"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A blast from my past: Saturday Night - A Doorman's Journal.

(O.K. I was never that muscle-bound)


There are three clocking on times: seven, eight - thirty and ten. Tonight, mine is seven and it's a killer shift. I prefer pub hours but as the stand-in I can't be choosy: I go where the boss sends me. If someone's ill or on holiday or just fancies a night off I get the call. I've been here before; a city centre bar and club aiming at (but not quite hitting) an upmarket image for thirty-somethings, so I wear black tie and D.J. I feel slightly over dressed without my black bomber jacket but that's for less salubrious joints. I start off outside the bar. I'm on my own but they seem a decent crowd so far, cheerful and garrulous as they arrive, anticipating a good night out, shaking hands and exchanging banter with me;
"Hello Bud.”
“Alright Pal?”
“I remember you from before: It’s Jack isn’t it?" (It is.)
And the occasional "Watch yer Big Fella" which, while it makes me want to laugh because I'm no Arnold Schwartzenegger, is a respectful acknowledgement of my status so I continue to look suitably solemn. Only when you're a regular and know the customers can you afford to let the image slip a bit.

I go through my check list: What am I likely to be asked? What else do I need to know? Location of toilets, cigarette machine, telephone, fire exits, first aid kits, panic buttons and customer capacity. There is always the possibility of spot checks by the Local authority or Fire Service so it's best to be on the ball. Trade is brisk and the bar fills up: noisy and good natured. But I am not relaxed. A good atmosphere can turn volatile, especially where alcohol is involved. It's for this reason that Bouncers - sorry Door staff - are not allowed to drink. It's a sackable offence and anyone caught risks losing their licence. By eight-thirty, I've dealt with a couple of under-eighteens who obediently trotted off elsewhere. Pete, a taciturn Yorkshireman with a ribald line in humour clocks on and I can relax. He's ex-army and a scaffolder by day. We exchange the standard Leeds Doorman greeting, a very firm handshake and left hand to right shoulder pat. There is a real Doorman brotherhood and this greeting always reminds me that I belong to a select group which takes care of its own.

Pete always calls me "son" though I suspect I may be the elder. He is deeply respectful of me and believes me to be a priest. The confusion arose over my attempted explanation of the term “Lay Minister”. Pete, who I later came to realise has a slight hardness of hearing, took the “Minister” bit and ran with it. Another doorman, Eddie (Equal Opportunities Eddie) – more of him in a moment – took the word “Lay” and ran with that.
“What are you a sex worker then?”
“What? What?”
“Is it about shaggin’ – you know - lay worker? Only Pete said you were a prostitute.”
“Pete said what?”
“Pete. Pete. I say Pete – over here mate. (Sorry luv, come on through. By ‘eck you’re a fat lass aren’t you?) Pete. Didn’t you say ‘e were a sex worker? (You’re new here aren’t you pet? Not from around here? Got any Yorkshire in you? No? Would you like some? Only joking. Ha, ha, ha)
“Did I say who was a sex worker?”
“What are you on about? Who’s Jeff?”
“Our new lad… ‘im over there with the fat lass. You said ‘e were a prostitute.”
Stunned silence. At this point I have taken the fat lass (“She doesn’t sweat much for a fat lass her, does she?”) and her friend to the bar to attempt to placate them with a complementary drink, so I only faintly hear:
“No, Eddie. What I said is: the new lad’s a protestant.”
“I was only asking is all. What’s that then?”
“The lad’s a priest.”
“Jeff? Jeff’s a priest. Fuck me.”

I keep telling Pete I’m not a priest but he won’t hear it. Instead he gets very conspiratorial: “No, no, I understand, you’re not a priest this evening” (Wink) “You’re a doorman this evening. (Touches side of nose) You want to be incorrigible, I respect that” I assume he means incognito and I give up. (Although he may have a point: I am incorrigible.)

In the quiet times, Pete tends to use me as his confessor “’Coz you understand these things.” He leads an amazingly chaotic personal life: so many moral choices badly taken in such a concentrated time span. At the same time I know he’s a very private person and has probably not discussed these things with many other people so I am touched by his confidence. We have often stood out the front in companionable silence when the rush was over, me shivering, Pete have a reflective smoke.
“You know, I thought about what you said last week……”

Anyway. Back to this evening: Pete knows the regulars and takes seniority, sending me to prowl the big staircase that leads to the upper bar.
"You look like Sean Connery," giggles a tipsy girl.
I take this as a compliment mindful of the thirty odd year’s age difference and settle into a watchful reverie, frequently checking my watch.
"Too dull for you?" asks a passing moron as if a lack of mayhem was a disappointment.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many people assume that we're just waiting to unleash G.B.H. on the unwary and that we go home disappointed if, at the end of the night, we can't keep a check list of broken bones, blackened eyes and split lips. In fairness, though, I know it's like that in other cities where there is no regulation of Bouncers and clubs will employ any shaven-headed, tattooed psycho providing he's built like a brick outhouse. (O.K I am shaven headed and tattooed too, but I’m classy.) No. Me? Give me a quiet night any time!

