Sunday, 30 June 2013

Having Fun

Having Fun in an Albanian
tourist trap
Someone who comes to Mass regularly in the Valle Adurni has just been on holiday. She decided to go to Albania. Well why not, I suppose? She is now eagerly anticipating her next dose of sun, sea and sangria—she's off in a few weeks to, er, North Korea! I asked her what she liked to do for relaxation at home—slam her fingers in car doors?

Anyway, inspired by her exotic choice of holiday location, I am spending a few days with a friend in the ancient Kingdom of Bernicia. Where? you ask. Possibly a little-known former Balkan state or part of the old Soviet Empire? Well no, really. It's the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. In the seventh century, the northern Angle kingdom of Bernicia was united to the more southerly kingdom of Deira (basically, the Yorkshires) to form the kingdom of Northumbria. Deira gave St Gregory the Great the opportunity to make his other (less known) joke about the slave boys in the Roman market. Hearing that they were from Deira, he said that he would save them de ira (from anger). Yes, hilarious, isn't it? though not quite as good as his one about non Angli sed angeli, (immortally translated by Sellar and Yeatman as 'not angels but Anglicans'). Well, they couldn't get Big Brother in those days and had to make their own entertainment.

We're staying not far from Jedburgh and when the rain permits have visited quite a few sites. I'm rather impressed with Historic Scotland, which seems to be a kind of equivalent of English Heritage, only rather better, I'm thinking.

My point is that our visits to, say, Jedburgh, Melrose and Dryburgh abbey ruins were very much more enjoyable than comparable sites in England. Scotland doesn't seem to have gone for the English obsession for dumbing-down, still less for 'enriching' the visitor's experience by dressing up actors in silly costumes to annoy people who simply want to look at the place and learn something. Information boards and audio guides seem to presume at least some interest in what you're looking at, and not to distract you with irrelevant amusements. Have you noticed how many English abbeys love to place pictures all over the place of monks carrying out their various duties, and how these are always dressed in brown Franciscan habits which reach only to the knees? How the ceremonies in the church are the purest fantasy in the mind of some artist who has never visited a functioning church in his life but tries to guess what Mass might have looked like? They don't care to inform or educate, but are insistent that we be entertained.

'Carpet' by Steve Messam
So, after the Scottish abbeys, our visit to Lindisfarne yesterday was a bit of a let-down. The experience of Holy Island was 'enhanced' and interpreted by a dancer disporting herself in the remains of the cloister with the aid of a boom box; there was a 'monk' who, dressed in a grey 'habit' (Lindisfarne was a Benedictine—black-wearing—house), tried to compel visitors to join him in the ruins of the calefactory to 'listen to a story'; there was a concert of the sort of music I associate with Irish pubs in the church alongside (£10 entrance!) and, strangest of all, an 'Installation of 30.000 bottles of colour [read tinted and upended jam jars] inspired by the 'carpet pages' in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the use of colour in the Dark Ages.' In small type I learnt that this was supported using public funding by the Arts Council of England. I suppose all this is the anxiety that at every moment we be entertained, that unless visitors to Lindisfarne are having fun, they're missing out. And they mustn't be allowed to miss out. Fun is compulsory. It is the same culture that I battle in the liturgy.

St Aidan (I think) with
Lindisfarne Castle behind
Lindisfarne is important to me. It was my first visit to the island of Saints Aidan and Cuthbert, and I was pleased that my first visit to the Holy Island wasn't totally spoilt by all that nonsense, nor by the crowds of visitors. For me it really does have an atmosphere, and I'm not sensitive to that sort of thing much. I will certainly be returning. My companion found the distractions more distracting than I did. I could see that there were lots of people for whom the priory had little interest, but who were off looking elsewhere. And there were several genuine pilgrims. I saw one tubby middle-aged man make his way from holy spot to holy spot making the sign of the cross without embarrassment and pausing, sometimes kneeling, to pray. So I prayed Sext and None in the ruins of the chancel using my iPhone. I want to come back to Aidan and Cuthbert another time and perhaps in another post. Great men.

1 comment:

Fr Michael Brown said...

If you`re passng through Newcastle on the way back you`d be welcome to call in.