A changed man

It’s been a long time since I last posted a piece – plenty to distract me at the moment. However, here’s one I wrote to mark a very important personal anniversary:

Just ten years ago I picked up the larger of the two verges in the virgers’ office for the first time. It was a special service – Remembrance Sunday 2006 and, as assistant (therefore junior) virger, it was my responsibility to lead a visiting priest in procession. Head Virger John Dell had the greater responsibility of leading the incumbent of the time but it just so happened that this particular visiting priest was the Archbishop of York, so I was leading the second-highest cleric in the Anglican community of England. What could top that as a first outing?

All good things come to an end however and, six months ago, I finally placed the huge bunch of keys (that had cut through many trouser pocket linings over the previous nine and a half years) inside the virgers’ safe and wandered up the road to a new job, without ceremony but with a deep sense of fulfilment.

It’s fair to say my time as assistant virger in Beverley Minster has been the most satisfying working period in my life (so far). Back in 2006 I’d just been made redundant from a well-paid job in publishing (for the fifth time) and was recovering after treatment for a misdiagnosed heart condition – with no idea what to do next. Gill saw the vacancy advertised in the parish news sheet and suggested I applied – and I’m so glad that she did.

From the very first moment in the job, when John said: “Don’t worry about job titles here – we’re a team,” to those final quiet moments in the vestry before I locked the door for the last time and passed the key to the shop volunteers, I have been aware that the daily demands on a virger in Beverley Minster required a completely different mind-set to what I’d had before – and this mindset is a much better way of living.

It’s hard to describe to anyone who’s not done the job what it really involves. I know there were some members of the congregation and PCC in the past who thought we existed merely to ‘tote that barge, lift that bale’ on demand. However, John and I both had a background in business and were eager to do more for the Minster than merely move chairs and dust things so, for example, we started offering daily tours in the roof (which earned more than £110,000 for funds over seven years) while John came up with the idea of help-yourself coffee in the north transept, which raises a few thousand pounds a year for very little effort and gives succour to visitors. This was very satisfying but was not, however, the reason why I loved my job.

It was when dealing with other people that I found a virger’s life to be most fulfilling. I admit to entering employment in the Church of England with a very high opinion of myself. Learning how to stand back and serve the needs of other people, from all backgrounds and with a wide range of concerns, required a degree of empathy I’d never had to call on before and, to my pleasant surprise, it was very satisfying. Over the years I’ve sat down with tortured and grieving people of all ages, as well as one suicidal individual who had swallowed a large number of potentially fatal tablets just before entering the church. I had one much-loved parishioner die in front of me while his wife was nearby and, of course, met hundreds of bereaved families before and after funeral services.

I learned how to listen to people, to shut up and not lead a conversation; how to guide it when someone clearly still had more to say but didn’t want to say it. I stood by and watched as one tortured individual had a moment of epiphany in Katherine’s Chapel and I’ve seen enlightenment dawn on the faces of schoolchildren of all ages as the they’ve suddenly understood how and why Beverley Minster was built in the first place.

I don’t miss it, insofar as my present role at Monks Walk requires many of the same people-skills I developed as a virger. I’m also still moving chairs, dusting things, cleaning the toilets, organising 101 things to make the day go smoothly for my staff and visitors and making sure the stocks are ordered and in the right place at the right time. One bonus is that, these days, I can come into the Minster and enjoy it as a simple civilian – and I do. And the fellowship of the Minster continues outside the building as well as indoors.

But I’m a different person to the individual who first donned the black robes back in 2006 and, if for only that reason, my family and I continue to be hugely grateful that I was once a virger at Beverley Minster.

Anger management

Maybe I have to be careful naming names when writing for a newspaper because the editor can be a little nervous. But I know the laws of libel and this is all true – so here goes…..

There are very few things that get me really angry. Even bird poo on the car when it’s just been washed doesn’t do it, although a model locomotive constantly derailing on the same set of points can.

