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Diary: Pat Ashworth

06 April 2023


Border controls

WE FAIL by a whisker to win the Old Church Tower Quiz Night: a popular fund-raiser for our community heritage site. Our team has lateral thinkers for the dingbats, and word-lovers for the anagrams, as well as encyclopaedic minds, and people impressively hot on sport. But we fall on the vexed question which county in England has the most castles, plumping doubtfully for Kent (to keep out the French), not Northumberland (to keep out the Scots).

I picture marauding Celts as I make a flying visit up to Inverness, and — loving the geography visible from a small plane — look down on the mountains below.

I think of the staunch fortresses that were Peel towers as we’re crossing what I judge to be the border regions. The mind strays when you have nothing to do but idle and marvel, and Geoffrey Trease has taken the liberty of wandering into mine. His children’s historical fiction shaped my reading from an early age, and I still possess Cue for Treason: the story of two child runaways fleeing a persecutor in Elizabethan England. The secret that would save them lay in a Peel tower, I remember.

Children in fiction were always romantically running away, and, at the age of eight, I packed a rucksack myself in case I had to join the circus. But, as we land, I come down to earth reflecting on the unspeakable dangers surrounding borders and runaways today: a shuddering world away from romance.

In the midst of life

I THINK I’ve seen everything when our church choir sings at a wedding where the ring-bearers turn out to be two Golden Labradors. It’s the jolliest and most informal wedding you could imagine, and I can’t spot a single hat among the assembled genial guests. The bride is a vet.

The Labradors, garlanded with roses and bristling with enjoyment, melt all hearts as they make their tail-wagging entrance with the maid-of-honour. When it comes to the vows, the groom is so eager that his “I will” comes almost before the priest has asked the question, and the church just seems to expand with love, laughter, and holiness.

As I reflect on that occasion, and on the licensing of a friend as priest-in-charge of three local parishes, I reckon I’ve seen the Church of England at its best in the past few weeks. The licensing takes place on a dark and rainy night, with gusts of wind blowing and little illumination in the churchyard beyond the coloured light that streams from the windows.

The church is packed. There’s been a three-year interregnum here, and the joy of the individual congregations at finally welcoming their priest is unconfined. The singing is robust, the liturgy meaningful, the priest radiant, and the cake delicious.

I’m soberly reminded of the polar opposite: the very sensitively conducted funeral, two weeks earlier, of a young woman of 34, the daughter of a church member. The snow on the ground is rapidly turning to slush, and the burial has preceded this service of celebration. The church is full of young people. And it is a sea of black; for their generation has a huge respect for this tradition of mourning their contemporaries. Colleagues and friends speak bravely and passionately about her.

We conclude with “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”, and are lifted up by their courage and dignity.

The gift of words

WE ARE in an interregnum, and it’s all hands to the pump. I’m entrusted with the Good Friday morning service — a meditation in words and music — and, as I hunt through my shelves for inspiration and images, I marvel at my inheritance of religious books, many offered by their widows from the lifetime collections of clergy friends.

I take pleasure in the inscriptions on the flyleaves. I have no idea who Adrian, Sylvia, and Bob are, but, in December 1979, they gave to Paul Watts the beautifully illustrated On A Friday Noon “as a token of our love”, and took the trouble to write those names in their individual hands. As I study, I like to think that the pages are imbued with their cherishing.

Music of the heart

UKRAINE is never far from our consciousness. Back in January, I was among the 1000 amateur singers who flocked to the Royal Concert Hall for John Rutter’s annual Nottingham Singing Day — a feast of his own music interspersed with classics and new items.

He is a gracious, modest teacher, with a teasing humour and a store of wisdom. He introduces us to his Ukrainian Prayer, written from words of unknown authorship and to a melody that has a raw, deep passion and authenticity when sung by this number of voices in Ukrainian (he gives us the phonetics).

A plea for God’s protection for Ukraine, and for strength, courage, faith, and hope, sung solenne ma non troppo lento (“solemn but not too slow”), it was Rutter’s immediate response “in my own way” to his dismay at the Russian invasion in February 2022. Somehow, it chimes with all the sorrow in the world as I look at it again in the run-up to Good Friday.

Rutter takes no fee for the workshop, and the Concert Hall no fee for staging it. Ticket money in excess of £20,000 all goes to the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum, and two associated charities. It is a reminder of the goodness and redemption in the world, to take us through Holy Week to Easter Day.

Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

Read her review of The Nottingham Passion here.

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