Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Spy Wednesday

“Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.”
- The Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 18

"No, it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately. But I imagine that it will only make complete sense to you in the end. When that moment comes, Judas, remember my words: we were both chosen, but we were not helpless. It was not pre-destined. At any moment, we could have rejected the mission God gave us, but neither of us did. That is because God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that we were both entirely suited to the tasks He would assign to us. Remember, if your presentiment is correct, that you were the most suitable candidate for whatever task you shall eventually perform. You may not know why exactly; you will simply know that you were the right choice. For you, even more so than it was for me, I imagine it will be an overwhelming burden."
- The Virgin Mary, Act II, Scene VI, Magdalene by Gareth Russell

The fourth day of Holy Week is sometimes known as "Spy Wednesday," because it commemorates the day on which Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ to the Sanhedrin, agreeing to facilitate His arrest on the following day, in return for the princely sum of thirty pieces of silver.

Judas, as a character, is one I have grappled with, with unintentional degrees of success, apparently. In 2006, when The Da Vinci Code mania was at its height, the historical elitist in me took such umbrage at its presentation of early Church history that I began to research the life of Saint Mary Magdalene, with the thought to do a play based on her life, as it is recorded in the Bible and the Apocrypha.

The result, Magdalene, was set in a generic "modern" setting and followed Mary's life from her time as a victim of demonic possession to the Passion of Holy Week. Apart from the main characters of Mary, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the supporting characters included three of the Apostles (Saint Peter, Saint John the Evangelist and Judas Iscariot) and three of Christ's female followers (Saint Johanna, Saint Veronica of the Veil and Christ's aunt, Mary, the wife of Cleopas, whose name was changed to 'Maria' in the play to avoid confusion with the other two Marys.) Christ's adoptive father, Saint Joseph, also featured briefly in two scenes early in the first act.

In fairness, some apparently found the play irksome - a few objected to the presentation of the Virgin Mary, Maria Cleopas and Johanna as aristocrats, although I was simply following the ancestry given to her by 1st century Jewish evangelists and, in Johanna's case, the Bible describes her as the wife of a palace aristocrat. Others thought that it was pushing female priesthood or that, paradoxically, it was "too Catholic," that it was promoting the idea of the Virgin Mary as a mediatrix, that it rinsed the idea of Justification By Faith or that it was too pro-Christian in general. Others were more kind and I was delighted with the very kind letter of recommendation Rev. Dr. Andrew Moore of Oxford's Faculty of Theology wrote for the second run of Magdalene in 2007.

As I have said, Magdalene has so far been performed twice - once in Oxford in December 2006 and again in Northern Ireland in September 2007. Recently, when I was discussing some of my work, a friend (who has seen every play I have written since All Those Who Suffered in 2004) declared that he thought Judas was the best character I had ever written. I was somewhat taken aback - flattered, certainly, but also surprised - because during the writing of Magdalene, I had spent far less time crafting Judas than I had some of the other characters and, moreover, Judas only speaks at length in three scenes during the entire play. When I put this to another friend, they also concurred that Judas was the best-written, alongside Gabrielle de Polignac in The Audacity of Ideas.

Holy Tuesday

“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death.”
- The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Chapter 14

Holy Tuesday, the third day of Holy Week, (sometimes known as "Great and Holy Tuesday" in the Eastern Churches), has a set of Biblical readings, like all the other days of Holy Week. Very few Protestant churches make a point of observing it, although those that do tend to follow the Catholic Church in reading the first six verses of Isaiah, Chapter 49, Psalm 71, I Corinthians 1 (verses 18 -31) and the thirteenth chapter of Saint John's Gospel. However, within the Orthodox Churches, the Tuesday of Holy Week is given over to the Parable of the Ten Virgins (above) as told in Saint Matthew's Gospel.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is the source of the famous saying, "You do not know the day or the hour," a phrase now associated with death, particularly a sudden one. Over the last few weeks, I have been very aware of grief - my own family has been bereaved by the sudden death of my Uncle Richard and various friends have lost loved ones at the same time, but Easter is a time that celebrates both life and death; grief and hope. Hours before her execution, Anne Boleyn scribbled a note into her prayer book, advising a friend that hope was the force people used to get from one day to the next. I like that and I agree with her.

