A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “August, 2011”

Bank Holiday bonus bonanza benefit bunkum

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes commercial
Now, gentle reader, please stick with me during my latest contribution to the frivolity and gaiety of the nation because we’re about to try a very important scientific experiment.
You see, buried deep inside this collection of witty banter will be a hidden message. I’m going to attempt some subliminal advertising and I need your complete and utter concentration to make it work. So get yourself into a quiet part of the room where you’re not likely to be disturbed for the next few minutes, sit down comfortably in a well-lit environment that is conducive to easy reading and hold this article at a convenient distance from your eyes.
OK, are you sitting comfortably?
Then I’ll begin.
Ok, now let’s see if that worked, shall we?
Do you currently feel an overwhelming urge to visit East Yorkshire’s most popular free tourist attraction on Monday 29th August, but as yet have no idea why you should? You do? Excellent! You are clearly in the top one per cent of the population for intelligence and are probably the most popular person in your neighbourhood – whether you realise it or not. Normally such people are also extraordinarily attractive and smell gorgeous. I look forward to seeing you in the Minster on Monday between 9am and 5.30pm.
For the rest of you who aren’t so sensitive I’ll explain why you should also be there – and if you’re inside our wonderful walls between these hours I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’re also in the top one per cent, extraordinarily attractive, smell gorgeous etcetera, etcetera. After all, how will I be able to tell the difference?
I want you there partly because we are opening the north west tower (all 165 feet of it, 208 steps and incredible views from the roof) for this one day only at an unbelievably low price of £8 per person (and half price for under 16s) – that’s a recession-busting discount from the normal price of £10 per person.  Better still, a family ticket for two adults and two children IS ONLY £20!!!
Or you can do one of our ordinary central tower roof tours including the ancient tread wheel crane and assorted other goodies for just £5 and £2.50!!
And! And! AND! There’s yet more!!!
You see John and I have been casting around feverishly trying for a gimmick that will give the day a bit of a push because normally it’s a big fund-raising date in our calendar – if people know about it. Last year, however, it was a bit flat – largely because we didn’t get much publicity before the event. So we need to boost our media profile by creating a true once-in-a-lifetime experience – but we couldn’t think of one.
So, instead, I’m going to officially launch my new CD: “Three Chairs – Neil Pickford reads the best Views from the Vestry” and hope that this drags in some of my eager fans (if they are prepared to go public with this strange psychological flaw).
 The CD will consist of one hour of me reading a selection from the ‘best’ articles I’ve written over the past three years, all delivered in my gloriously redolent, yet surprisingly friendly and dulcet tones – possibly accompanied by music composed by the talented and inexpensive Pickford siblings. It’s the ideal present for deaf friends and relatives at an unbelievable launch price of £5, with all profits going to Minster general funds.
I realise that the prospect of copies individually signed and dedicated by yours truly isn’t really the ultimate crowd-puller so we’re throwing in, for one day only, a truly remarkable opportunity – the chance to get the matching signature of my colleague, the yin to my yang, the tonic to my brandy, the ever-smiling annihilator of errantly allocated automobiles, CAR PARK JOHNNY! 
If you miss this chance it will be a long while before the next as he only retains the power of writing for 12 hours at a time. It’s taken us five months of training to get him this far and I can’t guarantee when we could possibly repeat the exercise.
All this, of course, assumes that I’m going to have the CDs ready in time and that involves significant effort by me – I’ve got to record it. I am compiling a folio of my finest, recreating rib-tickling ribaldry in recordings that will entertain and entrance (that’s en-trance, not entry-ance – sorry, they look the same but they will sound different on the CD) – and that’s not easy.
For a start the recording will take place in my son’s bedroom, because that’s where the computer and mixing desk is. I will have to mentally rise above the all-enveloping piles of unsorted everything that are his attempts at filing and ascend into Chuckleville, creating a happy place which will brighten your lives for years to come. It’s harder than it sounds.
Why don’t you pop in to the Minster on Monday and see if I’ve succeeded?
If you can’t wait or don’t want to pay for the CD then a full archive of around 150 articles from the Mister Minster and View from the Vestry collection is available here and you can read them aloud for yourself.

