Venice in Edinburgh

In a scaffy corner in the east end of Edinburgh, down the cobbled, dirty-puddled close that is West Register Street, hides a secret treasure: a Venetian Gothic warehouse, built in 1864.

The architect was William Hamilton Beattie, twenty-two years old and still operating under his father’s firm’s name of George Beattie and Sons. He signed the building, there, look, above the first floor window.

The client was 48-year-old James Cowan (1816-1895), member of a successful family firm of papermakers. I think the portraits on either side of the entrance are of his father Alexander (1775-1859) – whose biography is here – and grandfather Charles (1735-1805).

The Cowans had built a great paper industry in Penicuik to the south of Edinburgh, a spin-off industry from Edinburgh’s literary flourishing. They provided the raw material for the Edinburgh Review, Waverley Novels, Blackwoods Magazine and all the rest. During the nineteenth century they prospered, and brought Penicuik with them.

They were also religious and high-minded: idealists who, like today’s social entrepreneurs, believed a business could be both profitable for its owners and beneficial for society in a whole range of ways. Alexander had been Presbyterian but James converted to Episcopalianism, perhaps thanks to enthusiasm for Walter Scott, with whom his father was connected; perhaps to enthusiasm for a Gothic aesthetic and the ethical and religious connections with which thinkers like John Ruskin infused it.

Ruskin had written The Stones of Venice ten years earlier, and the Paper Warehouse proclaims that Cowan and Beattie had devoured it. In this work, through a detailed examination of Venetian Gothic architecture, Ruskin argued that the stones themselves testified to a more just, more expressive, more creative society than nineteenth-century industrial Britain. The recreation of the cosmopolitan cusps and corbels of Venetian Gothic in an auld reekie close is a symbol of a dream of a better society.

Every ornament is different. Star, diamond, circle, cross; different species of plant above each first-floor window; a different composition of birds and reptiles above each of the ground-floor ones, where, as John Ruskin pointed out, the richest carving should go to be clearly seen, from the bird catching a snake to the ferns to the squirrel, a lonely mammal.

All the designs are based closely on observation of nature, all express the freedom and individuality of the artist. Above the main entrance, coloured stone adds polychromatic richness, like heraldry or oriental mosaics – somewhere in there, under the grime.

I discovered the building because of an insult. Cowan was Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time when the competition to build St Mary’s Cathedral was being run. The English Church Times was amongst Episcopalians in fits of indignation that city officials who were probably vulgar, provincial, tasteless, and Presbyterian were part of the committee choosing the architect. “The grocer’s term of Provostship expired, and his successor, a paper maker, was probably more amenable to reason. Mr Lascelles [Lessels, an Edinburgh architect whose design was inferior] was, happily, relegated to obscurity; and, by a sort of compromise […] Sir G. G. Scott, the safe architect of the present day, has been chosen”. The Church Times could sneer at George Gilbert Scott as much as they liked, but someone wrote in from Edinburgh to defend the papermaker: “The papermaker referred to is an Episcopalian, and member of a firm which has shown some taste and love for architecture in selecting the Venetian Gothic for his place of business”. (Church Times, December 1872).

Like all Cowan’s business, and like the Episcopal church at the time, it is a beautiful dream of a better society. Next time you are passing the east end of Edinburgh, step out of the crowds, away from the glossy shops, and into the dirty close, and catch the dream.

The young Beattie went on to develop his own style and to reshape Edinburgh: he built Jenners and the Balmoral.

Follow me on twitter @eleanormharris

Holy Trinity’s Hogmanay

The Choir of Holy Trinity form the setting for my novel, Ursula, but they don’t get much chance for action themselves, so I thought I would give them a short story of their own.

 

It had all been fine until the bells. It always goes wrong at the bells.

The Choir of Holy Trinity, or at any rate a quorum of six who deemed themselves the essence of that community, finding themselves still in Edinburgh at Hogmanay, and flat and weary after the excitements of Christmas singing, arranged to go into town in search of atmosphere. They all rocked up at their usual drinking den, The Half Mast, at about nine o’clock in expectation of being cheered.

‘Sophie!’ cried Penelope and Portia merrily. ‘Feels like it’s been ages!’ added Portia, whose drink was long and luminous red.

‘Longest week of the year,’ agreed Sophie. ‘What you guys been up to? No, hold that thought: I need a pint.’ She headed for the bar.

‘Hi,’ said her flatmate Dave, who had come in after Sophie like a shadow, and whose glasses had steamed up.

‘Where’s Tom?’ Penelope asked, when they came back with pints.

‘Gone off to spend quality time with his godmother,’ said Sophie. ‘Staying with Ursula’s cousin or something in Stonehaven. God, I need this!’ She sourced a beer mat with the hand not employed in tipping beer into her mouth, before putting the considerably-depleted pint down on it.

‘Oh here’s Matt,’ cried Portia. ‘Matt!’ She leaped up and gave him an embrace of greeting. ‘Merry Christmas! Muah!’

‘How come I never get that?’ said Richard to Penelope.

