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.
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:
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
Extracted from ‘The Hollow Men’ by T S Eliot
Today we celebrate a recent major achievement in the show career of our old friend, Sebastian, professionally known as Ch Buffrey Incognito By Dalleaf JW. Here he is, pictured in August at the Welsh Kennel Club Championship Show 2018, where he went Best in Show, beating nearly 8000 other dogs of all the different breeds to the title. In order to be in the running for this title, Sebastian had first to compete against all the other entered Dalmatians, both dogs and bitches, emerging as Best of Breed. Then he took on the winners of the other Utility breeds under the experienced and distinguished Sigurd Wilburg, whose response to seeing Sebastian should perhaps be quoted here, as it so vividly expresses his reaction as well as describing the eventual outcome of the Show. In his critique he wrote:
‘When the Dalmatian entered the big ring last Sunday, I could feel my heart starting to beat quicker. He made a huge impact on me and I had to look twice before I realised that he was just as good as I first thought. Here was a Dalmatian which was strong and muscular with a symmetrical outline free from coarseness and lumber. You could see he was capable of great endurance and speed the way he was moving around the ring as a professional athlete. He is probably the best Dalmatian I have ever seen . . . I don’t think I have ever given a group to a Dalmatian before . . . ‘
Then Sebastian beat all the other group winners, the gundogs, the hounds, toy, pastoral, and the rest, before finally going head to head with West Highland White Terrier bitch, Ch Burneze Our Marnie, who was given the Reserve. Big thanks to world-famous BIS judge, Peter Green, and hearty congratulations all round!
Sebastian’s winning ways continue; the week after, he was Reserve Best in Show at the SKC in Edinburgh and this last weekend, at City of Birmingham, he went Best of Breed and Group. Other Dalmatians may look up to him in awe but, to us, he is simply Sebastian, whom we see regularly when he calls by. Although we can never hope to emulate his achievements – the way he dominates the show ring and powers his way into the judges’ hearts – he is in all the fundamental doggy ways just like the simple spaniels and Dickens Dogs of this world: loved and looked after and keen to go home after a busy and tiring day, somewhere at the other end of a motorway! See you soon, Sebastian!
‘Now is the month of May-ing’ . . .
. . . and – at long, long last – as if by magic, the wintry scene has shifted, the sky has cleared, the wind dropped, the sun is out and all natural things are on the move. All this time, as we mourned the loss of light and life, the divinity which shapes our ends has been quietly at work and with this weekend’s gloriously hot weather, which curiously coincided with a national holiday, the fruits of those labours were gloriously made manifest.
Only last week migrant birds were still a rarity: since sighting the first few sand martins in mid-April, the rest of the usual crowd were nowhere to be seen as we looked up day by day towards their nest holes in the dunes, entrances now obscured by the winter storms. Only last Friday, there were but four pairs of house martins at Bamburgh dunes and none had flown over our house. Though the church swallows had safely returned to their roost inside the porch of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh, across the fields generally the usual laughter was missing. Such a long-delayed Spring made everyone sad and sorry. Every day for the last month we have carefully checked the natterjack toad pool for signs of spawning, and every day we found nothing except a dead adult male a couple of weeks ago; and so we passed on and waited. Instead, the beach was strewn with plastic detritus and dead creatures, like this poor dolphin, washed up having half-delivered its calf – an eloquent image of time out of joint. Thus it was that April passed into May, and nothing much changed, except the daily to and fro of rain and chill and mist and murk.
But, at last, the Spring ‘clad all in gladness’ has indeed burst upon us and ours are the riches. As if by magic, the brackish toad pool was early this morning chock full of tadpoles and by the afternoon the sky above the dunes swirled with an ever-increasing number of martins, feeding furiously and staking their claim on last year’s mud nests under the sewage works eaves. Our faith is awakened: no matter how dreary our routine seemed, Spring has indeed banished Winter’s sadness and, even though we know the clouds will gather and the showers intervene, for all things must pass, there’s no denying this tremendous step-change in the seasons. No matter how transient life’s joys, it is in recognizing them that we are blessedly human, as Touchstone knows and Jacques cannot admit. Indeed, this is a moment for unalloyed celebration, an As You Like It moment, and here expressed so simply and so optimistically, with music by Thomas Morley, in Shakespeare’s song from that glorious pastoral comedy. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity:
When asked about unjustly neglected novels, we have no hesitation in answering Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1910. Hugely prolific, the once popular chronicler of Staffordshire’s Potteries – the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett’s reputation and fame have declined since his zenith in the early twentieth century for a variety of reasons, one simply being that he wrote enthralling narratives about ordinary people’s lives. Perhaps he is just thought too accessible for modern literary circles. He nevertheless remains one of the most acute readers of the human psyche and the Clayhanger trilogy shows him at his best: recording thwarted human ambition, the prickliness of finding love and the dreariness and responsibilities of work. Its characters are complex and their tribulations, particularly their interior ones, utterly real.
