A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Don’t talk to me about the weather

Neil Pickford tests the temperature
I write this dispatch surrounded by the sounds of gunfire, explosions and the screams of dying men.
I’m at home and my son is playing ‘Call of Duty’ on Xbox LIVE next to me.
I was taking a few days off work and had been thinking about rain. It’s not surprising– my wife had democratically decided we should use this time to lay a new path in the garden and it was quite important to timetable parts of the process around the weather or the whole project would be a disaster.
Regular consultations of the Met Office website were therefore in order – and we were delighted to see that it’s been rejigged to give even better, far more localised information. Now we can choose to receive weather forecasts that focus on either Beverley Racecourse or The Friary – far better than a generalised Hull-centred picture. I registered from the 5-day forecast that a given day was going to be perfect for concrete-laying – then was somewhat surprised to find it raining on the morning in question.
As I kept going back to the site I started to notice that things weren’t quite as fixed as I might expect. It seemed to me that all these tables, so confidently predicting what was going to happen within a few hundred yards of me during any given period over the next 100 hours were somewhat – how can I say it politely? – flexible. Data seemed to be changing constantly.
I thought I owed it to myself, and my readers, to conduct a scientific exercise and find out how reliable these Met Office Five Day forecasts really are.
I selected mid-afternoon on my first day back at work as my focus. I then downloaded the prediction for that day on each of the five leading up to it, noting the changes. Here are the results:
Four days in advance – Met Office prediction: Light shower day
Three days –  Prediction: Light shower day
Two days –  Prediction: Thunder shower day
One day –  Prediction: Thunder
The day itself – Prediction (on-line at 8am): Heavy rain
The reality was different. At 8am (when I was cycling to work) it was raining fairly heavily but soon the rain had ended and, apart from a few spots at lunch time and late afternoon the day was mainly overcast with occasional flashes of sunshine. In other words, pretty much a total fail (excuse me – that’s one of those modern phrases I’ve recently picked up from my gun-toting son).
Remember that these results come from the same computers used to tell us how climate is going to change over the next few hundred years. Hmmmmm.
Mind you, there were flash floods in Pocklington at lunch time, so that might be where the water all went but, hey, it’s not me who’s claiming to predict where each individual rain drop is going to land.
Many years ago The Two Ronnies joked that the man who stuck his finger out of the window to test the weather for the Met Office had gone to work for British Railways, where he got twice as much job satisfaction. On current form I reckon they need to tempt him back.
And that gives me an idea – a Minster-orientated service that’s far more accurate than the Met Office and doesn’t need millions of pounds spent on stupid computers.
I’ll send my son up the north tower and he’ll be able to tell you whether the weather is going to waver – it’ll do us both good to get him away from the Xbox.

Today is not forever

Neil Pickford considers the long term
So last week I achieved my one hundredth column in the Beverley Advertiser – a big achievement. And then I thought: ‘so what?’
It wasn’t an emotional reaction, more an understanding of my non-existent ranking in the cosmic scale of things – so completely unlike that of a great philosopher who once said: “For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer” (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Not all of us have the single-minded drive of the Terminator, our ambitions are lower than of becoming governor of California but it does appear to be the nature of humankind to strive; for some to achieve – and for these achievements to eventually turn to dust.
The drive probably comes because most of us have the sense that we are unique and, therefore, because we are unique we are important.
By extension there is a temptation to assume that ‘our’ moment is different to any other in history and that this particular ‘now’ is different to any other.
You see it among teenagers during their normal route through adolescence: they believe that no previous generation has ever been as essential, as concerned, as sensitive, or as environmentally aware as they.
Similarly no previous generation has ever been so daring or interesting in its music or fashion and no one has ever worried as deeply about emotional affairs as this one.
Sorry kids but you’re wrong. Those boring old fellows you see tottering around on the edge of dotage (you know, the over 40s) were young once too and we had our moments.
For instance, some years ago there was a bit of a ‘punk’ revival and I saw a young gentleman sitting rudely in Wednesday Market, He sported the standard uniform of torn clothes, safety pin in one ear and a spiked-up pile of green hair. He was obviously enjoying his reputation of being a ‘bad boy’ and the reactions of people as they first noticed him. He caught me watching.
“What you staring at, Grandad?” he bellowed out, obviously expecting me to jump like a frightened cat.
I smiled gently.
“Memories dear boy,” I replied. “Memories.” And so I was.
Our normal egotistical view of the world, while entirely understandable (and, don’t get me wrong – I share it) leads to another common misunderstanding: that everything around at this precise period of history is immutable, unchanging…and always will be.
A good example of this can be found in the Rose window in the top of our northern transept wall. In one segment of the leaded panels there is a small diamond-shaped piece of glass etched with the name: ‘John Hunsley, 1798.”
Next to it is a more modern piece of glass, bearing the signature of AA Hunsley, who was the glazier charged with rebuilding the window in 1986 and the great-great grandson of said John H.  He was so excited by discovering his ancestor’s signature that he promptly wrote the names of the vicar, churchwardens, bell-ringers, even virgers involved with the Minster in that year, obviously intending to give their great-great grandchildren a chance of experiencing the same thrill that he had on discovering this contact with his ancestor.
It’s a lovely vote of confidence in the expected survival of the Rose window.
But how confident can we really be about the future? Things do change over time – take the Minster itself, for example. It’s always been there and it’s always been like it is, right?
Wrong. It’s been around for 800 years but inside it’s varied from having bright colours splashed on every exposed surface to today’s naked stone.
It once had a gallery over the north aisle, now it doesn’t.
The current choir stalls in the nave were, only 40 years ago, some three feet closer together and were only moved back to give the congregation a view of a brand new altar.
The pulpit has moved around like a stop-motion animated dancer over recent centuries.
Before Henry VIII we never had a pulpit or pews and the main body of the church was a mad free-for-all where people gathered to discuss almost everything apart from religion.
Eighty years ago none of the present trees or bushes in the churchyard even existed: one hundred years ago the churchyard was still an active cemetery: two hundred years ago there was a dome above the central tower: three hundred years ago the central tower itself was a huge spike even taller than the towers at the west end: four hundred years…. Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going.
So, if such things can change so radically over time then what can we reasonably expect of our own age to still be around for our great grandchildren to appreciate?
Will the interior of the Minster still be plain stone, or will modern lighting recreate the mood of lush and vivid colours that our ancestors would have expected? Will the Minster still be a church? In 200 years it might be a cathedral, a museum, a mosque or a ruin – who knows? It is unlikely to be as it is today.
I am also confident that no one will remember ‘View from the Vestry’ in 2212. Once that would have annoyed me intensely but now I really don’t mind. You see, I’ve changed too.

