For the Roses

A while back I wrote here about the book I’ve been working on which has occupied a fair amount of my time and attention over our collective sojourns in the various lockdowns.  I thought a few more words about it might be in order now; some thoughts perhaps less concerned with political pressures.  The book, now finished, is an account of a walk along the Pilgrims’ Way, that 120 mile route that follows the North Downs for the most part, from Winchester – once the country’s capital – to Canterbury; that enchanted heartland of the Anglican Church.  It actually follows a route that once led in the other direction; before Winchester’s ascendency, the thoroughfare along the North Downs led to Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge.  Journeys in this direction were mirrored by the phenomenon of later pilgrims also heading West to St Swithun’s Winchester shrine before Thomas Becket’s martyrdom reversed this trend, in quite a literal sense.  Curious then that the route has often led to a sacred centre of these Isles.

While walking it, as in the writing itself, I attempted to tease out various themes; what did the route mean to me?  Why did I feel the need to go on pilgrimage and how, at all, did this differentiate from any other given walk?  And perhaps above all, how did I feel about the Christian faith, bearing in mind that I considered myself primarily pagan for much of my adult life?  It started with an instinct I suppose; a feel for a certain quality in the air I’d experienced at times; a light in a window when semi-homeless that spoke of a warmth and apparently unlikely but still somehow prevalent hope; experiences in cathedrals, lighting a candle for prayer; and arriving in an Abbey after a week’s walk in the hills further west; an organ recital in spate, a feeling of elation that had much more to it than architecture, exhaustion and music alone.  

Modern pilgrimage is on the bounce of course.  You can see celebrities explore it on TV, Hollywood pitched in more than a decade ago with Martin Sheen in ‘The Way’, you can read about it in an ever-increasing litany of books. The Camino Frances in Northern Spain in particular has acquired a legendary status worldwide.  Writing in his recent book on pilgrimage, Peter Stanford quotes the writer and actress Shirley Maclean who described her pilgrimage as a ‘mythological and imaginative experience’, a ‘walking meditation’ that enabled her to ‘walk backwards in time to a place that began the experiences that made me and the human race what we have become today’.

Part of the appeal of any pilgrimage is its universality of course.  You don’t have to subscribe to any faith or even any given belief to undertake one.  There’s a general emphasis on spirituality but, like the many medieval pilgrims Stanford writes of escaping the mores of their local parish priest, modern pilgrims are free from what many see as the dogma of the traditional church in general and Catholicism in particular.  You can see it as social; a chance for a long walk with cheap wine and digs.  Or as a cultural trip; fine food and architecture, framed by a pace that’s ideal to take it all in. 

If any of that sounds vacuous, it’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever the expectation, pilgrimages are no holidays, or at any rate not simply so. For one thing, somewhere, somehow, something of the various routes’ history tends to rub off.  The pre-eminence of churches, cathedrals and shrines strikes a sense of familiarity; prayer, candles, blessings at masses are all part of the experience, lent a sense of almost existential need by the rigours of the road that make them all the more pertinent, more welcome.  It all encourages a degree of reflection about cultural – if not necessarily personal – Christian roots.  For my part, I was raised Catholic and never lost the habit of praying in churches.  And I’d always walked.  It was when the two married for me with pilgrimage that I began to look more closely at my faith.  They say that for those who don’t believe, nothing can convince them.  And for those who do no explanation is required.  But there are always influences along the way, accounts of that which makes sense to given people at a given time.

For what it’s worth, I’ve attempted an articulation of some of the insights that I’ve come to hold dear down the years, some of the things that have served to sustain me, the things that have helped me along. In this account of experiences on a given pilgrimage, I’ve tried to look a little closer at, amongst other things, the roses and perceived thorns of the prospect of formal religion.  As for the thorns, I list my own grievances, common to many, about the so-called ‘Magisterium’.  But they’re chiefly political points.  What I am certain of, as much now as then, is that a system of worship, a belief that chiefly venerates prayer, positivity and love can still hold great value today.

Some issues remain, for my part at least; the doctrine of ‘one true creed’ or apparent monopolies on true salvation that place any given faith on a pedestal above another, residues of recrimination and guilt, an enforced clerical celibacy whose roots lie in the politics of property rather than anything else.  But it’s easy to criticise, or concentrate on points of division when that which unites us can be so beautiful and strong.  It’s easy to throw the baby out with bathwater, so to speak, or – as a Cornish pilgrim and poet I once met put it – “discard the vintage which cannot be redeemed”.

This is an account of one walk then, years ago; a tentative navigation of the way ahead, an attempted exploration of landscape and questions alike, when arrival felt far off and uncertain but which ultimately was a path towards a greater clarity and healing.  It describes a route that anyone can take; all in one go or in stages and which is here, right now, on our doorsteps and offers itself as an opportunity whose like might just help take off the pressure on longer routes over the seas.  At the heart of it all is a faith in what prayer and walking can do; of life as a dance not a line (as the medieval mind knew), of what we can do when we simply keep striving for love.

Heist?