‘What, from me or from her?’ said Penelope.

‘Either!’

‘Well, from her, because I’d thump her.’

This reply pleased Richard sufficiently that he forgot to ask his girlfriend why he wasn’t ‘muah-ed’ by her, so he just gave her a squeeze and said across her, ‘Cheer up Soph, you’ve got that face on.’

‘She’s grumpy ’cause she won’t get a snog from Tom at the bells,’ said Dave. ‘She’s a godmother widow.’

‘No!’ Sophie disclaimed (probably disingenuously). ‘I’m just worried about this thing tomorrow.’

You’re worried?’ said Portia, sitting back down. ‘I have to play the organ on the radio — you’re only reading your thing — I assume you’ve written it?’

‘Yeah — they won’t know who you are though, and you’re just playing carols everyone likes. They’ll all be listening to me and saying “Who the fuck’s this plonker?”‘

‘I meant to do some practice this week but everyone else at work buggered off so I’ve been chained to the desk,’ said Portia. ‘Och well, as you say, they won’t know who I am. Drink, Pen, Richie?’ She bounded off to the bar.

‘I have a bad feeling about tomorrow,’ said Sophie. ‘How many of those awful red things has she had?’

‘That was only the first,’ said Richard.

‘But we have all been drinking wine and eating pizza since half past five,’ pointed out Penelope.

‘So is this New Year’s Day radio service all your fault?’ said Richard.

‘Kind of. Some BBC person rang up Peter on — whatever day it was that email came out — the day after Boxing Day — I’ve lost track.’

‘That was Monday’, said her flatmate Dave precisely. ‘I know because I went back to work on Wednesday, because we’d had Monday and Tuesday off as Bank Holiday, because of Christmas being on a Saturday.’

‘Useful to know,’ said Sophie sarcastically. ‘Anyway, Rev Pete rang up me, and said they wanted to do a morning service about hope for the planet for the New Year, and could we provide a choir and an environmentalist.’

‘Gift-wrapped,’ suggested Matt.

‘But then it turned out they were also supplying their own environmentalist who’s this guy called Roddy who’s head of Nature Scotland, so I’ve spent the whole week madly emailing him and Peter to agree what we’re all going to say.’

‘So what’s he like, this Roddy guy?’ asked Richard.

‘Ha!’ said Dave, with the knowing glee of one who’s heard the story.

‘Well,’ said Sophie. ‘I met him once at some environmental networking thing, and he said hello, how’d’you do, where are you from what d’you do, you know; and I said, I’m from the church, I run environmental initiatives with Holy Trinity Calton Hill, and he said, ah, the church: you’re that lot who think the floods in Somerset were caused by gay marriage.’

Everyone laughed. ‘He can’t have really thought that?’ said Penelope.

‘I dunno, I couldn’t tell,’ said Sophie. ‘He sounded serious.’

‘I bet he does,’ said Dave. ‘It’s what people think we think.’

‘So how did he get persuaded to do this gig?’ said Penelope.

Sophie shrugged. ‘Chance to get Nature Scotland on the radio. He’s not going to turn it down. He probably only got asked because the heads of Scottish Wildlife Trust, WWF and the RSPB are all getting drunk together in some castle in the Highlands.’

‘Are they?’ said Portia, wide eyed at the image.

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Sophie. ‘But that’s what all sensible people are doing, not scrambling around in Edinburgh with the great unwashed.’

‘Admit it, you’d be delighted to be in Edinburgh for Hogmanay if Tom was here,’ said Penelope.

Sophie scowled over the rim of her pint glass, not at the tease, but at the glance of promise which Penelope gave Richard as she finished the sentence.

Conversation moved on to gossiping about other members of the choir, and thence quickly, lubricated by another round of drinks, to singing Christmas carols. It is true that Matt sang the first phrase of Three Kings from Persian Lands afar only because it seemed the best response to the remark that Edith, George and Quentin had booked a holiday in January to Turkey, but when everyone else began singing the chorale underneath, it seemed a shame to stop, and they warmed to the performance. He grew quite operatic in verse two, and after he floated the final phrase, ‘offer thy heart,’ with the smallest of controlled vibrato into the air of the noisy pub, there was a little smattering of applause from the largely unseen people at tables around their alcove. They all burst into laughter. Richard cut into it by singing, ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out?’ in a tone of question, answered by a rousing, ‘On the feast of Stephen!’ and they sang the whole carol in rollicking pub style, stamping their feet and thumping the table. ‘Ding dong merrily’ followed in the same style.

‘Sing Twelve Days of Christmas? shouted a voice from the pub, so they all launched into that, Penelope and Sophie improvising descants, and laughing at Portia who was still forgetting all the words after ‘seven swans a swimming’ even three verses later. Then they sang the Scottish dance-carol, Ecce Novum Gaudium, and then Past Three O’Clock, although that fell apart quickly when no-one could remember the words to the verses.

‘There’s that one about the hinds’, said Matt doubtfully.

‘Cheese from the dairy, bring they a fairy,’ suggested Penelope.

