A tip-trip triptych —Reflections on death, life and cardboard boxes

Even the man who worked at the tip could see that dumping box after box of books into the paper skip was wrong. ‘Would a charity shop not take them?’ he asked. A well-meant question, but these weren’t airport thrillers. There’s not much demand for mouldering commentaries on the books of the Bible, still less for painstaking accounts of the revival of religious communities in the Victorian Church of England.


With a house-move imminent, I had done my best to find a dignified afterlife for these unwanted books. As many clergy and seminarians as I could entice had picked over the carcass of the library, but an irreducible amount of printed matter still remained. ‘They’ll maybe do some good when they’re recycled,’ I hoped.

‘Probably be cardboard boxes,’ he said.

‘There you go then.’ I was satisfied. ‘You can do plenty of good with a cardboard box.’


And I should know. Our house was about to be filled with them and they in turn filled with all of our possessions, or ‘worldly goods’ as the Prayer Book perceptively calls them. For even the heaviest oak table or costliest antique is no more than an artefact to serve and please us during our limited time on earth, and to suffer who knows what after our demise: perishing in fire or crumbling to dust, and finally rotting in the earth to fertilise the food of future generations. Property is certainly not an end in itself. It means something only when its matter changes from form to form answering needs and giving joy everlastingly: not only swords into ploughshares, but ploughshares into pots and pans, pens, pins. The contribution made by my discarded books was not as it had been, but it nonetheless continued. Whereas once, perhaps, they had explained the place of the poor in holy scripture, now, perhaps, new boxes would carry food to the hungry. Their life was changed, not ended.



Moving to a new town or job is also a time for recycling all that we have been in the past, as we take our skills and dispositions and put them to service in an unfamiliar context. At a time when so many seem anxious about their place on the career ladder, this notion of recycling rather than ascent may be helpful. To reflect on past experience, identifying what excites or bores, satisfies or exasperates us; recognising too those capacities we have in abundance, and those which would challenge the wildest of horses to drag from within us. This is a wise process that should guide and motivate our decisions to move or remain.


I have been especially grateful to this sense of being recycled as for thirty years I have negotiated the twin roles of teacher and priest, in Britain and abroad, in monastery, cathedral, parish and school. And now I move from the brash and exciting complexity of a South London parish and Church of England comprehensive school to a highly competitive independent day school in Oxford with 900 very well-motivated pupils producing stratospherically impressive exam results year on year.


I do not feel that this is a promotion from being a Croydon vicar or a demotion from my previous role as a cathedral canon. And the fact that my superiors will all be lay people is by no means an affront to my ordination. I’m simply being recycled, allowing different qualities to be employed in a different way, as I pray the old Mirfield Fathers’ prayer that ‘my life may be hallowed, my way directed and my work made fruitful’.



These preparations for moving have been going on amid journeys to and from a hospital 200 miles away, where my mother is struggling with an inability to retain oxygen. We obviously pray that the situation will be corrected by time and medication, but she and we have had to face the fact that she may not be returned to health.


This is one of the unspoken functions of a hospital, to bring us inescapably face-to-face with our own vulnerability to disease and death. It is one of the reasons we wash our hands in antibacterial foam as we pass through doorways around the building. Of course, there are practical benefits from this, but we also apply the foam like a sort of magical protective against any secret danger that may be lurking to entrap us.


I think this is also a reason why hospitals tend to be quite noisy places, even during the night. Like our ancestors making an infernal din to drive out evil spirits, hospitals are full of the ‘rough music’ of activity: the exits and entrances of porters and cleaners; the loud questions to deaf patients, asking how they are doing today? And the interminable beeping of a thousand machines whose tones (even if they indicate illness) are preferable to the silence that would indicate the end.


This end need not frighten us, though we may have legitimate worries about how those left behind survive without us. The dying itself is not an end but another great recycling, just as when we are born into active life, so ceasing to be only the longed-for fruit of lovers. Whatever else religious believers will want to say about God’s provision for the departed, it is surely the case that in death we move from an active life to a life expressed and lived in the loving memory of family and friends. All that we have been and done will continue in the fond old tales of those who have known us, and in the lives of our children, if we have them. In them we hope for a better version of ourselves, as our essence is passed on genetically to all who follow. Life for us all will be changed not ended.


