A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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All Change – again

Neil Pickford fiddles about

I made a few decisions last week that will be reflected in the writing I do in future, so it seemed sensible to change my blog slightly – well, quite a bit, actually.

I shall not be writing a weekly column around my work as a virger in Beverley Minster any more. I’ve done it for over four years and there’ are only so many variations you can spin around the news that I’ve shifted some chairs about – again.

So I’m going to be banging on about a wider range of subjects in future, and also want to give an airing to some of my unpublished earlier writing as well. As they won’t necessarily be a view from a virgers’ vestry anymore, but more a series of occasional  outpourings from an overweight, oft-offended observer it made sense to rebrand them.

Hence most of my new work will appear under the title: “The Pickford Papers” (clever- hey?) at the following address:

Hopefully you’ll trek on over there, to read my cornucopia of clever compositions. I will be updating stuff over the next few days so keep coming back, if only to shatter your stereotypes.

And why not?


A load of hot air

Neil Pickford starts thinking

It all began when I was clearing away some of the debris from a parcel I’d received a few days ago. It had contained a rather fine collection of OO gauge cement wagons that complemented a splendid industrial shunter I’d been given for Christmas and so was durable and well-padded.

You’ll probably accuse me of doing something terrible to the future of the High Street by buying on-line but it was entirely understandable: this was a unique offer from a real shop in a real High Street in Merseyside and so I was actually assisting an established real retailer to fight against the rapacious hordes of warehouse-based internet shopping. I’d even been able to select the goods from a printed catalogue which gave the whole thing a suitably authentic and 1960s feel.

Anyway, that’s not important right now.

I was separating the packaging into its component bits to put in the relevant recycling bin: cardboard outer case – tear apart and fold flatly into brown bin. Plastic bubble wrap into blue bin. And then I had a thought. What happens to all the air inside the bubble wrapping? What was the correct thing to do about it?

For a start, is it ‘proper’ air in the first place? Do enormous bubble-wrap-producing plants (probably somewhere in a foul, polluted part of China) just suck up normal free-range air and seal it inside a nominally bio-degradable container, leaving it to lament its tiny, imprisoned existence for the next few dozen decades.

Or is this processed air? You know – factory-produced stuff with all the goodness taken out, and possibly just a bit of horse mixed in to give it added body?  In which case is it better to leave the foul muck trapped and removed from the atmosphere of Planet Earth. In other words, is it in my own self-interest as an inhabitant of Gaia, to keep said air bubbles trapped, allowing fresh air to roam without adulteration. Or am I contributing to my own destruction?

Is it, in fact, a cunning ploy by invading lizards (who already control us via Google) to remove all the good bits of our atmosphere, one internet parcel at a time, until we find ourselves gasping our way to extinction, and handing them the easiest conquest in the history of interstellar war?

Which is the right answer: should I diligently stand with a sharp pin and conscientiously release life-saving ether, bubble-by-bubble, or instead wrap the whole thing in dense packaging to ensure it disappears into landfill, and thus save the world? Well, it’s not an issue on which I feel I can merely stand by and do nothing.

After all, I estimate that there was enough gas in the bubbles surrounding my six Pressflo Blue Circle Cement wagons to fill a good lung-and-a-half. Multiply that by the number of similar parcels sent out by just this one innocent Liverpudlian trader over the course of a day and you’ve probably got the same amount of gas that an average person would inhale during a hearty lunch. Then multiply in all the other traders in the same city who do mail order; then the whole country. Add in the amount that tax-dodging, High Street killing monsters like Amazon seal away every day all around the world and suddenly it’s a worrying statistic.

If I liberated all the sealed bubbles my home has received so far this year I suspect it would be roughly equivalent to the amount of gas I inhale each day at the Minster (including roof tours) and, if my maths is correct, we might run out of free-range air in less than 100 years. Forget saving the rainforests – maybe we should campaign to ‘save the air,’ or: ‘let my people breathe’.

I won’t be able to sleep tonight for worrying about it.

Bright new beginnings

Neil Pickford looks around

As all good resolutions made for the new year fade into history it is time to grab 2013 by the shoulders and look it firmly in the eye. What, my loyal readers are begging, do I think will happen in the forthcoming year?

Well, now we haven’t got things like the Olympics and associated torch-related celebrations coming to our fair town, we must look more to ourselves for entertainment and inspiration – and what better news can there be than the announcement that we will soon be able to open the west end of the Minster churchyard for people to wander around – maybe even picnic in if the weather permits?

Now one or two of you might just remember that this was a prediction I made for 2012 and you may point fingers of scorn at me in consequence. Well, yah boo and sucks back you unforgiving fellows because I did use the word ‘probably’ – and I had my fingers crossed at the same time.

Actually I wasn’t that far out: the council, who have responsibility for maintaining redundant churchyards, did start work on making the area safe last year but it wasn’t possible to complete it in time for summer, so it was decided to aim for this year instead – and work appears to be progressing roughly to plan. So, with any luck, you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the Minster from the outside as well as inside this year.

John and I will be equipped with large, pointy sticks to maintain discipline and make sure everyone is out when we lock up – we’re looking forward to that.

On a more controversial note; by the time you read this a decision may very well have been made on removing/preserving the setts in Saturday Market. I doubt you’ve missed the fact that some people are very upset about this, claiming that they are a wonderful remnant of Beverley’s mediaeval past.