‘And not for butter, money and Rutter,’ said Dave. ‘No, that can’t be right …’

‘It’s half eleven!’ said Matt suddenly.

‘Oh, come on, bells! Bells!’ cried Portia, leaping up and scrabbling for her coat.

‘Calm yourself, woman,’ said Richard.

‘It’s going to be freezing out there,’ said Sophie.

‘Oh for God’s sake, cheer up,’ said Dave. ‘You should have had more to drink.’

‘I’m in one of those moods where however much I drink, I don’t get drunk,’ said Sophie crossly.

‘Oh dear,’ said Dave.

They followed Portia and Penelope, jostling and giggling their way out of the door, into the sudden comparative silence of the traffic-less street.

Portia gasped. ‘Oh, it’s snowing!

‘Oh fuck it,’ said Penelope, who resented Nature its inconveniences. Sophie, in contrast, felt immediately calmed and cheered by this intervention of circumstances beyond her or any human control, as if an act of God.

They skipped and shuffled up the hill through the already-trampled two inches of snow. Portia grabbed Penelope’s gloved hand on one side, and Matt’s, which happened to be nearest, on the other, and led them threading through the crowds towards Princes Street, Richard, Dave and Sophie following in their wake. They found a spot with a view of the castle and a female DJ with the weariness of one who has been flannelling since 9pm broadcasting over a loudspeaker. She audibly cheered up as she realised she only had a minute to go, and a ripple went round the crowd.

‘Here we go!’ said the DJ. ‘Ten!’

The whole crowd, from one end of the city to the other, joined in. ‘Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!’

Sophie suddenly thrilled to the moment. A new year, all fresh and innocent out of the box. Maybe it will be all right after all.

‘Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!’

Edinburgh Castle went white as it stretched its first burst of fireworks like dragons’ wings. Sophie was captivated. The swirling snow filling the air was lit by red and blue spheres. Huge white explosions illuminated the great black rock of the Castle, picked out in snow like an old engraving: a sublime, unreal representation of volcano and blizzard. Snow was getting in her eyes.

‘Bugger me, look at that,’ said Dave between explosions, tugging her sleeve. Sophie startled and looked down, reluctant to tear her eyes away from the fireworks. It took her a while to recognise Portia and Matt, their faces hidden in each others’.

‘Oh,’ said Sophie. She felt sorry for Dave, whom she knew was partial to Portia. She felt even sorrier for herself, missing Tom their first New Year together.

‘Didn’t see that coming,’ said Dave.

No, me neither,’ said Sophie. ‘Well, not before tonight. Portia suddenly seemed to be on a mission.’

‘Oh well — why not bless ’em,’ said Dave. ‘Happy New Year, Soph.’ They embraced, and kissed, as you do at New Year, but forgot to stop. Dave’s mouth was warm, and opened, and Dave’s tongue was alive, and intimate, the only living, intimate, warm thing in that cold, old, unreal engraving of a historic city.

They jumped apart and Sophie looked around. Portia and Matt were still entwined, like amorous slugs. Penelope and Richard had vanished. No-one had seen.

‘Sorry,’ said Dave.

‘No, my fault,’ said Sophie, like polite strangers who had jostled in a library cafe.

‘Time to head?’ said Dave.

‘Yeah,’ said Sophie. ‘Early start.’

Everyone was freezing, and Princes Street was emptying fast. The snow fell.

* * *

‘I set off at six,’ George was saying.

‘Have you walked all the way from Colinton?’ asked Edith. George signified assent with a slight, triumphant smile. ‘Puts us to shame, doesn’t it?’ Edith said to Violet. ‘That must be, what, four miles at least?’

‘Oh more than that — five or six,’ said Quentin.

‘I confess walking from Bruntsfield was quite epic enough for me these days,’ said Violet, who, however, was dressed like an advertisement for ‘countrywear’ and whose walk across town through a foot of snow had left her looking glowing and energised.

‘It’s strange how quiet the city goes, isn’t it?’ said Ben. ‘I came over Arthur’s seat and a great golden dawn was breaking all over East Lothian. It was spectacular. You must have seen it?’ he added to George.

‘Yes, just as I came down the Mound,’ said George. ‘Crackin’, wasn’t it?’

‘Like an egg! You must have set off in pitch darkness,’ said Ben.

‘Well, except that the snow was reflecting the street lights so the whole place was bright,’ said George. ‘It was as quiet as quiet, though. I didn’t see a soul all the way here, actually.’

‘No, nor did I,’ said Edith.

‘I saw one person walking their dog on the Meadows,’ said Violet.

Sophie had stumbled in during this conversation, having discovered her wellies had sprung a leak and, having lost her good hat, wearing an absurd bobble hat with her faded mountaineering coat. Under the absurd hat she had an absurd hangover. The shame of the horrible orange bobble stood proxy for the shame of the knowledge of having kissed Dave, which she could hardly believe was less glaringly evident, although of course nobody knew about it. Dave was taking off his coat and chatting to Quentin with what seemed to Sophie to be unseemly nonchalance. She hated them all, with their smug wax jackets and experiences of sunrises and clear heads and consciences.

