It's been a long time, more than a year, since I published anything on the Web. I feel guilty about this, because
It means I have been failing to take advantage of an outlet for my creativity, and Creativity is Good. We should all try to be as creative as we can.
Having the results of your 'creativity' hosted on write.as costs $72 a year, and with the pound so weak against the dollar, that works out more than last year, when I paid for a year’s subscription that I effectively never used.
I feel bad about my readers (assuming I even have any) waiting impatiently and longingly to read my next published thoughts, and suffering only disappointment week after week.
Why, then, the silence of more than a year?
Reader, I have been going on a Spiritual Journey. And it’s a journey I haven’t understood, or been able to see the end of, or even known whether there is an end and a destination. The prophet Wittgenstein said, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” When did that ever stop anyone? And yet I don’t know how, or whether, I like to write about it until I can see more of where the Way leads.
I was working in a library in the Arts and Outreach section, liaising with a woman who was going to give a performance of story/music/acting/son et lumiere. (The exact nature was more than a little mysterious.) I was getting a lot of flak from colleagues who thought I should be working more closely with her, giving her more help, taking a larger part myself. But I was busy about hundreds of things, and told them my policy was not to interfere too much with artists, but to give them the freedom to follow their own path.
As the time of the performance drew near, it became clear they were right and I was wrong – I should have been more hands – on in what I was doing for her. It looked as if the performance would be a flop, and I’d get the blame. There was nothing for it but to fess up to my colleagues and get them to lay all the blame on the newbie; hopefully I would know better next time (if there ever was one).
I had carefully memorised the performer’s unusual surname: Smail (“I’ll be able to remember that: it’s like Tom Smail”). But when the time came and I stepped out to introduce her, I couldn’t remember the name (Was it Bailey, or what?) or the mnemonic, and I hadn’t researched any details about her that I could use in the introduction. There was nothing for it but to play the clown. I leaped onto the stage and performed a deliberately failed somersault, tried (unsuccessfully) to make the audience laugh, and finally said something lame like: “I’m here to introduce this evening’s performer but I won’t spoil the surprise by saying anything about her. Her name is Ambliss – she’s magic.”
And she was: a beautiful enchantress, who gave a performance that fascinated and entranced everyone. In the way of dreams, I didn’t actually see or experience any of it. Ambliss too was delighted and filled with gratitude that I had enabled her to perform better than she had ever done in her life.
I ‘came out’ of the dream enough to lie there thinking: Of course, this is just another of those dreams about not being prepared for an important event.
What is the dream telling me?
Is it telling me that I am not prepared to die?
Or – possibly even worse – is it telling me that I am not prepared to live?
Is anyone ever prepared to die? Is it possible to prepare yourself to die?
Dying is not a thing to do, but a thing to let be, when the One who breathed life into us at the beginning, who put a pure soul within us, at last takes it back again.
Preparing to die, then, is not preparing to do a thing, but to let be. And I think of Leonard Cohen in the title track of his last album, You Want It Darker. Let him be my spirit guide, then, as he sings הִנְנִי, הִנְנִי. Hineini, hineini; I’m ready, my Lord. The words are from Genesis 22.11, which tells the story of how it was demanded of Abraham (or, he believed it was demanded of him?) that he sacrifice the One Thing that was more precious to him than anything else in the world. Abraham, Abraham! came the Voice. And he answered the call: Here I am.
Perhaps that’s all it will be? Not to be concerned with being prepared, or not being prepared. Simply, to answer the call.
While most enlightened countries don’t require children to start formal schooling until they’re 6 or even 7 years old, England and Wales are so wedded to the idea that longer must mean better, that children here are required to have started school by the end of the term after their 5th birthday. And in fact, most children start school when they are 4 years old.
So it was that just after Easter in 1954, I started at Oakthorpe Primary (Infants) School in Edmonton. It was a five minute walk from where we lived in Empire Avenue: turn left out of the garden gate, a hundred yards to the junction with Pasteur Gardens, left and then right, and down Chequers Way to the bottom of the hill. Then turn right at the corner where the witch’s house lowered behind its overgrown hedge and crumbling gate, and it was another fifty yards to the school entrance. We walked this walk four times each day, come rain or shine, my mother pushing the pram with my baby sister in it. We didn’t own a car, and every day my mother would collect me from school at midday and by some maternal magic place a cooked meal on the table for me, and then return me to school for the afternoon lessons.
I have very few memories of infants’ school. Perhaps the experience was so overwhelming, with new impressions and learnings coming at me so thick and fast, that my head got full and I simply blanked them out. Perhaps it was so traumatic to be separated from mother for five hours a day, that my subconscious has pressed the Delete button. Or maybe it’s just that it’s so long ago, that the natural human Forgetory has clicked into overdrive. But truly, I don’t believe I have ever remembered much about those two or three years between 4 and 7 years old.
