Little, Big

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for 35 years. What? You’re telling me blog posts hadn’t even been invented 35 years ago? No, of course not: back then this would have been an article or an essay. But you know what I mean…


In 1984 I was a young curate with a struggling wife and three young children, serving a tiny church in an industrial village in Bedfordshire. I had felt a strong call to take the post, but my ministry there turned out to be not what some might call ‘successful’ in terms of making converts and growing the church. I didn’t see much noticeable fruit of my ministry, and although the people of the church loved us and we had some good friends there, it often felt there was little to support or encourage my wife and me in our own spiritual life.

Then I read a book which I thought at the time, and have often thought since, ‘changed my life’. It wasn’t a book you might have expected to change the life of a minister in that kind of situation.

It was Little, Big by John Crowley.

How can I describe this book, or explain (or perhaps, even, remember) how and why it changed my life? It’s a complex fantasy novel – Ursula K. Le Guin called it ‘a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’. It’s a love story – or better, a whole collection of love stories. It’s a family saga spanning generations. It’s a nature book, with beautifully written descriptions of field and forest, river and lake, birds and animals. It’s about architecture and literature and ideas – over and over again you want to mark sentences and whole paragraphs you think you must remember and quote. It’s full of mysterious events that you don’t understand the significance of until much later in the Tale – if indeed you ever do. It’s about the nature of Story itself: how stories are told and if they ever can have an ending. It’s a political thriller about the End Of Civilization As We Know It, when the failing democratic republic is taken over by a charismatic populist leader, whom the elite powers of the Establishment, the bankers and the media think they will control for their own purposes – but they are mistaken. (Remembering that this book was published in 1981, you have to ask yourself: How did the author come to be so prescient? What could have greater contemporary relevance for us?)

But above all, it is a fairy story. And the secret of how and why this book changed my life is tied up with this, and the old question we all remember from our days of watching Peter Pan: Do you believe in fairies? As I read this book in 1984, a time of struggling with and trying to make sense of questions of faith, again and again it helped me to learn more about just what faith means.

The Drinkwater family, around whom the whole Tale revolves, are said from the outset to be ‘very religious’. But this is not Christian or any other kind of mainstream religion: it is about knowing and living and walking with ‘them’, the inhabitants of another world, the world of Faerie. Into this family marries a young man who doesn’t share their ‘faith’, who is introduced to us in the very first wonderful paragraph of the book:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told about but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married: the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed upon his coming there at all.

Smoky is aware of and respects the beliefs of his bride and her family, but he cannot share them. He never sees or hears or speaks to ‘them’: so he simply cannot believe in them. Yet out of courtesy he keeps quiet about his lack of faith, never speaks of it, seems almost to pretend that he does share it. Suspects, sometimes, that many of the other members of the family are also ‘pretending’ because they also are too reticent to speak of it. One of the most moving moments in the book describes the conversation, many years later, between Smoky and his grown-up son Auberon, when Auberon finally asks him, “Do you believe in fairies?” And it transpires that each of them has thought that the other knew Something all along that remained a Mystery to him. What is the difference between believing, and pretending we believe, because we think that all the people around us believe something we cannot, and yet they expect us to share their faith, and imagine that we do?

In the end (SPOILER ALERT! – or maybe not?) They all withdraw into the smaller world within their one, which turns out to be far far bigger, while all the characters in our world journey into that inner world that They have vacated, and take Their places. (I think.) All of them except Smoky who cannot make that journey. But it doesn’t matter, because

how could he desire another world than this one?

and

He couldn’t go where all of them were going, but it didn’t matter, for he’d been there all along.

His life, and all their lives and the things that have happened to them, are part of the Tale. Which is now ended; and yet it’s a Tale that never ends.

I have always been most fully convinced of things not by reasons or proofs, but by imagination. It’s why the moment I came to believe was when I read the Gospels and realised that this was a Story that I could, and wanted to, inhabit. It’s why the stories of C. S. Lewis, Narnia and the were so helpful on my spiritual journey.

And Little, Big helped me too, because it taught me to imagine the truth that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”1 Some of the most important discoveries of my own spiritual journey have been deepening insights into this truth. The ‘other world’ that we believe or aspire to believe in is ‘in’ this world, or touches it at every point, or is separated from it by only the thinnest of veils. And we come to know that ‘other world’ most fully as we learn to love and know this world. If we hate this life, we will never enjoy the life of Heaven. Or whatever.

