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Sovereign Grace

'Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.' Thomas Carlyle

Last week, a Red Room colleague, whose blog posts come highly recommended, mentioned how fascinated she was by the similarities and differences in accounts of life on either side of the Atlantic.

Well, it's sometimes said in jest that Americans and Brits are one people divided by a common language. Or maybe it's the other way round! But penetrate a little deeper into the psyche of nationhood and it becomes clear that while tremendous friendship, goodwill, co-operation and esteem prevail, what separates is more than tweaks of the lexicon. It's a matter of history and geography, our respective positions on the atlas and how the interaction of both has forged diverse ways of thinking and being in striving towards fair and civilised cultures. The Atlantic is easier to bridge than at any time in the past, but it is still a thousand leagues of water.

Today, we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. What the 2012 Diamond Jubilee showed beyond a shadow of doubt was how loved and revered she is, how thankful we are for the blessings of our heritage, how, when all the carping about privilege and the flirting with extreme fringes of democracy are done, we recognise what has given us a frame of reference through decades of instability. We know who we are. Thankfulness is better than pride. Pride has to do with Empire and all its conceits. We are struggling with many of the sins of Empire at present. It has all come home to roost.

Our Monarch is a mirror. She reflects back the better part of our human nature. Queen Elizabeth II is no Gloriana. She has understood what humility means and nicely judged her stance through some harsh challenges, very aware of dark forces behind the scenes. As a Constitutional Monarch, she has toed a strong and delicate line. When the Divine Right of Kings was questioned in the seventeenth century, it led to the execution of Charles I. It was an idealistic notion, open to abuse on the part of monarchs and subjects alike, and widely misinterpreted. To make the concept viable in moral as well as legal terms, humility is called for on both sides. The buck stops with the Sovereign. The exalted are here to serve in God's stead, a tall order with myriad random forces at large, one that demands respect for the position itself and constant prayer for the wisest outcome when human frailty takes over.

The Commonwealth and Cromwell's Protectorate, after Charles I's death in 1649, proved neither popular nor practicable. Folk didn't take to having a commoner decide their fate and the experiment failed. The Restoration of 1660 heralded times that have never looked back, whatever modifications have been made. It's the easiest thing in the world to tear down icons, demolish old structures, whitewash church walls of their painted saints and martyrs, not so easy to lay foundations among the rubble and build a whole new regime.

Perhaps contrarily, we don't go in for role models and heroes in Britain. The notion is alien to us. Fandom doesn't have quite the same charge as it does in the States. We buy the products of celebrity to enhance our lives; we embed those we admire in the culture, but while fashions and attitudes may filter through, we take our idols with a pinch of salt. It seems there is something else already in situ within our makeup.

Across the ocean, we see space and the freedom to move and be, an enviable pioneering spirit, a people determined to pool resources and 'fork lightning' from the ruins of religious purges and ideological persecution. A generous people keen to delight in the success of others rather than cut them down to size and look for feet of clay. They have belief in opportunity, a Dream that anything is possible by dint of hard work... And, occasionally, we glimpse a people cloven from their deepest roots, living on the outer crust of history, hankering for the old countries, the inherited beliefs.

I look back to the fifties, the decade in which the Coronation took place, and smile at how young English historians describe it. No, my earliest memories are not especially gilded, or bathed in nostalgia, but it was an era of citizenship, relative safety and unlocked doors. The corner shop, the linchpin of community, had not yet lost out to supermarkets. (Ironically, it is being restored by immigrant cultures.) Education was the watchword and degrees matched the needs of the workplace in a way they seldom do nowadays. People travelled a lot. They travelled widely in the course of their week. Infrastructure was well-oiled and wider-reaching than it is now. Of course, the population was only half the size, maybe less if some estimates are right. Since then, technology and transport have created more haste and congestion, less speed. A letter dropped in the post to someone in the next village may now go a hundred miles out of its way before delivery.

So what is prosperity? Isn't it anything that intimates heaven, the goal behind every goal and the subliminal purpose of all striving? It is our Queen doing her best to hold the self-serving, power-hungry wolves at bay, tending her flock as faithfully as a shepherdess.

It is our Monarch imaging God's love for humanity and in that every Continent has an equal share.

Poem in honour of last year's Diamond Jubilee

The Colour Of Fire And Sunset

John Constable (above) Image below courtesy of Chris Ceaser

Imagine an English country lane, in an era before articulated transported, when to own a car is the privilege of a few and tractors are the size of an average 4 x 4. It doesn't matter where you are going, the venue isn't that important, but you make concessions to stepping over the threshold and smarten up before leaving the house. The bomb raids are a receding memory and the idea of an appointment with destiny now has a positive charge.

