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Diary: Mark Oakley

21 June 2024


Company of players

SOUTHWARK has some great theatres, not least the Menier Chocolate Factory (now in its 20th year) and the Bridge Theatre. I spent a very happy morning, however, discovering a theatre on Tooley Street which I didn’t know: the Unicorn Theatre for Children.

Founded by Caryl Jenner in 1949 as a mobile theatre, the company performed to thousands of children in isolated villages and theatreless towns across the UK, touring the country in their own unique tour van. Caryl was fiercely passionate about giving all children the opportunity to experience great theatre, and I discovered that the present team there keep her legacy very much alive.

Theatre is a gymnasium for the under-used imagination, and is needed now as much as ever, whatever age we happen to be. I was a bit taken back, however, to see that they have a highly sensory show for babies, and I checked out the colourful stage on my visit. Aimed at children aged from six months to 18 months, it has played to more than 5000 of them. In the eyes of a child, there are not seven wonders of the world: there are seven million.

On the theatre website, parents’ questions are answered: “Does my baby need to be quiet?” The answer is direct: “Babies can respond however they like — giggling, gurgling, hiccupping . . . we encourage it all!” Sounds like an average congregation.


Sitz im Leben

BEING a new dean in town, I am being asked to do quite a few after-dinner speeches around the place. Perhaps the most unusual recent invitation was from the Worshipful Company of Launderers. I resisted the temptation to do my best Widow Twankey impression, and enjoyed the company of people in the trade whose crest includes a cat, as it is the cleanest of animals, and whose motto is “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” I said that I liked this advice, but my favourite proverb is “One good turn gets all the duvet.”

Getting in one or two more gags before trying to be a little more substantial, I told them of my friend who is “so charming he could sell a double bed to Mother Superior”, and of the former parishioner who let me know that her cousin had passed away. “He died in Luton,” she said; “so I think we can say he’s gone to a better place.”


Not drowning, but saving

“NOTHING true can ever be said about God from a defensive posture.” I learned this from the author Marilynne Robinson; so, when I saw that Rowan Williams was spending a day reflecting on her work at Sarum College, I put a line through the date in my diary, knowing that it was time to be theologically fed.

Of course, I wasn’t disappointed. We looked at her Gilead quartet of novels and her most recent book, Reading Genesis. Robinson has a deft skill in asking how goodness differs from grace, and in showing that human beings can’t always assume that we know what we’re doing. She also reveals that we are not made worth while simply by being right.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure whom to be most in awe of: Robinson or her episcopal curator. Both, in their own ways, lead me back to the adventure of Christian living, and the mystery of God, who is, in the words of the 18th-century poet Ann Griffiths, “a sea deep enough to swim in, but too deep to cross”.


Fruits of tragedy

WE HAVE recently had the privilege of remembering some special people at the cathedral. First, we celebrated the life and imagination of Richard Taylor, father of ten-year-old Damilola, who was stabbed and killed in Peckham in 2000. Richard, with his wife, Gloria, went on with huge energy and resolve to fight knife crime and provide support for disadvantaged young people. The gospel singing at his memorial service, led by Beverley Knight, beautifully captured his determination, dignity, and grace.

A little later, we stood outside the cathedral to remember the eight people who lost their lives in the London Bridge terrorist attack, seven years ago. Incredible bravery was shown that night as terror entered Borough Market.

I’m always struck that, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the Muses. Memory is the root of inspiration, and our loyalty to the past gives birth to a loyalty to the future. Surely, one of the parts played by the Church is to keep convening people to do this generative act together — not as an act of nostalgia, but as a commitment to living with the wisdom that we learn through such tragedies. As a psychotherapist once told me, “I spend most days urging people to remember that, if they go to hell, it is important that they don’t come back empty-handed.”


Mine’s a double

I GREW up watching The Two Ronnies on television, and I always loved their songs. I remember one in which a man is lamenting that, before his birth, when the angels were dishing out physical features, he kept mishearing: “When they offered out noses, I thought they said roses — so I asked for a big red one”; and “When they handed out chins, I thought they said gins, so I asked for a double.”

Well, I celebrated World Gin Day with a taste of local Bermondsey gin. Standing not too far from Little Dorrit Court, I was reminded of the story that Charles Dickens once went into a bar and ordered a martini. The barman is said to have asked, “Olive or twist?”

The Very Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of Southwark, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

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