You may not like Little, Big at all, it may leave you completely cold. But I hope that, if you do read it, you catch a glimpse of the same mysterious, wonderful truths that so captivated me and continue to do so.


  1. Variously attributed to W. B. Yeats, Paul Eluard, and even Rilke ↩︎

Papua Merdeka

A cause dear to our hearts is the West Papuan freedom movement. West Papua was illegally occupied by Indonesia after it became independent from the Netherlands, and since that time has been exploited and oppressed, its people subjected to a long catalogue of persecutions and human rights abuses.

You can read about their cry for independence on their website.

Our West Papuan friends in Marston have just released their first single which you can watch here on Youtube:

Vocals by Koteka and her mother Maria; spoken words by Benny Wenda, the leader of the Free West Papua Movement; backing features the legendary drummer Tony Allen. If you like it, they ask “Please listen, buy and share.” And support them with your prayers, your protests and however else you can.

Papua Merdeka!

The Day of Shoulda Beens

Sometimes the cancellation of events because of the Covid-19 pandemic has the very slightest of upsides. It would have been so tough to decide what I would have done today, with two events both of which I really wanted to go to.

First: the Haddenham Beer Festival. Over the years this has been taking place, always on the first Saturday in July, it’s become far more than just (just?) an opportunity to enjoy a huge choice of real ales and craft beers. It’s become a real family fun day, with music, bouncy castles and other activities for the children, and a range of street food from fish and chips to burgers to Scotch eggs to South African bunny chow. There’s cider or gin, prosecco or Pymms for them as wants it. But chiefly there are the 130 or so varieties of beer from real ale breweries far and wide.

We’ve been going for several years with as many of the family as have been able to be with us. A growing number as the children have more children of their own; a declining number as some of the children decide it’s too far or too difficult for them to travel in a day, with the numbers or age of their children, and the ‘decisions’ about who’s going to be the designated driver. We don’t have that problem: we can get there and back by bus.

But then there is also the School Reunion. This year it’s 60 years since I started at secondary school, aged 11. It’s not an occasion I go to every year, but 5 years and 10 years ago it seemed important, and today would have been just as important to meet up with my cohort of the 1960 intake. It’s an opportunity to meet old friends and classmates we may hardly have spoken to for years, to wonder “What am I doing here with all these old people?!”, to look at what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the buildings, to ask “Do you know what happened to so-and-so?” (Increasingly with the sub-text, Is he/she still alive?) And we get to gather in the Great Hall and sing the deeply loved and loathed School Song.

This was filmed in 2015, when I didn’t know anyone was filming. If you look carefully, at about 0:31, you might spot me. It seems there are always some of the younger old boys or girls who mocked the venerable ode instead of respecting its true dignity…

This year, of course, both have been cancelled. I’m not aware of any plans for a virtual beer festival. Even if I could drink my can or bottle of beer while looking at other people drinking theirs, it wouldn’t be the same as a half a pint of Tiffield Thunderbolt or Bad Kitty or Bishop Nick’s 1555. Today the pubs are re-opening after over three months; but I don’t want to be part of whatever unsafe excess I’m afraid may ensue when their doors open.

There is, however, a virtual class reunion of Latymer 1960, being set up by one of the old classmates. I’m planning to ‘be there’, and I may even take a sip from my can of Brew Dog — with a tear in my eye? — while I do so. We’re told there won’t be any singing of the School Song. Shame.

Five years ago I met up with these two lovely ladies, Chris Humphries and Christine Budd, who were actually part of the 1961 intake. (As an August-born I was closer in age to many of that year group than my own.) I worked with both of them at the local library where the three of us had weekday evening and Saturday jobs. As a 17-year old I loved Christine B. from afar. She grew up to be a Maths teacher. Very much like the even lovelier lady I actually married. (What is it about maths teachers?)

Being tested for Covid-19

Ever since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve been reporting daily to the Covid Symptom Tracker. There are now nearly 4 million people who have signed up to the app, and it’s been producing enormously valuable data in understanding the virus and the pandemic. For example, they were the first people who were really able to test and confirm that loss of taste and smell were symptoms of the illness. If you are not using the app, please do download it and use it. It only takes a minute a day to report if you’ve been tested for Covid-19, and if you’re feeling well or have any symptoms. If you do report symptoms, there are a few extra questions to answer.