Well, we at Beverley Minster are blessed by the presence of someone who, if they ever appeared on Mastermind, would easily win with their specialist subject ‘Everything about Beverley over the last 100 years – and beyond’. He assures us that the original setts were actually covered over in the 1970s and then lifted, to be replaced in 1986 by setts bought from Hull docks. It is, apparently, these Johnny-come-lately black, rectangular objects that have caused so much angst.

I’m not going to add my own knowledge on the subject because I haven’t got any, except to note that it’s marginally less difficult to push a pram or wheelchair over the setts than it is over the adjacent pavements.  They were a feature of Beverley when I moved here 12 years ago and, frankly, I never really noticed them because I was always distracted by the depressing eyesore that is the rest of the surface in Saturday Market. Good grief, when I was a child we used to park in Bristol on tidier left-over bombsites. It’s a pity we couldn’t all agree on a scheme to beautify the place a few years ago.

Oh, I know we need parking spaces near the shops, but what’s wrong with knocking down the grotty old Minster Towers site by Wednesday Market and extending the existing car park behind it? All talk about housing and shops on the site seems to have died down, so why not?  Be convenient for the Minster too, and counterbalance the pull of the retail development on Hodgson’s old site.

Oh dear, my mind seems to be belting around in all directions at the moment – I blame my medication. Sorry if I’ve offended anyone but, at least, thanks to the Government’s recent decision to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act it’s not against the law. What a relief.

Many happy returns

Neil Pickford recaps

That’s it. To paraphrase The Terminator: “I’m back.”

For those of you who haven’t been following my every movement over the last three months (or who have very short attention spans) I should clarify that phrase by saying I’ve rejoined the active staff of the Minster for the first time since early October.

The technician who waved a sort of electronic doughnut over me the other day pronounced that a clever combination of plastic, wire and battery was working properly and helping my poor old heart do its job. She also confirmed that I hadn’t disconnected anything while I’d been scratching myself or tidying up my ponytail.

So I had no more medical excuses: I was fit for work.

It was all so familiar, getting into the uniform again. Black, sensible trousers – notch in belt at same place (sadly – I’d been hoping to lose some weight at my extensive Beverley hacienda during this enforced holiday but not an ounce has dropped from my overweight frame. I blame the medication).

White shirt and tie – hang on, how do you do these things up? It’s got to be a big knot to hide the fact I can’t get the collar to meet without turning purple but the simple: ‘flick-of-the-wrist’ technique I once used to do to achieve the effect seemed to evade me on this morning. Brand new Minster jumper and jacket completed the effect and then it was time for the tools of my trade.

First things first – keys in pockets.

As I felt the cold metal shapes slide down my legs I suddenly remembered one particular repair job I should have done on my pocket over the last three months – a simple running stitch would have been adequate, but I forgot. Well, I’ve been busy. 80,000-word fantasy novels don’t write themselves you know and that’s what I’ve concentrated on since my delicate flesh was pierced by a man with a scalpel – and it’s jolly good. I’ll tell you all about it some other time but can tease you with the fact that it starts off in a town very much like Beverley. Then the action transfers to a place remarkably similar to the beautiful countryside where I grew up, before ending in a typically ugly commuter town down south.

Anyway, then it was back to the old wheelchair door, the start of most of my epic daily adventures over the last six years. No problem remembering which key was the one to unlock it, particularly as someone had got there first and opened it for me.

Being a Thursday meant there was a long line of regular tasks to be completed before swinging back the front doors but, to my surprise, I didn’t need a written list to remind me what needed to be done next.

It’s amazing how memory works: I finished off setting up a whole communion service without having to double-check anything then, when it came to my first break, I couldn’t remember where we kept the virgers’ coffee mugs.

All morning I was waiting for the first complaint to hit. Someone was bound to tell me that the paint was hanging upside down or a door was looking slightly funny, but nothing like that happened at all. In fact I was welcomed back so warmly and wished all the best so many times that I ran out of sensible ways to respond in a manly way.

I even did a roof tour, legs working perfectly despite three months of not being used to climb seven storeys the hard way and was buzzing so much at the end of it that I promptly persuaded the group to buy one of my famous CD recordings.

It may not last much longer but, at the moment, it’s good to be back.

An angry New Year

Neil Pickford seethes.

By the time you read this it will be nearly three months since I last pushed a pew for professional purposes. Hopefully I shall shortly be given a clean bill of health and the opportunity to start rebuilding my muscles for the Minster. It won’t be a minute too soon – I fear that the good influence the old building exerts is wearing thin and will soon be a thing of the past if I don’t start topping up on it pretty darn quickly.

This has became increasingly clear over the last few weeks because my blood pressure has been rising, and it’s not due to the mechanical aid in my chest – the cause is thoughts prompted by one of the most overbearing, pompous, pointless, puerile, inadequate wastes of space and money in Britain, the superfluous mound of mediocrity that is The Right Honourable, The Lord Patten of Barnes.

