A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

It was 50 years ago today. Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play

Neil Pickford remembers things.
I don’t listen to the radio these days. Oh, radios Humberside or Two are on for other members of the family to sample as they wish but I rarely listen as closely as once I did.
So it took a long process of drip-drip-dripping before I realised that I was hearing a higher-than-normal ratio of really good music among the vintage pop and modern chatter.
It then dawned on me that most of these good songs came from one particular four-piece, guitar-based beat combo as ‘Hep Cats’ used to describe this sort of thing back in the ancient days of black and white telly – The Beatles!
Finally, it dawned on me that this was 2012 and, therefore, 1962 was 50 years ago. TARAAA! Suddenly it all made sense.
You see, in this month exactly half a century ago, a gentleman at Decca wrote a letter declining to sign The Beatles to a recording contract on the grounds that: “Guitar groups are on the way out.” Nice one Decca.
Well, EMI were a bit more broad-minded and, later that year, released the group’s first single (‘Love Me Do’) which just scraped into the Top 20 and the rest, as we say, was history.
You may think I’m overstating the case but I truly believe that these four gentlemen changed the entire world, and I’m prepared to defend this statement.
Certainly, without the Fab Four Britain would be a very different country and I’m old enough to remember how drab it was before 1962.
(As a side issue, my home town of Dursley remained drab for another 30 years. Interestingly, when JK Rowling was looking for a suitably horrible surname for Harry Potter’s dreadful guardians, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, she picked on ‘Dursley’ because it was a town she absolutely loathed. I share her feelings and, in fact, when I first-ever used a new-fangled spellcheck device in the days of good, old black and green computer screens, instead of accepting ‘Dursley’ it suggested ‘drowsily’. I felt I was in the presence of brilliant Artificial Intelligence – but I digress.)
The Beatles’ success took the international image of our damp group of islands and gave it a good polish, coincidentally transforming the cities of Liverpool and London into icons of ‘cool’ – an image that we are still deep-mining to this day.
Go into any British airport or retailer of tat to the tourists and what do you find? Models of double-decker buses and black taxi-cabs, that’s what, of the kind that haven’t worked the streets of the capital for years, but which are indelibly linked to trendiness and Beatle-style. The moulds were made in the 60s and are still working overtime now.
Because London was the trendiest city in the known universe creative types flooded here and started making things, because people wanted to buy things made in London where The Beatles were.
Britain’s film industry became commercially successful and still is, producing mega-hits such as Star Wars as well as James Bond and Harry Potter. The London Symphony Orchestra then performed the movie soundtracks that shaped the tastes of a generation, Superman, Jaws, Star Wars etcetera.
Britain’s music ruled the world: if you listened to a foreign language pop station in the period you heard: “Gabble, gabble Rowling Schtones…gabble, gabble Rode Schtewart… gabble, gabble Da Kinks!” Occasionally there would be a local wannabe artiste singing an unmemorable ditty (in English) but then it was back to the real stuff.
We conquered America, first with the pop bands that followed The Beatles as fast as work permits could be negotiated, then the louder guitar-based bands (thank you Decca) such as Cream, Led Zeppelin and Queen who found they could fill stadia effortlessly. Even rubbish like Judas Priest was treated with respect.
Back in the 1980s one third of all the records in the US Top 100 were British and EMI was the biggest record label in the world. The rest of the world copied the literate three minute pop song format popularised by our heroes (ABBA being the most obvious example) and the entire globe followed our fashions, football and TV.
Even the French, not normally fans of le rosbif (us) succumbed to the joys of The Avengers and The Prisoner while everyone else consumed Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, period dramas and the like.
We also had Rolls Royce, the Mini, Harrier Jump Jets and Concorde – we RULED!
That’s why, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty in a proper way I launched a campaign to make ‘Hey Jude’ our national anthem in time for the Olympic Games. So far it’s not made much headway, but we can live in hope.
And 2012 also marks the (approximately) 80th anniversary of the monster tree next to a northern wall of which I have written in the past.
The tree is younger than some of our Thursday morning congregation but they, unlike it, do not need pruning.
In a nice piece of circularity I found out that The Beatles had written a song on this very subject: “It Came in Through the Transept Window”; and you must also remember Paul McCartney’s marvellous chart-topping “Band (saw) on the Run.”
Ahhh, glorious memories.
And if you want more glorious memories of my writing then why not pop along to www.vestry-view.blogspot and sample a further 170 sparkling gems. You could even become a ‘Follower’ – which would be nice. Every mad egoist needs a few.


