A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

The virgers’ guide to total fitness

Neil Pickford gets himself in shape

Long-term readers (i.e. people who saw my column last week) will know that I am currently ‘resting’ as I recover from a minor operation. Sadly it wasn’t a total success and so I shall have to return to the bountiful care of the NHS for a small tweak which will keep me out of action until Christmas.

It’s a long time, too long to keep the rest of my body in the pristine athletic condition it currently enjoys (he said, without a hint of self-awareness). So I’ve been very carefully drawing up an exercise regime so I can ‘hit the road running’, so to speak, on my return.

First, and most important, I have to climb stairs. Now, due to a mistake made when my house was built back in the 1930s, we have 14 steps from ground to first floor. This turns out to be absolutely brilliant for my purposes as climbing these stairs eight times is (almost) exactly equivalent to ascending the 113 steps to our central tower and the world-famous roof tours provided therein.

So, at least three times a day I am clumping up and down in a concentrated burst of thigh and calf muscle development that should see me able to shame all but the fittest visitor in the New Year. It should also mean that I could kick a football with a single hoof all the way from my front garden to the Westwood, clearing Minster School en route. This could become a very useful virgers’ technique when shifting kneelers from one end of the church to the other.

It goes without saying that chair-shifting is a hugely-important part of the job so it’s important not to lose upper body strength. Sadly, that’s exactly what’s happened as a result of the surgeon’s knife and so, as an alternative, I shall be creating a structure that I can wear suspended from my waist that resembles the prongs of a fork-lift truck.

After a serious regime of crouching and rising I should be able to build up my lower body strength to compensate and lift pews with this technique, using my one good hand to steady them.

This might actually turn out to be a far better way of working than the one involving a sack truck and a lot of wobbling that we currently use. I’m considering patenting it to provide me with an income in my pension-lite old age. Obviously there will be special discounts for virgers who copy The Pickford Way; perhaps the Church of England could buy a sort of overall annual licence, like you do with photocopying these days.

I don’t know: it’s something I need to work on.

My virge will also turn out to be very helpful – it’s not super-heavy but there’s enough metal in it to make it into a useful weight to rebuild wasted muscles on my left side.  A few weeks of working out with that, once I’m given the all clear to lift my hand above my shoulder, and I should be able to bulk up my left side to match my right – otherwise it’s a lop-sided me that you’ll encounter in the Minster (think Charles Laughton in Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Finally, I need to practice my smile – it’s compulsory for virgers to be constantly beaming brightly and, I have to admit, I’m not as good at that as I should be. By the time I return to action I shall be like the proverbial ray of sunshine – or perhaps that’s a step too far.

Hmmm, yes. Methinks I should lower my sights somewhat to something slightly more realistic. After all, I want to be still recognisable when I do return.


Strange new world

Neil Pickford has to make some adjustments

I’m feeling a bit strange at the moment, insecure even. I’ve got a sick note for a month and I’m not allowed to do my normal job, which is making me a trifle skittish.

As a result of a little medical appointment last week I’ve been perforated on my left side and it will take a few weeks for my muscles to return to normal. “Don’t even lift a tea pot with your left hand for a fortnight,” I was sternly warned and, being a good boy, I shan’t.

That’s actually not going to be a problem because it’s armfuls of coffee pots that make up my regular regime. It’s the huge number of other items that are far heavier which would cause me problems – and we’ve got a host of events coming up for which two fully-working arms will be a basic requirement – so it’s been decided to ‘rest’ me (as out of work actors would describe it).

T’other Saturday saw a Wedding Fair inside our walls for the second time this year. The last was a major logistical exercise for the virgers: John and I cleared all the chairs from the nave several days in advance but that wasn’t an option this time so everything was concentrated into the Friday.

The plans were in place: we would both stack the pews in groups of three and wheel them (each load about as easy to manoeuvre as a fat drunk with a bottle balanced on his head) to an out-of-the-way spot. Then bring in as many tables as we could raise and put them in place for the exhibitors, supplying each table with a power lead and enough separate seats to satisfy demand. Then restore everything to its proper place before the evening grew too ancient.

And then the date for my operation arrived to throw all our manning planning into the air.

I’m glad to say we have a part-time virger (Kevin) who is available to fill in when required and also a few other able-bodied individuals who could help John with this major logistical exercise – I thought it was probably more diplomatic to just stay out of the way rather than hang around looking pathetic and making unhelpful suggestions.

But there are many more of these events to come before Christmas and, in a couple of weeks I need to have another minor operation which will take me out of heavy-lifting action for a further month to six weeks after that. And that’s upsetting me because I feel that I just won’t be pulling my weight (literally).

Oh, everyone has been very kind about it and said that I mustn’t rush myself and it’s most important that I get properly well before returning to work. Don’t worry: “you’d do the same for us,” – that sort of thing.

