christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: February, 2013

Altar Ego

So here is my confession: I was an altar boy. In our church, an altar server’s outfit consisted of a long red dress (or cassock) with a shorter white dress slipped over the top. Thinking back on this now, it feels nothing short of astonishing that kids would climb into such garb, but it never bothered us at the time.

I’m standing on the altar at a quarter to midnight in a cassock that stops just short of the ankle. This is unfortunate in that I’m wearing a giant pair of white trainers, creating the impression that Michael J Fox has just joined the priesthood. As the last one to arrive, the choice of cassock was limited and to make matters worse, it’s also covered in dried wax from previous candle extinguishing adventures. (All altar servers at heart are enthusiastic pyromaniacs and pride themselves on being able to snuff out a flame between finger and thumb). The occasion is the Easter Vigil – a legendary date in the servers’ calendar in that it can extend up to three hours. The air is thick with incense and not five feet away a man in a dress is drinking the blood of Christ.

File:Orthodox Altar Server Liturgy.png

Typically there would be two to five altar servers on duty, depending on how high the mass. At a bog standard weekday service, there was often just the priest, an altar server and a nun in the front pew. In such instances the priest would skip the homily and hymns and race to the end like a judge keen to finish a case before lunch. At 11am on a Sunday, at what was called a sung mass, there could be up to seven of us gliding about on the red carpet, mixing potions or ferrying water and wine like waiters in a busy restaurant. 

In many respects, it was like being in a youth club. We had trips to Alton Towers (including visit when a server memorably stuck his head out of the minibus window and threw up on a passing motorcyclist). In others ways, it was like being part of a secret society. The structure was entirely hierarchal. There was pecking order and specific roles, a little like a rugby team.

At the bottom of the heap (and invariably this was the role I was assigned) was the boat bearer. This was one step up from doing nothing, and simply involved transporting a silver dish of incense and a spoon up to the priest. He would take a few grams of spice and drop it into a smoking orb on a chain called a thurible. You would then return to your pew until another refill was required.  In many ways, it was like taking cocaine to a gangland boss. Next up were the acolytes, who flanked the priest, with a tall candlestick, following his every step. ‘This was like impersonating an angel,’ remembers Paul, who carried out this duty on innumerable occasions. ‘The key was to protect your flame at all costs, which wasn’t always easy in a draughty church. The other concerns were not setting the priest or yourself on fire.’ 

The bell ringer was a job that required an intermediate skill level; this involved twisting a large metal dome that resembled an upside saucepan to produce a bright ringing sound. This had to be done to coincide with particularly holy moments during the mass – such as the consecration, when the bread turned miraculously and reliably into the body of Christ. Occasionally, if you were off somewhere else, you would ring at the wrong moment causing the priest to drop what he was doing and run back to the altar, or 400 people to suddenly stand up. This was invariably followed by censorious looks from the senior server.  

Then there was cross bearer. While on paper this sounded like a tough gig (ask Jesus or Joseph of Arimathea) in fact this was a brilliant job.  It looked terribly impressive as you led the small procession of priest and servers solemnly around the church and up to the altar. It was all the more cushdy in that once you reached the altar, all you needed to do was lean it against the wall and take a seat. An hour later, you stood up and repeated the manoeuvre. The cross itself was a silver rod about seven foot tall leading to a kind of trident at the top with Christ on a smaller cross flanked by little metal figures of Mary and St. John.  ‘You definitely had the kudos being cross bearer,’ says Paul, ‘but there was risk too. John and Mary were always a little loose and liable to fall off.’ There was always an instance of a server almost knocking himself out with a pound of Virgin Mary dropping on his head.

The most difficult and therefore most prestigious job was thurifer, so called because they carried the Thurible. This contraption was operated by the most experienced, and usually the oldest altar server. It was their role to generate enormous quantities of sweet smelling smoke and send our prayers to heaven. They had to be a certain locations on the altar at specific times, hand it to the priest, take it back and most terrifyingly, bless the congregation with it at one point in the mass. Throughout all this, they had to keep the orb swinging like a pendulum in a grandfather’s clock. Every thurifer had their own style and extent of swing. Most had a moderate motion, swinging the thing between five and seven o’clock. Others possessed the most astonishing action, swinging in an arc anywhere between two and ten o’clock. With these, it was vital to be well out of the way, unless you wanted another crack on the head with some holy heavy metal.    