They’re taking the Michael, I tell you

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford mounts another pedestal.

I am staring at a piece of packing and I am seething with rage. Many people seeing exactly the same bit of wrapping may wonder why I got in such a temper but it’s obvious that they haven’t noticed the same thing that I have.
If they had then I’m sure they’d be just as angry.
In itself it’s an innocuous piece of thin golden plastic that has been extruded or stamped out with its identical brethren in its millions – nay, possibly billions. Not so long ago it housed biscuits – very pleasant chocolate-topped biscuits wrapping a thin orange paste atop a cake-like base.
Now quicker-thinking individuals among my readers may well have leapt to the conclusion that I’m describing a Jaffa Cake and I’m not surprised that you did – it was my intention to misdirect you along that path.
However, this biscuit is actually another manufacturer’s attempt to climb onto the Jaffa bandwagon by producing something which is similar, but sufficiently different to avoid a ‘passing off’ legal action. These particular biscuits are rectangular, not round, but to the owner of non- gourmet tastebuds such as myself they taste exactly the same. They come in packing that proudly boasts it is part of the Marks & Spencer branded family and that, as almost everyone knows, is the sign of Good Stuff. However, I may never buy one of these products ever again because someone, somewhere has taken advantage of me.
For some strange reason I started fumbling with the packaging before I disposed of it in the relevant bin and then stopped short. My enquiring mind had, subconsciously, registered there was something slightly unusual about the shape and I wanted to find out what it was. Eventually I twigged – there were only enough compartments for eleven biscuits.
ELEVEN! What sort of stupid number is 11? I’ll tell you what sort of number it is – it’s a flaming rip off, that’s what it is, because we’re supposed to believe that we’ve just bought a normal packet of 12 – but in fact we’ve been short-changed.
Twelve is a proper number. Everyone knows why there are 12 biscuits in a packet: it’s two biscuits for six people, three for four people, four for three people and five people can each have two with a couple of spares for later. But eleven is a guarantee of disappointment.
Imagine the scene: three people will enjoy three biscuits but one poor individual will only get two – resentment starts to grow, possibly leading to bloodshed in the future. Or, conversely, four people will enjoy two biscuits but the fifth person, probably the host, will see there is still one left over at the end of the nice little soiree they have just enjoyed. “I can’t just leave that one – and it’s foolish to put it back in the box by itself – I’d better eat it” they will think.
And so our kindly host consumes extra calories, leading to a terrible addiction that will ruin their lives and those of all their loved ones. And all because some penny-pinching wonk at M&S has shaved a tiny proportion of the costs of producing a family treat without dropping the price.
It’s common throughout the confectionery industry – I have scientific proof that Wagon Wheels are only half the diameter they were when introduced in the 1970s: the same shrinking effect has happened with Mars bars, which once used to dislocate your jaw when you tried to bite them, but can now be almost stuffed in sideways.
Mind you, it’s not just sweetie-makers that are squeezing extra profits out of helpless consumers – I discovered an identical process has happened with jumbo packs of Felix cat foods. Last week there was a special low price offer and so we were very happy, until we got home to find out that there were only 44 sachets inside the box instead of the usual 48. Surprise, surprise, the price-cut wasn’t as big as the reduction in quantity, so they’d tried to sneak another price rise onto us instead of being straight and saying: “yes, things are more expensive to make than they were last week, so you’re going to have to pay more. Sorry.”
I think it’s the deceit that annoys me more than anything else.  Huge quantities of human ingenuity used to disguise the fact that we’re getting less for our money than before. Marketing strategies designed, packing redesigned, tooling tweaked, nozzles slightly nipped, purchasing orders pruned, an overall reduction in demand leading to lesser income for everyone on the supply chain. And for what? A miniscule gain in profitability that is lost in the effort involved in implementing the change and vastly outweighed by a subtle reduction in the quality of life for millions of consumers and producers.
It’s making me so angry that I think I’ll go out and, and, and……oh, to heck with it. I’ll just have to do without biscuits tonight as a protest.
That’s how angry I am.
I’m afraid there is no smart aleck conclusion to this article, no tiny nugget of wisdom to wrap it up neatly. But I do feel better now, so thank you for sharing.

