Summer in the city

I was informed last night in a speech at the East London Mosque by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, that ‘this summer, the summer of 2017, has been the hottest summer the UK has seen since the summer of 1976, when [he] graduated secondary school.’ Whether or not this is absolutely true is the business of meteorologists and record-keepers; I can only attest to a pleasant, hot proper summer that has visited the southern UK over the last few weeks.

The week before my ordination to the priesthood in mid-June, I went to one of my favorite places THREE TIMES: the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond.


Although going to the seaside is lovely and I’ve been lucky enough to make it to Margate on a sunny day, I must confess that I really prefer wild swimming in fresh water. Having grown up in a place where opportunities for river- and lake- swimming were plentiful, I have never quite been happy with salt-water swimming. Hence my deep and abiding love for the ponds up at Hampstead, which are (a) within 90 minutes journey from my house by public transport, (b) include a trip to the Heath, (c) deliciously cool and unsalty. The ladies’ pond has the added advantage of being a strictly women-only space, and the relaxed attitude to clothing makes my inner nudist happy.

This summer is also my first full summer back in Bethnal Green, with windows perpetually open to the noise of east London: a school across the road, too-sensitive car alarms going off at all hours, foxes shagging in the churchyard, junkies arguing on my front step, the distant sound of stringed instruments from the Duke of Uke and the muffled chatter from people drinking outside the pub at the end of the road. I remember writing a poem whilst living in Cambridge about the annoyance of the road crossing beep noise on Jesus Lane going off at all hours…how spoiled I was in that quiet little corner of the fens!

I was up in the fens last week — in Ely — for a mini-residential for Stepney area clergy. I had meant to go to the cathedral for a pray and a look-round and to visit Toppings for some books (always more books!) but the retreat house where we were staying was working its magic and making me feel very sleepy indeed. I find that whenever I spend more than a day in a retreat house I start going into retreat mode — the first couple days of which are always dominated by catching up on sleep.

In summer it’s hard to make myself go to sleep early, because I still glory in living in a place with no (or few?) mosquitos where I can sit outside, put on some candles or fairy lights, and enjoy the warmth still radiating from the paving slabs in the garden ( / glorified parking space). I know that six months from now I’ll want to roll into bed at about 8.30 because of the dark evenings — but of course in autumn and winter the evenings are busier. City people seem to accomplish a kind of anti-hibernation, hustling and persevering in the cold months, only to disappear during the warm, to holiday destinations, if they can.

I’ve had my big holidays for the year already; January in Marrakech and April in Lisbon. The year has felt slightly front-loaded with travel because of it. It has been wonderfully indulgent to travel so much and to be a two-income couple, but the period of spending and settling in feels like it is ending. Max & I have married, we’re settled in to east London, I’m feeling more confident in my work in the parish and Max is taking the next steps in his own life and career. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and be reminded: this is real life — my real life — and that although there are always changes to be weathered, getting through training, ordination, and deployment is done. For the next two years (-ish) my job is just to be the best I can be as a curate in Bethnal Green, to keep figuring out what it means to be a good partner in marriage, to give myself space to enjoy this city, to learn, to be with friends, to be a neighbor.

I’ve always felt a little bit grumpy when Christians nick the passage in the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah about ‘seeking the welfare of the city’ in order to justify their community-developing efforts — not because I think Christians shouldn’t pour their time into developing their communities, to being neighbors, but because that passage is about a displaced people who have been carted off into exile by their enemies and are being held in captivity. The prophet’s instruction to ‘seek the city’s welfare’ is a hard saying indeed, to a people who are living in ‘the city’ as spoils of a conquest. Contemporary urban-dwelling Christians simply are not in the same place as the ancient Hebrews, no matter how much some may like to spiritualise the concept of exile/captivity in the present day.

However, the welfare — the well-being, we might say — of the city of London does desperately need seeking, by Christians, by atheists, by all people of faith and conscience. Just how I can best use my time and energy in this project is a project of exploration for me in the years to come.

This summer, and especially the recently-ended fasting period of Ramadan, has seen quite a lot of unrest: violent attacks by (those who claim to be) Muslims, and on Muslims, as well as the Grenfell tower fire. In some ways these disasters and tragedies have only served to bring together people who want to seek London’s well-being. London is tough and Londoners are tough in crises. But what the Blitz spirit / the stiff upper lip is giving way to, I hope, is something more multicultural and nuanced, and something which reaches beyond London.

