A hundred years ago when I was about eleven, my parents took me and my brother out one night to see Bruce Forsyth play the Alhambra in Glasgow. But first we dined in the Berkeley in North Street. Asparagus was on the menu. I had never tasted asparagus, but I was very keen to order it as I had just read Ian Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever. On board the Queen Elizabeth, en route to Southampton from New York, Tiffany Case prepares for Bond a dish of asparagus and sauce béarnaise. It seems an unlikely aphrodisiac, and indeed I have a notion Fleming in subsequent editions took out the asparagus and substituted steak on toast canapés.
I didn’t much like the asparagus. Each spear was an effigy of the Chrysler Building and I fancied tasted like a triffid, bitter to the youthful palate. But I wolfed them down. Then we went off to the Alhambra.
Even so long ago, Brucie was a very famous entertainer and had been around for ever. It was a one man show. We were seated quite near the front. Half way through, I developed the most appalling indigestion and became an irritable and fractious child. I don’t think the family was very sympathetic. “Well, if you will insist in ordering exotic vegetables…”
But I knew better. It wasn’t the asparagus. Halfway through the show, it became apparent that Brucie wanted some audience participation and was looking for a child to join him on stage. I had a panic attack, sank low in my seat and thought, “Avoid eye contact!” I couldn’t bear it. In the end, he chose a girl from Rutherglen.
Fast track forward a century. Yesterday I was in Dunblane Cathedral for morning service, seated, as is my wont, in the back pew, about a football pitch from the clergy. The associate minister is from South Carolina and has a great way with kids. Audience participation again. She had ten of them up. She said to the first five, “Now I want each of you to find somebody in the congregation you know, and bring them up.” And to the second five, “Find somebody in the congregation you don’t know, and bring them up.”
Another panic attack. I hid under the pew. Nothing ever changes. At least I didn’t get the indigestion. And the kids had more sense than to drag me up. We moved on to the lesson – Mark 12; the widow with two mites who put it all in the collection.
I was brought up to go to church. While at Edinburgh Medical School, I intermittently sang in the choir in St Giles. Then for a long time I never went. But more recently I have become a more regular, if invisible attender. Like Nicodemus, visiting Our Lord by night. There is the magnificent architecture, the fine Flentrop organ (the postlude yesterday was J S Bach’s Piece d’Orgue BWV 572 – nothing could be more majestic), the beautiful flowers that Mr and Mrs Murray kindly left behind after their nuptials. What’s not to like?
But of course it’s more than that. I come here to get some relief from life’s bunkum. Before I went to Dunblane I’d caught the Andrew Marr show on BBC 1 and the paper reviewers were musing on the Times rich list. Apparently since the crash they’ve all doubled their wealth. The UK has the biggest number of billionaires per capita of any country in the world. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I have a notion that human affairs operate by and large as part of a Huge Scam. Economics, the Dismal Science, tries to get to the bottom of it but never will. Everyone’s a dodger, says the Aaron Copland song. Even the preacher! That would be insupportable.
Yet I flatter myself when I pretend I am Nicodemus. Nicodemus has two cameo appearances in the gospels. He returns to help Joseph of Arimathea dress Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. He became one of the committed. I sit invisibly in my rear pew and feel like a fake. That is why I panicked when the children started looking for me.
At least I was right that it wasn’t the exotic vegetables that unsettled me, all these years ago. Yet those dear to me still warn the hostess at dinner parties: “For God’s sake don’t let him anywhere near that asparagus.” I happened to say to one of them the other day, when we were talking about the worldliness of the world, that if Jesus returned in 2015 and walked the streets of Glasgow, telling people to sell all they had and give to the poor, he would pretty soon be in deep trouble.
“Trouble? He’d be crucified!”