A view backstage at Beverley Minster

We’re not all perfect, you know

Beverley Minster where, to paraphrase the song: “… sometimes is heard. A discouraging word.”
I cannot claim, in all honesty, that my language is beyond reproach. I am ashamed to admit that I am not always the upstanding figure of virtue and calm reassurance that I try to present.
My past is intimately wound up in the world of old-fashioned newspapers where, I am sorry to say, the only types of angel you might encounter were either fallen ones or public houses of the same name.
It was still a man’s world – hard drinking, hard smoking, hard attitudes and swearing and I loved it for much too long. Gradually the industry was cleaned up and so was the language, but some bad habits are hard to erase.
If I trip over a kneeler in the dark and fall flat on my face you’re unlikely to hear me mutter: “Good heavens.” 
Scalding my hand while sterilising a chalice with boiling water will not be accompanied by the first six bars of ‘The Sound of Music’; wrestling a bolt at the top of a 20 foot high door while a gale blows through the gap rarely finds me quoting lines from the ‘Book of Common Prayer’.
When I lapse I mutter a silent apology and vow to be more restrained next time, but last week I’m afraid I lost control..
I’d had it right up to the limit and then beyond. I was feeling tired, hard done by and generally pushed beyond any sensible limit. And then someone said something a bit silly and I indulged myself.
It was the Friday of the Beverley Early Music Festival and I was busy. The Minster was hosting two of the biggest concerts of the event and the first act had decided they would like to perform ‘in the round’ which had come as an unpleasant shock when I’d first heard about it.
In the Minster this meant that we would have to build a stage fairly close to the Highgate door, then rotate or move some 264 chairs to let the audience view the performers from the east side.
Bear in mind that these wooden seats are clamped together in groups of three, and each has a heavy cushion hanging down the back, and you realise that we’re talking about shifting quite a large tonnage of furniture.
Physically I was already a bit tired because this followed the Ascension Day service which is one of the important festivals in the Christian calendar. It commemorates the day when Christ ascended into heaven after his Crucifixion and the significance of this to the virgers is that we fly the flag of St George from the north west tower on this day – and then take it down again.
Now that may not sound too difficult in itself, but bear in mind that the western towers are the highest point of the Minster, some 160 feet tall.
To get to the top, which is where the builders have inconsiderately located the flagpole, the poor old virger has to climb more than 200 steps, and they are horrible.
The first third ascend to the lower ringing chamber and these, regularly used as they are by the bell-ringers, are quite broad and well-lit.
Further on, however, conditions deteriorate.
The spiral gets tighter, the steps narrower and there are hardly any windows to brighten the gloom. On top of that the risers themselves are a muscle-crippling ten inches apart instead of the normal eight and the calves soon start to scream in protest.
Add in the generally poor condition of these steps and it’s all too easy to imagine twisting an ankle some 100 feet above the street, with the inevitable hilarious consequences.
When you finally arrive on the open roof, blinking and panting, the view can be quite astounding – once the spots have faded away. At the moment there is a fascinating panorama across the site of the former Hodgson’s tannery and Military Transport Museum, now all cleared and waiting for the Government’s education quango to find the money it promised to begin building work.
Well, I pulled the flag down, unclipped the heavy weight that keeps it from flapping wildly from the top of the mast, shoved the remainder of the rope inside the hollow metal pole (trying to avoid cutting my fingers on the lip of the hole) then back down those rotten stairs, the furled flag maliciously hiding the more treacherous steps from view.
One slightly twisted ankle later I was back on terra firma, spinning the pews around as though I was enjoying myself when this visitor politely asked me a question.
“Are you getting ready for an event in here?”
I looked at the stage in the centre of the church. I glanced around at all the chairs she’d seen my shifting, I looked at the floodlights that were waiting to be assembled.
How could I possibly respond to this? Sarcasm, litotes, hyperbole- all battled for escape and finally I forgot myself and decided to answer daft with daft.
“No ma’am.” I said wearily. “I’ve done it all on a whim.”
And, guess what?  Later that night, as we turned the chairs back after the concert, I heard half the audience complaining that, because the stage was in the centre of the church the singer had had her back to them.
“Next time perhaps the virgers could assemble a rotating platform.”
Words failed me.
First published May 2009

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