- The Vicarage
- Church Street
- CB22 7NP
Well, I did say I would . . .
A couple of years ago, I claimed, at the end of an article, that the comparative neglect of John Milton, in particular of Paradise Lost, was a ‘national disgrace’. A friend raised an eyebrow at that comment. By the luckiest coincidence a few weeks later, BBC radio happened to broadcast an adaptation of Paradise Lost starring Sir Ian McKellan, Simon Russell Beale, and Frances Barber (not one of my relations, by the way!). Writing of the experience, McKellan says, “It is all in the sound of the words. If you speak Paradise Lost out loud, you’ll begin to recognize what a truly great poem it is.”
There’s more to Milton than the one poem, though. Wordsworth, over a century after Milton’s death, wrote:
Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee . . .
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue . . .
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness . . .
Wordsworth touches on several aspects of Milton that impress me. Apart from the comment of ‘giving us manners, virtue’, there is Milton’s acceptance of all that has happened to him. He didn’t have an easy life; he experienced many personal tragedies - as well as going blind - yet he seems to have remained cheerful. And when you think that, after becoming blind, he composed Paradise Lost, dictating it to his daughters bit by bit over several years, it is an amazing feat.
In his sonnet about going blind, he doesn’t rage at God, as one might suppose, he says:
God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best . . .
They also serve who only stand and wait.
No self-pity here!
I enjoy his skill, too. Here’s just a little example. The sonnet begins
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide . . .
I appreciate his craftsmanship of ending the first line with the ambiguity of spent; it’s the light of his eyes now spent, burnt-out like a ‘spent’ match, but it also suggests that half his life has already passed by, ‘spent’ in that sense. And, as the last word of the line, it just has that extra stress when you read it.
Have you ever sung the hymn that contains these lines?
Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord, for he is kind,
For his mercies aye endure
Ever faithful, ever sure.
Milton wrote that as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy!
And the first on your list would be?
I have a friend whom I have known for well over forty years, whose texts and emails tend to be rather enigmatic. I have often wondered, as he is a retired GP, whether he was similarly enigmatic in talking to his patients! One of his emails, sent from Australia where he was visiting his daughter, made a tantalising reference to books saving a life. I should have queried it, but didn’t. A couple of months later a book arrived through the post which made it perfectly clear. Michael McGirr explores forty or so books in Books that Saved my Life, books that enrich us in so many ways, books that give us wisdom, solace and pleasure. His range of reading is impressive. Some you might expect – the Bible, Jane Austen and Shakespeare, for example, but Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?
McGirr was a Jesuit for 20 years, and a Catholic priest for seven, before leaving the priesthood to marry, since which time he has been a teacher and book reviewer. On every page, there is something to ponder, and certainly he can become provocative and thought-provoking. Here is an example. See what you think of this:
“Parts of scripture are like a pebble in my shoe, constantly reminding me that there is more to life than just me and more to time than a linear progression of past, present and future. . .
“A sacred text will close itself off if it is read in anger. It will lock its doors against those who use it to prove a point. It will turn a deaf ear to the opinions of those who know what it means in the first place. It will mock those who think they are the centre of the universe. It will scorn the self-righteous. But it will open itself to a mind and heart than can be honest about the rough and tumble of life. It will flower in laughter and pain.”
McGirr has reminded me of books that I have read and enjoyed in the past, that have had a significant impact on me. I can also remember students whose attitudes and feelings have been radically changed through entering and appreciating a world very different from their own. But the ‘bad’ side is that my personal reading list of books-to-read has grown and grown! Should I include Mrs Beeton, for he says the public loved her life-coaching skills? And he quotes her statement: ‘Friendships should not be hastily formed nor the heart given, at once, to every new-comer.”
Perhaps, as we have Christmas and New Year - a precious time for family and friends - we could lob into the conversation a question or two about any books that have influenced and changed us, and widened our horizons?
‘The rag-mat of autumn’
This phrase, by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson, seems to me to capture just that mixture of many colours and haphazard look of fallen leaves that make autumn what it is. Read on for a bits-and-pieces view of autumn, by half-a-dozen writers - some autumn leaves, if you like.