This puffed-up windbag with a remarkable record of irrelevance is currently the part-time, £110,000 per year chairman of the BBC Trust (among his many other jobs, in all of which I’m sure he performs with equal mental agility). Let’s not forget that this is ‘Poll Tax Patten’ who was also the last governor of Hong Kong followed by an ineffectual, well-paid stint as a European Commissioner.  Baron Prescott of Kingston upon Hull has possibly wasted more public money over the years but Patten is certainly entitled to be spoken of in the same tones of awed amazement for the amount of tax-payers money he’s pointlessly squandered – in the specific case I’m banging on about, TV licence-payers’ money.

His annual income from the BBC is equivalent to all one year’s licence fee income paid by more than 750 households. He gave the short-lived director general George Entwistle – (his own choice – a man who was, to any outside observer, clearly a mediocrity who shouldn’t have been trusted with crossing the road), a marvellous parting gift for failure of £450,000. This sum is the BBC’s annual income from nearly 3,100 homes – or in local terms, roughly one third of all the households in Beverley.

On top of that he has defended a regime of extremely generous pay-off and redundancy payments to senior managers (who were obviously surplus to requirements in the first place) . One, Mark Byford, the former director of journalism, received all the licence fees paid by Bridlington last year while Caroline Thompson, the former chief operating officer at the BBC, was given all the income from Driffield and surrounding villages, merely for failing to become the next Director General. Ah, diddums. And all this in a period when local radio, which many people would regard as a cornerstone of the organisation’s public broadcasting brief, is under constant financial pressure.

The internal inquiries into Jimmy Savile (cost roughly equivalent to the fees from another 6,000 homes) led to various expensive managers (total annual cost equivalent to another 6,000 ) not being fired. These were the same people who, the enquiry concluded, “produced a “critical lack of leadership and co-ordination” at the BBC, which was hampered by internal rivalries and “personal animosity”. There were unnecessary “Chinese Walls”, which meant information was not properly shared.”

And yet they are still in expensive BBC non-jobs.

In their rarefied, privileged and highly protected sector of society these Great High Panjandrums  rarely suffer bad consequences flowing from lousy judgements. The organisation protects them as a group and hides the identify of whoever made the decision.  Yet ifyou or I make a mistake we can’t dodge the shrapnel.  I have been brooding on the deep injustice of it all and have concluded that the next Peasant’s Revolt is long overdue.

And, coincidentally, wasn’t most of the 2012 BBC Christmas output (apart from Doctor Who and repeats of ancient programmes) complete and utter cobblers? I suspect the two issues are related.

Oh dear, I hope the doctor lets me get back to work soon because I don’t like the unforgiving person I’m (re)turning in to. Happy New Year.

An unwelcome emotion

Neil Pickford feels uncomfortable

I don’t often ‘do’ guilty – largely, I suppose, because I very rarely do anything wrong.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel the emotion every now and then because, occasionally, random electrical pulses in the brain revive an old memory.

You know the sort of thing: naïve, childish errors; phrases that went the wrong way; gestures that were misinterpreted. Even then it’s normally toe-curling embarrassment rather than guilt which hits me first and, to cure this, a few seconds of mental self-flagellation usually sorts me out.

Guilt itself is a much deeper-rooted emotion that, at its most developed, can coil insidiously around your whole existence, choking any little green shoots of happiness that would otherwise grow into something substantial.  Long ago I discarded the image of Hell as being somewhere with flaming pits and demons. Instead I picture an endless array of sealed rooms, each with one occupant, whose guilt button has been turned up to eleven – forever.

So you’ll appreciate that I don’t just throw this ‘G’ word into the mix casually. You may also now have a good understanding of the depth of my feelings when I popped into the Minster a few days ago.

On that particular day the Minster was filled with brightly-decorated Christmas trees, there was a large stage assembled for a concert on the next evening, and there were a further 15 or so special events still to come before Christmas, each with their own unique set-up.

Last year I  was part of the two-man team which constructed and dissembled all this but, as I’m currently not allowed to lift as much as a coffee pot until my consultant signs me off the Minster has called in Kevin, whose job description is, normally, to step in for John or me when we’re on holiday.  Instead of which he’s been doing all my work for the last two months and I have to say he looked ‘crackered’ when I saw him. I, on the other hand, was just wandering around like a simple civilian, looking at that huge collection of pine needles and glistening confectionary, and simply thinking how pretty it was.

Last year I’d have been concerned with the yards and yards of cabling and dozens of multiplugs that were running along the walls to power the twinkling lights. I’d have been thinking of how and when we could get our Henrys out once the trees were taken down on Monday to remove at least 90 per cent of the needles and broken decorations that would be carpeting the aisles. I’d have been worrying about how best to set up the chairs for the next concert. I’d have been checking there were no children playing around in a manner that might damage one of the lovingly-crafted exhibits.  I’d have been doggedly thinking about what time I’d be going home each evening next week – quite a while after every last concert-goer had finally left the building. But this year I was a mere gadfly flitting from one bright object to another without a care.

It was so very easy, even for me, to overlook the sheer amount of work that had gone on behind the scenes and when I realised this I felt very guilty about not playing my part.

So spare a long thought for the caretakers, the cleaners, the postmen, the couriers, the temporary shop staff, the men in vans, the packers and, dare to whisper it, the virgers who are all extra-busy at the moment.

And, perhaps, after I’ve nagged you into remembering the hard-working people behind the scenes then I won’t feel so guilty about not being one myself.