Last week, Alison was feeling unwell with something that felt like migraine attacks, from which she’s never (hardly ever) suffered. So she reported this, and got an email in reply asking her to arrange for herself and all members of her household (that’s me, folks) to be tested for Covid-19. I don’t know if they’ve had any other evidence that migraine-like symptoms might also occur with Covid-19, but this is presumably what they might be wanting to look for.

Our nearest testing site is at Thornhill Park and Ride, where half the large car park has been converted for this purpose. Before you go there there you have to fill in an online form for the NHS, with details of name, date of birth, NHS number, and they send a QR code to your phone which is your passport to the testing area.

A Covid-19 testing site. Somewhere in England.

There are signs everywhere to keep your car windows closed until they say to open them. So you’re stopped at the entrance where a guy reads your QR codes, shouts through your window to ask if you want to administer the test yourself (which will be fairly quick i.e. take quite a while) or have someone else administer it (which will take even longer because they’re very busy and there’s a 15 minute wait. Probably.) We opt to do it ourselves, and are directed to the left to drive round the site to the self-administration area.

Here a guy holds up a piece of paper on which is written ‘Please phone this number 07* ****.’ We dialled the number, so that we can hear the instructions without him having to shout at us. This would be very helpful, except that our particular guy is Polish (?) so we have a few accent difficulties with the instructions. Use alcohol hand gel. Open the rear passenger window — just an inch — so they can post the kits through. Drive on and reverse park on the left. Now open the kits.

The first thing we see is the instruction leaflet: ‘Please read this carefully before using the test kit.’ But we’re not allowed to, because he is going to talk us through the procedure. Place the card and the plastic envelope on your dashboard. Open the envelope with the swab, holding it carefully at the end away from the swab itself. Take two samples: one from the back of the mouth (around the tonsils), one from a nostril. Open the plastic phial of testing liquid and place the swab inside, then break off the end of the stick and screw on the top. Place the phial inside the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible, then squeeze the air out of the envelope and seal it up.

That done, we are to drive on to the collection point where there is another number to phone to speak to the collector guy. Did we have any problems doing the test? Have we done everything we were supposed to do? When we’re ready, open your window — just an inch — and post the envelopes through into the box that is being held up to catch them. And that’s it. Hold on to the card with this QR code and they will email you the results within the next day or so.

In fact we get the emails within 24 hours, it’s in our Inbox when we get up the following morning. We’ve tested negative so we can go back to work (What?!) We never really thought we had it.

But at least we’ve got something different to tell the Tracker app today.

Henry Tanner’s Annunciation

One of the things I love about the Web is that there are so many wonderful things to find and learn there. It’s also, of course, one of the things that’s most frustrating: there is so much to discover that you will never do more than scratch the surface of it. (And what do people do with it? Well, I was going to have a small rant about pictures of cute pets, but I’ll resist the temptation.)

It’s worth it for the gems you find. An American friend shared a link to an article about the American painter Henry Tanner, in the context of the racial inequality and injustices that have been once again been brought so violently to our attention. Henry Tanner (1859-1937) was the first African-American artist to win international acclaim. As the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he suffered discrimination and violent abuse – which his fellow-students would no doubt have called ‘just a prank’. It was partly in response to this casual and not-so-casual racism that he left the United States and spent most of his adult life in Paris, where society was much more tolerant.

I didn’t know anything about him or his work, but Wikipedia has this image of his beautiful picture of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Many of Tanner’s works are deeply religious, inspired by a Christian faith that longed for society to recognise everyone as a child of God. I love the way that he doesn’t make any attempt to delineate the Angel, so that all our attention is really directed towards the Girl who is so illuminated by the messenger of God.

I’m grateful to American friends for sharing this.

Home

May 25th, 2020. It’s Goodbye to Durham and the North East. We’ll be back before too long, I hope. We find ourselves again undertaking a long journey on a Bank Holiday Monday. What have I done, I cry, to deserve this? From the heavens, there is no answer.

For one moment of waking in the night, I entertained the quixotic notion of taking a route which avoided motorways. This didn’t survive long when I quizzed Google Maps at breakfast. It turns out the A1, the Great North Road, is so obviously the best route, that avoiding the motorway sections involves so many twists and turns to follow A-roads running almost parallel, and then to rejoin the A1 when it stops being motorway, that it’s not worth the trouble. Anyway, when the pilgrimage is over you just want to get home as fast as you can.

So it’s ‘Fastest route, the usual traffic, via A1(M) and M1’. 4 hours 11 minutes, 250 miles; though of course it always takes longer because you need to stop for a comfort break, a drink, and a sandwich, to say nothing of giving the back a rest and stretching the legs.