Greg starts at ten: a stylish and witty Afro - Caribbean heavily into body-building. “Evening Vicar, it’s good to see you.” I like Greg and count him as a friend too. He is very sorted. It’s also a great relief to see him as I was expecting Eddie.
"Oh he got the push for being violent and offensive."
Surprise, surprise. Eddie was never a Doorman. He was a Bouncer. A dinosaur inherited from the old days - pig thick and dog ugly with fists like hams; very quick with his punches but very slow with his brain. None of us ever really liked him - he was a liability and caused more trouble than he sorted. On top of that he used to brag about how hard he was but often it was pure fiction.
"Where were you when I needed you? Didn't you see me? I just threw six lads out on my own!"
As if such a fracas would have passed unnoticed. Pete used to wind him up:
"You see that blond? She just took me out the back......"
"Yeah?" Eddie came back, never one to be knowingly beaten, "Well I had her last week…and her pal."

Poor old Eddie. I think he knew the writing was on the wall when they advertised for Gay Doormen to work a new club - and got them. And they looked more macho than him which is no mean feat.
“I’ve got a dick thick as a baby’s arm, me.”
“What? What?”
“I’m just saying.”
“I’m only saying, is all.”
“Just go away.”

We observe a minute's silence to rejoice at Eddie's passing, probably the last of his kind and, like the dinosaurs, unable to cope with a changing climate. Still, bad news for Eddie means good news for me. At the rate the agency finds new staff, I’ll be here for a while.
“You know his real name is Aubrey?”
“Yeah and I’m called Jeff.”
“No really. He’s called Aubrey. Edward is his middle name.”
We stand there with tears running down our faces, Greg sobbing with laughter. And people think this is a crap job.

When the council decided the city's Bouncers would have to be registered and become Doormen ("far more up-market, much more the image we want to encourage" – and in Leeds you can't get a licence if you have any convictions for violence or drugs) we all had to undergo a training course. This included the memorable session "Equal Opportunities and the Doorman" which went down a storm. We had to do role play and practise being sensitive. Well you can imagine can't you? Fifty or so big lads, with aggressive haircuts, some smoking furiously and most exhaling pure resentment. It was one of the funniest evenings I can remember in a long time. It all seemed like common sense to me: a bit of basic psychology.
“It’s not rocket chemistry you know.” And that from the lead police trainer.

None of this bothers me: I get on well with people and enjoy working with them. I get a buzz out of spotting a situation in the making and being able to diffuse it without being confrontational - a friendly word, an appeal to reason here, a firm warning, a little cajoling there. But poor Eddie, bless him, couldn't quite grasp exactly why "Fuck off Nigger. You ain’t coming in here,' might possibly be construed as racist and offensive.

It's a funny world isn't it? Now we're the Benneton boys: a multi-racial team in every club so that no one can claim they've been turned away on racial grounds. And there are a growing number of girls too. It's a good idea, don't get me wrong, but it hasn't quite worked out tonight because the lad I'm replacing is called Asim and there's no getting away from the fact that I'm not Asian. Greg brings me a glum looking youth.
“His ex-girlfriend just had an abortion. Can you have a word? You can talk to people. I owe you.”
Too right, Greg. You do.

He still owes me from last week when he brought a distraught girl for “a word” who had just caught her husband having oral sex from her best friend outside by the kitchen bins. Classy.
“Greg, I’m not a marriage guidance counsellor.”
“I know. You’re a priest.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yeah. Pete said you were sensitive about it. Go on. I don’t know what to say to her.”
“How about “Knee him I the nuts girl?”
“No seriously though. Surely the Bible says something about blow jobs?”

"Probably Leviticus", I think.

Which reminds me that Eddie still “owes me” from the time he had me giving sexual health advice to a young lad who had just confessed to being new on the gay scene. “You know about jonnies and that” he said over his shoulder as he disappeared at the speed of light, what with homosexuality being contagious. It struck me at the time that it was a pity Eddie didn’t know about “jonnies and that”. He’d spent a significant proportion of the last month keeping a wary eye on the door and hiding in the gents trying to avoid a girl who he had got “up the duff.”
“If she comes in you don’t know me.”
“Oh right” I said rehearsing that conversation in my head. “You mean Eddie. Big, fat ugly guy. Ginger, no front teeth, dog breath, thick as pig shit. Tattooed neck and a scar on his cheek. Can’t keep his flies done up. Works here. That Eddie? No, I’ve never heard of him.” As if.
“And you had sex with him? Where’s your guide dog? What were you thinking girl …..Sorry? He’s got what? Right…no...I’ve heard all about that. Yeah, thick as a baby’s arm. Thanks.”