‘Ah, Sophie,’ said Peter, dog-collared and official-looking. ‘I’m glad you’re here. Have you met Roddy?’ He presented a tall, thin man with spectacles and a little beard, and a woolly brown jumper with a zip at the collar. Sophie remembered he looked like a meerkat.

‘Oh yes, we’ve met,’ said Sophie superciliously. ‘At the Scottish Green Cities Forum?’

‘Oh — yes,’ said the meerkat, who evidently forgotten it. ‘I think we’ve put a good script together.’

‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it,’ said Sophie, wishing she were still in bed.

‘Where is everybody?’ said Matteo the choirmaster was saying crossly. ‘It’s quarter past eight.’

‘Here’s Penelope and Richard,’ said Dave.

‘So sorry!’ panted Penelope. ‘We’ve just been haring it up Leith Walk. Gosh that snow’s deep.’

‘I don’t suppose you know what’s happened to Portia?’ Matteo asked her.

‘No — what’s happened to Portia?’

‘I don’t know! I was hoping you would. I just work here, nobody tells me anything.’

‘She was out with us last night. Give her a ring.

‘I’ve tried. Her phone’s off.’

‘She’ll be struggling through the snow. I’m sure she’ll turn up. What time are we on? Nine?

‘Yes. And Matt’s not here either. Sorry, Ben.’ Ben was the only other tenor, and not a confident singer.

‘I’m sure they’ll appear,’ said Dave, giving a conspiratorial glance at Sophie. Sophie didn’t want to be involved in any conspiracies with Dave, even ones that only involved third parties’ kisses.

‘Right we may as well have a run-through,’ said Matteo, beginning to dole out little stapled sheaves of photocopies. ‘Everything you need is in this.’

Oh Holy Night?’ said Penelope with incredulous scorn, opening the bundle at random.

‘You’re here to sing it, not to comment on it,’ said Matteo impatiently. ‘Here, have one too — feel free to join in the carols.’ He gave a sheaf to Roddy.

‘Oh — thank you — I don’t know much about –‘ stuttered Roddy inarticulately — as if he had been asked to participate in a Satanic ritual, thought Sophie.

‘This is Roddy, our environmentalist,’ said Matteo, gesturing in a welcoming manner. The meerkat nodded nervously.

‘Hi Roddy,’ said Penelope across the choir, in an awkward one-woman attempt at a chorus of welcome. Everyone else just stared at him.

‘How’d’you do, I’m Ben,’ said Ben, who happened to be standing next to him, and put out his hand to shake.

‘How’d’you do,’ said Roddy, looking tense.

‘And this is Kylie, our Producer,’ said Matteo, gesturing further away to a smiley lady ensconced like a queen wasp amongst the nest of coloured cables and button-spangled steel boxes which had encrusted the area around the pulpit.

‘Hello, everyone,’ called Kylie, who shared with Matteo the task of making this reluctant, hungover, sleepy rabble a conduit of festive cheer to the Nation at 9am on New Year’s Day.

‘Hello Kylie!’ responded a far more respectable chorus of choristers smiling back at her.

Sophie thought, now the meerkat thinks we are rude and posh as well as religious weirdos. She hated him for the prejudices she had projected on to him.

‘Do you want to run through what’s going to happen?’ Matteo asked Kylie.

‘Yes,’ said the queen wasp, deftly stepping forward out of her nest of wires while consulting her own, much thicker, sheaf of pages. She explained to the choir how the service would work, how Peter would begin it from outside, and how Roddy and Sophie would come forward to the microphone to read their spoken sections. ‘Now — do you want to have a sing through some things?’ she asked, batting their shared authority back to Matteo. The choir looked back at him like spectators at a tennis match.

‘Yes, we better had. Where the hell is Portia? I’ll have to play. We’ll start with the first one, Hark the Herald.’ The last sentence was spoken while hurrying towards the organ-loft door, and full-stopped with a bang.

‘Oh God, not Hark the Herald,’ said Quentin, voicing the thoughts of a choir who had sung it at least six times in the past month, and believed they had seen the last of it on Christmas morning.

There was a moment of tense silence, broken by the sound of Matteo’s feet hurrying up the wooden organ-loft staircase. He reappeared in sight, facing away from them, his curly hair flying about as he added a few extra loud stops to the piston setting. ‘My descant, not Willcocks’, he called, and started to play. The choir sang. ‘Skip to verse three!’ he shouted at the end of verse one, and Sophie and Penelope gave each other a slight cross-eyed glance of resignation. A descant with a hangover without having had time to warm up.

‘We sound awful,’ said Richard unconstructively at the end.

‘Dave, you’d better sing tenor with Ben,’ called Matteo.

‘Oh what?‘ said Dave, running his hands through his hair.

Sophie remembered the warmth of his tongue, and thought of Tom, and hated herself.

‘Matt’ll turn up,’ said Richard, confidently.

‘Sorry I’m so useless,’ said Ben.

