A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

A study in human behaviour – part 197

Neil Pickford reflects ruefully on humanity
Over the years I’ve evolved slightly. Once upon a long time ago I wasn’t really interested in other people en bloc but tended to deal with them one-to-one. Crowds were things I chose to avoid and, consequently, group behaviour was something of a foreign land to me.
Over the last few years of working in the Minster, however, I’ve had a chance to broaden my knowledge; presented with a constantly changing mix of groups and individuals who, overall, share only one common characteristic: they are inside Beverley Minster. And yet certain patterns of behaviour do emerge from this random mix.
As we virgers have such a huge amount of spare time available to us when we’re on duty I decided to fill some of it by observing my fellow humans within this environment and, to my surprise, it was jolly interesting.
Hopefully you’ll find it interesting as well or this week’s article will be a dead waste of time for both of us, won’t it?
Anyway – let’s jump in and start discussing the subject of coffee – aha! I can see I’ve got your attention already, haven’t I?
For the last few months, following a brilliant brainwave by Head Virger John Dell (he who must be obeyed) we have been offering pour-your-own coffee (Freetrade, classic Columbian) and make-your-own tea in the transept to help people who expect us to provide drinks and meals on site.
Don’t think we haven’t looked into the possibility of providing a full café service by the way, because we have. Currently we just don’t get enough people through the doors to justify an outside caterer providing the service, but it’s too much work for our own pool of volunteers to do properly. Consequently we virgers have attempted to fill the gap with a partial solution.
Naturally we’re much too busy people-watching to actually serve the drinks ourselves or operate a till (and you also wouldn’t want to see me in a white pinny, I can assure you), so we have an honesty box – and this is where the interesting stuff begins.
We started off just putting out a simple bowl under a sign that suggested a donation of £1 per cup and, lo and behold, people normally put in a £1 coin or two 50ps, something like that. We sometimes had a mismatch between the amount of coffee taken and the total in the pot but that was fine because, well, sometimes people just don’t have the right change, or they may be volunteers who have thoroughly earned a free cup. I’ve even poured myself one without putting money down.
But then we noticed that sometimes there wasn’t as much money in the bowl in the afternoon as there had been before lunch so we wondered if someone was absent-mindedly removing change rather than donating some. So, to avoid any such embarrassing confusion, we put out a piggy-bank to hold the money and – (and this is the interesting bit, I promise) – our takings went down!
Oh, there were still coins inside the box but, instead of £1 and 50p pieces there were 10 pences and copper coins in profusion. Whereas, with an open bowl we might expect to receive between £3 and £8 on a typically quiet day we were now getting 42p – and the coffee sachets cost us £1 each.
So we retired the box, dug out the open bowl again and, voila! a minimum of £4 a day once more, usually in decent-denomination coins. Provided we remember to empty the bowl at lunchtime then there is usually another batch of £1 coins that mysteriously appear in the afternoon session.
Interesting, isn’t it? To me this provided a dazzling insight into humanity and its different forms of behaviour when seen and not seen. But you probably already knew it, didn’t you?
Anyway, next week, I shall continue to discuss what a funny old world we live in, using the supply of incontinence pads as my theme. I expect you’ll hardly be able to contain yourselves, waiting for that one.
‘Til then, fellow students of the human condition…..


An awful accident – and its aftermath

Neil Pickford is provoked by terrible reality.
I’ve got to be honest: we’re normally darned lucky in the Minster. We’re big enough to have a decent-sized team of professionals to keep things ticking over plus a large pool of volunteers to undertake the million little tasks that keep the show on the road. We’re justly proud of the high standards we maintain, the range of things that we do and the way in which we try to nurture future generations through our youth programme.
We set out to do good stuff, we often succeed and things are, in many respects and for many reasons, a lot easier for us than most churches around Britain.
And then sometimes, despite all our good work, life sometimes comes along, scowls at our complacency, smacks us in the mouth – and then kicks us in the stomach as a bonus.
A shockwave ran through the Minster recently when we heard some terrible news. One of the members of our youth family, Alex Lenton, had been seriously injured in a car crash. I won’t go over the details or speculate about his chances of recovery, but I’ll say that it brought a lot of us face-to-face with terrible, brutal and unfair reality, slap in the middle of our smoothly-running lives.
I don’t care how the accident happened and, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to debate about why God ‘makes terrible things occur’ because I don’t think he does – I’m confident in my own mind that ‘We Have Free Will’ and ‘Bad Things Just Happen’. It’s what happens afterwards that helps define Christianity for me.
Immediately we heard the news a prayer station was set up to allow people who cared about Alex to come into the Minster and focus their thoughts and hopes for his eventual recovery. We also remembered everyone else involved in, and affected by, the crash.
Many people now find lighting a candle to be a good way of expressing a prayer and so one of our votive candle stands was set up in St Katherine’s Chapel, along with a large card for well-wishers to sign and a prayer book for people to write down their thoughts. Our various youth leaders were available to talk to anyone who was upset and needed guidance or just company. 
Since the accident there has been a stream of people, some who have not been in the Minster before, coming to keep an irregular vigil for Alex: the burned-out candles are being kept to show him how many people have been coming in to pray for him and the writings of well-wishers are being collated for him and his family to read when he’s able.
Now I happen to believe in the power of prayer (and I’m not going to trivialise this by quoting the survival of Bristol City in the Championship this season as an example of this – although them staying up was a bit of a miracle) but even if you don’t share my belief then there’s another clear benefit from the prayer vigil – it’s been good for those who were there.
Instead of the random and uncontrolled ‘grief’ we’ve seen everywhere since the death of The People’s Princess back in 1997 the friends, family and others have had a chance to sit down in a quiet and calm place. They can reflect on Alex and their own reactions without having to explain to people around them why they may – or may not – be crying and, if they want, leave a solid token or memento of their feelings which doesn’t droop overnight.
It’s a mature way, it’s a way that can have great therapeutic benefits for those who take part and, I believe, it will also provide a real benefit to Alex himself.
And that’s one of the reasons the church continues to survive after all these years.