A subdued half an hour later I move across to the club. (Glum looking youth is in the process of drinking himself into a stupor. Glad I could help.) Antonio the manager is camply temperamental. "No riff-raff. Remember the dress code." I do but Antonio plays me off against the customers to appear generous. I have a look in the gents. Three student types look shifty and ill at ease. Greg follows me in and so we initiate a random drugs search. Their truculent objections to a "pat search" evaporate when Greg gets out a surgical glove and invites them to the office and they fall over themselves to cooperate. Finding nothing we let them go. As the door shuts Greg's severe demeanour melts into a wicked grin.
"Never fails does it?"
It's all bluff of course but very few are prepared to take us up on it. This all began once, I'm told, when Pete was convinced a lad was dealing: he seemed clean and Pete couldn't find anything on him so just by way of a joke Pete asked him to submit to an intimate search. The lad looked horrified, bent down and took off his left shoe.
“No mate, you're alright" and handed him a little bag of E's.

Asim is a nice guy. I’ve worked with him before. He is a charismatic lad who is very popular with the girls. I remember one conversation:
“Greg says you’re a vicar.”
“Yeah, about that…” I make, I think, a good job of explaining the difference between Lay Minister and Ordianed Minister.
“Sounds like a vicar to me. Still I’m a Muslim, what would I know? I don’t go to Mosque or anything, but I feel it here.” He puts his hand over his heart. “There’s loads go to Mosque regular as clockwork but they don’t feel it here. You do don’t you? I can tell. I’ve been watching you since Greg told me. You’re different to most guys who have worked here.”
“I guess I’m not a typical Doorman.”
“No, but I’m not saying that’s bad, not at all, in fact you’re a bloody good Doorman. It’s a different approach. It’s ‘coz you’ve got it here too, know what I mean? Do you know anything about Islam?
“Yes I do as it happens.”
“Would it offend you if I told you why Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is who Christians say he is?”
“Not at all. Then I can tell you why Christians do, if that wouldn’t offend you.”
“O.K. Just before we do I think we should have a word with that group of tossers over there….”

So, I came home from a quiet night on the door, arriving about 3.30am, put the car away, put the washing machine on, climbed into bed and immediately thought: "That rain doesn't sound like rain, its got a crackle to it. Why is there a glow coming through the curtains and why is there a powerful smell of smoke? Is this house on fire? What's that bloody child left on in the loft? Hang on, why isn't our smoke alarm going off then?"

So I stagger out of the bed and open the curtains to see the garage of the house opposite going up in roaring flames and Doris, the 86 yr old next door to it standing in her kitchen doorway, with melting guttering dripping on her, burning door-frame and all and with her dustbin gently melting at her feet, throwing a cup of water on the conflagration.

So, dressed in nothing but boxers and body art I leg it over the road as Doris's's shed roof catches. (My neighbour, Maude, watching from her bedroom, said my near naked dash was by far the most enjoyable episode of the whole incident, but she is also 86 and wears very strong glasses.)

The owners of the garage have now appeared, both much the worse for alcohol and mill about aimlessly, wailing. (They are new to the street and have not long returned from their Elvis themed Las Vegas wedding. Enough said.) My wife has had the presence of mind to dial 999 and I have joined a small group of voyeuristic passers by who have appeared out of nowhere at that time in the morning and none of whom seem interested in doing anything other than making fatuous comments on the events like a Greek chorus.
“That’ll have been started by something you know.”
"Hot isn't it, fire?"
"Is that a burn or a tattoo?"
“I’ve got a pair of shorts like that, only mine are green.”

I bundle Doris into her kitchen and lock the door just as the heat cracks the window. It's hard to know whether its the fire or me, now wet from the rain, dripping in her kitchen, which worried her the most.

It must be the spirit of the Blitz, but she was not going to be hurried out of the front door and over to our house, where my wife had, of course, in the time honoured way of these things made a pot of strong sweet tea. No.
"Where is my hearing aid? (Pardon) I can't find my glasses. You know I've nothing on under my nighty."
"You may have noticed I'm not exactly over dressed. Lets go. Out."

We now have two fire engines with blue flashing lights but no crowd of bystanders because it is now raining very hard. (No staying power, the British public.) The wife of the garage owner is actively impeding the dousing of the flames by lasciviously chatting up anyone she believes to be a fireman: "I like your uniform. (Obviously not directed to me, that one.) Are you married? Can I sit on your engine?"