As well as duties on the altar, there would be occasional detours and even trips outside on special occasions like Christmas and Easter. The priest and servers would rove like a small, well drilled platoon down the aisles, into east and west chapels blessing everything in its path. The thurifer would whisper urgent orders under his breath such ‘go left,’ ‘hold it, James’ or ‘where’s the boat?’ Often there would be navigational mishaps where the cross bearer turned left while the acolytes kept on going. The cross would then have to perform a hasty u-turn to rejoin the main party. Much of this would be caused by daydreaming, which in turn was caused in large part by the tedium of the mass. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe (atheism was not a concept that even occurred to us) it was simply that every week we would hear the same words in the same order, except for the reading and sermon that followed, which was rarely a reason to get excited. During longer services, like the legendary two hour marathon that was Christmas midnight mass, some servers would faint at having to spend so long on their feet, sending their burning machinery rolling off the altar and into the congregation.

For our trouble, we were given chocolate on feast days and occasional passes to get out of school to serve at weddings or funerals. There were always rumours of servers earning a pound or even more from lucrative invite-only gigs, and you spent your day dreaming of being summoned to these glorious paydays. Mischief was rife. Laughing on the altar was considered the cardinal sin and we went to extraordinary lengths to get each other going. One server we shall call Harry was notorious for disappearing into the sacristy (basically the priest’s dressing room) on some innocent pretence like getting more incence for the boat. While he was there – and in full view of the servers, but no one else, he would do handstands or pull moonies while we bit our lips and attempted to look angelic. Eventually we hung around long enough to earn a bronze servers’ medal, which was given on St Stephen’s Day – the 26th December. There were rumours of silver and gold as well, but we had never seen these and refused to believe they existed. While we were delighted to receive the gong, it did mean going to mass two days in a row, which felt a bit much, especially when all you wanted to do was play with your new X-Wing Fighter.  

Ultimately, being a server was more interesting than being one of the crowd. You were on stage. There were things to remember. You got to dress up and see behind the altar. You felt quite important – an in fact you almost felt famous. None of this had anything to do with God really, but it made the time pass more quickly. Occasionally you would drift off into an almost trance like state; you would imagine yourself climbing the walls of the church and navigating like Spiderman across the stone buttresses in the ceiling. You would zone in on the huge crucified Christ figure dangling in the air above the congregation.  How had all this come about? What had inspired these people to build this stupendous building and what sent a billion of them back to mass each week? It was in these moments that you were knocked out by the mystery of it all and felt closest to the presence of God. It was then that you heard the words: ‘Oi, James, where’s the boat?’

The Waste Land

Now that poetry is so popular, it is welcome news that a poetry theme park is to open. I was one of the few to be asked to visit before the official opening. This was my review, also available in England Underwater.  

You enter by driving through the legs

of an eighty foot statue of Cecil Day-Lewis.

Priority parking is reserved for Forward winners.

New for this summer is the John Ashbery Simulator

where you sit inside a darkened room

waiting for a thought that never comes.

At the Stephen Spender Bungee Catapult,

you will be attached to a giant recreation

of the poet’s braces, stretched back and hurled

ninety foot into the air; please note that 

there is a long waiting time for this attraction.

After lunch, why not try the Walt Whitman Waltzer,

where you can control the speed and direction

of your own whisky tumbler? During the ride

a picture is taken of you at the precise moment

you realise you will never write anything as beautiful as:

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night.

In the Medieval English Poetry Zone,

You will be asked to construct a single line

containing three words beginning with B

while being chased by Grendel’s Mother.

Under construction is Iceland on Ice,

where you will enter a perfect recreation

of the frozen landscape, paired with a slightly

lazier poet and asked to write letters home. 

In the London Zone, you climb into a carriage

which resembles a 1963 Ford Zephyr,

with a copy of Ariel on the back seat.

You are pulled through a dimly lit tunnel

and arrive at a party where a man in a beard

and polo neck is reading from a thick folder.

Meanwhile the woman with the black eyeliner

and leather mini skirt who has been staring

at you, moves across the room and whispers:

Keep your hands clear until the safety barrier lifts.

