Opening Doors

20 08 2009

[You can listen to this podcast here, or subscribe for free by searching ‘James Townsend’ in iTunes Store]

The second week of August is generally regarded to be the highpoint of what has come to be known as the ‘silly season’. That is the period of a several weeks when all the newsmakers – the politicians, the criminals, the celebrities, the actors, the protesters, the campaigners, the fellows at the national office of statistics – and, of course, those of us who consume the news: all of us are on holiday. Consequently there is precious little news to be found.

In a past age, the BBC had a policy for such things. As late as the 1930s, it was not unheard of for the evening bulletin to be replaced by announcer saying simply: “This is the BBC; there is no news.” Followed by a few minutes of light music.

Well, today such a procedure would be impossible. Not only would it make the concept of a twenty-four hour news channel look ridiculous, it would put a whole industry of live news out of work – not something we should hope for in the middle of a recession.

So instead we have a succession of stories from the banal to the ridiculous. This year, though, and in particular this week, there have been a number of moderately legitimate stories doing the rounds. Thanks primarily to the loose tongue of Alan Duncan, the saga of MPs’ expenses has been resurrected. Equally, the heated debate about the merits of the NHS across the Atlantic has given us a chance to reflect on and defend our system of healthcare. Then, of course, there has been the question of who is in charge of the country while the Prime Minister is on holiday, and if that happens to be Harriet Harman, whether or not that’s good thing.

Unusually, then, the second week in August has been fairly news-filled. Consequently you may have missed the small revolution that happened in a small corner of England.

The town of Painswick, in Gloucestershire, has been home to me for nineteen years this summer. I say town, because that is it’s legal status, but the community widely regards itself to be a village.

It is tempting at this stage to give you a brief description of the village  – its church, its few shops, its collection of houses, the bizarre and medieval ceremonies marked every year – but it is ultimately pretty similar to any other Cotswold village or town. Besides, that might make a handy bit of material for a letter in the future.

For now, all I need to tell you is that Painswick is home to the oldest Post Office in the land. You may think this means that the Painswick Post Office is the longest serving branch of that organisation, or possibly that it was one of the first to be instituted. Well, unfortunately you would be mistaken in thinking that.

The rather convoluted truth is that the building in which the Painswick Post Office resides is older than any other building housing a Post Office. It is a peculiar claim, and there aren’t many competing claims. Nevertheless, the people of Painswick are very proud of the Post Office.

And that is why, a few years ago, it was the centre of a great conflict within the community. Very shortly after my arrival as a three-year-old in the village, a new postmistress was appointed.

One of my earliest memories is of various locals sitting in our kitchen complaining about the new door policy at the Post Office. The Painswick Post Office, you see, has two doors. One, at the front, is at street level. Another is at the side, down a narrow alley and up several steps.

Well it seemed that the new postmistress wanted to maximise the use of space in her shop and closed the front door, blocking it with a stand of postcards. So, for nearly two decades, the pensioners of Painswick have been forced to climb the three steps in order to collect their pension – not something octogenarians are fond of doing.

The hostility produced by this policy was remarkable, but the postmistress stuck her ground.

You can imagine, then, my surprise to return home this week and see the front page of the Painswick Beacon newsletter: “New Postmistress gets stamp of approval”. It turns out that since I was last home a change in personnel has been made.

On taking up her appointment, Frances Lay made sure that her first act was to move the postcard stand, and to open the front door of the Post Office.

As I speak to you now, no sculptor has yet been commissioned to commemorate in marble or bronze this act of revolution. But there is a widespread feeling in the village that should a statue be created, the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square would make a fitting place for it to stand.

So, rather late on, I have now set the theme for this letter as ‘opening doors’. The challenge will now be to sustain the theme all the way through to ten minutes. Having given the matter a few moments of reflection, I note that the opening of doors is quite a common theme of revolutions throughout the world.

At the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, for example, the door to the prison (strictly, I suppose, a gate) played a leading role in the drama of Quatourze Juillet. Equally, the Russian Revolution is defined in popular culture by the, largely fictional, Eisenstein film which depicts hordes of workers crashing through the doors of the Winter Palace.

Going back even further, the mother of revolutions – the reformation – was triggered by one man and door. Martin Luther famously nailed his ninety-five theses to the West Door of the Cathedral at Wittenburg. It was an act that triggered centuries of conflict and war, and ultimately changed the shape of Europe forever.

Even today, the opening of doors is an act with great symbolism. Every year, the Queen travels to Westminster to open Parliament. Once settled on her throne in the House of Lords, Black Rod is dispatched to summon the House of Commons. As he approaches, the door of the chamber is slammed in his face. Only once he has knocked the times is the door opened.

The point of the ceremony is to demonstrate the independence of the House of Commons – a hang-over from the Civil War, I’m told.

Sticking in Westminster, I heard a remarkable story not too long ago from Westminster Abbey. Workmen had been carrying out some work refitting a room which had been used as a sort of Laundry, just off the cloisters. They noted that the door to this room was looking particularly delicate and suggested it should be replaced.

Purely out of curiosity some bright spark suggested that precise age of the door could be ascertained through carbon dating. It turned out that at over one thousand years old, the door was the oldest working door in the world.