Can anything surprise us anymore?  As we all hunker down and attempt to deal with the realities of the omicron surge, another threat to national society is not far from the horizon.  Specifically, as I write, the Lords are debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – often dubbed simply the ‘Policing’ Bill.  Last minute amendments by Priti Patel have made the Bill all the more controversial with critics likening it to a power grab worthy of Putin’s Russia or Egypt.

Salient among the justifications are the touted necessity of robust response to the activities of the likes of Insulate Britain and XR, famed for their acts of disruption.  Protestor tactics have changed in recent years, the thinking goes, and the police need the powers to respond effectively.  While there is no doubt that obstructing stretches of motorway, blocking trains into the capital and shutting down various printing presses are far from popular, the case made for the kind of legislation we’re currently looking at tends to gloss over issues as to what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest, how much power is to be handed over to the Home Secretary and the police and what she and they might – or are perhaps even likely – to do with it.

As Monbiot has pointed out, proposed police powers would include being able to ban anyone from protesting who has previously committed “protest-related offences” or who has even “contributed” to a protest “likely to cause serious disruption”.  If you thought “serious disruption” counted only as sitting on a tube train roof or gluing your face to the M25, consider the breadth of the remit.  If a protest is simply noisy enough to cause “serious unease” it could be banned.  But it is entirely up to officers’ discretion as to how many decibels this might entail and ignores the fact that creating some noise is often half the modus operandi of many given demonstrations.

Other, just as worrying, and imbedded ambiguities remain.  Associating with particular individuals or using the internet to encourage a “protest-related offence” for instance.  And police could effectively impose any restrictions they like on a protest and ban static demonstrations altogether.  Other sweeping statements include mandates against causing “serious disruption to the life of a community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”.  Stop and search powers could be used without given reason and the legislation as a whole would put many more protestors at risk of arrest.

The problems with this go beyond simply an attack on our rights, as disturbing as this may be.  The Bill would undermine the relationship between police and the public and frequently place impossible choices in the hands of those officers trying to do the right thing.  Relaxing of conditions for stop and search would undoubtably impact even more heavily on ethnic groups and curtailment of protests would hinder the ‘pressure valve’ they have always historically afforded.  Pushing dissent underground and radicalising its expression even further serves no one except, perhaps, those charged with drafting even more stringent legislation in response.

Protest, not unlike the British ‘constitution’ itself has long been subject to certain, generally unclarified, understandings.  Like those of the constitution, these understandings have always been vague, have relied to a large extent on a degree of goodwill or at least the acknowledgement of their likely popularity at large.  But equally, protests have traditionally very often entailed policing costs and a degree of disruption.  To argue otherwise is to endorse their restriction to a saccharine enfeeblement that many charged with managing them would undoubtedly welcome.  There’s always been an element of metaphorical push and shove. 

Given that protestors are often driven by the scale and immediacy of planetary crisis, it’s understandable some of them resort to disruption in the face of apparent media indifference.  But while it is true that (as Digital Rebellion have stated), activism can fill gaps in public awareness left by the press, strategies as to how to bring that public awareness on board are ignored at collective peril.  Though the need for greater traction and swifter change at large is sorely needed, no one should underestimate the extent to which people in general grasp the scale and import of the climate crisis.  The question is not whether we should act but how we should go forward.  And we stand to achieve far more with greater unity.

Activism can only ever be at its most instrumental when coupled with – in service to – wider civic society.  That our ecological situation is urgent, desperate is not in doubt.  It is right that people should find and utilise channels to continue to highlight this, to push for faster and greater change.  We can all lay a hand to that and there is as great a need as ever for those in a position to do so to dedicate themselves.  And mass demonstrations to urge on and hold politicians to account are needed today like never before.

Attempts by our government to clamp down on protest would negate all this.  The PCSC Bill is drafted in a way that would at best cause confusion in its implementation and in all likelihood represents a power grab that must be considered along with other proposed legislation including the Nationality and Borders Bill and ‘amendments’ to the Human Rights Act.  When concern about these laws includes even that of a former prime minister, and in quite forceful terms, the alarm bells for us all should now be ringing. 

Acclaimed film producer and long-standing peer, Lord Puttman, has studied the German descent into fascism in the ‘thirties in some detail and his leaving speech from last October, where he says that we’re in a “very bad place” and need to “wake up” is well worth the read.  With government placemen increasingly embedded in the hearts of our institutions, with broadcasters cautious and cowed and dissent barely more than a whisper, if it were judged alone by bulletins and headlines, it’s more important than ever we stand firm.  For all the fear of diatribes, understandable caution over an undue alarm, the biggest threat we face remains that insulant complacency that clings to the assumption it could never happen here.

Please consider emailing your MP about the Bill and signing this petition.

The Long Way Home

As soon as I saw it I knew: an email in my spam folder I retrieved through an unlikely chance.  The link took me to a site about a pilgrimage – five hundred miles from London to Glasgow, to arrive in time for the COP26 climate conference.  Walking in general and pilgrimage in particular have always been abiding passions, as has environmental work and these twin two strands stood prominent as I applied.  This, I could already tell, would be a big one.

