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Festive Greetings



If Winter Comes


'In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.'  Albert Camus



April is the cruellest month, the poet says.

Green shoots and blossoms make

a mockery of winter's torpid isolation -

the sky's sheen like old ceramic

crazed with sapless boughs -

the ponds stagnant with rotting vegetation

and hedgerows once decked with flowers

and spangled fruit become

naked tangled thorns,

defensive as razor-wire.


Summer's dream is banished

by the first frost, sharp as ammonia,

its sense, its scent, its sentience

suppressed in resting earth.

We close our doors and light our fires,

don weatherproofs and scarves and rugged footwear

against gale and snow and pelting rain.

Hibernation seeps into the marrow,

blunting the senses to loss of balm

and cordial breezes, chromatic tones that

electrify the filaments of nerve and fibre

and promise Paradise.

Benumbed, our grief is tamed. We shut out

the nocturne of the winter solstice and

devise our own illumination, scorning

the antipodean canicule.

We make merry with old songs,

embellishing the murk with gold and glitter,

and heart-reviving greens and reds

reminiscent of crataegus, said to heal

that restive organ of its strains and pains.


What we need is a Death to conquer death,

a Life whose Grace and Incorruptibility

can harness all the vital forces of Creation

to taste the Lethe and live to bridge its banks

Eternally.

What majesty on earth can that accomplish?

What man-at-arms? What president? What ruler?

Brute myth where human and divine converge!


But hush! A rumour whispers through the darkness

and there are angels carolling a new theme

when the wavelength is attuned.

A blinding star fixes the conjunction

of heaven and earth and turns

Time back to front.

No clockwork mechanism now.

A baby in a makeshift cradle

(or is it an unconstraining grave?)

heralds a renascence that

stirs the ailing cosmos,

pulls sap towards the ether

and consigns the cruellest month

to history's past imperfect.


Wishing you a Joyful and Peaceful holiday season...and health and happiness in 2015!

Advent and Destiny


 
















Destiny. The subject has obsessed philosophers and occupied dreamers for as long as mankind has been trying to get a handle on his passage through this world. I don't want to get lost in that loop involving predestination and existentialism, but simply to share  a few striking thoughts. These throw up as many questions as explanations, but they do offer new lenses by which our appreciation of daily life may be enriched. Advent is a good season to reflect upon these things.

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make. So said William Morris, colleague of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Anyone who wants to expunge history from the student curriculum is surely driving a nail in the coffin of the human race. Those of us who've ventured into the dense forests of genealogy know well, despite many surprises, the feeling of familiarity and of things making sense, of being part of a canvas that is beyond the scope of our comprehension and influence. How much of memory, instinct, déjà-vu, the sudden atmosphere of other times and places, the very paths we tread, is encoded in our DNA? Do those we are connected with, who have died, guide us? To what extent do our actions and disposition offer hospitality to the roaming 'spirits of the air'? And can the links we forge in this world, even those at a geographic distance, significantly impact our being?

I was born and brought up in Leicestershire, in the UK Midlands, as far from the coast as you can get in England. From earliest years, it never felt right. Neither of my parents was local and they didn't really fit into the community way of thinking with all its lore and historic assumptions. It may surprise Americans and those from other continents, that, although these islands are small, the customs and mythology are area-centred and are, perhaps, roughly defined by its ancient kingdoms, Mercia, Northumbria, and so on. (Hence Thomas Hardy's revival of Wessex consciousness.) The regions have their own character and dialect, arising from the landscape and soil, prevailing climate, and their trades and industries. Consult Ordnance Survey maps and you begin to understand how this has evolved.

The Welsh people nowadays are bi-lingual, but they are proud of their mother tongue and defend their heritage fiercely. The English understand Welsh idioms, but the language is impenetrable and actually more foreign than the languages of Europe and Scandinavia. The Scots, too, are keen on keeping Gaelic alive, particularly in the outlying isles. There is English Gaelic, full of colourful, rugged phrases, with strange words, along with more familiar words that have other meanings and evoke a different experience. Lewis Grassic Gibbon was an author who made profound use of this in his wonderful Scots Quair. Then there is the  old Gaelic language you can only crack with a sledgehammer if you're lucky, which invents a plethora of written syllables that actually have little sound when spoken. But maybe that's just to the Sassenach ear! Despite travel and the media, there are still local accents we may struggle with. Glaswegian is a wholesale assault upon auditory nerves! (Sorry, Weegies.)