One of Bennett’s most perceptive and moving scenes has direct relevance to today, which is Good Friday in the western church, though the scene itself takes place on a gloriously hot day, the characters sweltering under their layers of Edwardian clothing, as the little Potteries town comes together in carnival atmosphere to celebrate the centenary of founding the Methodist Sunday School. Edwin Clayhanger, the young hero of the trilogy, now a successful businessman – but in the family printing business he was obliged to join by his overbearing and domineering father – is in love with Hilda Lessways, the mysterious independent thinker to whom he is tentatively drawing closer both intellectually and emotionally. This day proves an education for Edwin, and for the reader, though for different reasons. Thrilled to be in her company, Edwin’s mixture of insecurity and growing poise are powerfully evoked as Hilda and he are subsumed within the distasteful sentimentality all human beings will recognise from their own experiences of mass hysteria on such occasions.
To the heat of the sun, and the massing of the crowds and the various brass bands, with their banners and dignitaries, are added one by one the hymns – as Bennett puts it in an aside, ‘None but the classical lyrics of British Christianity had found a place in the programme of the great day’ – each refulgent with references to the blood of the Paschal lamb. Emboldened by Hilda’s sophistication, worldliness and religious scepticism, Edwin – who knows every line and the implication of every line – contemplates the contrast between these outpourings of communal certainty and the fate of those across the world served by missionary zeal, and his own agnosticism, to him the mark of a man of the world. Hearing the words ‘Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood’:
A phrase in the speech loosed some catch in him and he turned suddenly to Hilda, and in an intimate half-whisper murmured—
“What?” she harshly questioned. But he knew that she understood.
“Well,” he said audaciously, “look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!”
No one heard save she. But she put her hand on his arm protestingly. “Even if we don’t believe,” said she— not harshly, but imploringly, “we needn’t make fun.”
“We don’t believe!” And that new tone of entreaty! She had comprehended without explanation. She was a weird woman. Was there another creature, male or female, to whom he would have dared to say what he had said to her? He had chosen to
say it to her because he despised her, because he wished to trample on her feelings. She roused the brute in him, and perhaps no one was more astonished than himself to witness
the brute stirring. Imagine saying to the gentle and sensitive Janet: “It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square—”. He could not.
They stood silent, gazing and listening. And the sun went higher in the sky and blazed down more cruelly. And then the speech ended, and the speaker wiped his head with an enormous
handkerchief. And the multitude, led by the brazen instruments, which in a moment it overpowered, was singing to a solemn air-
‘When I survey the wondrous cross
‘On which the Prince of Glory died
‘My richest gain I count but loss
‘And pour contempt on all my pride.’
Hilda shook her head.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning towards her from his barrel.
“That’s the most splendid religious verse ever written!” she said passionately. “You can say what you like. It’s worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean
them!” She had an air of restrained fury. But fancy exciting herself over a hymn!
“Yes, it is fine, that is!” he agreed.
“Do you know who wrote it?” she demanded menacingly.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember,” he said. The hymn was one of his earliest recollections, but it had never occurred to him to be curious as to its authorship.
Her lips sneered. “Dr Watts, of course!” she snapped.
He could hear her, beneath the tremendous chanting from the Square, repeating the words to herself with her precise and impressive articulation.
And so that chapter ends but treat yourself and read the whole novel and think about Bennett’s accomplishment in this scene for yourself. Dr Watts, with whose name we perhaps should all be familiar, is buried in Bunhill Fields, near Old Street in the City of London, the non-Conformist cemetery which is also home to John Bunyan and William Blake.
His greatest hymn will be sung throughout the world today. Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.