THE first St Valentine’s Day greeting that I received this year was from the digital display board on Platform 3 at Paddington Station. I had just returned to London from Oxford, lifted mine eyes unto the hills (well, all right, the roof), and saw this odd display of orange-lettered affection. Perhaps it was a holding screen to avoid telling the assembled throng that the 17:32 was, in fact, delayed, and so they wouldn’t be getting home to their beloveds after all.
Still, I think more liturgical feasts should be advertised at our railway termini. There’s always bound to be someone who, clutching Common Worship Daily Prayer to their chest, wants to inform us that 14 February is actually Cyril and Methodius, but — as one who has had to study Old Church Slavonic — I’m not in a hurry to bang a Cyrillic drum.
Plus, I bleed BCP, wherein the much traduced Valentine can still be found; it’s the Prayer Book calendar that I shall be sending to Network Rail. Look out for seasonal felicitations on the feast of St Evurtius, Bishop of Orleans, next time you’re at King’s Cross.
IN THE end, I had a lovely Valentine’s evening, although I confess to being the less romantic half of the couple. My own manifest shortcomings got me thinking about who the last great Anglican romantic might have been.
Surely, John Donne can lay a claim, even if his raunchier poems were written before he attained decanal dignity. Even so, if we’re thinking about how lists of saints come about, the opening line of his poem “Canonisation” might be a good passage for reflection during the next deliberation of the Liturgical Commission: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.”
Donne’s restlessness of pen was mirrored by restlessness of feet. He never seemed to spend long in the same place. This week, I moved house — or, rather, moved my possessions into storage. A house move is said — to continue our cheery Valentine’s theme — to be the most stressful thing that a couple can do together; if they can survive each other’s company during the move, the relationship is said to be in good shape
I’m not so sure about this internet wisdom, not least because I rather like moving. While I am not quite as itinerant as Donne, this is my fourth move in five years. It is purgative disposing of those physical memories of unhappiness, and a salutary exercise in gratitude when one stumbles across a reminder of joy.
MY MOVE was overseen by Asif, who is not just a reminder, but, rather, an active bringer, of joy. He is — rightly — immensely proud of his work, and sends me WhatsApp photos of my carefully wrapped possessions in the way that others send pictures of holidays or offspring.
Central London is not a fun place to conduct a move from; nor is rural Kent a fun place to conduct a move to. Yet Asif met each obstacle, each minor and each major irritation, with benign equanimity and consummate professionality. And, crucially, a smile. His expert technique for the happy negotiation of traffic wardens, of potholes, of staircase turns, and of the eclecticism of a clergyman’s possessions remind me of Donne’s instructions to the person who will prepare his body for burial: “do not harm Nor question much”.
I waved Asif and his team a thankful farewell, promising to leave them a good review. Really, that seems the wrong way round: their skill and professionalism was never in doubt, whereas my ability to remember where I’d put my keys and my skill in direction-giving certainly are. Surely other removal teams should be warned?
My preference is always for small, independent movers — like Asif. I recall an elderly member of staff whispering to me, as we watched the great blue vans back into the tiny car park at Westcott House during the final week of the summer term: “Beware the ordinand who uses Bishop’s Move.”
THE return to my family home, even temporarily to dump some possessions, brings a wave of nostalgia, which annoys me because it seems so predictable. Then I get annoyed at myself again for being stupid enough to think that I could resist the inevitable; and then annoyed a final time for giving any of this brain-space in the first place. A Triple Fool indeed.
I spend the evening vegetating in front of the wholly unsuitable television of my childhood. A foray into The League of Gentlemen leads on to the more recent series devised by two of its stars, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith: Inside No. 9. One episode features the demise of the murderess and Bontempi enthusiast Maureen Sowerbutts.
In her final moments, her oft-belittled and infantilised son David quotes the opening lines of “Sonnet X” to her: “Death, be not proud.”
“Who wrote that?” Maureen asks.
“John Donne,” David replies.
“It’s John did, David. John did.” And with that final, false grammatical correction, she dies.
Stitch in time
MY FAVOURITE of Donne’s opening lines is “Batter my heart, three person’d God”. This has been a strange year so far, and in many ways my heart does feel battered by it all. And it’s only February. Still, the three person’d God remains faithful, and I have every faith that the selfsame God will, in Donne’s words of the following line, “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.