Oy! Dawkins! You’ve got it soooooo wrong!

Neil Pickford gets feisty.

It’s been a depressing few weeks if you believe that my employer, the Church of England, is important. 
We’ve had judges deciding that it’s against the law to have prayers before council meetings. Then the magnificently smug Richard Dawkins pops up yet again to trumpet research which claims that most Christians don’t know what we’re talking about.
On that basis, he claims, Christianity should lose any special status that it has as the state religion. Stop teaching religious education, remove all traces of the Bible from public life, replace ‘Songs of Praise’ with ‘Science and Sensibility’ and all will be well. Once free from the shackles of outmoded superstition the new Age of Aquarius will dawn and everything will be tickety-boo.  
Well, I don’t accept Mr Dawkins’ conclusions, not least because my journalistic background makes me instinctively disbelieve every press release – especially ones claiming that research ‘proves’ whatever product or angle the sender wants to sell. 
“Survey shows bald people grow hair if they eat Winnalot”:  “Research reveals new houses in green belt increases virility”: – you know the sort of thing. So if Dawkins’ eponymously-named Foundation for Religions and Science claims their research proves most Christians actually don’t believe in God then I wouldn’t automatically accept this as gospel (ha ha). It’s much too easy to manipulate research and get whatever statistics you want.
Bear in mind also that Mister Dawkins’ increasingly virulent (and very specifically anti-Christian) campaign appears driven by someone motivated by emotion, not cool reason. Perhaps he is haunted by childhood memories of boring afternoons on the Sabbath or being forced to watch Thora Hird and Harry Secombe. He may very well be trying to get back at everybody and everything connected with this trauma = and with some justification in my opinion. However, whatever the motive I don’t take his conclusions seriously.
Some people do however, and so I think it’s time to go back to basics. Once upon a time Richard Dawkins wrote a highly readable and fascinating book called “The Selfish Gene.” This drew on his scientific knowledge of zoology to produce an elegant theory on how animals might have developed behaviour which appears to demonstrate selfishness or altruism. He postulated a consistent and highly believable explanation to account for why these responses had developed in many non-human creatures.
Later in his career Dawkins then made a leap of faith and started believing that humans are exactly the same. Our behaviour and morality is something we’ve just developed as survival techniques so there’s no need to invoke a big sort of ‘God’ who is concerned about humans. Left to our own devices we can get on with living together in a comfortable way, unhindered by religious prejudices that distort our behaviour. We’d be rational, in human terms. Our morality would be pure.
Well, that’s cobblers. 
Human beings do not all, individually, behave in a rational way that helps the herd. In any barrel there are a heap of bad apples but, on top of that, selfishness and a desire for the easiest possible life is the dream of many. You don’t have to believe in the fairy tale of Adam and Eve or Original Sin to see that humans can be tempted so very, very easily.
If the temptations were put on a plate in front of us, without any price being asked, which of us wouldn’t opt to have a free and fabulous car, instant weight loss, better looks, a bigger house, more toys, longer holidays, easier work, overwhelming approval among everyone we meet, a glittering career in movies, a best-selling book? 
If we were given great power over our fellow humans – if we were politicians, policemen, army officers, for example, then which of us could resist the temptation to indulge ourselves at the expense of others? Very few, I suspect, unless we had a sort of nagging feeling that this behaviour is wrong.
Well last Sunday we had the Legal Service in Beverley Minster. A good representation of what you might call the ‘elite’:  commanders, judges, sheriffs, mayors, etcetera was gathered together by the Church of England to be loudly reminded that they are: (and I quote from the order of service) “servants above all …. we present ourselves, imperfect before the throne of grace, to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins…”
These are words that are supposed to humble the powerful, to make them think again about how they use the privileges and responsibilities that life has given them. They were spoken out loud in front of everybody because they are part of what it means to be an Anglican in Britain – they are there to make people behave better than they otherwise would. 
That’s got to be a good thing, surely – and a far better attitude than that displayed by the anti-Christians who pop up in the comments section of newspaper websites after almost any church news story. Reading these you are exposed to the opinions of people who claim to be rational and intelligent members of the anti-superstitious elite – and it’s a depressing repetition of rudeness, ignorance, prejudice and generalised offensiveness. 
Now you know that my wages are paid by the kind people who are church members at Beverley Minster but that’s not why I’m on my soapbox today. It’s because I would much prefer a world run by Christians who keep being prompted to improve their behaviour to one modelled on Dawkins and his uninhibited bag-carriers of hatred and intolerance. 