By lucky coincidence, Easter falls near the beginning of Spring time in the West. As a festival, it is centred around the theme of regeneration, re-birth and, in many ways, it's the antithesis of the "stiff upper lip" mentality. Easter teaches that it's OK to grieve, to weep and to feel distress, but also that hope springs eternal. And, to paraphrase Martha Stewart: that's a good thing.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Happy Birthday, Aisleagh

"Are you frightfully cross?"
"No. Just a little hungry."

Aisleagh M. and I did not have the greatest starts to a friendship. We first met each other within a few weeks of starting at Down High, when I was a podgy scarf-wearing 1st year with a "posh" accent and Aisleagh sported enormous glasses and a cow's lick. Things took a turn for the worse when, one day outside Music class, her best friend Grace's contact lense flipped inwards, Grace crumpled to the ground in pain and her eye turned beetroot red. "Good," I said, as I swept past her agony-wracked body. Aisleagh heard and wasn't pleased. (I can't remember why Grace and I had turned on each other - I think it was something to with Home Ec.) Finally, on a History trip to France, Aisleagh poisoned me by tipping a mountain of salt into my glass at supper one evening. I didn't notice, drank it and accidentally smashed the stem of the glass in my fury when I set it down.

The turning point came in 4th year, when we were both in Miss Gorman's GCSE English Lit class. For some reason, we ended-up sitting beside each other for the first half of the year and fell into conversation about how much we hated some other people in our year. And from that spite, a beautiful friendship was born.

Together, it must be said, that Aisleagh and I didn't always bring out the best in one other. One sweltering summer day, along with our friends Grace and Thomas, we went to Saul for a picnic, near Saint Patrick's Mount. OK - on it. However, since it was so close to Marching Season not a lot of places were open because of the holiday, so supplies were limited. OK - again, that's a lie: we'd eaten everything by the time we got there.

After a few hours, the heat grew unbearable, as did our thirst, so we bullied Grace and Thomas into going and buying some water, handing them my drinks cooling bag to help. An hour later, they returned, with sweat pouring off Thomas and Grace practically crawling along behind him: "Here," they said wearily, proffering the cool bag.

I opened it, to see that they had purchased carbonated water - the only kind available at the only shop available, the Raholp Post Office. I showed the contents to Aisleagh, who was sunbathing next to me, near to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. From behind her sunglasses, Aisleagh peered into the bag before almost imperceptibly shaking her head.

"Ehm.... we would like still water," I said, handing the bag back.
"What?" said Thomas.
"Yes, we are going to require still, chilled, water, please."
Thomas, collapsing to the ground with heat exhaustion, just kept staring at me in horror: "Are you serious?"
"Yes, I am serious. I am also thirsty."
Grace, meanwhile, was just staring at Aisleagh, with a piteous expression in her eyes - begging not to be sent back on the trail. I had never seen Grace so broken and tired before. Regarding her best friend's misery and physical near-collapse, Aisleagh made her decision and propped herself up on her elbows: "I'm allergic to fizzy water."
Grace's mouth fell open and Thomas's was pursed into a seriously unimpressed line: "What?" asked Grace.
"Yep. I need still."

However, Aisleagh and I failed to consider the logistics of tactics that day - because her evening was being spent with Grace, mine with Thomas. So as I was walking home with Thomas, it's fair to say that my behaviour earlier in the day did not exactly receive glowing reviews and it's equally fair to say that Aisleagh was the victim of a savage physical attack once Grace recovered her energy levels.

Anyway, today is Aisleagh's b'diddy and huge licky love to her on this most glorious of days. Through bullying, poisoning, hair pulling, biting, shopping excursions to Dublin, diets, spiders, Bones, the Lone Ranger, The X Factor marathon, painting with all the colours of the wind, paws up for Lady Gaga, drama practicals in school, the time the curtain rose on us for the school play and we were hugging each other in front of the entire audience and that terrible time were we went to a house party that was so unutterably boring that we tried to escape by climbing out the bathroom window, only to be caught by the host (your boyfriend at the time) - it's all been a delightful cycle of dysfunction.