The sky is a fragile blue, the air sparkles with expectation and the idle boasting of cuckoo-song.

A little girl, no more than five years old and nicknamed Marigold by indulgent elderly folk, is walking hand in hand with her father and skipping one-leggedly to keep up with him. He wears a belted tan tweed coat and a trilby hat in the matador style. He is drawn to the flamenco, though nothing in his demeanour indicates that. He likes Moorish women and sings snatches of Carmen in the airier margins of his days. Ahead, the lane is straight, leading to a cross-roads where the newly-invented 'cat's-eyes' have been installed for safety in the dark. Even rural highways have vision!

The lane is flanked by grass verges, sprinkled with spring flowers, celandines and ladysmocks, daisies, buttercups and dandelions, violets amid clusters of heart-shaped leaves in the ditches. Marigold's father wants to know her favourite flower.

Poppies,” says Marigold, though they are not in season.

But bluebells are restful and they have a nice scent. Don't you like bluebells?”

Yes,” says Marigold.

And forget-me-nots?”

I like poppies,” says Marigold.

What's your favourite colour, then?”

Red,” replies Marigold.

Not red, surely. Blue. Blue like your eyes. The blue of the sky. Blue is peaceful. Blue's my favourite colour.”

Marigold is conscious of having grieved her parent in some minor but not insignificant way. “Well, I do like blue...and purple...but I like red best.”

The child is innocent of wars and bloodshed, of the poppies of Flanders fields. But red reminds her of Little Red Riding Hood and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, pillar boxes and Santa Claus. She remembers her crimson crayon that slicks onto an image with a satisfying sheen. It is the one she treasures most. Crimson. She loves the word, which she has heard in a book of fables. It catches the light like silk velvet; it glistens and has a compelling, resonant texture.

For Marigold knows by instinct what artists have known down the ages, that red vibrates with energy. A dash of red, a diminutive figure in a lacklustre landscape, can bring the whole picture to life, even without Monet's orgy of scarlet, or Caravaggio's sin-conscious carmine. Under stage lights, red dots painted at the corners of the eyes will help them to glow at a distance.

And to this day, Marigold likes to put on her glad-rags and cheer the universe with pepper redness and pomegranate subtleties.

John Singer Sargent (above and below)

Some literary quotes:

As soon as I turned the key I saw it hanging, the colour of fire and sunset, the colour of flamboyant flowers. ‘If you are buried under a flamboyant tree, ‘ I said, ‘your soul is lifted up when it flowers. Everyone wants that.

Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea)

But I looked at the [red] dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.

Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea)

I have dreamed in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

Emily Brontë

I've got on red shoes...

Lover, good-bye!

I've got on red shoes..

For ever, good bye!

Alain Fournier (Le Grand Meaulnes)

Red is the great clarifier - bright and revealing. I can't imagine becoming bored with red - it would be like becoming bored with the person you love.

Diana Vreeland

For wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Proverbs 8:11

A good book is an event in my life.

Stendhal (The Red and the Black)

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.

Charles Dickens

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.

Exodus: 3:2

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Acts 2: 2-4

Ivan Aivazovsky

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Finding Your Way By Moonlight

The word 'dream' shimmers with nuance and promise as no other. From the inspiration to succeed, the nocturnal roaming of the soul through weird and wonderful spaces, the hypnagogic visions on the brink of sleep, the imaging of hopes and memories in daylight hours, to the very nature of our human existence. Both Eastern and Western religions subscribe to the notion that life is a dream in the mind of God...with an ample measure of somatic pain, no doubt.

Whereas Edgar Allan Poe was dismayed at life seeming to be 'a dream within a dream', evanescent, intangible and shrinking into meaninglessness as fast as the silken grains of sand through his fingers, others have seen it as the shadow of a subliminal reality that binds immortality into our unique experience. It is as though the spirit is endlessly turning the earth, sowing and reaping, until the outer world reveals a transformation. Dreams can turn what is ordinary into something extraordinary. As Robert Browning observed, 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's Heaven for?'

He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.

Virginia Woolf

All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.

Jack Kerouac

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.

Douglas Adams

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.

Louisa May Alcott

Sleep is the best meditation.

Dalai Lama

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if,when you awoke,you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Oscar Wilde

Recounting the strange is like telling one's dreams: one can communicate the events of a dream, but not the emotional content, the way that a dream can colour one's entire day.

Neil Gaiman

Moments before sleep are when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.

Michael Ondaatje

Sorrow compressed my heart, and I felt I would die, and then . . . Well, then I woke up.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I dream my painting and I paint my dream.

Vincent van Gogh

I came to the conclusion that unrealized hopes, even small ones, were always wrenching.
Nicholas Sparks

You know you're in love when you can't fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.

