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Diary: Mark Oakley

04 November 2022

ISTOCK

The company of heaven

I DON’T find giving after-dinner speeches at all easy. Trying to say something of any worth, while also getting in some laughs, when most of your audience are halfway into an alcohol-induced coma, is not a doddle. It was an honour, however, to be asked to address the Masters and Clerks of the City livery companies, with the hospitality of the Musicians’ Company; and I tried my best.

Heir to the ancient Guild of Minstrels, the Musicians’ Company today generously makes awards to help musicians early in their precarious careers. I urged, in our hard times, for all the Companies not to be the City’s examples of power, but instead to use their power of example, in charity, support, and looking out for the vulnerable, for whom “company” is not always to hand.

I still felt like a clerical Ken Dodd, though, as I threw in some of my old gags: “I’m getting old. I spend most of my time in the optician’s, the pharmacy, and Gregg’s. Life is just specs, drugs, and sausage rolls.” I had reached that age, I continued, when one’s narrow waist and broad mind have swapped places. But the biggest laugh was for one that I tried out for the first time, and I blush as I relay it to you: “My next book is on constipation — but it’s not out yet.”

 

Bardic voices

I AM halfway through reading the proofs of M. Wynn Thomas’s new book, R. S. Thomas to Rowan Williams: The spiritual imagination in modern Welsh poetry. It’s marvellous, and it beautifully displays, through the Welsh poetic tradition, how our general language today is much more secularised than are our inner lives. Poetry helps us to reclaim a lost vocabulary of the soul.

Growing up in Shrewsbury, I heard Welsh being spoken around the place, but I never learned it. I’m adding that project to my retirement plan (only 20 years to go . . .). Perhaps I have some ancestral roots in Wales, but I’m very much drawn to its natural beauty, people, and poetry. I also love their humour and fun theatricality. As Richard Burton once said, “The Welsh are all actors. It’s only the bad ones who become professional.”

 

Beyond a joke

WITH all the dispiriting news of late, I decided to have a night of pure escapism, and booked a ticket to see Michael Frayn’s chaotic farce Noises Off. Twenty years old, it hasn’t lost its sparkle. Felicity Kendal and Matthew Kelly were hysterical.

I love the theatre. It’s a gymnasium for our under-used imagination, just as faith should be. I remember Ned Sherrin, a man gloriously in his anecdotage, saying to me, when I was Rector of the Actors’ Church, that “There’s no business like holy show business.” It is the case that a resonant liturgy has the subversive potential to reimagine our landscape and leave us with an increased longing for God.

As I went home from the theatre that night, a little lighter, I reflected on how farce works through the highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable. By the time I got home and switched on the news, I realised that so, from time to time, does politics — except that it’s far from funny.

 

Music of the spheres

I HAD great fun giving a lecture to the Worcestershire Theological Society, which, I was delighted to discover, included some friends from the very special Mucknell Abbey. This time, I kept my jokes out of it, in case it was thought to be a bit too much Worcestershire “sauce”.

Worcester is a charming city, and I was pleased to discover the statue of Sir Edward Elgar — commissioned from Kenneth Potts, and unveiled in 1981 — standing at the end of the High Street facing the cathedral, only metres away from the original location of his father’s music shop. “My idea is that there is music in the air,” Elgar once said in a conversation, “music all around us, the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

 

Ears to hear

TALKING of music, I am currently involved in the process to appoint a new Director of Music here at St John’s, as my colleague, Andrew Nethsingha, is soon to take up his new job at Westminster Abbey. He’ll be conducting the music at the Coronation in May, and I must say he’s just the person for the task. I’ve learned such a lot from Andrew over our four years together, and I’m sorry to lose him.

Knowing my love of Beethoven, he once bought me, for my birthday, a great biography of the composer. It was there that I came across Victor Hugo’s comment that, in Beethoven’s music, “the dreamer will recognise his dreams, the sailor his storms, and the wolf his forests.” Well, in Andrew’s conducting of our college choir, I have recognised my faith, and I will always be grateful. As Euros Bowen, another Welsh priest-poet observed, “Sacrament sicr ym modd ei sain” — “There is certain sacrament by means of its sound.”
 

The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

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