Advent Carols at Norwich Cathedral

"We should get there at least half an hour earlier to get a decent seat."

"Half an hour!"

"Bring a book."

"I don't know... reading a book in church?"

"Other people chat before the service, which I find infuriating.  At least quietly reading a book doesn't disturb anybody else."

 

Convinced by my logic, H. stuffs a book into his coat pocket, while I slip the usual A4. brown, spiral notebook into my bag.

We are greeted at the entrance of the Cathedral by ladies and gentlemen who hand us an order of service with the usual, upstanding citizen smile of church wardens all over the country.

 

We notice a large proportion of seats in the nave being marked Reserved for Ticket Holders.  "So much for the democracy of the Church," I say out loud.  "Are we becoming as exclusive as King's College Chapel now?" I think that even at the Temple Church, which I regularly attended in London, and where every molecule of the congregation oozes a sense of almost aggressive hierarchy, seats were occupied on a first come, first served basis, whether you were a QC, a court clerk, or just me.

 

"I don't know if we're King's College Chapel," says an elderly gentleman with a Cathedral badge on his lapel, "but you can go beyond the organ screen, in the presbytery.  It's great to sit there."  He gives me a half smile to which I beam a sincere "thank you." 

We take seats in the second row of the Mediaeval presbytery seats, wide and with comfortable rounded backs to support you.

 

I peruse the order of service.  On the first page, I read: 

Since the effectiveness of the service partly depends upon hearing from a distance, you are invited, when standing, to turn to face the direction from which the sound is coming.

 

I remember reading this in last year's order of service too and, then like now, stifling a giggle.  I wonder if there is really anyone above the age of six months unable to work that out for him or herself, or why special authorisation is needed to turn your head towards the sound.

 

As the organ pours notes of Bach and Brahms into the air, the lights are switched off one by one, until we are plunged in a darkness disrupted only by the golden half-light of the outdoor illumination floating down through the arched windows and gently lingering on the stone pillars.  I hold my breath in marvel.  In the darkness the Cathedral seems to come into a life of its own, and find the voice of its history, of all the Benedictine monks that prayed here, eight centuries ago.  During that – sadly brief – moment of silence, I think I hear them gossiping, discussing theology, begging forgiveness, reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, or uttering a prayer to the Almighty.  

 

The clergy gather under the Advent wreath, the candles flames casting flickering shadows over their faces.  After the blessing of the light, they process past us to the West end of the Cathedral.  Last, walks the Bishop of Norwich, wearing a mitre.  I find myself wondering if he knows the ancient reason for the pyramid shape of his headgear.  The same reason why  in early churches, the altar was always beneath a dome.  The same reason why wizards' hats are traditionally conical.  A reason of physics.  Yet another piece of ancient wisdom that's been widely forgotten.

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

Redeem thy captive Israel (...)

 

My favourite Advent hymn.  There is something arcanely wise and full of longing in its tune.  I belt it out, hoping I'm not going off tune.  I haven't sung in a very long time, and my vocal cords feel somewhat stiff and uncooperative.

 

"... the Lord Jesus Christ be with you."

"And also with you," is the response printed in the order of service.  But I cannot speak those words.  I have never been able to.  They always sound so mundane to me.  Instead, I mutter under my breath, "And with thy spirit." 

 

I suddenly recall the religious fervour sometimes bordering on intolerance that I witnessed at my old Durham college.  Where many viewed "thee"s, "thou"s, the King James Bible and especially incense with frowning suspicion.  A college in whose Norman chapel the first Catholic mass since the Reformation took place in 1989, after much campaigning with the College Council.  I was at that mass, one of the majority of Anglicans come to support the triumph of our Catholic fellow students.

 

The voices of the choir are carried over from beyond the organ screen.  The rich voices of the men, the limpid, crystal-clear voices of the girls, and the vulnerable, moonbeam-like voices of the boys.  

 

Advent Sunday is when I give myself permission to start indulging in a Christmas activities, such as listening to carols.  Also when I start feeling the atmosphere of Christmas.

