8 September 2019

Bring back the Freaks and the fleas

An adapted reprint from yesteryear, with an old thread.
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', eight days later than S Giles' Day itself (which occurs on September 1).

Incidentally, the 2018-9 Oxford Diary claimed that the Fair started on September 2; the new 2019-20 diary puts it the week later. Bad, that.

Whenever the Giler happens, the broad thoroughfare which leads Northwards out of Oxford, will, at midnight tonight, 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, Farvver, give us a bi' more over 'ere").

Fings aren't what they used to be. The great American showman Barnum, proprietor of the Barnum and Bailey Freak Show, would be run out of business in our narrower society. 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 Anti-Vivisection 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". Accordingly, the Dean's comment was faithfully reported to Arthur, who promptly observed in his languid drawl "Well, old man, I'd rather belong to a travelling circus than a permanent Freak-show".

Professor Canon Dr Eric Mascall, who preserved that 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 sixty 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 like popish retreats 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? Pick pockets and eat fire?

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

There's not a single member of the CBCEW whom I could conscientiously nominate.


RichardT said...

Dear Father, for such traditions you need to come further West; the Dorset Steam Fair (sadly tied to the secular August Bank Holiday weekend, so you have just missed this year's) still has a Freak Show.

Just the thing for an Ordinariate outing; what could be more Patrimony than a day amongst the traction engines and a viewing of the Freaks? Perhaps there are still Motorcycling Vicars who could be induced to join the Ordinariate and ride the Wall of Death in their cassocks.

You could even combine it with a pilgrimage to the nearby site of the martyrdom of St Edward, King & Martyr.

Joshua said...

Sure His Holiness could dispatch a selection of his more self-important leprous courtiers, suspect monsignori, creepy Cardinals, androgynous priests, and old women of both sexes to catch a cheap flight to London then hop on the Oxford Tube? After all, Brexit hasn't come in yet, and any American prelates terrified of arrest and interrogation could simply stay in hiding at some louche bar, low dive or gin palace en route - they'd blend right in...

After all, we all know what regard Francis the Merciful has for the Ordinariate...

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Catholics don't believe in coincidence! From todays' news: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-tyne-45347178/northumberland-street-performer-s-life-saved-by-skills he even manages to give it a mildly salvific slant!

Ignatius, Cornwall said...

May I suggest as "NewChurch" Freaks a contribution, if they are still around next year, of the Bergoglian Cardinalate Team? (Redbrick to a man[?] I hear.) Their gargoylian spouting of hysterical, heretical nonsense is sure to amuse the Dominicans and their neighbouring Puseyite chaps as they caper along Giles. Soo-Cupich went down deeply in that Other Place a few weeks ago, hmmmm? What an amusing card of an American he is! And where, oh, where is that Whirligig fella from Washington? Panic and Procrastination is the order of the day now the whatsits hits the fan! Did I really mean LIES are the order of the day from these good Christian men? In Domino.

PM said...

There were cradle Catholics who also became vintage Oxford eccentrics. A teacher of mine has a fond memory of Gervase Matthew OP, in an extremely grubby Dominican habit, standing in a reverie in the traffic island in the middle of Beaumont Street, which he would occasionally interrupt by munching on a toffee apple. My old friend, a graduate student of JND Kelly who was received into the Church by Gervase, hastened to say that Gervase, beneath the surface eccentricity, was one of the wisest and sanest people he had ever met.