Where’s my telegram, Ma’am?

Neil Pickford marks a milestone
Last week four members of the (greater) Beverley Minster family got to meet the Queen in York– but not me, oh no.
Not that I expected to, mind you, because these were four carefully selected sober, upright citizens of impeccable character who have given years of loyal service to the church. They were recipients of Maundy money and had to be over 70. I miss out on at least one of those requirements but I did think Her Majesty (Gawd bless ‘er) might have swung by Beverley while she was in the area, just to drop off a quick OBE or something. After all, it’s not every day that a humble contributor to the highly prestigious Beverley Advertiser gets to complete 100 columns for its august readership is it? But here it is – my centenary. Surely a cup of tea and a vellum scroll, at the very least.
I’ve been a loyal subject. Worried about the costs of the 2011 Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey I suggested that the ceremony should be hosted in Beverley Minster because, after all, the West End of that rather big building is directly modelled on our own towers. It would have saved Charles a fortune, but I didn’t even get a ‘thank-you’ letter from the Palace.
What about my suggestion to replace the uninspiring national anthem with “Hey Jude” – a truly happy-making song that epitomises the best of modern Britain and would be perfect for the Olympics. Nothing!
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Her Majesty hasn’t even heard of me. She doesn’t get the Beverley Advertiser delivered, no uniformed flunky opens the newspaper at the right page, irons the paper flat and presents it on a silver platter for her to enjoy. Unbelievable, isn’t it?
I thought long and hard about the matter and realised that, basically, I’ve been wasting my time over the last two years. I had, rather foolishly, assumed that utilising the best quality vocabulary, precisely blended intonations for each finely crafted sentence and frequent whimsical inserts to produce a weekly wonderland of words would guarantee me world fame. My efforts would soon reach the highest and humblest of our fair kingdom. Virtue brings its own reward.
Well, as a business model, it’s worked fine for my wife’s marvellous bed and breakfast enterprise, Hunter’s Hall in Beverley (currently #5 and rising up the TripAdvisor tables – very comfortable beds and excellent breakfasts, visit for further details, thank you).
Due to hard work she got a silver award for service last year and another for the quality of breakfasts and, by concentrating on these things, we have been sustained through the winter with a constant flow of repeat bookings, boosted by word-of-mouth recommendations.
Total advertising costs – £60 for a bunch of business cards, of which we still have a huge reserve. Total revenue – much higher than last year, thank you very much and, of course, it’s good to provide something that people enjoy receiving, because it makes them happier people as well and nicer towards you. Gill isn’t wearing herself out trying to reach new customers; she’s conserving her energies to concentrate on providing a super service.
But modern marketing insists that this gentle approach is the wrong way to go about things. We’re supposed to aggressively chase business.
Apparently you should regard both existing and potential customers as idiots, offering mad too-good-to-be-true incentives to tempt new ones. Then, once they’re on your books you can treat them as ‘mugs’ or, as Goldman Sachs insiders apparently have it, a ‘Muppet’.
We had this demonstrated only last week when my older son tried to renew his car insurance. He’s now over 20, he’s acquired an extra year of no claims bonus and, surprise, surprise, the premium from his existing insurer has gone up by 10 per cent. What they didn’t bother telling him, as a loyal, trouble free customer is that, if he signed up with the same provider, providing identical details, but as a first-timer, they would offer the same service for £210 less.
One of the reasons for this is that the institution spends huge amounts of effort and money thrashing around and creating lots of fuss in a pathetic attempt to look ‘proactive’ or whatever rubbish middle-management buzz-word is in vogue this year.
And, of course, this need for frantic activity has led directly to that most cursed and despised of the all tools currently used in modern marketing, the telephone call centre (against which I have ranted in Advertisers passim). However, it now seems I may have to join them.
I had hoped that my weekly warbles, using the highest quality jokes, the profoundest observations and the bestly-editated paragraphs would have built a loyal fanbase that gradually grew through recommendation, but that’s not enough. I’m considering changing my approach.
I’ll see if I can get my wife to offer a fried egg to all new readers.
While I’m working out how to do this I’ll probably be too distracted to think of a new column so I’ll just chuck in one of my old ones.
Apparently, most of you Muppets will never notice.
And if you’d like to re-read more of my columns before I dredge them up again for the Advertiser just go to where there are actually about 180 of them.