It’s driving me mad.

It’s odd – there are jobs I’ve done in the past where I would have willing paid good money to any GP who’d sign me off for four weeks – double the money if they’d make it for six. Yet this one (which is a long way from being the highest-paid I’ve ever had) has got to me. I’m pathetically offering to come in and just sit in the office if they need me, only to be told to go away again and look after myself. If I was paranoid I might think they were trying to get rid of me but they’re just being kind – I think.

But if I’m a virger who can’t shift chairs then I am a man without a mission, and it’s an unfunny feeling. I may just have to go and write a book instead.

Life after knife

Neil Pickford experiences eternity.

Excuse me if I’m a little bit short of the old giggle-juice this week but I’m writing this as I wait to be attacked by a sharp knife.

It’ll not be the first blade wound I’ve suffered: on my back is a long scar which dates back some 57 years to when a rather clumsy medical person nicked me while trying to coax me to into the real world. With that looming over me in the womb it’s no wonder I didn’t want to come.

This latest slice into my beloved skin is also courtesy of the NHS, but this time it is entirely deliberate. I’m about to have a bit of plastic and a couple of wires inserted adjacent to my heart (which is my second-favourite organ, as a matter of fact).

The plan is to try and correct a bit of laziness in my fourth chamber which made my heartbeat resemble those scenes from ‘Dad’s Army’ when the platoon stands smartly to attention – except for Corporal Jones who was always a half-beat late.

Assuming that you’re actually reading this then it shows that the procedure was a success and I am now once more in the land of the living – taking it easy for several weeks while the various insertions cleave themselves ever more firmly to my living flesh. Until that’s completed my normal chair-lifting daily exercises have been put on hold.

However, while writing this a successful conclusion is still in the future so I’m sitting in a plain but comfortable waiting area, watching the clock crawling its slow way towards the moment when I shall start being late.

I’m not worried – it’s a routine procedure which the consultant (who I shall not name at this point to protect the innocent/guilty) has described as: “a bit of fun” (for him, I assume, not me). The consequences should be that I end up full of energy and, ultimately, able to stack two piles of chairs simultaneously while sprinting a mile in ten seconds – or something like that.

However… .and I know that’s the second time I’ve written that, but it’s the one nasty little word that keeps resurfacing whenever I allow my mind to stop being distracted…. However, what happens if?

I know, I know, it’s ridiculous to even think that, but you can’t help yourself. It’s the ever-present word you have plenty of time to regurgitate while you’re waiting.

Waiting is the killer – waiting eats away at you and allows the dark side of the mind to pop up in even the most cheerful individual. Waiting wastes your time as you contemplate the unpleasant possibilities at the far end of the Bell Curve instead of getting on with the household chores. Waiting means you can’t concentrate on the programme you’re all watching together as a family to distract you from the forthcoming operation. Waiting….

The hands on the clock have just reached the configuration which shows that every single second from now on is one second later than I was told to be here. Things are going on around me but none of them seem to be associated with me. It’s like the sort of long, endless, unvarying Sunday afternoons of my youth when, after a comedy lunch hour on The Light Programme (please God, don’t let it be The Clitheroe Kid this week) it was grey tedium until I started getting ready for school the next day. Mediaeval Catholicism described something very similar to this as ‘Purgatory’ – the immeasurable period between dying and finally being admitted into Heaven.  I know what they meant by it.

Hooray! At last! Movement! Hopefully (and that’s a useful word to counterbalance: ‘however’) hopefully I’ll see you on the other side. ‘Til then.

Invasion of the purple papal people

Neil Pickford extends a welcome

Two weeks ago I boasted that the modern Beverley Minster gets on just fine with its neighbours – even those of other religions (which wasn’t always the case). Shortly afterwards we got the chance to prove this when representatives of the former owners of the Minster, the Roman Catholics, held a service under our roof – and this was big news.

In fact this was such exciting stuff that Look North gave us prime coverage in their 6.30 programme and Radio Humberside did a live feed before 9am that was repeated throughout the day. The Church Times sent a photographer and various other news media also covered it.

“So what?” the uninvolved outsider may well say. “What’s the big deal about this particular service?”

Well, let’s just say that there are some clergy who would have had hysterics at the very thought of an Anglican church hosting such a thing. Our vicar, however, is not of their number – hence the event.

It’s not the first time we’ve helped Catholics out: a few years back they were responsible for a big funeral that, for family and other reasons, was best suited to the Minster and we were happy to oblige. A few years before, we’d permitted a visiting Catholic school to celebrate their connections to St John of Beverley with a service.

However, this particular Friday was (we think) the first time since Henry VIIIth that a Catholic bishop celebrated a full mass, with bells and smells, inside our wonderful walls – hence the coverage.

