Tuesday 13 January 2015

Too late!

If you were hoping to read Unseen Things Above in blog form, you've missed the boat.  It will be published this July by SPCK as a proper book (and an eBook).  Not too long to wait.

Volume Three, Realms of Glory, starts a week after Advent this year.  That should give me time to write the sequal to Wolf Tide (my teen fantasy series), and for enough stuff to happen in the C of E to fill another novel.

Laters, people.

Sunday 27 April 2014


In homage to our esteemed forerunner, we commence this ecclesiastical tale with the question: Who will be the new bishop?   
Back in the year of 185— when this same puzzle absorbed the good folk of Barchester, appointing a new bishop appears to have been a pretty straightforward affair.  To be sure, there was some Oxbridge High Table-style manoeuvring behind the scenes.  There were raised and dashed hopes, with the press confidently (and, for the most part, wrongly) naming names; and then the prime minister made his choice.  Dr Proudie, we read, was bishop elect ‘a month after the demise of the late bishop.’  A month!  I fear, by contrast, we will still be asking ‘Who will be the new bishop?’ for many months to come, while the Crown Nominations Commission ruminates.   
Ruminates?  Dare I apply so bovine a metaphor to this august body—evoking as it does an image of a herd regurgitating and re-chewing what has already been swallowed and partially digested? Do I wish my reader to picture jaws rolling, rolling, strands of saliva swinging, heads turning ponderously this way and that as the process of discernment toils on?  And how—if we pursue this alimentary metaphor to its logical conclusion—are we to characterize its outcome? 
No, we had better eschew rumination.
And anyway, they are not an august body.  They are just a bunch of ordinary Anglicans operating as best they can in this awkward limbo that C of E senior appointments currently occupy (somewhere between 185— and the real world).  These days it takes a very long time to appoint a new bishop.  It feels especially protracted for those caught up in the process and zipped by oaths into the body bag of confidentiality. 
So who will be the new bishop of Lindchester?  I have no idea.  If you’re keen to know early, your best bet is to keep an eye on Twitter.  It is possible that someone will award themselves a smiley sticker on the wall chart of self-aggrandisement by being the first to blab what others have appropriately kept under wraps.

We re-join our Lindcastrian friends just before Low Sunday, that is, the first Sunday after Easter.  In parishes across the Diocese of Lindchester this collect may be said:
Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father.
It may be said; but it is not, of course, compulsory.  Gone is the golden age of Book of Common Prayer uniformity, the days of ‘Here’s a digestive biscuit, take it or leave it.’  Gone, too, are the late unlamented days of the Alternative Service Book (‘Here’s a choice: digestive, Lincoln, rich tea or garibaldi.’)  We now inhabit the age of the biscuit assortment.  (‘Here, have a rummage.’)  Heck, we are pretty much in the age of the liturgical bake-off.  Provided some of the right ingredients are used, frankly you can go ahead and make your own.  Fresh biscuits, messy biscuits, biscuits to play with in a godly manner, old-fashioned traditional biscuits like granny used to bake.  Anything, provided there are biscuits to feed the hungry people of the UK!  For heaven’s sake, tempt them in with smell of baking!  

