Before dawn on Monday, we emerged on to a Bamburgh beach cloaked in darkness. Despite the lengthening days, and an encroaching dawn, it might as well have been midnight that morning; the night had been so overcast. Only a little sliver of the moon was initially visible. Almost immediately, though, a great glowing red disc burnt through and presented itself. The wondrous blood moon – the supermoon; the harvest moon; the wolf moon – call it what you like. Standing proud at last, in contrast with the cloud cover, the moon intruded and illuminated all at once. Without hesitation, we spoke aloud Nick Bottom’s innocent words, ‘Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams. / I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright.’ Though we didn’t see the eclipse up our way, we were delighted to witness the enlarged and unexpected presence of our earth’s special friend, the secret life of which does so much to make our trundles possible at all, lighting those darkest moments before the dawn.
The Elizabethans thought of the moon as a planet in its own right and, though they were misled about that, the fact is that our moon has a profound effect on the life of both the earth and us upon it. The moon is the ruling influence and measure of all things in Shakespeare’s magical masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and just as the Mechanicals employed it as a torch by which to rehearse in secret, we boys rely upon it to negotiate the icy rocks, check out distant strangers – canine or human, steer clear of pools left by the moon’s own tides and find our way to safety up the dunes when the waves are pressed by tidal surges. Whether blood-red, cold or watery, whether we enjoy revels beneath its gaze, whether moonshine blesses our endeavours or casts us into despair or madness, the moon’s transformative power is always affecting us. We both listen to it, and thank it for what Bottom calls its ‘gracious, golden, glittering gleams’.
By the time we reached Seahouses, the clouds had cleared completely and the most beautiful dawn had completely chased that sunniest of moons into oblivion. This hand in hand the instruments of illumination work upon us, bringing us hope and life, and making a ‘good grace’ of what might otherwise seem an unknown fear – what the new day might bring.
The other day, as though by magic, and for the first time ever, suddenly, out of nowhere, Johnny Heron appeared by the pond. It was a Sunday morning, bleak and cold, and the young bird was obviously hungry and a bit desperate, for there are only a couple of tiny frogs who call our pond their home – and there have never been any fish, and they have now taken shelter under their china cloche beneath the rhododendron. When Kemo Sabe glanced unthinkingly out the kitchen window, to keep tabs on the bird food situation, she did a double take: how big and bold and beautiful the lovely bird looked; what a striking presence, cast against the uninspiring winter ferns, the twigs and empty trees, a hundred dull greys, the backdrop to the heron’s living plumage. It returned early in the afternoon but hasn’t been seen here since. It has obviously read the runes intelligently as we can offer little of interest for it, unlike the tits, sparrows, wood pigeons, starlings and goldfinches who cling close to us through thick and thin. Another interruption came the other afternoon when a sparrowhawk swooped across the front garden bird-feeder, but the sparrows were too quick for it and there was no harm done.
As we look out at the sleeping garden, where the birds have now mostly finished their breakfast, we see reflected John Clare’s thoughts in ‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’; his picture of the natural world at rest beautifully complements the still, midwinter scene which – in a world in turmoil – besets us this meteorologically-quiet Christmas Eve:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling, While the old heron from the lonely lake Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing, An oddling crow in idle motion swing On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig, Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed. Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread; The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn And for the haw round fields and closen rove, And coy bumbarrels*, twenty in a drove, Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain And hang on little twigs and start again.
You can hear it beautifully read by Sam West here:
Inside two of this year’s Christmas cards came awful news one dreads: of the death of two individuals with whom one has only yearly contact but whose continued existence reinforces one’s sense of identity. From season to season we trust that life will somehow simply continue on its way, onwards and maybe even upwards, as we confront the chaos and confusion that beset us all from time to time. We unthinkingly assume those we knew along our way are striving manfully alongside us, albeit at a distance, from year to year; a gracious presence, imperceptible yet strong; a network of shared experiences and memories holding us all, far and near, together. But alas it isn’t so and, as we grow older and the losses increase, people we took for granted leave the stage in the personal theatres of our lives. Reading of the deaths of those we recall fondly – some once very close to us, before time, space and circumstance intervened – is especially sad within the context of receiving a Christmas card, but in another way so to do is actually quite in keeping.
