Saturday, 12 December 2009

A Memorial, the Transit of Venus and Not Planning Ahead Nicely - like Olden Day Masons.

A post ago I wrote about the death of a friend. His memorial service was held at St Michael's in Hoole near to Preston. It would have been insensitive and intrusive to take camera to the service but there are particular features of the day that stayed with me and I returned to the tiny church at the weekend to photograph some parts of the memories. My Other Middlest child came along with me for company.

I was taken by the heart-shaped motifs picked out in the brickwork of the building, and by a strange and elaborate doorway in the north wall - when you are inside the church there is no sign of an entrance - just blank plaster; it's a door that leads to nowhere.

The heart seems such a modern and frivolous emblem but St Michael’s is very old and I would like to understand why the shapes were incorporated by the bricklayers. There are diamonds too - but no spades or clubs - so it isn’t that the workmen were borrowing playing card symbols.

(Some people think playing cards are sinister.
'based on the blipish Satanism of the Cabala,'
(see Playing Cards on this rather unsettling site). I don't think the lovely priest who conducted my friend's memorial subscribes to the belief that cards are inherently evil though)

St Michael's at Hoole is (a bit) famous because of its association with an extraordinary astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks, who died in 1641 aged 22.

Jeremiah Horrocks was the first person to accurately predict and observe the transit of Venus; a phenomenon during which Venus moves between the Earth and the Sun and is visible on the solar face.

The transit of Venus occurs in a massive 243 year cycle and then happens twice within a decade. Young Horrocks witnessed the event in November 1639. The last time it occurred was on the 8 June 2004. During the eulogy the lovely priest mentioned how my friend, a bespoke jeweller, made commemorative transit of Venus pieces for St Michael's.

There were three particular aspects of the memorial service that I couldn’t recapture with a camera after the event.
The first is the reading the eulogy. It laid out the frame of my friend’s life before us and it touched upon the lives he himself influenced: He was born in Hoxton but was evacuated to a manor house in Devon for the duration of the war. His life and his deeds seem to have reflected that dichotomous start to his existence; he was a jeweller, a singer, a boxer, a stuntman (I didn’t know that!) a father, a writer, a promoter of sport for all, a politician, and much else. He was funny and he was irreverent. 

He pretended to be a Tory - but he was far more complicated than a description of his activities suggests; all his instincts were to redress social iniquities, not to perpetuate them (he stopped eating meat after a programme about how transported livestock suffer). To put it charitably, I'm a fuzzy-wuzzy, well-meaning liberal; an atheist who views boxing with aghast bewilderment - but I do nowt.  My friend was a properly kind and committed person and he actually did stuff that made the world around him more fair.
The second picture I would have taken is of all the boxers my friend trained over the years, bursting from the joints of the gated choir stalls. Young lives and young men that have realigned themselves within the space they occupy because of what he taught them about self-discipline and self-respect. They clattered up to the gallery at the back of the church; the heeled shoes of their girls muffled by the red-ribbed stair carpet. If my friend had been able he’d have reminded them that they have as much right to the prominent seats as anyone else and he’d have ushered them to the front pews, budging up the officials to accommodate them. I like to imagine him introducing his latest protégée to a startled Mayor.
The third image I didn’t get, because it would have been intrusive to take it, is of grown men shouldering a coffin. I hadn’t realised before but it’s an act as visceral and as concentrated as giving birth. Three broad sons and a brother, arms linked over each others shoulders, baring his weight; awkward but peculiarly graceful, their faces waxed with effort of baring one of their own on his very last journey.
I started this post not really knowing what I was going to write or how I was going to finish it – and the bother is, I still don’t know.

As we were leaving the churchyard my Other Middlest child noticed this gravestone beside the rustic gate that leads between the grounds and the car park. I am impressed with how cavalier masons used to be about spelling and hyphenation but this is a particularly spectacular example of not planning ahead nicely; with this post I am continuing a noble tradition...
(Incidentally, the next transit will be in 2012. I live in Preston and (cloud cover permitting) I'll be able to see Venus crossing in front of the Sun at dawn on 6 June 2012. You can check if and when you'll be able to see it here.
We're really lucky-duffers to be living through a time when we can witness the transit of Venus; after 2012, the next events won't be until December 2117 and 2125).


Max Henry said...

Thank you for such beautiful writing. Each word carefully chosen, wonderful photographs and the whole polished like a piece of your favourite granite. I've put 06 June, 2012 in my calendar. Perhaps I'll have a party - oh no, now I'm worrying about what kind of wine to serve for a transit of Venus

kim mcgowan said...

Max Henry! What A fabulous comment - and thank you for remembering about the granite, I'm touched.
I'm especially grateful for your feedback because I was trying to convey how I felt about the events without tipping over into soppiness - it's taken weeks to write.
The wine: tricky - but you've got a couple of years to think about it, I'll keep a look out

kim mcgowan said...

...tipping over into too much soppiness, I probably should have said.

Susan Gee said...

I think in situations like that you have a heightened sense of things around you. You notice things like a tiny blue flower or the shape of bricks on the wall. Thanks for sharing a fitting and touching tribute to your friend.

Dave Hartley said...

hi Kim, great post.

Can't wait for the Transit of Venus in 2012. I too will have a space-themed party to celebrate. I won't invite the clouds though so i hope they stay well away.

Jeremiah Horrocks - any relation to the mill owning Horrocks' of Preston history?

I love the story about the boxers bustling in to the back of the church. That's a really touching moment and a good observation on your part.

Funerals are curious activities - especially, I find, for the atheist. I went to a couple last year after many years of not going to any. What struck me most of all was the bizarre weighting; 90% Jesus and God and only 10% the person being buried. Its almost offensive. So its good that you picked up on the eulogy - its the only moment in a traditional funeral mass that you can truely feel a closeness to the person being buried. Especially if it turns out they were a stuntman at one point!

as ever, a lovely post.


dirt said...

Oh, wow. This is a really beautiful post. Your friend sounds like a wonderful person, and I'm so glad you had the chance to know him.

kim mcgowan said...

Thank you, Lovely Susan, Lovely Dave and Lovely Dirt (hello, Dirt!.

You're exactly right, Susan, you do notice details in those situations. I also noted a stained glass window next to where I was seated. It depicted the last supper but Jesus wasn't in the centre lording it - he was at one end of the table chatting to two of his mates, which I liked. I'd need to get back in the church to photograph that properly.

Jeremiah Horrocks is an enigma I'm afraid, Dave. He was born in Liverpool but I'm sure there could have been a link with the later mill people. Did you ever see the 'Who Do You Think You Are?' episode with Jane Horrocks, the actress? She discovered that she belonged to the poor arm of the Preston Horrocks(es).

Nice to hear from you, Dirt, please visit again and check out Max Henry's, Susan's and Dave's blogs, if you haven't already. They're all top quality bloggers!)