Happy Birthday, Lovey Loverson. Lots and lots and lots of love xxx

Monday, 29 March 2010

Fig Monday

“Verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.”
- The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter 21

The second day of Holy Week is properly known as “Holy Monday,” but in the Middle Ages, it came to be nicknamed “Fig Monday,” because the Bible tells of how Jesus preached on the power of prayer under a barren fig tree on the day after His Entry into Jerusalem. As with every day of Holy Week, there are certain readings recommended for the faithful that cover both the events of the Day and also the themes associated with it. In this case, the traditional readings for Fig Monday include the second chapter of the Book of Exodus, the first chapter of the Book of Job and an excerpt from Saint Matthew’s Gospel (24:36 – 26:2.) As I was reading last night from the readings set for Palm Sunday, I came across two other stories of Fig Monday that I began thinking about - after preaching under the fig tree, Jesus went to the Temple, Judaism’s holiest site, where He fell into conversation with the Pharisees. Initially speaking about the legacy of His late cousin, Saint John the Baptist, Christ then told two parables – the Parable of the Two Sons and then the Parable of the Householder. The second was very obviously a reference to His own impending Death, but both dealt with the theme of religious hypocrisy.

Particularly in the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus grew angry with those who considered themselves “holy people” but failed to act like that in their everyday lives. Reflecting on the life of His cousin, Jesus angrily noted that whilst prostitutes and publicans believed Saint John’s words, those who considered themselves to be religious men failed to act on them. This got me thinking about a recent scandal in Northern Ireland, which I think reflects the very powerful truth of these parables.

For those of you are not from Northern Ireland, or who missed the stories in the international press, on January 8th 2010, a well-known MP for the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) called Iris Robinson (60) was exposed for having had an affair with a local cafĂ© owner called Kirk McCambley (19). The affair had ended sometime before it was revealed on the BBC current affairs programme Spotlight, but the show also discovered that Mrs. Robinson had secured £50,000 in loans from rather dubious property developers to help set her young lover up in business in the affluent region of south Belfast. Once the affair cooled, she suddenly demanded the money back, along with having kept £5,000 for herself in the first place.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Palm Sunday

“And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strew them in the way.”
- The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter 21

In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, which culminates with the end of Lent on the following Sunday. Holy Week is traditionally used to mark the arrest, trial, imprisonment, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and it commences with Palm Sunday - Christ's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, when he was greeted by crowds waving palm trees in his honour.

According to the Gospels and the Old Testament prophets, the Messiah would enter Jerusalem riding upon a donkey and with typical literalism, this humble act was imitated by the leaders of the Church during the Middle Ages. For example, it was felt inappropriate that a Cardinal, despite being a Prince of the Church, would be seen riding upon a horse, when Christ Himself had entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Eagle-eyed fans of costume dramas might have noticed the figure of, say, Cardinal Wolsey riding on a donkey in scenes of Anne of the Thousand Days or The Tudors, and this custom is why he does so.

Like many of the great Christian festivals, the earliest surviving documentary evidence we have of them actually being celebrated dates from the 4th century A.D., following the legalisation of Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great. However, as Dr S.J. Shoemaker reminds us in his paper The Cult of the Virgin in the Fourth Century: A Fresh Look at Some Old and New Sources, this does not mean that there were no Christian festivals prior to the 4th century. In fact, their existence in the 4th century proves that the festivals had existed, in some form or another, for many years during the Roman Empire's persecution of Christianity, although, of course, most of the sources are now lost to us.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, Palm Sunday is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church calendar, although due to the fact that palm branches were generally unavailable in the Russian Empire, the Orthodox faithful often decorate their churches with pussy-willows, one of the earliest flowers to blossom during the Russian Spring. In the early days of Tsarism, Palm Sunday was celebrated by a grand procession through Moscow, during which the Patriarch of Moscow would ride through the city on a donkey draped in white, with the Tsar humbly leading the procession on foot. The parade, which started at the palace-fortress of the Kremlin and ended at Saint Basil's Cathedral, was supposed to show the supremacy of spiritual authority over earthly power and it had begun during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. However, Peter the Great, disliking the idea of the Church competing for influence with the monarchy, banned the parade in 1693, much to the distress of his mother, the Dowager Tsarina Natalia, who was one of the symbolic leaders of ultra-conservatism within Russian politics at that time. Recently, over the last decade, the custom of the parade from the Kremlin to Saint Basil's has been resurrected, but, to date, Peter the Great has remained the last Tsar to lead the procession.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Recently I got to thinking (yay!) about hugging and it was actually the events of last week which made me really think about. Hugging, in general, is considered by many British people to be just a bit too "American" - whatever that means. The culture of hugging one another to say hello or goodbye is definitely not a traditional British way of doing things. It isn't always easy to ask "how do you do?" when your arms are clasped behind somebody else's back and I have a sort of schizoid love/hate relationship with the hug - I feel like it's something I should do more, I like the people I do hug, but I also have relationships in my life in which hugging would just seem bizarre, if not downright frightening.