The book of Ecclesiastes has words that may well be familiar: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted . . . ‘ As we turn to the autumn months, I have been reflecting on the weather. Do you remember Easter Day this year? There was hot sunshine and hardly any breeze. It was heralded by many as the start of summer, with some predicting that we were to expect a fine, hot summer from then onwards. Indeed, since then, records were broken in many places – even here! - but in between Easter and August, there were occasions when I heard people complaining of the cold, “Do you know, we’ve had to put the heating back on!”
When does autumn begin? The naturalist Edward Step claims that it is in the third week in September, when the day and night become equal in length. He writes, ‘The rambling naturalist knows that you cannot fix dates to our seasons before they come: that they merge one into another gradually, and that a few miles north or south or the two sides of a range of hills may show a marked difference.’ Back in the early nineteenth century, Keats referred to autumn as the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ which he describes as the ‘close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’. He describes the weight of the apples bending the boughs of the trees. It is enough to quote simply the title of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest and poet, to get his idea of autumn: ‘Hurrahing in Harvest‘. The sonnet, he says, ‘was the outcome of half an hour of extreme enthusiasm as I walked home alone one day.’
What of October? Ted Hughes describes it as ‘marigold’, a lovely description of autumnal colour:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition
Of ice across its eye.
Well, Thomas Hood had a rather bleak view, with every line beginning
No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon –
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -
And he ends, rather predictably perhaps:
But don’t be too depressed – what comes the following month?
If music be the food of love, play on
must be one of the most well known opening lines of any Shakespeare play. Duke Orsino’s love-sickness is not the subject of this article, however, but music definitely is. From our hunter-gatherer days we seem to have had music of some kind or other: hitting pieces of wood, blowing into a tube of hollowed out reed . . . What was it for- celebration, ritual, dance?
From plainsong chants, with monks singing psalms in unison, to full-scale works for large vocal and orchestral resources, like Handel’s Messiah, from singing hymns to negro spirituals, music has been of the utmost importance in religious activity. Writing that has reminded me, following on from my article in the last issue of the magazine, that I was rather surprised at monks occasionally getting down on their knees quickly while they were singing, then jumping up after a moment or two. Being nosy, of course, I couldn’t resist asking why. Apparently, they knelt and said a prayer if they made a mistake in their singing. I did not comment to our vicar that it was just as well he wasn’t a member of that order, as with his voice, poor man, he would have been on his knees all the time!
But back to my theme. It appears that making music together has all sorts of benefits, and particularly if you sing in a group with others.
· Having to exercise the lungs, it oxygenates the blood and helps develop upper-chest muscles. So, it does you good physically.
· It stimulates the brain and enhances mental awareness, concentration, and memory. You get to take in quite a bit all at the same time.
· It reduces stress by lifting your mood and it gives you a sense of community, being part of a harmonious whole.
So, in short, it’s a natural healer!
I have been very lucky. My first real encounter was at the end of my first term at secondary school. We sang Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and when we, the choir, joined the orchestra for the last four or five rehearsals, the explosion of sound in the opening chorus, “Christians be joyful”, with the trumpets ringing out just in front of us trebles, was an unforgettable experience for which I am profoundly grateful.
Perhaps I could end with words by Zoltan Kodaly, the Hungarian composer and philosopher: "Music is spiritual food and cannot be substituted by anything else. Whoever does not partake from it will live and die in a state of spiritual anaemia. There are regions of the soul which can be illuminated only through music. The task of music is to help us know our inner world better and to help it bloom and fulfil itself... And where we reach the limits of human consciousness, music will point even further into a world which we cannot know, only feel."
I have never wanted to be a monk, but . . .
When I was in my late teens, the vicar of our church in London invited three of us to travel with him to Switzerland to spend a week with a family. He had been invited by a lady who used to attend the church before marrying and who now had a teenage son. She wanted her son to have some English conversation with boys of similar age before he went off to do his national service. The vicar arranged for us to spend a night in Clervaux monastery in Luxembourg on the way there and another, in Trier, Germany, on the way back.
