‘Fatherlike He tends and spares us / All our fears and hopes He knows’

My grandfather died a few weeks ago, aged eighty-eight. My three other grandparents have been gone a long time: my mother’s parents died nearly thirty years ago, within a few months of each other despite being nine years apart in age (I have written about their wedding as described in my grandmother’s diary: see In praise of the handwritten word); and my paternal grandmother died when I was doing my A-levels (I missed her funeral because of them). My grandfather has also, in many ways, been absent for some time, his mind having gone on ahead, if I can put it like that.[1]

I find it very difficult to think about Grandted in isolation. Thinking about my grandfather also means thinking about my father, who is so like (and yet so unlike) him. For example, my father cares enormously about his physical fitness, whereas my grandfather was overweight for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, Grandted, with his few remaining teeth and enormous bulk, reminded me of Hugo das Nilpferd, the eponymous hippopotamus hero from a wunderbucher that we had read to us as children; we never learnt to read it for ourselves as neither of us had much of an ear for German, so all my memories of the book consist of the illustrations only, showing Hugo, huge and mauve, in various predicaments.[2]

Hugo das Nilpferd
Hugo, das Nilpferd

My father is entirely un-Hugo-like: (spoiler alert!) he is not mauve and, to my knowledge, has never got stuck in a bath or mistaken a piano for a crocodile. He is also physically compact, dense and muscular, rather like a bantam. In his capacity as Grandted’s eldest child, and supposedly the most comfortable with public speaking, my father gave the eulogy at Grandted’s funeral. He described this as a cathartic experience, and no doubt it was; the most striking thing about it for me, however, was how much of what Dad presented to us was new information. How little Grandted talked about himself and his work. Why did my brother and I always call him Grandted, for example? My father provided the answer here, writing as follows:

[Ian] didn’t much fancy G’father, G’pa or G’dad, I think because of his own faintly remembered past (but, I wonder, did he have opportunity to know either of his own grandfathers?). He liked one or both of you (it was probably you, Jess) referring to him as a big Teddy Bear[3] hence the suggested contraction to GrandTed. Naturally [Mother] and I (but mostly me) were tickled at him being ‘taken for GrandTed’, so we perpetuated what was probably, initially, only going to be a passing label.

Why did he use his middle name (Ian) when his first name is Hubert? Both Ian and Ian’s parents were quite clear that he was to be known as Ian, so why bother with Hubert at all? Does my father get his habit of referring to everyone by initials from Ian, or is that all his own?[4] Dad maintains this is an academic habit, and yet none of the academics I work with now seem to have it. Why was Ian so insistent about lunch coinciding with the one o’clock pips? Even his memorial lunch made note of this:

The date [May 13th] would have amused Ian as he was super-rational rather than superstitious; the time [1230] less so, as at home he insisted firmly that lunch start with the one o’clock time signal.

Ian was a lecturer at the University of Newcastle (or King’s College Durham, as I think it probably was when he first joined) in computing science and maths. My father is a mathematician, and yet it is only in the last few weeks that Dad has actually found and read Ian’s seminal paper[5]; nobody in the family has a copy of his thesis and Dad is the only one who remembers ever discussing it with him.[6]

Ian (right), probably in 1997 celebrating the fortieth birthday of his Department. I found this captioned ‘And at the KDF9 party the drinks were *that* big!’


I’ve discovered recently at choir that one of my fellow tenors and I have no overlap whatsoever in our musical tastes: each announcement of a new piece draws a groan from one and a small cheer from the other, but never the same reaction from both. By contrast, my father and I seem to agree almost universally on our favourite hymns. Dad had several things to say about his father in the eulogy (particularly his formidable reputation as a teacher) that could equally have been said about my father, that I fully expect to repeat in my own eulogy for my own father in about thirty years, and that I hope could and will be said about me when the time comes. No doubt we will repeat at least one of the hymns too, as I note they included two of our favourites: ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, with its supremely comforting, swirling tune; and ‘Praise My Soul the King of Heaven’. The line I have used as the title for this post is from the third verse of the latter hymn, which is often sung by female voices only. That verse always reminds me (although these memories are very old and necessarily dim) of Dad handling a pipistrelle he had found in the kitchen: ‘In His hands He gently bears us / Rescues us from all our foes’, which in this case would be the cats.

Another mutual favourite with a fatherly flavour is ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’. Researching it online, I discovered that the words were written long before the tune, in response to both a near-miss on the high seas for William Whiting (who wrote the words) and a conversation some years later with a student of his about to embark for America and understandably nervous of the ocean voyage. What a beautiful, mournful tune this hymn has! As with so many hymn tunes, even those associated primarily with one set of words only, the tune has its own name (Melita).[7] Dad and I have played and sung this hymn together many times. My strongest memory of singing this hymn is from a lifeboat service; these are usually held in the summer in Cornwall, and every one I’ve been to has included this hymn. On the most memorable occasion, I was with my mother, and we stood on the cliffs at Boscastle to sing a variety of hymns, including ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, much to Mum’s disgust. She didn’t often express hatred of specific things out loud, but if she had been forced to make a list that summer, I think it would have included caraway seeds, the colour blue, spending time with me and my father, and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. We followed this with ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’, which we sang with such vigour that a harbour seal who had popped up to see what we were doing decided the sea wasn’t so bad after all and swam off in a tremendous hurry.

‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’ was the final hymn at the lifeboat service, after the names of and prayers for those who had died at sea that year had been read. There was a sizeable crowd on the cliffs, many openly weeping as we sang (‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea’). My father, who never cries[8], describes it as ‘easy to cry to’, and he’s right: hymns (particular old, familiar ones) have a way of expressing emotions we otherwise might not be able to describe. ‘Praise My Soul’ contains a line that captured Grandted’s funeral well for me, watching Dad wrestle manfully with grief, relief and the eulogy all at once: ‘Praise Him for His grace and favour / To our fathers in distress’.

[1] I discovered while searching for Ian’s paper online that my uncle Colin has set up a fundraising page to allow donations to Alzheimer’s Research in Ian’s memory.

[2] Nilpferd meaning ‘horse of the Nile’, as opposed to the Greek word hippopotamus, meaning ‘horse of the river’. We shorten it to ‘hippo’, which just means ‘horse’ and therefore makes no sense.

[3] Regular readers might recall that I also refer to my husband as Giant Bear. I can only suggest that Big Ted has a lot to answer for.