One memory that swam up from the depths just today was the memory of my first and last and only knife crime. My parents had given me a small toy penknife. It was made of bright red plastic, with a grey plastic blade that folded out, and for a time it was my pride and joy. I couldn’t be separated from it. I took it to school in my pocket. And during one of our ‘learning through play’ periods, I took it into the Wendy house and showed it to one of the girls.
What is the sixth sense that teachers are gifted with, that brought the class teacher to look into the Wendy House? Did she hear the quiet whispering of a boy and a girl, obviously up to some four-year-old hanky-panky? Or was it the complete silence that, to an adult, is even more suspicious?
She saw the knife in my hand and pounced. What to me and my parents was a safe toy suitable to be put in the hands of a 4-year old, was to her a dangerous weapon. You might not be able to cut your finger with it, but you could certainly put an eye out with it, if you tried hard enough. She confiscated my beloved toy and put it in her desk drawer, to be returned at the end of the day with a warning not to bring it to school again. I was as mortified as I knew how to be. I was still too young to have learned that everyone hates a goody-goody, so I had always striven to be one of the ‘good boys’ of the class. And here was I having committed such a crime that the teacher confiscated something from me! What would my parents think? Would they, too, be shamed and ostracised by the neighbours?
Fortunately even shame and disgrace don’t last for ever. Perhaps none of my classmates even knew the storm of self-reproach that raged within me. Maybe I even rose in the esteem of those who hate goody-goodies, because I had brought a knife to school and it had been confiscated.
Most probably I am imagining all of this, and neither my teacher nor my parents nor my classmates ever gave the matter a second thought. So much for the dramas of life that suddenly come to mind sixty-five years after the event.
Anne Lamott says what everyone says, really. If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write. Not just read books on How To Write, not just go to workshops or watch YouTube videos. You’ve got to sit down, face the blank sheet of paper or the empty computer screen, and start. Write at least 300 words a day. For me, I’m used to the discipline of NaNoWriMo, which requires 1,667 words a day. So 300 words is just piffle in the wind, it’s a doddle. And I am a writer. I don’t write every day, maybe. But I write often enough not to be afraid of the empty page, or to feel I haven’t got anything to say. I write something in my diary every day. Just a record of what we did – not much of anything, certainly very little that’s exciting, during these terrible weeks and months of lockdown – sometimes what I’m reading or eating, usually what we’ve watched on Netflix or BBC iPlayer or Amazon Prime. You need a record of those things so that you don’t watch the same episodes next week. A record of important medical events, like when I last spoke to nice Doctor Melanie about – well, that’s why I need a record of it, because there are just so many health things nowadays. I write sermons. Sometimes I even write blog posts, though I’m currently ‘between blogs’. Trying to withdraw from the tyranny and expense of WordPress, not yet sure whether write.as will be a permanent home, or whether I even want to carry on blogging at all. So often it feels like throwing my words into a storm that sweeps them away into the stratosphere where no one will hear them or read them. Between all of this, I can always find ways to write stuff. It means I’m not very sympathetic when I hear about people who want to write (or to ‘be writers’) and then complain, “But what can I write about?” Anne Lamott has some good advice about that. Just write about life, the first thing you see when you look out of the window, your first memories, whatever.
That’s my 300+ words for today. There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
It started with the lockdown beard. After a couple of months of the Covid-19 lockdown, when we were all looking for projects and interests to alleviate the boredom of being shut in, I decided to stop shaving. And not only to keep my beard short and tidy, as I've usually done in the past, but to see what it would look like if I grew it longer than I ever have before.
You might imagine that growing a beard as a hobby is much like watching paint dry. It doesn't offer quick returns. But on the other hand, it cultivates a deal of patience and fortitude. There are days when you want to give it all up and take up the razor again. But there are days, too, when you can enjoy looking in the mirror to see how it's coming on. When it's every bit as comforting as having a pet you can stroke for hours on end, only this one never needs taking for a walk, or having you clean up its mess after it.
Like most hobbies, there are many ways you can study your new hobby and learn more about how to practise it and gain better results. You wouldn't believe the number of videos you can find on YouTube about how to grow and cultivate and tend a beard. I flirted with the idea of growing a yeard: a beard you grow for a year with no trimming — or only the most minimal, to maybe stop your moustache getting in your mouth at every mealtime.