A worrisome, wearisome kind of day

Neil Pickford is all fingers and thumbs
I wasn’t really that surprised when I sat down with my laptop and started planning this week’s column to find that my thoughts consisted of the following:
Not a sausage.
It had been just one of those days – you know the sort. You walk into your kitchen in the normal way yet, somehow, you manage to knock a cup that must have been at least three miles from the edge of a table. Then the strange magnetism that attracts china drags the utensil to the floor where it immediately shatters.
And, of course, it’s the family heirloom, isn’t it?
Things just didn’t get any better after that. As it was one of my days off I was helping my dear wife in her wonderful award-winning bed & breakfast (Hunter’s Hall, just visit for details) as we’d had a very busy period. I was on bed-making duties and the corners of the pillows just wouldn’t match up with the cases. Normally I can just slide the darn things in and they look great, but not today.
Naturally the double quilt also managed to perform a corkscrew while being inserted into its cover, and when it came to placing pairs of towels neatly at the foot of each bed they just snagged each other and refused to lie flat. Even when they finally capitulated they didn’t look right and I had to do it all again.
Wiping down the shower screens left smears where normally they would have just glistened and, all-in-all, it was a pretty pooped Pickford who was finally satisfied that everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion (a phrase referring to the round-bottomed ships that were specially designed to moor in that fair city and rest safely on their hulls when the tide went out. Don’t tell me this column isn’t educational). 
 The general air of ‘elbows’ continued for most of the day. I needed to iron some shirts but every time I eased out one crease I managed to create two more elsewhere.  You can also imagine how much fun I had trying to put my contact lenses in.
But I survived all these frustrations – and so did all the inanimate objects around me (except for that first cup, of course). I finally made my way back to my trusty laptop, powered it up and then stared blankly at an equally blank screen, desperate for inspiration but not confident about finding it.
Unsurprisingly, as my mind ranged here and there I thought idly about the Minster and the various concrete (well, stone, actually) examples of ‘thumbs’ that exist slap-bang next to dazzling craftsmanship. Once you start to look really carefully you can see hundreds of little bodges that cover up an awkward piece of workmanship. Back in the 13th and 14th centuries the masons obviously had their own equivalents of the camouflage garden decking that Alan Titchmarsh did so much to popularise.
Over the years John and I have been compiling a list of what we like to call: “Oh whoops” architecture. For example, after building phase one of the Minster it eventually reached the existing Norman nave and the masons stopped work for 70 years. Then they started building from the other end back towards part one. Eventually they knocked down the final wall ready to join together their marvellous gothic constructions – only to find they didn’t match.
“Oh Whoops” they probably said as they realised the beading around the east rim of the window was different to that around the west side. “Never mind, let’s just slap a quick carving over the join – no one will notice.”
And so they did.
The best example, however, is at the back of the reredos – a magnificent edifice of the highest quality that once supported the gold-covered reliquary of St John himself. This was the holiest place of all where wealthy pilgrims would come to pray for miracles.
Before Henry VIII’s religious reformers (and subsequent Protestant purists) removed all traces of colour with wire brushes this structure would have been a riot of pictures, murals and brightness that individuals could study and meditate about for hours. So, obviously, it was the centrepiece of the whole building and every single detail would have been carefully planned and executed.
And yet….. and yet….
Once you look at it carefully you find something that is so very, very wrong that it can’t be anything other than a total Thumbs. The hugely expensive tiles are not just badly laid– they don’t even follow the same alignment from one section to the next.
It makes me humble to know that, no matter what sort of clumsy accident I may have, I am still a mere amateur compared to the experts. I shall approach the task of repairing a large, chipped fish tank (chips and fish – did you see what I did there, readers? Sorry) at home with renewed confidence and my normal blind optimism.
But if you see me sloshing around with wet feet you’ll know I’ve had another day like today.