‘Right, next one, O Holy Night‘, called Matteo. ‘Damn it, Matt was supposed to be singing the first verse of this as well. OK, we’ll have full men, please, unless he arrives.’

He started to play. The men, who had previously only sung the harmony part in verse two, hesitantly sang in dubious unison.

Matteo stopped before verse two.

‘It’s not the most obvious tune, is it?’ said George.

‘How long have we got?’ Matteo called to Kylie.

‘Oh, you can have five minutes yet,’ called the ever-cheerful queen of the wires.

‘Just do that again’, said Matteo, trying to sound as if everything was under control. The men read the tune again, eliminating eighty percent of the mistakes they made first time round, and they made it to the end.

‘Right, quickly, While Shepherds Watched, just the first and last verse,’ called Matteo. Everyone’s voices had warmed up a bit by now, and, with the hungover Dave adding some audible tenor, it didn’t sound too bad. The expression of strangled agony on his face wouldn’t be visible on the radio.

‘You sound great, guys,’ said smiley Kylie, coming forward again as they finished, clutching her photocopies and a pen.

‘We’re singing all the verses in the service, right?’ interrupted George.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Matteo, in the tone of one answering a stupid question.

Kylie, who had stopped with pen poised and smile fixed on her face, unfroze and continued talking. An engineer emerged, troll-like, from the shadows and moved microphones around slightly. Nobody introduced him, but Kylie said, ‘Thanks Jim.’

Kylie gave a few more instructions and Roddy and Sophie read parts of their script so Jim could check the balance. In the organ loft, Matteo was still trying to phone Portia. At three minutes to nine they still hadn’t appeared. ‘Looks like we’re not going to have a conductor. You’ll have to watch my head,’ said Matteo irritably. ‘Just do try remember diction is especially important on the radio. And do try to get the consonants together at ends of lines. I won’t be able to indicate anything, just put them where they’re supposed to be. And please turn the pages quietly.’

Dave clownishly flapped his photocopies noisily. Penelope tittered.

‘OK guys,’ called Kylie, wearing headphones. Everyone snapped into order. ‘Peter, can you hear me?’ She listened, head cocked, for the response from Peter outside, heard only through her headphones. ‘Good — ready? … Right, any minute now … OK — off you go.’

There was tense silence in the church: no-one was sure whether they were on-air or not. They stood poised, clutching Hark the Herald.

‘Jim, can we feed Peter through to here so we can hear him?’ said Kylie. Peter’s disembodied voice suddenly filled the church, mid-sentence, full of good cheer.

‘… Year to you all!’

‘Thanks,’ said Kylie to the invisible Jim.

‘I’m standing on Calton Hill, overlooking the centre of Edinburgh’, went on Peter. ‘After last night’s heavy snow, the city is white and beautiful …’ Kylie pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows in approval: Peter had re-written his introduction to take account of the snow. Sophie, who had a full script, showed it to Penelope next to her. He was supposed to be talking about the busy city waking up, with the sound of buses and traffic in the background, but, because of the snow, there was no sound of traffic. ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ said Peter, getting himself back on-script. Suddenly there was the sound of feet running through snow and loud panting. ‘… on our place in the world, in the order of nature, at time of dire danger and grave responsibility…’ Peter’s voice inappropriately brightened up as he began to speak of the environmental crisis and the recent climate summit in Lima, and the explanation came a moment later as the church door gave a double creak-clunk, once from the outside over the loudspeakers and once in reality on the inside, and Portia and Matt, red-faced and dripping with perspiration, ran into the church. Matteo said not a word, but slipped out of the organ loft as Portia burst in. Matt tried to control his breathing as he looked through the photocopied sheet Ben handed him with a scowl. Everyone glared at the delinquents, except Dave, who looked gratefully relieved at being able to sing bass again.

Jim silenced the end of Peter’s broadcast so as not to interfere with the beginning of the carol in the church, and Matteo glued his eyes to Kylie, who had her head and pen cocked beneath her headphones. She indicated with her pen and eyebrows. Matteo pointed at Portia. Portia began the introduction to Hark the Herald, and they were off.

* * *

‘That was great guys,’ said Kylie, taking off her headphones and stepping out of her wires. ‘I’ll just go and rescue Reverend Peter, he’s been banished to the hall.’ She headed off.

‘Well, that could have been worse,’ said Richard philosophically.

Much worse,’ said Matteo. ‘Thanks guys.’

‘You looked very funny doing your O Holy Night thing,’ said Penelope to him, imitating the way Matteo had conveyed in pantomime that Matt was to sing the first verse solo after all.

‘I was so relieved we didn’t have to sing that,’ said Quentin. ‘What a peculiar tune.’

‘I’m amazed you didn’t know it,’ put in Roddy the environmentalist. ‘It’s the only one I did know.

‘Our confidence is all a front,’ said Richard. ‘We’re actually pretty ignorant.’

‘Once we were singing carols in the Balmoral and a child requested Rudolph the red-nose reindeer‘ said Penelope. ‘We made such a hash of it. We could never decide whether the tune went up or down, and no-one except Dave could remember the words.’