The monks were extremely hospitable and, in Clervaux, they served us with plenty of beer which they had brewed in the monastery. That was my first surprise, and it also meant that I slept very soundly, in spite of having a small, fairly hard bed in the barest of tiny rooms. Having to be silent at meal times, I found to be difficult and not very practical – a gentle cough to attract attention and then indicate with your eyes that you would like the salt or pepper, please.
Trier was far less austere. The deputy abbot who welcomed us was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. His study had comfortable sofas, religious pictures, and plenty of books. And he served us with wine. In the course of the conversation, I asked him what had happened to him in the war. “I was in Dachau concentration camp.” The answer was so unexpected, and I remember muttering something about being sorry. His reply was even more unexpected: “Oh no, it was a privilege.” I have not forgotten that statement and have often reflected upon it. In what way a privilege? That it was a test of his faith? That he felt enabled to encourage others? That deprivation and ill-treatment were physical, but that his spiritual integrity held out? I always wish that I, or the others, had questioned him further.
When I heard last year that there was to be an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and artefacts at the British Library, I was keen to go. There was plenty of time, but when I had eventually decided on a date - the last few days of the exhibition - it was completely sold out!
What did I want to see, and why? When I was introduced to Anglo-Saxon literature many years ago, I loved the sound and structure of the language. I loved the poetry, with such variety of topics, from the heroism in Beowulf, to the lament of the Wanderer, a man without friends or family and feeling desolate as he roams around, from the exquisite Dream of the Rood in which the tree out of which Christ’s Cross is fashioned, speaks of the experience, to the sometimes rather naughty Riddles. Such variety, such stimulating reading. And there is much more.
I was particularly eager to see the so-called St Cuthbert’s Gospel for two reasons. First, it is the earliest book in Europe with its original binding still intact, quite amazing when you realise that it is well over a thousand years old. The very thin birchwood covers are bound with red goatskin, but the cover isn’t just plain; it is embossed with various motifs. How was that done? Apparently, clay seems to have been placed between the wood and the leather, then a carved matrix was pressed down until the clay hardened. And inside? St John’s Gospel copied out in that lovely round uncial script, the pages sewn together with flax thread. Consider this for a moment, too. Every word has been painstakingly copied from another hand-written document, every line and every letter are beautifully regular. What has been used? A quill carefully shaped with a knife, and the quill dipped into an ink made from raw materials. No touch of a keyboard, no clicking on ‘Print’.
Secondly, because I have a soft spot for Cuthbert, having walked most of the Cuthbert’s Way and subsequently found out more about him. From humble shepherd to bishop, he was such a popular character that, after he died, the monks carried his coffin around with them to protect it from Viking raids. A stone church was erected for the coffin in Durham where it finally came to rest in a shrine of the Cathedral built especially to house it. When his coffin was opened the Gospel was found resting on his breast. Though he reached high rank in the church, he was essentially a quiet hermit. Not much stood in the way of Henry VIII’s men, but they were so awestruck by the preserved state of Cuthbert’s body all those centuries later, they ceased their destruction of Durham Cathedral – and that says something!
So, I missed the exhibition, but to compensate a little, I was able to buy the catalogue and can study the exhibits at leisure - almost as good? Probably not!
While we were walking in Northumberland, a gust of wind swept a large fern aside which revealed a tiny flower growing in a crack in a stone wall. It was probably a common wild flower; I’m quite sure Elizabeth Judge could have named it immediately! Stupidly, I didn’t think to take a photo. I was struck by the beauty of the flower, by the symmetry and elegance of the petals and leaves. A line from a poem by Thomas Hardy came into my mind and has been haunting me on and off ever since. Thinking about it at the time took my mind off more mundane things like the aches and pains brought on by walking up and down the hills. East Anglia gives little practice in this respect!
In the poem, Hardy hopes that, when he dies, people will
say of him:
He was a man who used to notice such things.
His poems testify to his ‘noticing things’. One of the strongest reasons for reading poetry is that we are taken on a journey to notice things. We see our surroundings with clearer eyes, we see others’ thoughts and feelings. At one of our Coffee and Chat meetings, a member of the group introduced us to a poem called Miracles, which in its quiet way shows that there are miracles everywhere, if only we take the time to look carefully, to notice them. Walt Whitman, whom I have mentioned in a previous article, declares I know of nothing else but miracles and he lists the ordinary things of life, whether you walk along a city street, or stand under trees in the woods, or see the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring. And he concludes:
To me every hour of the light and the dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interiors warms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the waves - the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
It's a question of noticing - and appreciating - things.