The rising cost of living

Neil Pickford comes over all biblical
Firstly, let me offer you yet another of my apologies. Two weeks ago I misquoted myself when I wrote that I had been ‘The’ film critic of the Bristol Evening Post instead of ‘A’ film critic for the group. Just thought I’d better set the record straight as I believe that facts are important.
Opinions however…..
I’m going to try and experiment this week readers and admit that I’m beginning this article without any idea how it will end. The next 800 words will in fact, be guided by the researches I do en route and I will be sharing the results of these researches with you as I progress. You are therefore actually witnessing the process of creation as you read.
Gosh. Isn’t it exciting?
I am taking the subject of inflation as my theme today, specifically inflation in the costs of things, not the current condition of my waistline. Now it may be that, as a result, I start to veer into moral issues, which is unusual. After all, as I have explained in the past, in Beverley Minster the vicar does the theology and I shift the chairs.
However, it’s fun sometimes to go outside your immediate comfort zone and, let’s be honest, after we virgers’ huge efforts spent in rebuilding the interior of the Minster after the wedding fair last Saturday, it’s very nice to move to matters meditative for a while.
I started thinking about inflation as a result of a coincidence: two unrelated documents that were rather unexpectedly passed to me yesterday. The first was a major dissertation on the history of Beverly Minster which revealed to me that, back in mediaeval times the Minster’s annual income was £900 – making it the second-richest non-cathedral religious body in the entire north of England.
So, 500 years ago a sum of £900 was an absolute fortune: now it’s roughly the total monthly pay of an adult on minimum wage. We all know that prices were different in The Goode Olde Daze but comparisons based on these figures alone don’t come close to telling the whole story. Apparently, £1 in 1750 (the earliest date available on the Bank of England calculator) was worth £172.92 in 2010. This means that £900 back then today translates into £155,628 today – but that’s not a huge fortune.
These days are probably several individuals in Beverley who earn that every year, so simple multiplication obviously doesn’t convey the full story.
I’d hoped the second document, which is rather more recent, would be easier to translate – but actually it doesn’t seem to help much either.
It was part of an appeal for funds to restore the magnificent organ in the Minster: It asks: “Must this noble organ fall silent?” and underneath a photo of the keyboard are the heart-tugging words: “Yesterday this note was playing. Today nothing happens.”
To prevent this deplorable state of affairs continuing the huge sum of £8,400 was needed in 1962. Yes, £8,400! And this required a huge campaign with patrons of the calibre of The Lords Middleton and Hotham. Yet now, some 50 years later, £8.4K is less than a virger earns in a year (and that’s a pretty easy target to reach, let me tell you).
The inflation calculator tells us that a 1962 £1 equals £16.62 in 2010 (inflation averaged 6% every year in the interim) so, today, inflation-adjusted, £8,400 then is equivalent to £140,000 now.
But a similarly-sized rebuild of the organ at Bridlington Priory is currently estimated to cost £750,000 – nearly six times the inflation-adjusted price!
Hmmmmm – it would appear that figures by themselves don’t tell anything like the full story – important things really are getting a lot more expensive than they were. Any lovely person who put aside a lump sum of £10K a few years ago hoping that, on their death, their bequest would pay for major repairs to our Snetzler would be very, very disappointed now.
I tried to find out what the Bible had to say on the subject of inflation – is it good or bad? Frankly, it wasn’t very helpful. Proverbs 13:11 – “Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow”
Hmmm, not sure about that because, as the rate of inflation has frequently outstripped savings rates over the last 50 years it’s been darned hard to find legitimate saving accounts that keep pace– so all money saved is money that is losing value, honestly gained or otherwise.
But, as we all know, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil(1 Timothy 6:10), so perhaps, morally, we shouldn’t worry about the value of our money in the future. It seems to imply that there’s no point in worrying about saving for your retirement because…. Well, just don’t worry, that’s all.
And Matthew 6:19 warns us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
So my very basic Biblical research seems to be telling me there’s no point worrying about inflation eating away my savings (savings? ha!) and that there’s nothing morally right or wrong about inflation (i.e. spending more money to get less), per se.
And yet my dear wife informs me that Arial recently reduced the number of biological tabs in its plastic boxes, firstly from 24 to 23 and now down to 21, for the same price.
And, on so many levels, that seems just WRONG!