The point of this digression is to try and explain a compelling feeling of being out of context that had no root in my living experience. Always, when I mentally envisioned a map of Britain, I was standing in the middle, looking South and to the right, which meant the West. Why that was so didn't occur to me until fairly recently. My family tree, on both sides, is rooted in Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon, with the prevailing gene pool coming from Dorset. Since fate has contrived to bring me close to the Hampshire border, I am beginning to feel a strong pull West, a longing for Hardy's Dorset among people with whom there is an established rapport, in a landscape I seem to know to the core. The sense of peace and 'rightness' in being there is a siren call. Don't get me wrong, I have good friends here, and elsewhere, and this corner of Britain is picturesque, but I mean something more fundamental.

Plus, there are other ways in which I wonder how much we're affected by the lives of those who have gone before. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, as the Old Testament says. Are we destined sometimes to 'carry the can' for our forebears in order that the chain of consequences arising from malicious deeds might be broken? The text should be approached in context, but does point to our need for rescue by some external agency. It prefigures the coming of the Messiah who, for Christians, is the Sacrifice for Sin.

Whatever our system of belief, this elemental truth is instinctive to our psyche. The dynamic is immanent in every religion and culture worldwide and inspires their characteristic Art, Music and Literature.

An age-old tradition of former centuries, still occasionally observed, is the concept of 'sin-eating'. This holds that at a person's death, a relative or someone close elects to take on the responsibility for his/her wrongdoings, by prayer and ritual, so that the ongoing fallout might be stemmed and the soul fully released to enjoy eternity.

This is the theme of Mary Webb's legendary Shropshire novel, Precious Bane, set in the Napoleonic era. The heroine, Prue Sarn, is born with a hare-lip and provokes superstitious revulsion. Her brother Gideon has chosen to be the sin-eater for his dead father, scorning the power of the curse on the Sarn menfolk who were believed to have 'lightning in their blood' after one of them was struck dead by lightning during the Civil Wars, two hundred years before. Gideon believes in self-determination and proudly labours to be rich and successful. But in rejecting the momentum of something greater than himself, he invites witchcraft, murder and suicide into the arena.

Prue believes herself beyond the pale, but strives to exorcise her 'bane' with sheer goodness of heart. She blooms with an inner beauty, perceived only by the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, a Christ-like figure. When events conspire to bring a tragic climax and Gideon poisons his own ailing mother who is a burden, Prue becomes the focus of mob-hatred. The community must have its scapegoat. Surely, her ugly defect is a sign that she has been smitten by God as a baneful presence. She is tied to a ducking-stool in preparation for a witch's drowning, but is rescued by her 'guardian angel', Kester, and carried off to wedded bliss.

Precious Bane is one of the most beautiful, powerful and evocative novels in the English language. It rings with deep truth. The title is taken from Milton's Paradise Lost and echoes with many connotations of the work.

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.

For me, it also brings to mind the felix culpa quoted by Thomas Aquinas when endeavouring to explain how God is able to bring a far greater good out of evil when we apply to him.

O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

This phrase is usually said or sung at Easter, but in Advent is pregnant with Hope and expectation of New Life.

We are all exiles and outsiders in one way or another. It is good to reflect that, ultimately, we are not in control. We belong to a realm without borders, beyond Time and Space, and our destiny is formed by how we choose to regard that. It both draws and drives us.

We are all exiles insomuch that it almost renders the term meaningless.



Footnote:
Mary Webb has been called a 'neglected genius' and nothing could be so apt. She lived from 1881 -1927. Precious Bane was awarded the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais for 1924–1925, given annually for the best work of imagination in prose or verse (descriptive of English life) by an author who had not attained sufficient recognition.

You can learn all about the author via this link:

http://marywebb.org/




Fumes Of Fancy


Mrs Baldwin - Sir Joshua Reynolds


from THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Second Book in the Berkeley Series


The formation broke. He honoured his partner and made to deliver her to the beau claiming the next dance, when her fingers dropped from his clasp. Sheridan was strolling along the opposite flank with an extraordinary female upon his arm. She was dressed in Eastern costume. Turkish, Persian. Loose silks and jacquards of the richest hues and texture were wound around her delicate frame, her jewelled moccasins horned like a jester's and her head crowned with a high turban threaded with red roses and strands of raven hair.

A hush rippled along the room as Sheridan paraded her slowly towards her host while she smiled with a demure regality. Her face was like unglazed porcelain and her almond eyes were accented by kohl. Hardly anyone knew who she was, except Lord Malmesbury.