 

After the solemn blessing, the choir sing a Vesper Responsory.  Its melody is full of mystery and hope.  It spreads throughout the Cathedral and rises up to the fan vaulting.

 

As we come out into the cold, starry night, I realise that, unlike other years, I do not feel a sense of Christmas.  Not yet.  But as I look up at the starts shimmering like diamonds in the black-blue sky, I feel a sense of hope.

 

Scribe Doll 

 Please also read my piece about the Temple Church.

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Thanks for sharing your sparkling account, Katia. Always good to prepare well for this season, the opening of a new year (which I ... Read More
Sunday, 29 November 2015 22:47
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Rosy. Let's hope so :–)
Monday, 30 November 2015 08:41
Orna Raz
Your story about the reserved seats reminded me of Barbara Pym's books. Have you read A Glass of Blessings? I am sure you would lo... Read More
Monday, 30 November 2015 06:06
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8 Comments

Is a Friend in Need Still a Friend in Joy?

“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”  We all know that one.  That a true friend stands by you during adversity, is an accepted, unquestioned assumption in, I dare say, all cultures.  Does the same friendship remain unshaken during your times of triumph?

I hold the strong belief that the overwhelming majority of humans is kind.  In my experience, if you trip and fall over in the street, strangers will rush to pick you up, ask if you are hurt, and offer help (and a cup of tea, if you are in England).  If you're ill, friends and neighbours will rally in a spontaneous support group that restores faith in humanity even in a misanthropic cynic like myself.  Time and again, when friends have found out that I had been through a difficult time, their reaction has been, “Why on earth didn’t you tell me? I would have come ‘round immediately.”  True, not everyone will help you beyond the limits of his/her convenience.  However, many, many people are willing to put themselves out to help you, if you are in any kind of distress.  The sight of another person’s trouble triggers a rescuing response in us, which bypasses cerebral calculation.  We act on impulse.

What about our spontaneous reaction to someone else’s joy or success?

Personally, I consider myself very lucky, in that I can think of a number of people I feel I can turn to if I need help.  Then, something wonderful happens to me – be it a triumph or a stroke of luck – and the number of people with whom I feel comfortable sharing the happy news, suddenly shrinks.

You may find that odd.

My hesitation originates in part from tact, in part from superstition, but mostly from experience.  I don't really want to show off my good news to a friend who is going through a difficult time.  I fear he or she may feel left out, and resent the apparently unfair contrast between our states of mind and positions at that moment.  Superstition is another reason.  Of course, officially, I am not superstitious.  I don't want to be superstitious any more than I want to be afraid.  However, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern elements in  my upbringing are deeply rooted in my psyche.  If someone compliments you for having a beautiful child, you quickly pinch the child, or make spitting sounds.  You tell the person that your child is a bit naughty.  If a guest admires an ornament in your home, you immediately give it to him or her.  Hospitality, yes – but, also, you want them to take away the thing they may have left their evil eye on.  The green eye of envy.  In Han Suyin’s marvelous novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, the Eurasian narrator explains to her British lover that, in China, when you had abundant crop, you would wring your hands, shake your head and cry, “Bad rice, bad rice”, lest the gods got envious of your good fortune and decided to blight it.

Blight.  A word I heard during the Q & A part of a day for aspiring writers, held by agents Curtis Brown, in Foyles bookshop, in London, back in 2012.  Novelist Salley Vickers was on the panel.  People were discussing the importance of feedback whilst writing a novel.  Feedback from friends, from family, from fellow writers.  Taking criticism on board or not, and when.  Salley Vickers told us that – possibly because she is a trained psychoanalyst – while teaching creative writing courses, she notices frequent “blighting”.  People sometimes give negative feedback because they are envious, she said.  I wanted to cheer her.

We are brought up to accept negative criticism with humility, and the assumption that it is given appropriately and for our own good.  If we reject it, we are told that we are either arrogant or do not want “to hear the truth.”  I think, instinctively, we know when negative criticism comes from a generous heart, or if it is tainted with the bitterness of envy.  We just need to trust our gut feeling.