What’s that bulge in my pockets?

Neil Pickford delves deeply
I was alone on a silent morning in a deserted Minster when I felt something long, cold and sharp press into my thigh and bite cruelly into my flesh.
My mind flashed – I knew that feeling. Drat, I thought, my keys have worn a hole in my pocket – again – and I glumly contemplated getting out a needle and cotton to stitch it up -again. And then a rather momentous thought struck me: why didn’t I do something to stop the problem happening in the future?
I suspect this liberating brainwave follows on from my little polemic t’other week when I was banging on about how things constantly evolve and nothing lasts forever. After composing what might have been read as a diatribe against people who cannot change I suspect my subconscious must have been nagging me and saying: “OK, Big Mouth. How large is the plank in your eye?”
(This quotation references one of Jesus’ morality tales that recommends people should look at their own faults before criticising others – a good idea that many of us, especially me, might follow. If you’re interested you can find it in Matthew 7:3-5. But I digress.)
As always in life, once I’d launched on a particular line of thinking it didn’t take me too long to veer off at a tangent but this had a positive outcome. Irritated by the awkward feeling as my keys started another slow and cringe-making slither down my left leg I decided to look with fresh eyes at the keys themselves, and see if changes could be introduced.
I pulled two huge collections of angular lumps out of my trousers and studied them carefully.  Hmmmm.
A few of them were, obviously, very necessary. There was the key that unlocks the small wicket gate in our Highgate door. As this is the main entrance for most of our visitors you’d be disappointed if I told you it was a simple Yale lock – so don’t be. It’s a venerable monster, some seven inches long, which turns a lock that has maintained our security for several hundred years or so.
Another giant is used to open the door at the start of the roof tours and newcomers are always impressed when I wave it around (stop sniggering at the back, please). Normally, however, we keep that in a box.
There is a cluster of four keys that are used in the vicar’s vestry: here is another group of four that I need for the parish hall complex and two more are required to get in to the Parish Office.
But what were the rest of them for? There was a little clutch that I can easily dump because they open doors in the shop – and I never open doors in the shop. No point in lugging them around each and every day, is there?  There are also seven for the money-boxes – but we’ve only got five of those and three of them share one key. Then there are another 11 that I can’t remember ever using since I started working at the Minster.
It’s ridiculous: I’ve been carrying these blinking things around, pointlessly, for more than five years now. So I’ve unclipped them and put them in a box until I can find if they belong to anything useful, or if the locks even exist anymore.
Then I weighed the box and I discovered that I had discarded exactly 14 pounds, which is a significant Imperial weight, if you remember those things.
And this would, if this was a major news story, possibly lead to the following otherwise incomprehensible headline: “Keys – Stone Cropped” (Try reading it quickly.)
Hahahahahahahaha – sorry