And I've got no shoes on!

Guttering and piping is melting, dustbins have gone and so by now have one garage, one shed, a fair bit of fencing, some hedge and half a tree. Windows are cracked, doors are charred and tiles have buckled. I have now got dressed. (Maude, disappointed, has gone to bed believing my having got dressed to be a sign that nothing of further interest would occur.) The chief fire officer insists on reporting to me as the least insane member of the party now gathered in the ashes in the pouring rain. He believes the cause of the fire was a discarded cigarette end. Garage owner's wife looks both drunk and sheepish - difficult to achieve and deeply unattractive.

The next day the garage owner's wife will have a shock when she tries to use her washing machine with the now melted piping and the garage owner will have a shock when he showers: I hope they were insured for fire and flood.

And I still got to bed by five a.m. even after Doris told us for the eighth time that she'd been just getting ready for bed, couldn't find her hearing aid (“Pardon”) or her glasses and has no knickers on and, by the way, had I seen that man with no clothes on? Did I think he might have started it?

Perhaps one of the most bizarre events of my life as a doorman had come some weeks before.
“You know I was never baptised…”
This is a conversation I had been trying to avoid for some time. When Greg had broached it before I’d tended to side step by saying something like, “Go to church, talk to your local vicar, get the family together and get it done properly. Make it an occasion”
“No-one goes to church.”
“I do.”
“But like Asim says, you don’t need to go to feel it here.”
On this occasion, tired, I say, “Don’t go there Greg, just don’t”
“No but…. It needn’t be any big deal. Maybe a sink in the Gents when we’re closed. You must know the words. I really want to do this and I want you to do it. You’re my vicar. I feel it here. I do.”
“Greg, I’m not properly qualified.”
“I don’t care. Will you baptise me?”
Now I do know you don’t have to be in holy orders to baptise. So I did it. Actually it was very moving. It was a very odd congregation crowded into the upper bar after closing: Pete, Asim, bar staff, cleaners and a couple of punters we hadn’t quite managed to get rid of. The subdued lighting of the bar and the remains of the smoky atmosphere added to the sense of occasion. An acoustic guitar track, speedily retrieved from Antonio’s car, played quietly in the background and we used a huge glass punch-bowl previously on display above the optics – once we’d dusted it off. Everyone took it seriously, both out of respect for Greg and for me, and my very faithful but slightly adapted liturgy captured the mood of a man on the brink of a personal spiritual insight. Antonio even cracked a couple of bottles of bubbly.
“Donna and I are thinking of getting married as soon as she has the baby.”
“One thing at a time Greg. One thing at a time.”

"You're nice. I haven't seen you before" flirts a truly awful woman, over made up, under dressed, old enough to know better and with no self-respect. Pete makes faces behind her back. She’s just tried it on with him and got the brush off and he’s not generally too selective. Just Eddie's type, though - a Doorman groupie. Occupational hazard. Thanks......but no thanks. I smile and notice the wall behind her is smeared with dried blood. I must ask Greg about that. I catch two lads letting their mates in through the fire exit. They leave.
"We call you Cyrus the Virus," confides a bar man.
I look confused.
"It's O.K. He's cool. Get the video".
He disappears into the smoky gloom.
"You lads must do alright for yourselves," leers a punter.
It's three - thirty. Yes my thoughts have turned to bed but I couldn't even raise a smile. "Has anyone told you.. you look like Bruce Willis............?"

"Sean Willis" (AKA Jeff) is a Leeds City Council registered relief Doorman and has now trained for the priesthood. "If they think I'm a Priest, I might as well be one!"

Friday, December 24, 2010

The value of good teaching colleagues

Due to various events I have been somewhat distracted of late, depressed and in a bit of a fog.

I went out with my dear friend and colleague John (I'm terribly sorry, he's from Wakefield) for a pre-Christmas lunch in honour of his birthday. He liked his present: a T-shirt with the legend "Instant Idiot - just add alcohol" so apposite. We have been mates for twenty six years. You may remember John from the novelty socks birthday present episode. John is half a decade younger than me and yet I caught a glimpse of how we will be in our old age.

John has long spoken his own version of West-Yorkshire English, which I have become adept at translating.

* Giffer: as in "What do you mean you've locked yourself out of your house and in mine, you silly old giffer?" This to his elderly dad who had rung him on his mobile.

* Bint: female form of Giffer as in "The old Bint's coming round for her tea tonight." This refers to his Auntie.

* Numb-nut: as in "That were a right crowd of numb-nuts I taught before break."