[4] My father has, for as long as I have been receiving emails from him, signed them (and indeed all personal communication, including birthday cards) with his initials.

[5] G.S. Rushbrooke and H.I. Scoins, ‘On the theory of fluids’, Proceedings of the Royal Society (January 1953), vol. 216.

[6] To misappropriate Hamlet, we didn’t really know him, Horatio.

[7] Melita is an old name for Malta; Malta was the site of a shipwreck (St. Paul was aboard) described in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27, and so perhaps this is how the hymn-tune acquired its name.

[8] What, never? No, never? What, never? Well … hardly ever!

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see Owl Chess and Strigiphobia). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically; the fiction is also arranged this way, which means that The House At Pooh Corner lives between Arthur Miller’s solitary novel The Misfits and two volumes of erotica by Alberto Moravia. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with Scott’s Last Expedition on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the metaphorical diabetic wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like (say) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8]

Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’.

Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder’ with ‘I watched a murder’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally (but, importantly, not physically) involved in what he or she observes. Even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ won’t do. Compare this to the translator’s note in my edition of Discipline and Punish (p. ix) on how the Englist title for Foucault’s Surveiller et punir has been arrived at, in particular the thoughts of the translator Alan Sheridan’s on the infinitive ‘surveiller’:

the verb ‘surveiller’ has no adequate English equivalent. Our noun ‘surveillance’ has an altogether too restricted and technical use. Jeremy Bentham used the term ‘inspect’ – which Foucault translates as ‘surveiller’ – but the range of connotations does not correspond. ‘Supervise’ is perhaps closest of all, but again the word has different associations. ‘Observe’ is rather too neutral, though Foucault is aware of the aggression involved in any one-sided observation. In the end, Foucault himself suggested Discipline and Punish, which relates closely to the book’s structure.

Some readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘hono[u]r.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they are (and/or deserve to be) centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie, and if there are penalties for leaving the group. Three, it may give them a sense of power: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Four, they may genuinely think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion, and that what you do is more important than why you do it. Five, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t have sufficient knowledge of English to think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).

Indecisive Cake

I grew up in rural north Cornwall, on the outskirts of a tiny village, with no pub, shop or post office, but a medieval church, a village green, and an abundance of cows, foxes and old people. From time to time, we would make an expedition to what passed for civilisation, so as to purchase shoes, duck food and other necessities. Our destination of choice was, occasionally, Launceston (pronounced ‘Laaaaance-un’), where I could get my hair cut in a place called Tangles for £4.50, my mother could buy some curtain fabric she didn’t need, and my father could take us all to the Mad Hatter’s café on Church Street for coffee when being in a conurbation of more than twenty houses got too overwhelming.

I mention this because the Mad Hatter’s café (and the cake menu in particular) has passed into family folklore. The café itself is still there, complete with a hundred-strong teapot collection and Alice in Wonderland décor, but it has changed hands and sadly no longer retains its original menu. In the early ’nineties, this included a bewildering list of homemade cakes, all displayed temptingly under glass. If a customer found himself unable (me) or unwilling (Father) to choose just one kind of cake, he could order Indecisive Cake, which consisted of a trinity of slightly smaller pieces of cake (unless they were ‘getting towards the end’ of a cake, in which you got extra), chosen at random by the proprietor. I don’t think we ever ordered anything else.

On the subject of indecision, I read The Mandelbaum Gate recently, which quotes the Book of Revelation in a way that seems relevant. The same passage featured in a service my beloved choir sang in over the summer, at Lincoln Cathedral. In The Mandelbaum Gate, Revelation is quoted as follows:

‘Do you know,’ said this passionate spinster in a cold and terrifying voice, ‘a passage in the Book of the Apocalypse that applies to your point of view?’

‘I’m afraid the Apocalypse is beyond me,’ Freddy said. ‘I’ve never had the faintest clue what it is all about. I can cope with the Gospels, at least some parts, but –’

‘It goes like this,’ she said, enunciating her words slowly, almost like a chant: ‘I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.’

Freddy did not reply. People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one. It was quite absurd.[1]

It seems to me that religion, religious ceremonies and religious texts, while obviously holding value in and of themselves in terms of structured, collective connection with the Almighty, the consolations and comforts of routine, beautiful words, expressive music and the company of friends, also have a practical purpose that is often overlooked: that of providing direction and assistance with the problems of one’s daily life. Freddy’s assertion that ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one’ is, to me, absurd. What is scripture for, other than to be spoken to other people? This passage from Revelation, for example, has wide application. For one thing, it describes beautifully (and succinctly) the problem of indecision, writ both large and small, and the impatience experienced by the more decisive observer. Had we been able to call it to mind, it would have been a wonderful thing to quote to each other in the Mad Hatter’s café. ‘Father!’ I might have said, ‘I know of my doings and find myself neither lemon drizzle nor coffee-and-walnut; I would I wert one or the other.’ ‘Fear not, my child,’ he might have replied, flourishing the menu. ‘For lo! Behold the wonder that is Indecisive Cake!’

We moved to Cornwall[2] just as the village church was entering what Anglicans charmingly refers to as an interregnum i.e. a compulsory pause between vicars.[3] This meant that the parish passed into a sort of Indecisive Cake period of its own: instead of one vicar conducting all the services, we had several celebrants of various flavours, chosen at random by a higher power.[4] They were mostly aged, well-meaning retired vicars who could be relied upon to read the notices clearly and stay calm in the face of the organist (Father again) playing the tune for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as we all opened our books to sing ‘Love Divine’ or similar. Two stand out in my memory at either end of the quality spectrum, rather like the angel/devil figures so often used in cartoons to illustrate moral conflict. On the angel shoulder was the late lamented Peter Coster; on the other, a man who we always referred to as the Hobgoblin.[5] Peter Coster was a lay reader of great gentleness and charm. He gave thoughtful, well-constructed sermons about whatever topic had taken his attention that week, and kept to a length and subject appropriate to a tiny congregation of elderly villagers. On the devil shoulder, the Hobgoblin was somewhat stronger meat. I think the period I’m talking about here pre-dated Eddie Izzard’s ‘cake or death’ routine, but either way the Hobgoblin did not conform to the notion that you can’t have strong points of view in the Church of England.