Londoners, after all, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during last year’s referendum. The diversity of London, the sense of it being a European city, a global city, is strong at many (but not all) levels. I can’t help feeling that many who call London home would feel more in common culturally with Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago or Milan than they would with parts of rural Norfolk, leafy Berkshire, and so forth. Is this just what is meant by globalisation?


Speaking of Paris, I was watching a little bit of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset yesterday: the second in his excellent series of Before… films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I was happily surprised to realise that several of the streets that featured in this film, set in Paris in summer, were little back streets in Le Marais which I had walked down with Max as we started out our honeymoon this year, en route to Lisbon. ‘Look! I remember that gate, and that fountain, and that bookshop!’ ‘It looked even posher in April, though, didn’t it?’ The film came out in 2004 which seems a long time ago, but isn’t really.

London is a city which in my head is as much a city of cranes and perpetual construction as a city of fog and rain, pie and mash, an assortment of villages and mindsets. Thus I can make few comments about my city’s ‘timelessness’, or indeed the timelessness of Paris, whose back streets — at least a few — remained unchanged from 2004 to 2017. But I think there is something timeless, or at least enduring, about the experience of a hot summer in a city, especially a city that also knows freezing cold (New York and Berlin, I’m looking at you, too!) It’s the reason that so many songs are written about ‘summer in [whichever] city’, a small selection of which I leave you with, to ponder & enjoy.

Ah, the Lovin’ Spoonful. See also great covers of this by Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones and B. B. King.

Regina Spektor’s glorious, graphic anti-folk-jazz tune.

Robbie Stuart’s very 21st century pop with strings, autotune and sampled monologue.







a few miscellaneous thoughts on ‘Andrei Rublev’

As is my lot in life, I accidentally wandered into an awesome thing last night: the end of the Watersprite Film Festival here in Cambridge and its showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, beautiful, and inimitably rich film, Andrei Rublev. It was a good thing I had a companion with me because this is the sort of film you seriously need to debrief about for a long time afterwards.

In the last ten or fifteen years, there have been a swathe of films that have come to be known as ‘biopics’: for example, The Aviator, Frida, La vie en Rose, Walk the Line, The Imitation Game — even Erin Brockovich or A Beautiful Mind. Basing novels or films around the lives of famous people is nothing new. These biopics let their protagonists’ stories drive them almost elegiacally: ‘look what a shining genius this person was, through it all, despite their flaws’, these films often seem to say. The fact of the matter is people’s lives are fascinating and they have their own contained, if irregular, plotting and resolutions.

multiAndrei Rublev is not a biopic. For one thing, although Rublev is a main character, his life does not drive the plot. Rather, the historical, religious forces of which Rublev is a part serve as the film’s engine. It is set in Russia during the early 1400s: a brutal time, filled with war, plague, famine, and great conflict between Orthodox Christianity and pagan spirituality. Unlike, for example, the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, which introduces Griet (the Girl herself) as a window on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, this film uses Rublev as a window on Russia itself. This is entirely consistent with the iconographic tradition, which is very much about the icon-writer’s situated-ness within a theological, aesthetic tradition, rather than his/her artistic genius. It is also necessary for the time that Tarkovsky was making the film: the late 1960s. Russia, he says, has seen oppressive regimes before — so is twentieth-century Communism anything new? The film was censored for at least two decades in Russia, after all.

In this film, faith is a form of rebellion against the meaninglessness of violence, oppression, and cruelty; again, a message which would have hit a 1960s Russian audience (or its government) as dangerous or offensive. Andrei is tried multiply: by weather, war, temptation of various kinds, rivalry, artist’s block, and post-traumatic shock. He copes in different ways, but most by becoming more and more beaten, eventually taking a vow of silence. What finally frees him, gives him back his paintbrush and his voice, is owning up to his priestly, painterly, and pedagogic vocation to make things, teach things, and care for people.

