My religious upbringing began in a Primitive Methodist Sunday school – don’t get hung up on the primitive word, it was anything but that, but it’s been a long road to escape the pervading sense of imminent punishment for inadvertently breaking one of the many and mostly unwritten rules. It didn’t seem to trouble some of the members much that they broke the rules themselves when it suited them. One of the leaders was outed in the local papers for selling flick knives in his shop (his defence was that if he didn’t sell them someone else would). Among the close families of the devout faithful were more black sheep than you could shake a stick at. Jack, the local baker, was OK as long as he drove a horse and cart after he stopped off at the Foresters at lunch time for a few (no, a lot of) rough ciders because the horse would take him home. In an electric float he was a menace. In fact alcohol was the principal demon that needed exorcising. I even once saw Gilbert the grave digger sitting swigging from a bottle with his feet dangling in a half-dug grave.
The Sunday School was tucked in, up an alley and next door to a small slaughterhouse behind the church and so we could hear the sheep being driven up the lane and then listen to an endless sermon that always involved a lot of smiting and the sacrifice of lambs. There was even a very large image of a lamb – more of a tup, I’d say, waving a flag and with a rather smug face that regarded us from the big window with a superior glint in its eye. The smiting often had a surprisingly modern set of references; mostly outing everyday sins which, although we were children, made us understand that an infinitude of suffering in the fiery furnace was all there was to look forward to. Amongst the eternally damned, it seemed, were any number of local people who’d pissed off the minister. Later I discovered that many of the congregation were predestinarians who believed themselves to be saved whatever they did. I never had that confidence. Once, when one of the local shopkeepers died in the night I just thought he must have had it coming.
Then there were the worms that would surely consume us; although I was never sure whether we would be eaten alive before or after the fiery furnace bit. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a kinder way of understanding God. This post isn’t entirely off piste even for me. If I need to find an explanation for my occasional silences, one reason is that the Calvinistic silt at the bottom of my subconscious occasionally breaks out in a debilitating fog. Well furnished dystopian visions come easily to me, so be warned about what follows.
“Hell is full of amateur musicians: music is the brandy of the damned.George Bernard Shaw
I think Shaw was being a bit unfair there. We might remember that one of the stories told about Robert Johnson was that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for his prodigious talent as a guitar player. Music gets a bad press but we only get really good at it by going through the really bad stage first – like gardening and cooking; but what sets it apart is that at any level it has such power to move and inspire that it almost invites occult explanations.
After thirty years of complete immersion I gave up making and listening to music when I retired, because at some unconscious level I thought I could purge myself of it. It scared me; opened doors I wanted to keep firmly closed. Bach felt like the mind of God and – to level the metaphor just a bit – so did Patti Smith and countless others. A falling cadence in the Paolo Conte song “Max” felt so good it was like pressing the button on the excessive pleasure machine. So after five years of abstinence I decided it was time to risk it once again, and so – once again – the Potwell Inn is full of music.
Which is how I found myself listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd, aka Pastoral – symphony. It was as if I’d never heard it before – so full of darkness, loss and foreboding; enough properly to stir the mud in my pond. I did a quick search and discovered that even the composer had thought its presumed association with lambs gambolling in the fields was truly off the mark. What it did for me was to remind me of a strange visitation I’d once experienced in Gloucestershire. I was standing on a narrow packbridge and looking up through the woods towards Damery Lake when I became aware of an invisible presence. Specific as these visitations always are, it was an army officer – a captain – who was both in the midst of a first world war battle somewhere in Northern France, and simultaneously standing next to me. These were his woods and in particular this was his lake, and his remembrance of them in the hell of the battle had imprinted themselves upon the place and revealed themselves to me almost a hundred years later. By an almost Jungian coincidence, Ralph Vaughan Williams had first conceived of the music that was to become the Third Symphony – serving as a medical orderly in Northern France in 1916.
In this past week, waiting for the results of the US elections that sense of foreboding was everywhere. Thank goodness there’s been a chink of light at last, but in darkest Sunday School mode as I was by then, I have been fighting off the feeling that we’re not taking this crisis seriously enough. Yes of course we’ve been busy on the allotment but it somehow feels that our frantic horticultural activism is a form of displacement activity. Writing about the seed order or making stock seems such an inadequate response to what’s happening.
Populism as it’s become known is like bindweed – it can’t be eradicated by covering it with a bit of plastic or an old carpet. There are no nostrums, no easy ways or short cuts because the only thing that will remove the infestation is the slow careful removal of every fragment of root. Empty blowhard patriotism needs to be called out for the dangerous fraud it’s become, because the bridge back to any sort of imaginary golden age has been blown up for ever. Even Elgar hated the way that ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had been hijacked and pressed into service as a jingoistic anthem to British superiority. There’s no point in pretending that with a few minimal alterations and a couple of byelaws we can go back to our old comfortable ways. It’s over.
Suddenly it feels like the autumn of 1939 all over again. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and that seems like a poetic reprise on the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony. Then yesterday I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl”. Even as I write this the radio is trumpeting a successful Covid vaccine and I can hear the cheer going up across the world.
Let’s get back to the good old days and buy some Pfizer shares. Let’s crack open another bottle of champagne and do some deals; fill our barns with chlorinated chicken and soya beans and build more walls – walls against disease, against migrants, against starvation, against rising tides, and let’s throw that communist Jeremiah into the pit again.
But it won’t do. The awful fruits of our greed and – let’s be honest – stupidity are slouching towards Jerusalem once more and the sky is dark with (organic) chickens, coming home to roost. Years ago, late one evening just before Christmas I went to Temple Meads railway station to collect one of the waifs and strays that occasionally crossed our path (she still owes me the twenty quid I loaned her to buy a ticket back to Ireland). I was standing alone on the empty platform, when a drunk man approached out of nowhere (I must have that kind of face) and ranted at me for fully half an hour about his perfidious and about to be ex wife and her unreasonable behaviour. Every few minutes he would interrupt his torrent of hatred and ask the time. I would tell him and he would rejoin his bilious monologue. Eventually he said – “How come you always know the time without looking at your watch?” I replied that if he looked up, he would see that the station clock was immediately above his head.
The facts of our dangerous situation are directly in front of us – we just need to pause and look.