Like the risen Christ himself, this narrative will find locked doors no obstacle.  The hearts and homes of our characters stand ajar to us.  We may slip in and snoop around.  But let us always seek the good of others, the bishops, priests and people of our tale.  As our earlier volume has already shown (alas!) they are quite capable of cocking things up without the mischievous intervention of your author.  We set out now to walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace in their company as far as Advent.  Advent, the church’s New Year.   New Year at the end of November?  Yes, there it is again, that strange tension between the two realms we inhabit: the church and the world, with ever and anon the tug of homesickness for the home we have never seen.
Come, reader, and dust off the wings of your imagination.  Fly with me once again to the green and pleasant Diocese of Lindchester.  Ah, Lindfordshire, from you we have been absent in the spring! Even now, as the month draws to its close, proud-pied April is still dressed in all his trim.  Look down now as we glide upon polite Anglican wings, and see how every road edge is blessed with silver and gold.  Daisies and dandelions—no mower blade can keep them down.  The spirit of youth is in everything!  See where eddies of cherry blossom, pink, white, swirl in suburban gutters.  Glide with me above parks and gardens, admire the fresh unfurlings of copper beech, the colour of old brick walls; gasp at the implausible lime of the limes!  The horse chestnut candles are in bloom, and the may, here and there in the hedgerows, authorizes the casting of clouts.  Sheep and cattle graze in old striped fields.  Listen!  The first cuckoo dimples the air, and for a heartbeat, everything stands still.  The waters have receded, but signs of flooding are everywhere across the landscape.  Even now, the distant cathedral seems perched like the ark on Ararat, as rainbows come and go behind the cooling towers of Cardingforth.
Let us head now to the cathedral.  I’m pleased to inform you that the spire has not crashed through the nave roof in our absence.  The historic glass of the Lady Chapel has not slipped from its crumbled tracery and smashed to smithereens.  Fear not!  Heritage Lottery funding is on its way to prevent so ruinous an end to the work of long dead glaziers.  Restoration work continues on the cathedral’s south side, where a vast colony of masonry bees has been ruthlessly exterminated.  Dean and chapter (how can they call themselves Christian?) were in receipt of letters from single-issue bee fanatics.  A reply drafted by the canon chancellor, referring them to Our Lord’s brusque treatment of swine, was never sent. 
It is Saturday afternoon.  Gavin, the deputy verger, is mowing the palace lawn before the rain starts.  All downhill now till Advent, he thinks.  The triumph of the Easter brazier still blazes in his mind.  New paschal candle lit first go.  Cut-off 2 litre coke bottle, that was the secret.  Stopped it blowing out.  Up and down goes Gavin.  Keeping things under control lawn-wise during the interregnum.  Tidy-up and big bonfire at the end of summer—there was that to look forward to.  Then advent, 600 candles.  Gavin smiles as he mows his nice straight lines.
Ah, but the garden misses Susanna’s touch.  Bleeding heart plants nod in untended borders.  Roses shoot unpruned.  The laburnum walk is unforbidden, poised to rain its deadly Zeus-like showers on nobody at all.  Everything waits for the new bishop, whoever he may be. 
As you may have seen in the press, there was a brief outbreak of squawking in the ecclesiastical henhouse back in February, when it was (wrongly) rumoured that the Church Commissioners had decided to sell the palace and stick the next bishop of Lindchester in a poky little seven bedroomed house in suburban Renfold.  Indignant petitions were worded.  SAVE LINDCHESTER PALACE!  The Bishops of Lindchester had always lived there, since…   
It emerged that the bishop of Lindchester had, in fact, only lived in this particular house since 1863, when a vigorous and godly Evangelical bishop sold off the other two palaces.  The Rt Revd William Emrys Brownlow used the money to clear the city’s slums, provide clean water and good housing for the impoverished leather workers, build a hospital, schools and a theological college.  Prior to that, no bishop of Lindchester had ever lived in the Close in such proximity to his clergy and people.  It would have been tactless to do so, since they could not have afforded to ape his gracious lifestyle.  No, far kinder to retreat to Bishop’s Ingregham and eat quails in aspic with a clear conscience.
Shall we pause to lament the passing of those glorious historic palaces from the church?  Ingregham palace is particularly lovely, with its mellow sandstone walls, its acres of Capability Brown landscaping, the deer park, the lake and historic oak tree that Robin Hood, Mary Queen of Scots and Charles the Second hid up and Shakespeare himself no doubt stubbed his fag out on.  I daresay petitions were got up in 1860.  What was bishop Brownlow thinking of, selling off the family silver like that?  These treasures are not ours to dispose of—we are but custodians!  Our duty is look after them and hand on intact to the next generation!  Yes, there are issues facing the church, but selling off property is only a short-term solution!  It’s just throwing money at the problem! 
As is so often the case when the problem is ‘lack of money’, the throwing of money at it turns out to be the solution.  A great many runty little leatherworkers’ children failed to die of cholera.  Many were educated.  Scores of earnest young Evangelicals were trained and sent to work in places of great danger and deprivation across the Empire.
But the palace is very lovely.  It’s a shame the church no longer owns it. 

We will leave the palace in Gavin’s care and glide gracefully to earth outside the deanery instead.  Come with me, on tiptoe, to the old scullery, where the Very Reverend Marion Randall (just back from a post-Easter break in Lisbon) is standing amid open suitcases.  She is discussing the identity of the next bishop with her husband.  Or rather, not discussing it. 

‘There’s nothing to tell.  And even if there was, I wouldn’t tell you.  We take oaths, you know.’
            ‘Oaths!  How Shakespearian.  Ods bodikins!  By my lady’s nether beard!’ he declaimed.  ‘Like that?’
‘Funnily enough, Gene, nothing like that.’
‘How dull.  But can’t you drop a tiny hint?  In passing.  I can infer.  I’m an excellent inferrer.’
            ‘Yes.  And you’re also an inveterate gossip.  Which is why I’m not going to tell you anything.’
            ‘Aha!  So you admit you do know something!’
        The dean sighed and continued to sort and toss dirty laundry into heaps.  ‘Of course I know something.  Look, we’re only at the consultation stage. People have been invited to submit suggestions, that’s all.  We’ll get a long list from the Washhouse, which we’ll sift, then decide who we want to mandate.’
            ‘Ooh!  Who’s on the long list?’
           ‘You’re not actually listening.’  She bent and began thrusting a lights load into the machine.   ‘Nobody yet.’
            ‘But who’s likely to be on it?’
            ‘Anyone whose name has come up.’
            ‘Literally anyone? What if some bonkers old trout suggests her parish priest because he does a lovely mass?’
            ‘Then I suppose he’ll be on the list.  Hence the sifting process.  No.’  The dean held up her hand.  ‘That’s it.  Shut up.’
            ‘At least promise me it won’t be another swivel-eyed Evangelical pederast with a muffin-making wife.’
‘Not funny?’ he enquired.
            ‘But quite clever?’
            ‘Oh.’  Another silence.   ‘Well, let me go and choose us a homecoming wine.  I am confident I can get that right, at any rate.’

My readers will see from this that Gene’s character has undergone no reformation in the last few months.  He remains the same disgraceful reprobate.  His mission is unchanged, too: to cherish, divert and pamper his beloved wife, and make the task of modern deaning more fun than it might otherwise prove, were he not on hand (at all times and in all places) with the right wine and the wrong remark. 
            Marion sets the machine running, then gazes round her.  The overhead airer, the Belfast sink, tiled floor.  This was where staff of former deans presumably toiled with their washboards and dollies and goffering irons.  She thinks about the old servants’ bells still there high up on the deanery kitchen wall in a glass case—BED RM 3, DRAWING RM, TRADES. ENT—though they no longer work.  Fell prey to health and safety regs when the deanery was rewired ten years ago.  There is a button in Marion’s and Gene’s en suite bathroom, (formerly DRESSING RM 1).  She imagines her predecessors pressing it and summoning a valet to bring up a hip bath and pink gin.  Gene, no doubt, would recreate this scenario with enthusiasm, were she to mention it.
            Dear Gene.  She smiles.  But the brief holiday is already retreating from her mind.  The thought bailiffs shoulder their way in to repossess the unpaid-for happiness.  The spire.  The stuff coming out about the school chaplain from the 70s.  The new bishop of Lindchester—would it be uncomplicated, someone she could work with and not be forever thinking You are younger than me, less gifted, less experienced...  How wearing it is, all the nuisance of being one of those tipped to be the first woman bishop.  To know you’re being talked about.  Folk speculating: would she be suffragan somewhere, or was she holding out to be the first diocesan? Barchester, maybe?  She shakes her head.  Come on, you’re still on holiday till Monday.
            She casts her mind back to Lisbon.  That basilica.  Was it only this morning they were there?  Muted palate of browns and terracottas.  Easter lilies, a CD of plainsong alleluias playing.  High above in the dome, blue sky glimpsed through glass.  Peace, beauty.  And then to emerge into the big bright spring world!  Dazzled by full sunlight, buffeted by the wind, the whirl of life, the vast dome of the sky above.  If the inside was the only thing you knew, how could you guess at all this?  And yet it made perfect sense.  Of course, of course!  Would it be like this—resurrection? 
            She goes through to the kitchen and puts the kettle on.
            Gene emerges through the cellar door.  With a fey flourish, he presents the wine.  ‘1996 Chateau Latour.’ 
He sees from her face that his magic words have conveyed nothing.  ‘Bless you, my darling, I know you love that vinho verde.’  He gives a dainty shudder.  ‘But some of it was so young, drinking it was a safeguarding issue.’          

