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Diary: John Wall

12 August 2022


Missed opportunity

I RECENTLY missed out on the chance to be dressed in multicoloured chiffon by Dame Zandra Rhodes herself. I was sitting in the front row at the Charleston Festival, and, having talked about her amazing career, she asked for volunteers to model clothes that she had brought with her. The question was posed: “Any gentlemen want to have a go?” While I was considering the offer, there was a stampede to the stage of women who really wanted to. I sat back, feeling slightly disappointed. But not very.

Dame Zandra is an absolute force of nature: in her mid-eighties, she has so much excitement and energy about her (like the wonderful Dame Joan Bakewell and Dame Sheila Hancock whom we saw the next day — also in their eighties, and firing on all cylinders).

But seeing the clothes themselves really brought the event to life. There had been illustrations during the talk, but watching the dresses move and swirl on delighted real wearers made far more impact than any photo. I wonder whether she’s ever thought of branching out into chasubles? I’d certainly have a go then.


Immersive experience

ANOTHER event that made me reflect was a discussion, “Culture at War”, between the television presenter and director of V&A East, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, and a former Minister for Culture, Lord Vasey.

After much jocular sparring, it became a debate about objects: real v. digital. In his time, Lord Vasey sold a museum storage unit in central London, giving the money to the V&A to fund the new “East” site in Stratford, in the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. Opening (it is hoped) in 2024, it will be an “immersive warehouse”, where people can interact directly with objects from the museum’s collections which have hitherto been in storage.

Lord Vasey was keen on digitalisation, so that objects could be “seen” anywhere; Dr Casely-Hayford robustly defended the physical handling of artefacts, insisting that digitalisation could never replace interaction with a real object. For me, Dame Zandra’s dresses proved his point.


Bread on the waters

LINKED to this focus on objects and their power (and taking me even further out of my regular orbit/comfort zone) was a talk by the young fashion designer Kim Jones, the artistic director of Fendi Womenswear and Dior Men.

A Sussex boy, as a teenager he had been fascinated by Charleston and the Bloomsbury Group, whose art and design it showcases. Clearly, he had been welcomed, kindly and generously; now was payback time, and, having produced a collection based on Charleston, he was back to support it.

He has produced a collection for Dior Men for summer 2023, based largely on the Charleston artist Duncan Grant, and he came to the festival saying that he wanted to “support the things I love and tell everybody about them”.

I was impressed (from a vicarly point of view) that, when someone asked how to get on in fashion, he simply answered “Be kind to people.” I heard later that he’d put his words into action when a group of fashion students came to the book-signing: they couldn’t afford the beautiful, glossy, but expensive catalogue, and brought flyers for him to sign instead — I suppose, as a sort of totem.

Seeing this, Kim himself bought each of them a catalogue and signed it — an act of gratuitous kindness. They could have seen it digitally online, but, as an object to cherish, it will mean so much more.


Real presence

ALL this made me reflect on virtual v. real in our worship. In lockdown, we had no choice but to go for recorded or distanced worship. Like many other churches, we discovered a hinterland of people who, on some level, wanted to interact with us (or at least with my dog, Sophie, who starred in most of our output).

Now, however, we are back in reality, and there is a huge sense of relief at once again interacting with one another and with the sacraments. We have reintroduced the chalice for those who want it, and there is real thankfulness at “getting back to normal” — whatever that will settle down to be. Virtual worship is no substitute for God’s people physically gathered around his table.


Now and always

INTERACTION with real people at the Festival was most meaningful for me in the first performance: Benedict Cumberbatch reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I am hugely fond of Eliot (I have stencilled texts from the Four Quartets running around the walls of the rectory sitting room, which disconcerts some visitors).

This version had been set to music by Anthony Burgess (surreally, of Clockwork Orange fame — I had no idea that he was also a composer), and was performed by the Britten Sinfonia and a soprano. It was movingly atmospheric, and, to my surprise, made me cry.

Eliot left instructions in his will to forbid the poem ever being set to music, and this occasion was only the second (and probably the last) performance that the Eliot Estate would allow. One of the best things in my almost 30 years of festival-going, it felt a significant event, touching base in reality with something of lasting value. Words from the Four Quartets came to mind: “You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid.”


The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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