In Parenthesis

Today is the first anniversary of the first Covid 19 lockdown, although Madame and me anticipated it by several weeks because we could sense in our bones that something very bad was about to come upon us. And unsurprisingly, I suppose, every news programme today was full of remembrances and silences and pictures of victims and nurses. I’m too much of a curmudgeon to want to join in minutes of silence, mainly because grief is an intensely private business for me. Notwithstanding the years of conducting funerals I don’t believe my inmost and saddest thoughts can be organised by anyone and I especially resent being told how I should be feeling. In my bleakest moments I sense that even to attempt to construct a narrative around these terrible events is to diminish them. And so we fled the garden centre at eleven fifty with ten minutes to spare and came back to the Potwell Inn.

By strange (or synchronistic) coincidence, last night we watched a marvellous TV documentary about David Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis” – probably the finest World War One poem ever written. I grew up knowing him as an artist because the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a number of his drawings. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with his poetry, entirely lacking the life experience to understand what it might feel like to go through what he endured during the Battle of the Somme. The programme touched us both deeply. Many of the places he lived in were places we know well. After a year of isolation at home, the sight of the phone box in Capel y Ffin; the fact that he lived in the house that, at the time was the home of a small community of artists including Eric Gill, and which we pass directly on one of our favourite walks up to Hay Bluff reminded us of all that we’ve missed. Even his gravestone, carved by Jonah Jones, was a reminder of a marvellous exhibition we saw in Cardiff, and two others – one on Lleyn and another on Anglesey, In fact it’s been a week of Welsh Artists – some kind of season featuring many of the finests artists and poets of God’s Own Country.

The sense of the anniversary was hanging over us and early this morning I read through the two segments of the poems in my ancient edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse which had once baffled me. Sixty years on I could see more clearly. I could hear other voices speaking – especially Gerard Manley Hopkins – and some much more ancient; the voices of the mountains and hills, and I could understand why he didn’t write the poem until long after the war. Our attempts to memorialise events before the ink has dried seem trivial and futile. Covid will take many years and many sleepless nights away from us before we can see it straight, as Jones finally confronted his memories of a dreadful battle in a French wood.

So we did what we often do, we went to the allotment to tend the living things. The sun was shining and we found ourselves taking layers of sweaters off as we sowed seeds and prepared the plot for the coming season. I love the way that seedlings often emerge in a green loop like a dropped stitch and then, within an hour, unfurl their cotyledons like tiny flags – I’m here! look at me! Sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to seek out the tiny signs of life with its sheer dogged persistence. Our son gave us two logs at Christmas, inoculated with the mycelium of oyster mushrooms and shitake mushrooms. Today I constructed a cool and dark shelter for them behind the shed so they can brood there in the quiet.

Our brother in law was among the first victims of Covid. His wife of fifty plus years is living in a silence that seems unlikely to be lifted by displays of public piety. It’s spring by every measure and yet for many the first opportunity to articulate that familiar and terrible cry of loss is a long way off. Pestering the grief stricken with our concern isn’t helping. Job’s friends – in the Old Testament story – were brilliant until they opened their mouths and broke the silence by seeking someone to blame.

Meanwhile we garden in companionable silence, haunted by the fear that we might lose one another.

Returning to a visitation at Damery Lake

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 isĀ 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.