I don’t think I ever knew his real name, and in any case the Hobgoblin suited him much better.[6] Top hat notwithstanding, he looked remarkably like the Hobgoblin from Finn Family Moomintroll, with a vigorous beard and dark, menacing eyebrows. The original Swedish title of Finn Family Moomintroll is Trollkarlens Hatt.[7] Trollkarlen (even less recognisable in the Finnish, Taikuri) means ‘Magician’ and the Swedish title (literally ‘The Magician’s Hat’) refers to the Hobgoblin’s search for his magical, transformative top hat. Our Hobgoblin (who may or may not have flown through the air on a panther and may or may not have mislaid the King’s Ruby) had spent some considerable time in the Holy Land, and treated us to wild, distinctly-made-up-sounding declarations, declaimed in Foreign with outstretched arms and blazing eyes.[8] Presumably some of these were blessings and Biblical quotations, but how were we to know? He could just as easily have been translating the parish magazine on the spot. One might modify Freddy’s sentiment accordingly: ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one in a language one does not understand’.

It is reasonable to expect a congregation of Cornish pensioners to find the Hobgoblin somewhat off-putting, with his outbursts of Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish/whatever and mad sermons (some violently anti-Semitic, some only mildly so). I remember one in particular based around the Book of Revelation (possibly even chapter 3, as quoted above), which was almost entirely unintelligible as, channelling Amos Starkadder, he bellowed at us that we (fourteen-year-old me, my parents, and a handful of septuagenarians) were sinners of the first order and should turn aside from the path of fornication before we were gobbled up by the Beast.[9] We took our tongue-lashing in what I assumed was a bewildered silence, but as Father quietly fed a voluntary through the mangle of the tiny, ancient organ to indicate that the Hobgoblin could, if he so wished, sweep magnificently down the aisle and into the vestry, trailing his spotless vestments in a white, cleansing wave behind him, it became apparent that perhaps he knew his flock rather better than I did. He emerged from the vestry, divested (de-vested?) of his vestments, to shake hands with us as we obediently returned our minute hymn-books to the bookcase, and was greeted by Rex, one of the oldest and most Cornish people I have ever known, with a deep bass voice and a handshake of such age-defying vigour that exchanging the peace with him was fraught with danger (‘Peace be with WHAT THE HELL?’). Grasping his hand (the Hobgoblin didn’t flinch as his knuckles were ground into finger paté) and looking him straight in the eye, Rex rumbled, ‘Nice sermon, vicar.’

I don’t know how to apply the Indecisive Cake metaphor to this situation. Should one assume that, were Rex ordering vicar-cake, he would be content to dine on Mad Ranty Sponge every Sunday? Or is it more likely that, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the random vicar-selector was bound to match up with the theological preferences of one of the shuffled inhabitants of the village sooner or later? I’m talking here about style rather than content – I don’t think for a moment that our tiny hamlet was a hotbed of Jew-hating fornicators (although there may have been one or two), but rather that perhaps the Hobgoblin’s fire-and-brimstone style is an example of what the passage from Revelation is driving at: being cold or hot, rather than lukewarm. I take this to mean, in some sense, having the courage of one’s convictions to either be what one is, or to choose what one will be, however distasteful this might appear to others. The Hobgoblin, regardless of what he actually said, did at least fit one set of ideas about what religion ought to be: passionate, taken seriously, and declaimed without shame or self-consciousness. I said earlier that I didn’t feel his Sodom and Gomorrah sermons had much overlap with the needs of his parishioners, but perhaps that isn’t right. Perhaps from time to time, one feels the need for someone who knows whether they are cold or hot. I would thou wert one or the other.


[1] Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate (London: The Reprint Society, 1965), page 16. Biblical Quotation from the King James translation, Book of Revelation, chapter 3. As I noted in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), one should always give one’s sources.

[2] When I say we moved to Cornwall, we actually did. We sold our house in Henley-on-Thames and moved to Cornwall. I mention this because people sometimes assume that the house in Cornwall was a second home, and that therefore we were contributing in some way to the gradual evisceration of the countryside and the communities that live therein. We weren’t: we actually lived there, all the year round. This assumption used to annoy my father so much that sometimes he would bellow at tourists, ‘get out of the way! I’m a LOCAL!’

[3] I don’t know why the church uses this word. Since it refers to a sort of lull, between the acts rather than between kings (and one rarely meets a kingly vicar), ‘intermission’ might be a better term.

[4] The Rural Dean, according to Father, although I think it’s clear he was merely the Lord’s instrument (as are we all).

[5] Discussion with Father revealed that he always assumed Peter spelled his surname ‘Coster’ as in costermonger, and I always assumed ‘Costa’. I have used ‘Coster’ here as a. Father is more likely to have seen it written down and b. this makes the whole name closer to Paternoster, which pleases me greatly.

[6] Father comments as follows: ‘None of us knew the Hobgoblin’s name except the senior churchwarden, who didn’t share as if we might be contaminated.’ Father does not indicate whether we would contaminate the Hobgoblin or he would contaminate us.

[7] Tove Jansson, while Finnish, wrote her books in Swedish.

[8] The first time he did this, I whispered to my mother (both of us cowering in the pews, unable to look away), ‘is he speaking in tongues?’

[9] From my maternal grandmother’s diary, Sunday, Jan 24th 1929: ‘Screaming minister at church’. Nothing new under the sun.

Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together

I went to the funeral of my driving instructor this week. We lost touch after I moved back to Bristol, so I had to infer that her death (which was very sudden) was caused by a heart attack, based on the fact that we were asked to donate to the British Heart Foundation in lieu of sending flowers, and also from the fact that the eulogy made no mention of any kind of illness, long or short. It took me four attempts to pass my driving test and so many lessons that I lost count. My poor night vision and basic lack of spatial awareness were the main problems, plus the fact that I hate driving.[1] However, as long as nobody asks me to park quickly or well, and provided I don’t have to explain how a roundabout is supposed to work, I am a borderline competent driver.[2] The fact that I can drive at all is entirely down to her.