Nonetheless, it was not without some trepidation that I accepted my place.  Not only would it be a bloody long way but the pilgrimage group would conceive of and deliver a performance en route in preparation for a finale at the conference itself.  The play would be inspired by the places we passed through and the people we met along the way.  Even just accompanying as a musician would take me right out of my comfort zone.  Would my feet hold out for such a long way?  How would I hack travelling en masse?  And could I possibly succeed in packing my bag to anything like a sensible weight?

But eventually, after what felt like a minor marathon of preparation, I was sat early one Saturday morning, alone on a bench in Trinity Square Gardens.  Faces half familiar from preparatory sessions on Zoom appeared; one or two at first and then a steady stream.  Before long we had our bags loaded in a Luton and were listening to speeches on the green before an all-day hike across town – during which we were tailed by police as a demonstration was also occurring.  The muted distinction would be a familiar theme, but we were chiefly walking without an agenda, whatever private feelings we might have had; seeking to garner our messages from an attitude of openness and observation.

Our crew were disparate and intimate at once.  For what seemed like weeks we walked in blazing heat – sweated miles out along the Ridgeway before turning north towards a hinterland of meadows and footpaths.  We were walking the Elen and Belinus leylines – or ‘The Spine of Albion’ to give the route its grander title.  This meant a team of organisers had been grafting for months to find places to stay – from orchards and organic farms to church and village halls and grounds of country houses.  The route was broadly determined by the lines – which meant bridleways, long distance paths and other relatively easy-going thoroughfares were generally not in use.  Though for perhaps a week we navigated the Black Country and surrounds along towpaths that were both welcome and seemingly endless.

It was good going, punctuated by occasional towns and cities which always felt strange but somehow part of a wider momentum.  We gorged on blackberries, elderberries, grew accomplished at grazing at speed.  Days off were far and few between and spare time was often taken up with logistics meetings so that it sometimes seemed that any performance would be a distant thing.

After Manchester, things changed.  Hills, proper hills now, grew around us.  The weather turned suddenly foul.  One of the organisers – Anna Lehmann of No Planet B, who’d been walking with us for a while, departed by showing us the forecast for the next two weeks on a screen – a moving blur of purple cloud: promise of effective saturation.  But other things changed too; our ability to navigate the hills and their sometimes indistinct paths, the coherence of the group; moving at varying speeds and our capacity and schemes to help facilitate this.  And, somewhere in Lancashire in a brightly decorated tent we took our first steps as a group towards fooling; improvised performances where the worst thing you could do was have a plan.  It all seemed a tall order to some of us still; to act without script or prompts and still deliver something worth the effort and the audience’s time.

The weather somehow gradually improved or we just grew inured to the rain and the slugs and occasional ice on our tents.  And, by some miracle, it seemed we were almost constantly accompanied by rainbows; hardly a wet day went by without a break in the clouds and ensuing display to encourage us forward on the road. 

We were spanning broad swathes of Northumberland now – nothing could phase us after the day crossing Shap Fell in a weather warning where half the party had tried wading swollen streams.  But we attempted to inoculate ourselves against complacency; treated the Fells with respect and sought local advice where we could when the hills loomed.  Tensions came up, dissipated like the wind.  We kept on talking; endless circles of things to be done, what wasn’t working, what was; the gripes, the seemingly endless litany of little and practical things.  It was almost as hard as the walking itself.

But somehow, whether it was the ‘scratch-performances’, the tribulations, collective will to carry on despite the still-looming distance, the negotiations and the differences overcome, something quite precious unfolded.  We were a diverse bunch of people all told; bar managers, lecturers, hillfarmers, actors.  It was one of the wonders of the trip that nobody really fell out.  And for a while we achieved a kind of synthesis; boundaries blurred as we got to the Uplands, we were more of a masse who knew each other inside out, whether we chimed or we grated, we were all now together, all of us one as our steps echoed, unlikely and loud.

The Scottish cities then could only ever have been surreal to arrive in.  We rehearsed, navigated the newly familiar streets, attempted to catch up with ourselves.  And the performances?  We talked at length outside the first venue, a frenetic exchange of views as to what we should do more than a meeting of minds.  But somehow, if only from the nerve shredding intensity of it all, we were all of us on fire. 

Our performances, sometimes rough and ready but always heartfelt, spoke of the distance we’d all had to go; its trials and triumphs, the surreal existence of fell after fell when every item of our day to day existence seemed enough to go on with, just as much as they were enough to endure.  We were animated by these miles, the elemental nature of it all.  Some of this at least fed through to the plays we delivered; like a kind of osmosis where every cloud and every patch of sunlight in each given day spoke to us on our arrival in a way it was impossible to fully understand.  But the rainbows were still with us and, on a morning in temporary lodgings, I woke to see a nearby towerblock lit up bold white in the face of the clouds as I readied myself to make my way in to the ultimate march.  A rainbow; one of those familiar manifestations of something we couldn’t quite guess, accompanied me as I made my way in.  Perhaps that spoke as much as I could ever do for all of this: to walk as if blind; hope, expectation somehow both distant and present at once, the scale of our challenge met with the knowledge of what we must do in the face of the mountain to climb.

