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Diary: Mark Oakley

13 October 2023


Legendary hospitality

FOR a number of years, I’ve had some fun quoting an 18th-century aristocrat’s observation: “Deans are like pigeons — they like to leave their mark.” Now, the pigeons have rather come home to roost, as I am to be installed as the next Dean of Southwark on the afternoon of Advent Sunday.

I feel incredibly privileged to be invited to begin this ministry, Southwark Cathedral having been a source of inspiration and encouragement to me ever since I was a student. I am looking forward to getting to know the locality better, and visiting, for instance, the old graveyard where the “Winchester geese” were buried.

The “geese” were women who were licensed and taxed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in the local brothels, but who — though good enough to have to pay the Bishop — were not thought the right sort to be buried in consecrated ground. Today, the sign at the site reads “The Outcast Dead”.

The history of Southwark, with its frequent attempts to find a place for the exiled and scapegoated, is remarkable. I hope that I’ll be able to pass some of it on in this column. But, as the Miller says in The Canterbury Tales, “If the words get muddled in my tale, just put it down to too much Southwark ale.”


Pressure point

SPEAKING of history, I have always been fascinated by the Weimar Republic and the ways in which — in the image of Gustav Stresemann — it “danced on a volcano”. The warnings it contains of how, under poor leadership, economic pressure, and political volatility, a democracy can drift towards a form of authoritarianism that eventually destroys it, seem timely. So, Frank McDonough’s brilliant new book, The Weimar Years: Rise and fall 1918-1933, deserves careful attention.

For my birthday, however, I found myself immersed in Weimar culture by enjoying the riotous but chilling production of Cabaret, with Jake Shears as the Emcee, in the Kit Kat Klub of the Playhouse Theatre, in London. It is a more alarming interpretation of how high kicks turned into goose-stepping than either Kander and Ebb’s 1966 original musical, or Bob Fosse’s film of 1972.

This is not a musical to help you escape reality. It reveals the power of fear, and the ability of the totalitarian state to force those who fear a controlling power to imitate it.


Apostolic succession

ONE of those who enjoyed something of Weimar’s delights was our own W. H. Auden. He died 50 years ago this autumn, and, as he remains one of my favourite poets, I made my way on the train from Vienna to Kirchstetten to visit his grave.

I was kindly met by Maria, who, as a child, had sung at Auden’s funeral, and who let me into Auden’s house, where his slippers, typewriter, books, and gin bottles still reside just where he left them. She also took me to see his battered old yellow VW Beetle car, which seemed to capture something of his dishevelled genius.

I laid a rose on his grave, next to the church that he attended regularly, and remembered his line “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” He isn’t. Every time I celebrate the feast of one of the apostles, I recall his tribute to their lives in “The Twelve”, set to music by Walton: “When they heard the Word, some demurred, some mocked, some were shocked: but many were stirred. . . released into peace from the gin of old sin, men forgot themselves in the glory of the story told by the Twelve.” Wonderful.


Missing in action

AS A Shropshire boy living in Cambridgeshire, I rather miss hills (these days, I’m liable to get excited when I see a speed bump). It was good, then, this summer, to go to both lush Virginia and Wales to give some talks.

I also gave a lecture in Yorkshire to the Religious Drama Society, Radius. Since I arrived early, I was able to join in a workshop with a theatre voice coach. We learned how our vocal folds are contained in the larynx. During breathing, the folds are wide apart. When we are speaking, they come gently together and, as air comes up from the lungs, they miraculously vibrate — at approximately 220 times per second — producing sound.

To find the gift of your own voice, which is as unique to you as your fingerprint, can be a long and tentative journey, but, as one man in a Welsh audience warned us, “I was on a hospital bed, and my whole life flashed before me. The thing is, I wasn’t in it. Don’t let it happen to you.”


Future perfect

IT SEEMS right to be installed in Southwark in Advent: the season in which we find hope that all our loose ends will somehow be gathered together in the context of eternity, and when the purple array reminds us that we are all, as yet, fragmented, and must look to the coming of Love to make us whole.

I am aware that all I can offer to the community that I am now to join is the person I have become, and my resolve to try to make amends for where I have got things badly wrong in my life. As Maya Angelou observed, “I’m always amazed when people say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already?’”


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

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