‘Because I’m a legend,’ said Dave ironically, in a hollow Marvin voice. His hangover had kicked in properly and his head hurt.

Kylie came back followed by Peter the vicar, and Ben’s boyfriend Frank.

‘Frank!’ cried Penelope.

‘Happy New Year everyone,’ said Frank. ‘I heard you on the radio in the hall — you sounded fab!’

‘Well, we got through it anyway,’ said Richard, voicing the feeling of the choir.

‘It’s nice and warm in there — and Peter’s got the kettle on,’ said Kylie, as they Happy-New-Yeared Frank.

‘Tea anyone?’ affirmed Peter.

‘Oh I could kill for a cup of tea,’ said Ben. ‘Come on Rod.’

‘I could kill for a bacon roll,’ said Dave.

‘You know what I could kill for,’ said Matteo. ‘An Aberdeen buttery roll.’

‘Oooooh, a buttery!’ said Sophie. ‘I wish you hadn’t made me think of that.’

‘I don’t know what one of those is,’ said Portia.

‘Amazing things you only get in Aberdeen,’ said Sophie.

‘I know where you can get them,’ said Roddy unexpectedly. ‘There’s a wee bakery at the top of Leith Walk.

‘No — is there?’ said Matteo, his eyes widening. ‘How did I never know about this?’

‘Let’s go and get some,’ said Ben putting his coat on. ‘Come on Frank. Where is it?’

Armed with the meerkat’s instructions, Frank and Ben headed out into the snow on a breakfast raid. By the time they returned, the second pot of tea was being brewed.

Ben proffered the bag of butteries to Roddy, saying, ‘You first — that was a good tip!’

‘Thanks,’ said Roddy, adding to Portia, ‘Try one.’

Portia gingerly took out one of the contents of the greasy-looking bag. ‘It looks like a squashed croissant,’ she said. Then, with her mouth full, ‘Oh, wow!’

‘I’d just like to remind everyone this was my idea,’ said Matteo, diving in to the bag.

‘You didn’t know where to get them though,’ said Sophie, following suit and looking with gratitude at Roddy, who had suddenly developed hero status.

‘It’s like … the best hangover cure ever,’ said Portia. ‘It’s so … buttery.‘ everyone laughed at her ineloquence.

‘And salty,’ added Sophie, taking a more scientific approach to its therapeutic properties.

‘I’ve got bacon rolls, too,’ said Frank, holding up a much bigger bag.

‘Oh, good man,’ said Dave, hastening thither.

‘Here, Roddy, have a cup of tea,’ said Peter, handing one into his free hand handle-first. ‘Well done in the service.’

‘Well done all three of you,’ said George, looking at Sophie, Peter and Roddy. ‘It was very well put-together. I wish I’d come to your Light for Lima vigil now.’

‘Ah!’ said Sophie significantly, meaning, ‘let that be a lesson to you’. ‘Still, there’s still time to fast for the climate. Peter’s doing it.’

‘Hang on, didn’t you say you were supposed to fast on the first day of the month?’ said Richard, looking at the second half-eaten buttery Sophie was holding. The guilt of the hypocritical environmentalist washed over Sophie.

‘We’re launching it at Holy Trinity next month,’ said Peter, coming to her rescue. ‘Sophie’s just said so on the radio.’

‘I’m not sure about it,’ said Dave. ‘It looks a bit — like you think you’re going to solve climate change by praying rather than actually by doing stuff.’

‘If you’d listened to what I was saying in the service,’ said Sophie, ‘you’d know it was about solidarity. And it’s being done all round the world by people of all faiths and none.’

‘Hm,’ said Dave, his mouth full of bacon roll. ‘My main concern in the service was staying upright.’

‘What was everyone doing last night?’ said Matteo. ‘You all look like death warmed up.’

The reprobates exchanged guilty glances, except Penelope who said, ‘We all went out for the bells. It was great — bloody freezing though.’

‘Typical Pen,’ said Sophie. ‘You lead everyone astray by trying to get them to keep pace with you, then turn up on time and looking absolutely fine. I don’t know how you do it.’

‘I was steaming,’ admitted Dave. Sophie began to wonder whether he actually remembered the disaster. She hoped not.

‘Very unprofessional. And why were you so late?’ said Matteo to Portia. ‘And you,’ he added to Matt.

‘My alarm didn’t go off,’ said Portia, trying to look brazen like Penelope, and only half-succeeding.

‘No, nor did mine,’ said Matt, looking thoroughly sheepish.

Violet, Edith and George came over, saving them from further interrogation.

‘Well, that’s the year launched,’ said Violet.

‘Shame we didn’t get any decent music to sing,’ said Penelope.

‘You can choose it next time,’ said Matteo crossly. ‘And get more than eleven singers to turn up, on time.’

‘Never mind. Only a week till Epiphany carols,’ said Violet. ‘What are we singing, Maestro?’

‘Er, Bethlehem Down …’ began Matteo.

