The beauty of the morning

On the 3rd of September 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were both moved by the sight of London spread out before them as they viewed it from Westminster Bridge. Dorothy recorded her impressions in her diary:

“…the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles.”

And William was inspired to write one of his most famous sonnets:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It seems to me that there are two sides to every coin, two faces to ever view. Wordsworth saw the majesty and beauty of his capital city from a famous bridge and yesterday we saw the strange fruits of terrorism strung out along that same bridge – men, women and children mown down by a stranger in a hired car.

It seems to me also that for every hate-filled, lone revolutionary who somehow concludes that his political beliefs make it OK for him to kill or injure a random group of people who just happened to be crossing a particular bridge at a particular moment in time, there is an unarmed policeman willing to be stabbed to death to prevent him from entering the Houses of Parliament. I think of the blood-smeared face of an MP trying unsuccessfully to keep him alive until the ambulance came.

I think of all those bodies on the bridge but also of the doctors running out of hospitals and along the bridge to help the wounded. I think of every injured or dying person on the pavement surrounded by a crowd of passers-by whose instinct was to stop, try to help, reassure or just keep them company in their hour of need.

I think of the police giving first aid to the terrorist they had just been forced to shoot, and of the medics who afforded the same care to him as to his victims.

And it seems to me that for every wound inflicted there is a great flowering of fellow-feeling and human kindness, and that compassion will always overcome, in the end.

Dreaming with your feet

Daisy was remembering a mutual friend, who died a while back. She wasn’t old enough to die but she did, anyway. I shall call her Amy. We were talking about dancing – that’s how it came up. Daisy said something to the effect that she herself had always been self-conscious about dancing and I said it was the same with me. Wanted to dance, just…

And Daisy said she remembered Amy dancing, and how she really got into the music at any social event, let it carry her away; dancing in a world of her own. Amy was kind of small and freckly and had a twisted back, and yet when she danced people looked only at her dancing, took pleasure in the sight of her, dreaming with her feet. Isn’t that the best memorial?

I stumbled across a list of 100 prompts, which I thought I might attempt. Not necessarily one a day for the next 100 days (heaven forefend!). Number 1 is Dance. It’ll be a bit random, since I’m in a random sort of mood tonight:

When I was a child I was sent to the Methodist. Every Sunday morning I would sit and not-listen to the sermon, which was usually accompanied by a lot of fist-thumping and proclamation. One preacher had a leather belt which didn’t seem to make any indentation in the waist of the long black robe he wore. He used to preach with his eyes tight shut. Strange, colourless eyelashes. I was fascinated by this. I could never decide whether he was blind. While I was not-listening I was watching dust particles dancing in the sunlight as it streamed through our broken stained-glass windows. Light of many colours, with dust. And it seemed to me that this was God, this dancing.

I was always drawn to water. I told myself it was because I was an Aquarius – then I read Aquarius was an air sign, in spite of the water-carrier, so that put paid to that theory. Even now I could sit by a country stream or city fountain for hours, watching the dance the water makes. I watched a girl swimming once, in a green river. The river weed flowed alongside her. They danced together.

In my breaks from twilight shift at the call centre I used to go and sit in my car. Anything was better than a kitchen full of swearing teenagers and out-of-date celebrity magazines. I would attempt to think of nothing at all for ten minutes, to get all those electronic voices out of my head. I would watch the trees dancing against the darkening sky, not quite silhouetted yet. One evening it occurred to me that this is the way trees express themselves, this is their art form, the making of patterns against the sky. It’s the spaces in between things as much as the things themselves, as my husband used to say.

I read a book by a Mills & Boon author once. She was saying how she found the title for one of her many best-selling romances – The Moon Dancers. She and her husband had been staying at the seaside. Late one evening they had gone for a walk along the promenade. As she leaned on the rail and looked out over the waves she saw the moon reflecting off them. For a moment she thought she saw a million tiny couples circling in a vast, watery ballroom. Inspiration’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

I think of that bit in The Prelude by Wordsworth. The bit where he’s out skating on a frozen river, dancing on the ice with his friends. He stops, suddenly, and it seems to him that the world continues to dance around him.

                                                …and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
 And all the shadowy banks on either side
 Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
 The rapid line of motion, then at once
  Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
  Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
  Wheeled by me…

dance-dreaming

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.