“C’mon you useless piece of plastic and metal. I’ve got 355 other locos that will do it, so why don’t you just flaming well stay on the tracks?  Or it’s the shelf of spare bits and death for you.”

Perfectly understandable, of course – particularly when it’s always the set of points in the furthest corner of the layout and I’ve got to reach over a lot of very delicate bits and pieces to get to it. But that’s about all that gets me really riled.

I must admit, however, that I got fairly close this week, and it’s down to a succession of pain-in-the-butt incompetence by utility suppliers. And I’ll name names.

First up – one of the unexpected joys of taking over Monks Walk was to find that, within one hour of unlocking the door, nPower had turned up to cut off our gas and electricity. As I discovered over the next few days, the previous tenants had spent every day since Christmas ignoring bills and final demands. Once I’d persuaded the bailiffs that I had nothing to do with the old occupants they left on good terms and gave me a telephone number to contact.

Obviously, given that experience, I promptly got in touch with as many other suppliers as I could track down to inform them that I was only responsible for any bills from 1st April onwards, and gave them a forwarding address for the accountants who were winding up affairs. Naturally, one of the first I notified was KCom, as Kingston Communications is now called, because I was using their phone to contact other people. I also confirmed the level of internet service I wanted to provide to my customers.

Well, it’s only 13 weeks later and KCom have just sent me a cumulative bill for the last five months. I contacted them to point out my original message and they’ve lost all records of it. OK, they were going to send me a form straightaway to sort it out – and it still hasn’t arrived two days later.

If I was as incompetent as that I’d be walking away from the bar when someone orders a drink and then never being seen again – it’s that basic. I’ve one 101 things to do to resurrect a virtually dead business and create a new environment which will attract new customers and the least I should be able to expect is for various customer relations departments to be take down some relevant details and keep them. After all, it’s their job.

What do they do when they’ve taken all this information over the phone? Press the delete button and go back to combing their hair? So that’s more time wasted for me while I chase them down again and try to get them to do what they told me they were going to do.

And don’t talk to me about alternative power suppliers. Another piece of unfinished business left floating was a possible contract with BES instead of nPower. Somehow this contract was mysteriously activated, without my permission, two weeks after I’d taken over and it’s still unresolved. I’m now getting demands for payment for the same thing from two different companies – neither of which has actually sent me a bill yet. And no responses to my emails suggesting a sensible solution either.

I tell you, I’m not angry …. Yet.

Coincidences?

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…..

I always knew Monks Walk was different, but it seems to be even more unusual than I thought because some remarkable coincidences have occurred over the last few weeks which seem almost beyond coincidence – in fact they are more like an absurd piece of structuring that a second-rate author might use to justify a poorly plotted storyline.

Because this is the real world, however, one of the coincidences doesn’t have a neat payoff, so I’ll finish with that one.

But first: several months ago the Beverley 10K race was staged. On the day before some of my new regular customers were telling me how the husband was going to run the race while the wife looked after the grandchildren – the much more difficult task of the two. I sympathised, commented that I’d never even consider running a 10K race and then started to muse that an old friend of mine – with whom I’d shared a car over many thousand miles – would have been running that very same race if he still lived locally. He had, however, moved to Holland with his entire family two years before.

And at that very moment the short-haired bugger walked through the door of my pub.

The family had been on a two-week tour of the old country and they were on their way back to the ferry. Now is that spooky, or what? OK, it’s just a very, very long shot, mathematically speaking, but it’s quite extreme.

But the second story could almost enter the proper realms of ‘spooky’ if you were of such a mind. One of my customers – a visitor from out of town – stopped as she was leaving and asked if there had been any strange or calamitous events in the room where I currently house a pool table. I said that I didn’t know of any, which wasn’t really the answer she was looking for. She explained that, as she walked through the archway connecting the room with the bar, she’d been hit by a sudden blinding headache that had stopped her in her tracks. As she walked away from the pool room the headache had dropped away and she was now fine, thank you very much.

