22 May 2023

Catherine Fox’s reminder
of Covid’s cold climate
and hope after that
apocalypse is not disaster

Patrick Comerford

COVID has not gone away. It is still here, and it is still killing people. I am due to receive my fifth vaccine at the Open University in Milton Keynes later this week (22 May 2023), and we still have self-testing kits in the bathroom cabinet.

Without the vaccines, without self-isolation, without people working from home, the impact of the pandemic may have been more devastating. Who knows whether the emergence of a new and deadlier variant has been forestalled or is still going to catch us all unawares?

How quickly we forget. At the moment, we cannot forget the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and we continue to be faced with gaps on supermarket shelves and soaring food prices that are blamed on ‘supply chain problems’ and not on Brexit.

But how quickly, I fear, we have forgotten the cargo ship jammed in the Suez Canal, the last planes from Afghanistan, petrol shortages and gridlock outside petrol stations, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, people singing opera to each other from balconies in Italy, the tsunami in Tonga, Prince Andrew, Djokovic at the Australian Open, the closure of Debenhams … migrants drowning in the Channel.

Some people want to forget COVID, and while we were there some people tried to ignore and to deny COVID. Some mad-caps, right up to the White House, tried to dismiss it all as a conspiracy. But real people and real families, real communities and real parishes suffered – and remain traumatised.

So that we do not forget the impact of COVID – and the lessons we have learned during the pandemic – we need both historians and novelists to tell the story. Historians can help us to remember and analyse the causes and consequences of events over these past few years. But novelists are going to remind us of its social impacts: some heart-breaking, but some heart-warming.

Is our communal experience of COVID going to produce literature and poetry? Catherine Fox has started us on the road with The Company of Heaven, her fifth and latest account of daily life in the Diocese of Lindchester, our very own 21st century Barchester.

We are invited into ‘the valley of the shadow of COVID’, where she finds ‘a silver lining to the COVID clouds’ as we spend 12 random days over 12 months in Lindfordshire, rummaging through 12 baskets full of broken fragments.

Our hearts are still hanging in the willows by the waters of COVID. We are still in exile. Lest we forget, she reminds us of the days of facemasks in churches, blankets in pubs, perspex screens between tables in restaurants, repurposed car parks, the rule of six, and the neck-and-neck race between the search for vaccines and the emergence of new variants.

These were the days when we kept doors open to keep air circulating, and when the return of football was accompanied by the return of naked racism.

There are new words than I find difficult to take on, such as ‘Anglicanly’ and ‘Brexchatology’ – hopefully they never appear as answers in the Guardian Quick Crossword.

There are curious conundrums about cutting diamonds, the size of pearls in the Pearly Gate, and why Harry Potter didn’t magic himself 20/20 vision so he wouldn’t need glasses. There are discussions about the genesis of figs and pearls, and a reminder that 42 is the meaning of life.

But real theological and pastoral dilemmas and challenges are posed too. How do I look God in the face when it turns out my best was worse than doing nothing would have been?

At one point, there is a knowing hint that clergy in particular identify with Lindchester: ‘Let the ordained reader understand.’ But there are home truths for every reader.

I too, in previous roles, know the toll on students and academic colleagues of a devastating, career-destroying Turnitin report. As I read about the temporary suspension of the Bishop of Sidcup, clergy disciplinary measures facing a former Bishop of Lindchester, and the links with a possible transfer to York, I was also reading the news in the Church Times that Archbishop John Sentamu has had his PTO (permission to officiate) suspended.

This book is a reminder that real life, and Church life, are inexplicably cruel. We all know only too well that ‘grief is just part of being human.’

But have we learned anything? The forgetfulness of Father Dominic Todd’s mother advances with age and with dementia. As time moves on, have we forgotten the names of variants and the numbers of deaths announced each day?

Lest we forget, this was the era of Dominic Cummings and of Partygate. We still sang hymns behind facemasks. Elderly people in care homes and people with dementia suffered emotionally and psychologically while the ‘impudence of impudent politicians’ went unchecked.

The ‘fatuous war against woke’ continues, the promise on the side of red buses of £350 million a week for the NHS has never been delivered.

Lindchester, we are reminded, is somewhere between Lichfield and Chester. The pilgrim route between Chester and Lichfield is known as the ‘Two Saints Way’ and the countryside of Linfordshire seems to be a recreation of the countryside along that route, particularly as it approaches Lichfield along Cross in Hand Lane. The Close in Lindchester and its residents continue to recreate images of the Cathedral Close in Lichfield and life there. Indeed, since Adrian Dorber retired, Lichfield Cathedral has a woman (acting) dean.

But since the Lindchester Chronicles began, Catherine Fox has moved on from Lichfield, first to Liverpool and now to Sheffield. There are hints that in future years we may hear more about Liverpool – Janes Rossiter finds a new family in Liverpool; and more about Sheffield – this volume is dedicated to the Steel City Choristers.

But today Catherine Fox is cutting as she recalls that while we queued in long lines in the rain for boosters or cried and wept at pared-down weddings and funerals, rule-breaking Christmas parties were taking place in Downing Street. ‘Far off in Westminster pages are snatched from the Trump playbook … Let posh boys have the mastery … the rules don’t apply to … the Bullingdon Club.’

She describes the NHS as ‘underfunded, overstretched, simultaneously utterly brilliant and dismayingly crap.’ The general public continues to pick up the slack for a decade of underfunding. As I head off for my next vaccine this week, I too am wondering when we are going to see that £350 million a week being invested in the NHS.

We are all tourists on a live volcano. ‘What shall we rise to tomorrow? A glorious heaven? Or an ever-deepening hell?’ The Extinction Rebellion protests continue, the fast-rising cost of living remains unchecked, the war in Ukraine rages on. This remains a divided nation. But there is hope in Leah Rogers, who is Linford’s Greta Thunberg, and all the Leahs across this land. Ellis Gray’s reclamation yard is a metaphor for the truth that we can all be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.’

As we spend another year in Lindford in The Company Heaven, we are caught between one Easter and the next, without celebrating Easter itself. But, as we are reminded, the Church exists between two resurrections. There is hope: apocalypse means revelation, not disaster.

At one level, we are reminded ach of those 12 days that ‘Thou God Seest Me.’ But at another level we are invited to join in the task of separating the weft of joy from the warp of woe. As Paver writes in his September book: ‘Your faults and scars are part of you, part of your history. There is a star in your heart. So don’t be scared. Let it be part of you.’

‘High above, behind the clouds, ten thousand, thousand stars also shine, although we cannot see them.’

• Catherine Fox, Company of Heaven, was published on 18 May 2023 by Marylebone House (SPCK), London: 288 pp, £10.99, ISBN-13: 9781910674673, 9781910674680

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