* Keks, or possibly kecks: as in "I can barely get my fat-arse in these keks these days. I may need a bigger size."

* Snap: as in "I'm famished. I'm ready for me snap."

In addition - and I realise this has been creeping up on him - his conversation is peppered with words such as "wotsit", "thingumybob" and "watdyacallit?" One part of todays conversation went "You know, I've left the thingumyjig behind and so I can't get the whatsit." I have become the master of the non-commital non-verbal cue: a smile of encouragement, a nod, an "Oh, right" or "Shame" (depending on how I have interpreted the emotion behind the comment). This is a departure from a previous stage of our friendship when I regularly told him that he had thirty seconds to get to the point or I would stop listening. (He is a scientist, say no more!) His language is also peppered with rich Anglo Saxon as in "I'm such a arsewhipe, I've left the b*****d thingumyjig behind so I can't get the f*****g whatsit." This adds little to my understanding but a great deal to the entertainment value of the exchange and it made our discussion in the cafe on the science of climate change something of a challenge. "It would help if those old giffs (pl) would shut the f*****g door." I wasn't entirely sure whether that was in relation to his own comfort levels or a more oblique statement on the unneccessary loss of heat that contributes to the generation of more electricity and therefore the burning of fossil fuels. I have learnt that it doesn't really matter because a request for clarification is likely to lead to more complications or a long pause followed by "What was I saying?"

In addition he gets to practice all his prejudices.

"That whats-his-face: I know he can't help it but he could've stayed at home!"

Today John told me a hot piece of news...only it wasn't so hot as I had told it to him several days earlier. "I knew I'd heard it from somewhere!" unabashed.

In twenty years time John and I will continue to meet. The scenario I have in my head is that I'll turn up on the wrong day but it won't matter because he will have forgotten. When we do meet we will endlessly tell each other the same news, perhaps five times in a day but it won't matter because we will have forgotten what we said. Our conversations will re-enforce the importance of our news because we will both have a sense of having heard it somewhere before only, believing this news to be widely disseminated, we will be the only two who have actually heard it. There is also the possibility that one of us will have made it up. "Those f*****g whatdyacall'ems.......you know....the whatsits. They've started believing in global warming."

"You mean Republicans?"

"Aye, them, b******s"

That's because New York is flooded, but it's only a natural cycle."

"What is?"


"You said York was flooded."

"What, again?"

"F**k me."

We are determined to be very difficult and awkward old men.

We have started practicing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Contemporary Nativity

A few nights ago we had the Lord Mayor's Carol Concerts in Leeds Town Hall. This is an annual two-shift gig for the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and it sort of marks the start of Christmas for me (although this year that siginificant event was last Saturday's Messiah concert - my first as a Tenor).

In the run up to the Carol Concert our Chorus Master told me that the Committee had been approached to see if anyone would be willing to do a reading - ideally witty and seasonal but not too overtly religious. Our Chorus Master told me that he had nominated me. Do you see what they did there?

Anyway twice last night to a combined audience of about 2,000 people I read the following - a little something from my own penmanship:

Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type. You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')

She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows). So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity.

So, the committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Chapel Allerton. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.

Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.

“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.

Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.

Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.

The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.

“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.

“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”

“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."

Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price”.

Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.

"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."

"Joseph was older than Mary you know. Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."

Rehearsals came and went as rehearsals do.

"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"

"Go away Trevor. You’re a palm tree.”

"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."

"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"

"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."

"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas. I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced? I see .... well, we shan't need to see that on stage thank you very much"

“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”


"Terry. Drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working-"

"Do I look 1st century enough in this?"

"It's Armani, Justin, you took fine ... Do up your flies."

And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph- dramatic, moving and powerful. The stable became an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. Even the arrival of Justin's nieces on set dressed as Frodo and Gandalf didn't raise an eyebrow.

It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.

So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos. The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.

It was really well received and I note from my stats a number of INTERNET searchs for it which amazed me. I'm doing a slightly more risque version of it Sunday evening at my Beloved's church on request. It seems to be an annual ritual.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

You'll be having a cup of tea Father? Ooohh you will....

"You need to go and live in a community like Father Ted's in a place Like Craggy Island." my significant other announced apropos nothing in particular. Well, truth be told, not apropos nothing in particular. "Do we get you back in the near future? Only we're (by which she means her) tired of the preoccupation and depression that accompanies this overlong priest training lark. Where's our (by which she means her) pastoral care? Get it sorted or you can't count on our (by which she means her) support for much longer. It's unreasonable."

So, Stuart, Dr. Bob and I living together in a clerical community where we can write papers and sermons and talk theology to our hearts' content and not have to be bothered with the reality of family life and the real world and remembering things just because they are important.