The Victorian priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in one
of his best-known poems, Pied Beauty,
draws our attention towards noticing dappled
things, those things that aren’t necessarily
perfect in a conventional sense: skies
of couple-colour (not perfectly blue), rose-moles all in stipple upon trout (the sides of the trout aren’t
smooth and of just one colour), finches’
wings (multi-coloured), landscape
plotted and pieced. His message, in short, is summed up in the poem’s famous
be to God for dappled things.
Miserable Old Git
Some time ago, I came across this cartoon of a grumpy old man.
I thought it would be a good idea to prop it up in my room as a salutary warning, just in case grumpiness seemed to be in danger of surfacing. Whether that aim has been successful or not isn’t for me to say!
A few months ago, I came across an article about gratitude, which offered a positive attitude, an absolute antidote to grumpiness. What stuck in my mind was the remark that, like Velcro, negative experiences stick, whereas positive ones tend to slide away. Psychologists say that we remember good things only if we deliberately reflect on them for 15 seconds or more, otherwise they “slide away as if on Teflon”.
The article indicated ways of keeping hold of those experiences for which we should be grateful. These are the steps we should take:
· keep a journal of things for which you are grateful;
· share three good things each day with a friend or partner;
· go out of your way to express gratitude to others.
Is it surprising to discover that these ideas aren’t new? St Ignatius, who lived some six centuries ago and seems to have had a very colourful life as a young man, has had a profound influence on countless people thereafter. He founded a religious order and is remembered as a talented spiritual director. He recorded his method in a celebrated treatise called the Spiritual Exercises, a simple set of meditations, prayers, and other mental exercises, first published in 1548.
What preparations are we making to celebrate and what place will gratitude have in our celebrations?
Will the gratitude continue when the excitement dwindles?
And a New Year resolution to be grateful for at least three things every day?
We love anniversaries . . .
Most of us enjoy birthday celebrations and wedding anniversaries, particularly when they refer to what we may call a significant number. And we use terms like silver, ruby, golden, diamond as a sign of relative value. Do we have such a term for a hundred, other than use the word ‘centenary’?
The centenary of the end of WW1 has been celebrated in various ways. At the beginning of July, ‘A Celebration of Peace in commemoration of the end of WW1’ was held in our cathedral in Ely, involving a large choir and orchestra. One of the items on the programme, Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams, contains a poem by the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman that I hadn’t come across before and which has haunted me ever since. Here are some lines from Reconciliation:
"Beautiful that war and all its
deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."
The acknowledgement by the poet that his enemy is ‘divine’, too, is striking. Perhaps that recognition should be the starting-point whenever there is talk of conflict.
At the end of the Celebration, a trumpeter played the Last Post and dozens and dozens of poppies drifted down from the octagonal tower. The emotionally charged silence that followed in the packed cathedral was palpable.
One can’t drive by the many immaculately maintained cemeteries in northern France without being struck by the colossal number of lives cut short by ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, a phrase that slips off the tongue rather too easily, but doesn’t only apply, alas, to WW1; just over twenty years later, the Second World War began.
Has there been any reconciliation?
Are we sufficiently grateful for the peace we have experienced in this country for the last seventy years or so?
For how long will it remain the longest period of peace in European history?
This may well be the term to use for describing the Wife
of Bath, Chaucer’s rather colourful pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales, as she recounts her life with her five husbands. Three were good and two were bad – the three
good ones being old and rich! She
doesn’t waste much time before referring to the Old Testament: Abraham and
Isaac had more than two wives, Solomon probably had a few, so what is to stop
her having several husbands! And she
refers to the New Testament account of Jesus, in St John’s Gospel, speaking to
the Samaritan woman at the well.