A sense of perspective is not always good

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford travels and thinks
To some people a summer holiday is a month-long trip to the sun, immersing oneself in the culture, climate and alcohol of a different country. To others it is a few weeks exploring the varied scenery, accents and local brews of our own British Isles.
To this virger from Beverley Minster it’s an overnight stay in mid-Norfolk, a one-way journey on a preserved railway branch line and a shared bottle of maison rouge to wash down a curry. And who is to say which of us is right?
As it happened, the southern station of the railway is next to a very prominent former abbey at Wymondham which now serves as a parish church. It, like Beverley Minster, was dissolved at the time of Henry VIII but, unlike our own beloved structure, the larger section belonging to the monks was dismantled afterwards. Only the part reserved for parishioners has been left standing. 
It is big, it has lots of Norman arches, life-size angels in a richly patterned wooden roof, an incredibly ornate altar screen which was commissioned and erected last century, picturesque and evocative ruins and a history dating back 800 years. I stood there, surrounded by all this glory and history, the interesting architectural details, the evidence of dedication and love for the building and I thought: ‘So what?’
It wasn’t a reaction that pleased me – in fact I was rather shocked. Here I was, dismissing something that was beautiful, fascinating and the product of many years of restoration – but I did.
I analysed my miserable response and realised that the whole thing just wasn’t ‘doing’ anything for me.
I’ve been spoiled, that’s the problem. My workplace is Beverley Minster and, frankly, compared to our famous landmark, it’s going to take a heck of a lot to impress me.  Oh, I’m not immune to the charms and claims of other places: York Minster is flipping big (albeit, visually, just a fatter version of Beverley Minster); St Paul’s Cathedral is magnificent (and once employed Nicholas Hawksmoor – who subsequently saved Beverley Minster from ruin in 1716): Westminster Abbey is huge (with west end towers modelled on those of Beverley Minster – by Hawksmoor, no less) and – oh well, I’m sure you can see how this is going. Plus, in any case, I’ve learned its quirks and ins-and-outs over the years in a way that I never can with a single visit elsewhere.  And I’m very fond of it.
Back in the days of the Reformation and also after the English Civil war my thoughts might have been considered somewhat heretical – even idolatrous. During these times when evangelical Protestant reformers closely resembled the Afghan Taleban (abolishing Christmas and public entertainments, for example) my affection for a simple building would have been regarded as distracting me from my duty to concentrate on worshipping God.
In those zealous days the ‘cure’ would have been somewhat brutal– quite probably the building would have been ‘de-beautified’ by enthusiastic men with big hammers.
Whether or not glorious buildings distract people from the ‘proper’ form of worship is a theological point I shan’t even try to answer – that’s one for the vicar. I’ll just concentrate on moving tables and chairs and marvelling at each new example of creativity and craftsmanship I discover, virtually on a daily basis. I’m just glad the hammermen didn’t visit Beverley.
Mind you, I’m not stupid or ignorant (although that’s not what my teenage sons might say). While I happen to think that Beverley Minster is a wonderful example of fallible humans working together to create something sublime I know it’s not the best in the world and I had a small tour group the other day that brought this fact home to me.  One of them was from Poland and, when she named her home region a battered old recollection scratched its way from inside the rusty biscuit tin of my mind.
“You’ve got a few big churches of your own around there, haven’t you?” I tentatively suggested, hoping my memory hadn’t let me astray (like that embarrassing time when I confused Charles and President Kennedy, but that’s another story altogether, thank-you-very-much).
“Yes” she confirmed and I suddenly realised I had to ditch about half my regular chat. No point saying that every inch of stonework in our building was once brightly painted– she had at least three magnificent examples of just that style within an easy cycle ride. They are all bigger than the Minster, full of pomp, circumstance and spectacle.  Most superlatives I normally quote would have been slightly lame compared to those she could fling back at me.
But we still had a good tour because, instead of lecturing, I just let them look for themselves. They loved our ancient tread wheel crane, the lifting boss, the story of the leaning wall and the wonderful engineering in our nave roof.  It was fun – the human, fallible side of the building came to the fore.
So I don’t care if we’re not the biggest, brightest, busiest, or best: to quote Genesis (the band, not the book): “I know what I like and I like what I know”.  