 

O Rose, thou art sick…

I’ve just wasted three quarters of an hour trying to decide what Philip Larkin meant when he said, famously: Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I mean, what does that even mean? Larkin himself didn’t seem to be deprived of much. For thirty years or so he had a good job, admittedly in a grim Northern town (Hull). But then he did choose to stay in the grim Northern town in spite of having a good enough degree (a First from Oxford in Language and Literature) to have taken him anywhere he wanted to go, and the library was part of the University of Hull. And he didn’t seem ill-fed. He had as much booze and as many fags as he wanted and no fewer than three mistresses, who attended at his death-bed in a complicated shift system. It’s not the traditional picture of a poet, starving in a freezing garret and eventually poisoning himself with… arsenic, or  whatever.

merman

Arthur Rackham: A Crowned Merman

Larkin was certainly quite glum and dissatisfied, but then that’s English. We don’t do jollity. And he seemed to thrive on it; his best poems came out of it – which is perhaps what he means. Wordsworth’s daffodils were an inner treasure-trove of inspiration, a dancing, golden image to recall in those moments when he was feeling a bit down or there wasn’t  a lot else worth thinking about. Golden… treasure… etc. And possibly Larkin, in his gloomy English way, was careful never to become at all happy in case the ability to write poetry deserted him – as indeed it did, later in life. Only then did he allow one of his long-term mistresses to move in with him. After all what did it matter, now that there was nothing for her to distract him from?

I can’t think of one happy poem (at least, not one that’s any good). Can you? But gloom is so fruitful:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake: The Sick Rose


Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
‘Margaret! Margaret!’
Children’s voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;
Children’s voices, wild with pain.
Surely she will come again.
Call her once and come away.
This way, this way!
‘Mother dear, we cannot stay.’
The wild white horses foam and fret.
Margaret! Margaret!

Matthew Arnold: The Forsaken Merman

 Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse

We are thirteen

Kitten’s been on ‘permanent loan’ to my mother for the past five years or thereabouts, keeping her company and giving her something to focus on after Dad died. This morning I got a telephone call from my Godmother to say that it was time to collect Kitten, and I drove across to my mother’s early this afternoon. ‘Kitten’ is a huge misnomer since this little cat celebrated (though she’s not a great one for celebrating, I have to say) her twentieth birthday this September.

I found a handy little paragraph online:

To convert cat age to an equivalent human age, an accepted method is to add 15 years for the first year of life. Then add 10 years for the second year of life. After that, add 4 years for every cat year. This means that by year two, a cat has matured to about the same as a 25 year old human.

So she’d be 97.

She is a poor old thing to look at now, thin and wobbly, and as grumpy as ever – but she seems to be settling in. She’s eaten a surprising quantity of Gourmet food and has now relocated herself to the bedroom.  I just found her in the wardrobe, sunk into the spare duvet. She looks cosy enough, if not exactly full of the joys of spring, and after all these years alone with an old lady the other cats don’t seem to be bothering her. I’ve noticed that whilst she was almost completely silent with Mum, who is stone deaf – even ‘miming’ her miaows to save energy – after a few hours here she is using her voice again. She’s got a fearsome growl on her.

I’ve been desperate to retrieve my old moggie for some time. Mum hasn’t really been up to caring for her for the past year and has become increasingly anxious about the responsibility. I was hoping against hope that she would herself come to the decision to give Kitten back, rather than my having to step in and take her furry companion away when things got just too bad. In truth things have been just too bad for many months now; I was delaying out of cowardice, weighing and re-weighing the welfare of the cat against the potential distress to my mother. Overnight, unexpectedly, and thank goodness, Mum did decide. It can’t have been easy for her.

I suppose the thing with cats is that they are the custodians of various chunks of our lives, the keepers of our memories. Which is why it hurts so much when, inevitably, they have to leave us. It’s not just losing the cat it’s losing our route back to all the things that happened over all those years, the houses we shared, the various crises we weathered. The past is another country, as they say, and when a cat dies the last bridge dissolves with it.

I remember the first time I saw her – as one of a whole litter of flying kittens in a supply teacher’s scruffy back garden, in an unfamiliar town a good hour’s drive from where I lived. I was supposed to be on a date with him – I think I found him in the newspaper! I suspect he had only dated me because I’d mentioned liking cats and he saw an opportunity to get rid of one of the litter his own cat had suddenly produced. Kitten’s a tabby and at that time she was called Stripe. In order not to become attached to them he had not named them, merely identified them by appearance – Stripe, Spotty, Dotty or whatever.

It was never going to work between him and me: he was shorter and totally un-fanciable – in fact not even likeable – but I needed to keep seeing him at least until Stripe was ready to leave her mother. Also, of course, he had to keep seeing me if he wanted to home a kitten. I don’t know which of us found that convenient pretence most irritating. The man had ginger hair, I remember; most of it growing out of his nose and ears.