It all started as a simple good-neighbourly deed, acting as host venue to a local primary school celebrating 150 years of existence, then it evolved into something rather bigger. Before we knew it the Bishop of Middlesbrough was due to officiate at a Mass. Suddenly 460 years of enforced exile was over.

Exciting times! What areas of conflict might emerge as two proud religions vied for the same space? Could it all end in renewed hostility?

There are deep-seated theological issues behind this hostility, for which millions have died over the years, but these days I suspect most of you aren’t concerned in some silly theological fluff about why our vicar couldn’t take wine with the Catholics in his own church – are you?

Certainly we virgers were more interested in practical differences between ‘papists’ and ‘proddies’ – the things that directly impact on our job – and here are my findings:

1)      Catholics drink a lot less coffee than Anglicans. Granted a large proportion of the 500+ congregation were children but, even so, they consumed only four flasks of the brown stuff. Our normal congregation of around 200 gets through at least six. The tea pot got a thumping though.

2)      Catholic children seem very, very well-behaved, even the smallest. Now others may prefer to see unconstrained multiple younglings in flying-around unfettered freedom but, to a stressed virger dealing with three different things at once, that’s sometimes not a good thing. “Suffer the little children…. just a bit, thank you.”

There are some areas where behaviour is common to both. No matter how large or small the congregation there is still a hard core of six to 12 people who cannot, or will not, replace their kneelers on the back of chairs when the service is over. And a virgers’ blessing on each of them.

But it’s in the area of incense where the biggest area of practical problems arose: Catholics (and some Anglicans) love to wave about metal balls containing smoky, smelly stuff – but the Minster’s fire alarm system is thoroughly Low Church and hates it. If detected it screams loudly and blows open some vents in the roof – which is very unwelcoming indeed.

And this wasn’t what we wanted on this special day so one poor individual had to crouch over a red button for half an hour, resetting the system every 15 seconds!

And if that’s not a solid symbol of modern Anglicans bending over backwards to be welcoming then I don’t know what is.

It was a good day.

The plank in my eye

Neil Pickford tries to educate the ignorant

Pride comes before a fall, they say – and I think they’re right.

“Do you know what,” said a woman visitor t’other day to her friend in tones of great surprise as they walked up the aisle in Beverley Minster. “They do weddings here!”

I stopped and had to replay the words through my head once more before I could believe what I’d heard.

This, for sheer drop-mouth ignorance was right up there alongside the question: “Are you open on Sundays?” which I have been asked on several occasions. And, to make this question even more surprising, to me at any rate, the questor was not someone whose background would, shall we say, have distanced them from Christianity in England. These were white, English, middle aged folks who had, I would have thought, been surrounded by reminders of Anglicanism all their lives, even if they never went in a church. Surely these would have somehow seeped into their consciousness.

I was obviously very mistaken. All of these people, probably no better or worse educated than most people who walk through the Minster doors, had never once encountered the traditions which created a large chunk of the history of our country. Whether you think they are good or bad doesn’t matter; it is the sheer insulation of these people from what was – until perhaps a few decades ago – an absolutely indivisible part of the warp and weave of daily life in Britain that astonished me.

Mind you, I’m not really in a position to feel self-righteous about this because, in my own way, I’m as bad as the cases mentioned above (and with less justification) as I found out the very next day.

Normally I pride myself on my general knowledge – I’m a fairly good companion to have around during pub quizzes or Trivial Pursuit marathons but there are gaps, and I must acknowledge them.

I also happen to be a fan of railways of all kinds and so, when I was recently told that a steam locomotive was due to be running through Beverley station I wanted to see it ‘in the flesh’ so to speak.

I subscribe to a railway magazine that details such things and if I’d not been too sloppy to read it properly I’d have known about this trip anyway. When I did finally locate the listing I found the telephone number of the company that had organised it began in ‘01482’

I couldn’t believe it – a locally-based train trip organiser? Exciting news!

So I ‘phoned them to ask for more details and to be put on their mailing list for future endeavours – after all, I like to support new businesses. I was really looking forward to this.

“Oh no,” the voice said down the phone. “We’ve been trading for 20 years and, in fact, we’re retiring from it in a couple of months.”

Oh, how embarrassing. My own hobby; my own locality, and I was completely ignorant. So who am I to feel superior to the lady who learned for the first time that we perform weddings in Beverley Minster? If I can be so uninformed on a subject with which I am fascinated, what can I reasonably expect from people who simply haven’t been told things?

Oh dear, if I’m not very careful I’m going to draw a moral lesson this week, and that’s somewhat outside my core of expertise.

So, if you’ll just excuse me, I’ll go back to stacking chairs ‘cuz I know all about that.

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