14 April 2010

A wandering minstrel I...

Apologies for the lack of activity here over the past day or two. My highly exciting treatment of the electoral mischief afoot in Glasgow Central should hopefully have kept you sufficiently entertained in the meanwhile. What with the bright sun prevailing in the vaultingly blue sky this morning, it seemed a picturesque plan to use the day to mosey down the river Thames (which is pretentiously styled the "Isis" above Iffley Lock as it flows through Oxford). The river itself, predictably enough, is festooned with punters, firm-fetlocked squadrons of competitive rowers and uncertain scullers being mauled by gravel voiced nicotine coaches who cycle alongside, growling chastening encouragement.

Reminded me of the days when we used to go rowing on the Clyde (a thankless task, I can assure you). Firstly, care must be taken to avoid plummeting into its sloshing and eddying bilge, and if you do so slosh or are scooped in by an eddy, I'd suggest that you avoid inhaling one of the floating carrier bags winding its way somewhere safe to sea downstream. Amusingly, the passing of the seasons on Glasgow's brackish river were marked by particular outward signs, as I recall. Around the end of October, the beginning of November, local neds hugging the bank's littered edges would patriotically re-enact the Battle of Trafalgar. As your crew sat well in order and prepared the smite the Clyde's sounding furrows, it was not unusual to hear the peals and whizzing of firework ammunition being fired your way. Lay artillery officers, prepare to bombard. Fire! Their flame-tongued dragons and rockets tootled and fizzed, only to be gulped ineffectively into the drink. Generally, I'm pleased to say, Glasgow's young didn't quite have the sinking knack for puncturing our brutal wooden boats below the waterline. Must have misjudged the prevailing wind, underestimating their trajectories.

Such things are less familiar on the pacific banks of the Isis, however. I took a lovely saunter down to the little village of Iffley, in which can be found the Church of Mary the Virgin, which was estimated to have been first erected in 1170. Its very striking, unlike anything I've seen north of the Tweed. Despite being a fairly vim-filled atheist, I find religion in general, and Christian thinking in particular, endlessly fascinating. There is something appalling crass about much of the reductivist godlessness which abounds, atheists all impatience and overweening contempt. That is not to say I've haven't got a good deal of vitriol distilled to be pitched over particular types of moralising Christians, the canting of the worldly and the rigidly righteous, pulling pious faces. I find such people fundamentally unendurable. Even so, the 840 years of religion monumentalised by this Iffley church really renders these "prayers of the ages" material. It is also an interesting reminder of the syncretic character of religious observances in different countries. This particular Norman church is festooned with carvings of the most varied sort. Wyrms bite their tails forming the famous Ouroboros, symbolising eternity. Leafy-faced green men peep verdantly from the stonework. Racing horsemen vie, transfigured forever in their always incomplete fleeting charge across the stone. Mermaids wave with the pacific expression of saints.  Inside, a dragon sheds its skin and a jolly little bird, all friendliness, share a place in the stonework.  Meanwhile, the Church's main door abounds with demonic looking crows, whose curved bills lend the threshold a sinister gravity, like the gaping mouth of a hungry lamprey. You can see some of the  Church's intriguing details and symbolic stonework here.

For the Scotsman, you quickly realise that you are a Presbyterian Atheist. The symbolism of Anglican  religious observation feels curiously unfamiliar. Although flatly ludicrously in my own godless view, I was rather shocked to see the statue of the Virgin Mary and Child in Christ Church Cathedral, which is an Anglican and Protestant institution, albeit with a history of Anglo-Catholicism. Such details strike the eye as unfamiliar, even peculiar. Although perhaps testament to the insufficient attention I've paid to the wealth of Scots kirks, in Iffley, I couldn't help but notice the significant number of gravestones outside bearing the  knotted "IHS" monogram. On one level, it is simply the name of Jesus and hardly an astounding addition to a Christly instrument of mortal remembrance. That said, those of you who've taken turns through Italy will probably recognise it as a pre-eminent symbol of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Not many fans of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in the Scottish church, I fancy. In this respect, these dulcet places of Anglican worship are merely representative of a wider point for the Scots in England - the regular encounters with the comprehensible but the unfamiliar, realising for certain that you are at a slightly different angle to the universe. Its an enriching thought.

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