Here’s hoping – and a Merry Christmas to both my readers

Looking back, looking on

Neil Pickford examines his emotions

I went to Bristol last week.

I realise this may not merit front page headline treatment in the minds of most of you, my loyal readers, but it was significant to me. You see, that was my home for 20 years, prior to moving ‘oop north.  In those two decades I had the privilege of editing two local weekly newspapers, up to four monthly county magazines at a time and various other quarterly business and specialist print publications.

I interviewed people for national and regional publications, sometimes repeatedly. I got to visit the homes of famous people – in other words, I knew the ins and outs of that city even better than the back of my rather uninteresting hand. And, frankly, after 20 years I felt I’d rolled the dice so many times that the corners were worn down.

And then we left.

I’ve only returned twice in the last 12 years, both times for funerals, neither gaving me an opportunity to go sightseeing around the old place.  So this time I opted to spend a few hours just revisiting.

Now some people I know just can’t leave their past behind: they continue to revisit their old homes or stamping grounds whenever they can. Me, when I close a door on one room in my life I tend to slam it on the way out and then turn the key in the lock. So it was with a genuine sense of curiosity that I examined my feelings as I found myself in once-familiar streets.

The human mind is odd. Twelve years on and, when I saw the rush hour traffic stretching down into the centre via Whiteladies Road (where the BBC is) I automatically started thinking about ways to avoid delays. Instantly I was in the groove.

It was as if I’d never been away: effortlessly slipping from one back road to another I was checking in to my hotel while the car formerly in front of me was probably still gazing at the ‘Christmas Sale’ poster two shops down from where I’d left it.

I went into my old church – new faces but same smell. A few nice new display units but otherwise the place felt exactly the same as in 1999. The old Dixieland jazz pub near the waterfront looked the same and, lo-and-behold, The Blue Notes were still playing there on Sundays, even though their lead clarinet player died yonks ago. The old office across the road where I endured six months of late-night hells putting a newspaper to bed: well, the newspaper is long-gone but I recognised many of the weather stains on the concrete.

The shopping centre has been extended and, sorry patriotic Hullians but, if you’re super-proud of St Stephen’s arcade then you really need to get out more – the Cabot Centre in Bristol starts from the same box of bits as that glitzy new thing next to Paragon station but then goes on to become something totally transformational.  And yet it still felt like Bristol.

So what is it that makes a place into a character, a set presence in the memory? I pondered long and hard, but then came the conclusion it’s nothing to do with the place but everything to do with your perspective. In Bristol I dealt with thousands of people over the years but most touched me lightly, whereas avoiding pointless traffic jams was a major consideration to me.

Not very sociable of me I know, but them’s the facts ma’am.

It just goes to prove the old adage (which I’ve just made up): the more you travel, the more you learn about yourself.

And I didn’t meet anyone who remembered me either, so I guess it balanced out.

A good investment

Neil Pickford plays the market

I know we’re coming up to Christmas and so it is bad form to talk about house prices, but sometimes the news agenda comes along and rudely kicks everything else aside. Given that my own musing was unceremoniously elbowed in the ribs last week by such an interruption I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.

And the subject itself is the cost of buying a house in a market town. Now I’m not going to debate whether having a ready supply of inexpensive housing to encourage new families to move into an area is a good thing (although it’s difficult to see how primary schools can keep going if they don’t) but let’s just accept the status quo for now.

A report t’other day said that market towns are becoming some of the most expensive UK destinations to live in and the cost of buying a house in a market town is higher than in the surrounding county. The report compilers speculated that market towns were popular because they allowed urbanites to escape to a more rural lifestyle, without losing most amenities such as shops.

I disagree.

When I looked at the list of the towns with the highest premiums over their near neighbours: Beaconsfield (west of London), Winchcombe in God’s own county of Gloucestershire and Tenterden in the stuffed-shirt county of Kent, my mind made a sudden connection – preserved railways.

Forget Beaconsfield for the moment because it doesn’t fit my argument (although it has no need or opportunity to create a preserved railway as it still has its original one). Instead look at Winchcombe, the northern terminus for the 12 mile-long preserved Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway: then Tenterden, the headquarters of the 11.5 mile Kent & East Sussex Railway.

Or take Bakewell in Derbyshire, which is the premium-priced market town in the county and currently the target for an extension of the preserved Peak Railway line from Matlock.

I think you can see where I am heading with this. For quite a few years there has been a small but persistent campaign to reopen the Beverley to York railway line as a modern commuter route, using most of the old trackbed which still exists – and I’m a member. However, things have gone a bit quiet this last year because, basically, it needs a big commitment from someone to persuade the government to put money into it.

However, as London tends to ignore northern transport apart from the Birmingham to Manchester axis it might be sensible to consider something else, something that can utilise local talent, energy, enthusiasm and resources. Something that doesn’t require someone in Whitehall to have endless meetings to debate not signing a cheque for millions of pounds for East Yorkshire; something that creates value locally and ploughs any profits back into the local community. Can you see what I’m thinking?

After all, the Yorkshire Wolds Railway restoration project has just received planning permission to create a centre at Wetwang, first step in a scheme to reopen at least part of the Driffield to Malton line for tourism and, frankly, what’s Wetwang got that we haven’t?  There’s loads of places where we could bung down a few bits of track and slap an old locomotive in place to get going.