Bring on the rotten tomatoes

Neil Pickford incites the crowd
This week I thought I’d produce a pot-pourri of petty ponder-points.
Gosh, I wonder if any of my dear readers will notice that this particular column has been sponsored by the letter ‘P’?
No, of course not!
OK then, let’s go.
“Please reserve parking spaces for two Roman centurions.”
Plainly this particularly peculiar petition taken from the virgers’ emails could potentially puzzle plenty of perusers – but not us. This passage was a portent of an event that should, at the very least, make shopping in Beverley on Good Friday a little more interesting than normal.
From the content of the message the Head Virger and the Assistant Virger (yours truly) immediately realised that we were in the period preceding another production of Beverley’s precious Passion Play. Soon several dozen members of different Beverley churches would unite to hang a poor person from a cross in Saturday Market in front of all the prospective purchasers and perambulators present.
This victim must, by tradition, be bearded and have long hair, but don’t worry folks it won’t be me. I am at least eight stone over the ideal weight required by producers when casting this particular character, and 25 years too old.
The players will be re-enacting the final steps of Christ en route to his crucifixion, starting in Wednesday Market, staging a mock trial, then finishing in Saturday Market. At various stages along the way there will be little vignettes taken from the Gospel reports of the day and the whole thing has, in previous years, been regarded as a hugely successful way of bringing the original events that evolved into our present Easter Bank Holiday back to public attention.
If you end up as part of that particular Friday crowd, puzzled, provoked, pained or generally pushed around without really knowing what’s going on then you are, inadvertently, participating and providing practical plausibility to the performance. The Palestinian shoppers on that original Friday would have been just the same, being bullied around by Roman centurions as a poor unfortunate was being led to his painful death. Perhaps it will make you ponder….
And moving on….
I was dumbfounded t’other day to discover, courtesy of Wikipedia, that there existed a society called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Their thesis, apparently, is that humanity is a cancerous organism of no importance compared to the wonderful thing that is planet Gaia and all other living things. Our destructive species is of less value than the most commonplace insects, so they recommend we just stop breeding.
Apparently, they theorise, the final humans will be so full of happiness at saving good old Earth and all other things that dwell therein that they will contentedly wander around this renewed natural garden paradise, hand in hand, with no impure thoughts about S*X until they diminish into history.
It sounds like a rather twisted tweak on the original tale of Adam and Eve to me and there is only one suitable word to respond to this extreme ecological dream – and it doesn’t begin with a ‘P’.
One wonders at the level of self-loathing from which these individuals obviously suffer or, more worryingly, at the level of hatred they must feel for the rest of the society that spawned them. Notice the inbuilt sense of superiority that these people also display – they want us all dead but they don’t think the cause requires them, as superior-thinking individuals, to lead the way.
“Don’t do as I do, do as I say,” It’s the slogan of despots over the centuries and should always be exposed for the hypocrisy that it is. (As an aside, that’s why I believe we need a vigorous and scandal-searching free press in this country. Once you start controlling it then you prevent investigation into corruption – and who else is there who will do it?).
There is a very simple moral conclusion to be drawn from the two tales above but I’m not going to patronise you by making it. I believe my readers have far too much intelligence for that to work.
Talking of intelligence I found our old friend Pimple again when cleaning up in a distant part of our domain and we had a long chat.
Pimple had been ready to explore pastures new after Christmas but realised it liked the Minster so much that it decided not to float away as originally intended.
In fact it managed to find one of the very few places in the church that John and I haven’t Henry’d to within an inch of its life over the last few months – and I’m not going to tell you where it is – Pimple has as much right to a private life as any other piece of fluff (he said without feeling any twinge of hypocrisy).
It told me that it loved the constant turnover of new people and emotions – it didn’t need to travel any more but could experience the whole world from this new perch. It especially liked the energy and excitement of our semi-regular Youth Cafes.
There was only one thing that spoiled this perfection – it complained that the music at these events for young teens was rubbish. I promised to play some of the finest Led Zeppelin and Who through our PA system when the Minster is otherwise empty and, pleased by this, it promised to stay.
Proving that providing pleasurable products produces positive payoff for Pimple-partisans.

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