1 September 2016

Bring back the Freaks

Oxford, perversely, pedantically keeps its own time, so that Cathedral services begin five minutes later than Greenwich Mean Time (or British Summer Time). Perverse; but distinctly more rational than celebrating the S Giles' Fair, the 'Giler', four days later than S Giles' Day itself (which occurs today, September 1, in older calendars).

The broad thoroughfare which leads Northwards out of Oxford will, at midnight on Sunday, metamorphose like Cinderella's pumpkin into a vast Fair (returning to pumpkinhood 48 hours later). In Dacre Balsdon's words, S Giles ceases to be a murderous highway of fast-moving traffic and becomes a playground instead. "It is a tightly packed confusion of booths and hurdy gurdies, fat women, fire-eaters, performing fleas, fairing, streamers, and warnings against pickpockets". When Pam and I were undergraduates, Prebendary John Hooper ["Prebendary" because of his years in the Exeter Anglo-Catholic mafia] used to emerge from S Mary Mags with his bucket and his aspersorium after Mass on the Monday morning, and douse the whole business with holy water ("Over 'ere, Favver, give us a bi' more over 'ere").

Fings aren't what they used to be, and I don't think we'll go to the Giler this year. Traditional Freaks ... Dwarfs and Fat Women and the World's Tallest Man ... are no longer politically correct objects of mirth (or wonder). My own favourite Freak ... the Spider Girl (a young women curiously and ingeniously disposed so as to resemble a large arachnid with a human face) ... has, I am sure, long since collected her bus-pass. The performing fleas would simply invite a noisy demonstration from the Animal Rights people ('Free the Fleas' a good tongue-twister?). The dour, merciless Puritanism under which we now spend our days decrees that the most exciting or Freakish thing you can now see at the Giler is candy-floss.

But Freak-shows are very much in the Oxford - and Anglican - tradition ... as was pointed out by Canon Arthur Couratin, once (rather before my time) the Principal of S Stephen's House ['Staggers'], England's premier seminary. When sacerdos ille valde magnus Bishop Kirk of Oxford purposed solemnly to administer Holy Orders in his Cathedral Church of Christ ... or to sing Pontifical High Mass there on a Solemnity such as that of S Frideswide ... Arthur used to turn up with an immaculately trained team of seminarians to serve. A few days before one such occasion, Mr Dean Lowe observed "I suppose we shall have Arthur Couratin here next Sunday with his travelling circus". Now ... and you need to know this ... in Oxford, there are worthy souls who, like the disciples in the accounts of the Lord's Miraculous Feedings, rejoice to gather up in their baskets all such waspish remarks "so that nothing be lost". So the Dean's comment was faithfully reported to Arthur, who promptly observed "Well, old man, I'd rather belong to a travelling circus than a permanent Freak-show". (Arthur was a habitue of the nearby sanctuary of Parsons' Pleasure, now horribly violated, so a malevolent chronicler might infer that he had himself been able to make an intimate study of freakdom.)

Dr Eric Mascall, who preserved the story, admitted that, while this less than wholly flattering description of the Oxford Cathedral Chapter was no doubt exaggerated, "the Chapter of Christ Church when I came to know it was certainly a remarkable assortment of clergymen". (Fr Eric was objective enough to recognise the possibility that he might himself have seemed to some observers to merit being bracketed among the capitular Freaks.)

Even fifty years ago, in my time, the Giler ... to which I now return ... was that bit more surreal because it coincided with the Staggers House Retreat (in those days, Staggers was just round the corner in Norham Gardens). So you might have seen little knots of devout seminarians gawping at the Freaks while carefully maintaining Greater Silence. (I should explain to cradle Catholic readers that Anglican retreats were not gossipping shops but took place in silence.)

Perhaps it is part of the calling of the Ordinariate to revive the good old Anglican Patrimonial traditions of Freaks and Freak-shows. Perhaps they are exactly what the culturally impoverished English Catholic Church needs in order to put some oomph ... I meant to say Inculturation ... into its public image. Part of the New Evangelisation? Should we again risk entanglement in the Web of an androphagous Spider Girl? Re-embrace the fleas?

I just know you agree with me. But where would we find a new generation of worthy and authentic Freaks?


GOR said...

On the ‘Greater Silence’… There was a time when this was observed in cradle-Catholic retreats also. Years ago I recall a memorable skit about this. We are in Dublin (circa 1955) at a mixed retreat (men and women but religiously segregated – by a chain link fence in the ‘yard’!).

As often happens when attempting to raise the mind, the lower instincts intervene. A young man on one side of the fence spies a comely maiden on the other side. The attraction is mutual and progresses – in silence – for the duration. At the end of the retreat the young man rushes to converse with the young lady.

When she speaks, her accent is that of low-class Dublinese (from The Coombe perhaps. Think: ‘Molly Malone’). The young man – horror-struck – rushes back to his friend who enquires what happened.

“She’s a Gutty!” – was the distraught reply.

The skit would be very un-PC today, I’m sure.

Tamquam said...

Have you lost your political class, there across the pond? Here in the (ahem) former colonies we have a fine collection which we would gladly share. Just offer them a podium at which to posture and expostulate and they'll race right over.

motuproprio said...

Surely the Giler has always (or at least in living memory) been held on the Monday and Tuesday following St Giles' Day -perfectly rational to me at any rate. BTW do they still close the University Parks for the duration? It must be conceded that Parson's Pleasure could never exist in today's confused moral universe.

The Fact Compiler said...

I can only imagine that this post was written with those you will be joining on Saturday in mind! We are very much looking forward!

William said...

@motuproprio: I doubt even Fr H can remember the Giler being held other than on the Monday and Tuesday following, given that Wikipedia states that it has been thus "[s]ince the 19th century" (exact year unstated).

Among the "older calendars" which observe S. Giles today is, er, the calendar of Common Worship (2000) – as shown in Fr H's own, ever-indispensable Ordo.