A medical student at work


St Michael’s, Chester Square

Somerset Maugham’s short story The Verger came to mind recently. It’s about a snooty new vicar in a snooty London church sacking the faithful verger because he couldn’t read or write. It was filmed in the 50s and you can watch it here. It always conjures up St Michael’s Chester Square, where for 18 months or so I sang in the choir while I was a clinical medical student at King’s in south London.

Chester Square is in Belgravia, the area bounded more or less by Knightsbridge, Sloane Street, Buck House and Victoria station. It’s an area, as you might imagine, that is amongst the most deprived in the country, past and present inhabitants including such poor unfortunates as Margaret Thatcher, Nigella Lawson, and Roman Abramovich.

Sometimes I went in by bike. From the flat in East Dulwich that involved cycling up the hideously steep Champion Hill over to Camberwell. After that it was pretty much plain sailing up Camberwell New Road, past The Skinner’s Arms of abdominal scar notoriety (see here), then through Vauxhall and over the Thames. However bad I thought Sunday traffic was in those days, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. I rather enjoyed cycling in London, and did a fair bit of it, along with getting first hand experience of the south London rail network. Susan was slaving away at this time at a school in north Peckham, so I dare not let on that I was not as diligent a student as she thought I was.

The church was 19 century Gothic, rather ugly but with fine stained-glass in the east window so that gave me something to look at during the sermons. Two previous vicars, W H Elliott and Charles Roderick, had been famous for their radio broadcasts, but by the time I got there the glory had departed and it was just another dull low church set up. Never mind, the music was good. The then vicar sticks in the memory for a sermon he preached at the funeral of a nanny. The church was packed with her former charges whose upper lips didn’t move when they spoke, all dressed in Crombies and Aquascutum and Harrods and dripping with jools, a bit like Nancy Mitford’s Lady Montdore expounding the virtues of ‘all this’. The theme of the address was that nanny had returned to the big Norlands nursery school in the sky. Not a model that I’ve found useful in my clerical career.

I saw the advert for a choir man in the Musical Times. I’m turned up for what I thought was an audition with the organist Guy Eldridge. Turned out I was the only applicant. Eldridge was ill and music was in the hands of his assistant, Leonard Henderson, a most gifted organist equally at home in light, cinema and classical genres. The organ was pretty interesting: formerly a Hope-Jones and tarted up in the 50s by Walkers (anoraks will understand), and former organists included Arthur Sullivan and Reginald Goss Custard. Guy Eldridge resumed the reins after a couple of months or so, but for less than a year, for then he retired after a distinguished career in various London churches and academies. By then I was a kind of unofficial assistant and I had the temerity to apply for the job. I was interviewed.


St Silas, Nunhead

After I didn’t get the job, St Michael’s had no further use for me, so it was back to Musical Times adverts. St Silas Nunhead was my next appointment, much handier for East Dulwich—only about a mile away. The church has gone now, demolished for structural reasons but the organ was good and had some (anorak alert) fantastic reeds. I wonder if it was salvaged. We had a trebles only choir of local oiks, and I remember some good fun, a couple of concerts with visiting musicians, and a carol service that was very decent, though I say so myself.

All good things must bow to the inevitable and my double life came up against the reality of Victoria’s birth and looming Cambridge exams. Quite how I passed them—well I failed pharmacology but it didn’t hold me up since the first sitting was months before other subjects, so I did the resit along with Medicine, Surgery and Obs and Gynae—I shall never know. It must be something to do with knowledge by osmosis. I’ve always felt that the act of holding a book or article results in the absorption of the wisdom therein contained.

I wonder where I’d be now if I’d got that job at St Michael’s.

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Life moves on


Bristleworm mouth. These creatures of the sea bed can be a foot long

Type “coping with the death of son/daughter” into a search engine and you will be rewarded with a host of material. But most of it is directed at mothers, and nearly all concerns the death of an infant or a child. There is next to nothing about a father coping with the loss of his adult son.

In writing what follows, it’s inevitable that I’ll be accused of wallowing in it, or drawing attention to myself. I don’t think either is true, but who am I to judge? Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some observations on how I felt and feel. It might be helpful for someone else.

