A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

I’m an angry old man, and I don’t care who knows it

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford takes up cudgels
Last week I read something that made me angry, angry, angry, ANGRY! Not just cross, or fuming, or irritated but shouting-out-loud-kicking-the-furniture-and-scaring-the-cats raging. The fact that it was a statement issued by someone from the Tax Office didn’t help as the red mist was already descending, but if the words had been issued by St Francis of Assisi then it would have still had the same effect.
They would not, of course, have been uttered by St Francis of Assisi because he was not an utterly fatheaded individual who should be publicly flayed and then kicked into the River Thames without a pension. No, this utterance came from the self-serving mouth of ‘Dave’ Hartnett, permanent secretary for tax at HM Revenue & Customs after it was discovered that he had ‘misled’ Parliament after letting a phenomenally rich organisation off £10 million tax they owed. You may think that this, by itself, was enough to condemn the individual concerned to the Eighth Circle of Hell, but that wasn’t what got my blood boiling. No, it was when he said, and I quote: “We learned from that mistake as an organisation.”
A few years ago it would have been impossible for someone to claim that it was an organisation rather than an individual at fault for approving morally dubious tax settlements, but in the modern world it’s quite logical.
The dehumanising process of introducing multi-page forms to codify and nail down ‘proper systems’, ‘formalising’ job descriptions, setting up ‘proper channels’ and ‘paper trails’ with tick boxes to cover everything from changing a light bulb to investigating a road accident have come to their ultimate conclusion. Individuals supposedly no longer matter – they cannot exercise their judgement because every single process they must follow is enshrined on pieces of paper. “You don’t need common sense if you have rules,” as I have heard quoted on several occasions by apologists for this soul-destroying brave new world.
So poor old Dave Hartnett wasn’t at fault when he shook hands on a deal that let well-known paupers Goldman Sachs off tens of millions of pounds that they owed HM Government – oh no, it was an organisational problem –  could have happened to anyone.
Well that’s just cow-manure and it’s only my knowledge of the laws of libel that stop me speculating what really happened in that room. Suffice it to say that Christianity doesn’t have any truck with Mr Hartnett’s stance – we know we are individuals and we should accept responsibility for our own actions within a wider community – no matter how irritating. We have a set of rules and guidelines that remind us to put the interests, feelings and needs of other people ahead of our own.
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” sums it up – and ‘Dave’s’ behaviour fails to acknowledge that simple truth. Perhaps it’s time to have a few more committed Christians in high offices who live their lives guided by a sense of public and private responsibility – and I’m available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
And anther rant – this time over the BBC’s latest style guidelines: to no longer use the phrases AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ) to describe the date. Instead we should all get used to hearing “CE“ (Common Era) and “BCE” (Before the Common Era) so that the BBC doesn’t offend non-Christians.

What is the logical point of that? It’s not as if the BBC in its infinitely expensive wisdom wants to change the starting point of our calendar. They could have nominated The Modern Industrial Age with a Year One in 1829. That was when Stephenson’s locomotive won the Rainhill Trials and we’d now be in Year 182 PR (Post Rocket).
That’s an entirely reasonable point to debate because the Industrial Revolution transformed the entire world and the fact that you are reading these words is one tiny consequence of that. Yes, 1829 saw something momentous happen and it’s worth consideration as a pivotal point. But what is the logic of changing 2011 AD to 2011 CE?
It still recognises that something hugely significant happened in Year One – so what was it? I’ve been checking loads of databases to try and find what world-changing thing occurred 2011 years ago.
Was it the 44th anniversary of the murder of Julius Caesar? The 18th anniversary of the Three Kingdoms in Korea? The formal date when woad became the official clothing of the Celts?  No, I’ve searched and searched and the only event that might seem to have been sufficiently important to launch a brand-new common era was – wait for it – the birth of Christ!
So why stop calling it that? Even if you disagree with the significance of the event itself you can’t dispute that this is what the years are counting from.  
 It’s just more illogical rubbish from anti-Christian individuals who have got into positions of influence within a very important broadcaster. Mind you, we could always say that “CE” stands for “Christ Emerges” or even “Church of England”. That would make them really, REALLY angry.