(I don’t suppose he’s reading this.)

How strange to have her back with me again. How strange to be a thirteen-cat household, if only for a short time. I expect one morning I’ll discover Kitten curled up somewhere, apparently asleep but in fact gone to the land of Endless Purrs.

All this reminded me of a Wordsworth poem. It’s quite a long poem; this is just part of it:

  • “How many are you, then,” said I,
  •  “If they two are in heaven?”
  •  Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
  •  “O Master! we are seven.”
  •  
  •  “But they are dead; those two are dead!
  •  Their spirits are in heaven!”
  •  ’Twas throwing words away; for still
  •  The little Maid would have her will,
  •  And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

THIS SWEET ARCHAIC SONG

James Elroy Flecker made a huge and unexpected leap of the imagination when he wrote ‘To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence. It’s such a well known poem, it’s easy to take it for granted. Oh, that old thing. It’s a bit like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. I remember having to learn this off by heart at Junior School, then being forced to chant it in unison with the rest of my class for some competition or other. Oh, that old thing. Yet when I came across the poem years later, it suddenly struck me – this is really good. Sometimes we need to approach the hackneyed poem, the school-teacher’s favourite, with fresh eyes, and ears.

Why not try it:

http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Poetry/Thousand.htm

It set me thinking, what might a poet think of us, looking back from a thousand years hence. Would there be any record of us at all, or would all trace of us have been buried in some apocalypse? What would it be like, the world he was looking back from? Would it be some kind of technotopia, busy and prosperous, or might he be the last, the only one?

Assuming he had records – that electronic records, books, pictures and music had survived, even – he would be interpreting what he saw through the lens of his own society, and who knows how alien that society might seem to us, or what outlandish conclusions he might draw from such a distance in time.

But supposing he was more or less like us, and his society had at least some common points of reference with our own, what might he think? I am guessing he would be horrified on some counts.

He would be disgusted that we reared other living creatures only to kill and eat them, when our digestive systems were designed to cope with either a vegetarian or a carnivorous diet. You had the choice, he would exclaim, yet you still killed and you still ate. I suspect he would be appalled at our use of animals in experiments and at some of our ancient sports, which involved the hunting and slaughter of wild creatures – the fox and the lion for example – not even for food, but for the thrill of ending a life, the thrill of looking at another creature, in all its living, breathing glory, and in an instant snuffing that glory out.

He would be appalled by our shallow-mindedness. He would wonder how we could possibly be entertained by game shows and talent shows, computer games and social media generally. What were they thinking? Were they thinking?

He would be bemused by our politics – at the never-ending diplomatic games between one country and another, at the never-ending lies, evasions, fixes and deceptions perpetrated by Governments on their own people.

He would be aghast at our inefficiency. How can it be that someone is 15% more likely to die in a British hospital at the weekends because of some ridiculous rota issue? How can it be that old people die alone in dilapidated, underheated houses that nobody ever visited? How can it be that a young woman can die in a ditch beside her dead partner several days after a crash several people reported and nobody attended, because of some computer system malfunction?

He would loathe our perpetual violence against one another, the way we send warplanes to bomb other people’s countries and refer to any man, woman or child who happens to get in the way and be killed or displaced as ‘collateral damage’.

And yet he might find a few things to love.

He might love the way, while Governments bicker and hold endless meetings over how few refugees they are willing to take in, ordinary people go out to meet them with sweets and sandwiches, water, clothing.

He might love our courage in facing a range of appalling diseases that, hopefully, by his time will have been eradicated, with sad reluctance, sometimes, and sometimes with calm resignation.

He might love the way we took to the streets to protest against perceived wrongs in our societies, knowing nothing much would change, whatever we did.

He might love the way we occasionally managed to forget, when faced with the real ‘other people’ in own neighbourhoods, what colour they were, what gender, what religion, and think of them just as people.

He might love our foolishness, the way we liked to dress up for the occasion, our jokes, our weird and eccentric customs, our rituals. He might like the way we wept, watching television, to witness a foreigner’s distress, cheered on the underdog in a tennis match merely because they were the underdog, covered our eyes when the wildebeest was about to be eaten by the lion – again. He might like the way we opened doors for one other, gave up our seats for one other, shepherded old ladies across the road and went to great lengths not to offend one another, even by accident.

He might love our music, and at least some of our art, and be grateful for those few scraps of music, art, architecture, literature and poetry we thought to preserve from those who lived before us.