Listening to the mermaids sing: Revisiting Prufrock

Yesterday, on the stroke on noon, a colleague of mine recited the first line to this well loved poem as an invitation to go to lunch:

LET us go then, you and I,

It was a sign of erudition lightly worn, but at the same time brought back some rather guilty memories.

As an undergraduate I rather foolishly turned up to a seminar on Eliot’s The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock without having read it through properly – only to find that no one else had either. The tutor was so annoyed, he snapped shut his briefcase and left the room in a huff.  I therefore came to the poem with a bit of baggage and a general reluctance to engage.

As it turns out, worry, guilt, indecision and lack of readiness are all prevalent themes, so I was better prepared than I thought.

The invitation is deceptively warm –

LET us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

An echo of Yeats’ ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree’ but the pay off couldn’t be more bathetic: 

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

The modernity jars sharply with the gentle Georgian formality of the opening couplet and immediately announces mortality as its occupation. Another poetry tutor (whose reading I did do – it was Hugo Williams after all) once memorably cited this example when he asked the question: ‘I thought the metaphor died with Eliot didn’t it?’

The poem is a dark night of the soul; a long existential crisis full of recriminations, regrets, fear of aging and death – it seems almost absurd that Eliot was only 22 when he wrote it. With its ‘restless nights’ and ‘one night cheap hotels’, to my ear it evokes a world of noir and detective fiction – the midnight loneliness of a figure in Raymond Chandler novel. Once we have identified what kind of journey this is – into the dark consciousness of an unhappy man, we feel disinclined to accept the invitation – however it has become an offer we cannot refuse.   

Being Eliot, while the theme is dark, the poetry is masterful – the urban night is evoked by the image of a tomcat (a favourite motif). It is insidious and vaguely menacing.  

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening

It also works on multiple levels – the fog also represents the character’s own confusion and inertia. There will be ‘time yet for a hundred indecisions’ before ‘the taking of tea and toast.’ The mix cliché with original phrase is another Eliot hallmark, and works in the same way as Shakepeare prefacing tragedy with comedy. One offsets and accentuates the other.

The poem is built around a central, unidentified question (although he warns: ‘Oh do not ask “what is it?”’ as if the answer is obvious.) It appears to be something like: ‘Could I have been bolder? Could I have made more of myself if only I had dared to risk a little more? He asks later in the poem:

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’   

The rhythm and rhyme is insistent – the poem moves at a pace as if to emphasise that life is slipping away while he grapples with these dilemmas. Before he knows it, he will have achieved nothing; and instead will

have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Later thi sense of regret and opportunities lost becomes even more explicit:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid

Prufrock is not short on melancholy and introspection, and is perhaps nowhere more desolate than in the image ‘Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows…’

But is there a possibility that Eliot is not entirely serious? The poem frequently lapses into comedy and self- ridicule:

I grow old . . . I grow old ..  .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

This is the voice of Lear’s fool – both joking and serious. Is he lampooning his future self? Is it a warning to him and others not to waste their lives – to at least attempt ‘to squeeze the universe into a ball.’ Is he laying down the gauntlet to himself – a challenge to pursue the greatness; to achieve his potential?

He determines (perhaps too modestly, or else in character) that his lot in life is the bit part rather than the starring role – an ‘attendant Lord’ rather than ‘Prince Hamlet ‘(with all his own indecision) but there is a realisation too that he will be denying himself life’s most sublime rewards – he will never taste the exquisite freedom of the mermaids ‘riding seaward on the waves. There is an unhappy admission:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
The poem ends as it opens – with an image of death, specifically drowning, which he will return to in The Waste Land, completing the journey.

Why them, if so gloomy, is the poem so well known and loved? Perhaps because of the gentle tone of sympathy and consolation; the frankness and accepting way it deals with failure and the dimming of ambition and tolerant understanding of life’s entanglements. Perhaps too because it is so easy to identify with: the everyman will not achieve greatness, the perfect love affair, or half he set out to do. The poem is a lyrical lament to unfulfilled dreams. It is filled too with the attractive poetry, the trinkets and kick knacks of the everyday – ‘the tea and cakes and ices’ and the ‘cups and marmalade and tea’ which give comfort and familiarity in the face of our inevitable extinction.     