“Why, The Fair Greek, by all that's famous!” he said under his breath.

“Who?” hissed the Duke of Beaufort.

“Jane Baldwin, wife of the former British Consul in Alexandria.”

“Certainly don't look English,” said Colonel Hanger. “By Jove, no.”

“The lady's from Smyrna and cherishes a love of Ottoman culture, but her roots are as English as yours and mine. Her sire's a wealthy merchant of the Levant Company, William Maltass.”

“Oh, how Mama would rejoice if she were here!” declared Maria Sefton. The Margravine was noted for her Byzantine adventures.

Mrs Baldwin was presented to her loyal admirer, the Prince of Wales. She bowed before him and was handed to the divan at his side where she sat cross-legged in wistful repose. He explained that she had brought a troupe of Turkish singers and dancers which he was confident his guests would make rousingly welcome. Servants ran to snuff out the wall candles and dim the chandeliers.

In they tripped, to the sound of tabors, waving kerchieves with shouts of jubilation, and fell into formation, a riot of colour and fluttering ribbons. They began with the old folk song, Yine Bir Gülnihal. Then out came the zithers, the baglama, the kemenche, exotic stringed instruments, the woodwind zurna, tulum bagpipes and darbuka drums. The pounding rhythms of the Aegean mingled with the quartertones of the Far East and the incense-ridden melodies of the Kasbah. The sound thrummed and resonated deep within the psyche, the solo violin, moaning, tremulous, scaling the shrillest pitch of ecstasy. The dancers' feet quickened to an interlacing of major and minor keys in overwrought semitones from the southern Mediterranean.

Dursley was transported as he had never been in his life. He seldom gave himself up to anything beyond the sports field, not even the fickle pleasures of romantic chase. How pale was Prinny's tribute to the Orient, in that classical space, compared to the world of Caliphs and Sultans and quinqueremes packed with oil and spice, chypre and wool, the carpet bazaar and the cryptic language of silk kilims, the gilt minarets of the muezzin's call to prayer. Dursley felt he was learning more than a lifetime at Eton could teach.

He was drunk on this strange perfusion and it was summed up in the person on the divan. She seemed amused, but held herself in reserve. When the final applause died down and the lights were kindled again, he saw that her eyes were blue and not black as balsam as he had fancied.

“Mrs Baldwin is English you say?” he asked of Maria Sefton.

“So I understand. Do you not think her dazzlingly beautiful?”

“She is tolerably handsome, I suppose,” Dursley shrugged. “Scratch the paint and she'll be as plain as your back-row opera-dancer, I'll wager.”

“That is not a gallant remark, cousin Fitz.”

“I don't think I should like to tangle with her. I dare say she ain't as placid as she looks.”

Maria chuckled prettily. “Well, they do speak of Mrs Baldwin's infirmities of temper.”

“That's no great surprise.”

But her smile, he thought. Her smile is ravishing. It was radiant and whimsical, as if aromatic fumes beckoned a thrilling drowsiness. He imagined her head thrust aside in passion, the locks spreading in dark rivulets upon the pillow, and her throat, now bisected by a velvet choker, beneath his mouth.

“She had on a similar costume for Mr Reynold's painting of her years ago. His Majesty is said to admire her.”

“Along with half the old rakes who wait upon him, I shouldn't wonder. Pray forgive my assault upon your sensibilities, Maria. I forget myself.”

His cousin turned her head away from the crowd and inched a fraction closer. “They say it is a melancholy marriage. She lives apart from the Consul and they are rarely seen together. Of course, he is much older than she. She was only eighteen or nineteen when they were wed.”

“A whirlwind? No courtship?”

“A mercantile deal, some say. Mr Baldwin himself is known for his eccentricities and affects an Arabic way of life.”

“Sounds like a damned loose screw!”


  What was fascinating about Mrs Baldwin was that, though she was cordial, she was  remote, and moved in a universe of her own. Dursley was suddenly consumed by a longing he did not recognise and which had no affinity with the vapid conquests of the backstage theatre. His mother's striking beauty was of a pastoral kind beside the Consul's wife. No one was going to tame her to convention. She'd create her own rules, a bit like his Aunt of Anspach.

“I'd lay a monkey you wouldn't allow Mrs Baldwin through the door of Almack's,” he joked. Maria and her friend, Lady Sally Jersey, a brace of persnickety divas, were patronesses of those select Assemblies and saw a stringent code of conduct upheld. Lady Berkeley had shied at putting it to the test before the King had relaxed his embargo upon her.