This is a film with a significant number of main characters who are monks or otherwise devout orthodox Christians, so it was not surprising that so many long passages of scripture were quoted outright in the film. Scripture is sometimes a comfort, sometimes a challenge, sometime a clobbering presence in this film; always there is a sense that the use of scripture could go any of these ways at any time. Another Christian (and typically Russian) presence is the ‘holy fool’ character, ‘Durochka’. She – and other ‘foolish’ or ‘buffoon’ characters constantly undermine the somber piety of the monks, or of long passages of scripture, by their direct and bewildering (and often caustic) emotion.

At one point during the film, Andrei is gathering firewood and stumbles upon a village of pagan revellers, dancing nude in the moonlight. He is transfixed. When some of the villagers become convinced that he is there to stop their party, they tie him up in a hut, cruciform, with his hands outstretched on beams. A naked woman engages him in conversation about why his faith should forbid his taking part in the revelry, suggesting that love is a good thing to be celebrated, not forbidden. She kisses him and then lets him go. Later in the film, Andrei struggles with his fellow painter, Danila’s, desire to paint frescoes of The Last Judgment on the inside of a cathedral. He suggests that such a scene is too much, too real, too close to the horror of reality for most Russians who might worship in the cathedral. As the naked woman has asked, he asks, ‘What is wrong with love?’ What is wrong with depicting divine love?

The film goes back and forth, as does the whole of the Christian tradition, between emphasis on the transcendent love of God, and the absolute worst than humans do to one another (rape, murder, torture, etc). Andrei cannot decide where his art and his sin stop and start and where other people’s lives, sins, and attempts at beauty, begin. This is why the encounter with the naked woman is so foundational: in order to escape the cruciform shape of violence of his own religion, Andrei must trust this pagan woman, even as he fears what she is. It is this act, along with others in the film, that force Andrei’s focus beyond even the richness of his own orthodox iconographic tradition to find meaning and redemption.

I’m not completely sure of all the nuances of what Tarkovsky (the director) wants to say about Russia — certainly something about endurance being central to what it means to be Russian. There is an equine motif to the film which I think has something to do with this. At various points in the film, horses play, are injured or killed, gallop and frolic, and stand patiently in the rain. All of these actions directly echo or prefigure the journey of human characters in the film.  I need to watch it again (someday when I’ve got 3 and a half hours to spare) to pay closer attention, but this is my hypothesis for now.

The bell! The film is split into two halves, each of which has four distinct, titled episodes. The final episode is entitled ‘The Bell’ and is a sort of encapsulation of the whole of the film in a comparably short (!) 47-minute sequence about a young orphan who is tasked with casting a massive bronze bell for the Crown Prince. This is possibly the most accessible episode of the film and it is fitting that it comes almost at the end. The weight of Andrei’s silence is caught up with the bell’s silence — will it ring or not? Has the boy cast it properly? I found myself holding my breath, and thinking about how foreign to me the process of founding a bell is, and also how powerful and resonant. Much pondering is to come — its low sound rung in my ears long after I left the cinema.

All the reasons you should watch ‘Crimson Peak’

Are you a horror film fan? It doesn’t matter. You should probably go watch watch Crimson Peak. The film, after all, is both a ghost story with some classic suspense/horror/slasher elements and something else entirely. Here are a number of good (spoiler-filled) reasons why:

1. Those three little words every woman loves to hear: gothic horror romance. Do you like films where female protagonists trail around with perfectly pre-raphaelite hair holding candelabras in the middle of the night? I do. I like them even better when those heroines are accompanied by tiny dogs who warn them when the ghosties are getting close.

I was really worried the whole time that she was going to set her hair on fire.
I was really worried the whole time that she was going to set her hair on fire.