And if we got a line up and running to Market Weighton and beyond maybe we could ultimately lease the track to an operating company who will carry on to York with a modern commuter service around or alongside whatever heritage locomotives are pulling in the tourists during the summer.

C’mon guys, let’s work together on this one. As you can see from the examples above, if you want to push up the value of your house forget investing in cutting edge plumbing or a new conservatory. Stick your money into some old railway sleepers and you’ll be quids-in.

I’ve got two in my back garden already.

Free speech and the twitterati

Neil Pickford ponders more matters of moment

I’ve been brooding a lot recently – in fact I could have applied for a job as a Gordon Brown lookalike, so intense was this brooding.

Well, there’s only so much time you want to spend with your model railway when the Flying Scotsman keeping derailing at the same irregular bit of track and you’re not allowed to pick up even the lightest hammer to level it.  So I’ve been on the internet, following all aspects of the great Lord McAlpine false accusation story with great interest (I was getting very bored as well). And I was delighted when I learned of the panic invading the lives of those who repeated a libel against the man via the medium of Twitter.

Now I have to admit that I have an instinctive dislike of Twitter.  If I was out for a meal with someone who was in the habit of twitting their lives in frequent bursts of no more than 140 characters then they would probably find their last entry for that evening would be along the lines of: “Whoops, ‘Sad face’. Someone is about to grab my ………. ”

When I read about the first couple who decided to celebrate their wedding by each twitting: “Just got married to gorgeous Mr/Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit” while standing at the altar I was outraged. Even more so when I discovered the vicar had also been twitting: “Have just married Mr and Mrs Self-Absorbed Twit.”

I know the church has to reach out to the modern world but that struck me as going approximately 25 steps far too far.

So reading that various ‘celebrities’ such as the fatuous Sally Bercow or the not particularly amusing Alan Davies may actually be sued for breaking a very serious law of libel that the printed media has had to live with for centuries has given me a decided thrill. Their practice of twitting using their thumbs not their brains may have finally brought electronic communications in line with the old-fashioned printed media – and that’s not a bad thing.

You see, up until now, twittering has been regarded as just a sort of electronic form of chattering –something light hearted for here and now. However, that’s no longer true. Thanks to the modern cult of celebrity these gossiping individuals can actually boast more readers than the Hull Daily Mail, so if they accuse someone, without evidence, of performing a criminal act then they are making this allegation known to more people than the local newspaper would.

It’s also not as if this is just casual chiff-chaff that vanishes as soon as it’s uttered – the electronic record continues to exist and can be easily copied and passed on to thousands of other people.  But while unsubstantiated allegations of criminality would cost the HDM a considerable and very painful pile of money in damages Twits have got away with it – until now.

So, although I am, in general principle, totally in favour of free speech I also find that this grates with the fact that, for nearly 40 years I have worked within the restraints of the laws of libel, and I don’t see why venomous airheads or ‘trolls’ shouldn’t have to either, just because their medium is electronic rather than print (and digitally broadcast radio and TV are electronic these days as well, and newspapers are available on-line aren’t they, so where’s the dividing line?)

Not very libertarian of me I know but, as I mentioned above, I’ve been brooding a lot recently. And why have I been brooding?

Partly because in my own little corner of the virtual world: I have gathered all my 200+ defamation-free articles, and I haven’t got a single follower – not even my own mother.

Yes, alright, I admit it. I’m jealous too.

The cost of globalisation

Neil Pickford ponders great issues

One of the modern moral debates is over whether Globalisation is A Good Thing.  Many people are against it – so should I be?

It’s a fact of life that almost every consumer in this country currently contributes, through their democratic use of money, towards globalisation – i.e. by buying the cheapest we support a process whereby manufacturing floats around the world to wherever costs are lowest which, currently, is in China.

Size matters in globalisation: the more you make, the cheaper it is to produce each individual item, as Henry Ford demonstrated 100 years ago. Global managers look at producing items in quantities of millions, not thousands as they used to, and that means you’ve got to have a big market to sell them all – a market the size of the world.

To squeeze every last possible micro-penny profit out of each item the designs are simplified and standardised so that as many different markets as possible will find the product – and price – acceptable.  Millions of identical items are thus available for sale all around the world; the only difference being the language on the flat pack boxes they are transported in.

I had this demonstrated to me a few years ago when we discovered that USA-based relatives had an identical set of garden furniture to me – it even had the same wrongly-placed hole that made it an absolute pig to assemble properly. Thanks to globalisation consumers in Boston (Mass.), Beijing, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bombay and Beverley were united in cursing as millions of fingers were injured during the struggle to assemble it.

This drive to reduce costs and maximise the number of units being constructed also leads to manufacturers combining their efforts, and this is particularly true in the world of motor cars which is, after all, where the process originally began. Again it was Ford in the forefront of the revolution (with General Motors close behind) as production of what we thought of as uniquely British cars such as the Capri, Cortina and Escort turned out to be shared with Germany and other countries.

I suffered from that co-production process as half the engine of my old Mark III Cortina used metric tools while the other half needed Imperial, which was a considerable pain when you were trying to replace a cylinder head gasket in the rain.

