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Diary: John Wall

26 April 2024


Unmatched pairs

AS I am somewhat conservative in my work clothes, all my clerical shirts are double-cuffed: hence I am the proud possessor of some 30 or so cufflinks, among which are only five matching pairs. Like socks, pens, and dog-collars, cufflinks (for me at any rate) seem to have a weird life of their own, wilfully wandering off into the ether — although leaving them in the shirts, to fend for themselves in the washing machine, probably doesn’t help.

When I was first ordained, I started wearing them for a bit of variety — having always enjoyed wearing colour when young (I looked pretty good in scarlet), I found endless black rather stultifying. (Pretty pastel clerical shirts, anyone? Over my dead body.)

So, cufflinks were a creative outlet. I originally had some beautiful, precious ones: silver and amethyst from Rome, silver-gilt from Covent Garden, and my grandfather’s gold pair. Added to these were college cufflinks from York and Oxford universities, and from my theological college, St Stephen’s House. Among others, I accrued pewter Celtic crosses, silver lovers’ knots, wrought-iron nuts and bolts, delicate mother-of-pearl creations, and art deco enamel pieces.

Alas, apart from the gold ones (which have awaited repair since their chain broke, more than two decades ago), most are now single. These days, I wander round the charity shops in Uckfield (at the last count, there were 14 on the High Street) in search of cheap pairs, and my current “working” cufflinks include starbursts, the Atomic Agency, and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

Maybe I should be totally radical and wear unrelated singles, as Peggy Guggenheim used to do with her earrings? No. One can go too far.

Till the work be done

I HAVE never before had to take a funeral for an institution. Our church school, Holy Cross Primary, died at midnight on 31 December last, having served the town for some 173 years. At one time, it had a roll of more than 300 pupils, and was a flagship school in the area; but, as the town grew, the new satellite estates acquired their own schools, and we gradually lost our catchment area.

Add to this some 17 years of “Requires Improvement” in our Ofsted reports, and — even though we finally achieved “Good”, and paraded round the town centre telling everyone — our numbers continued to haemorrhage until finally, when we closed, we had just 11 children. I have a photo of them with me, the interim head, and the last teachers. It was heartbreaking.

Like any death, there was much grief, hurt, and disbelief — not just for our church community, but for the wider town. Generations of our townsfolk had been pupils there; so we needed to have a thanksgiving service (i.e. a funeral), which we held a few weeks ago. Against expectation, it was joyous.

Some 300 people came — former pupils, teachers, staff, volunteers, and governors. It began with the old school hymn “Glad that I live am I” (sung ad nauseum, I was told, to make the pupils grateful to be there), followed by an opening talk from the lovely Clive Cooper (the “Son” in “Cooper & Son”, local family funeral directors), who had been at the school in the early 1950s.

“I want to tell you about one of my teachers, Miss Bastick,” he began. A pause. “I hated her: she was ’orrible.” There was a wave of laughter, and you could see everyone relax, and the event took off.

Rainbow through the rain

LIKE any funeral, if you can get people laughing and crying, you’re doing a good job, and this service was no different. Other pupils, teachers, and governors spoke of their lives there, finishing with a girl who had left recently, and was now training as a midwife.

Afterwards, there was a wake. It should have been in our church centre, which had been the buildings of the Victorian school before its move to an adjacent site in the 1960s, but we were double-booked; so we had refreshment stations in the church itself. That actually worked better, as people stayed and chatted — friends and colleagues who hadn’t seen one another for years.

All in all, a good and cathartic experience. It still hurts, though.

Sartorial challenges

AFTER much deliberation (as flagged up in this column a few weeks ago), I turned up for jury service in a clerical collar (Diary 19 January). I wasn’t selected on the first day; on the second, I was told by a jury officer that my collar made me look conspicuous,and so, for my own well-being, it was probably not a good idea. So, I took it off. But then what to wear? The only direction was to dress “smartly in comfortable clothes: no swimwear”. But (if swimming trunks were denied) what?

I never wear ties: for formal occasions, I wear clericals (with aforementioned cufflinks); if informal, chinos and sweatshirt, which felt a bit inappropriate. In the end, I opted for an open-necked shirt and warm, woolly jumper — which was fortunate, as the jury room leaked. There were buckets on the table, and, on my last day, the heating broke down, and there was no hot water. The judge, sighing, observed that this was what things were like in court these days.

It all felt very odd: the last time I’d been in that court was with the High Sheriff, as her chaplain, wearing full choir dress. At least, this time, no cufflinks were harmed in the proceedings.

The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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