The only irony is that this lament for unfulfilled promise heralded the start of the most brilliant literary career of the 20th century.  Eliot did hear the mermaids sing after all.


Imaginary kingdoms in Bethnal Green

A beatific night at the London Buddhist Centre for the launch of Maitreyabandhu’s pamphlet, wittly titled (considering its length)Vita Brevis.

As it’s Valentine’s Day, Bethnal Green is full of flowers; almost every man and woman clutches a single stem or full bouquet like some sixties vision. Greeted by smiling young people at the door, the air of serenity continues down to the basement studio which is all cushions and flower print screens.

Organised by Alex McMillen of Templar Poetry, the bill also featured the precise, accomplished Myra Schneider (her recital of Forward Prize shortlisted poem ‘Goulash’ was an undoubted highlight) and the always fascinating Jane Weir, continuing her odyssey into the lives of textile designers of the early twentieth century. Her outlandish titles, breathless long lines are filled with the obscure vocabulary of dyes and textiles but are shot through with a colloquial wit which prevents them from disappearing too far into the esoteric.

I also read, from England Underwater – although managed to wear exactly the same blue flower print on my shirt as was printed the screen I was standing in front of – resulting in the odd spectacle of a disembodied head delivering the poems. I was losing my voice, but made it through to the end, trying out a new poem about meeting King Lear’s Fool – making me realise it needs more work. Funny poems go down well. Note to self – always end on a golden oldie rather than something new.

Vita Brevis by Maitreyabandhu

Maitreyabandhu’s collection is a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and deservedly so; it is full of delicate, visionary poetry – a tiny ship made from a fingernail of bark and the shell of a walnut; an encounter with a matronly giraffe at the zoo and a meditation on the suffering of animals in Mule – a beast tormented by the heat and flies. It also features a string of prose poems – surreal wanderings through imaginary kingdoms where ‘criss-cross avenues’ are ‘lined with lemon trees and pears’ and toys hover eerily above the ground. It’s a lyrical, magical masterpiece. With a Bloodaxe collection on the way too, as I said to him after the reading – his time is now.

Cool for Cats

To Pulham Market, on a full moon during the deep freeze, to catch up with Michael Bartlett and Dee Palmer, the irrepressible force behind the Crimson Cats empire. They dig out literary curiosities from the margins and footnotes of literature, summon the best actors they know (and they know lots from years with the BBC) and make beautiful recordings from them.

I’d been looking forward to our rendezvous-vous for some time; however halfway down the never ending and inauspiciously named A1066 on one bar of petrol and -6 showing on the dashboard, my enthusiasm was waning. Effort was rewarded with a warm welcome at The Crown Inn – which has recently celebrated its 600th birthday. (Beat that Mr Wetherspoon.)

Making leftfield choices such as Katherine Mansfield’s letters, Baden-Powell’s My Adventures as a Spy and Jane Austin’s juvenilia, infuses the Crimson Cat enterprise with a subversive energy guaranteeing something fresh every time.  As the owner of Jerome K. Jerome’s ramshackle memoirs and the Mansfield letters both from Crimson Cats, I can strongly recommend these.  

Perhaps the most astonishing thing on their catalogue is Private Rawson’s War – a recording based on letters sent home from a literary minded soldier serving in the Middle East during WWII. The cache of letters was discovered quite by chance and about to be thrown away when they came into Crimson Cats’ hands.

Finding Katherine Mansfield

The star addition to the catalogue are some recordings of the late Gerald Durrell, conservationist, zoologist and brother of Lawrence. Made by Michael in the 90s, he has since secured the rights and the extraordinary stories of the Overloaded Ark et al are now available to hear – and are as riveting as if he was sitting across the pub table.

Michael, Dee and I had a marvellously wide ranging discussion, revealing mutual admiration for Louis MacNeice’s The Dark Tower, the Radio Ballads and John Betjeman. Michael has an impressive amount of poetry lodged between his ears – and is a testament to the years when learning by heart was the thing to do. Make sure you look in on the excellent Poetry by Heart site – I think it’s meant for kids, but why not challenge yourself to memorise Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California; reciting it at a dinner party or better still, while wandering down the aisles in Sainsbury’s would be a knock out party trick.