WHY ME? LENTEN TALK BY ALEXANDRA TAYLOR, SUNDAY 2 APRIL 2017 AT ST JOHN THE BAPTIST, HOLLAND ROAD
WHY ME? LENTEN TALK BY ALEXANDRA TAYLOR, SUNDAY 2 APRIL 2017 AT ST JOHN THE BAPTIST, HOLLAND ROAD
Faith. What is faith? Is it the magic that is needed to remember to water the garden; or is it entering a church, praying, kneeling in a beautiful internal space with pillars and pews and perfect peace.
All of these or some of these. What is faith? Do I know? When life becomes a struggle is it faith that comes to the rescue. Gardens flourish with watering, the knowledge of faith helps. Just admire this year’s magnolias.
I was born in an Elizabethan manor house in Lincolnshire belonging to my widowed maternal grandmother. She had been a child prodigy in the 1890’s a diamond medallist figure skater trained in London. Her father was one of the physicians looking after the children in Regents Park with Dr Barnardo. My grandmother supported the local church, the annual fete was held in her garden. She attended the church every week.
Before the war, two grass tennis courts were mowed for the enjoyment of trainee pilots from the various airfields in East Anglia, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. The war changed things but still my grandfather mowed those lawns for their use, the gardens however became over grown.
My other grandmother lived in South Devon five hours drive from Lincolnshire. She hunted side -saddle, she ran the pony club, WI and the local church. She too was devoted to her village. It had a wonderful stone church with parish records from 1654, perched on the edge of Dartmoor. Dark and stony, dark oak pews huddled together. Interestingly Ivo Morshead was the vicar of a nearby parish. My father hated his dominant horsey household. He joined the Territorial Army and went to war. He never spoke about his experiences.
It was whilst hiding in a Piccadilly bomb shelter that my father proposed marriage to my mother on condition that she understood that she would be a widow the following week. He was due to swim a tank across the Channel. This was summer 1944 the prelude to D-Day. He survived to serve in other areas for the rest of the war. Was that faith or fate?
My father never wanted to go to church, nor did my mother. Sundays were never a priority, gardening and mowing, sailing or walking into the hills were much more important. Sadly not only did I never attend church with either grandmother, nor did I with my parents, church was however one of the most exciting places with my various schools. The atmosphere, the music and the friendship of the congregations.
Two sisters later and three or four different postings in England and Scotland, family Howard were on a troop ship travelling to Singapore for three years. With a Chinese cook and a Malayan amah to look after us in a bungalow my father had built, my parents indulged in sailing and lived the life of riley. Getting to school was by RAF lorry. Monsoons, elephants, orang-utans and paper dragons were all new to me.
After three years the whole family travelled in the troop ship Windrush on its penultimate journey. The same ship was responsible for bringing the original immigrants from the West Indies in the 1940’s.
Three years later we drove to Gibraltar in a baker’s van with added windows. Driving across France and Spain, it was hot and stuffy. The cathedral in Girona was the first church to leave a lasting mark. Its wonderful mullion windows, a wide gothic nave, all of 72 feet and consecrated in 1038. A huge space again with steps and pillars.
Arriving in Gibraltar we lived on the wall of the Moorish Castle, the apes visited us every day. Again my sisters and I went to school, this time in an army lorry. Our headmaster and his wife, two old fashioned people ran a strict regime, co-educational with morning assembly. We sang hymns, said prayers, usually outside when it was warm enough. It was such a happy time.
Sundays were sadly not church days. The crew of HMS Albion brought out a 26 foot yacht for my father. Every weekend was involved with sailing or maintenance. We never went to church however our school trip to the Cathedral was so exciting for me. The Moorish arches, its internal space, pillars and serenity. This was the beginning of a simple faith. I wanted to go to church.
On October 21st each year, Trafalgar Day, some of the Mediterranean Fleet was moored in the harbour. Dressed in immaculate folded trousers about 50 to 100 sailors attended the local cemetery for a special act of remembrance. In 1805 HMS Victory came to Gibraltar, she brought the body of Admiral Lord Nelson, she landed the wounded and buried the dead in this cemetery. The hymn ‘Eternal Father strong to save’ sung by the sailors, the tingle factor experience was totally memorable. The head boy and I represented the prep school and were very proud to be there in that rocky dug out graveyard.