There is a wonderful scene in the film Scent of a Woman, in which a blind Al Pacino invites a beautiful English girl to learn how to tango. She is naturally alarmed at the prospect, fearful of embarrassing consequences. But the tango, he explains, is not at all like life. ‘There are no mistakes in the tango. … If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, you just tango on.’


This is the image to imitate. As things come to the end of their usefulness, or as we find ourselves in a sort of professional cul-de-sac, or as our lives near their end, we embrace these changes not thoughtlessly, ungratefully or callously; but determined to enter into a new phase of life in which we are set free, enabled to tango joyfully on.


The Beautiful Name – a short poem in long lines

By those who barely utter it, but mutter it head-bowed, in cope and veil of incense cloud, lifting their biretta’s brim.

By those who thunder it with fire, a Yes, Oh Yes of Molly Bloom desire.

By those who chant it day and night, hooded and habited, hovering on the neum’s ancient melody like a bird on the constant air.

By those who sing it sublimely through the centuries, or who strum it fresh in late-night fire-lit fellowship.

By those who barely know their meaning, but say it seeking safety, a ladder and a life raft.

By those who curse it, oath it, spit it out in the green phlegm of anger, treading coarsely on its gentle bloom.

By those who’ve long known it, but sheathed in a heavy brocade the fearful shining of its scalpel blade, that cuts and slices through sinning to demand a new beginning.

By those who grieve and hurt, hunger and die at the wayside of a world that will not care; who call it croakingly, empty and dry with despair.

By all kinds and in all places, this holy name of Jesus will be said, sung, whispered, shouted, honoured, worshipped, cursed and prayed all ways, all days, while earth spins round as humans’ home and harbour.

Thanking God for Godmother

I never knew my grandparents. My father was so much older than my mother that his parents had little chance of featuring even in my earliest life; and my mother’s mother died so young, followed immediately by her father, that they too were known to me only through the somewhat unreliable mechanism of family recollection.


And so surrogates naturally came to fill the abhorrent vacuum left by circumstance. There was, for example, a great-aunt of whom I saw a lot, but it fell chiefly to two of my godparents, an unmarried brother and sister in their mid-40s, to adore me in my childhood and assist in my growing up, especially after my father also died, when I was just eight, and my mother only thirty.


It was this overwhelmingly faithful pair who came to all my birthday parties, admiring me in my fine Andy Pandy suit, joining in the pass-the-parcel and ring-a-ring-o’-roses, and all of that sweet ritual. It was my godfather who, ready to burst with pride, took cine films of me as a cathedral chorister, walking in procession through the close at Durham, one of a long crocodile of boys timelessly robed in purple-tasselled mortar-board and long black cloak.


My godparents themselves were far from timeless, but belonged to the grainy years between the wars. Their names, Ronald and Marjorie (or Ronnie and Madge as they were always called) rooted them firmly in the technological, economic and social norms of a century ago. Their class and way of life were equally beyond negotiation.


The first and third children of a coal miner, they lived pretty much all their lives in the same council house in the grand-sounding village of Witton Gilbert, a few miles north of Durham city. Their middle brother was the one who got away, a full five miles to the next village, Langley Park, where he kept the petrol station and mended the wonderful old cars that smelt of leather and could be polished to a bright sheen. Later, in 1988, this village would provide half the name of an album by the pop group ‘Prefab Sprout’. But that, as they say, is another story.


