Bram or Brand?

    Last week then, to Whitby on our half-term break. Our family has been lucky to have a cottage in this wonderful town for a couple of decades now, and it just keeps getting better. This is the town where the old ruined Abbey looks down from its eagle’s nest on the cliff top to a community that has seen many comings and goings. The Abbey itself, built on the site where, in 664, the great Synod was held which brought the Church in England-that cantankerous and non-comforming crowd-into the bosom of Rome from its more esoteric and mysterious Celtic roots. At the top of the 199 steps, is the monument, all runic with snaking carvings, to Caedmon ‘the father of English sacred verse’. Together, they look down on a place that has known great  whaling ships, the sailing of Captain Cook, the birth of a fishing industry and a takeover by hippies. If you go a little further down the harbour to where it meets the river Esk, you may just glimpse the ‘Penny Hedge’, or Horngarth, like a little wicker fence poking out of the tidal mud at the side of the road: a legacy of the Saxon days when the residents had to build a hedge as rent to the Abbey. Today, it is still built on the Eve of Ascension. I have whiled away many an hour on the end of the pier, fishing for non-existent codling but, like the great archer who never hit the target, the art is in how you cast the line not

       whether you catch.

One day, we ventured onto the wonderful (as in ‘full of wonder’) North York Moors Railway. You will have seen this lots of times, either on Heartbeat or,latterly, in the Harry Potter films. Now, I have been on railways and tramways of all descriptions in many places: the eerie street cars of East Berlin; the jolly wooden rickety ‘ferrocarrail’ of Mallorca; the funiculars of spa town Italy, but there is no experience to match the steam shrouded noise and whistling of the NYM railways. It really is an authentic experience, as you sit drinking stewed tea in the white and blue painted wooden cafe, surrounded by volunteers in 1950s uniforms and the whiff of burning coal wafting through the windows. I sat for a few moments eaves-dropping on the conversation between two septuagenarian ticket inspectors: it was a real life ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. And, of course, that is why people go in their droves to sit on those dignified and mighty steaming beasts: because it reminds us of a time when things were seemingly better and all was right with the world. Nonsense of course.

Nowadays, Whitby is invaded every All Saint’s Tide by ever increasing hordes of ‘Goths’. You see, Bram Stoker of ‘Dracula’ fame spent a lot of time in Whitby, and his book starts with the black dog escaping the ship and roaming the graveyard next to the Abbey. Having succesfully cottoned on to this fact many years later, people of all ages now descend on the town in the most extravagant of costumes and, for the weekend, strut here and there being photographed and interviewed by bemused TV reporters and journalists. ‘Why do you do it?’ they ask ;’what does it all mean?’. And of course, answer comes there none because there is no other reason for this showy behaviour than to have a little fun and make the world, for a short time, a more glamorous and exciting place to be. Here I depart from the thinking of some of my fellow bishops, because I see no harm in Hallowe’en and other celebrations except, perhaps, it is another opportunity for the unscrupulous to extort money from all ready cash-strapped parents. It is all a bit of fun and in no way an attempt to extol the virtues of Satanism: indeed, if I had know when my wife used to make chocolate bats, licorice worms and candy floss spider’s webs for my children that she was inculcating them into the practices of Wicca then I would have had her down to the local duck pond straight away and tried out the ducking stool! In truth, this is how local customs and observances arise and how the Church’s year becomes sealed in the memory of a community. Perhaps we should rejoice that the great feast of All Saints is still recalled with such vigour.

The Goths dress all in black, with silver jewellery, perhaps a cross or a skull-my own pectoral cross was bought in a Whitby Goth shop. They deck themselves with lace and funereal purple and have crazy, black dyed hair: a little like the comedian Russell Brand  really. And, of course, he and Jonathan Ross made the other great story of my half-term break. I recommend that you read Brand’s book: ‘My Booky Wook’. It is an entertaining read, but one that will probably appall the faint-hearted with its tales of licentiousness and over indulgence in drugs. If it is all true, and there is no reason to suggest it isn’t, then he has had a challenging life and his recent childish outbursts are set in that context. It all seems a bit of a fuss about nothing really: what we have is two adults behaving like adolescents would in the playground. However, only their victims-Andrew Sachs and his family-have a real reason to be hurt and deeply offended, and they were calling for apologies and not blood. Now the BBC, which regularly broadcasts opinions, reflections and observations which are far more shocking than Brand’s or Ross’s, has its sacrificial lambs and the mob goes away satisified that its lust to bring down the rich, successful and popular has been sated. But are we missing the point? As we sat on the old 1950s puffer train to Pickering, we were allowing ourselves the fantasy that, for a few moments at least, none of the things which challenge us in our contemporary world were happening and that we were safe and snug in the cosy world of yesteryear. The Brand and Ross affair has reminded us that we are always living in a world which challenges our comfortable ways of being. The Church needs to do this more effectively for its own purposes, because we are the ones who are supposed to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’. Television and the media have a big role to play in building the new society that we all wish to see: one of equality, peace and justice. The actions of the media are powerful and what they allow we will all allow and what they censure we will all censure. If television and the media do not really influence our behaviour and that of the young, then why are so many millions spent on advertising? The Brand and Ross affair should not be seen as a one-off offence against public decency, but a moment when the BBC asks itself ‘do we want to merely entertain, or do we want to be part of those forces which would enhance life and seek to make it better and more beautiful?’ The Goths have decided they do: Brand and Ross momentarily brought us all down to their dismal level and emphasised that, for some at least, Kirk Cobain was right when he opined, in his famous song about our ‘comfortably numb’ contemporary society: ‘Here we are now, entertain us’.

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~ by Tim Ellis on November 2, 2008.

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