The Samaritan woman chose to go to the well at midday, whereas the majority of the women were accustomed to going early in the morning before it became too hot. Her reason for avoiding meeting the other women, however, was that they looked down on her for living with a man who wasn’t her husband. The well would have been the focal point of the village - and not just in biblical times - because it was the only source of fresh water. It was an important meeting place. Going at midday, she would be on her own and avoid comments.
What a surprise for her, therefore, when she sees a man sitting down at the well, a man who asks her for a drink, and more particularly that she saw he was a Jew and not a Samaritan. The two groups weren’t accustomed to associating with each other. She was understandably puzzled when, in the course of their conversation, he distinguishes between two types of water. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (St John 4:13-14) She was also puzzled because he knew she had had five husbands. After further conversation, and on finding out that he is the Messiah, a remarkable thing happens; she goes bravely to the town to tell everyone about him. But in spite of her bad reputation, she is so empowered and convincing that people from that town “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” and they urge him to stay – which he does. Against the odds, she has become a credible witness.
[The Samaritan Woman was the subject of a 'Coffee and Chat' meeting, our discussion focusing on Chapter 5 of Credible Witnesses by the Rev Dr John Parr, a former vicar of the Benefice.]
‘They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and
Through Eden took their solitary way.’
Can you imagine this as a film ending with a couple walking towards the horizon? The romantic image of a couple confronting the future, the world all before them, is quite striking. They will need to choose where to settle and hope that the decisions they make will be . . . well, what?
These days, few people will have read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I suspect, but it ranks as one of the greatest poems in English. Some parts are easier to read than others, and it isn’t short, but once you have read the account of Satan being
‘Hurled headlong flaming
from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire’
you won’t forget it. Read these lines aloud, deliberately savouring the sounds of the words. Milton’s aim in writing Paradise Lost was to ‘justify the ways of God to man’, by showing how from man’s first disobedience, a ‘greater Man’ restored us.
No wonder that writers, like Milton, have been captivated by the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, the mythic history of the first years of the world’s existence. One of the values of myth is that there are often layers of meaning and significance. How brilliantly the Creation story explores innocence, temptation, gullibility, sin!
I am rather uneasy when people make the dismissive statement ‘it’s just a myth!’, as it is so often made without understanding that myths are the ancient world’s seeking to come to terms with the unknown. In a sense, parables are similar to myths; they are stories with important truths and insights to be grasped and reflected upon. Just think about the Good Samaritan, which I cite as possibly the most well-known of all parables, and the lessons one can draw from that.
The fact that Milton is undervalued today is a national disgrace. But that controversial statement will have to wait for a later article!
Etched on a bar of soap with a used matchstick!
You know what those grey days can be like, when there is no sun visible, when most of the news seems pretty miserable and depressing, when it’s drizzling outside, and it’s not worth opening the umbrella because everywhere’s damp anyway . . . One way of dealing with this may be to ponder these words by a remarkable lady:
I will tell of the first beauty
I saw in captivity:
A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, not walls,
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain –
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern – none more beautiful could be dreamt!
It isn’t easy to imagine what it would be like to be arrested on spurious charges, then sentenced to spend seven years in a labour camp, followed by five years of exile, but that happened to Irina Ratushinskaya who died in July 2017. She reminds us in these lines of how grateful we ought to be for those moments of beauty, however tiny, in our daily lives. And how grateful we ought to be to be able to read her poems, etched on bars of soap in miniscule lettering which she then dissolved in water when she had committed them to memory. She was forbidden paper because the authorities knew the power of the written word, but they had not taken into account her ingenuity. She was able to transfer the poems occasionally on to cigarette paper sheets which were then smuggled out.
Do you remember those heady days of Gorbachev and glasnost or ‘openness’, when he and Reagan seemed to be introducing an era of sensible and intelligent conduct in high places? That was in 1986, at the time of the Reykjavik summit. The media were all geared up for this momentous historical event, but Ratushinskaya’s release rather upstaged the summit.
She wrote: “I had to decide who to believe in, my teachers, the government and the TV media, or God.” She became a deeply committed Christian and retained her unwavering faith throughout her ordeal. As she wrote after her release:
Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights
A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know
A-huddle by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
She was some lady to be able to write that after beatings and torture and a deficient diet. The title of the memoir she wrote of her time in prison, Grey is the Colour of Hope, may well serve as a useful motto.