The Children’s Forest – Planting a Vision

A new initiative seeks to inspire the next generation to take a practical  environmental role and harness the power of the imagination

It seems there’s never been a better time to plant trees. As the realities of the climate crisis become more undeniable by the day, efforts to mitigate its effects only grow ever more urgent. The crisis plays upon all of our minds, not least those of the children who, untrammelled by the myriad distractions and seeming justifications of work and the adult world, see the problem all the clearer. But not all children are old enough, or of a disposition to join school climate strikes let alone begin to grapple with the complexities that should be occupying all our minds. It’s vital they are given active roles to help tackle the crisis. And tree planting fits this bill ideally.

That is the thinking behind a new initiative affiliated with the Forest School Association. ‘The Children’s Forest’ project seeks to give children an opportunity to plant trees and tend them in future, offering a sanctuary for both those planting trees and the children of all species. Positive envisioning is key to the scheme. As part of the initiative, children are given the opportunity to play in and observe existing woods around them, really coming to experience the outdoor world in all its depth and beauty. From there they are encouraged to form an inner picture of woodland in their imaginations, to picture woodland in all its richness that they can then utilise to inform their vision of the future forests they will help create. They then bring it to life with art, poetry, writing and theatre. The actual planting and tending, with an emphasis to also restore and protect existing forests, follows on from these key creative processes; what has already taken shape in the mind’s eye is given added impetus on its path towards physical embodiment.

Growing up as Protectors

The benefits for children in all of this are numerous. The Children’s Forest gives a structured means by which children of all ages can engage with engendering hope and creating a better future in a very tangible way. It roots them in the reality of living woodland and gives them a clear stewardship role, empowering them to grow up with a perspective and identity of caretakers and protectors. It also gives them the mindset of respect for all species, be they animal, plant or those of the trees themselves.

The initiative gives children the opportunity to come together in their role as creators and protectors, not just with their immediate peers but with those of all ages and backgrounds and as part of a global network, working together with a unified vision and goal. In the same way it also gives landowners and Forest School practitioners opportunities to meet and work together as it does for any others wishing to be affiliated with the project; helping young and old alike improve their ‘social capital’. And it gives everyone the chance to learn about and build relationships with those other cultures; those of the trees themselves and the myriad of creatures they support.

A report by English Nature; ‘Nature and psychological well-being’i, helps confirm what we may already feel about spending time outdoors. Indicators of mental well-being such as trust, tolerance, participation and feelings of safety are boosted by less stressful environmental factors. In an article entitled ‘Are cities bad for your mental health?’ for ‘Psychological Medicine’ in 1994, Glyn Lewis and Margaret Booth state that mental disorder is far less prevalent among those in urban areas with access to gardens or green spaces than those withoutii. Just as levels of mental disequilibrium are lower in children and young adults living in rural areas as opposed to urban ones, we can only extrapolate the benefits for all children of spending time in the woods; and not only ‘passively’ appreciating them but playing an active role in their welfare. For example, Dr. Roger Ulrich of Sweden’s University of Technology cites immediate psychological benefits derived from contact with natureiii just as Professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in ‘The Experience of Nature: a psychological perspective’iv and ‘The restorative effects of nature: towards an integrative framework’v helped show that time outdoors helps with ‘attention restoration’.

It takes on an added dimension of course with the state of the climate. A report by The Health Education Authority in 1997 states that positive mental health helps us endure pain and sadnessvi. It also affects our ability to deal with change, transition and life events. Time spent in nature and caring for it help all of us deal with new horizons, just as the psychological benefits of engaging to pragmatically address any issue, rather than simply worrying about it, are well attested by anyone involved in engendering practical change.

Duty to Future Generations

As with other efforts to improve the wider psychological health of our societies, prevention of problems is better than their cure. Time spent in the woods, and actively helping address the environmental crisis, can be seen as a collective ‘immunisation’, helping to propagate positive mindsets. If we are serious about continuing to engage with the climate crisis and going forward as part of a robust and healthy culture, we need such inoculations as much as ever. Picking up the pieces further down the line is at best a false economy and a dereliction of duty to future generations, just as Iroquois culture so famously calls us to consider the impacts on our actions on the ‘seventh generation’ down the line.

Perhaps the initiative’s emphasis of ‘positive envisioning’ holds more potential than might at first appear. As the great writer on traditional culture R.J. Stewart reminds us, we have imagined our way into the ecological crisis, changing the reality of the perfect planet into one shaped by our own mindsvii. Centuries of pollution and denigration took their root first and foremost in a shift in consciousness, from the conception that ourselves and the land are separate entities. Just as they are responsible for our collective plight today, our minds may also be able to help steer us towards a better future, informed by a vision of a restored world, rich in everything it once was and could still be. Perhaps, first and foremost, we have to be willing to simply imagine potential. Realising it remains the true task of our time.