“I think,” said Maria tapping him with her fan, “that you are neglecting Lady Georgiana. “Only reflect upon the benefits of her goodwill, my dear. You'd make a charming pair!”

“The dynasty can go to blazes! Footloose and free, that's my motto.”
His cousin's face clouded. She refrained from observing that it had been pretty much his father's credo, too.

Half an hour later, Mrs Baldwin made to retire. She was to spend one night as a guest of the Prince before moving on to visit relatives in the county. Dursley was at the pinnacle of anguish. She was leaving and she may never have been aware of his existence. The world was dissolving into unreality about him. He could not restrain himself from moving towards the door and exiting without leave from his host who had turned to Lord Yarmouth, Lady Hertford's son. He caught a wave of spicy perfume as the doors came together in front of him. Rashly, he started in pursuit so that the flunkeys again pulled the doors apart. He was out in the Grand Hall with its cooler air and all its gold leaf and chinoiserie. She was mounting the staircase, her embroidered moccasins disappearing above him. And then, joy of joys, he spotted the means of salvation: an almond-shaped black opal framed in seed pearls on the second step. It had been hanging from her velvet choker seconds ago!

“Madam, wait, I beg you, I believe this article is yours!”

Mrs Baldwin turned to see him bounding up the stairs like a young colt. She was smiling upon him placidly.

“I don't think I have had the pleasure of an introduction.”

“Lord Dursley, ma'am,” he said breathlessly, glad that the stairs had given him an excuse.

She was reading his eyes, drinking in his utter vanquishment. “Lord Dursley, you say. Ah, yes.”

He had reached one step below her and took the offered hand, ungloved, not even ringed, and pressed a kiss upon it. It did not match its owner's face; it was slightly drawn and freckled. “No, keep it,” she said, shunning the gem. “I shall entrust it to your care.”

“Keep it? I...I could not possibly!”

“It is for a keepsake. Some day I might wish for its return. How fortunate you have a sharp eye.”

The Brighton Pavilion of 1807



The Conflict Of Rhyme And Reason



Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.


Sir Walter Scott


One of my clearest memories in primary school was of writing a poem. It must have been my first. I loved poetry because it was fun and fascinating on a variety of levels, but it had never occurred to me that I could compose one. It was at this season of the year. Our teacher was a stern but well-loved Catholic. She kept a cane clipped to the side of her desk and did not scruple to whip the living daylights out of its forbearing oak to rally us to order. One day, she challenged the class to write a poem on the topic of Christmas. At that age, we did not associate free verse with what was commonly called 'poetry' and we instinctively resorted to well-recognised forms. My offering is still branded upon memory:

In winter, Father Christmas comes

Across the pure white snow,

He bring us toys

For girls and boys

And other things for show.

Not exactly genius in embryo, but I was relieved to be able to step up to the plate, despite a niggling dissatisfaction. I got a 'B' for this effort and was inclined to feel that the mark was fair. I had struggled over the balance of syllables, requiring 'snow' to need two adjectives, or at least two stresses, that 'white white' would not do and that truth decreed snow was not always 'pure white'. I knew the last line was feeble. But it rhymed. And Christmas was not just about gifts, it was about a transient sparkle and magic that gave way to January gloom and the ailments adrenalin and excitement had succeeded in fending off. What a brutal awakening to discover Santa Claus was a myth! I still wanted the golden mists of dreaming. I never did believe he came down the chimney, but the goblet drained of ginger wine and the abandoned plate of mince pie crumbs somehow seemed sounder evidence of a visitation than the filled stocking and parcels. The benevolent guest hadn't passed me by. Oh, wide-eyed wonderment!

One verse that teacher taught us to recite and inflect was taken from John Keats' poem There Was A Naughty Boy.

There was a naughty boy,

And a naughty boy was he,

He ran away to Scotland

The people for to see-

There he found

That the ground

Was as hard,

That a yard

Was as long,

That a song

Was as merry,

That a cherry

Was as red-

That lead

Was as weighty

That fourscore

Was as eighty,

That a door

Was as wooden

As in England-

So he stood in his shoes

And he wondered,

He wondered,

He stood in his shoes

And he wondered.

It's a piece that beguiles and is packed with philosophy. In entertaining, it sums up an ideal of universal brotherhood and of feet being grounded where they are before striking out for pastures new.

