Each New Leaf

850 years ago tomorrow, the 21st February, Thomas Becket, so famously martyred near the quire of Canterbury Cathedral by a clutch of violent social climbers, was canonised by Pope Alexander III in a reflection of the wave of shock and, later, devotion to his memory that swept the Christian world in the wake of his death.  Becket had been a controversial figure for much of his life, something later ameliorated by his posthumous saintly status.  His friendship with Henry II had turned sour long before his murder, probably since the king made him archbishop against the then chancellor’s wishes.  It was a move the king hoped would embed his man in the Church but Becket found a piety in the process that would propel him to great things.

One of the outcomes of his newfound contrition and the stature it somehow brought with it was an increased antagonism and alienation of not just his king but many of his countrymen as well.  Nonetheless many others flocked to him, his story becoming in many minds, perhaps not least his own, one of truth against autocracy.  Towards the end he had become a kind of living legend, a walking cypher for everything he’d come to represent.  Defined by devotion, his story’s conclusion beckoned all the more inevitably as he pursued what many saw as his calling – to defend the Church against oppression from on high.  That this championship was a die that he himself had partly cast was an irony lost to the crowd.

I spent a good amount of time looking at his life in the course of research for my book about the Pilgrims’ Way, that classic route along our southern hills.  His – and Henry’s – stories are central to the history of that particular path of course; Becket’s shrine a magnet for international pilgrims as his cult grew.  But many followed it too in keenness to trace, perhaps even emulate, the penitential steps of their scandalised monarch who made his way, though his route is uncertain, to his former friend’s resting place.

If I’m honest, I’m still sometimes surprised as to why the history of these two men held such immediate traction over me as soon as I began to read about it.  It was more than simply background reading about the history of this given pilgrimage – even if walking it remained the main event.  Was it because Becket’s conflict and conversion to a greater faith seemed to dovetail into questions that felt more pertinent than ever for me; my relationship to the Christian Church, how I might find a deeper sense of belonging within it, how I might find a deeper dimension of faith despite what you might call a former degree of circumspection regarding the merits of formal religion?

All of this certainly resonated and looking at his story became a means to help myself answer more personal questions.  But Henry too you had to feel for – how it all went wrong, the necessity of his eventual journey to pay penance at Becket’s shrine and how that itself may well have changed things.  His story takes its place among other instructive medieval sagas – one recurring theme of those times; however unlikely it may sound, is the apparent wrath visited on those plundering or otherwise disrespecting Holy Ground – just look at King John, or Eustace, or Henry’s own eldest son.

The story fascinates still in its reflection of piety and power – what can happen when either or both threaten to become all consuming.  Henry was a man who liked to get his way.  Becket sometimes appeared to pride himself on rising above – or against – his monarch’s will.  But within it all are other articles of faith; other questions, dimensions and tensions.  Were either men driven by pride?  Was there a kind of glory cloaked in self-deprecation?  Or a humility in striving to be true to duty?  Was Henry’s penance sincere?  We may never know, which is partly what makes the story so iconic; the light it throws on mortal men, the value of searching our hearts.

In some respects, Henry’s and Becket’s stories played out as prolonged tragedies; the hubris amid the reverence, the wrestling of different manifestations of might.  And yet the two men still impress by respective determination if not always necessarily their virtues.  What perhaps is more important for anybody wishing to follow in a literal sense in Henry’s footsteps by walking the ‘Way is that – whether through shock, veneration or the veritable cash cow of pilgrimage infrastructure in the Middle Ages – many pilgrims chose to walk this way and doing so today is act of sympathetic magic with forebears perhaps not quite as distant as we think.

Perhaps, amid the distant echo of former dramas, the instruction given by a king laid low by what all told was still the power of a spiritual intensity, of Becket’s very real courage as he could see all the more clearly just where his convictions were leading, the answers for us all still lie in wait.  Perhaps we can be closer to the ones who’ve gone before not by contrition or stumbling on our knees or keeping something going for the sake of it.  That is not to say some things do not have an inherent worth or that we cannot find, when all the flotsam’s stripped away, a kind of solid bedrock of belief.  But the things we need can still feel more immediate; to step out in the early April sun, to meet the track, to find a little joy in each new leaf.  We may find then that kings and prelates take their place amongst a rich panoply, where every pilgrim walks at one another’s side, where stories settle like the mulch and we find that with nothing but a bag and staff and sense of shared endeavour we are richer than we ever dared believe.

The Old Road and a New Path

So after many months going through the process of approaching publishers, I have decided to launch a crowdfunder for the book I wrote about here earlier this year.  I intend to launch the campaign early next year and will be providing more updates closer to the time.

The new book was always partly intended as a means to break out of an apparent cast set by my previous writing, not least ‘Nine Miles’; my account of the British roads protest movement of the ‘nineties.  That does not negate the value of those times but as anyone who has read the book will know, those protests took their toll on many and for my part I have carried those scars a long time.  However much I hold true to what happened all those years ago, however much I believe in the power of protest, however much I believe that the spirit of those times can inform anyone acting on behalf of the environment and society at every level, it was always difficult, in some respects for me, to continue to – in any explicit or inadvertent way – advocate a particular means of action I am no longer in a position to engage with myself.  I can’t expect or encourage anyone to do something I am not able to myself and so some kind of change of tac has been in order for some time.

The new book is a product of that desire for change and that of several years of writing and research.  We all know the seriousness of the times we are in regarding the climate.  For my part, in so far as I have the space and capacity to do so, I have chosen to put my shoulder to the wheel of civic engagement: protest is nothing without the role of civic society.  The latter to my mind offers the best way ahead as we move forward to collectively tackle the crisis.  Protest and civil disobedience can certainly serve to up the anti and help stir us out of our slumber.  It is understandable that so many people may choose to engage in them.  But equally the message has got through to every level of society by now about the immediacy of the climate crisis.   We do not need, and it may well be counter-productive, to seek to set the way ahead by constant disruption, however understandable the wish to continue to do so may be.  And to my mind, defacing irreplaceable art really does not serve the cause.  At times like these, communication and clarity counts for a lot.  We should be realistic about that which we face just as a better sense of direction is always helpful.  But ultimately the need for mutual survival should inform us all.

Given the pace of change needed we need good catalysts.  For my part, to some extent, I always felt that that with Nine Miles I was preaching to the choir.  The new book is an attempt to help broaden the message and not continue to be defined solely by those things I took part in a long time ago.  I believe there is still time to turn this ship around but only if we can act with sufficient alacrity and pace.  Efforts like that of ‘Zero Hour’ – the cross-party campaign behind the Climate and Ecology Bill – hold great potential.  The campaign is one we can all easily play a part in, whether that part is sharing a link, setting up a local group or actively lobbying your MP.

Such are my thoughts in these times.  But – as figures like Greta Thunberg and others are quick to point out – it is not, and never has been, for one person alone to help carry these things forward.  We can all play our part, bolstered by the best elements of our collective history.  There may be a long way to go but, as I hope my new book – which after all recounts a tale of pilgrimage – can help show, we can meet those miles with pace and will and some kind of sure determination.  It falls to us – to all of us – to now do what we can, without a sense of any guarantee but bolstered by the moral need to do our best.  When all is told it’s always been that way, only now we can all see it all the clearer.

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.