I started using beard oil, and when I didn't like the fragrance of the one I bought in Superdrug, I bought some essential oils and carrier oils and mixed my own. I brushed it several times a day with a boar bristle brush. And kept on stroking it.
And next, I noticed the number of bearded men on those YouTube videos who also shaved their heads completely bald. Most of the were much younger than me, men losing their hair in their twenties or even their teens, who cope with their hair loss by shaving it all off. 'Embracing their baldness', it's called. I lost most of my hair by my early 30s, but I coped with it just by coping with it. But now I grew curious about what I would look like if I shaved my head completely. When I hinted to the women in my life what I had in mind, the response was not welcoming. Clearly, I would need to work at bringing them round to the idea.
Then on the Internet I found the Macmillan Cancer Support challenge 'Brave the Shave'. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago, it was good to know that Macmillan were there to provide support if I needed it. Fortunately I haven't needed it, but I've had lots of occasions to see the wonderful help given by Macmillan nurses to cancer sufferers, most recently to another retired priest in the parish here, who died of prostate cancer earlier this year.
Many people undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cancer lose their hair, so the grand idea of Brave the Shave was that volunteers wanting to take part in the challenge would have their hair shaved in solidarity, but also, and chiefly, to seek sponsorship from family and friends. Signing up to the challenge looked like the ideal way to meet the objectives of satisfying my curiosity about shaving my head, honourably finding a use for my beard (after five months I was sure enough that I didn't want to continue growing it out for a whole year), and also raising money for a very good cause.
I set the date for the shave: Monday October the 19th, and publicised it through the Macmillan website, social media, and whatever else I could think of. The big day came, the shave happened, and (so far) I have raised £530 in sponsorship. You can judge the Before and After here:
I think it's an improvement.
And, because it's 'a Thing' to film this kind of adventure, I filmed it too.
Just in case you read this and would like to donate to Macmillan Cancer Support, here's the link to sponsor me.
I first saw this book when I was taking Holy Communion to a housebound parishioner before lockdown happened.
Just after I arrived at his home the district nurse arrived to do some procedure, and while I waited he gave me this to look at. You've only got to read the first page or two to know that it's a gem, well worth reading.
Be sure to get in a good supply of tissues, because you will read this and weep. But they are the best kind of tears. Rachel Clarke is a palliative care specialist, and writes movingly about her experiences in training, and now in her work in a hospice. She tells the stories of patients living through a terminal illness, how they and their loved ones face the uncertainties and fears of receiving the diagnosis and prognosis everyone fears. But the emphasis is on living through this, because death is a part of everyone's life experience. Ultimately this is a book full of love, joy, and hope. It's about the wonder and preciousness of life, the importance of love and living life to the full. And it's strangely comforting, with its descriptions of what happens to the body of a dying person, that will reassure and take away a lot of the natural fear we may feel.
Yesterday morning I was talking (by Zoom) to B. and P., two old classmates. It's sixty years this month since we started, as 11-year olds, at secondary school. Back in July we should have been attending our class reunion at the Latymer Reunion Day — of course the day didn't happen on school premises, but we 70-year olds were pioneers in holding the first virtual class reunion. It was attended by just over 20 former classmates, and was, well, an experience. Because too many of us were trying to talk all at once, there wasn't as much opportunity as I would have liked to really exchange news or hear what we've been doing. And anyway, many of these are people I haven't actually met for over 50 years. So someone (all right, it was me, actually) thought it would be a good idea to compile a sort of Yearbook Sixty Years On, where we might share then-and-now photos and a few paragraphs of what we've done since leaving school. These contributions could be collated and made available electronically to all our contemporaries. Yesterday's conversation was about how we might do this, and what form the electronic sharing might take.
I wanted to propose as a kind of subtitle, Whatever happened to Malcolm George? Malcolm had been one of my closest friends at primary school; but since we left school at 18 I've not seen him, and he has not been involved in any former class reunions. In fact I think his entry in the old students' database held by the school probably reads Whereabouts Unknown.
He was one of the most popular and sought-after of my friends. Tall, good-looking, intelligent, strong, outgoing, he attracted girls in ways I could only fantasize about. He was the first of my friends who actually had sex. At least, he was the first who told me that, so who knows whether or not it's true?
And last night I dreamed about him. In my dream I was walking home at night, through dark empty streets, to the terraced house where I lived. There were no streetlights, no lights in any of the windows. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me, hurrying and gaining on me. I walked faster, reached my door, desperate to get inside to safety and shut the door behind me. But, fumbling with my key, I knew it was too late. I turned to face my pursuer and possible assailant.
“Malcolm!” I cried. For I recognized him, knew him at once. Even though, in the way of dreams, he looked little like he had in 1967, but hardly any older either.