A year later, we went on to learn by heart the First Psalm, and the greater portion of The Pied Piper of Hamelin which was proudly recited at a concert. The cadences of Browning's august tale were forged on an anvil of immemorial wisdom, at once ironic and whimsical, vivid, cautionary, authoritative, and ultimately satisfying as it wended a path to a secret kingdom lost to the adult realm with all its ducking and weaving. If anything served as a spiritual metaphor, that did. We had been taught Greensleeves, too, which we sang at the same concert. We had little idea about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, knew nothing about the stained gowns of courtesans who had rolled in the grass, or that green was deemed the colour of light and love. Yet the strange melodic minors of Tudor music, the suave lament describing unrequited passion in the face of lavish gifts and protestations of chivalry, belonged to the landscape of a past we sensed was ours. We were part of a tapestry that was bigger than we were.

Nor did we need calculators, because multiplication tables were rehearsed parrot-fashion and, though they didn't rhyme, the phonic word patterns became engraved in the mind's ear for ever.

From these and the nursery nonsense inspired by snippets of history, we found our bearings in a material world where rhymes encapsulated lore and fact and were hoarded for reference.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived (of Henry VIII's wives)

I before E except after C

Sun before seven, rain before eleven

In 1492 Columbus sailed the sea so blue

When George IV from earth descended, thank God the reign of Georges ended

The goat that reeks on yonder hill has browsed all day on chlorophyll

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise

Children have a fine-tuned ear for metre. They are closest to the pulse of the earth. They remember the welling blood and throb of the womb, the predictable scansion of a moon exerting its influence on the inner waters, as yet not drowned out by the cacophany of a universe whose multiple agendas vie for attention. Children know things the world is anxious to ween them from. Rhyme becomes uncoupled in the labyrinth of reason and expediency.

Maybe if that lyric sense could be retained to keep the soul grounded as it grows, there would be no urge to punctuate green life with bullets.

The Medals of Victory



In honour I gained them, and in honour I will die with them.

Horatio Nelson

In the third week of October, 1805, the western littoral of Spain reverberated to the thunder of cannon. Skeins of smoke were tossed by offshore wind. Every so often the radiant blast of an exploding ship was seen by those searching the horizon from the clifftops. Beneath leaden skies, the sea was full of what looked like blazing matchwood, broken hulls and masts collapsing into the maelstrom amid screams of panic.

As the action lost momentum and resolved into a scene of forlorn wreckage, the wind gave way to an angry gale that continued to lash the Atlantic coast of Spain for a week.

On November 6th, 1805, Admiral Collingwood's account of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of his colleague, Horatio Nelson, by a cannonball in the chest, reached England. The British assault had been a herculean success and had broken the back of the Franco-Spanish Navy for good. Napoleon might be gaining ground in Austria, but his Navy could not hope to rally sufficiently to scale the 'wooden walls' of England.

At Kew, the King shed a tear at Nelson's heroic bravery, along with many others'.

“At least,” he said to Pitt, “he is gone out in a blaze of glory. Eh? No greater sacrifice. This calls for a State funeral, nothing less. Make ready, sir.”

“As Your Majesty proposes,” responded Pitt. “Shall the ceremony be in St Paul's?”

“Wren's monument to almighty God. Ah yes! Anthems to make the rafters ring!”

“Your Majesty's government would concur in that, have no doubt, sir.”

“We've given those Gauls a trouncing at last! What! A cue for rejoicing!”

“It will certainly raise morale against Bonaparte. But we shall not be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, I trust, save Europe by her example.”

It was late afternoon and dark. The room had the sombre glow of a Rubens domestic tableau, lit by a prudent posting of candles. The king was sporting a green shade over his eyes and was looking down at the carpet, as if trying to read sound. His eyesight was lately failing which had the effect of honing his perception.

“Come closer,” he beckoned. “Your voice is not as sure as it was wont.”

“I beg your pardon, sir. Collingwood's despatches arrived in the small hours. It has long been my habit at such times to place my head upon the pillow and sleep again. But in this instance, I could not, and I rose at three. There is so much to weep and rejoice over at once.”

“Indeed. Indeed. But you must take care of your health, Pitt. You have acquired a frailty of tone which speaks of a fatigued constitution.”

Pitt dared to glance at the clock and hoped the King would draw matters to a close. There was much to be done. He must oust his prepared speech and write a new one for the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet at the Guildhall on Saturday night. Sharp, fiery pains tore at his stomach. He needed his palliative white medicine as soon as he could lay his hands upon the bottle.





















Excerpted from THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Second Book in the Berkeley Series