When I started my blog, in February 2011, relatively few of my friends read it.  Some said they had no time to read blogs, others, that it was “pointless writing for no money”, and one, that “nobody reads blogs, anyway”.  The same people were there for me, when I needed help, so I can't call them unkind.

How often have you told friends about a plan close to your heart, and had a reaction along the lines of, “be careful, don’t get your hopes up” or “I know someone who tried, and it went horribly wrong”?

A few years ago, one of my posts, The Delight of Hand Writing got over 4,000 views in twenty-four hours.  I told a few friends.  Some rushed with congratulations and expressions of joy for my success.  Many remained silent.  When, a couple of weeks later, I was complaining to a friend about a minor mishap in my life, she quickly said, “Well, after all that high over your blog, last week, you were bound to come down, sooner or later.”

Her remark slashed me, like a paper cut.  Yet she's a truly wonderful person and I know I can count on her, if I am ever in any distress.

Friends offer genuine sympathy and support when you are weeping over a man/woman.  Tell them – walking on air and your eyes all sparkling – that you have just met someone new and there will be one or two who will say, “s/he’s probably married” or “s/he’s probably nice to you because s/he needs your help”.  Crash.

When I got divorced, in 2000, a friend eagerly invited me out to dinner to “take me out of myself”.  Within a few minutes, she remarked that I looked well and not half as upset as she thought I would be.  I thought I sensed a shade of disappointment in her voice, but discarded it.  A little later in the evening, she said, “I don’t know why I bothered taking you out to dinner.  You’re not upset at all.”

No.  She was not joking.

And then there's the old favourite.  Tell friends about something brilliant that you are doing, and someone is bound to exclaim, “You lucky thing! I wish I...” A slight scratch.  Almost unnoticeable.

Is it a need to feel needed? Resentment at not being needed? Is there comfort in a session of mutual comforting and listing of problems? Does it feel safer to know someone who has problems worse than yours? Or is it something else, which I cannot yet fathom?

I suspect I might get a wave of comments from people protesting that they are always happy for their friends’ successes, and that they have friends who rejoice in their achievements.  If so, I am truly happy for you.  I can only share my experience on this point.  An experience which makes me more inclined to reach out for help to those precious friends of mine who are unreservedly happy for me when I get a lucky break.  I do not know why.  Just a gut feeling.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Complex emotions among old friends, no doubt.
Thursday, 24 September 2015 04:30
Katherine Gregor
I think it's good old Schadenfreude.
Friday, 25 September 2015 13:50
Rosy Cole
It seems to me, Katia, that this problem is caused by an existential envy of anyone who, despite sharing their very real troughs a... Read More
Saturday, 26 September 2015 15:50
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8 Comments

Portrait of Mother and Child

It’s a crowded train and he sits on her lap, her arms around him.  Not tight but rather soft, rounded, her hands relaxed on his lap.  So he doesn’t feel trapped. So he doesn’t feel as though there’s any danger.  So he can keep his attention on the fleeting East Anglian countryside.  “Mummy, what are

the cows doing?”

“They’re having their lunch.”

“What are they having for lunch?”

“Grass.”

“I don’t like grass.”

“It’s so green, so refreshing.  Like a salad.  Cows love it.”

 

His hair is fair and unruly, hers is dark and glossy over her shoulders, but they have the same eyebrows, rising sharply above the bridge of the same, small, delicate nose.  The same face that wonders at the world.  Hers looks barely old enough for the awareness in her eyes, the awareness that she holds a supreme gift in her arms, one she would defend with her life, though she doesn’t want him to know it.  Her slender body could not have been much older than a girl’s when it yielded this new life.  He can’t be more than four.  She must be approaching the end of her teenage years. 

 

The train brakes and she raises and spreads her fingers over his tummy, ready to link them into a safety belt.  He doesn’t notice. 

“Mummy, why has the train stopped?”

“There’s probably a red signal, you know, like the traffic lights when we cross the road.  It means we have to wait for it to turn green.”