For this, the shortest day of the year comes, in liturgical terms, at the close of a mournful period of waiting – to the secular world, the overlooked season of Advent – which, like Lent in the Orthodox Church, is marked by weeks of fasting and prayer in preparation for the celebration to come. This period of waiting – longing even – is pointedly evoked in depictions of St John the Baptist , slumped upon a rock, the birds going about their business oblivious to his quiet distraction, even boredom, waiting for the end of the beginning. His expression is a picture in itself.
In Bosch’s painting above, as in this by one of our very favourite artists – Geergen tot Sint Jans – natural images abound – birds and trees, flowers and shrubs, even hills and water. The life that endures, even if only underground. We here at the darkest and most depressing time of year, also desperately search for light of all kinds, especially when those we know and love are far away, some now beyond worldly reach. On Christmas Eve it will be exactly six months since the celebration of the birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, a Saint so central to the Orthodox faith that he has no less than six feast days. His miraculous birth, to aged parents, comes at the summer solstice when the sun is high and strong but since then it has decreased and nature has lost its confidence. Only now, when so much seems sad, in this season of contrasting joy and sadness, when divided friends and families lean towards each other, does the hidden glory begin to increase. The Forerunner knew this: whatever our struggle, we would do well to emulate his quiet patience, indeed his fervent hope. For beside him lies the little lamb, waiting just as patiently for him to gather his thoughts and get on with his purpose in life.
There’s a lot of Wilfred Owen about right now; unsurprisingly, given that he has become the reach-for voice of the First World War in the popular imagination. Cohorts of British schoolchildren have emerged from their GCSEs familiar with his war poetry, their memories indelibly inscribed by the extraordinary lines and images they have tortured into life once again over years of study. Would that the media cognoscenti knew more about the culture to which they casually refer, as occasion arises, in the course of their work. For example, ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ is neither the title nor the subject of Owen’s poem – to be read aloud by a famous celebrity – ponderously introduced in plummy tones by a recent BBC presenter. It might as well be, though, for all the presenter really cares about the art so casually promulgated before an audience probably assumed to know little and care less: like sequins on a utilitarian gown, the ‘meaningful’ can be sprinkled on the meaningless, the only thing that matters being that the gesture towards the high-brow has been made. It is so easy to point, and think a point has been made. It’s that war of attrition, the one we fought for nothing: bring on the Wilfred Owen; pick a poem, any poem.
But there are as many voices of the Great War (for that is how its contemporaries spoke of it, not as some build-up to the next one) as there were participants; when it comes to those who responded in poetry, there are almost as many again and this powerful commemoration of the 1918 Armistice provides an opportunity to think again about the way the Great War affected and indeed continues to affect us all. The loyal and patriotic citizens who rose without hesitation to confront an ambitious, militaristic Germany were of course denied the prism of the Second World War through which to view their undertaking – a four year sacrifice, and perhaps for them not the ultimate one. It is all too easy to feel that the cold, the wet, the rats, the gas, the ghastly disfigurements, the loss of pals – all the horrors we have heard and seen and are so keenly reflected in Owen’s poetry are the point on which we should dwell. Because we are horrified, it is tempting to think that the depiction of what is horrifying is the true representation, perhaps even the only point for a modern sensibility. But in truth, all human life was there, and we should remember that. Then was as complex as now.