‘Oh, lovely, my favourite!’ said Edith.

‘And the Leighton. You’re doing the solo by the way,’ Matteo said to Sophie.

‘Lully, lulla!’ croaked Sophie, more witchily than seraphically.

‘Not a drop of alcohol before then,’ said Marcus.

‘What else?’ said Penelope eagerly.

‘Oh — Good King WenceslasThree Wee KingsI Saw Three Ships — anything with the word Kings or the number three you know.’

Roddy laughed. ‘Three Wee Kings?’

‘We three,’ elucidated Ben. ‘Tedious old choir joke.’

‘Then what’s the next excitement after Epiphany?’ pressed Penelope. ‘We need things to look forward to at this time of year.’

‘Well, there’s the wedding of the century,’ said Ben.

‘Oh, who’s getting married?’ asked Roddy politely.

‘Me and Ben,’ said Frank. Sophie almost laughed out loud at the look of shock on Roddy’s face.

‘Instead of bridesmaids we’ll have all the clergy of the diocese in procession pink fluffy stoles,’ said Frank, ‘Coing all along Princes Street and up Calton Hill. It’ll be like that painting of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, only with more people.’

‘I think you’ll find it’s against canon law to wear fluffy pink stoles in procession,’ said Peter doubtfully.

‘Isn’t it against canon law to marry us at all?’ said Ben.

‘I’m working on it,’ said Peter, slightly grimly. ‘The institutions of our esteemed religion are not always quite up to speed with the rest of society,’ he explained to Roddy. ‘But,’ he added to Frank, ‘when I officiate at your wedding, I shall wear a pink fluffy stole.’

Everyone laughed at the unlikely vision.

‘Right,’ said George, ‘Fortified by my bacon roll I think it’s time to begin the long march back to Colinton. I may be some time.’

‘Farewell Captain Oates,’ said Richard.

‘See you at Epiphany Carols, I hope,’ said Matteo.

‘You have more carols?’ said Roddy.

‘Epiphany’s the last, thank God,’ said Penelope. ‘And not for a week.’

Hobbit‘s on telly at eleven,’ said Dave, who was consulting his phone.

‘Rest of the day: sorted,’ said Peter.

* * *

It was dark already by the time Sophie and Dave listened to the broadcast on iPlayer. They’d both fallen asleep near the end of the Hobbit, then Tom had phoned. He said he and Ursula had been listening and it had sounded great.

‘You should have seen what it was like in real life,’ said Sophie. ‘Remember that farce about the theatre, Noises Off? It was like that.’

‘Did everyone get stuck in the snow?’

‘Oh, everyone: we all had to walk.’

‘Really? Wow. What, Violet and everyone?’

‘George walked from Colinton.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘And we all went out for the bells last night, and Portia got us all pished.’

‘All entirely her fault, I’m sure,’ said Tom wryly.

‘I wasn’t as bad as some,’ said Sophie, glaring at Dave.

‘Sore heads all round?’

‘And, Matt and Portia nearly didn’t make it. Did you hear people running in the background and the door banging, in Peter’s introduction?’

‘No? I was listening to what he was saying.’

‘Listen to it again. That’s them running in!’

‘Really? What — as, in, running in together?

‘Yes! Exactly!’

‘Together together?’

‘Yes! They succumbed to the bells!’ Sophie stole a glance at Dave, but he was fiddling with his phone. She decided he must have been sufficiently drunk to have forgotten.

‘Haha! That’s funny,’ said Tom. ‘I hope it doesn’t cause angst next year — this year. Do you think it’ll last?’

‘I don’t know — I think Portia’s been angling for it, for a while. Ever since Penelope landed Richard at the choir retreat.’

‘Ha — anything Penelope can do, Portia can do better. We’re all getting old and coupling up, Soph. There won’t be wild parties like there used to be in our gay bachelor days.’

* * *

And now Dave and Sophie were drinking mugs of tea listening to the broadcast, agreeing it didn’t sound nearly as bad as they expected.

‘Hope I never meet that ruddy Roddy again,’ said Sophie.

‘I thought he was all right,’ said Dave. ‘Bit quiet. Overwhelmed probably. I’d be a bit quiet if I was thrown into the middle of us lot.’

‘There’s Quentin!’ they both chorused at one point when his distinctive voice stuck out.

‘Portia fluffed that bit,’ said Dave as the organ played a curious inharmonious pedal.

‘I’m astonished she managed to play it at all,’ said Sophie.

‘It is pretty good, considering there were only eleven of us.’

‘Let’s listen to the bit where Matt and Portia run in again.’

Dave spooled the iPlayer back, and found Peter’s voice saying, ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ followed by the sound of two pairs of boots scrunching on snow, audible panting, and the door banging. They both laughed.

‘Who’s sending me emails on New Year’s Day?’ said Dave. ‘Oh — it’s to the choir from Peter.’

‘Oh, what’s he say?’ said Sophie.

Thank you for your efforts bla bla epic journeys bla … I thought you’d be interested to read this email I have just received from ruddy Roddy.