And now it is Low Sunday.  Where shall I take you today, dear reader?  I know that you are eager for news of our various friends.  How is Father Dominic faring in his new parish, for example?  And what of our lovely bishop Bob, shouldering the weight of the whole diocese during the interregnum?  To say nothing of our stout hero, the archdeacon, last seen haring off to New Zealand in pursuit of his lady! 
            You must be patient.  I am going to introduce you to a new character, one I fear you may not find it in your heart to love, but Veronica plays an important part in our tale.  There are times when we must stoically eat our plate of school liver (horrid tubes visible) before we are allowed out to play.
            Come with me now to a church in Lindford.  Not the parish church (where Fr Dominic now serves), but one nearby with a gothic revival building of the type that looks as though it might soon be cut loose by the evil archdeacon, Matt the Knife, and turned into a supermarket.  No, more likely a nightclub called Holy Crap, or something similarly witty.  It is in the clubbing district, such as it is, of Lindford.  Beside the church is that narrow alley where last year—you may remember the incident—two men picked on the wrong faggot.  A CCTV camera now keeps watch.  Every Friday and Saturday night the church pitches its gazebo in the little yard behind the railings, and from here and the street pastors operate, dispensing love, hot chocolate and flip-flops to the lost souls of Lindford. 
            We will pop in now and see what’s going on in St James’s church this Low Sunday morning.  The first thing you will spot is the lack of pews.  The Victorian Society took a tonking here, all right.  There are cheerful banners.  Someone plays thoughtful music on an electric piano.  Can this be another Evangelical stronghold?  By no means!  This is an inclusive church, my friends, where God is mother and father of all, in the commonwealth not the kingdom of heaven.  It is bishop Bob’s kind of a place.  Change from the bottom up not the top down.  They do good work here in their rainbowy way.
            Veronica wears a simple cassock alb and Peruvian stole in bright colours.  Lent is now over, so she has laid aside her equal marriage campaigning rainbow dog collar.  She is not the incumbent, she’s a university chaplain.  Here comes Geoff the vicar now.  It’s a baptism, so he’s wearing the stole with Noah’s ark animals on.  I believe somebody made it from upholstery fabric.  It would cover a nursery chair very nicely.  The baptism will move seamlessly into the Annual Parochial Church Meeting (getting in before the end of April) and be followed by a simple agape meal and shared lunch.
            I don’t suppose you want to stay for a church AGM, do you?  No.  Let us risk the hostile stare, and tiptoe back out as the congregation stand to sing ‘Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?’ (tune: Kelvingrove).
            A glimpse of Veronica is all I vouchsafe you this week, dear reader.  Instead, I will whisk you back to the Close and into the study of the Revd Giles Littlechild, the canon precentor.  The Littlechilds have just returned from holiday in Heidelberg, visiting in laws and older son (Gap Ya).  Giles has read somewhere that you should do one thing each day that scares you.  Opening his work emails surely qualifies!
            He scrolls through, delicately, like a bomb disposal expert.  Excellent.  Nothing too dire.  But then a new email pings in.
            Oh God.  A last minute application for the post of tenor lay clerk.  They can’t not interview him, can they?  And then they’ll have to appoint him, because he’ll be the best.
          Lord have mercy!  Frankly, Giles would rather have a tone deaf moose on the back row of dec than Freddie prima donna May.

That's it, folks.  You'll have to wait until July now to read the whole thing when SPCK publish it in book form (and as an eBook).

Sunday 13 April 2014


Only two more weeks, and the weekly train to Lindchester will be departing at 7pm.

Who will be the next bishop of Lindschester? that's what we are all asking ourselves.  The CNC have been stroking their beards sagely.  Heads have been put together, influence has been brought to bear.  There are whispers and hot tips.

Meanwhile, the diocese ticks over.  The cathedral is still standing.  A major art exhibition is planned by the Arts Committee.  Some of you will be familiar with the work of this artist.  She will be visiting Lindchester for the private view.  I dare say her husband will be tagging along.  And perhaps this will be an opportunity for the scapegrace Freddie May to return to his earlier haunts and thank the artist for painting the big canvas that was such a lifeline to him during that 'unhappy phase' of his life?  And if he does put in an appearance, I expect he will run into one of the artist's oldest friends from Jesus College days.  (The nude picture of whom will cause such a flurry of scandalised emails to the dean of Lindchester.)  

And then there is our good friend the archdeacon to consider.  How's that romance going, I wonder?  And  (in the absence of a diocesan bishop) how will Matt and bishop Bob deal with the naughty priest who breaks ranks and gets married to his male partner?

Oh, I love my job!  I make money from daydreaming.  A bientot, dear reader.

Monday 17 February 2014

Coming Soon...

Last Sunday was Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Lent.  We will return to the Diocese of Lindchester on Low Sunday--the Sunday after Easter--to see if they have all been behaving themselves.  Of course they have!  Admittedly, they have not all been behaving themselves well.  They are but a bunch of simple Anglicans, after all.  As I once heard a cathedral precentor testily remark (in connection with typos on the pew sheet), 'If you yourself are perfect, do get in touch, let us know how it's done.'

If you are late joining the party, you can read Chapter 1 of the Lindchester Chronicles here: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/chapter-1.html  but to read the rest of Acts and Omissions, you will have to wait until the summer, when it will be published as a novel and an eBook by SPCK.

In the meantime, dear reader, I shall be sharpening my satirical quill and dipping it in medium sherry ready for Chapter 1 of Unseen Things Above.  Laters, as the Young People say...