I drove to her funeral, and found that this meant passing through Somerset on the very roads we had driven along together, nearly eight years ago. I had decided to try to think about her as I drove anyway, but found that the memories arose easily and unbidden. I am not a patient teacher, but she was. Between lessons, she turned over in her mind things that might help me overcome my faults as a driver; she would clap excitedly and say ‘I’ve thought of a new pune or play on words that will help you remember this!’[3] For example, crawling right up to a give-way line was referred to as ‘creep-and-peep’; ‘I thought you crept and pept very well that time’, she would say, giggling at her own joke. She encouraged me to learn from the mistakes of other drivers, tapping the dashboard and pointing to cars parked too close to each other or motorists trapped forlornly in yellow cross-hatched boxes at traffic lights. ‘Can you spot their deliberate mistake?’ she would say, completely deadpan. ‘It’s very considerate of them to do that right in front of a learner.’ She knew how much I hated roundabouts, which, combined with my fear of stalling, tended to make me drive them too quickly. As we approached a mini-roundabout, she would exclaim in my ear ‘rind the rind-a-bite!’ (as in bacon rind) to remind me to do it properly (I still say this now if I’m driving alone). When I finally passed my test, it was administered by a chap who tests driving instructors themselves, and only does the odd driving test to keep his hand in, so when she saw him get into the car with me she was certain (she told me afterwards) I was going to fail for a fourth time. When I came bouncing across the car park, I told her I had driven a two-lane roundabout correctly before I told her that I had, finally, at the age of twenty-seven, passed my driving test. She always insisted on driving home after I had failed a test, and this triumphal drive home (with her at the wheel again, so as not to jinx it) was punctuated with exclamations of ‘I’m so pleased about that roundabout!’ from both of us.

I drove well all the way to the church, and then did a bit of my trademark wonky parking, nestling right up to the next car on the right so that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s side until I had done half-a-dozen wriggles, firmly convinced that all I was doing was driving half-out of the bay at an angle and then reversing back in without improving the situation. I suspect that one of the reasons my parking has never improved is that my driving instructor used to find my total incompetence in this area very funny, and would often sit in the passenger seat bubbling with giggles while she tried to think of something encouraging to say, the car’s buttocks sticking out into traffic, the nose buried in a hedge. Her funeral was exactly what I expected: church packed to the rafters, service heartfelt, well-meaning and short. As well as flowers, the undertakers placed her rooftop driving instructor box on the coffin. I have no fear of death itself, but coffins scare the bejesus out of me.[4] However, I found that seeing this old familiar thing meant that I was able to look at the coffin without difficulty. The vast majority of the congregation were clearly not church-goers.[5] This became abundantly clear when the vicar suggested we close the prayers by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Since nobody else knew them (and couldn’t read them from the order of service, apparently), he (and I) also recited the words of the nunc dimittis more or less alone as the coffin was carried out of the building.

All day, I was reminded of how I felt when my first mother-in-law died, also of a heart attack (see The day after New Year’s Day) and we drove through wintry Sussex to the crematorium: numb, sad, and old. I remember a time in my mid-twenties when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married and I was spending every weekend of every summer rushing off to some marquee or other; now I’m at the age where I have more funerals to go to than weddings. The two women were also similar characters in many ways: warm, generous, reliable, capable, focused on their families. My mother-in-law was outlived by her own nonagenarian mother, and so was my driving instructor. Her mother, a bright and sensible woman in her eighties, did the first reading, which was that lovely poem by Henry Scott Holland that begins ‘Death is nothing at all’.[6] She read it beautifully, in a tone that seemed to accept the finality and weightiness of death while simultaneously dismissing it as trivia. After the funeral I spent some time driving around more of the places we used for lessons. I even drove along minor roads to the next town over, joining the motorway a junction further down than I would otherwise do and making myself late for dinner so that I could paddle about in the past a little longer.

At the time of her death, my driving instructor was, unbelievably, fifty-six; my mother-in-law fifty-nine. As I drove home, thinking about this, and how each funeral I go to makes me feel a little older, I remembered how old I had felt when I took my theory test (everyone else was an acne-spattered seventeen-year-old). I pulled out on the motorway into the middle lane, to escape a lorry that had been driving a few inches from my rear bumper, and suddenly remembered what she used to say when a truck drove too close to us during a lesson. ‘I expect that truck driver wants to get in the back seat,’ she would say, before wriggling her shoulders and saying firmly, ‘but I’m far too old for that.’ I don’t think there is such a thing as being too young to die, since young people die all the time, and often in ways that are far more drawn out and horrible than an unexpected heart attack. Nevertheless, I feel too young to have buried these two women, both younger than my mother, and who both seemed to have a lot more time ahead of them. Henry Scott Holland’s poem goes on, ‘I have only slipped away to the next room’, and perhaps that is the point: if death really is nothing at all, and all we are doing is opening a connecting door (as we might do in order to fetch something quietly from another room at a party, not wanting to interrupt the conversation), we cannot be surprised when Death enters, unannounced, and locks the door behind him.


[1] I hate driving because I’m not good at it. The fact that I’m not good at it makes me hate it, and so we circle around, trapped on an eternal gyratory system of mediocrity.

[2] She once brought toy cars to a lesson in an attempt to show me how I could turn right safely at a roundabout, but I think there must be some kind of ziggle-zaggle in my brain where roundabouts are concerned: the explanation rolls in and then right out again, making a lot of noise as it goes, but ultimately leaving nothing behind it but empty space.

[3] A pune or play on words is, of course, a reference to Terry Pratchett, which I am delighted to say is something that I taught her.

[4] The correct term for this is taphophobia, from the Greek taphos, meaning grave. It manifests itself primarily as an inability to look directly at a coffin. I’ve made it very clear to Giant Bear that I want to be buried in a cardboard box under a tree.

[5] The girl sitting in front of me, for example, had decided that an appropriate thing to wear to a funeral was a top through which her entire bra was visible.

[6] The third verse begins with the lines I have used for the title of this post: ‘Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together. / Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me. / Let my name be ever the household word / that it always was. / Let it be spoken without effect, / without the trace of a shadow on it’.

The uncharitable goat

The idea for this post came from a fabulous[1] Coope, Boyes and Simpson[2] song, ‘Unison in Harmony’. There are a couple of versions of this song on YouTube, but the quality of the recording does not do them justice.[3] You’ll just have to buy their albums, which you can do at No Masters. If you’re lucky you even get a little thank you note from Jim (Boyes) with your CD (I love this. You don’t get that when you buy a Steps album. Or perhaps you do, to make up for the fact that you now own a Steps album). I have been thinking about the function of music in a church context. As I understand it, the sacrifice of praise is the idea that we no longer sacrifice animals for God, but instead sacrifice our time, energy and thought in making music that glorifies Him in His infinite variety. Not only is this a lot less messy (and more meaningful) than setting fire to pigeons or similar, for me it is the fundamental expression of faith. Even that isn’t strong enough: I believe that music and religion are the same thing. I should point out that Coope, Boyes and Simpson don’t share my faith[4] and that’s just fine. I think, however, that we do agree on this point: what we sing is what we are.[5]

Elbert Hubbard says this:

Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.[6]

I think this can usefully be applied here. The blessing often includes asking God to pour Himself out, but I suggest that this is already happening. I also suggest that Hubbard’s idea that thought can be transformative also describes something that is already happening. If you accept my premise that music and religion are one and the same, then what is happening during the process of making that music is that God is pouring Himself through your instrument (or your voice, or your limbs) and out into the world as sound, so that you overflow with music and assorted holiness. The music is literally transformative: the musicians become His instruments, simultaneously praising God and conducting Him outwards through themselves. It isn’t simply telling God that He is brilliant; He doesn’t need to hear that, and certainly not from the likes of us. It is so much more, and so much more important, than that.