As some of you may know, on Tuesday March 16th my uncle, Richard, passed away very unexpectedly. During Uncle Richard's Wake, the entire extended family got together most afternoons and every evening to meet visitors who had come to pay their condolences, keep an open house and keep the endless supply of never-ending tea, sandwiches and cakes without which, apparently, the entire Northern Irish Protestant culture of mourning would collapse in on itself.

Two days after Uncle Richard passed away, my cousins Jonathan and Andrew called down to see our grandparents. (They, like me, were Richard's nephews.) As Jonathan was saying goodbye to our grandfather, he hugged him and it suddenly occurred to me that Grandpa Richard and I had grown out of the habit of hugging one another once I'd turned about 15 and concluded that it wasn't "manly" or something equally foolish. Grandpa and I are very close, so there's really no good reason apart from habit for not giving him a goodbye hug. I would never leave their house without hugging Nana and giving her a kiss, but for the last eight years I can't remember really hugging my grandfather. With the sadness of Uncle Richard's death I decided to make the effort again to make sure I hugged Grandpa every time I left the house and that really has been a good thing. Undoubtedly, a lot of other family members were spurred on to be more affectionate with one another in the wake of Uncle Richard's passing - my Uncle Ivan, my cousin's husband Martin, my cousins Elaine and June and my sister Jenny were all making a real effort to make sure they hugged everyone before they left the house each night. Exceptional circumstances, no doubt, but lovely all the same.

As I was writing this I also began to think about hugging in general and it struck me that I actually hug astonishingly few of my friends. Am I dead on the inside? There are obviously some very good friends that I do hug on a regular basis, but I have never hugged the vast majority of my close personal friends. There are friends like Emerald, Alexa and Scarlett, all of whom I would usually greet with a kiss, but the only time I've ever hugged a really good friend like, say, Aisleagh, was probably when we both mutually mistook each other for another bottle of gin! And if I went to hug either Beth, Laura or Ellen, they would undoubtedly assume I was trying to choke them in some particularly new and avant-garde manner, with the end result being that Beth would make her panicked pterodactyl sound, Ellen would suffer an enormous panic attack and quite possibly a stroke and Laura would scratch a bloody vengeance into my face.

The greatest example of the anti-hugging phenomenon is undoubtedly my friend Kerry. Kerry is one of my best friends, we've been friends since the age of eleven, we have cried together, laughed together, binged together, we can finish each other's sentences and we pushed each other into self-destructive cycles of delightfulness for the last twelve years and yet not once have we ever hugged each other. When our friend Sarah attempted to mock our "frigid" ways and introduced hugging into the group, the only real result was a wave of paranoia, with me checking my back every five minutes to see if they'd stuck a note onto the back of it or a gleam of suspicious fear glinting permanently in Kerry's eyes.

But, so what? Kerry and I are not any the less close friends - dysfunctionally close, actually - because we don't hug. Neither are Sarah and I. Does it all boil down to the quite sad fact that we don't trust each other enough to hug without an attempt at sabotage? Of course it does! And that's a glorious thing. Have I been lacking in familial closeness with my grandfather for the last eight years? No, I don't think so. I love him, he loves me and that's really all that matters. The friends I do hug - great; the friends I don't - delightful.

Hugging, in the end, is a bit like drinking. There's nothing more delightful when it's the right time and nothing more sickening when you're just not in the mood, time or place for it.

The Death of Queen Elizabeth

"No oblivion shall ever bury the glory of her name; for her happy and renowned memory shall liveth and shall for ever live in the minds of men."

- William Camden, Elizabethan scholar (1551 - 1623)

On March 24th 1603, after a reign of almost forty-five years, Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Queen of Ireland, died at Richmond Palace at the age of sixty-nine, unmarried, childless, very probably a virgin and certainly one of the most successful rulers in English history. Personally, Elizabeth I is probably one of my favourite historical characters and I find the account of her death from Sir John Nottingham's diary very moving. It isn't quoted very often, so I thought it was worth digging up.

