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Diary: Pat Ashworth

11 August 2023


Change and decay

I AM much drawn to a chapter in the compendium Hudson’s English History, “Forlorn Females, Penitent Prostitutes and Floating Chapels”. I found the book, cunningly designed to look ancient and leatherbound, in the upstairs room of the stable block at Isaac Newton’s house, Woolsthorpe Manor, where a donation secures any book on the shelves.

I’m hard put to rank in order of worthiness the charitable groups that emerged in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, particularly from the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. But first place must go, I think, to the National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor, with the Forlorn Female’s Fund of Mercy a close second.

I toy with a high ranking for the Society for Carrying into Effect His Majesty’s Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality, but warm instead to the Society for Returning Young Women to their Friends in the Country, and the Society for the Superseding of the Necessity of Climbing Boys. But, oh! how fortunate were some above others witness the London Orphan Asylum for the Reception and Education of Destitute Orphans, Particularly those Descended from Respectable Parents.

I’ve come to Woolsthorpe with a physicist friend who has offered to fill lamentable gaps in my scientific knowledge and explain Newtonian physics to me in words of one syllable. Furthermore, she has lent me Newton for Beginners, from which I learn that it was from alchemy that Newton grasped the principle that nature is not a mechanism, but a living being. All things decay, and all things are reborn. Nature is “a perfect circulatory worker”. Eureka. I wish I had always understood these things.


Heavenly places

IT IS a summer of marvels. I find myself with an hour to wait between trains at Edinburgh Waverley Station: something that elsewhere could be a bore or a penance, especially at some of the brutally remodelled stations on the journey south. Waverley has echoes of a cathedral. I look up in the waiting hall and take in the glory of the restored Victorian glass dome, the exquisite tracery of the glasswork geometry in the roof, the dignity of the stone.

It is divine. In these sorry days of shoddiness, of complaints and let-downs, and trains not running (mine, for a five-hour journey, miraculously arrives at my destination spot on time), it is a reminder that sometimes — just sometimes — people and institutions with vision do still get things right.


Hell hole

TECHNOLOGY is a tool of the trade, and I’ve tried to keep up with the rapidity of change. But one thing, in this summer of content, defeats me. I am staying in my sister’s retirement apartment while she is in hospital. It’s a new-build: a clever world of key fobs to open silently gliding doors; a calmness of hushed corridors and ambient light.

It’s when I go to take out the rubbish and open the door marked “Refuse” that I am stopped in my tracks. It’s a Kafkaesque experience. I am in a small and powerfully lit space. I am instructed to stand to the left of a scanner, where I should present the key fob that will allow a door to swing open and admit me to the bin store.

It does. But the door will automatically swing shut behind me. It will be just me and the industrial-size bins, me under the fluorescent lights, in a space the size of a small garage. I draw back. Footsteps don’t sound on these carpeted corridors, but I sense someone passing, open the door, and ask, ‘”How do I do this?”

Omigod, she says: it’s really scary. “If you open the door really quickly and throw your bags in, you can get out before it closes.” I do. I think I’ve lobbed the wrong bags in the wrong bins, but I don’t care. I have bypassed any danger of being locked in here for ever.


Hill and dale

IT IS a wet day up here in the Yorkshire Dales, the fields and hillsides fresh and green, but the heavy drizzle dampening spirits everywhere but on the cricket field. Men in waterproofs and boys in hoodies are playing an informal match with all the roar and mettle of Test cricketers — a knockabout that is giving a capering black-and-white terrier the best day of his life.

It is as much a part of the English summer as strawberries and cream. Days earlier, on the eastern side of God’s county of North Yorkshire, I have been similarly uplifted by a walk across the moors to the ancient Church of St Mary, Lastingham; for there is something virtuous about tramping to church, even though on this occasion it is to a concert, not a service.

Brown sheep are huddled by stone walls against the rain, but my feet are dry and my expectancy keen. St Cedd founded a monastery here in 754. I can feel his presence in the wild beauty of days like these, and it puts a spring into my step.


And some there be

IT IS a far cry from the General Synod, now happily receding into memory. Forget the big, fractious, headline-hogging debates. My tribute is to the heroes of Miscellaneous Provisions: those forensic labourers at the coalface of the Church of England.

Miscellaneous Provisions are a clause-by-clause scooping up and smoothing out of irregularities and ambiguities. I need a full set for the workings of my own life, please. Analysed, clarified, signed, and sealed.


Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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