And my apologies to anyone who has been offended by my attitude this week. You’re right – I shouldn’t have pulled my punches.
You’re welcome to argue with me at either here @ or

Time for a new national anthem

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford stands up to be counted
I heard the British national anthem at an unearthly hour t’other Sunday and I was very, very annoyed. Oh, not with the tune (although it’s just a bit of badly structured singalong Edwardian tat); nor with the lyrics (which don’t really register any more), but with the length of it.
On Sunday I would have to say that it was much too short.
In fairness this was an unusual setting and I suppose I’d better put it into context before we go on, or my argument will seem fatuous (an ever-present danger, I must admit). I was watching the formal celebrations at the end of the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix which was won by Britain’s own golden boy Jenson Button in a proudly British McLaren car.
And that was the problem – the driver and the registered home country of the team were one and the same – British, so we only got one national anthem instead of one for the driver and another for the team, which is more normal. And it was over in a flash.
Still, it could be worse.
Over the past two years the dominant team has been Red Bull, which is owned by an Austrian (although the cars are actually designed, built, tested and shipped out from Britain’s own Milton Keynes). The team’s two drivers are German and Australian and when either of them has won we’ve been treated to their own national tunes (each of them quite bouncy, as it happens). We’re then tortured by about sixteen hours of unmemorable, unstructured cobblers that is supposed to be the Austrian one. Various brass instruments witter away at random until the whole thing mercifully falls quiet and you regain the will to live.
During this time the waiting champagne has grown warm, the drivers have drooped and all the flowers on the podium have dropped dead.
In a previous decade the racing world was dominated by a German driving for an Italian team and the triumphant Das Lied der Deutschen (“Unity and law and freedom. Are the foundation for happiness”) was followed by a zippy something that sounded as if it had been written for dancing cartoon horses. But at least it went on for a few minutes and got you ready for the big presentation when it was over.
But not on Sunday – in a flash God had saved our Gracious Queen and her reign was over.  Jenson was still standing there, possibly wondering if it had even started yet. They should have played it twice to give us parity with the other winners although, even then, Our Tune will still feel only one tenth of the length of the Austrian one.
I suppose we can be pleased that ours at least has a tune but the only way to get a decent sense of ‘moment’ is to play it really, really slowly – and that just makes it boring.
Now I see this being a big problem next year when the Olympics kick off. Assuming our athletes cop some golds then our chaps (and chappesses) will only have a few seconds of glory on the podium. Austrian medallists, on the other hand, will be able to sign merchandising deals before theirs finishes. It’s not fair on us – but I have the solution.
After all, what is the purpose of a national anthem? It is to make us feel good about being who we are. What’s the easiest way to achieve this? It’s obvious – by having a fun tune. If it is one that recalls the unique greatness of your own country then it’s even better.
And with this in mind I nominate, for our replacement national anthem, the marvellous and uniquely British song: “Hey Jude.”
Think about it – it’s brilliant. Written by one of the finest popular tunesmiths in the Western world at the peak of his powers when Britain was absolutely Top of the Pops, this song is huge fun, easy to singalong to and has a wonderful final section that can be adapted to a suitably loyal refrain: “La, la, la, lalalalaaaaa. Lalalalaaaa, Hey (insert name of current monarch)”.
It’s so simple that it can be sung and understood by people all around the world. It’s so catchy that it can continue into the small hours of next morning if you’re feeling really triumphant. The gold medal can go back in the safe until we’re all good and ready for it.
I don’t believe there’s a single sensible human being on this planet who could hear that refrain over several minutes and not join in, then feel absolutely wonderful afterwards. And then, by having the world’s happiest national anthem, we could generate a warm glow among billions of people. Just think what wonders that could do for British prestige around the world.
Ok, McCartney’s lyrics aren’t particularly appropriate but a professional wordsmith should have no problem knocking up a few that fit the bill. Below is my own humble effort:
Hey (insert name of current monarch here)
You can feel glad.
Cuz we have won you,
another me-e-e-dal.
Remember to ask us round for tea,
And give us a gong.
Or an O. B. E.
What do you think?
You can send your comments here. A CD with a selection of 13 of the best Views from the Vestry, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details. Luckily, none of them require him to sing.

I’m doing something right, aren’t I?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford queries his existence
I must admit that I’m feeling a trifle nervous about the quality of my writing this week as it doesn’t seem to conform to the rules.
By rules, what I really mean is the conventions used by doyens of the weekly column – i.e. the people who receive a lot of money for their outpourings. These are people who I’d like to emulate, for obvious reasons. (I’m not talking about big-name footballers who couldn’t string a sentence together but, once their infantile gruntings have been handed over to a professional scribe, are credited with deep philosophical and analytical powers. And that’s another particular gripe of mine. But I digress……)
Yes, these highly paid practitioners of prose do have a template or two, upon which they weave their words and, sadly, my current offering doesn’t conform to any of them. For instance, Top Gear’s James May often produced a line of poetry to conclude his muse – but I can only recall: “The boy stood on the burning deck, when all but he had fled….” and that doesn’t fit most of the material I’ve written over the years.
Doctor Jeremy Clarkson has a marvellous knack of creating crisp, punchy and strangely contemporary ‘wham-bam’ conclusions; Richard Littlejohn has a selection of catchphrases which help him dispatch his latest diatribe while Polly Toynbee delivers portentous pronouncements of timeless polly-twaddle that sound profound but rattle like a marble on a tin plate once you think about ‘em.
All good tricks of the trade – but I can’t think of anything to wrap up my latest offering which is inspired, nay –driven, by recent events in my life. This is a story that demands to be told, regardless of the lack of punchline, so I might as well begin and see where it takes us. You never know, we might strike lucky.
Are you sitting comfortably?
I was messing around with an annoying spreadsheet t’other day, as you do when you haven’t got a life. It was work-related, of course, and it was a familiar item to my loyal readers. In fact it contains the complete history of Minster roof tours over the last four years, of which I have written in the past.
For any newcomers who are stumbling across my writings for the first time this week please don’t think I write about electronic thingies on a regular basis. I had only mentioned this particular assemblage of pixels and algorithms previously to complain about how terrible it was when I lost it, and how clever I was to have found it again. So if you’re expecting a deep and meaningful insight into spreadsheet operations I’m afraid you will be disappointed.
This is, however, a tale that illustrates hubris and humility in equal measure, so perhaps it’s worth sticking with it for another 450 words or so. Shall we see?
Anyway, I’d started investigating things because I’d suddenly realised that one of the lines of figures was giving the wrong answer. I have created a display that gives me a running total at the top as well as showing how it’s been built up, one day at a time, as you go down the column. And, I have to admit, I hadn’t noticed that the figure at the top of the page and the one at the bottom were different. Initially I thought this error was a simple bit of fluff, caused when I messed around with the totals from August Bank Holiday to record photo permit revenue. It only goes back one month, no big deal, I’ll just insert the correct figure and…… Oh no!  The gap is even bigger!.
So I went back through the whole darn thing, day-by-day and, embarrassingly, the error dated right back to something I’d done in February. This means it had been wrong for more than eight months of this year – and I hadn’t noticed. Oooops.
Anyway, as it was only me who knew about the glitch I decided no one needed to be told that I’m less than perfect. But then I happened to glance through the rest of the figures to the end of the year and discovered a rather nice fact that I’d like to share: the £10 I’d taken from two visitors THAT VERY DAY meant that the revenues from roof tours in 2011 now beat the entire total of 2010.
It’s true – the spreadsheet cannot lie, (unless some idiot has put rubbish information into the columns – and, I ask you, just how likely is that?). The virgers have achieved last year’s target in just nine leg-aching months. New records will now be set on a daily basis – hip, hip hooray (he said tiredly)
I looked at the statistics in more detail:  255 climbs – that’s a total of 28,815 steps or a (literally) staggering 17,850 feet in height if they were all stacked end-to-end (or 61% of Mount Everest). That’s nearly 11 days and nights, non-stop, of talking and waving our arms around, trying to entertain and educate nearly 3,000 people of all ages, shapes and interests. It’s a really good feeling.
Because as the poet Eddie Cochran (nearly) said: “Now there are (11)3 steps to heaven….”
Oh dear, what a rubbish ending. Must try harder next week.
A CD with a selection of 13 of the best Views from the Vestry, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

