Almost as soon as his feet had touched the floor when he joined the church we now attend, the Badger had instigated the Big Boys’ Breakfast – a quarterly gathering at a cheerful Greasy Spoon pub when the chaps ingest fried eggs and bacon and hear a speaker on some aspect of the Christian life.
I feel a vague sorrow that this is an all-male gathering, and have already snuck into one of the meetings to hear the speaker.
So the Badger suggested a feminine counterpart which might be called “Ladies that Lunch”. I really loved this idea – it had an elegant ring to it, immediately attractive, a kind of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree’s mother ambiance that felt like a Very Good Thing. Encouraged by my enthusiasm, the Badger began to float the idea over breakfast at our parish weekend away. “Good idea,” said one of our (female) church members on hearing his suggestion: “except in our case I think it should be ‘Ladies Wot Lunch’.”
Oh. I see. From the West End to the East End at one dismal stroke. I wouldn’t want to go.
This incident recalled to mind something that happened when I was minister of a Methodist church. I had been lamenting the evaporation of the custom of ladies wearing hats to church. I love hats. I think they add something stylish to an outfit and I thoroughly approve of them. In the days when one was not properly dressed going out without a hat, how marvellous to have the excuse of imperative – I simply must have a new hat! Not any more. And church was the last place where hats were de rigeur.
I can still wear a hat of course, and frequently do – but with a sense of faint embarrassment that feels akin to Teenage Rebellion – “I’ll wear one if I like, so ner!”
And at this Methodist church where, as minister, it fell to me to continually dream up cheerful and groovy Community Bonding Exercises, I suggested one spring that on Easter Sunday each lady might make the effort to wear a hat, as once everyone used to do; a new hat for Easter Sunday was the custom at one time. An Easter Bonnet.
How taken aback was I on Easter Sunday morning, when I emerged from the vestry into the pulpit to see that the ladies of the congregation had assumed I meant joke hats. There they sat in their garish tin foil and coloured paper clownish creations, their ‘Easter Bonnets’.
Oh. my. goodness. Er . . . well done ladies. Very nice. Well; they tried.
Likewise the time we bought tickets to hear the London Community Gospel Choir, thrilled by the selection of old favourites on the programme. Imagine our disappointment to discover we would be hearing the old favourite words – but all set to new tunes specially written for the occasion. Oh, right. Darn. Wish we’d stayed at home.
It seems nothing is enough unless it has a Clever New Twist, some tedious witticism to make it into a Lark. The music played twice as fast or the skirt designed with an assymetrical hem, or the Christmas earrings that light up and play a tune.
On one memorable occasion I ate out at a Chinese restaurant where one of the diners had ordered a crayfish dish. The unfortunate boiled crustacean was born in enthroned upon a pile of rice, its antennae sporting blue and green flashing lights. What? Your dinner?
I have not many possessions left, but one of my treasures is a pair of CDs recorded by the father of my children, two collections of Christmas music, one being piano and cello, the other piano and brass. Traditional Christmas carols, their loveliness, tenderness, mystery, magic, beauty simply allowed to emerge and be itself. No clever new twist, just the carols. We listen to it every year. Like the Nine Lessons and Carols service from Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, broadcast every year by the BBC, opening with the solo choirboy treble singing “Once In Royal David’s City” with, God be praised, no reggae setting or unexpected syncopation – just the beauty of the tradition.
Do I sound like a Grumpy Old Woman? You know what? I don’t care.
Long live the beautiful, the simple, the unadorned elegance, the unaffected grace of becoming custom, the Book of Common Prayer, the old spirituals, the lullabies we sang to our children, the dances round the maypole in the springtime, the soaring loveliness of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the quiet melodies of Lead Kindly Light and Abide With Me, ladies in skirts and ladies in hats, lunchtime concerts, Harris Tweed, fountain pens and handwritten letters, a cat snoozing by the embers of a real log fire, and afternoon tea at Betty’s café.
The Dalai Lama’s Blessing Incense, made of Tibetan herbs and the loveliest fragrance ever, comes with one of these little holders in the end of the packet because, unlike Indian joss sticks, Tibetan incense sticks are incense right through, not formed around wooden sticks, so they don’t fit into regular joss stick holders. This is the kind of semi-disposable item I have a tendency to hang onto. I finally applied to the situation the logic that if I had no incense sticks left I didn’t need the holder, and if I bought a new pack, well it would have a holder in anyway.
Two pretty hankies. I almost never use tissues, and have a stash of real cotton hankies for everyday purposes. I liked these ones a lot, and could have used them – but they went to someone I thought could use them even more.