Within days of returning from the funeral, I took up weightlifting again. I’m glad I did, and I intend to carry on. But the interesting thing is why? Physical activity is of course an outlet for energy and anger, but I can’t in all honesty say that I felt angry. I felt drained, despondent, scraped out, exhausted, flattened, destroyed, sad—overwhelmingly sad at such a waste. But not angry. What I certainly did feel was the need to test my own physiology, particularly cardiac, since that is what failed Hugh, to see if it would stand up to extreme provocation.

About four months after the funeral I became aware of a nasty creature roaming my subconscious. I didn’t know how to get it to show itself except by waiting. So I waited. And one day, it poked its head out of the sea bed, and then its bristly carcass followed. It was this. (1) A father’s job is to protect his offspring. (2) I had failed to do this. Therefore – and this is the important bit – (3) I deserve to die.

Note the word deserve. I can’t think of a better one. I did not wish to die: I deserved to die for having failed him and his wife and daughter and sister and brother and mother. And, ye gods, for having failed myself.

Understandable, I think, from a biological point of view. I’ve passed on my genes and had a vasectomy, so I’ve had no biological function for over 30 years (I have views on the effects of vasectomy, but they can wait). And since one offspring has gone before me, I might as well do the honourable deed and bugger off myself. There the logic breaks down. Logic breaks down in other ways too, of course. I have two other offspring alive and kicking and lovely; parents do not own their children; parents are not responsible for their children once the latter have reached adulthood; and so on. But logic is not much in evidence in these circumstances, and I still felt that I deserved to die.

Maybe the wish to provoke my cardiovascular system was the first manifestation of this malignant worm that was, as I say, gobbling its way through the floor of my psyche, but it has gradually faded. Not completely, but substantially. And since I rather overdid it at the gym and tore my right gastrocnemius (almost better now), I hope that it and I can settle down to a less frenzied modus vivendi.

Then there is the matter of allowing a new normal to develop, and a new vision for the rest of life. This is a work in progress.

I used to rail about stupid parents who lived through their children, and now see the extent to which that is what I was doing. My plan for retirement involved at least annual trips to the US to explore, I dunno, the north east, the west coast, the Great Lakes, the east coast – whatever – in his and his family’s company. Trips to the US will continue, but on a different basis. Part of the plan was a response to my not looking forward to retirement. What will I do? How will I occupy my brain? This forces me to ask what I want, and frankly, after a lifetime of—so it seems to me at present—pleasing parents, teachers, bosses and ego, and providing for and ministering to others, I’m not sure what ‘I’ is any more, let alone what it wants. So it’s back to the drawing board, and let’s hope that whatever blueprint emerges is built this time upon reality rather than escapism.

I’ve coped with the last ten months by doing very little. At a review meeting with the area bishop recently I said that since two of my urban colleagues were leaving Burton soon, I would consider going if that would help diocesan strategy. He said no, they wanted me to stay as long as possible. So I said OK, but I’ve no intention of looking for work. I’ve watched a lot of films. I find that I still have little to spare for other people, and as far as parishioners are concerned they seem to have sensed that: they have been gently supportive and got on with things without bothering me. Long may this continue. I did rather lose it at a meeting last April at which I, in the throes of major exhaustion, was gravely provoked by people who wouldn’t shut up and I said that I was sick of this and I was going to bed and they could all go forth and multiply. But apart from that, we’ve done quite well. (I offered my resignation, but was told that I should never apologize for being human).

What of Susan? I learnt long ago never to put words in her mouth, or into the mouths of my children, so all I shall say is that different people cope differently. We talk. It affects us differently and at different times, unpredictable and sometimes debilitating. But as she says, you just can’t maintain that level of grief. Eventually it dissipates, until the next time. And while the distress is on me, there is nothing I can do but wait. Getting used to that impotence has to be done, and I venture to say that it is more difficult for men, who are in general used to solving problems, than for women.

And finally what of God? Hollow laughter. That’s something for another blog. If I were wise it would not appear until after I retire, but since I’m not it will appear sooner.

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Poor biological material?

srgry02Hearing’s not great. Euston-station tube orifices are patulous. Left tympanic membrane has a large retraction pocket (medics will understand). I blame all this on glugging too much cows’ milk when I were a lad. Cows’ milk is snot- and allergy-inducing poison. My left retina became detached about 10 years ago and an attempt to stick it back on failed so my left eye is useless. And, now, oh joy oh rupture, I’ve got suspected glaucoma on the right.