 

The train restarts, and acquires speed smoothly.  Her fingers relax and her hands go back to rest on his lap.  He climbs down, he wants to look at the other passengers.  She lets him, but her eyes light up with new alertness, although her voice remains calm, a calm that gives him the confidence to stand, take a couple of steps, look around, and grin at the other passengers.  He doesn’t see her body tense up, her arms behind him, ready to catch him.  His face is beaming with the satisfaction of achievement, as he climbs back on her knees.  His eyelids grow heavy, and he drifts into a slumber, rocked by the train.  The change in his breath against her chest lulls her, and she places a light kiss on the top of his head.  A kiss full of gratitude.  She observes the sunlight from the window, throwing flecks of gold in his flaxen hair.  Did her body really produce this miracle? 

 

The conductor’s voice announces our impending arrival at King’s Cross.  He wakes up, rubs his eyes with his fists, then turns and kisses her cheek.  “I love you, Mummy.”

 

She looks at him, marvelling. She tries to keep her voice level, almost neutral.  “I love you, too.”

 

He stretches his arms, and yawns, then a cheeky twinkle flashes in his eyes.  “How much do you love me?”

 

She blinks and looks away.  Her voice is gentle but steady.  “I love you to the moon and back,” she says, but he is watching the other passengers take their suitcases down from the racks, and is now thinking of something else.

 

 

Scribe Doll

 

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
A beautiful vignette.
Monday, 21 September 2015 04:05
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Stephen.
Monday, 21 September 2015 07:24
Ken Hartke
How calm and satisfying this is... They both know they have something special. Very nice.
Monday, 21 September 2015 22:19
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6 Comments

The Yellow Dress

Through a writer with whom we’ve recently formed a pleasant acquaintance, we were invited to a small dinner party given by a prince belonging to one of Italy’s oldest and most illustrious houses.  The kind that owns a collection of two millennia’s worth of fine art and one of Rome’s most stunning palaces.  The kind that, a few centuries ago, produced a Supreme Pontiff.

 

“What can we take him?” H. asked.  “We can’t afford the kind of wine he’s probably accustomed to drinking.”

Meanwhile, I was searching through our books.  “Where’s my Debrett’s?”

“Your what?”

“My Debrett’s.”

“You own a copy of Debrett’s?”

“Of course,” I replied as one who takes it as read that a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners is as staple in any household as a city street map.  

My mother had given it to me on my sixteenth birthday.  “I can’t afford to throw you a coming out party but I still expect you to be polished by the time you’re seventeen,” she’d said sternly.

A coming out party.  The words evoked glossy magazine pictures of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco in a suitably demure white evening dress and pastel flowers in her hair.

For my mother, manners – like languages – constituted a key into yet another world.  In this case, one she had fallen into elegantly as a young woman, and in which she was determined I should build my future life, totally impervious to the fact that our very pronounced lack of funds might prove to be a hindrance.

 

Still, I learnt to walk, sit and even serve tea with a book on my head without so much as rocking.  “A gentleman must always light a lady’s cigarette first if he uses a lighter,” she said, “but his first if matches.  Why? (there would be the usual pause, to prompt me to answer) Because when you first strike a match it has an unpleasant smell of sulphur.”

Then, there was “If you ask someone to post a letter for you it is very impolite to seal the envelope.  It’s as though you don’t trust the person.  You must always hand it open and it’s up to the other person, as a mark of appreciation for your trust, to seal the envelope right there before you.”

 

For the most part, my mother’s strict etiquette instructions have remained at the level of theory in my life, with the rare exception of a few dinners at Cambridge, where my ex-husband was doing his PhD, in the early Nineties.  The Master of the College, formerly headmaster of Eton, would sometimes invite graduate students for dinner at the Lodge.  The first time we went, I gave my name to a man in a black morning coat.  He appeared a little ruffled.  “If you would please give your name to the under-butler, Madam,” he said, directing us to another, as far I could see identically-dressed man on the opposite side of the hall.  The latter then swung open the door into the parlour, and announced, “Mr and Mrs –” while ushering us through.