We went inside, and he told me he had come to help me deal with all the ghosts there were in the house. I hadn't known there were any, but one appeared in the fireplace by way of proof. It seemed there were going to be lots of them.
Such was my dream. Who knows where these things come from? Obviously I dreamed about Malcolm because we had talked about him in the morning, and for some reason he was important to me. And the ghosts? My subconscious is telling me, perhaps, that all our memories and happinesses and regrets are 'ghosts'. Our life is full of them. Why have people been so afraid of them? They seem alarming, terrifying... but after all, what is there to fear? Dealing with them is just what reflecting on our lives is about.
Yesterday's post was originally intended to be just the preamble to this poem, but in the end turned out longer than I expected. I was looking for a suitable poem for dark times, and what came to mind was W. H. Auden's September 1, 1939. It's another poem I first encountered in the Sixth Form in one of our A-level set texts: Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.
The poet is sitting in a New York bar on the day of the outbreak of the Second World War, surely one of the darkest times imaginable. Several of the references need thinking about and explaining, or at least 'discussing'. 'What occurred at Linz' was that Linz was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, and a city which he planned to turn into one of the great cities of the Third Reich. Is it fair to Luther to include his teaching as part of the 'offence' which led to the madness of the German people and the rise of Nazism? Certainly it has been argued that the Two Kingdoms doctrine in European Protestantism was a factor. But yes: Discuss.
Not so many people today, perhaps, are familiar with Thucydides and Pericles' speech about democracy that he records in the History of the Peloponnesian War. It's been on my 'Books To Read' list for so long that I gave my old (un-read) copy away in 2016 in the Great Cull of Books. As for mad Nijinsky and Diaghilev, you can Google that for yourself if you really want to.
What I love is the hope for dark times that Auden brings out in the final stanza. In dark times it can feel as if the whole world is benighted, lying in stupor and despair. But everywhere there are flashes of light where the Just exchange their messages. The poet aspires to show an affirming flame, to be one of the message-exchanging Just.
There have been far too many dark times in the course of my long-legged life. Times when the world suddenly felt a more dangerous place, overshadowed with threat and fear. For my first twenty or so years, I wasn't paying enough attention to be really concerned about them. The Korean War, the Suez crisis of 1956, the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six Day War of 1967, even the Vietnam War, kind of passed me by. (I feel guilty, saying that about Vietnam: I should have known better, as so many of my generation did.)
I became more aware after I was married and we had a young family; which I suppose are not a bad reason for being more invested in what's going on in the wider world.
1979 was a dark time, with the election of Margaret Thatcher and its effect on our society and economy. Then the Falklands War in 1982. By then I was a priest and often perplexed about whether and how to preach about some of these events. Did I dare to say what I thought, or should I try and be balanced when it was clear that Christians in my congregation could sincerely hold different views from mine?
Of all the dark times to date, the one that troubled me most was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, on my 41st birthday. Somehow I sensed that this was an event which really would destabilise the world, almost as if it threw it off its axis and it would never right itself.
I think I was right. Since then the dark times have rolled on and on as if the world had entered a tunnel without end. Successive Gulf Wars, a never-ending war in Afghanistan, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq that followed (it wasn't just wrong, it was illegal), the 2008 Stock Market Crash, the Syrian civil war, the barbarity of Islamic State. It's a terrible enough list and I know I have left out many other wars and insurrections and calamities that have driven millions of ordinary people to flee their homes and face the horror and dangers of being displaced persons, in preference to the almost certain death of staying in their native land. And we in our wealth and security call it 'the refugee crisis'.
Add to all these the looming crisis of climate change, the Brexit referendum, and the Covid-19 pandemic. If you weren't feeling depressed when you started reading this, you probably are by now.
It's the task and challenge of our times: How can we live a life of virtue, goodness, love, and hope as we try to set a course through such times? We who enjoy wealth and relative peace that give us so much greater responsibility to remake the world, to build a world in which all can enjoy peace, freedom, security, a decent life?
If ever there was a time for the simple daily prayer 'God help us', I reckon it's now.
Here's another poem I first read in the Sixth Form. It was in the collection Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton, which was our set text for English Literature A-level.
There's something about the gleeful malice of Betjeman's prayer, or curse, whichever it is, that you can't help loving. He was fascinated by suburbia even while he snobbishly despised it. Yet he also feels a sympathy for the 'bald young clerks' who are forced to toil for the 'repulsive' 'stinking cad' who is portrayed as a rapacious, lecherous, sexist capitalist.
Slough probably doesn't deserve this. I expect it's a decent enough place to live. It can't help sounding like one of the more depressing places described in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, can it?