'Go to the ant, you sluggards, consider her ways and be wise!'
I was unaware that this ‘greeting’, bellowed out as we teenagers dawdled our way down a corridor to a particular classroom, was a Biblical quotation, from the Book of Proverbs. Long afterwards, I discovered that it continued: ‘Without having chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer and gathers its sustenance in harvest.’ Watching half-a-dozen ants shift a twig over bumpy ground can be quite fascinating, no ‘chief’ being obvious. Most people probably wouldn’t find the suggestion of behaving like an ant particularly complimentary, but ants have been admired for centuries for their organisational and social skills. And they don’t hang about, so I suppose it was an apt quotation to use on us.
Inside that classroom there was a sense of urgency. Full concentration all the time was demanded, for if we didn’t concentrate it would be ‘too late’. The fairly constant repetition of ‘get on with it now’ (raised voice) ‘or it will be too late’ (even louder voice) had its effect and made us all panic. We got the point!
But there is a danger of always thinking it’s too late, as it can provoke a feeling of failure – let’s just give up, then.
These reminiscences came into my mind after seeing in the press that a lady had been awarded a doctorate in her nineties. Not too late for her! And a certain amount of research indicates that many people succeed after taking things on many years later than they ‘should’.
That in turn reminded me of another member of staff, who had a far greater influence on me, and who had left school without exams, having been only fourteen when the Second World War broke out. He studied by correspondence course and gained an external degree from London University. He became an English teacher, a head of department, a university lecturer, and ended up Professor of Education at Reading for over twenty years. Some career! And his influence on me? He pencilled a long and appreciative comment at the end of an exam answer, which so encouraged me that, in part, it determined my future.
I wonder what the effect might have been if we had been greeted, not with ‘you sluggards’, but with a smile and with a different Biblical quotation, perhaps St Matthew’s, ’So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself.’ Might we have hurried along with more grace and good humour?
‘There are no boring people in this world’
Really? You’re joking! This rather provocative statement could prove an interesting topic for discussion. It happens to be the opening line of a poem by someone who most certainly was anything but boring, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the controversial Russian author who died on 1st April this year. From what I have read about him over the years, I suspect he would have been amused to have died on such a day, the internet having revealed that 1st April is celebrated in Russia, though more for the beginning of spring rather than for any April Fool pranks! Forthright and opinionated, Yevtushenko managed to say many things that could have seen him ‘removed’ from Soviet society.
He was the subject of a conversation between two young people in a novel called Wild Berries. They conclude that Yevtushenko’s work is ‘past it’. The joke is that it was Yevtushenko himself who wrote the novel. And how old was Yevtushenko when the novel was published? Not even 50!
(Authors laughing about themselves appeals to my sense of humour. It reminds me of Chaucer describing the tale he tells on the way to Canterbury as ‘boring’, as I mentioned in an article earlier this year.)
There is a remarkable account, in his autobiography, of being in Moscow in 1941 with his mother, watching nearly twenty thousand prisoners of war being paraded in a single column in front of a jeering crowd, the soldiers and police having some difficulty in restraining them. Many of the women watching would probably have lost a son, a husband, a brother, so the hatred would have been intense. Yevtushenko describes the prisoners in vivid terms: “thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades . . . with their heads down.” Now comes the extraordinary moment. An elderly woman in broken-down boots pushes herself forward, touches a policeman’s shoulder, and asks to be let through. Something about her causes him to step aside. From inside her coat she pulls out a handkerchief in which was wrapped a crust of black bread. She pushes it “awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted he was tottering on his feet. And now suddenly from every side women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had.
The soldiers were no longer enemies.
They were people.”
I can recall reading this extract to a couple of hundred teenagers at a school assembly twenty or thirty years ago; Yevtushenko’s last two sentences had a palpable effect on them that I shall never forget.
Sit down comfortably and imagine . . .
. . . a lake, fringed by willows, reeds and grasses. Mallards and coots peck at whatever takes their fancy, the blue sky with the occasional puffball of cloud is reflected on the rippling surface.