One Easter break we sailed to the Feria in Seville. The Madonna is paraded, everyone is in their party dresses and on horseback. Sailing home we were hit by a force 10 gale north of Cape Trafalgar and rode it out for four and a half days. When the gale blew itself out, we were feted by the local fishermen. Pedro the barman looked after us children as my parents were exhausted. Someone was watching. Thank you God but I did learn to play bridge.
The director of music at my boarding school was Herbert Sumsion, the organist from Gloucester Cathedral. Teaching me religious knowledge was a lady who was one of the translators of the newly found Dead Sea Scrolls. My great uncle was involved with the New English Bible publication in 1961. Christian scholarship was quite exciting at that time.
The introduction of concerts, organ recitals and theatrical experiences made my life very different from living in the Far East or the Mediterranean. Even more so when leaving school, the choice of BP, Shell, the Foreign Office or the BBC as employers was challenging. I chose the BBC.
As a sound engineer in Broadcasting House, I was working in the continuity studio when the news clerk ran in to give the announcer the terrible news of the Aberfan collapse. It was Trafalgar Day 1966. Prayers were needed for the whole community in South Wales. Faith was tested.
When deciding whether to take a place at University, the wartime announcer Alvar Liddell gave me his advice. “The BBC is the university of life. Stay here”. Never to be forgotten.
When staying in Paris in the sixth arrondisement in May 1968, students were rioting all around. It was a noisy and dangerous place but on escaping the street, my hostess wanted to show me her church quite near the Etoile. It was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Rue Daru. The atmosphere was quite fascinating. Walking up the Cathedral steps we gave money to the poor. This church had been the spiritual centre for many Russian refugees since 1917, first second and third generations. Some poor, some wealthy and very supportive of those without. The door opened and at that moment, the senior priest came through his screen, kissed icons and started singing in the deepest voice imaginable.
Bush House was the home of the Overseas Service broadcasting in 39 languages. In 1970 working there, as a studio manager, it was a pleasure. Easter and Christmas celebrations were broadcast from various Churches. I particularly remember the Russian Church in Ennismore Gardens where the leading priest also had a wonderful deep base voice.
When the ballerina Natalia Markova asked for political asylum she summoned help from her BBC friends as well as those from that same church.
Life changed in 1971. I met and married Christopher Taylor a tall blue eyed academic, then involved in banking. He loved music, opera and ballet, archaeology and the Middle East. He had travelled far further than I had. We moved to Shropshire leaving Bush House and the BBC after twelve years. Three children, gardening and photography were my new life including photographing nearly three hundred and fifty weddings from Perthshire to Penzance, from Malta to San Francisco. The joy of visiting church after church decorated with wonderful flowers was immense. What an honour it was to be introduced to all those families who wanted a photographer for that Special Day. Thrilled by the pre service peace in those churches, I enjoyed the beauty of the history of each and every one. From the church near Waddesdon with no electricity, to the St Brides Church overlooking St George’s Channel with wild flowers in the vases. The roar of the waves crashing on the rocks below made the whole scene unforgettable. Staunton Harcourt in Leicestershire was built between the Civil War and the Restoration. The congregation is divided with men sitting on one side of the aisle and women on the other. There was always a story to learn.
The book, the Ultra secret, was published in 1974. It was the end of the thirty years of the secret my mother withheld. She had worked in Hut 3 in Bletchley Park. It became her overriding interest, always researching its work.
She requested that she was laid to rest in the family churchyard next to her parents and generations before. She never talked of her faith, if she had any.
Five years ago Christopher and I returned to London. Ann Chorley told us of St George’s “try the church up the hill”. We did and we were welcomed. We enjoy the two churches of the United Benefice, the music, the history and the traditions.
Thank you Fr. James and Fr. Peter for inviting me to talk. It has been an exacting exercise and a great honour. Every week emotion sets in when Joy Puritz sings the descant of the Agnes Dei. Paul Joslin and Andrew Wells have the same effect on me regularly. Thank you God for faith, friendship and family including seven grandchildren. AMEN.