Which indirectly leads to my current beef with globalisation. Through the 1970s and 1980s I had an alternating succession of Ford and British Leyland cars and each manufacturer had their own view on the correct way to arrange the controls around the steering wheel – but at least they were consistent. Ford’s windscreen wiper controls were always on one side, Leyland’s the other and it took a few weeks for me to adjust before I stopped having to apologise for indicating right by putting my windscreen wipers on.

Well, I thought I’d got rid of that problem last year when my household eventually ended up with two cars from the same manufacturer (Citroen). I was confident I’d be able to control lights, wipers and indicators in both cars without any problems – but I was wrong. You see, to save money Citroen decided to share costs with Peugeot and Toyota to make the smaller of the two cars– and this partnership reckons the wiper stalk should operate from top to bottom (or the other way round – I can never remember).

Whatever it is, it’s different to the bigger one and so I continue to be confused.

So if you see me turning right while my windscreen wipers are thrashing away then don’t blame me.

Just take it as proof that globalisation is A Bad Thing.

The Industrial Revolution

Neil Pickford looks back

I made a promise in 2011. Today is the day to honour it.

Last week we had Guy Fawkes’ night – and as true loyal Britons we in Beverley celebrated on the 5th of November itself, not during the nearest weekend as some less patriotic towns may do.

The display this year was a triumph of choreographed explosions, flames and noise. It started gently with a mass of writhing, whirling constructs of white and finished with what looked like two giant jellyfish dangling over the Westwood and drifting gently sou’easterly. It was great – well worth all the money I dumped in a bucket, so thanks to the Lions again.

The one thing missing was any reminder of why we were doing this – the origins of what we now rather antiseptically call ‘Bonfire Night’ were completely buried under the traditions of lighting huge pyres, spending large sums on explosives and raising money for charity. Let me remind/inform you: we were celebrating when a plot by Roman Catholics to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 with all the royal, legal and political establishment of Great Britain inside it was thwarted. The aim had been to wipe out the political and religious leadership of our countries and forcibly return us to the Catholic form of Christianity after half a century of Protestantism.

However, the bomb was discovered and all the plotters, including former Beverley Grammar School pupil Thomas Percy, were either executed or died while being pursued.

It’s a less antagonistic relationship these days and to commemorate this I opened an appropriate bottle of wine on November 5th. This particular bottle had been a small ‘thank-you’ for we virgers’ efforts back in September, helping set up for the first Catholic mass led by a bishop in Beverley Minster since 1550. Then I suddenly remembered that, during last year’s Bonfire night blog, I had promised to explain why I thought creating the Church of England was an essential first step to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and thus the British Empire (which was, for 100 years, the largest and most powerful empire in human history). So (at last) here goes.

Basically, the core of new Anglicanism (unlike mediaeval Catholicism) was democratic, regarding all members of the congregation as important. Priests led services in the language of the people, not the Latin of scholars. Chairs were provided for people to sit and listen to sermons – and then debate them afterwards. Suddenly it was being demonstrated that even the ploughman in the field was sacred and had a right to question the pronouncements from on high. Oh, you still had kings and commoners, but kings were no longer Divine. The route to Heaven was through living a Good Life, not by paying for prayers.

From this grew a new British habit of group meetings for discussions and education in coffee houses and it was these social institutions which led to a new form of networking. Here, in informal surroundings, businessmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, visionaries and empire-builders could and did meet. These were fluid, creative melting pots where ideas could be floated, finance raised and projects initiated. It was in these socially-fluid institutions that mine-owners met men who produced steam-powered machines that could move coal and iron more effectively and cheaply than horses. It was in these coffee shops that men discussed laying railway lines to make the steam locomotives more efficient. Then we needed steel to make reliable railway lines, and coal to make the steam to drive the steelworks that made…. And so on.

Victorian Britain ruled the world as a result of a social structure that allowed men with money to meet men with ideas – an interplay that would have been impossible had not the seeds been sown by installing seats in the Church of England.

Well, that’s my theory. I hope you think the wait was worth it.

The other side of the curtain

Neil Pickford pushes through the veil

T’other day I went to a church service. Blimey!

Now that news shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because you know where I work. That’s right: five days a week I’m normally responsible for the routine running of a flipping big active church, so the fact that I’m involved with services isn’t really news. In fact there isn’t a service that goes on during my days of duty which doesn’t involve me in some way.

However, I suddenly realised that it was several years since I’d sat in Beverley Minster as an ordinary member of the congregation (or ‘civilian’ as I sometimes refer to them).  Now I’m temporarily ‘on the sick’ I thought I’d see what it was like.

It’s a fact of life that, once you’ve been involved on the inside of any activity then it’s virtually impossible to view that ‘thing’ in the same innocent light again. In addition, because we virgers are actively involved with the services then we have to concentrate on what is coming next – and when we are supposed to do whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. And all the time we are keeping an eye out for anything that might be about to go wrong.

In theatrical terms we’re constantly working ‘backstage’ and it’s just not possible for us to experience the service as if we were innocent members of the congregation ‘front of house’, so to speak.

So it was a very strange feeling to go into a church service as a civilian, seeing the altar set up by someone else and with absolutely nothing demanded of me. If the microphone cut out it wasn’t my problem. If the lights all fused it wasn’t my fault. If the preacher had the wrong reading then I’d never know.