 

iNature and psychological well-being.’ English Nature Research Reports, 2003.

iiAre cities bad for your mental health?’ Psychological Medicine, 24: 913-915. LEWIS G. & BOOTH, M., 1994

iiiVisual landscapes and psychological well being.’ Landscape Research, 4: 17-23. ULRICH, R.S. 1979.

ivThe Experience of Nature: a psychological perspective.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. KAPLAN, R. & KAPLAN, S., 1989.

vThe restorative effects of nature: toward an integrative framework.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16:169-82. KAPLAN, S., 1995.

viMental Health Promotion: a quality framework.’ London. HEALTH EDUCATION AUTHORITY, 1997.

viiEarth Light.’ Mercury Publishing, 1992. R.J. STEWART.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2021 issue of ‘Permaculture’.

The Haven

And so, the Spring is with us once again.  In just a few days the restrictions will ease, we will stumble into gardens, drink beer or wine or otherwise and many of us will choose to count our lucky stars.  We’ve come through a terrible time.  We don’t need reminders of what we have been through, the people we’ve lost, the bewildering attrition on our patience and reserves of fortitude.  During the winter’s high tide of cases we knew that for many – the nurses and doctors, the patients themselves, it must have been like a kind of white heat while all the rest of us could do was wait.  

But, the sun shines again, we venture out onto the greens, blinking and buoyant or simply taking it in; the seeming unlikeliness of it; the actual Spring, the tangible immanence of life restored to something much closer to normal.  Finding our feet on the way out of this may be like limbering up after a long convalescence.  After all, how do we expect to stride full tilt into a return to old ways after so much solitude, so many hours whiled away or spent in furious or steady enterprise?  It may take time: we should be patient with ourselves. 

In the meantime, is it too much, too soon, to wonder just how we go forward, to think on the things we have learned, how we choose to calibrate our lives; tempered or battered as we may be but still enduring or champing at horizons so newly redeemed?  It’s tempting now to holiday and surely many will do so.  But will we forget those little points of newly discovered significance upon our daily walks, urban or rural as they may be?  Will those young shoots, the weeds in the pavements, the actual woods help inform us as we step into our renewed freedoms, as we cast off the shackles of life lived indoors for so long?

If we can retain a little poise, we may be able to integrate our reflections of these last twelve months as life cranks up another gear or two.  We may be able to remember old and new acquaintances, fresh resolutions, priorities granted by the bedrock of life that sustains us, the knowledge in uncertain times when old securities are stripped away: the land herself still underpins the basics of our lives.  Without her we are almost literally at sea; her fate is ours just as sure as the dawn.

It’s far from an untimely reminder.  As we emerge from one crisis, we are called to engage once again with that much greater emergency, however slow burning – the future of the biosphere itself.  The greatest dangers here barely need stating; they are to be found first and foremost in ourselves.  We can wilfully ignore it all, perhaps because it seems so large and so intractable a problem, perhaps because we like to think that someone somewhere has it in hand and we need not exercise our own agency.  Or perhaps we feel so overwhelmed, so caught-in-the-headlights we don’t know which way we should turn, or we feel it is hopeless or we despair at humanity at large in our apparent heedlessness.  Or we stare at it all like a mountain we haven’t yet climbed and wonder if it’s still within our gift.

For many, it doesn’t need stating – those taking to the streets for the climate in some of the biggest protests ever seen in that distant summer of 2019 for example.  Or those living out a bitter winter in those many woodlands cut into and despoiled by HS2.  Anyone who’s ever been engaged in protest knows the sense of liberation it can bring – that, after the anxiety and soul searching of what’s to be done, action brings catharsis, even peace.

But, of course, to place yourself on any actual front, to witness face to face the destruction and perhaps, historically at least, the brutality of those charged with its execution, is no easy thing and many know only too clearly the toll it can take.  But such protests are a reminder, certainly, of everything at stake.  They can serve to make society that much more conscious, that much more determined to do what we can.

However much we may like to, we can’t all go off and set up in the woods, whatever the value of life out of doors.  But, as this last year has reinforced for so many, time spent in nature can bring a great boon and can certainly help should the going be hard.  And it can inform how we act, what we do.

One thing anyone concerned with the climate can do is get behind ‘Zero hour’; the campaign for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, currently making its way through the ‘Commons.  The Bill is principally concerned with picking up where the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement left off; pressing for targets bolder than ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050; a target that has been described by Caroline Lucas as “calling for the fire brigade thirty years down the line”.  The campaign is principally calling for people to write to and lobby their MP’s to urge them to support the Bill (140 MP’s and Peers already do so).  But there is an almost infinite scope of other means to lend your support, from banner drops to holding public meetings and principally spreading the word however you can to help make the campaign one no politician can afford to ignore.

For those younger, or more inclined to get their hands in the earth, there are all kinds of tree-planting initiatives, including ‘The Children’s Forest’ project, affiliated with the Forest School Association and which I will be writing more about soon.  For now, it may be enough to say that it is rooted in envisioning a positive and bountiful future and to let that inform our actions, in this case creating abundant forests for future generations, borne first and foremost in our imaginations.

Perhaps that’s as much as we need to go on for a guiding light; we all know the pitfalls of despondency, denial and despair.  But if we can picture the world we would like, strive for it sinew and soul, perhaps that can give us not only the wind in our sails but can help to tangibly create a kind of harbour for our future, however distant arrival may be, however much work it will take.    

