Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.

I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.

Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.

Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.

I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

Stop all the clocks

Last night I surprised the hedgehog – again. I’d got used to him, or possibly her, turning up at the cat-feeding hut at around nine o’clock, when dusk fell. I’d got into the ridiculous habit of assuming nightfall to be at nine o’clock. That was the way of the world. I can be a bit vague sometimes.  It’s not forgetfulness, it’s having an artistic nature.

At six or thereabouts I snapped on the outside light to go and feed the birds – still not quite registering that it was dark – as I should have done because, hadn’t I just snapped on the light? – and the birds would all be asleep. And there was the hedgehog, or rather the hedgehog’s bottom, poking out of the cat-feeding place. Inside the cat-feeding place its snout was deep in a bowl of Whiskas. Luckily, hedgehog’s hearing is even worse than mine. I tiptoed into reverse and he/she didn’t notice me.

But it set me thinking. Are we not the only animal that regulates its daily routine with the help of a range of complex timekeeping devices? How do animals manage without them, and how would we manage if all the clocks were suddenly stopped – or abducted? I have in mind, you see, an unmanned alien spacecraft, one of those saucer-shaped items people are always saying they’ve seen. The spacecraft skims low over the earth, scanning for life-forms to beam up, dissect and study. But it makes a mistake. Because it is a metallic life-form, and all the life-forms in its entire galaxy are also metallic, it ignores biological entities and beams up instead – every single clock, watch or other timekeeping device. Suddenly, Earth is timepiece-free. If you are a writer, by the way, I give you this plot for free. I suspect it will only make a short story but you never know, you might manage to streeeeetch it into some sort of novella.

Having always more or less disregarded clocks and watches, we are now forced to consider – urgently, since the spaceship’s ‘sweep’ took only a few seconds – what we needed them for in the first place. Or did we actually need them?

Clocks of some sort have been around for a very, very, very long time – for as long as human beings found the need to measure periods of time shorter than days or lunar months. These, of course, could be observed from the sun – the coming of light in the morning and darkness at night – and the moon, going through its monthly waxing and waning cycle. So there were sundials and water-clocks and hour-glasses – those things with two bulbs separated by a narrow ‘neck’, and sand running from one to another. When the ‘sands of time’ ran out, an hour, near enough, had passed. If you needed another hour you just turned the hour-glass up the other way and the sand started flowing again. Excellent device, and aesthetically pleasing. A miniature version used to be used to time boiling eggs.

Clocks became more and more sophisticated and accurate. Human beings can’t resist improving things, and then improving them even more. It’s in our nature to tinker. These wonderful new clocks made navigation easier for ships’ captains. As time went by, people arrived on time for church with the help of a clock rather than a chiming bell. Then there were railways, and people caught their trains on time because they had clocks and watches; the trains ran on time for the same reason: the timetable had been invented. Factory workers in the newly-industrialised cities had once been summoned by a ‘knocker-up’ or ‘knocker-upper’ who scuttled past their windows, banging loudly on them. Now he was replaced by alarm clocks. People began to get anxious about time. They worried about missing their trains and being late for work. If they clocked in even a minute late at the factory door, that day they would be docked fifteen, or thirty minutes’ pay. Time controlled people. Time punished them.

So if all the clocks were stopped, or beamed up by aliens, maybe we would be happier? Chaos to start with, no doubt. People would shamble in to work whenever they felt like it – all people, not just important people. People would leave whenever they’d had enough. Or if it was a sunny afternoon and they felt like sitting in the park eating sandwiches. Hallelujah!

I think I might try it, you know. Not now, with winter approaching and even the daytime chilly and damp. As I look out of my window, now, the sky has gone that saucepan grey it mostly is in Britain, beyond September. It’s starting to rain and raindrops spatter against my window. And the wind’s in the telegraph wires, so there’s more, and worse, to come. In a minute I will draw my curtains, as the over-the-road neighbours already have. No, I shall wait for summer, for a long, inviting day when the sun is shining. I shall turn all the clocks to the wall. I shall turn off my mobile phone and resist the temptation to just check my emails or just post a quick little something on my blog. I shall leave the TV off; I shall switch off the microwave with its glowing green numbers. I shall make myself some sandwiches and a flask of tea. I shall take a book and drive out into the country. I shall not listen to my car radio because every hour it would inform me that another hour of my life had gone – somewhere. I shall listen to the birds. I shall know the time, well enough for my purposes, because the light will change, fractionally, continually. I still have that skill, from childhood. All of us have that skill – it’s just looking. I will watch the sun and know that when it is directly overhead it’s noon, as near as makes no difference. And I shall come home when I’m tired, not when my watch tells me to. Ah, it all sounds so Perfect Day. Someone on YouTube describes it as ‘beautifully depressing’