I apologised on behalf of my building, joked that she obviously wouldn’t be joining my pool team and left it at that. Then, two days later, one of my friends from the Minster dropped in a snipper of research they’d uncovered in the local archives. Apparently, back in 18-something or other a blacksmith had hanged himself in that very room! A coincidence? Maybe.

Now, unfortunately, I didn’t take the contact details of the lady with the selective headache so I’ve no way of knowing if there was any form of connection between herself and the unfortunate hammerer of metal because, obviously, such a link would have defied logic and given my tale a really solid punchline.

So I can’t offer this story as either a proof of ghost and psychic anomalies or a straightforward perversion of normal statistical probabilities. I’ll just present it as part of the growing pile of evidence that my pub is generating a remarkable number of connections across apparently random visits and conversations. It almost makes the twists and plotlines in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return and Eastenders’ Queen Vic seem mundane.

And that’s quite fascinating to watch.

That’s cooking!

More meditations on messy real life

It’s been a while since my last blog – and there’s a good reason for that. There are several interesting themes running through my life as a publican but virtually none of them have reached a satisfactory narrative conclusion.

As you know, I am a stickler for the truth and don’t ever make up stories or twist the facts, so I’ve just got to bide my time until the punchline appears, at which point I shall record it and share with the world.

There is, however, one area of my activites which has quite clearly come to a conclusion and it’s to do with my cooking. Now I must admit that, over the years, I’ve not been one of nature’s great Masterchefs. I tend to regard the process of eating largely as a matter of necessity rather than sensual delight. After many years of neglect, however, I became quite interested in the subject as I started following some of the Hairy Bikers’ diets – and found that they were both good and extremely effective. For several weeks I diligently noted the instructions, did what I was told and produced some extremely edible outcomes. I even persevered after I’d chopped the tip of one finger off in a stupid accident with a blender.

Although that level of commitment waned somewhat during 2015 I was still up for producing the odd meal from a packet, doing the vegetables, peeling potatoes and suchlike useful chores around the house, as well as boiling my own eggs in a morning. Positively New Man of me, I thought.

So, although we’re still getting the kitchen up to a proper level of hygiene in Monks Walk, I wasn’t phased when someone asked if I could heat up a quiche or suchlike from our current menu of cold snacks. We had an electric cooker available, we had electricity available to power to it, I had the plate and the ingredients, so why not?

And so I happily turned on the grill, put the relevant item underneath it, set a timer and went back to the bar to serve some more customers. However, when I came back about five minutes later the room was full of smoke; there was a terrible smell of burning and the first hint of flames about to burst into life. I’d obviously done something wrong.

Closer investigation revealed that a book of instructions had been left on one of the hot plates by some careless individual or other and, woe and thrice woe, this hot plate had been turned on. In the five minutes since I’d switched on the oven at the wall the paper had started to singe and then really got to grips with the whole “let’s stink out the room” activity. Although only an area about the size of a handprint had actually been consumed the resultant fug was starting to percolate through thick curtains and into the rest of the pub.

Now in my defence I should point out that it was very difficult to see that this hot plate had been left on because all the silver from the dial had been worn off over the years so you couldn’t tell at a glance what setting it was on. It was lucky, I suppose, that it had been the hot plate under an instruction book that came to life for the first time in many months – there was a plastic kettle on another hot plate and that would have been far worse to clear up – but it was bad enough.

Naturally, everyone accused me of being senile and useless as a chef, which wasn’t really fair because the quiche heated up nicely and was thoroughly enjoyed by my customer. But that’s now the reputation I’ve got and so, to my deep regret, I shall not be doing any of the cooking once we’ve got a proper hot menu up and running.

Oh dear, what a pity.

Hello again

A new beginning – I was starting to get twitchy, not writing a weekly column for anyone so I’m doing this one just for me and you, dear reader.