After Athelney

So for a while now, several years infact, I’ve been working on a book about the Pilgrims’ Way in England.  Given one thing and another, it seemed wise and somewhat necessary, for me, to concentrate on something other than purely political writing for a while.  And pilgrimage in general has been a pretty major backdrop for me these last few years; its potential for healthy transformation felt like the best thing I could do in a world that has sometimes felt harder to understand, or at least second guess, than at any time I can remember.  The book’s in its final stages and I’ll certainly provide some notice here in the event of publication.

Far from unmindful of everything at stake, I’ve set out on The Pilgrims’ Way and other, longer routes at various times during this preceding decade.  This particular Way takes in 120 or so miles through Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, begins in Winchester, ends in Canterbury and forms one of our most iconic pilgrimage routes on native soil.  I was partly drawn to it for this reason alone; to help highlight a route more immediate, more accessible than continental options, which holds many merits in its own right and which a greater interest in would help take pressure off other, more popular, pilgrimage paths.

It also occurred to me early on that the story of – and stories associated with – this given route deserved fresh attention; not least that of Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom (850 years ago this December) helped popularise the route back in the day, making it one of the most frequently travelled in Medieval Europe.  His story is tied up with Henry II of course and the tale of power and piety, both taken to extremes, makes for a fascinating tale.  But the story of the Pilgrims’ Way is also one of historical and cartographic myths, recounted as I make my incremental way along the many miles.  Was Becket as Holy as they say?  Or Henry that bad?  And was the route itself as popular as the Victorians tells us?  These questions and more rebounded in my mind as I began my research.  But one figure encountered along the way stands out as much as that of Becket.  Any visit to or treatment of Winchester cannot be complete without some kind of reference to the man.

Tomorrow, October 26th, is King Alfred’s Day; once a more-lauded date in our collective and not-so-distant past, a personality cult that was certainly in no way diminished by the extent of Victorian attention.  But he was popular down the centuries ever since his reign; a saviour of the Anglo-Saxon world and founder, in effect, of what we now know of as England today.  We can remember of course that England was a different place before the Normans came.  And, if Victorian sentiments in any way smart, we can remember that he was also – at one point – an underdog, faced repeated invasion at the hand of the Danes, endured constant threat and actual defeat for years.  His story is immortalised in G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Ballad of the White Horse’; a poem which – as preacher and poet Malcolm Guite reminds us, (and whose rendition of the poem can be found here) – provided psychological sustenance for many soldiers in the two world wars.  Both wars had been partly foreseen by GKC; both were partly products of a cult of violence, of that of the superman and of a nihilism the ballad was meant to offer some kind of antidote for.

As we gear up for one of the most apparently foreboding winters in living memory, can we draw some comfort from the story of this most iconic of our historical figures?  Compounded crises of Covid and climate change, to say nothing of Brexit, rebound upon our knowledge and imaginations and need no rehearsal here.  Is it valid then, at such a time, to think of Alfred beleaguered on the Isle of Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, his army reduced to little more than a bodyguard, resorting to guerrilla warfare, his fortunes at the lowest of ebbs? The poem opens with a careworn Alfred receiving a vision of the Virgin Mary who implores him to take heart, to have “faith without a hope” even at this point of nadir.

It’s a challenge as much as a promise.  And perhaps that challenge is as much as we need – to go forward out of a kind of bloody-mindedness when there are no promises, no guarantees.  Alfred was eventually successful of course, he led Wessex to victory over the Danes and won peace for a generation and the survival, and actual flourishing, of the Anglo-Saxon world; a world that, back in the marshes, had seemed on the brink of annihilation.

We don’t need some Viking – or indeed any other kind of – bogeyman to focus our minds; the ‘invisible mugger’, as some term the virus, does that for us.  And climate change?  There’s never been a point of greater focus, of greater attention paid to this ultimate threat to us all.  That alone gives me hope that, even if the scale of the challenge looks daunting, and probably has been nothing else for some time now, if we can act with unity we can tap into the great reserves of what can happen when people come together from the knowledge of this greatest of crises.

Some see Athelney as Holy ground as it stands in remembrance that even when things seemed at their most bleak, the fate of the country was buoyed by resolve and a vision; a hardiness under duress.  Chesterton’s account is mythic of course but while it may not be historically true, it taps into the spirit of the story, into the spirit of the tradition of the balladeers themselves.  As such it takes its place as one of the last great epic English poems.

Its title refers to that most iconic of our hill figures; the White Horse of Uffington, under whose eye Alfred’s first great victory over the Danes at Ashdown was fought.  Later in the poem we find him return to the horse, the scouring of weeds from its chalk symbolic of the value of vigilance in times of peace, renewing the spirit of the land and its people.  Perhaps we can be at such a point of renewal now; that our current trials can temper us, give us new impetus to look again at our priorities, take stock of what is truly of value or not.  Perhaps just as in the fires of the Second World War a new social contract was drawn up for the people, our efforts in this time can set a better course for the times ahead, where the earth herself is bestowed greater respect and protection, where the poor are lifted up from their duress, where we step forward into a greater equality, with a stronger belief in and vigilance towards our hard-won freedoms.