Kemo Sabe’s own grandfathers each spent four years in the Army, away from their wives and young families, and each returned to tell the tale – or not to tell: their choice, as the case may be. The elder, a Boer War veteran and keen member of the Yeomanry, was already in France with his battalion preparing for hostilities before war was even declared. In due course, his eldest son enlisted too; he was shot through the cheek, blessedly survived and wore his dashing scar through what was to be a long, fulfilling life. For both grandfathers, the scars were more complex: the reason the first never worked again was because there was need for fewer furriers after the war and he had no drive to find another job. He preferred the Army to ordinary life and would have stayed there if age had not prevented him; he only missed contributing to the next war because he died before it, from drinking and smoking too much. For such a life, and the war experience which lies behind it, that poem remains as yet unwritten.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday came a brief but very welcome contribution from an unexpected but familiar figure, John Simpson, notable foreign correspondent and BBC News world affairs editor, who has reported from scores of countries and many war zones. As the western world focuses its collective memory on the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, Simpson quietly reflected in a personal capacity on the effect of the Great War on two undistinguished members of his own family: ordinary men, both of whom survived the war, like the ordinary grandfathers mentioned above, but in their own multifarious ways marked for ever by their experiences. Simpson described the first of his great uncles, once a handsome, proud man – who lived until the 1960s – as so seriously injured that he neither worked nor had another relationship again. The other, from the less respectable side of the family, was a short, pub regular whose wartime experiences were integrated more subtly into a normal way of life. Of him, Simpson said, ‘He knew the poems of Wilfred Owen. He knew them, and he didn’t like them’. The picture Owen painted of soldiers’ lives – tortured victims, the by-now cliché of lions led by donkeys – was not how he saw himself and his comrades during their experiences in the trenches; the choices they made; he and his fellow soldiers united in their determination to do their duty and fight their country’s enemy. They were active, not passive; doing, not done to.
Perhaps Rupert Brooke’s most famous poem, simply called ‘The Soldier’, speaking as it does of the meaning endowed by personal sacrifice, should stand this day for such an attitude to the pity and reality of war and act as a corrective in a society where some now draw attention to themselves by turning into a controversial symbol the British Legion red poppy, the closest thing we in the United Kingdom have to a symbol of national unity, in all its emotional complexity. It is an unfashionable point of view but, lest we forget, here are his words:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
We do not know where our great uncle Edward – our grandmother’s only brother – is buried. So many thousand others like him are commemorated in anonymous graves like this one: serene, rather chilling, but dignified and beautifully looked after, nonetheless. This weekend, a hundred years ago, the guns finally fell silent and, out of a green and pleasant land from whence our ancestors emerged centuries before, a wasteland was revealed – a place of bones and emptiness, made all the more disturbing by the intermittent chirruping of sparrows and the bloody poppies which found their time to have come. As someone famous once said:
All this week we’d taken it for granted that- – almost overnight – the swallows and martins had left us and had begun their long, perilous journey back to Africa. We noted the empty skies above our favourite field where each afternoon I retrieve my beloved ball again and again and again; the absence of cheery clacking as the martins twirled and swooped near their nests until the toilet-block eaves. Seemingly, some dreary days had made up their minds to be off. None has been seen in that area, whether over the fields, the dunes or by the sewage plant. That emptiness again! All around, things are changing and the usual seasonal shifts are taking place. Young herons who were born in the little forest behind Bailey’s house still congregate in the early morning light, chatting and checking their individual progress in the survival stakes with which they must learn to contend. But soon they will relinquish the support of their brethren and tackle life alone. Even now each makes a tentative fishing forays along the shore, squawking hello in that delightful way as they pass in front or above our little band as we trundle along the shore.
The curlews have returned to the beach, bringing with them their ethereal cries, so redolent of this coast’s wide open spaces. Only yesterday they were the featured bird on BBC 4’s Tweet of the Day, to which we listened as Kemo Sabe prepared the breakfast bowls before our run. Within the hour curlews accompanied us as we dodged the high tide along Bamburgh beach, where the going is so tough when the water’s up. Extraordinary, really; how blessed we are to hear daily those voices that will not be drowned and which for so many are a distant dream.
And then this morning, once Kemo Sabe turned the mower off to empty it, suddenly she realised she could hear the unmistakable chatter of house martins – some local ones – those fighter planes of summer, at least three pairs, still enjoying the feast of flies provided; still, for the moment at least, content to leave departure a while longer. Like the warmth which comes and goes as summer reluctantly gives way to autumn, they are living reminders of time’s passing and, even as we watch their antics, we anticipate their silence. Almost simultaneously, high, high above and way off in the distance, a squadron of geese made themselves heard before coming into focus, returning to the pastures which will sustain them for the coming months.
If you would like to hear the curlew, you will find the recording here: