A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

What is truth, what is reality?

Neil Pickford pursues matters philosophical.
I watched ‘The Matrix’ again t’other night, in a sober frame of mind. My dear wife had instructed the family to view and consider the various philosophical implications contained therein, so we did that.
Now, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but I used to be the highly-regarded film critic for the Bristol Evening Post (an unpaid position, but as much free booze and canapés as you could scoff at all the press previews – I put on two stone in six months).
Using my profound and highly-tuned sense of critical observation I stared, impressed, at the special effects, the ‘bullet-time’ traceries, the 3D fighting and the amazing minimalistic acting technique of Keanu Reeves (and I mean that in a good way). By gum, it still looks good after 12 years and the story – of how humanity is controlled by machines that have created an artificial reality to fool everyone into believing that they are living normal lives – continues to touch a chord with troubled teens today.
It raises questions about what is Reality – which was precisely the philosophical point that we were supposed to be debating. However, because I am a fundamentally superficial creature I found myself focusing on how cool were the clothes that our heroes wore in the ‘Unreal’ world of the machines.
In spite of this my tiny mind did, eventually, turn to a more intellectual plane and I pondered the question from the perspective of my own studies into Philosophy at the oldest university in Britain.
In this we were invited to ask just how we perceived reality and therefore if our perceptions were an intrinsic part of reality or merely a veneer of interpretation based on a deeper reality which we didn’t really perceive fully – or something like that.
I soon philosophically concluded that if an object walked like a duck, talked like a duck and mixed with other ducks – whether I was there to see it or not – then it probably was a duck so I might as well get on and worry about something else, such as where I was going to watch the Magic Roundabout that day.
Nevertheless we all know how different perspectives lead people to different conclusions and, to make matters worse, we all tend to believe that we are right, and anyone who disagrees with us is obviously wrong. There’s no chance that we could be wrong.
It’s a dangerous attitude, one that is often abused by those in power and, let’s be honest, the Church is not free from guilt in this matter. The most famous example is Galileo who was forbidden from teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun because this contradicted the accepted view that Earth was the centre of the universe. As we now know, he was right and the papal authorities were wrong but in those years what, exactly, was ‘True’? During those years the accepted Truth was that the Sun revolves around the Earth but, regardless of dogma, the Reality was – and always had been – the opposite.
Now where am I heading with this line of thought?
You may well ask and, frankly, it’s a question that’s worrying me as well because once you start questioning reality, where do you stop?
For example, we know that the camera lies. I ‘know’ that my physical body is a good shape for my age – not fantastic but good – and, in fact, my shoulders and arms are powerhouses of muscle, developed over many years of chair-shifting. Topping this torso is a kindly face crowned by a full head of hair that is gathered into an unusual but stylish ponytail.
The camera’s reality tells me that I am 25 per cent overweight, my beautiful blonde (and grey) pulled-back hair never seems to register on the printed page and my facial expression defaults to that of a grinning baboon. One of those viewpoints is obviously wrong – but which one?
Simultaneously with relationships: how many people sincerely believe they are the life and soul of the party while, all around them, the rest of the world thinks they are a crashing bore? Or, rather more seriously, that their marriage is stable while, in fact, their spouse is being unfaithful?
Once you start going down the path of doubting everything where does it end? Could we logically conclude that we are all, in fact, merely energy sources for machines, cocooned and living in a virtual world where all that we sense is an illusion?
Actually, yes, we could, and I shall explain.
Logically, no initial observational viewpoint of reality is necessarily better than any other, so the first step towards constructing a coherent world view is always going to be a matter of faith or hope. Maybe later observations will change your viewpoint but, to start with, it’s like stabbing a pin blindly into a board to find hidden treasure.
But you’ve got to start somewhere so I’ve decided that I’m going to stick my pin into the Minster and believe that it really exists, and in very much the way that I picture it.
Bother – because if that’s so then I’d better start cleaning the floors because I perceive that they are still littered with Christmas tinsel.
And let this week’s column be a warning to you on the dangers of trying to watch a thought-provoking film when you’ve just eaten pizza.

Tree-mendous troubles in t’graveyard

Neil Pickford discusses matters arboreal
It’s been a rotten start to the year; in a sensory sense. If you remember my apology last year for excessive and inappropriate winking at people then, I’m sorry to say, it’s still going on. The new prescription for my left contact lens means I have to rely on my right eye to focus on middle to distant but the lazy thing hasn’t adjusted yet, so everything is all a bit bleary and blurry.
Add to that the fact that my right ear has gone on the blink again and it’s as if half my connections with humanity have been lost. This partial silence of the rest of the world does make everything seem a little distant and that’s not good. I feel like someone watching life as a kind of bad back-projection: there’s movement but it’s not very involving on a personal level. This can have annoying consequences.
 I gave a talk t’other day and, beforehand, warned my audience that I was a bit ‘mutton and Jeff.’ I said I would appreciate it if all laughter should be loud and obvious so that I could detect it and know I was doing something right.
I’m not sure if they heard me because I only picked up faint titters over the next hour, but I’ll blame the ear for that and continue to believe that I’m the funniest guy for miles around.
There was one occasion this week, however, when my deafness might have been a blessing, but it didn’t work out that way.
I won’t bore you with the reasons but I found myself trapped in the organ loft for nearly an hour, kneeling down and with my head and arm shoved through the rungs of a ladder, pushing rapidly at two red buttons whenever a digital signal changed and chaos boded. Downstairs there was a special service going on that consisted of periods of quiet readings, silence and then blasts of noise from our organ.
To make those noises our massive organ (please stop sniggering at the back there) has some massive pipes – up to 32 feet long (I won’t use the word ‘metre’ in this context so as not to confuse any musicians among my readers – hahahahaha, sorry, obscure little joke there).
These huge wooden whistles (for that is, basically, what they are) are called ‘oboes’ and make the deepest noises. It rapidly became very apparent to me that, when operating at full whack, they are also very loud – and I was right next to them.
A deaf left ear might have been a blessing at this point but, unfortunately, that particular aural channel was working properly. Typical!
Partly as a result of my sensory shortcomings I also fear I may have mislaid some of my chuckles recently.
Chuckles – you know – those silly little things that make people like you. Little jokes that brighten up even the most average conversation (or newspaper column). I used to have ready access to them but I currently feel a bit like an absent-minded squirrel that prudently laid down a reserve of nuts for the winter and now can’t find them. It’s really very vexing. So I apologise for that as well.
And speaking of matters arboreal, as I nearly was, I seem to have finally stumbled onto the subject of this week’s essay – one that has been bothering me, and several others, for a while.
It’s the huge tree in our northern churchyard, between the Highgate door and north transept, that is the issue.
Don’t get me wrong, I like trees. I think they are very nice things to look at and useful when waving their branches around to warn you of windy weather. They are also excellent perches for birds to stand on while aiming their doings at my newly-washed car. I believe they are also saving the planet and can help hide obtrusive mobile phone masts (if Orange doesn’t cut them down for interfering with reception, of course).
So I speak with a heavy heart when I say that, in my opinion, the tree needs to have a severe pruning if not total removal. I am aware that not everyone will agree with me because, when it was last proposed to remove some of the tallest twigs, people objected to any work being done at all. This led to a long period of consultation and various committee meetings before approval was granted for this routine husbandry.
And then the paperwork got lost somewhere and the work was never done.
So now everyone has got to go through the same process again and, of course, the tree has grown even more massive in the interim. Of itself that’s not an issue but the tree is destroying the Minster while we wait. Its roots are questing and pushing aside the clay on which the (not very deep) foundations of the building are resting while the tall branches deposit sap and other natural by-products that stain the stonework, leave a sticky residue and block up guttering – as do the tons of leaves and twigs that fly off throughout the year. This makes routine roof maintenance a rather more dangerous and irritating occupation than it needs to be.
I would much rather see the Minster in a near-pristine condition than any number of trees, no matter how venerable, so I rather hope huge quantities of its surplus timber will be chopped off and carted away sooner rather than later. It’s not as though you can’t plant any number of replacements, but you’ll never plant another Minster.
And there’s no point arguing with me on this matter because I won’t be able to hear you.

Windy weather warning worries watchers

Neil Pickford looks outside – seeking reassurance
It was last Tuesday morning (my equivalent of a Saturday for the rest of the world) and I was lying in bed, enjoying a later start to the day than normal. And, outside, the wind was howling and roaring.
My mind drifted back to schooldays – an increasingly difficult task over the years – and a Shakespearian quotation from my ‘O’ levels trudged reluctantly to mind:
“Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
‘Till you have drench’d our steeples,”
 As the furies mounted and twisted around my snug, warm house I remembered that, only a few years ago, a tall smoke-stack had towered above the very spot where I was idly laid. I was pleased when we had it demolished because I’d always felt it had a rather threatening and dangerous presence.
Today there is just a continuous stretch of smooth tiling and I can continue to sleep peacefully, whatever the wind speed outside.
Now I know it’s not often that chimney stacks are blown over by winds – but it does happen. And, after all, it’s only got to happen to you once to be exactly one time too many. And it’s not just chimneys – we’ve all seen the localised debris around Beverley when a storm hits – the roads strewn with overturned wheely bins, broken branches, fragments of tile on the pavements; etcetera, etcetera. Believe me, it’s quite an entertainment cycling round the various obstacles on my way to the Minster after a night like that.
And when I arrive at my place of work I have to check for damage because it’s my legal responsibility to make sure that it’s safe to open to the general public. So far we’ve been lucky – although perhaps ‘lucky’ isn’t the right word. After all, when a great golfer popped a shot from a bunker to within a couple of inches of the hole and a spectator commented how fortunate he’d been, he replied, witheringly: “Yeah, and the more I practice the luckier I get.”
It’s a fair comment, and one of the reasons why the Minster has been ‘luckily’ free from draft-derived damage is that a lot of time and money is spent on maintaining it – and it needs to be. You may remember that a pedestrian was killed when a pinnacle fell from the roof of All Saints church in the centre of York a few years ago. I walked past that very church at least ten times a week for three years before the accident and it certainly made me extremely aware of what might go wrong with a tall, exposed building.
And what is more tall and exposed than the Minster? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way because you can experience exactly how exposed it is if you come on a roof tour during a storm.
On a day such as today (or last Tuesday week, as it is to you) you will hear the roof over the transept creaking and groaning like an old wooden ship at sea. This is because the roof itself, despite being rebuilt in the 1720s and strengthened in the 1820s, still sticks to its original design – one which the Romans would have recognised. It was built to be strong and resistant – not subtle and responsive which, it turns out, is a better strategy for long-term survival against the elements.
By the time they got round to building part two, however, our ancestors had learned a few things – not least, how much of a battering the old place was going to get over the years from these elemental elements. So they built the nave roof using a completely different technological concept – and it worked.
I shan’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t been up there yet but our ancestors were brilliant, which is why the Minster nave can boast a virtually complete set of original 650 year-old timbers throughout.
However, not everything is as reliable.
For the last few months the west end of the church has hosted scaffolding that was erected to help masons replace some big and rather wobbly stony bits. These had worked loose and there was a danger that they might fall if rocked by, for example, very high winds.
Gosh, isn’t it ‘lucky’ that we started work on them before the latest storms struck? You’d almost think someone ‘up there’ was looking out for us!
And, of course, they are.
There is a fixed programme of intimate annual structural inspections and incredibly detailed five-year ones prescribed for the Minster and, of course, constant ongoing checking between these events.
Much of this checking is done by the Minster’s own handyman extraordinaire Steve Rial, aided by his part-time colleague Paul Hawkins, although ‘handyman’ isn’t really the right word here. Steve is actually an expert plumber and glazier, which means he’s the ideal man to repair the lead roof and leaded windows, but he’s also got to turn his hand to anything else that needs doing at a moment’s notice – and sometimes that involves dealing with bits of the building that are potentially dangerous.
It’s a good job the two of them each have a head for heights – during December and January they’ve been working away some 90 foot above the ground, repairing ancient ridges that are thin and brittle, preventing the wind from ripping off stretches of the ancient materials and dumping them onto unsuspecting pedestrians.
So I shall be able to sleep soundly again tonight, whatever the winds, knowing just how ‘lucky’ we are – and why. Thanks guys.

York Guild of Vergers welcomes new members

November 28 2011

Canon Maureen flanked by the new vergers

The annual pre-Christmas CEGV lunch in York gave vergers in Yorkshire the opportunity to welcome four new members to the Guild, a brace each from both the York and the Yorkshire South and West Ridings branches.

CEGV Chaplain Maureen Palmer welcomed Carole Shaw from Holy Trinity , Hull as an associate member; plus Kevin Hara from Beverley Minster, Eric Grubb of St Marys, Whitkirk and Kevin Simpson of Wakefield Cathedral as full members.
The ceremony took place within a communion service held in the Zouche Chapel of York Minster – a highly appropriate location as it is attached to, and accessible from, the vergers’ vestry in the minster.
Formalities over we then decamped for what was probably the caterers’ earliest Christmas dinner of the year as we were still in the dog-days of November. This was, however, the nearest to Christmas that we could manage this year as, for some reason, our diaries for December were largely full.
And then back to work….

And so it starts all over again

Neil Pickford contemplates the year ahead, with horror
Now I know that this is the time of year when second-rate columnists who are short of ideas can rabbit on with wild predictions about coming trends and events – certain in the knowledge that no one will read or remember them.
I am different.
I know that you, my quality readers, will both read AND remember, so I thought I’d better take a bit more care with my words. So you will not be reading any fantastic follies from me about both virgers getting OBEs in the next New Year Honours for services to roof tours. I shall also keep to myself the pious hope that a public-hearted floor-cleaning business will take over our duties of scrubbing, cleaning and protecting our stone floor this year.
It is slightly more possible that a location scout would discover that Beverley Minster was perfect as the backdrop for a major blockbuster movie. Even better if it was a blockbuster based on my own writings, with me as a highly-paid on-site script consultant ,  but I have to admit that that’s about as unlikely as me becoming Pope.
Heck, I’d be happy if my column was made into a sit com for BBC3 – or even a one hour special on the Discovery Channel that was only ever broadcast at 3 in the morning but I’m too realistic to predict any of those coming to pass either.
Instead, I’m going to proffer some much more realistic scenarios which may lack the glamour of the above but at least have the advantage of being verifiable.
For a start I predict the Minster will host an exhibition or series of displays of the graffiti inside the building. One of the dedicated team of researchers who keep exploring the old place in minute detail has made a special study of the unofficial carvings which overlay the basic structure – and very interesting some of them are. Amongst the mediaeval equivalent of: “Fred wuz ‘ere” are representations of boats, musical notation and even games or patterns.
It’s a whole sub-culture in its own right and there’s a good chance we’ll be able to show off more about them over the May Bank Holidays.
I (fairly confidently) also predict that 2012 will see the conclusion of 2011’s slow but positive progress towards opening the western end of the Minster churchyard to the general public – a scheme very much supported by the virgers.
There is a desire and good will among many parties to see this go ahead and very helpful cooperation from the council, (who are responsible for looking after the grounds these days) so we may well see this project reach completion soon. We do hope so – it’s something that people want very much – giving them the opportunity to explore and experience the building in a different way and also just enjoy being in a safe and secure green environment.
Whenever we open the gates for a wedding we virgers always have to hunt around the perimeter before closing time to clear out people who are enjoying the facility unofficially. It’ll be so much better to do it properly and have a set routine so everyone knows that, if they do get locked in, then it’s their own fault and not mine.
But there is still a very, very faint chance that this may not happen and as I don’t want to be a hostage to good fortune I’m going to predict something of which I am absolutely certain.
I predict that the month of January will be largely occupied in cleaning duties.
Actually, that’s hardly a prediction as it’s already started in a small way. The two 20 foot Christmas trees will be down, their carpet of needles extracted from (almost) every awkward crack and hole that they have infiltrated and then the task of removing all traces of Christmas 2011 will begin in earnest.
The model of Market Weighton railway station in the 1930s will be gone, the large forest of tree artworks created and presented by the High School will be back home and then it will be easy to find a virger – just follow the roar of a vacuum-cleaner and there will be either John or me in close proximity.
In previous years I have waxed lyrical about how our Henrys are the perfect machines for the task, being sufficiently powerful and flexible to clean floors, high window sills and even delicate wooden carvings some 20 foot above the ground – so much so that you may have thought I was getting paid for product placement in my articles. Sadly, that’s not the case which is why I can confidently predict I shall not be enjoying a family holiday this year on Sir Richard Branson’s private island in the company of other nouveau riche.
And my final bold prediction for this week is that I will soon be heartily sick of the sound of Henrys, so the chances of me doing any vacuuming at home in January are slim to non-existent. That’s why I bought my wife a Henry of her own a few Christmases ago. I don’t let her play with my toys and I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to play with hers.
Actually, I can confidently predict a row will follow when she reads that sentence. Oh dear.
So ho hum and Happy New Year to us all.

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