I wonder which of us is Fr. Dougal?

"And don't expect Nigella with her nipped in waste and voluptuousness to look after any dog you might think about buying."



A brief question of clarification revealed that Nigella is to be our Mrs. Doyle, housekeeper and cook, which I was quite encouraged by.

The Dog thing's been a bit of an issue in our house. I'd like one but my beloved says sweetly "Of course you can have one. Only I'll be living somewhere else."

("Dad, if Mum dies, can we have a dog?")

"Now I can see the point of celibacy" she announces mysteriously. (My better-half, not my daughter). "Only you can date ... " (Eh?) " ... Me, obviously, because on a date, in a couple of hours, you might be able to give someone your full attention without having to worry about what the church has to say about Baptism."

I think the worm may be turning.

I'm not sure what Nigella would say.

I'm not sure what Stuart and Dr. Bob would say.

Actually, I am.

So, this is Christmas? A cynic's view.

It’s Saturday morning, which means I have to shoot off to the school Christmas bazaar: how better to give something back to the school than to exchange all your unwanted rubbish in that relaxed period in the run-up to Christmas when no one has anything very pressing to do? This is good, because in addition to my two daughters I have my two teenage nephews to entertain.

Business is slow, though it is not long before the takings start rocketing, as a result of the children’s ingenious sales technique of buying everything themselves with my money.

Certainly by the time we have hung around for hours and assiduously avoided the blandishments of a marauding Santa, the little scamps are loaded down with more than enough 91-piece jigsaws and single-mother packs of Happy Families to start practising getting bored ahead of the official gift disenchantment date of 27th December, and at only a fraction of the cost. Why, I hardly have enough money left to try my luck at the ‘Bring a Bottle’ tombola, with its array of beers, wines, Advocaat, east European turnip liqueurs and (as it turns out, when my ticket finally comes up trumps) Radox Herbal Bath, with its essential aromatic ingredients, none of them, sadly, being alcohol.

‘It could have been worse,’ says another parent, as we head for the cars.

‘You could have won the nail varnish remover.’

That afternoon, we decide to go shopping . . . in the city centre . . . . all five of us.

I can’t believe we have decided to wait until five minutes before Christmas to go off and spend all my money in search of a handy organiser for the cutlery drawer for my mother, which will apparently halve the time it takes to find a teaspoon, or double the time it takes to put the washing-up away, depending on whether you’re the sort of person who thinks a glass is half-full or half-empty – a term which incidently always reminds me of my auntie Doreen in Barnsley. “Glass half-full, glass half-empty? Pass it over here, I’ll drink the bloody thing.”

And then on the bus, my elder nephew makes the slightly alarming announcement that there might be time to visit SegaWorld in The Corn Exchange and use up the virtual-ride vouchers he won in the Leeds Metro phone-in as a chance result of knowing what the capital of France was, though only on condition, I stipulate, that the children bring to a speedy conclusion their vigorous public debate over a) who was the last person to vomit on public transport and b) what happened to the bag of sick afterwards. By the time we surface at the Town Hall we are straight into the shopping scene from Ben Hur and are fully horde-acclimatised, though I am a firm advocate of tides of humanity being where they belong – i.e. on page 1,875 of the Old Testament – and not on the stretch of pavement separating us from the entrance to Primark.

In that oxymoron – “Christmas Hell” which is Marks and Spencer food hall, I notice a hand dip into my basket and remove a pack of mince-pies. “Well?” the culprit challenged. “There aren’t any left on the shelves.” It occurs to me at this point that “Mary’s Boy Child” has been on a continuous loop in the background. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Harry Belafonte is a lovely man and is probably on the verge of a UK comeback tour but enough already.

“But it’s Christmas” the vacuous sales assistant beams. Her name badge proclaims her as PAGAN (Happy to Help) which seems oddly appropriate.

“No, Pagan it isn’t Christmas: it’s Advent.” The smile doesn’t flicker but the eyes show real fear. A result!

At last we emerge at SegaWorld clutching our free vouchers, and although the whims of my younger daughter could be met simply by staying on the escalator, it’s a blow to find that, due to circumstances beyond the passing interest of whoever owns this place, an astonishing four out of the five virtual rides are out of action, with the remaining one in the incapable hands of someone with all the communication skills of a person who spent his childhood locked in a cupboard.

Understandably, this ride is very popular and we spend the rest of the week queuing for it, which then means having to leg it back down the Headrow, assisted by the younger nephew with the slightly irritating habit of elbowing his way to the front and then causing a pile-up by stopping to complete an important move on his handheld entertainment facility. We miss the bus by the skin of our teeth. Excellent.