However. I must at this point admit to two personal failings. Firstly, I am only able to apply this to music that I like. Music that I like = religion. Music that I don’t like = not religion, and therefore (by my logic above), not music. Secondly, Duke Ellington[7] said there were two kinds of music (good and bad), and I like both. I like Run DMC (gangsters), Duran Duran (WTF?), Spandau Ballet (terrible lyrics), Huey Lewis and the News (favourite band of Patrick Bateman) and the B52s (the chap basically can’t sing at all). I like ‘Show Me The Way’ (some of the stupidest lyrics ever written[8]) and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls (really sexist) and ‘The Look Of Love’. This last is obviously not the Dusty Springfield song, but the stupendously silly song of the same name by ABC. Click on the link to watch the preposterous video, complete with an Alpenhorn, a guy eating spaghetti while Martin Fry bellows in his ear, followed by an altercation with a Punch and Judy crocodile. And I don’t like it: I fucking love it. This merely scratches the surface of my total lack of taste when it comes to music, so I hope you’ll see that a song has to be truly awful for me to dislike it. And yet, I’m struggling to choose just one example of a song that I hate from the hundreds available. This is bad, bad stuff. Oooh, it’s bad. Take ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine (I include the link so that you can judge for yourself, but for the sake of your own sanity I beg you not to read the comments underneath the video as they will make your brain bleed). As Mitchell and Webb’s snooker commentators might say, oh and that’s a bad hymn (it actually pains me to describe it as a hymn. I think the correct term is ‘worship song’, but that’s even more horrible). It has everything: ghastly lyrics, a disjointed verse tune that puts the emphasis in the wrong places, a stubbornly unsingable chorus and a load of unnecessary clapping. Although my problem obviously isn’t just with Graham Kendrick (who wrote this sentimental drivel, and so much else), but rather with all of that kind of rubbish, nevertheless I’m at a loss to tell you just how much I dislike his work and everything it stands for. It is bland, wet, waffle-ridden, predictable, simplistic, derivative braindead nonsense. It’s lame and ridiculous and embarrassing, and entirely inadequate as a response to any of the things I believe God has done.

Sacred music for evensong, Christmas, Holy Week and other such purposes aside, even if one just focuses on hymns for Sunday morning, we have ‘O Praise Ye The Lord’ and ‘For All The Saints’ and ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’ and ‘Abide With Me’ and ‘Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven’ and ‘Love Divine’ and a hundred others: proper hymns with proper words that everyone can belt out without embarrassment. I include atheists here because I think everyone likes a good[9] hymn. I think even people who don’t believe that God exists would like to think that, if He did, He would be the kind of God those hymns describe (‘His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form/And dark is His path on the wings of the storm’. Now that’s religion). Proper old-fashioned gospel would also be fine, of course, and entirely appropriate as a sacrifice of praise. But not wanky, whiney rubbish, bleated out over the rainbow-encrusted strap of a badly-tuned guitar, probably sung with eyes squeezed shut (sincerity or shame? Nobody knows), while in the background a motley assortment of instruments twang and hoob and blart their way through, I don’t know, ‘Meekness and Majesty’, in never-before-seen combinations of flute, trumpet, viola, ukulele, tom-toms and a tambourine no-one knows how to use or when to put down. It’s terribly well-meaning[10], but does it really take the place of a goat breathing its last?I think even a goat earmarked for destruction would feel a little bit cheated to be spared death and immolation in favour of three horrible verses of, say, ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ (does ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ even have three verses? I don’t care enough to check). Here is a link to a particularly hateful version of the song for those of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with it; the sub-gospel pseudo-improvisation over the chorus just after the completely gratuitous key-change is mind-blowingly horrible. I suggest you get out your cigarette lighter for the final chorus (so as to have something to stuff into your ears if it all gets too much). Oh, I could not hate this song more; I can feel my skin prickling into a rash as the nauseatingly soppy chorus approaches, which, in case you’ve not managed to listen as far as the chorus (and who could blame you?) has the following words:

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord.

Doesn’t it make you want to vomit out of sheer frustration? It’s just not good enough to say ‘You’re the best’ to God. You’re the best? He made the sea and sky and you and me and everything else, and then, for reasons we cannot possibly grasp fully, He died for you, Kendrick. Take it seriously.

This kind of thing leaves me trapped between the Scylla of judgementalism (‘I really hated that. Were you playing the descant on a glockenspiel?’) and the Charybdis of hypocrisy (‘That bit on the glockenspiel was awesome! Can I jam with you guys?’). I’m ashamed to say that I would rather be judgemental than politely hypocritical. I am the uncharitable goat.

[1] What am I saying? They’re all fabulous.

[2] For my money the best vocal group in the UK. As well as being phenomenally talented, they are also tremendously humble, nice chaps. I met them at a vocal workshop at Queensbury Festival 2009 and came over all unnecessary. Garden Naturalist says I’m allowed to divorce him for one of them if I so wish, as (in his words), he’d do the same if he had the opportunity.

[3] Instead, here’s their amazing cover of ‘Now Is the Cool Of The Day.

[4] I base this assertion on another line from ‘Unison in Harmony’: ‘hearts on fire but/no Messiah’, which I believe they also wrote.

[5] These people, for example, are idiots. The lyrics make Jesus sound like a predatory caretaker: ‘Once I tried to run / I tried to run and hide / But Jesus came and found and He touched me down inside’ <face/desk>. Even small children can see through such nonsense, as you can see from this completely wonderful parody.

[6] Seymour quotes a much longer passage and has some interesting things to say in this post.

[7] I’ve heard this quotation attributed to Stevie Wonder as well, and I’ve also heard Ray Charles repeat it with the caveat ‘I don’t know who said this, but I agree’. I think Duke Ellington is the most likely originator.