2. Do you like films whose directors (in this case, Guillermo del Toro) have said, ‘In this film, I tried to make every man useless’? I do. There’s a lot of debate around the interwebs about just how ‘feminist’ Crimson Peak is. I don’t think it’s beyond feminist critique, but it is sooooo much better than most films. To wit:

  • The real conflict in the film is between two women and it ends in a bloody, knock-down, drag-out, shovel-to-the-head brawl
  • The ghosts are almost exclusively women who — we find out — are working to help, warn, and defend the protagonist (Edith Sharpe née Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska)
  • Edith is an aspiring novelist (think: mash up between Jo March and Jane Eyre) whose role model is Mary Fucking Shelley. She prefers Shelley to Jane Austen because Shelley ‘died a widow’. (At the end of the film, notably, Edith is a widow and…not dead!)
  • At one point Love Interest Dude suggests that Edith close her eyes to dispel her anxiety about dancing in public. She responds, ‘I don’t want to close my eyes. I want to keep them open.’
  • Edith gets help from dudes, this is true: her father, her friends, even the ghost of her dead scumbag husband. But I think that actually the ‘Strong Female Character Who Needs Nothing and Nobody’ whilst a perfect acceptable trope, is probably not the only feminist protagonist out there. This film is part coming-of-age story, too: Edith learns when and where she can trustingly accept the help of others, or not.
  • Allerdale Hall (creepy haunted house) is in Exotic Cumberland and situated atop a hill of blood-red clay which is mined for bricks. It lends a bright red colour which is obviously supposed to remind the viewer of blood in a very unsubtle, Carrie-ish kind of way. When Edith starts getting her light-coloured garments stained in mud/blood, it’s always a sign that she’s growing up, learning something or figuring something out — basically, progressing as a character.

3. I suppose I should admit that Love Interest Dude is played by Tom Hiddleston, whose voice, figure and SMOULDERING LOOKS need no introduction if you are a living, breathing man-attracted human living in the West in the early 21st century. Other Love Interest Dude Stuck In Friendzone is played by Charlie Hunnam, who does a truly awful American accent and is far too blonde to be my thing, but maybe he’s yours, idk.

Not Quite Love Interest (aka Love Interest Dude’s Incestuous Sister) is played by Jessica Chastain, who is gorgeous and gets all the High Goth costumes.

Wear sunscreen.
Wear sunscreen, is all I’m saying.

4. The cinematography is lush. The colour palettes are exaggerated and wonderful, leading the viewer into familiar horror territory. Coupled with the intentionally archaic yet crystal-clear dialogue, it’s as if you’re watching an old black-and-white film from the mid 20th century which has been colour-ified.

There’s a hole in the roof p.s. it’s gonna up your heating bill

5. This film is like an adaptation of a novel-love-child of A. S. Byatt and China Miéville.

6. Here, you can print your own playing cards.

Only women are allowed candelabras, soz.

7. There’s a blizzard! Blizzards make Erin happy.

Blizzards and waistcoats.
Blizzards and waistcoats.

8. Edith is the only one who gets to wear a cape. Like a boss.


9. This film is, at times, unintentionally hilarious. The way in which it employs the ‘Hard-working American tells off slimy, lazy landed aristocrat Brit’ trope is completely OTT. Also, I couldn’t help but see a massive running joke about the awful state of some houses in Britain, particularly Victorian-era houses. Sinking into the ground? Check. Pipes that rattle and produce muddy water? Check. Reasonably friendly kitchen in which to forget the general dread of the rest of the house? Check. TEA EVERYWHERE which may or may not be poisonous? Check.

tea, letters, and the zoom-in of impending doom
tea, letters, and the zoom-in of impending doom

10. Look, there’s a bible verse above the hearth!

Psalm 121.1a, FYI
Psalm 121.1a, FYI

11. Nick Cave and PJ Harvey wrote a cover of song ‘Red Right Hand‘ for the film trailer. I am never quite sure how I feel about super contemporary-sounding trailer music for period film trailers, but I will let Nick Cave and PJ Harvey get away with pretty much anything.

If those 11 things haven’t convinced you to go see this film, I’m not sure what will. Just go see it. You won’t regret it, I promise.


The other day I told you how the Divinity Faculty Library was like the NYC Public Library in the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Turns out that film is actually happening back where I come from, namely, Michigan.

These photos were on the local (West Michigan) television station’s ‘Weather Photos’ section. I tend to spend a lot of time on websites like this in the winter when I’m missing snow quite badly.

Big lake snow cloud lake effect FUCKING TORNADOS.
Big inland sea, snowy clouds, lake effect, FUCKING TORNADOS.


Ho hum ho hum

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 12.22.24



(this is a screen shot from the film, not actually above Lake Michigan)
(this is a screen shot from the film, not actually above Lake Michigan)

Nature, am i right?