It’s already getting dark. But we’ve barely got back home when the children take a sudden interest in my driving them back into Leeds to see a mystery celebrity turn the Christmas lights on. Off we go again, and 15 minutes later we are in town, following the unmistakable noise of people pretending to enjoy themselves. And sure enough we find ourselves in front of a big stage being expected to clap along to Shakin’ Stevens and Bob the Builder, while a troupe of alarmingly energetic dancers in Santa Claus hats audition to an imagined throng of TV talent scouts. Still, it’s all part of the fun, and the DJs are soon tossing fantastic prizes into the crowd to get us into the festive spirit of untamed consumer frenzy. We miss the Aire FM baseball hats, but my elder daughter does surface from the brawling mass clutching a fragment of a family ticket to the Vue cinema.

‘DO YOU WANNA DO THE YMCA?’ the DJ is shouting.

‘Er . . . do you want to do the YMCA?’ I ask my nephews.

No way,’ mutters the eldest. ‘It’s a gay song.’ He clamps his arms firmly to his sides, as if any sudden movement might transform him into a priapic leather-trousered construction worker sporting a large moustache. I offer him a short lecture in low hissing tones on how a civilised society is judged by its celebration of sexual diversity, though obviously an ability to run the railways comes into it, too.

“Anyway,” I say, “listen to the words. It’s not about being gay, it’s about young men having a good meal, and doing whatever they feel.”

At last it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for as the DJ asks us to give a big Leeds welcome to: Robbie Williams. Oh, hang on - make that a Robbie Williams tribute act! "Robbie" gives us a few songs and could easily pass for the real thing, from a distance, with the light behind him, if you didn’t have your hearing aid turned up. Eventually he switches the lights on. Mmm. It’s not exactly Las Vegas. On the upside, at least we didn’t get stuck behind the family who decided what riotous fun it would be to wear red flashing antlers on their heads for the duration of the event.

And the real meaning of Christmas in all this? Well, the Vicar of Dibley Special repeat, Christmas Day, 8.15, BBC1, of course.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Snow Daze

Autumn lasted about twenty minutes. We are in the depths of an early Winter. When I set off for school on Monday I was convinced this was a foolhardy thing to do as I made my way through a blizzard: surely the place would be shut? Not so. The area around the Knowledge College only had a light dusting of snow but the phones were ringing off their hooks as the hopeful rang in. "Is the school shut?"

A few colleagues arrived a little late. A significant number of kids arrived very late, too tempted by the infinite possibilities of snow play to take academic punctuality seriously. I couldn't blame them but it was interesting to note that the top sets were pretty largely full and the less able groups were decimated until mid morning. There's probably a study in there somewhere. (Akin to the study on the correlation between a pupil bringing their photograph money to school in the first week and the number of GCSEs that same student achieves five years later. I have a theory tested by time but alas, no funding.)

"Sir? Will he shut the school? Will we be sent home?"

Who? The Head? I doubt it.

"He's dead selfish!"

How do you make that out?

"Well it's not fair is it?"


"Because it's snowing."

Except it's not though is it? It was, but it's not any more and it's unlikely to before home time.

"He's dead selfish he is."

Sensing a circular argument and no meeting of minds, I try an alternative tack.

It's a difficult responsibility after all. It's a Health and Safety issue: he's got the safety of over a hundred staff and nearly thirteen hundred kids to balance against educational concerns. He's not going to close unless it's absolutely necessary. He's certainly not going to take you being a bit put out into consideration. Snow days aren't an entitlement. There's a lot of careful thought and a lot of advice-taking going into those decisions.

"When would he shut then?"

If the place was knee deep in snow; if the bus company couldn't get up the hill; if the motorways were shut; if the roads weren't gritted; if there was black ice; if the Education Authority said so; if most of the other schools shut. There are too many variables and you throwing snow at each other isn't one of them.

"He's dead selfish he is!"

Oh get real!

Overnight most of the above happened.

I threw back the curtains at 6.20 when the alarm went and, rather like a vampire shriveling before sunlight, I was blinded by a whiteout. (O.K. It was really my Beloved who opened the curtains as I hunkered down for an extra five minutes: poetic license - but you get the idea.) It was a winter wonderland indeed: the snow was several inches deep, there were no tracks in the road and everything looked sort of snuggled comfortably into the snow which was only marked by a criss-cross of fox prints.

I calculated the degree of difficulty in getting the car off the drive and down our quiet little road. Would the main roads have been cleared? What was the motorway like? More to the point, given that the Knowledge College is in a field on a hill in the middle of nowhere, would those local roads have been treated? Going on previous history that area is not a priority. Only last week the Boss had given us the Snow Day routine in the staff meeting: there would be a text to all staff and parents saying whether the school was open or not. That wasn't entirely satisfactory as I'd got my text saying school was open ten minutes after I'd arrived yesterday. I certainly didn't fancy setting off in this weather only to get there - or worse, find myself stuck on the motorway with no escape - before the text arrived, which it did just as I was putting on my coat.