[8] This is also in total defiance of High Fidelity and what it has to say about Peter Frampton (that’s mainly focused on ‘Baby I Love Your Way‘, but who cares – I love that song too).

[9] The words ‘good’ and ‘God’ come from the same root, and effectively mean the same thing: ‘good’ just means ‘of God’, so there is no excuse for hymns to be anything other than ‘good’.

[10] Of course when done by people under the age of twelve this is utterly charming and therefore I like it and therefore it is music and holy. The nativity play at church this year featured just such a random ensemble of violin, trombone, piano and percussion, and it was adorable.


As this year’s Applefest wassail approaches (see Eve’s Pudding), I have been flicking back through my diary, which I only seem to have time to write when on cathedral tour. This passage here caught my eye, written in Rosslare while waiting for the ferry.

The only thing one can do at the ferryport is, in fact, to leave and walk along the surprisingly lovely beach. The grey water remained calm as it waited, coiled, for our ferry. Way out to sea, a flock of gannets were diving (presumably there was a much-televised bait-ball just under the surface). They are huge birds, silver in colour and dagger-like somehow as they strike the water. Compare this evidence of Nature’s magnificence with man’s contribution to the scene: Rosslare Europort.[1]  It is a blighted demi-building like an abandoned general post office, with nothing in it and nothing around it. The train station also refers to itself as Rosslare Europort, presumably in the mistaken belief that putting ‘euro’ in front of a word makes it sound cool and international, when even cursory consideration of the Eurofighter would have shown otherwise. The website implied that the top floor of the ferryport was a bustling Continental festival of coffee shops and waterfront bars, when in fact it is a deserted waiting room with carpet made from dogs that have been passed through a trouser press; no food whatever, except what can be bought from the hatchet-faced woman in the kiosk downstairs (Jill bought a cup of coffee from her, which smelt so awful that she had to take it back); and one pointless picnic table outside on the benighted terrace, staring straight out to sea. All the ferries seem to shuttle between Rosslare and Fishguard only (Wales-Ireland and back again is borderline ‘international’, to my mind) and there is nowhere secure to leave one’s stuff. If ever there was a place to kill oneself, Rosslare Europort is it.

[1] I note that on her trip to Ireland last year, the ferry wasn’t good enough for the Queen (unsurprising, since it wasn’t really good enough for us).


As promised (see Owl Chess), here is the story of how the choir came by its anti-mascot, The Owl. The year was 2008; the month was August; and for some reason the good people of Truro Cathedral had allowed a choir of nine people to sing their evensong services for a week. The scene is set, gentle reader. Naturally, you suspect nothing. Neither did we.

Our rehearsal space for the week was the song school in the space beneath the cathedral. I hesitate to say ‘crypt’, but it was certainly subterranean and dark, as that word appears to imply.[1] The room contained a grand piano, some rehearsal desks, and approximately two hundred owls. For reasons that we did not dare to enquire into, the vergers had accumulated and maintained a parliament of owls that filled a shelf running the whole length of the room. Apart from a live owl in a cage, there was every kind of owl an owl-fancier could possibly desire: plastic owls, fluffy owls, stuffed owls, china owls, glass owls, wooden owls. There were owls that doubled as nocturnal pencil sharpeners; owls small enough to be slipped into a handbag and others emphatically not; owls with friendly, querulous expressions, and others that could peck the face off a child. The old adage about the eyes of a portrait appearing to follow you around the room had nothing on this shelf of accusing faces.

At the time of our trip, my mother had a shop in a nearby coastal village, from whence she sold souvenirs and other non-essential items. Cathedrals usually take pity on visiting choirs and allow them one day in the week on which they are not required to do six or more hours of singing. Accordingly, on our day off, a select band of adventurers drove over to Mother’s shop for fish-and-chips and a walk on the cliffs, and we mentioned the shelf of owls to her over a cup of tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I might have something’ and proceeded to rummage around in a glass-fronted cabinet that to the casual observer was already filled to bursting with china puffins. From some inner recess, she produced two fluffy toy owls. They were about the size of tennis balls, mostly white and with sticky-up ‘ears’, from whence projected another inch or so of diabolical whisker. Both wall-eyed abominations appeared to be scowling. We bought these horrors (i.e. regardless of how vile they were, she still wanted actual money in exchange for exorcism), and, when we finished our week in Truro, we left them back-to-back on the piano in the song school as a present to the vergers. This should have been the end of the matter.

On returning home, I started to unpack my case (I’m one of those annoying people who like to unpack as soon as possible) and there, in my suitcase, was an owl. Not one of the evil twins we had purchased from my capitalist parent; and not one of the smaller specimens from the cathedral that I might have stolen in a moment of mental blankness. This was a third owl, exactly like its demonic cathedral-bound siblings, except for two important facts. One, the other two owls were in Truro Cathedral rather than in my house; and two, this owl was, in some mysterious way, able to insert itself into a pair of tights like an evil sausage and a suitcase without human help.[2] I looked at it. It looked at me. I blinked first.

Over the next twelve months, he bided his time. Every member of the choir denied strenuously that they had placed him in my suitcase (as did my mother) and I gradually came to the conclusion that, odd and unexplained as it was, it probably didn’t matter very much. Accordingly, when cathedral tour rolled around (this time our destination was Peterborough, the armpit of England), I felt that the trip would not be complete without him, so I packed him in my suitcase, prodding my memory all the while for spasms of déjà vu (there weren’t any). I was very careful to put him right at the bottom wrapped in a sock so that he didn’t peck holes in my underwear during the trip. When we arrived and I opened the suitcase, there he was. Houdini-like, he had worked his way through eight inches of clothing to the very top of the case, entirely devoid of sock and fixing me with what I think Edgar Allen Poe would call a basilisk eye. He then spent the rest of the day showing me what he could do. Our second tenor’s car, with half the choir in it, exploded on the Bristol ring-road; another tenor arrived in Peterborough six hours late and raving about trains; and the strap of my favourite bag snapped and wrapped itself around my leg as I crossed a busy road. Upon opening the bag, there was the owl, which I distinctly remembered locking in a cupboard. The inevitable game of Owl Chess took on a disturbing flavour. He was drawing-pinned to a notice-board by his wings; he was taped to the ceiling; he was present at a twenty-first birthday party; he took a turn in the microwave, where he revolved much as the bodies of the hanged might swing gently in the wind. He was even strapped to a tiny remote-controlled car (purchased specially) and driven around my bedroom at night, an event which I recorded in my diary as follows:

[There was] a knock on my door about twenty minutes after saying goodnight. Had just removed bra so was a while getting to the door. Opened it to find the wretched OWL strapped to a remote-controlled car with plasters (T having used all the tape in sticking IT to the ceiling). T, B and M all wetting themselves with laughter in the corridor (apparently unaware that I had already seen M sprinting down the corridor earlier when I launched myself in the direction of the bathroom somewhat unexpectedly). I think M had intended the Owl Express to lurch menacingly into my darkened room and then round and round in a series of sinister ellipses, but in fact it stuck in the carpet, making urgent and constipated chewing noises. M said, “that’s a dead waste of £25”, but I couldn’t disagree more.