The second week of August is generally regarded to be the highpoint of what has come to be known as the ‘silly season’. That is the period of a several weeks when all the newsmakers – the politicians, the criminals, the celebrities, the actors, the protesters, the campaigners, the fellows at the national office of statistics – and, of course, those of us who consume the news: all of us are on holiday. Consequently there is precious little news to be found.

In a past age, the BBC had a policy for such things. As late as the 1930s, it was not unheard of for the evening bulletin to be replaced by announcer saying simply: “This is the BBC; there is no news.” Followed by a few minutes of light music.

Well, today such a procedure would be impossible. Not only would it make the concept of a twenty-four hour news channel look ridiculous, it would put a whole industry of live news out of work – not something we should hope for in the middle of a recession.

So instead we have a succession of stories from the banal to the ridiculous. This year, though, and in particular this week, there have been a number of moderately legitimate stories doing the rounds. Thanks primarily to the loose tongue of Alan Duncan, the saga of MPs’ expenses has been resurrected. Equally, the heated debate about the merits of the NHS across the Atlantic has given us a chance to reflect on and defend our system of healthcare. Then, of course, there has been the question of who is in charge of the country while the Prime Minister is on holiday, and if that happens to be Harriet Harman, whether or not that’s good thing.

Unusually, then, the second week in August has been fairly news-filled. Consequently you may have missed the small revolution that happened in a small corner of England.

The town of Painswick, in Gloucestershire, has been home to me for nineteen years this summer. I say town, because that is it’s legal status, but the community widely regards itself to be a village.

It is tempting at this stage to give you a brief description of the village – its church, its few shops, its collection of houses, the bizarre and medieval ceremonies marked every year – but it is ultimately pretty similar to any other Cotswold village or town. Besides, that might make a handy bit of material for a letter in the future.

For now, all I need to tell you is that Painswick is home to the oldest Post Office in the land. You may think this means that the Painswick Post Office is the longest serving branch of that organisation, or possibly that it was one of the first to be instituted. Well, unfortunately you would be mistaken in thinking that.

The rather convoluted truth is that the building in which the Painswick Post Office resides is older than any other building housing a Post Office. It is a peculiar claim, and there aren’t many competing claims. Nevertheless, the people of Painswick are very proud of the Post Office.

And that is why, a few years ago, it was the centre of a great conflict within the community. Very shortly after my arrival as a three-year-old in the village, a new postmistress was appointed.

One of my earliest memories is of various locals sitting in our kitchen complaining about the new door policy at the Post Office. The Painswick Post Office, you see, has two doors. One, at the front, is at street level. Another is at the side, down a narrow alley and up several steps.

Well it seemed that the new postmistress wanted to maximise the use of space in her shop and closed the front door, blocking it with a stand of postcards. So, for nearly two decades, the pensioners of Painswick have been forced to climb the three steps in order to collect their pension – not something octogenarians are fond of doing.

The hostility produced by this policy was remarkable, but the postmistress stuck her ground.

You can imagine, then, my surprise to return home this week and see the front page of the Painswick Beacon newsletter: “New Postmistress gets stamp of approval”. It turns out that since I was last home a change in personnel has been made.

On taking up her appointment, Frances Lay made sure that her first act was to move the postcard stand, and to open the front door of the Post Office.

As I speak to you now, no sculptor has yet been commissioned to commemorate in marble or bronze this act of revolution. But there is a widespread feeling in the village that should a statue be created, the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square would make a fitting place for it to stand.

So, rather late on, I have now set the theme for this letter as ‘opening doors’. The challenge will now be to sustain the theme all the way through to ten minutes. Having given the matter a few moments of reflection, I note that the opening of doors is quite a common theme of revolutions throughout the world.

At the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, for example, the door to the prison (strictly, I suppose, a gate) played a leading role in the drama of Quatourze Juillet. Equally, the Russian Revolution is defined in popular culture by the, largely fictional, Eisenstein film which depicts hordes of workers crashing through the doors of the Winter Palace.

Going back even further, the mother of revolutions – the reformation – was triggered by one man and door. Martin Luther famously nailed his ninety-five theses to the West Door of the Cathedral at Wittenburg. It was an act that triggered centuries of conflict and war, and ultimately changed the shape of Europe forever.

Even today, the opening of doors is an act with great symbolism. Every year, the Queen travels to Westminster to open Parliament. Once settled on her throne in the House of Lords, Black Rod is dispatched to summon the House of Commons. As he approaches, the door of the chamber is slammed in his face. Only once he has knocked the times is the door opened.

The point of the ceremony is to demonstrate the independence of the House of Commons – a hang-over from the Civil War, I’m told.

Sticking in Westminster, I heard a remarkable story not too long ago from Westminster Abbey. Workmen had been carrying out some work refitting a room which had been used as a sort of Laundry, just off the cloisters. They noted that the door to this room was looking particularly delicate and suggested it should be replaced.

Purely out of curiosity some bright spark suggested that precise age of the door could be ascertained through carbon dating. It turned out that at over one thousand years old, the door was the oldest working door in the world.

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