The Queen's decline had begun at the end of February, when she began complaining of insomnia, a dry throat and a heat in her chest. Robert Cecil, her chief minister, attempted to get the Queen to go to bed on March 9th, saying she must do so at once. Elizabeth replied with the (I think) magnificent statement: "Little man, the word 'must' is not used to Princes." Nine days later, the Queen was so ill that she had to be propped-up on cushions on the floor of her audience chamber and finally, on March 21st, she took to her bed of her own free will, to die there, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was summoned.

A few days later, a courtier, Sir John Nottingham (who I mentioned above), would write a very moving account in his diary of Elizabeth's final hours, which he had witnessed personally: -

"She hath been in manner speechless for two days, very pensive and silent; since Shrovetide, sitting sometimes with her eyes fixed upon one object many hours together, yet she always had her perfect sense and memory, and yesterday signified by the lifting of her hand and eyes to Heaven, a sign which Dr. Parry entreated of her, that she believed that Faith which she had caused to be professed, and looked faithfully to be saved by Christ's merits and mercy only, and by no other means. She took great delight in hearing prayers, would often at the name of Jesus lift up her hands and eyes to heaven. She would not hear the Archbishop speak of hope of her longer life, but when he prayed or spoke of Heaven, and those joys, she would hug his hand... It seems she might have lived if she would have used means; but she would not be persuaded, and princes must not be forced."

The Queen slipped quietly away during the night and was succeeded by her third cousin, James VI, King of Scots. James's succession to the throne as King James I of England and Ireland helped lay the foundation of Great Britain, with England, Ireland and Scotland all now ruled by one monarch for the first time in their history.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Feast of the Annunciation

"And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the Virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail Mary, Full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."
- The Gospel according to Saint Luke, Chapter 2

The Feast of the Annunciation - which falls on March 25th - is the holy day when Christianity traditionally celebrates the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (above.)

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke, on that day the Virgin miraculously conceived of the Christ. Of course, centuries later when the Christian Church decided to codify the liturgical calendar, no-one knew the exact date this event was supposed to have occurred, anymore than they knew the date of the "real" Christmas. To keep matters simple, the conception of Christ was celebrated on March 25th, exactly nine months before His birth on December 25th. In much the same way as the Virgin Mary's birthday (September 8th) is celebrated precisely nine months after her Immaculate Conception (December 8th.)

On a more biblically-solid note, it is also to this part of the Bible that we owe the inspiration for the most frequently repeated prayer in the Christian world - The Hail Mary ("Ave Maria.")

For many centuries, March 25th was often known by people in England as "Lady Day," in honour of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, rather than by its longer title of "Feast of the Annunciation." Many people do not know that until 1752, the British New Year actually started on Lady Day, rather than January 1st. The reasons for this were twofold - firstly, the conception of Jesus Christ in human form was felt by Christians to mark the beginning of a new era in human history and it was therefore considered appropriate to start the new year on March 25th, out of respect for Christ. Secondly, Lady Day usually falls very close to the Equinox, when the length of day and night is roughly equal, marking the end of the winter and the beginning of spring - hence another reason to celebrate the new year in March, rather than in the dark, depressing and often hunger-filled month of January.

Occasionally, this could cause confusion for continental visitors to England - between January 1st and March 25th, they were technically in two different calendar years. For example, King Charles I was executed by a rebellious parliament on January 30th 1649, but because of the English habit of celebrating the new year on Lady Day, the King's grave at Windsor Castle was marked with his year of death as "1648" (and still is today.)

In the reign of King George II, Britain finally bowed to the changes of the calendar and England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales began to celebrate the New Year on January 1st and the new year thus became a purely secular festival which we are more familiar with today.

In the beginning...

After several months of fearing that my technophobia meant that any attempt at blogging would end in a total and complete disaster (not dissimilar in size and scope to the "Golden Girls" spin-off), I have finally been persuaded to overcome said fears after being inspired by the excellent examples of Tea at Trianon and Louise in Lovelyland. So, I've decided to grab the metaphorical bull by the horns and here goes!

There isn't really a plan or mission statement for the blog, which could, of course, mean that things will become chaotic, but that's half the fun. I plan to keep the ranting down to a bare minimum (beyond what is obviously unavoidable) and discuss the things I'm interested in - favourite movies, books I'm reading, funny anecdotes and, of course, history.

I also hope to avoid starting too many observations with the phrase "So I got to thinking...", but I can't promise too much...
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