And now for something completely different

Neil Pickford changes tack
I have been accused, after my last few columns, of veering towards the serious rather than the silly. For this I can only apologise. It was never my intention to push, provoke, postulate, pontificate or proselytise and I am sorry for any confusion that may have arisen.
And if you’ll believe that…..
This week, however, my mind is being drawn irresistibly to the infinitely less intellectual subject of chairs – specifically the moving of same.
These thoughts are provoked by demands on the virgers to remove all pews from the nave for this Saturday morning in the Minster and subsequently return them to their original locations by the end of that same evening. This apparently pointless exercise is caused by the need to accommodate a wedding fair which will be in full swing for a mere five hours or so but will take over almost the entire church for the duration.
We’re accommodating around 50 stalls between the pillars and down the centre of the church, as well as catering for many hundreds of visitors. It’s a major logistical exercise because we’re also building a catwalk for two fashion shows and providing the seating for these demonstrations, as well as the tables and serving bases for refreshments.
Then, when it’s all over John and I will have to take exactly as long as it takes to strip down all traces and restore the building to its normal Sunday layout – so we won’t be home for early evening telly, that’s for sure. Good job Doctor Who isn’t on at the moment – I’d be too torn between Daleks and Duty.
We’re been planning the procedure like a military exercise, and I can just picture it: Private Pickford squares his shoulders and slowly stretches his neck, feeling the tension building as he prepares for the campaign. Corporal Dell is beside him, the warriors acknowledging each other with a simple nod before they start their well-planned manoeuvres in silence, each concentrating on their own part of the operation, confident that their comrade will not let them down.
The central rails have already been removed on the north side of the central crossing and the round altar, a cunning camouflage, is jacked up and ready to be manhandled aside.
The two men tense and prepare to push, straining to feel the first critical micro-movement as their pressure fights the inertia of the altar, then they guide the huge but beautifully-balanced structure past various innocent obstructions with bare inches to spare from disaster on both sides, until it is out of the firing line and safely stowed where no one will disturb it.
Phase One of ‘Project Wedding Fair’ completed: now for Phase Twp.
Next, the virgers must assemble an intricate assembly of pipes, frames, plastic fixings, boards and bridges, each part expertly placed in exactly the right position to play its full part without fail.
From the air it looks a simple ‘T’ shape but, in reality, this construction is a carefully designed launchpad for dozens of dazzling designs that will bewilder and beguile. Yet, so brilliant is our work that the entire edifice will appear invisible once the whistle blows.
Stretching away on three sides will be the baffles, rows of pews in groups of three, still bearing blast-absorbing kneelers on their backs which can be grabbed at need by any civilians in the area when the balloon goes up.
No time to waste – the rest of the pews have been commandeered to defend the walls of the Minster and must be manhandled into place along the north and south sides. Each group of three has its own space and if any one of them is out of position the entire beautiful edifice is in danger.
Good soldiers that we are, John and I will check, check and double check each other’s work before we are satisfied, then we can move to Phase Three: getting the essential stores in place and provisioning every single one of the participants.
Each one needs a table of sorts or a stand, plus two chairs for maximum efficiency, plus an inexhaustible supply of electricity to maintain equipment in peak condition for the entire exercise.
Then, infrastructure in place, we must be ready to solve the million and one individual problems that afflict an army at war in the critical moments before action begins. John and I are grizzled old-timers, obviously men with many years of knowledge built up the hard way and so, naturally, the nervous, the new and the inexperienced will come to us for guidance and reassurance.
We shall sort them out; we will pat their shoulders; we may tell them everything will be fine (whether we believe it or not) and then, when the whistle blows, we can finally stand down for a cup of tea and a slice of toast: the essential fuel of the working virger.
And when, a mere six hours later, the skirmishing is over we shall remove any casualties from the field and begin reversing the results of our previous physical endeavours. Why? Well, because we have to get everything ready for the next engagement, the 8am Communion that marks the opening salvo in the next weekly cycle of life in the Minster.
Finally the whole vast internal space in the Minster will be as it was before, ready for action, and we shall finally be able to return to the virgers’ truest and bestest friend – their bed.
And with this article the balance of nature has been restored. Thank you and good night.

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