An exploration of idiosyncrasy

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets passionate
The sun came out for a few glorious late Summer days last week and I felt the old sap rising one last time. Time for a burst of “Two Wheels Good – Four Wheels Bad” to transport myself around Beverley before winter weather forces me to oil my aging joints with liniment or suchlike evil-smelling substances.
“No, it’s not me – it’s my knees,” I protest helplessly as people cast disapproving sniffs in my general direction, but no one seems to believe me.
Anyway, with all pains forgotten I found myself at the traffic lights of North Bar, looking across at a fellow biker. He was smiling – so was I. Feeling good: feeling fit: feeling young again.
“Fancy a race?” I shouted and he nodded. Tensely we waited for the lights to change and… Oh, I know you’ll think I was foolish to try such a stunt but I don’t care. The microsecond the green light showed I was off and in the lead, all thoughts of other road users and even commonsense forgotten. It was me against him – two males full of the joys of the challenge.
I got it right and I was ahead. Two, three, four seconds and then he shot past me into the distance, never to be seen again.
Well, he was on a 750cc Kawasaki or similar motorbike and I was only pedalling, so the result wasn’t surprising. Still, it had been harmless fun while it lasted and, as I subsequently realised, hadn’t caused any problems to the motorised road users behind us. Quite the reverse in fact – instead of being held up behind me as per normal when I wobble my way through the single lane of North Bar I was through it like a (fat) flash, leaving the four wheeled transport still changing from neutral to first as I cleared the crossing.
You will be aware of course that, as a cyclist, I rarely think about other road users anyway. This tendency not to consider their convenience when accelerating from a junction is hardly surprising. I am concentrating on my own health, saving the planet and avoiding huge potholes and puddles near the verge. I may pay attention to other wheeled devices when there is some concern about them crashing into me, but normally I can continue serene in my wibbley wobbly world.
However I do drive a car as well, at which point I transform from Mister Pedal Power to Mister Pedal-to-the-Metal. From this viewpoint cyclists are things to be tolerated at best, avoided at worst and generally ignored at all other times. A very practical demonstration of casual Anglican Christianity in action, some might say.
However it’s not always possible to maintain this lofty indifference and there are areas where conflict rages just below the surface. This is the point where two sides appear to be consciously jostling for position – in some cases literally ‘crossing the line’. At that point, naturally, you take sides and, predictably, that side is normally the one that you’re already on.
It happens in all areas of life. The other week there was a rehearsal for a concert in the Minster and one of the soloists wanted to be on a platform for part of the performance. “I’ll do it,” he volunteered quickly.
I frowned and coughed significantly, managing to convey in that one brief exchange that: “you concentrate on scraping those bits of string together and making a noise. Just leave all the complicated spatial rearranging of wood, tubular metal and holey plastic to the experts, if you don’t mind.” He capitulated immediately.
In the case of the  conflict between bikers and drivers I find this battlefront especially marked on the road between Woodmansay and Kingswood.
Now some people may not have noticed but, over the past few months, a new cycle-friendly asset has been created. One (or probably many, many more) deeply caring individuals or teams within County Hall were worried – oh so intensely worried – about the safety of cyclists and determined to do something about it in the part of the globe controlled by ERYC. This care, concern, worry: even pathological fear perhaps, has driven them to great achievements – they endured hundreds of hours of planning, meetings, minuting, lobbying, persuading, arguing to win their arguments. Imagine the celebrations when the go-ahead was given for thousands of pounds of ratepayers’ money to be spent on white lines, notices, tarmac and new kerbs to create a pathway that can be shared by cyclists and pedestrians – keeping both of them safely separated from the automotive peril.
And yet, as I drive along this route at 30 miles per hour or whatever speed limit has been imposed in the last week I am still delayed by militant two-wheelers defiantly sticking to the motorists’ section of the road and completely ignoring their own, entirely empty, stretch of pathway.
I know the basic Christian message is one of tolerance, of living together, of integrating but, sadly, in this case I think segregation is the right idea – especially if ERYC’s Highways division keeps imposing speed restrictions as they have been over the last few years.
Because, very soon, the bike lane will be the faster one anyway.
A CD with a selection of 13 of the best, read by Neil Pickford himself, is available at the Minster shop, price £5 –or email for details.

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