Attr. Dr Seuss

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?
T S Eliot

Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity.

Paul Coelho

The luxury of being half-asleep...exploring the fringes of psychosis in safety.

Ian McEwan

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dreams are excursions into the limbo of things, a semi-deliverance from the human prison.

Henry Amiel

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

C S Lewis

Final word to funny man, Tommy Cooper. (I remember hearing him say this on stage.)

Last night I dreamed I ate a ten-pound marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was gone.

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Une Vieille Dame

She is stark to the bone,

gaunt in Gethsemane,

like fibrous lightning

honed by tungsten winds

against inconstant skies,

still tall among her peers,

still proud among

the juvenescent hazel sprigs

and serpent's tooth brambles

straining for sunlight,

frantic for foliation,

unwooed by warmth.

Today, no budding veil,

no wedding weeds,

digits frost-bitten to the half-moons

in wicked winter's dogged

ice-scorched breath.

It had to come, this severance,

after long years of arms outstretched

to draw unruly progeny

to her gnarled and knowing bosom,

covering with wisdom's mantle

errors of riotous exuberance.

What flowering of Grace!

She is a skeletal shrine

and, two springs ago, shared

a beneficent transfiguration.

Despise not my vintage years,

she said, for Nature arrays me

as no other tree in Holy Week.

Remember me when you are sad

and stranded in the wilderness

between two ways, unseeing.

When sap shall fall and powers fail

and soured earth receive my leaves,

my legacy is ever Blossom.

First blossom and bluebells, May Day, 2013

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Elephant's Footnote

In the wake of my recent post about being a twinless twin, the shades have stirred and many half-forgotten episodes have come home to roost. Puzzling situations, branded in memory at the time, have fallen into context. In a way I can't adequately convey, it's as though the curvature of my life has a clearer perspective and the tapestry so far is filling out. The tension between having and not having, between instinctive completeness and bereavement has been, and still is, an underlying theme in everyday matters as well as prominent events. Perhaps nowhere does this cut to the bone as in the conundrum posed by my first published novel in 1980, Dreams of Gold: 'Were Life and Death two sides of the same coin?'

But let me close by recalling a comic incident whose symbolism will not be lost on the literary-minded.

Around the age of three – I measure the events of those days by the first time I was a bridesmaid – my mother took me to a charity sale in a neighbouring parish. I don't remember much about the room in which it was held, just the criss-crossed forest of supports under the trestle tables piled high with artefacts, clothes, knitting wools, ceramics, which formed an uninviting landscape above my natural sightline. Mother studied the displays, weighed up the merits of this item and that, moved on, debated some more. Meanwhile, I was jostled among the coats of bargain-hunters, ears buzzing with the hum of voices, and grew vexed and bored and couldn't wait for it to be over. Then, like a gift from heaven, a most intriguing shape hove into view. I couldn't take my eyes off it. An elephant! It stood about 18” tall, made of khakhi-coloured tweed, with a soulful leather-button gaze that I could swear was appealing for a home with us. I pointed it out to my mother, but was dismayed to find the animal receding over my shoulder as she pulled me along.

I have never wanted anything so much in my life as I wanted that elephant! What inspired the desire, I can't exactly tell, but the tale of my origins was no secret. It was part of the legend given to relatives. Without buying a thing, Mother made to leave. By now, my distress was tearfully evident. I begged and pleaded for that stuffed toy, inwardly half-resigned to not having it – the bias of child-rearing wisdom was to resist whims and wants for fear of spoiling, and also there wasn't a lot of disposable income around in that decade after the War. What prevailed with her, I will never know. She did have her mellower moods, but was in no sense an indulgent parent. I was conscious even then that the request was too spontaneous, too 'off-the-wall'. But she relented, opened her purse and, joy of joys, 'Edward' was handed over! My tears evaporated. The universe was in equilibrium.There was much hilarity on the bus going home about fares charged for elephants.

Edward let me ride on his back and resided between the sofa and an armchair at the end of play. Eventually, after much pummelling, he became blind and his eyes ended up in Mother's button box, a treasure chest in which I loved to forage among the pearl and glass, ivory and bakelite, brass from her brothers' naval uniforms. Years later, and about to be married, I rediscovered them and sewed them on to the pocket tabs of my new 'going away' a talisman, I guess. We sometimes perform rituals we barely understand in our straining for karma. No, all in the garden wasn't wonderful, but by a miracle of Grace, I have survived intact, with a shining faith in what can transpire from our griefs and reverses. This, surely, is the purpose and meaning of Life as far as we can know it.

I regret that I don't remember the passing of Edward, but I expect our in-depth conversations are recorded somewhere in the ether.

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