Hello dear reader, remember me? I used to be the virger (correct spelling) at Beverley Minster and a regular columnist for the esteemed pages and pixels of the Hull Daily Mail empire, but now I am not.

As a virger I was constrained in what I could write: in fact I was forbidden to discuss the Marian Heresy, Transubstantiation and whole swathes of the Reformation while some of the finer matters of doctrine had to be referred directly to the Archbishop for approval. Now, however, I am freed from these constraints and, as soon as the world knew I was now the licencee at Monks Walk public house in Beverley it beat a path to my door.

Suddenly there was a crowd outside, demanding answers to the most important matters of the day. And so, in order of importance, here they are:

QUESTION: Are you going to be the next James Bond?

I shouldn’t have been surprised at this because almost every colour magazine these days has a cover photo of a ruggedly handsome man being asked the same question, so inevitably people’s thoughts turned to me.  Well, the first thing I should say is that I’ve not heard anything officially, so obviously I can’t make a definitive comment. However, you might as well know that I could bring a few very positive aspects to the films at this stage in their history.

Firstly, James Bond has been around, in films, for 54 years – and he obviously didn’t start his career as a baby so in real life he’s about my age, give-or-take a few years. So I’d be a suitably mature candidate for a realistic portrayal of the character.

Secondly, my older son works for Aston Martin so I could possibly get hold of one of those iconic cars for a spare weekend or two and, being a much more careful driver than Daniel Craig, probably return it to the factory unscathed after filming. Think how much money that would save the producers.

I admit I’m not much good with a gun, although that defect can be remedied with some clever camera editing; and being a happily married man (30 years this year, and counting) I’d probably have to get a stunt man or body double to do those scenes involving close-ups with the leading lady. I can’t run very fast now since my feet got hammered walking several miles every day on the uneven and unforgiving floor of Beverley Minster, but I believe simply speeding up the film or some elementary CGI could solve those problems.

But the ways of casting directors are strange and move in mysterious ways – after all, they picked Roger Moore in 1973 – so who knows?

QUESTION: When you’re making a shandy should you put the beer in first or second?

Now this clearly illustrates the great and unbridgeable divide between North and South. Down there we like our beers flat, so beer first and fizzy lemonade on top which gives it a bit of sparkle. Up here, where the beer sparkles anyway, it’s best to put in the non-alcoholic element first, extract the bubbles and then top up with foaming ale. Alternatively, encourage customers not to spoil a good drink with lemonade in the first place.

QUESTION: Do you give credit?

NO.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got room for this week. I shall discuss further matters of great importance soon.

 

 

The final farewell

From being a virger at Beverley Minster, at any rate.

It’s funny, the process of saying goodbye, or getting ready to move on.  I’ve been in a sort of limbo, or purgatory, for the last few weeks since I started counting down my days as a virger.

When I first told the vicar I was leaving I genuinely felt a physical pain in my stomach and felt unwell all evening. Yet, only a few days later I was starting to complain about all the little things that have been irritating me for nearly ten years as though they were the only part of my normal daily routine. For several hours I was as grumpy as a bear with a bad head.

I’ll tell you, I could have walked out of the building then and there without a second’s thought, chucking my virge into the nearest hedge in frustration.

And then something magical happened – I was asked to do a tour around the old building and all the love just came flooding straight back. I couldn’t imagine why I’d been daft enough to ever think about leaving.

It’s all down to perspective really, isn’t it? And how we cope with change. We’re all seem to be perfectly capable of showering something with love, no matter how deserving or undeserving this object of our affections may be (and I’m thinking about Bristol City, currently near the bottom of the Championship in this context). And then, when circumstances change or a final little grain of sand tumbles off the scales of balance, we switch our loyalties around and subsequently rationalise this 180 degree turn with a variety of excuses.

I was unhappy to be leaving the Minster, therefore I found as many reasons, trivial and not-so-trivial, as I could to convince myself I disliked it. Having found these few I then felt able to justify my betrayal, thanks to a surge of artificially-created emotional reactions.

