outside the cathedral, eyes shut, but wonderfully, almost mystically, caught up in all the sounds around me: seagulls, chattering shoppers, small children laughing, and, every 15 minutes, the solemn toll of the cathedral clock.
Then it was time for the bilingual service, which kept the congregation on permanent alert in order to make the appropriate response (English or Welsh). We came to the Gospel, and there was Naomi reading it, which she did in Welsh — a language of which she knew not a word ten years ago. The clergyman next to me muttered at the end: “You’d think she was born and bred. . .” She is now comfortably bilingual; but, then, she is a very clever lady.
I THOROUGHLY enjoyed my trip to north Wales, a coast I last visited nearly 60 years ago, with a school party who were to climb Snowdon, among other delights. Not a great deal has changed, except for the arrival of Costa Coffee and Morrisons. The recorded announcement on the bus told me when to get off: “Y safle nesaf yw Morrisons.” And the one after that is for the ancient castle where the Prince of Wales was installed.
The next day, Naomi presided at her first eucharist in her training parish, Machynlleth, where my uncle was once the town butcher and I started my secondary education. A week later, she was licensed as stipendiary curate at Aberdaron, overlooking the Isle of Bardsey, on the Lleyn Peninsula. Oh well, someone has to do these jobs.
Food, glorious food
HAVING seen (and reviewed for this paper) a TV programme where a group of celebrities were required to follow the daily routine and diet of a Victorian workhouse, I was intrigued to see, among the enormous number of classified advertisements on the front page of The Times of 16 June 1815 — reproduced to mark the centenary of the Battle of Waterloo — one placed by the churchwardens of St Anne’s, Limehouse.
They were inviting tenders from potential suppliers of food and other necessities for the parish workhouse. Knowing my Oliver Twist, and generally well up on Dickensian squalor, I was rather surprised to discover the quality control that they stipulated. “Thick or thin flanks of good ox beef . . . good butter clean scraped . . . good single Gloucester cheese or cheese of similar goodness . . . bacon at per cwt, and split peas at per bushel.” Oddly, there was no mention of gruel.
Has Dickens been deceiving us all these years, or were the good churchwardens of Limehouse exceptionally kind Christian men?
People of sin
WE HAVE all learnt over the past 30 years or so to avoid inappropriately gender-specific language. I have fond memories of gender-awareness courses at the BBC in the 1980s, where we learnt not to speak of “the girls in the office”, and so on.
But there can be problems when attempting to rewrite history, however, and a particularly sensitive area involves the language of hymns. Usually, the alterations are seamlessly done, but, from time to time, I’m brought up short by a particularly clumsy attempt to “correct” a line that was perfectly acceptable when it was first written.
“Angel voices, ever singing” has always been one of my favourite hymns. When Francis Pott penned it, 120 years ago, he could not have imagined that a couplet in it would attract the attention of a scrupulous gender-aware reviser in the 21st century:
Can it be that thou regardest
Songs of sinful man?
An editor of a fairly recent Methodist hymn-book decided that this would be less offensive:
Can it be that thou regardest
Sinful women, men?
Not only is it awkward and ugly, but it is also highly ambiguous. Try a slight pause after women, and suddenly it is the female sex who alone are the sinners. It almost seems that the men are being invited to agree with the proposition.
Much better, surely, to recognise how the use and meaning of language changes. Perhaps a note in the introduction might helpfully point out that, until recent times, “man” was often used where we would now say “humankind”. Once we start rewriting poetry, we are in serious trouble — and good hymns are poetry.
SITTING in the waiting-room of the outpatients department at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 17 June at precisely 10.35 a.m., I was watching the BBC 24-hour news. I say “watching”, because the sound was turned off, but the BBC kindly provided a voice-recognition text on screen.
It was the weather forecast, and I read with amazement that, although much of the country would be generally cool, “it will be warmer in the Sunni parts of the north.” In case of any doubt, we even had the capital “S”.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.