A little list
I FREQUENTLY forget that I sit on the Library Acquisitions Committee at Pusey House. This is not because it’s not important, but because its business seems more like pleasure. Its meetings have been conducted remotely since long before the lockdown made that means of proceeding necessary, and so to attend to its affairs I never have to shoehorn myself into a suit or go to London.
From time to time, an email from the Librarian arrives inviting me to select, from a list, books that I think should be added to the shelves for the benefit and enjoyment of the readers. Naturally, I try to choose volumes that will complement the existing collection, strengthen a subsection, or plug a puzzling gap.
But sometimes I choose titles purely because I think they look interesting, or admire their authors and would like to read them myself. It is rather like being a child in a sweet-shop — or whatever nutrition-conscious simile will suffice.
NOT long into the lockdown, a distraction presented itself for those with books in mind. The conceit was to recast the opening lines of a well-known novel, rewritten for the times. In my own echo chamber, Fr Mark Woodruff won hands-down with Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (Collins, 1956): “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from discovering that High Mass had been suspended indefinitely. Her plan to liberate Turkish women by their conversion to Anglo-Catholicism had encountered a setback.”
Meanwhile, a friend of mine who is a Dominican friar alerted me to “Farrow & Ball Bingo”. Armed with the company’s sample-chart, the aim was to watch services streamed from different parsonages and to tick off as many colours as possible.
As the war of words raged over the closure of the churches, I discovered that, in addition to the obvious “Rectory Red”, F&B also offer “Churlish Green” and “Cat’s Paw”. The last is described as a “yellow toned neutral”; apparently some clergy whom it suits tend also to develop a yearning for purple.
IN THE summer of 2003, Romsey Conservative Club had a refit. I know this because, on an August afternoon, I was driving through the town on my way to Winchester, to stay with a fellow Chadsman, Sophia Anderton, and her parents, Michael and Robin. In the marketplace, some labourers were filling a skip with brown furniture. I was about to move into my first flat, and I am now writing this column sitting on the handsome oak-and-leather desk chair that I bagged on that occasion. It has moved with me ever since.
Seventeen years on, I returned to Romsey for Michael’s socially distanced funeral at the Test Valley Crematorium. It was strange to be deprived of hymns and hugs, but I was honoured to be among the limited number of mourners. The service was lovingly beautiful.
The stole on Michael’s simple back-to-front coffin spoke of the priesthood that he had exercised alongside a prodigious ministry as a Jungian psychoanalyst. The service had a worldwide reach through the crematorium’s live-stream facility. A memorial service in Winchester Cathedral is expected in due course.
The paths of youth
AS I made my way back towards the A34 for the return drive to Oxford, I realised that, in normal circumstances, even the short stretch of road between Romsey and Winchester would have taken me a couple of hours, given the opportunities for diversions which it affords.
I would have made a short visit to Romsey Abbey to visit the grave of Lord Mountbatten in the south transept. A couple of miles on, at Ampfield, I would have discreetly sought out the Old Vicarage, where the Revd W. Awdry — creator of Thomas the Tank Engine — was born, in 1911. Back then, it was his father’s Vicarage.
No doubt I would have lingered longest at Hursley; for we all need to spend time with John Keble now and then. He was Vicar from 1836 until he died 30 years later, The Christian Year in its 95th edition. He rests under red granite carved with cross, Bible, and chalice. It occurred to me later that, in their different ways, Thomas and The Christian Year both had a formative part to play in my youth. These days, of course, I’d settle for the royalties from either.
VIDEO-CALLS mean that I have of late spent more time than usual looking at people’s faces. Interactions in real life use gestures and body language as much as words and phrases. On Zoom or Teams, all one can do is stare. This is at its most disconcerting when chatting to old friends. The countenances that smile out from their photos now greet me from behind webcams, as familiar as ever, but not quite the same.
The usual change is the hair, which has either receded, greyed, or disappeared. Mine has so far retained its colour and volume, at least at the front. At the back, Nature — like a buskined and white-gauntleted prelate, wielding golden scissors — has begun to give me a tonsure.
Dr Serenhedd James is an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.