The virgers’ way to complete health

Neil Pickford talks up his keep-fit regime
I’m not going to labour the point this week, dear readers, so if I just say: “Chairs, staging, unstaging, stacking, chairs” then I’m sure that you can fill in the extra descriptive passages yourself.
However, that’s not the only physical thing I’ve been doing. We’re getting busier with roof tours and, as I pull my bloated body up the 113 steps, I hear the jocular phrase: “This must keep you fit,” many times.
And, in fact, I now have medical proof that it does indeed keep me fit.
Because I have a heart that only works at just over three-quarters efficiency (biology students may be able to work out what I’m saying here) I am occasionally summoned to a big building on a hill (Castle Hill, to be precise). There I have to perform faintly fatuous feats of physicality while various bits of me are monitored via numerous wires stuck on my wobbly torso.
These days the medical weapon of choice is a cycling machine and I’m glad to say that I quite enjoyed my latest experience: the monitor was showing interesting things such as my respiration rate rather than rubbish music videos on MTV. My heartbeat did leap at one point when a rather statuesque medic leaned over and inadvertently rested a bit of their anatomy on my hand but otherwise everything went according to plan. 
Then I waited many long, lonely weeks to find out if I was going to die. As I continued to be alive on a regular basis then I went back to work in the Minster, where I shifted chairs around, climbed lots of stairs and waited.
And, dear readers, it appears that this regime is actually a magnificent way of keeping fit because my blood pressure was ‘perfect’, my stamina was excellent (I equalled the efforts of a young medic who’d calibrated the machine earlier, without becoming breathless) and my lungs were working fine.
Granted I’m still fat, overweight by a factor of 33 per cent and ugly but that’s not really important – it’s the inner man (or person) that counts, or so we’re always being told. And, as what we virgers do in the Minster seems to be so good for the inner person, I started wondering about making a keep-fit video, in the same style as Jane Fonda or various modern bit-part actresses from Coronation Street. Obviously I’d be no good as the star – during this thinking process I had a sudden flashback to the 1960s and a nasty image of Ena Sharples doing a workout video that made me shudder – but I digress.
Anyway, I wonder if we could get someone who looks the right shape and is willing to be filmed while stacking our chairs (“Feel those biceps BURN”) and unstacking them (“and LIFT and stretch, and LIFT and stretch”).
Then they can demonstrate how to climb our stairs (“Every Step is One Step Closer to Healthy-Heart Heaven”) and, for advanced followers of the Virger Way, how to create and dismantle a complete concert venue overnight. I think it could be a huge commercial success.
For a reasonable fee I’m sure John and I would be happy to personally teach and share our unique knowledge, honed through many years of intense meditation and hard, disciplined study, to true searchers. Just turn up before the next big concert and we’ll show you how.
Meanwhile, couch potatoes could spend their time productively by reading from my archive of 180+ rib-tickling, provocative or annoying articles – just go to for hours of innocent amusement.
Thank you.

Fiona Bruce isn’t helping any more

Neil Pickford studies some spreadsheets
I’m afraid the column is going to be a bit boring this week although insomniacs may be very grateful to me by the end of it. I shall be addressing figures.
Actually I shall be addressing statistics – and not vital ones at that – so the previous, tantalising little sentence is about as interesting as it’s likely to get. Sorry.
Right, having lowered expectations sufficiently, let us begin:
It’s fair to say for most of us that, regardless of what statisticians or analysts may claim, it is virtually impossible to compare ‘like for like’. Perhaps a giant company such as Tesco can influence so much of its environment that it can genuinely identify how changes in, say, levels of profitability can be traced back to individual management decisions, but we lesser mortals cannot.
Everything we do is affected by events around us over which we have no control. Sometimes they are immediate issues such as whether or not it is raining (which is, apparently, completely unpredictable if you follow Met Office weather forecasts). At other times we may also see changes due to more slow-moving trends such as the shift away from public transport to car, or the ageing profile of the population.
Certainly it is difficult to put my hand on my heart and swear on the Bible that some statistics I have been compiling over the last five years are, of themselves, an accurate reflection of changing trends but as they’re pretty much all we virgers have to go on then I will start this week’s in-depth analysis by concluding that the ‘Antiques Roadshow Effect’ is wearing off at Beverley Minster.
It is almost two years ago to the day that large BBC vans rolled up in Minster Yard North to begin a week of frantic activity for the virgers – and many others. Then, in September 2010, the results of these efforts saw the light of day – for the first time ever the consecutively-broadcast programmes of Songs of Praise and Antiques Roadshow had been recorded at the same venue and there was a certain amount of overlap as presenters Aled Jones and Fiona Bruce made crossover appearances in each other’s shows – all on prime time Sunday BBC1.
It was a great advertisement for Beverley Minster and we certainly benefitted from it. Visitor numbers were up and many of these newcomers quoted the BBC programmes as being the reasons for their visit – informing us that we were “an undiscovered gem” and suchlike high praise. Our roof tour numbers were up and everyone was happy.
This year, however, the numbers are down by nearly one quarter – at least as far as the tours are concerned.  In January we were down 21%;  February down 42%; March up 25%; and, so far in April, just about holding level. We’ve tried coming up with explanations: the weather, the different date of Easter this year and so on, but there’s no escaping the overall trend – it’s down. John and I are still doing the work (91 tours compared to 93 at the same time last year) but with smaller numbers each time.
It’s depressing really – everyone who comes up is (almost without exception) really delighted with the tour and promises to tell all their friends, but so far their friends haven’t shown up.  Feedback from visitor reports also shows that the Antiques Roadshow has virtually dropped off the radar in the ‘reasons for visit’ box, so we need another blockbuster, quickly.
I shall write to Doctor Who and invite them away from Cardiff for a few days of filming – after all, at the moment we could easily be the setting for an abandoned planet.
Anyway, time to wake up now. When I say ‘Hello’ you will feel refreshed and mysteriously eager to climb 113 steps into the roof of Beverley Minster. Let no one dissuade you.

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