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04 December 2015


Mellow fruitfulness

I DO like a nice pear. It pleases me greatly, then, that the last survivor of the Cowley Fathers’ orchard at St Stephen’s House is a sturdy Pyrus. It stands in the college gardens at the east end of the house chapel; and as it is — at least for my purposes — a historic tree, I look upon it with academic as well as horticultural interest.

Which of the Cowley Fathers ate of the tree, I wonder? Certainly not Fathers Benson, Congreve, or Longridge; for it must have been planted after their deaths. But the later brethren would have known it. At some point, one or more of them trained it into its distinctive goblet shape, and now the inheritance is ours.

This year, the fruit was plump, crisp, and sweet; and the sacristan and I harvested several pounds for the college kitchens before doing some light late-summer pruning.

I hope the pear tree will continue to flourish. Alas, the same cannot be said for Ripon College’s ancient beech tree.

It was one of the oldest and largest in the country, but, at about the time that I was up a ladder wielding the principal’s Japanese pruning saw, it decided that it could stand the sight of the new college chapel no longer, and gave up the ghost.


Doctor in the House

DID the Cuddesdon beech drown in numinous buttermilk; or did it pine away because of the departure of the late principal for the Deanery of Christ Church? I suppose we shall never know. But, on 16 September, the day on which the Church of England commemorates Edward Bouverie Pusey, I made my way to Professor Percy’s new demesne for choral evensong.

Wherever you may find yourself on the C of E spectrum, you will be surrounded, somehow, by part of the legacy of the movement of which Pusey became the reluctant figurehead after John Henry Newman’s departure for Rome in 1845.

Among other things, the adherents of “Puseyism” returned theological study to the heart of clergy training; moved altars back into prominence, and put candles on them — even lit them; insisted that the eucharist should be the main Sunday service; restored the historic vestments; abolished pew-rents; and worked to spread the gospel in some of the poorest and bleakest areas of the country, where the great number of their successors still labour today.

Pusey, then, must be numbered as one of the most significant priests to have laboured in our corner of the vineyard in the past 200 years, and Christ Church has even more reason to claim him as its own: he was an undergraduate there, and then a canon for more than five decades, and his grave is the only one marked out in the floor of the nave.

But Oxford is the home of “forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names”; so perhaps I should not have been surprised when he wasn’t mentioned once.


Bells and smells

IT IS rather strange, being back in Oxford. My contemporaries are all flown: most of them are now either high-flyers at the Bar or in the City; or the successors to John Betjeman’s patient parish priests.

Depending on the category, we bump into each other at dinner parties in south-west London; or at parish bunfights further north, over goat curry and Red Stripe lager. Many of them appear at both, for Pusey House taught them well.

My new Oxford existence seems once again marked out by bells — and not least by the vocative three-threes-and-nine of our own college Angelus, just outside my window.

The theology faculty used to occupy a lovely old tumbledown building on St Giles’s, where no floor was level, and everything you needed was either upstairs or downstairs or round a corner. It has been succeeded by the new Faculty of Theology and Religion, whose home is one of the less attractive buildings on the site of the old John Radcliffe Hospital, instantly recognisable from sundry episodes of Inspector Morse.

All the corridors are straight, and turn at right-angles, and the lift is big enough to lie down in (I didn’t try). When I looked around, the paintwork was pristine, but the place still had a distinct odeur hôpital about it.

How well I remember the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book-filled study, halfway up the rickety staircase of the old faculty, where he interviewed me for my place in 2004.

The Bodleian Lower Reading Room, however, has come up trumps. There are new work surfaces, more computers, and different undergraduates beavering away; but the smell is identical, the paintings hang where they used to, and a certain distinguished classicist still works every day in her usual place.

To crown it all, on my first visit of term, I found that the first and third volumes of the three-volume work that I needed to consult were easily accessible on the shelves; the second volume had been consigned to the closed stacks, with a two-day delivery time. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Finger on the button

ONE of the things that brings me most pleasure these days is the time I manage to spend with my two-year-old godson; and it is not very far from Oxford to Hertfordshire, where he lives with his parents. I dash over as and when I can; it is always worth the effort.

Things have come a long way from our first meeting, when — having been handed to me while asleep — he opened his five-day-old eyes, gave me a knowing look, and promptly threw up on my sleeve.

He has recently begun to talk quite a bit, and so we manage to top up the real visits with chats on the phone; or, better, through the wonders of Apple’s FaceTime. Thus we get to sing songs, and to pull faces at each other.

It used to be lovely. Lately, however, the little fellow’s vocabulary has been growing; and I’m becoming a tad nervous about how he rings off. What used to be just a mix of noise and giggles has definitely turned into a regular ritual. He still blows a kiss; but now he adds a cheerful “Press button, turn you off, bye-bye”.

I must make sure he gets a decent Christmas present. I don’t want to take any chances.


Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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