And it was quite interesting.

I expect there are many readers who endured church services in their youth but have avoided them like the plague ever since – and I’m not surprised. My own spotty recollections of Sunday mornings at church merge into a general, uninvolving lump of boredom. All I ever wanted to do was get outside and play football. I couldn’t understand why adults voluntarily dressed up and put themselves through such tedium; and it was very unfair that they forced me to go through the same process.

And don’t get me started about services where they tried to ‘connect with the youth’. ‘Kumbaya’ strummed on an acoustic guitar was as repellent to me as at an embarrassing uncle dancing at a wedding. Basically, church sucked.

Has anything changed? Well, yes, although I suspect that if you’re not already familiar with the ritual of a communion service then there’s a lot that might appear mystifying.  You may also fear you’ll end up a bit like a virger, worrying about what you’re supposed to do next: stand up, sit down, face front etcetera, rather than experiencing what’s happening now. But if the service is done properly then you’re guided through the process and can instead concentrate on the now.

There’s a rhythm and flow in the formally- structured services, a logic to the sequences that actually makes sense when you pay attention. Oh, it’s easy for a poor preacher to derail the process but, in the hands of a competent leader I found myself being mentally recharged; I left with a stronger understanding of how to live less selfishly and I wasn’t bored at all. Quite a lot of good things, actually and, rather unexpectedly, I felt great.

Hmmm – I might have to try it again some time.

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.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Neil Pickford tries to be friendly

Tribalism is a good/bad thing: discuss.

It’s a moot point actually, because tribalism gives a sense of belonging and identity to a group of people or a community – a feeling of being part of a protective family – but it also breeds dislike for outsiders.

In a simple way you can see it in the rivalries between counties: Yorkshire versus Lancashire; Gloucestershire versus Somerset.  At that level it’s fairly harmless; perhaps a heightened feeling of disappointment if a derby sporting clash goes against ‘our’ team.

It can lead to some fairly pointed jokes: for example, as a Gloucestershireman I am very proud of the Severn Bridge, despite the fact that it makes it easy for people from Cardiff to get to Bristol. Welsh patriots boast that the toll booths are on the Welsh side so it proves Wales is more valuable: “You don’t have to pay to get into England,” they say proudly.

“You don’t pay to leave a zoo,” I retort, equally tribally, and various spirited exchanges normally follow.

Matters become a little more fraught the closer these rivalries come to your doorstep: it’s one thing to think vaguely provocative thoughts about anonymous people living the other side of a river or range of hills, but when the rivals are real people living next door the chance for serious disagreements grows.

We had our own share of that in Beverley in the 16th century. In fact one of the most popular (and apparently light-hearted) carvings in the Minster is actually a bitter attack on our neighbours.

A beautifully executed 3D cartoon on one of our misericords (tip-up seats) in the quire shows a fox in a pulpit preaching to a lot of geese. Behind him is a monkey and behind that is another fox running away with a goose in its mouth. It’s fairly easy to see the message – the fox is trying to con its simple-minded audience or congregation so that it can steal away with them, but the real clue to the message is in the cowl that the fox is wearing.

This cowl is the identifying mark of the monks, who lived in the Friary just across the road from us in Eastgate – and the mediaeval Minster hated them.

Many people think that, because the Friary was a Christian institution right next door to our own then we must have been related, but not so. While both were supposedly worshipping the same God we had opposing views about the best way to get to heaven.  The monks believed in poverty and getting closer to God by dedicating every moment of their waking lives to living a ‘Good Life’.

However the 16th century Minster staff of nearly 100 priests and clerics believed that the only way to heaven was through prayer (in Latin) asking a kind God to forgive the fact that every human errs. Pay some money to the priests and they’d do the religion and pleading for you, freeing you to go on doing whatever it was you needed those prayers for in the first place (I’m simplifying enormously here).

Now I’m not going to enter into the theological correctness of either stance here: millions of people have died over the centuries as a result of savage debates on the matter but we virgers just tidy up afterwards.

Luckily we didn’t have to clean up a bloody mess after this particular disagreement because, thanks to Henry VIII’s religious reformers, and to the joy of the Minster staff, the Franciscans were expelled from Britain by 1538. However, our victory was short-lived as the old form of Minster was itself abolished in 1548 and almost all clerical staff thrown out. But the misericord survives, a reminder of ancient hatreds and battles long-lost.

You’ll be glad to know we actually get on rather well with the various Franciscans and Dominicans these days, and even the Catholics – which is nice.

A new mode of motoring

Neil Pickford changes gear.

I was amused and then bemused a few years ago when, courtesy of Top Gear (a televisual programme dedicated to fans of automotive acceleration – a.k.a. ‘petrolheads’) I was introduced to the concept of ‘Christian Driving’.

This was a not-entirely serious attempt to describe the driving habits of James May, apparently the most serious minded of three presenters, who is known to the other two as ‘Captain Slow’. Never fully explained, it gave me an image of someone who was courteous at road junctions and inclined to let other traffic pull out in front of him.

I’m ashamed to admit that this was not my natural behaviour on the roads.