So off we trot to ophthalmology outpatients. I’ve joined the ranks of the shuffling Zimmer frames, the arthritics, the blue rinse cardys (that’s the men), and the even-more-obese-than-me. Interesting to note how many patients bring the family with them for a day out. Put me in mind of families checking in at Heathrow for flights to the far east, with mountains of luggage.

If I weren’t already a member, I’ve joined the ranks of the poor biological material. This highly politically correct phrase was much used by us medical students to describe those whose inheritance, life circumstances or personal choices left them just a bit—how shall I put this?—poor biological material. The ‘strawberry jam complexion’ (my term) was a pretty good indicator of a diet rich in white bread and sugar. Of course, there isn’t a machine that measures this, so as a diagnostic tool it’s limited.

Sitting in the ophthalmology waiting room and having exhausted the stamp collecting magazine (5 seconds) and Woman’s Weekly (let’s say 10), I was pondering the differences between the general population in Ireland and England. Here are my preliminary observations.

The Irish are healthier and look more alive. They are closer to the earth—many of them work on the land—and so are more physically active. They are less obese. There are fewer mobility scooters in Ireland, in fact I don’t remember having seen one in 19 years there. Can their burgeoning presence here be put down simply to the popularity of Benidorm?

Why not tell people to take up their beds and walk? There is precedent for this, I understand. Give them all a gym subscription and make them go at least three times a week. Think of the savings on arthritis, joint replacements, mobility scooters, diabetes, obesity and more. Then they too could have a body like mine. It won’t do much for eyes and ears though.

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Asperger vicar

a-word-01I’ve been watching some of the TV programmes about Asperger’s syndrome. Here are some of the qualities and gifts that people with Asperger’s have.

  • They seek truth, not sham; reality, not opinion.
  • They say it like it is, with no hidden agendas.
  • They’re not limited by what others think.
  • They’re direct; single-minded, focussed.
  • They think in different ways.
  • They are loyal, not scheming.
  • They’re not interested in selfish gain.
  • They persist.

Made me think that maybe Vicars could learn a thing or two from them. Made me wonder if Jesus was a bit Asperger.

I resolve to be more like them. Imagine what will happen when I tell some old trout to get her mangy old flowers out of the sanctuary. Or tell Mr Halitosis that his breath could strip the paint off the Forth Bridge.

Funny, I always thought I was Tourette’s. Maybe I should not be a Vicar.

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Five months on

DancingNobody told me about the exhaustion. And if they had, I don’t suppose I’d have believed them, or thought it would ever apply to me.

It’s now almost 5 months since the great catastrophe. After the “excitement” of getting to Texas in a hurry, the emotional events of that week, returning for the Irish funeral and then the dreadful day of doom scattering on the Sugarloaf—after all this comes the daily grind of grief.

Much of the grief is self-serving; did I love him enough? did he know? did he love me? why did I do such and such when he was 10? did he know his time was limited? is that why he said such and such? why did I not pick that up? why did he feel he could not confide in me? … you can imagine the little stories I invented – without any evidence.

The self-pity has more or less worked itself out. Slowly I deal with autopsy findings, intellectual processing, picking up broken ends, revising expectations. I am beginning to sleep through the night thanks to Nytol. And the sparkle has returned to my eyes, people tell me. I begin to recover mischief and iconoclasm.

Four months ago I said that I felt as if I’d been struck with the greatest imaginable physical force. And so I did. But the exhaustion goes on and on and on. I do not wish to leave the nest. I do not want to be in situations where people might ask things of me. I barely have enough energy for myself and certainly none to spare for others. People hammering on the vicarage door at 11 pm swearing and spitting leave me unmoved. Those who claim to need train fares to Birmingham are likely to be dismissed ungraciously. Conserving energy is difficult when people are wanting to touch the hem of my garment in all sorts of ways. They sympathize, they mean well, they don’t mean to steal my energy, they don’t know they are doing it. I need to rethink how I deal with it.

A friend of similar age was discussing getting older with me. He was lamenting the lack of intellectual oomph. But, you know, I rather like that. After a lifetime of living by my intellect and striving to prove myself to parents, to colleagues, and to ego, I find it liberating to renounce the multiple seductions—academia, music, church, to name but three—to which I fell victim. Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.