This time I resist the thought of stopping Somewhere Interesting we’ve never been to en route. We’ll press on and get a takeaway in the evening when we’re home.

It’s been a good Virtual Pilgrimage. But it’s good to be virtually back inside our own four walls, for a change.

Sunday in Durham

Sunday, May 24th, 2020. In our Virtual Pilgrimage we are blessed with a leisurely Sunday morning, attending the Eucharist at the Cathedral where the Dean preaches, and the Cathedral Choir sing.

Then we get in the car and head out for a roast Sunday lunch at Finbarr’s Restaurant off the Dryburn Road (quite near to where our Tom was born in 1977).

After lunch we take a gentle stroll along the River Wear, timing our walk so that we arrive at Crook Hall in time for a cream tea in their café, and that gives us time to get back to the Cathedral for Evensong.

Then back to our guest room in St John’s for a quiet evening with a bottle of wine. We’re planning an early night before our long drive tomorrow.

It’s been a tiring business, writing about this journey, and I’m ready to move on to another project when we get back home.

Durham – St Cuthbert and St Bede

Waking up in Durham, on the morning of Saturday May 23rd, 2020. We dress and go out into the quiet brightness of South Bailey and walk down to the Cathedral for Morning Prayer in the Cathedral. Then back to College for breakfast.

We are treating ourselves to a day in and around the most wonderful Cathedral in England. Sure, we say that about Oxford, St Albans, and Canterbury, while others have their own lists. But surely, Durham must come at or near the top of everyone’s list. As we exit the front door of St John’s College for the second time this morning, we turn left instead of right and walk down to Prebends Bridge. Is it possible to ever tire of this view, or of taking photographs of it?

View from Prebends Bridge

The River Wear, with the great Norman cathedral standing on top of that rocky outcrop around which the river sweeps in a tight bend. Crossing the bridge we walk down the path along the west bank to cross over Framwellgate Bridge and then up the path on the other side. As we walk through the cut alongside the Music School, I pay my usual homage to the commemorative plaque to John Meade Falkner (1858-1932), who spent the last years of his life there, when it was called Divinity House. Then we enter the Cathedral by the great north door. When I was studying Theology in Durham in the closing years of the 1970s, I would walk this way every morning from our little rented house in Atherton Street to St John’s College, taking this short cut through the Cathedral and the Close. It’s astonishing how you can become so accustomed to a place’s grandeur and sanctity, that you almost don’t notice it, almost take it for granted. Almost, you have to revisit it to remind yourself of what it truly means. That’s why we’re taking our time today. We walk around slowly, reminding ourselves of the things that were once so very familiar. The Frosterley marble of the pillars in the Nine Altars chapel, the massive pillars of the nave. We spend time praying at the shrine of St Cuthbert, and the shrine of St Bede.

I quietly say to myself the words above Bede’s tomb, which I’ve blogged about before:

Christus est Stella Matutina,
qui nocte saeculi transacta
lucem vitae sanctis promitit,
et pandit aeternam.

(Christ is the Morning Star, who when the night of this world is past, gives to his saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day.)

We’re surprised to find it’s nearly lunchtime, so we go out into the cloisters to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Undercroft, followed by a visit to the Cathedral Shop (of course!) and then the library and the Open Treasure exhibition.

By this time we need some fresh air, so we got for a wander around the city, including the two addresses where we lived during our time here over 40 years ago. Then it’s time to return to the Cathedral for Evensong, sung by the Cathedral choir.

Where shall we eat this evening? A quick Google search and we opt for Restaurant 17 on Elvet Bridge, that promises “Upscale European meals & global wines are the draw at this intimate eatery with a romantic ambiance.” What’s not to like about global wines, intimacy and romance? Bon appetit! And, Cheers!

Dinner at Restaurant 17

South to Durham

Today the retreat ends, our pilgrimage draws to a close, and we begin our journey homewards. After Morning Prayer in St Mary’s, and breakfast, we say Goodbye to The Open Gate and to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and drive over the causeway to the mainland. When we reach the A1, I’m so accustomed to following the signs to The North that I almost turn right, until Alison reminds me that, actually, we now need to look for The South.

We’ve decided that we’re going to take a few days on this journey, rather than trying to do it all in one. We’re going to start with a visit to a town we’ve never been to before: Chester-le-Street in County Durham. When the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne Priory, the monks fled with St Cuthbert’s body and travelled with it to several destinations in the north of England. For 12 years it rested in the church in Chester-le-Street, until the saint indicated that he wanted Durham to be his final resting place.