I was of the: “Oh no – another second delayed at a junction is another second of my life wasted” school. This did mean that there was rarely anyone faster off the mark then me when traffic lights changed, which was a source of great satisfaction to me until the next delay, about five yards up the road, when I caught up with slower vehicles from the previous release. Then I would fret and curse until I finally got home, where I could slump down and complain about how awful my journey had been.

I freely admit that it’s not good behaviour and over the last few months my attitude has changed, Not, I must admit, due to an increasing maturity in my old age but thanks to the type of car I’m driving.

For most of my adult life, except when an employer has provided me with a Mini or similar ‘cramp-mobile’ I’ve been happy inside a four-door saloon. Most of them haven’t been particularly flash or sporty but average vehicles with an average engine that travelled comfortably around town or down long stretches of motorway.

However, due to a rather bizarre set of circumstances I seem to have ended up with a shiny little thing that has a paper-thin clutch plate and roars like a farting sewing machine on steroids.

Inside it I feel about as comfortable as a live sardine in a vibrating tin and, after an initial sprint from nought to 20 miles per hour, it accelerates about as quickly as an arthritic octogenarian. It breaks into a sweat when pitched against a disabled scooter and has been known to go backwards when heading into a strong wind.

It’s even more embarrassing than my father’s old Reliant Supervan; plus it rudely beeps at me if I don’t fasten the seatbelt.

Why? It’s not as if I’ll ever go fast enough to be thrown out when I’m turning – there’s a greater chance of me being drowned if I’m strapped in and trying to outrun the tide on the beach at Scarborough.

However, it does allow me to pretend to be following the Christian Driver approach – in fact it makes it imperative that I should because my current performance on the road is an abject disaster. Because I can’t gun the motor and snap the clutch into place as I wait at junctions I now kindly wave people past me, covering my lack of power with courtesy and a smile. And, do you know what? It’s making a difference!

Suddenly people are smiling back at me, thanking me for my consideration. They then feel in a more generous mood and smile at other people, making my single enforced act of charity spread out in ripples through everyone they encounter. It’s a very nice feeling, to be honest.

Of course, behind me there is probably a queue of highly- stressed individuals all cursing and swearing at me but my advice to them is to take up Christian Driving. It makes the journey longer but it doesn’t seem longer and, en route, you’re spreading a little happiness as you go.

Mind you, I still want a better car.

Back to earth, with a bump

Neil Pickford returns to reality

It was a good day t’other Sunday because I carried my virge in an unusual location (for me).

I’m sorry, that  sentence probably sounded rather cryptic, which wasn’t the intention (he lied).

What I meant to say was that I was formally dressed and carrying my rod of authority, my badge of office if you like, in a different church. I had been invited to help out at Leeds Parish Church because, on that very day, it was becoming a Minster (yes, another one).

There’s been a positive blooming (or rash, depending on your viewpoint) of churches becoming minsters recently , (eight in the last four years alone). Grimsby, Doncaster and Sunderland, to name but a few, have all been renamed; there are murmurings about Holy Trinity in Hull applying and now Leeds has joined their ranks.

“You’ll have to remind me how to become a Minster,” I said to the head verger (modern spelling) as we walked and talked our way through the ceremony beforehand. “It’s been so long since we did it (about 1100 years) that we’ve quite forgotten.”

“Ha ha,” was the response, which was probably better than my comment deserved, but not very informative.

So why is there this great rush to redesignate a few churches in the same style as our own magnificent structure? Aha, I think the answer to this is in the question.

Certainly all the parish churches that have been so renamed are large ones – even the one down in Great Yarmouth (which claims to be the biggest parish church in England but is, in fact, much smaller than Beverley and Holy Trinity). In fact each of them is, separately, a member of the Greater Churches Group, which is for big buildings in the Church of England and recognises that they are, dare we say, a little bit ‘special’ compared to more normal sized parish churches.

Certainly they can be distinguished from the ‘ordinary’ parish churches by the costs of heating and maintenance – there’s precious little change from £500,000 a year from Beverley Minster, for example, just to keep the fabric warm and in one piece. But obviously the ‘greater’ recognition is not enough – they want the status that comes with the word ‘minster’.

And that, I suppose, is partly our fault. Because Beverley Minster is so magnificent others want a share of our glory (I gather that York has got a Minster as well, but I think we can safely discount that from this argument – it’s not as nice as ours). And, in many ways, it’s a very nice tribute to have.

But what happens if, one day, every single big church becomes a minster. What will then differentiate between new minsters like Leeds and ‘proper’ ones like Beverley, Southwell or Ripon? It’s probably too late to call the ones that have been elevated recently ‘Minster Lite’ or ‘Minster Express’ but I feel there should be some recognition of the fact that our title dates back twice as many centuries as theirs does in years.

Some people might suggest using the word ‘cathedral’, but there are reasons why that’s not such a good idea – we virgers having to polish an overly-ornate bishop’s seat in addition to our existing duties is one of them.

Perhaps we need a new nomenclature for our sort of ‘Super Minster’ or ‘Minster Plus’ – and I’ve got the perfect answer.

In Beverley’s case there is one title which is certainly full of ancient meaning and prestige and, spelled the way we do, makes us equal to Winchester and St Paul’s Cathedrals as well as Westminster Abbey.

So I propose that we immediately drop the rapidly-devaluing title of ‘Minster’ and rename ourselves ‘Virgers’ Vestry’.

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