PsychoGeography #64: The Father, the Son and the Holy Voice

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The Independent Online

When my brother Nick lived in Poughkeepsie, I used to take the Hudson River line up from New York to see him. First came the clanking, gargling progress from the marble mouth of the Grand Central Terminal, through the gullet of Manhattan, then the train was regurgitated at 125th Street into the turbulent belly of Harlem.

When my brother Nick lived in Poughkeepsie, I used to take the Hudson River line up from New York to see him. First came the clanking, gargling progress from the marble mouth of the Grand Central Terminal, through the gullet of Manhattan, then the train was regurgitated at 125th Street into the turbulent belly of Harlem. There was a conductor on this route who had the gravelliest, throatiest voice I'd ever heard. He'd come stomping through the carriages, punching tickets, and rasping out the destinations - Cold Springs, Brewster North, Rochester - and my favourite, Croton Harmon. Except he didn't say "Croton Harmon". He said, "Croaaakkenhaaarrrrmon" - a deliriously enjoyable rasp of a spondee. I wanted to grab him by the lapels of his worn serge jacket, kiss him, and enjoin him to "Never change! Never suck on a cough sweet! Keep it just the sandpapery way it is!"

Sadly my brother has moved and I now take the train to Wassaic, yet in the cavernous byways of my wayward mind the conductor still stomps, vocalising the acid reflux of a million, million untipped Camel cigarettes. "Croaaakkenhaaarrrrmon". In this respect he is a Holy Ghost, the third aspect of a Trinity of travelling men. In contemporary America there's no room for doubt which god is being depended on when you read the slogan "IN GOD WE TRUST" on the obverse of a bill. This deity is a square-jawed, frontier fundamentalist. Heavy, material, real. I picture him at the wheel of a heavenly SUV powering through God's Own Country towards the End of Days Motel and Rest Stop.

The Son is a rather more problematic figure. Indeed, contemporary American evangelists seem altogether keener on an Old Testamentary, Death Valley landscape, than they are on picnicking in Canaan or surfing across the Dead Sea. When you come to consider the disciples' behaviour - all-male fraternity, hanging out in gardens, short on violence, long on love - it's hard not to feel that in Father's all-seeing eyes the whole carry-on is like a "Godamn fuckin' gay marriage!"

Which brings me, neatly enough, to my brother's marriage. He and his partner, Laurie, have been together for 10 years, but they knew each other quite a while before that. They're both academics and met at a conference. For a few years after their contact was confined to tender glances bestowed across libraries, much as one imagines amorous Trappist monks to behave. Then there came a great leap forward, and they began an epistolatory relationship. In the fullness of time came talking to one another, occupying the same room simultaneously, and all the things one associates with what Freud called "full genitality". Now, a decade down the line, they've tied the knot. I find this leisurely - almost courtly - drift to union quite fitting, for they are both historians.

They live in a curious administrative enclave called Amenia Union, on the New York / Connecticut border. Their clapboard house is late 18th century and the views all around are of rolling, wooded hills. Given the somewhat anachronistic cast of their lives - no television, more time spent in the archives than the mall - their decision to get married in an Episcopalian church was entirely appropriate. The American arm of the Anglican church is a distinctly strange outfit. At one time the Episcopalians were the God club for the North East élite. But times have changed, and with an SUV believer in the White House the Episcopalian élite has whittled down to a slim one-and-a-half-million souls.

Like our own Anglicans, the Episcopalians are a very broad church: "Devil worshipper? Jolly good, come along to the vicarage on Sunday; we're having a coffee morning ..." They were in the vanguard of ordaining women and gays, and are quite happy to marry divorcees like Nick and Laurie. What a teasing anomaly these inclusive sectarians are, a Holy Ghost of conscience in the American religious temperament.

It was a beautiful day for a wedding, crisp and sunny. St Peter's Lithgow is a little toothpick of carpenter gothic with homely arts and crafts touches. Cosy stained glass filtered the wintry sunlight on to the expectant faces of the small congregation. I read from chapter 13 of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. You know the one: "Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking: but then we shall see face to face ..." Nick and Laurie had opted for the Tyndale version rather than the King James - tougher, more sinewy language - and as I stood declaiming at the lectern, I found myself possessed not by the Father or the Son, but by the third member of the Trinity. My voice sunk into the lower registers, I was stalking the clanking carriages of the Metro North commuter train. It was all I could do to prevent myself crying out "Croaaakkenhaaarrrrmon."

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