Thursday, 3 February 2011

A trip down memory lane

This evening I am leading a discussion at St Dunstan's in the West on the life and work of Father Alexander Men. What happened is this: William Gulliford, the vicar, asked me if I would like to choose a topic for one of his Thursday evening supper meetings. He leads 6pm vespers, then the five or six people who turn up go through to his little dining room/vestry with a kitchen, make supper (baked spuds, cold meat, fruit, cheese etc) and then go through to his cosy study for a sort of seminar.

First of all I suggested Dr Zhivago, some passages in Chapter One The Five O Clock Express but he talked me into Fr A Men. I have sent down to the church a box of the US Continuum edition of Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century - the Life and Work of Alexander Men (a book I co-edited with my friend Ann Shukman) which I rescued from being pulped at a few days’ notice, so that everyone can have a copy to take away.

When I was at my mother's house on Friday, I remembered that I had given a copy to her when it came out and searched high and low for it with no success. But what I did find was a copy of Awake to Life a cycle of Easter sermons given by Fr Alexander and published by my friend Robert Dudley's Bowerdean Press, which I have been reading. A card fell out, a colourful very retro Russian Easter card of two chicks pulling an Easter-egg shaped cart, with a note I had written when I gave it to her.

Finding Awake to Life brought back to me how Rob was involved, and so I will give him full credit for being the first to take up the torch, as it were. I should explain that Fr Alexander was the parish priest of Novaya Derevnya (in English 'New Village') northeast of Moscow on the road to Sergiev Posad the monastery town seat of the Patriarch so equivalent in that sense to Canterbury. Fr Alexander was in every way remarkable:
he embodied the message of Christ, that true freedom is love. The 18 sermons often mention death, and he was murdered not long after he had baptised my elder daughter Abi, by dark forces of church and state analogous to those who cut down Thomas Beckett. At the suggestion of the Rev Chad Coussmaker, chaplain of our Embassy in Moscow and with the encouragement - in the shape of a commission promising a run at his theatre - of Dr Donald Smith,the Director of the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh, I adapted T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral with Mark Rozovsky, director of Moscow theatre At The Nikitsky Gates. Our version was entitled Murder in the Cathedral - a Russian Rehearsal. It was a great success and has toured Russia ever since, winning prizes. Mrs Valerie Eliot, T S's widow who owns the rights does not, however permit any use of her late husband's original material to be co-opted in this way, so this powerful telling of the murder of Fr Alexander has not been performed outside Russia. It is the birthday today of Gertrude Stein who once said: I am going to read what I have written to read, because in a general way it is easier even if it is not better and in a general way it is better even if it is not easier to read what has been written than to say what has not been written.'

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