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Diary: Pat Ashworth

09 February 2024


Waits and measures

THE inexorable approach of the end-of-January deadline for filing my self-assessment tax return means that I can no longer procrastinate. I’m dragged reluctantly to the close scrutiny of my bank statements for the tax year in question: a task that leads me to conclude that I can measure out my life in coffee spoons, or their equivalent in stops at motorway service stations.

Bank statements are better than a diary in tracking 12 months of activity. Where this exercise is concerned, they prove to be as much a record of the highs and lows of daily life as a check on income and expenditure.

Without sentiment — mere figures on a page — they have the power to jolt the memory and even stir the emotions; for here’s the pasty I buy on the long drive home from a weekend up north: a time of anxious nights and difficult decisions to be made. The journey back is in rain and darkness, and the motorway is busy. The pasty is only half-warm, and served without eye contact at the end of someone’s very long day. She looks sad and pinched.

Here are the banana and flapjack hastily purchased on Cardiff Station in case there is no catering on the train. Here are the emergency forays to the Co-op during the long, hot weeks of the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury. Here’s the dental bill for the damage inflicted by a rogue hazelnut — paid with gratitude. Here is a bistro in Lichfield; a drugstore in Ridgefield, Connecticut; an airport lounge in Inverness. My life in coffee spoons.


A safe stronghold

LENT is too early, surely: how can Ash Wednesday possibly be on St Valentine’s Day? Christmas seems barely over; we are preparing music for Candlemas; I’m asked if I’ll put together a Good Friday service. The Church’s year is accelerating too fast.

It’s late January, and there are storm warnings for Sunday from 6 p.m., when we have a Taizé service prepared. Winds are forecast to gust up to 80 mph, and there’s a 98-per-cent chance of a torrential downpour. Do we cancel? Will anybody come? We lay out the candles on the floor. The pianist and flautist rehearse, and their sublime cadences rise above the sound of the wind rattling the rafters.

And people come, stamping their boots, shaking their brollies, and smoothing their wild hair. The candles flicker. We are a haven in the storm, and it is beautiful.


Lest we forget

JANUARY brings other commemorations: a delightful Burns Night supper with friends entails not only solemnly addressing the haggis, but reading with relish the poet’s gruesome tale of Tam o’ Shanter. Just how gruesome is evident only when the words are spoken out loud in the dialect, however execrably we perform it.

It’s a nightmare scenario of unchristened bairns, hanged thieves, cut throats: “Five tomahawks, wi’ blude red-rusted; Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted”. I’ll never think about Burns in the same way again, though his simple grace before meals remains a favourite: “Some hae meat and canna eat And some wad eat that want it: But we hae meat and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.”

Holocaust Memorial Day is properly sombre, faithfully commemorated here each year in a dignified ceremony in a walled garden, which this year emphasises the fragility of freedom.

I shall never forget standing alone in a darkened gallery at Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem, where a litany of the names and pictures of the children killed in the Holocaust is played in perpetuity. Nothing speaks more powerfully of the pity of it. Years after, those images remain burned on the mind.


Eye of newt

THERE is a lot of illness about, and a chest infection necessitates a visit to what proves to be a locum GP. He has a very shiny leather doctor’s bag, from which he extracts a pulse oximeter. It isn’t working. He stares hard at the batteries before digging out a second instrument, which doesn’t appear to be working, either. He sighs and rummages no further.

I’m fascinated by what else is in the bag, but I can’t see. My researches into Dr Erasmus Darwin have revealed intriguing things about the practice of medicine in the 18th century. He was a model physician, who spent time with his patients and thought afresh about the body as a whole. Rich patients subsidised the poor, whom he didn’t charge; some of them recuperated in his own house.

He prescribed liberally, but, beyond a cornucopia of herbs, medicine was still crude, there was no anaesthesia, and little available to the physician by way of remedies. His doctor’s bag, Jenny Uglow points out in her book The Lunar Men, might still have contained “spider’s webs, Spanish flies, pigeon’s blood, hoofs of elks, eggs of ants, spawn of frogs, dung of horse, pig and peacock, human skulls and mummies”. My prescribed antibiotic pales in comparison.


Musica universalis

OUR church organist and choir director, David Hanford, has been in post for 40 years, and we are planning a celebratory choral evensong. His Sunday-evening voluntaries are my lifeblood — a tide of glorious music to propel me through the week ahead.

Incumbents come and go over the decades, and we’ve been in interregnum now for more than 18 months. Music has proved to be a constant and a binding thing: a glue that holds us together. The Church would be poorer without it, and we lose it at our peril.


Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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