These days, safely returned to the vestry, he stubbornly refuses to behave like a normal stuffed toy. Having got the merest smear of chocolate icing on his wing at a fund-raising cake sale, he remained unclean until I had put him through the washing machine (twice); at the subsequent concert, it was with real fear in my heart that I sandwiched him between two Bibles and locked him in the music cupboard. It is unquestionably The Owl who puts the creepy cardboard hands in the hymnbooks; The Owl who breaks the heating over and over again; The Owl who creates holes in the church roof and floods the church floor; The Owl who causes the notices to last fifteen minutes every week, the organ to go slowly but persistently sharp, the crumhorn to deploy without warning, the church bluebottle to buzz around our heads, the basses to sing alto and tuning forks to roam around the church of their own accord. My friends, Satan walks among us, and his name is Owl.

I have used the word ‘strigiphobia’ on the grounds that owls are strigiformes (an order that also includes birds of prey), but in fact there is no consensus on the correct word for a fear and hatred of owls. The two main candidates seem to be oclophobia and variations on noctoornithophobia. Oclophobia is not satisfying because it is very close in both spelling and pronounciation to ochlophobia (fear and hatred of crowds), and also because phobos is a Greek word, while oclos is Latin. Noctoornithophobia (fear and hatred of nocturnal birds) annoys me simply because it is an unnecessary work-around, implying that there is no suitable Greek word for owl. In fact, Greek has several words for owl, and the list that follows here is by no means exhaustive. Firstly, there is glaux, meaning specifically a small owl, as in Glaucidium sanchezi, the Tamaulipas pigmy owl. Named after the region of Mexico in which it lives, this is one of the smallest owls in the world, measuring less than six inches in length and weighing less than two ounces. You can also find part of this wonderful word in the Latin name of the delightfully Ken Dodd-ish long-whiskered owlet, Xenoglaux loweryi (literally, ‘strange owl’. It lives in Peru and is also smaller than my fist). Glaucophobia seems a reasonable term, but might confuse the unwary in that it could be taken to mean fear and hatred of things that are blueish. Then there is tuto, as in Tytonidae (barn owls). However, tutophobia shares its pronunciation with the real and actual word Teutophobia (fear and hatred of Germans). Another possibility is athene, found in the name of the elf owl Micrathene whitneyi (the third candidate for World’s Smallest Owl. Again, pleasingly, the clue is in the name). Like the Tamaulipas pygmy owl, the elf owl also lives in Mexico, and makes its nests in cacti. However, athenephobia is also a problematic term.[3] The most apt word I could find is the Latin word aegolius, meaning a bird of prey, and very similar to the Greek word aigolios, meaning an evil omen in bird form, but again this is not owl-specific enough for me – an evil omen in bird form could be anything from an ostentiferous roc to a menacing swan. Finally, we have strix (the same word in both Latin and Greek). The plural form is strig, as in Strigidae (‘true’ owls), and hence strigiphobia,[4] fear and hatred of owls.

Magritte’s Les Compagnons de la Peur (the companions of fear)

There is a specific word for the fear and hatred of chickens (alektorophobia), so why am I having to go to all this trouble to coin a new word for the fear and hatred of owls? There are two obvious possibilities. Firstly, there has been no need for a word for the fear and hatred of owls because owls are not frightening (or at least not as frightening as chickens with their mad eyes and alien, throaty calls. Melodia Rascal was in the right here, I think). We can discount this theory immediately: owls are scary. With the possible exceptions of the teeny-tiny owls mentioned above, the vast majority of owl species have no natural predators once the owls have reached adulthood (“Wild boar? Yeah, up here they mainly subsist on owls”. No, they don’t. NOTHING DOES). From the Romans and the Aztecs right up to Gormenghast, Futurama and Twin Peaks,[5] humanity is united in its view of owls as harbingers of doom. Secondly and more plausibly, perhaps there is no need for a word for a phobia of owls, because phobias denote fears that are to some degree irrational. They arise from a traumatic incident in childhood or similar that then leads to a lifelong fear of something that may not have actually wished, done or been capable of doing the sufferer any harm. Therefore, it could be argued, since a fear of owls is totally justifiable,[6] it cannot be described accurately as a phobia.

[1] Of course the word ‘crypt’ is derived from the Latin crypta, meaning private or concealed (as in cryptography, I assume), and therefore any associations of darkness etc. are modern ideas laid over the top of the original meaning. Where does the word ‘owl’ come from, you ask? My understanding is that the original word was ‘uwwa’ in some kind of proto-German, which was supposed to be an onomatopoeic word imitating the hoot. Eventually, by way of Old English and a bunch of mispronunciation, we ended up with ‘owl’, Fact Fans.

[2] Tights, which are themselves evil (see Tightus Groan) should have given me a clue.

[3] One, it is very close to asthenophobia (fear of fainting or weakness); and two, I feel that Athenaphobia ought to refer to the fear of being engulfed by an oversized poster falling off the wall onto one’s university bed.

[4] Disturbingly similar to stygiophobia, fear and hatred of Hell. I rest my case.

[5] Take a look at this one. He looks to me like a highly developed killing machine with a hatred for all mankind and a desire to kill and eat tiny furry things. ‘The owls are not what they seem’, indeed. I disagree. I think they’re exactly what they seem.

[6] The same could be said of my own so-called phobias, the fear and hatred of coffins (taphophobia) and the fear and hatred of sharks (galeophobia). Irrational? Surely not.

Owl Chess

I have already mentioned the church choir that I sing with in a previous, apple-related post (see Eve’s Pudding), and the choir has been on my mind recently as we progress through advent. Our carol service is a week tomorrow and it is loaded with gorgeous music. However, it is a non-musical matter that I wish to draw your attention to today: namely, owls.

