A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Panic in the vestry – the unanswered question

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford starts screaming
We had a disaster strike us last week which, if nothing else, reminded me that a life based on electronic records is liable to be a disappointment. 
Nobody had done anything wrong, a simple database that had been left open on the virgers’ laptop for several hours was closed in the normal way but, when we wanted it again, it had vanished.
It’s such a frequently-used set of information that we’ve got a short cut to it but, instead of the beautifully precise-looking columns of information we would normally expect there was just a small box with a grave warning. The system could not find the file. Do we wish to browse and locate it ourselves?
‘Browse’ – doesn’t that sound such a relaxing word? It implies sitting down in a comfortable leather chair, possibly with a cut-glass tumbler containing the finest whisky beside one (to be sampled and appreciated a sip at a time), flicking casually through crisp pages. One might allow a slight murmur of interest to escape if one is distracted momentarily by an entertaining diversion. One is, however, confident that one will end up, satisfied, with the information one requires.
 ‘Browse’ really doesn’t convey the mood of desperate, steel-eyed and barely-controlled panic that was my response.
Did I wish to…? Too flipping right I ‘wished’ (no, HAD) to locate it because this particular file, dear reader, was the one in which we’ve recorded everything about our roof tour revenues for the past four years: comparisons, averages, running totals, percentages, contacts – the lot. I was nearly hyperventilating when I found out it was missing but, by a massive effort of self-control, I managed to keep thinking clearly about what might have happened.
Now this may sound a bit over dramatic to you and I totally agree with you – now.
In the cosmic scale of things it really doesn’t matter about the information that John and I had so carefully collected. In fact much of my anguish was because Nerdy Me was constantly thrilled with the beauty of the raw spreadsheet I’d made, not what the figures actually were.
 I have previously boasted that, before I saw the light about the false world that’s created by our dependence on computers, I was a bit of a whizz with good old Excel and Access programmes (sorry, I refuse to use the American spelling – merely out of sheer contrariness, you understand). Well, I had seen a way to utilise my old skills in the service of the church and so created this piece of gloriousness, this pixelated perfection, this digital delightfulness – and it was good. Now here it was – gone.
So it was mostly in the role of a bereaved parent that I mourned my missing multi-coloured masterpiece.
Oh, I had backup copies but, sadly, not recent ones. A version of my marvellous creation still existed but there was so much recent data missing that the thing was pretty worthless, both for this year and the next, and without proper data it wasn’t really alive.
I won’t boast about my achievement in finally tracking the errant file and restoring it, although I could. I had to think like a computer – sullen, uncooperative, un-communicative except in random non-language – a bit like a stereotypical teenager, I suppose.
My efforts paid off and when those figures finally reappeared on my screen it was a very happy moment indeed.
Naturally I now have backed- up copies all over the place, most of which I will forget to update over the next few months, but that’s the way we fallible humans are.  I could probably create a further linked spreadsheet that would do the job semi-automatically, but that’s the way to total madness, so I won’t bother.
Anyway, having retrieved the data I thought it might be a good time to actually use it. Could comparative analysis wrench any powerful information from the figures? After quite a lot of study I concluded that, no, it couldn’t find anything vital, although one or two interesting things had become apparent.
Firstly, despite a boost over the August Bank Holiday Monday when we earned three times as much revenue from roof tours as the same day in 2010 the overall figures for the month were down on the previous year – and that’s very disappointing.
Despite some poor bank holidays earlier in the year which pulled our running total down John and I had worked our little legs off to lead 21 per cent more people up the central tower by 31st July.  Hooray!
Yet, just one month later this percentage gain had dropped to 14 per cent – revealing that we’d only done about four-fifths of the business we’d done the previous August.
This was despite climbing the steps even more frequently than last year (41 times compared to 39) but the average size of the groups had dropped from 5.4 to 4.3 people on each tour – and I can’t work out why.
Considering how well we’ve done in the rest of the year it’s rather depressing and baffling. I wish I hadn’t found that flipping spreadsheet now – sometimes ignorance is bliss.
A full archive of around 150 articles from the View from the Vestry collection is free here at: – and a CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available, price £5 – email for details.

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