High holy days
THAT’s August done for another year. It’s a strange month: the tired fag-end of summer, increasingly fringed with dread as the ominous cloud of the email inbox or the new term starts to loom on the horizon. I sometimes think I’m not very good at holidays.
Be that as it may, we’ve just been on holiday in Brittany. In common with other predominantly Catholic countries, they celebrate the feast of “What’s Going On, Why is Everything Closed?” As a child of the manse, I grew up completely innocent of all this carry-on. My first brush with what some Evangelicals rudely refer to as the feast of the Massive Assumption was in a German lesson, back in the mid-’70s, when young Hans and Lieselotte were celebrating Mariä Himmelfahrt. Our German teacher explained. I remember being astounded. She was? Since when? That’s not in the Bible!
This year (my education at St Maniple’s progressing), I was up to speed — which meant we didn’t end up wringing our hands and wailing in front of the closed Super-U on 15 August.
Reductio ad absurdum
THE strangest feature of August, and of holidays in general, is the way the subconscious seizes the opportunity to download months of stress in the form of Hieronymus Bosch-tinged dreams. I spent one night fleeing across some endless county showground, pursued by the armed branch of the Mothers’ Union. I wonder what that was about?
It can’t possibly be to do with role anxiety, I tell myself. There is no such thing as “the role of the bishop’s spouse”. We know this, because the whole edifice of the C of E doesn’t screech to a juddering halt in places where the bishop is single. Obviously, I’d like to think it would cost the diocese of Sheffield a pang if I were taken out by a rogue Mothers’ Union sniper, but I’m not a vital cog in the machinery.
I’ve come to the conclusion that being a bishop’s wife is basically like being a vicar’s wife, only with cones on. Cones rather than purple shirts are what really distinguish bishops from other clergy. If the bishop is visiting a parish, the parish cones must be deployed to reserve a parking place. Personally, I’d like to see a range of merchandise featuring the slogan “Get Yer Cones Out For The Bishop”.
Better still, I’d like a band of liturgical dancers clad in novelty traffic-cone outfits performing a dance of welcome in the graveyard. These outfits are readily available online. I gather they are mainly intended for stag parties, but the Church has a long and distinguished history of cultural appropriation.
The drawback with cones is that they are very welcome, and it doesn’t take much of this kind of pampering for the poor bishop to become accustomed. A hideous abyss of cognitive dissonance is not far away. Bishops find themselves simultaneously wishing to be treated like ordinary people, and yet at the same time wanting special parking places reserved for them.
But the projection of purpleness is either on or off. You can’t have it both ways — as I discovered when I dropped the Bishop off and went to park in the cathedral car park, only to find a car already in the special “Bishop Only” space. It was Ash Wednesday; so plenty of good crunchy soul-work to plough through at the start of Lent.
Extraordinarily hard to get over yourself, sometimes. You’d think that realising you’re ridiculous would be the end of it, but no.
I SAY that bishops want to be treated like ordinary people, but — unless I’m writing a novel — I can’t really claim to know what’s going on inside someone else’s head. This is fiction’s big scam: it persuades you for a few hundred pages that you do know what it’s like to be someone else.
It’s a scam, but it’s also a gift, as novels extend our ability to empathise. You see things through someone else’s eyes and, even if you neither like the character nor agree with them, you nevertheless get a profound sense of where they’re coming from.
The other luxury is that, while you are in the world of the book, you can tentatively try out other opinions without being shouted at and told you can’t think that.
THERE are plenty of things I enjoy about being on holiday, and France has particular pleasures for those whose French peaked at O-level in 1978. Everywhere you go, there’s the thrill of partially understood signs: Traitor! Loser! Randomers!
And then there’s the delight of the badly translated menu. No amount of being reminded that their English is better than my French will ever tarnish my enjoyment of things like “nuts of the Holy Jaqcues”, or “assortment of innards”. My rubbish French probably provides reciprocal hilarity, every time I ask for “a coffee big”, or flamboyantly mispronounce the word for peanuts.
This is far more than a pedant’s glee at spotting an error. It’s a love of the absurd, and absurdity lurks only a keystroke — or an autocorrect blunder — away, as anyone who has ever tried to text “wellies” will know.
On the head of a pin
I ONCE heard an eminent novelist state that life is “very short, and very serious”. I was itching to add “but also hilarious”.
The Romans apparently took this view, and regularised hilarity into official holidays called Hilaria, on which it was forbidden to show signs of grief. Compulsory hilarity for all! But the thing with hilarity is that it’s subversive, and crops up where it shouldn’t.
Life is very short and very serious, and we are often absurd, because we are very short-lived, yet take ourselves very seriously. Grinding our teeth on Ash Wednesday because we don’t want to be treated like Mrs Bishop, but can’t recover from having our reserved parking space nicked: isn’t that a hair’s breadth away from hilarious?
Or a hare’s breath, as one of my colleagues thought the expression was when he was a child. The breath of a hare — as tiny, and wonderfully absurd, as that.
Catherine Fox is an author, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University; her husband is the Bishop of Sheffield.