Whole continents have been devastated over the centuries by powerful individuals who have switched sides due to a manufactured tiff or disagreement – and having once changed sides it is twice as difficult to change again. For better or worse most individuals will feel the need to resort to outrageous exaggeration to prove that their latest stance is the correct one.

Well I’m not like that. I’m man (or virger) enough to admit that I can be wrong, and inconsistent, and that’s just the way I am. I shall never try to expunge the memory that being a virger at Beverley Minster has been the most satisfying and personally enriching experience of my entire working life (in every sense but monetary, or course). Yes, events and people have annoyed, irritated or enraged me at different times but, in 99 per cent of the cases, we’ve got over it and gone on to better and greater things.

The Minster is looking for new hands on the tiller, new ways of doing things while looking after an institution with the scale and ambition of a cathedral and the resources of a parish church; new people to deal with the million myriad mishaps that occur each day, and I wish them the best of luck – because I know how much fun it can be. But now it’s time for me to move on and start serving spirits of an alcoholic rather than a Holy kind. Hopefully I’ll see many of the old faces in my new role and, looking back over the last decade, I’ve been pretty lucky to be working here and meeting them all.

Mind you, I think they were pretty lucky to have me as well.

My new life as a publican at Monks Walk, just up the road from the Minster, formally began, appropriately enough, on 1st April. I’ll be updating this blog quite frequently, so don’t go away. Just remember, I’m still dealing with lost souls, so it’s not that different.

Revelations

The future becomes clearer.

The one question I’ve been asked more than any other over the last few weeks (apart from the perennial ‘where are the toilets?’)  is, “who is the new virger?” As a follow-up I then hear: ‘What is she like?’
I’m afraid to say my answers to both these questions are vague and unsatisfying, and it’s not my fault. I would have loved to know more about John Dell’s replacement but circumstances combined against this.
All I can say is that her name is Robyn, and she has been a virger at St Paul’s cathedral, so at least she knows how to spell ‘virger’ correctly – and she starts on 1st May.
It’s not her fault either that I know so little. There was a precise time of day set aside when I was due to take all short-listed candidates around the Minster, imparting a little bit of virgerial wisdom on different aspects of the church (the font is big, it takes three buckets of cold water and one of hot to make an acceptable temperature for the child and vicar, and the taps are all down the other end) – and so forth. However, Robyn’s train was delayed so I did the tour in two phases – and the second one was a bit rushed.
In consequence, I was concentrating on getting her around and back downstairs in time for her interview and wasn’t able to have much of an in depth question and answer session for my own purposes. I was hoping to at least have a bit of a chat while taking her back to the parish centre but, on my arrival at ground level, I was presented with a worried musical director who was waving a phone around and telling me that one of the shop volunteers had collapsed at the till and my presence was needed urgently.
So Robyn made her own way back to the interview without further comment and it was several days later before I even found out her surname, by which time she was already confirmed in her new post.
By the way, the volunteer was fine – she was sitting up and we were joking about various things long before the paramedics arrived, so that was all right.
But while we wait for Robyn to join us the Minster has to have a virger present to at least get the old girl opened up and ready for whatever may assail her on a daily basis. For five days a week, three hours a day, that’s still me while, for the other two days, our part-time assistant virger has full responsibility all day.
In the other hours the clergy are in charge, and it was lovely one morning last week to see the vicar shifting and stacking chairs after an evening concert. I’ve just had to instruct them on a few tiny points, such as the need to collect the radio mics every evening and recharge them overnight, as well as where to find the light switch for the Friends of Beverley Minster display cabinet. Aside from that the building still seems to be standing, welcomers are at the door, greeting people as they always do, the shop is ticking over and retailing properly and, so far, no one has complained about the state of the toilets.
In fact, I’m starting to think that I’ve been rather exaggerating about how difficult it is to be a virger over the last few years of my weekly broadcasts. I’m now starting to realise it’s really so simple even  the clergy can do it.