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Diary: Serenhedd James

25 May 2018


April fool

THIS year’s early Easter Day fell on 1 April, which, after the Easter vigil the night before, caught some of the more bleary-eyed of us off-guard. It must be said that the Church of England Communications Office took full advantage of the congruence.

I like to think of myself as a hardened veteran of the April-fool malarkey — a few years ago, I persuaded quite a few people that I had been appointed Principal of Westcott House — but, on this occasion, even I was taken in.

At 8 a.m., the C of E Facebook feed published a prayer for Easter Day. Nothing odd in that, you might think: surely something along the lines of the BCP’s “Almighty God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life”, or Common Worship’s “Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your Son overcame the old order of sin and death to make all things new in him”, with its alternative option of “God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell.”

The prayer that appeared in fact began like this: “Loving God, it’s an Alleluia Day! Thank you for every lovely thing in your world. Fill our day with laughter as we enjoy friends and family in our church and in our home.” For a few moments, I stared at it in disbelief. Could it be that we were now being encouraged to pray this sort of pap by an official C of E outlet? And then the penny dropped. “Well played, Comms,” I thought. “You had me for a moment there.”

The prayer is still on the C of E Facebook page, if anyone missed it first time round and wants to share the joke. That is a bit naughty, of course, as, properly speaking, all April Fool pranks should be played by noon on the day, and then done away with. It’s also a bit risky: someone stumbling across it unawares might think it was for real.


Cedars of Lebanon

AFTER a couple of fatal lightning strikes, the magnificent cedar trees that for decades stood between the west end of the college church of St Stephen’s House and the Iffley Road have had to be felled. It is always sad when trees have to come down; when they are cedars, it seems all the more regrettable, as there is something about their broad and spreading canopies which comforts the soul. When I was growing up in Wales, the fact that a village near by was called Libanus made them all the more evocative.

I am not sure how old our specimens were, but they were planted when the Cowley Fathers still occupied the site, and must have been a fair old age. I have never known the church without them; and they were there when the late Sir Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, just across the road at the University Sports Ground. It was the limp George atop the church flagpole which convinced Sir Roger that he might just make the record — and he did.

The only boon to the felling of the trees has been the opening up of the vista of G. F. Bodley’s magnificent edifice: all clean lines and extravagantly restrained good taste. Looking back at photographs from 1904 (the year of the completion of the tower), I find that not much is different. The iron railings are gone, but otherwise all is as it was more than a century ago — except the seemingly ubiquitous standard-issue church-pathway lights, which will surely have to go.


Going to pot

ON THE other side of the college, the back gate opens on to the Cowley Road. Noisy, busy, and wreathed in clouds of cannabis smoke, it is a street quite unlike any other, anywhere. It has its own biography, written by our neighbour Dr Annie Skinner, and is very much a gift that gives on giving.

In addition to its usual colourful characters, this year’s prize probably goes to the two young men I saw stumbling out of The Cowley Retreat, each holding up the other, and both loudly demanding more cocaine.

On another occasion, I was having dinner with a friend at the Majliss curry house — “never a bad meal”, as a former Vice-Principal used to say — when it became clear that a couple at a table near by were having a blazing sotto voce argument. It did not end well. She made to slap his face; he blocked her with his arm. Without missing a beat, with her other hand she picked up her glass, threw its contents over him, and stormed out. It was all over in a flash.

We looked studiously out of the window — it was just as easy to watch the developing scene in the reflection of the plate glass –— as the waiters rushed about with mops and towels.

Almost immediately, four hearty and well-built young men marched past in the direction of Magdalen Bridge. They were holding high a sofa on which reclined a young woman, slim and scantily clad. She waved languidly at her audience, while her bearers sang at the tops of their voices “We’ve got a so-fa-aa on our heads” to the tune of “He’s got the whole world in his hands”.

Perhaps they were on their way to Wycliffe Hall.

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

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