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Diary: Catherine Fox

23 September 2022


Frozen in time

MOST of us will be able to recall one particular moment when the death of Queen Elizabeth II sank in and became real. Maybe it was the first time you sang “God save our gracious King.” For me, it was when I looked out of a train window and glimpsed an electronic billboard beside a busy dual carriageway. The background was black. There was a white image of the Queen, and the words “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”. Below were her dates: 1926-2022.

I realised that her life was now framed, and we could contemplate its entirety. I had a sudden sense of inhabiting the dash between my own birth- and death-date, aware of that hovering question mark: 1961- ? The train raced on, and the billboard vanished from sight.


Here and hereafter

ALL through the subsequent days, cars and trains have sped past — that same image glimpsed by countless drivers and passengers. Time rushes on. We can look back, but not go back. The pre-determined timetable of events has been unfolding: Demise Day; Accession and Proclamation of King Charles III; lying in state; the funeral. Order and protocol on the one hand; cancellations and pauses on the other. Sporting events and strikes were put on hold. Government went into recess. Plans everywhere were overset by the unexpected bank holiday.

Some will remember all this from 1952: this liminality when two eras border one another; when time does strange things, and we have to hold in tension continuity and disruption. For many in the nation, it will all have felt unprecedented. But, curiously, this is our familiar home turf in the Church, living as we do between eras as the Already/Not Yet rub daily against one another. Perhaps that’s why people still gravitate to our buildings to light candles and sign books of condolence; why our hymns and readings move the heart so deeply.

Life and death, time and eternity — these are categories we think in all the time. We don’t catch ourselves reaching for consolation and meaning in Paddington Bear when we picture Queen Elizabeth making her final journey home. That’s an easy image to ridicule, but I hope we can refrain. If there’s a gap in the secular imagination where faith sees a Saviour, then a kind invitation — “Come and see” — is a better response than scorn.


Heat of the moment

IN A way, this now feels part of what was, for me, a strangely intense and yet blurry summer. I think of it as my summer of Covid madness. After two years of dodging the pandemic bullet, I tested positive in mid-July. God’s judgement on academic conferences? We may never know. It was the Omicron sub-variant BA5. The list of officially recognised symptoms are fatigue, raging sore throat, and binge-watching all four seasons of Stranger Things on Netflix.

The Lovecraftian dystopia of Hawkins, Indiana, merged in and out of my febrile stress dreams. I’ve worked out that BA5 is actually a gateway to the Upside Down, where I was trapped and endured a bizarre ten days. (Oh, just Google it.)

This was during the heatwave. I spent hours sitting on our terrace, trying to write or read, but actually just staring blankly at things, until I was driven indoors by the temperature. All through those days, I heard wood pigeons calling. In my bonkers, Covid-fried state, they seemed to be repeating “I love you, Cathy,” with varying degrees of urgency: “I love you, Cathy”; “I LOVE you, Cathy!” as if possessed by the Herbertian “Love that bade me welcome” — only I was too dense to get it.


Washed in the blood

WITH hindsight, I can see that I was still pretty ill during the Lambeth Conference, although by then I was testing negative. The sore throat and Stranger Things symptoms had passed. Exhaustion, bursting into tears 20 times a day, and generally not coping were the main lingering effects. I kept getting lost on the University of Kent campus, where all the lawns were bleached blond, and gulls screamed from rooftops. It was a bit like being shipwrecked and washed up on the conference’s shore.

I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one feeling disorientated. For some, this was their first time overseas. For some, the single student rooms were not challengingly cramped, but instead appeared heart-breakingly luxurious compared with conditions that people endured back home. But there we all were, tumbled and jumbled together in the Lambeth washing-machine with all our joys and traumas, clashing opinions, and wildly diverse contexts swirling around us.

I wished, fleetingly, that I’d applied for a press pass as a reporter on the Lindfordshire Chronicle. But I was there in good faith, minus any ironic shield, experiencing everything raw. At times, this hurt. What I sensed by the end was not (as the BBC reported) an “air of self-congratulation” that we’d managed not to split the Communion in half. It felt more like being tipped out of the wash cycle into a wholly new landscape, beyond a preoccupation with being right. Being right necessitates others’ being wrong. This new space gestured towards the possibility of our all being in the right, baptised into it, and raised up on the other side.

I’d say that everyone seemed almost stunned. Stunned and tender — in both senses of that word. We were bruised (stone-washed, blood-washed), and yet full of love for one another. Despite the screaming panic of gulls, maybe the wood pigeons get the final word.


Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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