It’s easy to wheel out fine sentiments of course, just as we know that this winter may ask more of us than for perhaps any time in a generation.  But this is surely not the first time we have faced a common, formidable foe. We could do worse than remember the spirit that drove our various historical efforts; it may yet be the best teacher we have for how we can hold fast, overcome and withstand whatever this winter may bring.  And sometime, when this year is just a crazy memory and an excuse for endless anecdotes, may we all of us thrive, may we stand all the stronger, inspired perhaps by Alfred in his fought-for peace, who planted the seeds for a new wave of learning, bore out the time given to him and bestowed a better future for an age. At Athelney then, when the outcome was still far from certain, unsweetened by assurances, it was met with a will to continue, a faith tempered by reserves of that which can sustain us, a faith which can help us endure.   

The Great Re-Imagining

Is this the time to look for compensation?  At least we finally can say it’s truly Spring.  Those that can will walk and listen to the birdsong and maybe even find a little peace; unlooked for or prayed for, unlikely but making a pure kind of sense.  God knows we need such moments.  A friend of mine watches a raven for how long he doesn’t quite know.  Others gather weeds along newly familiar paths.  I shelter from the suddenly seasonal sun, think about summer, feel a strange sense of assurance that might have nothing and everything to do with my own one temporal fate.

Will things be different after all of this?  Will the flights resume, the factories stutter back into some kind of life?  Bars, cafes, shops stammer open like nothing has happened at all and we’ll wipe away the salt of weeks alone or crammed in close confinement?  Gratitude right now seems pretty likely; a bloody-minded courtesy, acknowledging we still can breathe, we still can take in each day in the air like it was our first.

And somehow we must al of us come through; survivors, witnesses, beleaguered or hopeful and strong.  It’s no time for sweeping statements, triumphalist crows that we know when the end is in sight, or that this is all part of some grand scheme of nature, that there is reason for this other than some random roulette.  We can give in to terror, despair but we might as well be optimistic or look for very major silver linings.

It’s not some random fantasy to say there might be some grace in all this, or chance of it, if we can take the perspective that we might in the long run be getting thrown a line.  A frenetic world of global commerce, global travel has just hit the brakes.  We might as well enjoy the sudden peace.  We have a chance to stop and think, reflect on the lives we’ve been leading.  Can we imagine our way out of this?

Maybe we’ll be able to step forward into a world where just-in-time networks of supply and demand are replaced by something more resilient, that we can source and grow the goods we need a little closer to home, where we’re all weaning off a glut of luxury but still live well and maybe a little more honestly, not dependent on imports whose source we can’t name, where conditions of labour or livestock are hushed out of sight.  Maybe we’ll see a return of the domestic economy, hollowed out in the 20’s and 30’s where we’re all a little more self-reliant.  How many containers of latest electronics does the world really need? How much of our once-innate ability to source our needs at home or close to it are we happy to continue to relinquish?  How much do we really want to spend large parts of our working week in little boxes, hurtling their cargo to horizons whose value we’ve only too nearly forgotten?

No one would wish these times on another or any others we do not consider our clan.  For we are all connected now, connected in brightness and grief.  But we owe it to ourselves and one another, to every huddled in hospital beds and most of all to the children to see there are gifts here if we can only see them as such.  Somebody somewhere appeared to hit pause and now we can think and plan and even dream.  We can think on the state of the planet today, her all-too-clear signs of distress, how we can help her, the habits we can break, how we can renew our commitments (or make them at all if now new), how we can seek to redeem the unspoken bond we have broken, a rift that may have something to do with our current plight, as if collective survival rests in a natural corrective.

Whether we see the virus as a desperate manifestation of the will of the world to endure or something far more arbitrary in arguably besides the point.  Whatever the reason for it and whatever our thoughts, we can see that while no one would wish for the virus, it’s still giving us a chance.  The kind of world we all step into when the threat recedes may depend on the degree to which we can reimagine our world, reimagine our place upon it, how we serve it, cast away the things that hinder or obstruct.

We’re used at times like these to being told we are enduring a great trial, are being put to the test, tempered, told we must be strong.  And all of these are true.  We can pull upon the deep well of our inner reserves; our patience, compassion and will to endure.  We can show the extent of collective resolve, our ability to adapt and our strength in adversity’s face.  And we can meditate on that which can bring us all peace; our own peace of mind and that of those all around us; at times like these its necessity is only made clearer than ever.

But there’s another element as well; that we are being given opportunities, if we can see them.  The degree to which we make the most of them may depend upon our ability to walk with eyes open, to imagine and dream again, dream harder.  Our future remains a thing we can all of us shape.  We now have a chance just to stop and slow down and reflect how we do so.  We have a little time.  And perhaps time is all that is called for, for now, that all our haste and rush, our daily and global migrations, our obsession with temporal efficiencies has been for so long such a part of the problem.  We have the chance to remember to just be ourselves; an estrangement it’s high time to heal.