. . . a footpath that runs along the back of a man’s vegetable patch at the end of his garden. He is planting tomatoes and carefully placing nettle stalks - some eighteen inches long - that he has cut from the footpath, by each plant. After a brief greeting, the conversation focuses on the nettles. Why is he positioning nettles by the tomatoes? The unexpected answer is that the nettles, “Stop the aphids getting to the tomatoes, you know.”
. . . a small and rather secluded chapel built of chunky stones long ago, its simple roof renovated more recently providing a cool sanctuary from the heat. The notices inside show its regular use for services, and the posies and occasional photo are evidence that a loved one is not forgotten.
. . . a symmetrical hill, an extinct volcano looking like a green cone covered in grass and bushes. Take the path cut into the side and it opens out to reveal a small lake, surrounded like an amphitheatre with large shards of grey lava, looking like organ pipes. Near the entrance a stage has been built out over the water.
. . . a small town, not an obvious tourist venue, the sort of town you would pass through when going somewhere else. In a secluded back street, within a medieval priory, is a museum celebrating various civilisations, from Africa to Asia, North America to the South Sea Islands. Though full of artefacts and sculptures and illustrations, it has the advantage of being relatively small as a museum; you can see all of it in a couple of hours. If only one could retain all the information . . .
Each one of these scenes was encountered during a few days’ walk on one of the many European routes converging on the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. The Way of St James has been a pilgrimage track for over a thousand years, nowadays attracting a couple of hundred thousand pilgrims a year. You can start from many locations, and you can almost walk without a map, for each route is marked by little emblems of a scallop shell, a yellow shell on a blue background. Look up and you will see one on a lamp-post, as the route passes through a town or village, or on a tree or post in the countryside.
Scallop shell on a lamp-post at Montbrison, a town on the route from Cluny to Compostela.
Those walkers doing the whole route are usually identifiable by an actual shell dangling from their rucksacks.
As there seemed to be no one around other than the two of us at the extinct volcano, I couldn’t resist declaiming Shakespeare from the stage. Ten minutes or so later, we discovered another couple; I hope the acoustic properties of the surroundings weren’t that good!
So, now that it’s April, are you longing to go on a pilgrimage? That’s what Chaucer thought would be the case. His account of a motley group of characters telling stories to pass the time as they walked from London to Canterbury, “the hooly blisful martir for to seke”, was written over six hundred years ago. I suppose a modern equivalent of the story-telling element might be for a courier on a coach trip to suggest that the passengers could take it in turns to take the microphone and tell a story, to pass the time. Chaucer writes himself into the story and, what must be one of the very best literary jokes, in that it is a joke against himself, his story is brought to an abrupt, rude end – it’s considered too boring!
But back to the pilgrims who were going to see the tomb of the blessed Thomas à Becket, who helped them “when that they were seeke” (‘sick’). Walking to Canterbury from every shire in England was popular and attractive, though it was by no means the earliest pilgrimage. Walking from Chester to Lichfield, a distance of over ninety miles, to commemorate St Chad, seems to have been one of the first in this country, several centuries before Canterbury.
Why bother to go on a pilgrimage, and on foot? That seems the obvious question. To go on a meaningful journey to a sacred place provides an occasion to take time from the busyness and stresses of our lives. Using “nature’s gym” – a free gym! – can bring not only physical benefits, for one can profit mentally, socially, spiritually. Quietly walking mile after mile, experiencing the ever-changing landscape, seeing the flash of blue of a kingfisher’s wing, as you sit by a stream eating a sandwich, or the eye of a field mouse peeping out by a tuft of grass, are unforgettable moments. And there have been several accounts of convinced atheists having their lives completely changed by the experience.
If you need more convincing, here is a paragraph from The Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros:
“When you walk, news becomes unimportant. Soon you have lost all knowledge of the world and its gymnastics, the most recent own goal, the latest scandal. You no longer await the surprise development, or want to hear how it really all began, or what happened in the end. Heard the latest? When you are walking, all that ceases to matter. After walking far and long, you can even come to wonder in surprise how you could ever have been interested in it. The slow respiration of things makes everyday huffing and puffing appear vain, unhealthy agitation.”