Ronnie and Madge were pillars of the church (in a good way), and my father had asked Ron to be his churchwarden before I was born. It was therefore on Madge’s knee (when not my mother’s) that I sat to have stories whispered into my ear during services and it was to their house that I went each week for a Sunday breakfast of sausage sandwiches and toast and marmalade. It was here that I discovered the life-giving properties of fire. In all weathers, a huge coal fire would burn in their living room. But this was no mere ornament: it heated the water and was bordered by an oven and a selection of hobs. It was here that all the meals were prepared: thus the living room was called ‘the kitchen’, while the kitchen was ‘the back kitchen’. (The room for best was known, simply and mysteriously as ‘the room’.) It was in a tin bath in front of this kitchen fire that the family classically enjoyed a periodic soak, and it was on these same coals of fire that my bread, harpooned by an extendable trident, was perfectly and patiently toasted, ready for the slab of butter that would melt into the toast as it was kept warm for the young master (for so I was treated) on the glowing hearth.


It was principally through food that my relationship with Auntie Madge was formed. Although, as the girl of the family, it had been made clear, I think, that her role in life was to leave school early, to remain unmarried, and to look after the menfolk, she nonetheless had a part-time job as the cook at my village school, and so it was from her hands that I first received the staples of our national cuisine, the pies and puddings, the spotted dick, the jam-pink rice.


She was by nature a feeder, one of that generation of women who, after the privations of war, killed off the men Hitler’s bullets had missed, with a surfeit of huge and honest lardy meals delivered punctually and without complaint three times each day. As I grew older, and my mother worked nights at the hospital to help cover the school fees, it was Auntie Madge who stayed with me, preparing a second supper for my return from school at nine o’clock.


The morning was likewise a culinary and calorific assault course: leaving the house without having heard the sizzle of the frying pan was not encouraged. During the holidays the cupboard doors continued to swing open. As my mother slept, I would go to Auntie Madge for lunch, a not inconsiderable plateful, consumed while watching the staples of 1970s and ’80s ITV, Crossroads, Crown Court, Farmhouse Kitchen.


Finally, when I left for university having supposedly attained maturity and independence, her final act of love was to make a fruit cake (or ‘spice cake’, as she called it) which travelled with me and kept me going as, for the first day or two, I was too shy to leave my room and look for the refectory.


All of this was a long time ago. She would have been 98 a couple of weeks ago, and it must be nearly a decade since I sang her funeral mass. But those we have loved, responding to their love, never leave us irrevocably. Our senses are always on standby, receptive to any little sacramental reminders that restore the presence of the now absent. This is never more clearly the case than when we spend time with those who have also known and loved them. So, at my mother’s and stepfather’s now for a few days’ holiday, Auntie Madge is frequently brought to mind, perhaps by a slice of ‘spice’ or a ham and pease pudding sandwich (southern readers, please Google).


Words and phrases she might have used also kindle happy reminiscence. Her language only occasionally revealed vestiges of ‘pitmatic’, but this dialect of the miners was never embraced. Nothing was ever said, but I suspect it had been discouraged as something not quite reputable, not something for a clean-living, churchgoing, working-class Tory family to be mired in.


What her speech did have in abundance was a homely and rustic quality derived from the still entirely rural village, and from her occasional experiences as a young kitchen maid on the bigger farms. Work, for example, would resume after a lull with the admonition that lazing round ‘won’t get the bairn a new frock,’ while anything placed precariously on a high shelf was said to have ‘a sly look’, an almost Shakespearean observation. She also retained a few words and phrases that were unlikely throwbacks to the schoolroom. Telling a tale would often involve a deal of ‘surmising’, while I, if I grew boisterous, was told not to be so ‘rampageous’. It’s advice I rather wish I’d taken.


I’m not sure why I have troubled to write these things down. I suppose part of it is the desire that my words should be a tiny memorial to someone who had no children of her own, though she did have a number of great-nieces and -nephews whom she greatly loved. I think I write chiefly in consequence of my own growing older and becoming able to understand the fundamental thing about my godmother, which is that she loved to be at home, and was wrested from it only once, by World War II.


Up to now, I have always derived pleasure and a sense of achievement, even a sense of self, by travelling as often and as widely as possible. But now, in the impending excitement of a final new beginning, I want to understand myself as a descendant of the grandparents I never knew, and prepare a secure hearth and home for our children now, and for the grandchildren I long to meet. These words I set down in gratitude and hope. In the end, they are the only offering I can make.