The choir has an owl. He is a furry stuffed toy about four inches high. His name is Katisha[1], but we usually refer to him simply as ‘The Owl’ in tones of dread. At the moment he is making his diabolical way through the British postal system after being accidentally left at home by our secretary, but usually he lives in the vestry cupboard with the New English Hymnal. Last year there was a spate of under-sized disembodied cardboard hands appearing in the hymnbooks like sinister bookmarks, and it was suggested that the Sunday School Fish Club had been drawing around their hands for some theologically sound purpose, and that these had accidentally made their way into the vestry. This is clearly a false trail. The Owl is left alone with the hymnbooks for many hours each week, and it is only a matter of time before tiny pornographic drawings start appearing in the margins of hymns he doesn’t approve of (e.g. ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’). Sometimes he is good-naturedly turned around or moved to a different shelf by a passing church warden, and it is a wonder to all who have encountered him that their fingers do not blacken and whither. I will expand on how The Owl came to be among us in another post: it is a dark and disturbing tale, entirely suited to the short days of winter. For now, he remains an uneasy half-secret, understood and feared only by the choristers. Members of the congregation who don’t know any better have referred to him as our mascot, but here again I return to my familiar theme of the misappropriation of words. He is, emphatically, not a mascot.

We are a church choir. Our primary purpose is to serve the congregation and therefore, were we to have a mascot, I would like to think we could do better than a toy that is quite clearly possessed. The Owl performs none of the functions of an actual mascot and is actively removed from buildings where we are about to sing (hence living in the vestry rather than the main body of the church. The vestry is always noticeably colder than the rest of the building, which can only be another sign of his evil influence). In fact, the only useful purpose he can possibly serve is as the only playing piece in a game of Owl Chess.

Owl Chess is a variation on the already popular game of Surprise Chess, but played with one piece only (i.e. an owl). Play is conducted as follows:

  1. Choose your owl. Any size, weight or material is allowed provided your chosen piece looks outraged at all times.
  2. Assign someone to referee.
  3. Play begins with the referee placing the owl in a common area.
  4. Each player makes their move in turn whenever they think of somewhere spiffy to play the owl. There is no time limit for each move and play can extend over several decades if necessary. There are no restrictions whatever on where the owl can be played. Artificial aids such as tape, glue, paperclips and drawing pins are all legitimate provided that the owl is not damaged. The move is over when the referee has observed the owl, scored the move accordingly, announced the score to all players[2] and recorded the score in the Owl Chess Book; the owl is then back in open play.

A move is declared void if:

  1. Another player witnesses the owl being claimed in preparation for making the next move. Players *must* collect the owl and play it without being observed[3] (i.e. creeping about in the dead of night, owl in hand).
  2. The owl shows visible signs of damage e.g. patchy feathers, loss of wings or feet etc.;
  3. The referee does not actually see the owl once it has been played. You can’t get away with ‘I taped it to the weathervane on Truro Cathedral. Everyone saw it but you’ or similar;
  4. The owl falls (or is removed) from the place you have played him to *before* the next player has had an opportunity to retrieve it. For example, strapping the owl to the rail of the Lusitania would have been an excellent move (provided that the referee observed and scored the move before both owl and ship had been consigned to a watery grave). However, having awarded several thousand points (minus the Lost Owl penalty of 100 points), the referee would then be obliged to declare the game over as the owl would be irretrievable. Losing the owl always incurs a penalty of 100 points; the player is also required to replace the owl and apologise (in writing) to both referee and lost owl. These letters should be taped into the Owl Chess Book for future reference.

The referee assigns points on the following basis:

  1. How many human observers saw the owl? People score one point per person (no need to be too anal about this in a large gathering unless the scores have become unexpectedly close).
  2. On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the human observers? Determine the likely average level of surprise for each observer based on facial expression, any and all exclamations, and any other means the referee deems relevant. Multiply this by the number of people and record in the Owl Chess Book.
  3. How many animal observers saw the owl? Only animals intelligent enough to register surprise count, and have a multiplier of two per creature (i.e. twice that of an actual person because it is difficult to get animals to look at something  small and fluffy that they can’t chase, hump or eat). Animals too stupid to register surprise (e.g. gerbils, ducks) do not score at all.
  4. On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the animal observers? The referee should begin by determining the number of animal observers; narrowing the field to include only animals intelligent enough to register surprise[4]; determining the average level of surprise for each species; and finally multiplying up accordingly. All animals are regarded as equally surprise-able, with the obvious exception of i. cats, who have seen it all before; and ii. owls (see point 7). Please note that domestic pets cannot score more than five for surprise unless they spontaneously soil themselves (except guide dogs, who are trained not to do such things in public).
  5. How much effort was required to draw attention to the owl? It is perfectly acceptable for players to cry aloud ‘Good heavens! Is that an owl tucked into the Queen’s hat?’ or similar, but signs, loudhailers etc. are Frowned Upon and penalties may be assigned at the referee’s discretion.
  6. Bonus points can be awarded for originality (e.g. owl disguised as potato); time and effort (owl dressed in historically accurate Regency costume); and personal risk incurred in playing each move (owl attached to blade of helicopter).
  7. An outright win (or ‘Owl in One’) can be achieved by a real and actual owl observing a move and registering a surprise score of more than five[5]. This is worth a million points and therefore constitutes the end of the game and/or time.

The game ends when you either lose the owl altogether (e.g. owl strapped to dolphin); a player reaches a pre-determined points total (usually set at one million); an Owl In One is scored; or when you get tired of it. But you never will.

[1] He is named after a character from The Mikado, who is urged to be quiet by the chorus during the finale to Act I, as follows: ‘We’ll hear no more/Ill-omened owl’.

[2] The referee should be prepared to explain his/her maths. Players may dispute the score and if necessary accost observers and ask them to comment definitively on their level of surprise.

[3] The only exception is if you are playing in teams, in which case members of one’s own team may act as look-outs.

[4] Referees may refer to the Guidance on Which Animals Are Considered Intelligent Enough To Register Surprise And How To Tell (at the back of the Owl Chess Book) if in any doubt.

[5] A real and actual owl observing a move which it does not find it very surprising (i.e. a surprise score of less than five) can still score highly as owls are worth a whopping one hundred points per bird. However, a skilled player will most likely scorn an insufficiently surprised owl and withdraw from the game in disgust, as he will have blown his chance at an Owl In One, the fule.