Getting back in touch with reality

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets wild about life
It is often said that modern living is disconnected from nature. There now exist whole generations who couldn’t skin a rabbit, let alone tell me which part of a carcase is an animal’s shank – and whether it’s a good bit. This, apparently, is a bad thing.
Millions of children believe that vegetables grow in plastic bags and chickens’ natural plumage is a warm covering of fried breadcrumbs. It’s possible they think that there are three different kinds of bread-tree: brown, white and sliced.  Milk, as they all know, is made in giant factories, just like colas.
I once wrote a Harvest Festival song which reflected the current way of acquiring our foodstuffs. It started as follows, (to a traditional tune): “We scour the shelves at Asda. The good things close to hand….” and continued accordingly. It got a laugh.
During my teens the call: ‘return to nature’ was widespread – it probably still is among later generations. Well this summer we’ve done just that in the Minster, simply by leaving our doors open. When Nature came calling in the past it found its way blocked by a whole range of ancient oak doors (or even by our youthful 10-year old wheelchair door, if it was approaching from the north east). For most of the last month, however, its access has been clear. The wheelchair entrance has been hooked open all day (as described in an earlier column – and toilet-angst has been much reduced in consequence).
The main Highgate doors have been freed from their bolted bondage, despite the fact that we virgers risk a hernia every time we try to slide the massive restraining lock back into place before we go home.
Most significantly however, as far as our feathered friends are concerned, the massive doors at the west end have been swung wide and welcoming. A route that is normally travelled only by bashful brides on their way to domestic duality (and subsequently by virgers who tidy up any invasive confetti) has become accessible to them.
For some reason our feathered friends seem to find this irresistible. It’s as if they are thinking: “All this back-to-nature stuff may be fine and dandy for big, unwinged pink things, but modern birds want a nice warm, properly weatherproof nest.” And so you often hear the anachronistic sound of beating wings indoors.
Now I’m not hostile to birds per se (although I do object to the fact that they gorge themselves on our bird table and then, freshly charged, fly over our house to do their doings on our car) but I don’t think they should be inside the church.
It’s not prejudice, it’s because I know that the inside of Beverley Minster is not a viable environment for them. For a start there is an acute shortage of worms (although some people may disagree).  Birdseed is pretty thin on the ground as well and, unless we’ve got a baptism coming up soon, there’s no fresh water for them to enjoy either.
Basically, if they come into the building and stay then they are going to die.  And, if they do, who’s got to deal with the consequences? That’s right – the virgers.
Last time wasn’t too bad – we just launched the Minster choir’s new CD with an excellent concert and everyone was in a good mood – even me, who had just put in a couple of hours unpaid overtime. I had finished dismantling the staging and thought I was on the final stretch when I was delicately informed that there was a ‘dead thing’ behind the big chair near the pulpit.
Fortunately the carcase was still fresh so it was easy enough to put a black bin liner over my hand and whisk the corpse away for reverent disposal in the big green bin outside: certainly much easier to deal with than one that managed to expire in our shop.
Its final resting place was inside a wooden construction housing the overhead lights. It was a bit more difficult getting the deceased into the bag while standing with one leg on a step ladder and the other waving around in midair, but I managed it and soon everything was sanitised, spick and span once more.  
Most of the recent invasions have ended peacefully with the errant avian explorer deciding the grass is greener….(um)…. where the grass is, and deciding to leave before nightfall. Birds are simple.
Squirrels however, that’s a different matter. This morning I was warned by one of our ever-present volunteers that they’d seen one casing the joint as I swung the door open. Oh no! Once they were inside who knew what mischief they might get up to while searching for nuts? Our sound system is fragile enough as it is without sharp teeth getting to work on the cabling.
So I wasn’t going to just let this one stroll in as without a fight but, as we all know, squirrels are very intelligent creatures that can, when accompanied by music from ‘Mission Impossible’, overcome incredible obstacles which would beat the most cunning creatures – and choirboys as well.
I had to be extra-cunning so I thought hard and eventually came up with up a highly-specific, anti-squirrel sign that lets them know they are not welcome.
“No nutters allowed,”
It seems to have worked.

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