 

At dinner, the main course was accompanied by beautifully-cut, thin dry slices of salted potato, the sort commonly known as crisps, which provided a challenge even to the most skilled knife-and-fork operators.  A few, in fact, were purposefully ignored while flying across the dining room like shooting stars.  After dinner, the Master’s wife rose from the table, and invited all the ladies present to “join [her] for coffee in the drawing room upstairs,” while the men passed around a decanter of whiskey, smoked cigars, or took pinches of snuff from a lion-shaped silver tobacco holder with a head that swung open thanks to a tiny hinge.  I wondered if any lady guest in history had ever declined the invitation and stayed downstairs with the gentlemen.  I don’t suppose so. Not in a world where the only way to win is to play the rules to your advantage.

 

Our writer acquaintance had assured us that the prince was very “easy-going” but I  worried that, when applied to an individual with at least six centuries of aristocracy behind him, this adjective might refer to the invaluable skill of – there’s no other word for it – somewhat lowering your usual standards in order to make the less sophisticated or educated feel at their ease.  I wanted to be up to the occasion, whether or not I found my Debrett’s for a quick revision session.

 

While trying to recall the basic principles of what my grandmother called “good breeding”, I studied my wardrobe.  I wanted to show respect to our host with a smart outfit but, this not being London, I had to take care not to overdress inappropriately.  I settled on a pretty lemon-yellow dress with white embroidery on the front and back, which I’d bought from Laura Ashley’s a few weeks earlier but had not yet had the opportunity to wear.  The kind of dress my mother would describe as “an afternoon dress”.  Midnight-blue suede and patent sling-back shoes, and a black pashmina, should the evening turn chilly on the way home.  

 

As H. and I were walking towards the appointed address, I suddenly noticed passers-by staring at me.  For the briefest of seconds, I flattered myself that they were looks of admiration, before I realised that I was engulfed by a retinue of tiny flies.  The front and back of my dress were covered in them, and there were several dozens inside the dress, on my skin, too, all the way down, ahem, to my waist and tummy.  We walked the rest of the way with H. vainly trying to brush them off without squashing them.  We couldn’t fathom what was happening.  I often wear yellow, and have never experienced anything like this – one or two flies at the most.

 

When the prince opened the door with a welcoming smile, he was confronted by the spectacle of me trying to shake the flies down from inside my dress, and H. whipping me with my shawl, looking up and saying, “Oh, hello.  It’s not how it looks – I promise I’m not a wife beater.”

 

My entrance provided the topic of conversation during the apéritif, with the other guests engaged in earnest speculations as to what might have attracted the swarm of storm flies.  Perhaps they’d thought I was a Christmas-size helping of pollen.  I sipped my wine and smiled politely, fully aware that I need not trouble myself with providing any effervescent conversation for the rest of the evening.  The impression had been made as Enter, pursued by swarm of storm flies.

 

A few days later, I walked into the Laura Ashley shop, explained the situation, and asked for advice.  After all, I hadn’t bought the dress to wear it just the once.  Predictably, I was met by puzzled, knitted eyebrows and “Nobody else came in to say this.”  A couple of sales assistants suggested I go to the camping shop next door, and buy insect repellent.  “I’m not going to smear myself with pesticide!” I said.  One lady thought perhaps I had just been unlucky, and walked past a nest.  I left the shop without a viable solution.

 

I have worn the yellow dress several times since that evening and, oddly, only attracted one or two flies, which have been easily brushed off.  I still have no idea what happened that first time.  Perhaps the swarm of storm flies felt it had to rise to the occasion.

 

 

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Considering this post and the one from Paris, I'm beginning to sense a theme - or a Hitchcock movie.
Sunday, 09 August 2015 23:09
Katherine Gregor
Well I did live in Leytonstone for a year.
Monday, 10 August 2015 07:51
Sue Martin Glasco
I was enjoying this glimpse into another world of princely dinner parties and lovely afternoon dresses, and I thought I'd comment ... Read More
Monday, 10 August 2015 04:04
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4 Comments

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