The Journey. Sculpture in Millennium Square, Durham

The Church of St Mary & St Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, is remarkable in that it contains an anchorage or anchorhold, which was occupied between 1383 and 1547 by six anchorites. These were hermits, each of whom would be walled in to the anchorage for life, able to watch services through a squint into the church which looks down onto a side altar, and fed through another slit to the outside. The most famous anchoress of the Middle Ages is Julian of Norwich, but the story of Chester-le-Street shows that there were other such holy hermits in other English towns.

The Anchorage Window, St Mary & St Cuthbert Church, Chester-le-Street
By John Blackburne – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9649545

We eat lunch at the Lambton Arms before visiting the church and then the remains of the Roman fort of Concangis (not a lot to see here), then take a walk in Riverside Park by the River Wear. Then it’s time to drive on to Durham, one of our favourite places in the whole world, were we lived from 1976-79. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to book a double guest room in St John’s College (all things are possible on a virtual pilgrimage), which includes the use of a parking space on South Bailey.

Merton on Contemplation and Action

May 21st, 2020. Ascension Day. Today’s retreat topic is how Merton’s contemplation drove him to a life of activism, as he wrote and spoke advocating peace and social justice. In chapter 37 of Seeds of Contemplation he writes:

God does not give His joy to us for ourselves alone, and if we should possess Him for ourselves alone we would not possess Him at all. Any joy that does not overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God does not come to us from God. (But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

Merton’s first calling was to be a contemplative; for years he struggled against what his monastic superiors were asking him to do – like being the novice master of the monastery – and fought hard to be allowed to move into a hermitage in the woods, away from the community. But at the same time his contemplation gave him a passion for justice and peace, so that his writings in books and articles were a prophetic cry against much of what he saw in the world around.

He was against war, but also against the violent protest which he saw in the United States, directed against the Vietnam War. Instead, he argued for a Gandhian non-violent protest and resistance. The problem is, in a world where non-violent protest has a poor track record of overthrowing war, tyranny, and injustice, most people who are passionate about justice have little patience for the Gandhian or Christ-like approaches. However much I sympathised with the aims of Extinction Rebellion, I found the violence of their protests hard to accept, in their interference with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, many of whom also would agree with XR. Merton may have been anti-violence, but could his writings have been partly responsible for the violence of the anti-war protests?

In the end, Merton is right that true contemplation, true knowledge of God, must lead us to hate all forms of injustice, violence, and oppression. But the question of how to turn that hatred into proper action has no easy answer.

With a guilty feeling I opt out of the afternoon’s session which is to be more interactive and conversational about the balance (if that’s what it is?) between contemplation and action. I feel I’m not interested / have little of use to contribute / won’t find it particularly helpful. I’m afraid that some of my fellow retreatants will want to spend the time agonising about how age or ill health or frailty prevent them from being as active as they would like to be, or about how the protest and action of individuals seems so ineffective. Why can’t we change the world? Why can’t we right all its wrongs? And why can’t we do it now?

So instead I walk on the North Shore again, reflecting on how I may become more contemplative in my own prayer. I confess with alarm (I won’t call it shame) that my faithfulness in praying the Daily Office has often felt like going through the motions. Saying the words because I had to – and wanted to! – but often in a distracted way. The words progressed from the page into my eyes and out of my lips, without engaging much of the conscious brain. That’s to say, I would often be running an inner dialogue about How much more of this was there? What were the pressing things I must do when I was done here in church? How could I deal with the problem of how to manage X or Y? How soon can I stop this and get on with the things I’m really looking forward to?

Lord, teach us to pray

It’s as well that the intention to pray is more important than the depth or quality of our praying. I hope. And perhaps the process of prayer over the years has given God the opportunity to help me as I’ve thought through some of the questions in that internal dialogue. But still, I would like to concentrate more, and be more whole-mindedly conscious, of the content of the psalms and prayers I’m saying. What I seek and pray for now is greater mindfulness as I pray the Office: to be present to what I am doing, with my whole mind as well as my body. I wonder how I can possibly have reached my advanced age without knowing all this and having sorted it long ago. It’s a good job we have an extraordinarily patient (long-suffering!) God who knows that his children have always been slow learners at best.

Let’s head back then, it’s nearly time for Evening Prayer. Back to the prayer desk, and we’ll give it another go.