An unexpected day off. A little bit of light housework, a meal prepared, an Advent sermon written and the monitoring of Facebook as my colleagues shared slightly guilty congratulations on our good fortune, and no year 8 for me. What's not to like? And people say there's no God. Daughter Two went to protest with loads of students in the city centre about the proposed huge hike in University tuition fees and announced herself well pleased with the outcome. "Can I sleep at the University? They've occupied a building"

Wednesday was no better. Again I decided to wait for the text. Will rang me. "What's happening?"

No idea.

June rang. "Have you heard?"

Not a thing.

Nearly ten minutes later than normal I set off. I'd gone - slid - less than half a mile when June rang back. "I've just rung school. The decision has been made not to open." Fifteen minutes later the text arrived. Had I set off at the normal time I'd have been on the motorway at that point and, as the day's news unfolded, very probably stuck there for the rest of the day. Not impressed.

Having stopped to take June's call I tried to take the most straightforward route home. It wasn't straight forward at all. The streets were clogged with snow. Cars were careering all over the place, getting stuck on hills, slithering back, failing to break. It took me almost as long to retrace my steps that half mile as a standard journey to school would have taken on a normal day. Daughter Two, whose school is just on the other side of the city was not amused to discover hers was open. Daughter One and my Beloved were both able to walk to work, which they did after some slightly resentful chuntering. Daughter Two came home mid morning. "We shut." Lots of Facebook chatter.

It snowed heavily on and off for most of the day.

I put together an Advent liturgy for Sunday, started a new book and flopped on the sofa to spend a disproportionate amount of time watching News 24 and local BBC stations. This was unprecedented for November: when we get weather like this it's usually January or February. The annual national soul-searching debate about our levels are preparedness for snow were dusted off and practiced all day - except this time most of North and Central Europe were in the same position. What no one can tell me - and I ask whoever will listen: what exactly does it mean when the BBC weathermen, the Police and the AA all tell us that we should only consider travelling if the journey is absolutely essential? It just occurs to me that employee and employer might have very different understandings of that advice. What constitutes absolutely essential?

I receive a text from Daughter 2's school. They are closed tomorrow. How far sighted to know a day before. She won't have to get up at the crack of dawn and worry about buses or juggle the decion about whether to leave or wait for advice. Almost immediately afterwards I receive a call from the Head Teacher of our local primary school where my Beloved is a governor. They too, "And I stress how unprecidented this is" she said, had decided to close tomorrow.

That's a communication trend I'd like to encourage.

My Beloved returned with hood up and red nose, boots caked in snow. "The University closed at three" she announced "Staff were told that for our safety we should assemble in the library to sleep overnight. Most people's cars are snowed in. Students are building snow barricades in the streets and there was this car with a six foot snow phallus on its roof." Ah, the benefits of a University education.

Just after seven Daughter One rang. Not at all confident in her balance in knee deep snow over ice she asked for a lift. When I'd stopped laughing I told her that I'd walk to meet her. Daughter Two and I, dressed like Starship Stormtroopers against the chill, set out on what is normally a twenty minute walk to Headingley. Our road was as I suspected: knee deep in unspoilt snow but the shock came at the main road. It was the same. No vehicles on the move which is possibly the first time I have ever seen it so. In the street lights it was an eerie sight. For a moment we could have been the only two people on the planet. Just up at the bus stop an abandoned bus's hazard lights blinked on and off. The driver, presumable, having had second thoughts about attempting the descent of the hill.

On our journey to meet Daughter One we passed no more than a dozen ghostly figures and no more than half a dozen moving vehicles. The snow was crisp underfoot and still falling. Daughter Two decided to pull tree branches as we walked under. She's such a card.

"Knob-head alert!" D. Two announced, as a student in shorts and trainers overtook us. (I don't know where she hears such language.) At this point D. One appeared in red beret and overcoat holding a pink umbrella. She looked rather sweet I felt: that unwaveringly English faith in the value of the umbrella under all circumstances. D. Two was less impressed. "Put it away. You're embarrassing."

As I went to bed I didn't even bother to set my alarm for Thursday morning.

Update: Here we are in the depths of the big freeze - what would we Brits do if we couldn't moan about the weather? - and some of my American friends are still confusing weather with climate. In today's Guardian I came across That snow outside is what global warming looks like
"Unusually cold winters may make you think scientists have got it all wrong. But the data reveals a chilling truth."

Thought provoking .