These last few weeks I’ve been very glad of films on Netflix and YouTube. I’ve been enjoying violence as never before. But the thing that always revives the drooping spirit is—wait for it—Benidorm. As I make the great renunciations I begin to come down where I ought to be …

… the gutter. The valley of love and delight.

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Life cycle of crockery

article-1029700-001533AB00000258-694_468x383SWMBO has berated me for taking a bowl from the draining board rather than from the cupboard.

The life cycle of household crockery, a complete mystery to me, is clearly complex, and any disturbance of the natural rhythm is one that, as far as I can judge from the tirade that assaulted me, leads to cosmic disharmony of the most profound order.

It seems that reuse may begin only after an article has resided in the crockery cupboard for an undefined though not inconsiderable period. Before reaching said cupboard, the article must have been ‘dried’ on a tea towel (why tea towel?) despite already having drip dried on the plastic draining yoke, again for an undefined though not inconsiderable period.

To skip these two stages in the cycle by, as I did, reusing a bowl that had just been washed, is a mortal sin.

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The state of Albion

pirelli-stadium-2.jpgEast Staffordshire Borough Council has cut its funding to the voluntary sector by over 27%. The Mayor, a member of the Borough Council, has written to ask me to support his chosen charities. Do you see anything odd here?

People who in my opinion need psychiatric care are unable to have it because the resources are not there. Junior doctors feel their voice is ignored by a government intent on spinning for the sake of cheap publicity. But look at the salaries of NHS administrators. Do you see anything odd here?

The Church of England General Synod makes decisions based on grand policy gestures without paying attention to those of us at the coal face. Indeed, it feels as if in order to put them into effect, they must needs hector the likes of me. You elect people to PCCs and they elect people to Deanery Synods and they elect people to Diocesan Synod and they elect people to General Synod. And by the time these darlings get that far up the greasy pole some of them are so intoxicated by being near the source of ‘power’ and influence and titles that they lose sight of where they came from.

Local politics and national politics affect everyone. Church politics affect very few, only those odd people whose Sunday hobby is going to a strange building that reeks of the past and who live in the past. It’s been said of academic politics (universities etc) that they are so vitriolic because they matter so little. How much more is this true of church politics.

As I keep banging on, Lent is an opportunity to take stock and look ahead, ditching what we don’t need any more. Our diocesan apparatchiks call this mission action planning – though I’ve no idea what mission is. I understand the value of assessing strengths, weaknesses, threats, opportunities, so that’s what we’re doing. The archdeacon is coming to check up on us in June. As government checks up on schools through Ofsted, it won’t be long before the Bishops check up on all our activities through OfGod.

I read in a book once that foundations are best built on rock not sand, so here are some rocks for you to consider as we plan for the future of our churches. Remember that I had a life before ordination, so I am not institutionalized. I’ve worked in the big wide world amongst people who know how the big wide world works. I’ve no interest in kow-towing to bishops or archdeacons, and I’m only concerned about my parishioners. Actually, as a cradle Methodist, I don’t know what bishops are for. Here are some of the realities that we’re up against.

  • The vast majority of people under the age of 50 do not know the Lord’s prayer – have never heard of it, even.
  • There are an increasing number of families in which four generations have never set foot in a church.
  • Church funerals have plummeted even in the 10 years I’ve been ordained. No bad thing, less hypocrisy, though dioceses bemoan the drop in fee income.
  • Some people say that there is a reservoir of affection for the church in the local community. I disagree. There may be smidgeon in the over 60s, but it does not result in significant support. Younger people don’t care two hoots.
  • Some people regard the vicar as the means of tracing their family history – and that’s all.
  • Some people expect the vicar – and the church – to pick up those who fall through the net of hard-pressed social services (see above) though who they think will do it, or pay for it, is not clear,

I could go on. And we haven’t even begun to consider buildings, toilets, car parking, let alone God.

Which brings me to football. Football stadia are our cathedrals. They have their own bishops and priests. They have their acolytes, their rituals, their liturgy, their hymns, their swaying charismatics. They provide pleasure and fun and community spirit. They are about living in the present and planning for the future.

Up the Brewers.


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