‘He doesn’t say that?’

‘No, he just says Roddy.’

‘What does ruddy Roddy say?’ said Sophie, beyond intrigued.

Dear Peter, many thanks for the opportunity to join Holy Trinity in their New Year morning service …

‘As if we’d have been doing it if it wasn’t on the radio!’

… I hadn’t had the best start to the day as my boiler had broken down the night before …

‘Bloody hell — no boiler this morning, can you imagine?’ Sophie shivered at the thought.

… so I hope I didn’t seem too grumpy! I must say, though, that I was completely cheered up and quite inspired by you and the choir. I’m not used to churches, but the choir were so friendly and welcoming I confess it changed all my expectations…’

‘Awww,’ said Sophie.

‘I bet he didn’t expect Ben and Frank,’ said Dave.

No one expects Ben and Frank!‘ said Sophie, with Pythonesque emphasis.

‘I mean, after his thing about gay marriage causing climate change.’

‘Oh yeah — they must have been a bit of an eye opener for him. Peter in a pink feather stole. Ha!’

‘Do you want to hear the rest of his email? You’ll like this bit.’

‘Go on?’

‘I didn’t know about the Fast for the Climate initiative but I was very impressed by the idea of a global movement of solidarity. I’m thinking of taking part myself, and will see if I can get Nature Scotland officially involved. I’ll contact Sophie in the next few days about whether we might be involved in the launch in February.’

‘Gosh,’ said Sophie.

‘There, thought you’d like that,’ said Dave. And what do we learn from this, Miss Strang?’

‘I dunno — what do we learn?’

‘Don’t go pre-judging people. Judge not, that ye be not judged.’

‘Ah — fuck off Jesus,’ said Sophie, and bombarded him with the screwed-up foil from a chocolate Santa.

* * *

Ursula is available as a Kindle novel for £2.58: search Ursula on Kindle or follow this link. All profits from its sale raise funds for my own eco-project, the refurbishment of a field centre in the Angus Glens, which you can read about here. Penelope would hate it. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and happy New Year! Eleanor @eleanormharris.

Guest Post: Esther, in Advent

On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.

A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.

I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?

Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:

The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.

Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.

And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.

Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.

This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!

During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.

It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.

But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.

When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.

We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:

This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.

We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.

But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.

From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.

But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.

Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?

This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?

And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.

There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.

I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.

When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:

  • Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
  • Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
  • Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
  • Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
  • Fear of celebrating our identity.

Fear is a powerful foe.

We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.

We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.

Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!

In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.

All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.

 

Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.

You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at fastfortheclimate.org

Sarah Boyack’s 100 ideas

I’ve just been reading Sarah Boyack’s ‘100 ideas for a new Scotland’, the culmination of her leadership campaign.

There are three threads which run through all these ideas:

  • a commitment to compassionate social justice – the political ideology which makes them as ‘Labour’
  • a commitment to evidence-based policy-making
  • a commitment to listening, subsidiarity and internal devolution

They are all, moreover, formed within Sarah Boyack’s oft-restated framework of social, economic and environmental justice, a ‘Borromean knot’ in which all the elements are equally important and interdependent (if you take one out, the other two fall apart)

Social, economic and environmental justice within a framework of compassionate, evidence-based, devolutionary policy-making is more than merely a vote-winning manifesto. It is a manifesto with the potential to transform politics.

Sarah Boyack is an exciting politician because she does not stand for the old Marxist ideas of mid-twentieth century Labour Party, nor the old Blairite ideas of the late-twentieth century Labour Party. This is creative, relevant, twenty-first century politics. I’m not the first person to say she is the most serious Labour thinker around.

I was born in 1978, in the uncomfortable crack between Generations X and Y, and have grown up amongst contemporaries disillusioned by the irrelevance of political debate. I am a prime example: despite being a historian of political culture and an environmentalist, I never got involved in politics until this year.

This is the vote that a politician like Sarah Boyack could win: not scraping support from other parties, but engaging new alienated and young voters. We are longing politicians and manifestos which ring true, which are about building a better society, which are full of honest, informed, relevant content. We don’t want point-scoring; we don’t care about media image; we couldn’t care less about ‘historic’ loyalties or ideologies; and above all we are sickened by the cynical politics of ‘othering’ which is raising its miserable head all over Britain and on all sides of the spectrum.

Whoever wins the Scottish Labour leadership elections this week, I hope Sarah Boyack’s 100 ideas and extensive elaboration of them on her blog and elsewhere will form a serious contribution to Scottish Labour’s manifesto, as well as influencing British Labour policy. She is, after all, a collaborative and not a confrontational politician with long experience, and should hold a senior position in any coalition or majority Holyrood government of which Labour is a part.

So I commend her 100 ideas document to you, whatever party you support. It’s far more than a ‘to-do’ list: it is a discussion-starter, an example of an approach politicians across the spectrum might adopt. It’s far more than a leadership-contest gimmick: it’s a phoenix in a political landscape with too many dinosaurs.

You can read Sarah’s 100 ideas for a new Scotland here.

@eleanormharris