The First Hill in the World

In a lecture given in the Ulster Museum in 1977, Seamus Heaney said that there are two ways in which a place may be known and cherished; the lived, illiterate and unconscious and then the learned, literate and conscious. It was a tension that certainly preoccupied him. Perhaps it defined him as well; his ability to resolve apparent contradictions without necessarily ever laying them to rest. Heaney’s life was full of such tensions or at least was characterised by differing forces, territories and loyalties. Part of the Catholic community in Ulster, the sense of straddling boundaries was somehow always more ingrained for Heaney, right from the very beginning.

He grew up on a farm at Mossbawn, County Derry. A stream ran close to the farmhouse, dividing the townlands of Anahorish and Tamniarn, which belonged to two different parishes and which were themselves in two separate dioceses. Amongst other things, this resulted in learning – and needing to know – different catechisms for church and living in the Bellaghy district but being part of a different region’s football team. In his own words he was always “a little displaced; being in between was a kind of condition”.

This only amplified later in his life; his loyalties tested as the civil rights movement he spoke out for gave way to the Troubles, his decision to move to the Republic, his later teaching in America. And he wrote in English, was offered a place at Oxford (though conflicted, he turned it down from a desire to stay close to, and give back to, his people and roots), was part of a literary world where the English and the Irish cultures met. He returned to teach in Belfast and was instrumental in a greater recognition of Northern Irish poetry in general, part of a tradition of poets from both communities; poets like Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and John Hewitt.

Heaney was part of a world that reflected older literary lines; in particular the resurgent Irish identity of the Nineteenth Century that resulted in a new literature, set against an increasingly secular world where those like Sir James Frazer (and his Golden Bough) sought greater standardisation and the demythologisation of traditional beliefs and the places inspiring them. The new literature was part of a counter cultural movement that sought to reinstate the importance of the native tradition, of old places, old faiths, fairie lore and the legends whose entomological associations echo in the landscape even now; place names redolent with battles and saints, flights and homecomings and the steady pattern of an ancient way of life.

One of Heaney’s greatest acts of straddling different worlds was his relationship with landscape and the land itself, between the geological landscape and that of the mind. He wrote of this relationship as a kind of marriage. He thought that just as marriage is sacred, so too is this sensing of place. The landscape was “sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system of reality beyond the visible realities.” For Heaney it possibly stemmed from a kind of almost formalised betrothal, bathing as a boy in a moss-hole, “treading the liver-thick mud, unsettling a smoky muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened.” The poems of the bog, the bog oaks, the very bog people that formed such a rich seam in so much of his later work are surely touched by such an intimacy.

It’s with a profound sadness then, if with a sense of no longer being surprised, that I heard of plans to build a dual carriageway within one hundred metres of his childhood home of Mossbawn. The impact of the landscape and ecology there can only be imagined. That landscape helped inspire poems such as ‘Anahorish’ (with it’s ‘First Hill in the World’, and also the name of his very first school), ‘Broagh’ and the ‘tattoo’ of its vocal, low ‘O’, the Strand at Lough Beg, a poem dedicated to his cousin Colum McCartney, murdered in the Troubles that Heaney always treated with both care and a rare kind of grace.

The water pump in the yard at Mossbawn once marked the centre of his world. He drew on the experiences there for his early work – his first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was published fifty years ago this week. It is full of descriptions of that way of life; his father ploughing with horses, the rituals of butter churning that could be from the sixteen-hundreds, his early disillusionments in ‘Blackberry Picking’ and in the title poem itself. They are borne out with an intense and almost cinematic detail, testaments to a very different life. He writes too of another juxtaposition as he watches his father digging, aware that he himself will now work – and dig – in another fashion.

These were the worlds that Heaney found himself both between and a part of above all the rest; his writing and the farming life, the old world that even then seemed somehow irreproachably unthreatened by modernity. But though he chose, or was destined for, a life that was at one remove from the rest of his family, he remained wedded to the land and the people he lived amongst, enshrining the culture and places of his original home. But he often lived in cities, understanding Kavanagh’s internal quarrel with “the illiterate self, tied to the little hills and earthed in the stony grey soil, and the literate self that pined for the ‘city of Kings/Where art music and letters were the real things’ ”.

It’s a quandary that in some respects affects us all today. But amid the pull and tow of cities and hills, farming and art, landscapes and the pressures of a modern world that it often seems only grows harder to understand by the day, we shouldn’t forget that we all of us have choices, that the division between the world we enshrine and that which we continually create – one way or another – remains a still malleable thing. It’s simplistic to say that roads don’t get congested or that new infrastructure doesn’t sometimes have a place. But cars remain one of the ultimate mixed blessings of our times. Surely we have it in us still to value the green and the good and not be subservient to tides of tyres and metal that hook us in with their convenience but stand to take away so much?

It’s a tragic situation that the love of so great a man; the landscape in which he grew up now stands to be desecrated (a word he himself used when he heard of the plans) by a literal inroad to a vision of modernity borne, at best, of an utter absence of imagination. In a world increasingly defined by manufactured needs we should all remember our options, look for every avenue for change, hold onto that which we value and love. Heaney’s work is a testament to those values, to a world that is carried in our culture and our hearts. Nothing can touch that. We owe him so much.