In aerial latitudes
and the silent margins
of heat and cold,
day and clairvoyant dusk,
the mirage shimmers
above our wilderness,
evoking plangent echoes
of something lost and longed for.
Risk the serpentine defiles,
the jackal's jaws and searing sand,
risk the rugged rocks for miles
to gain a purchase on the land
rendered in such high relief
There we shall slake our dusty frame!
The image pales and comes to grief
All and nothing is the same.
So where to turn and how contrive
the lineaments of real estate
To dream, to sow, to dig, to strive,
to build, to spend, to save, to wait,
though noble empires wax and wane,
high thought and politics our pitch,
an out-of-line design's our bane
Exchequers fail to make us rich.
A temptress is illusion's muse
her laurels bringing frail content
ironic humour bucks the ruse
the stage, the screen, the game, were sent
to occupy the vision's see
If only this, if only that
had shaped our path, we should be free
by now to revel in delight.
The mind's eye is the heart's big screen
beguiling fictions into facts
daydreams breathe lustre on the scene
our footprints follow in its tracks
Away the promised land foursquare
whose substance sinks in shadow's maw!
But mind, the mirage memory
reflects a true celestial shore!
Images by Leipzig artist Friedrich Otto Georgi 1819 - 1874
Yo Yo Ma - Miriam Schulman
etches its molten music
into the psyche
steals the soul
an aural apparition
passing through locked doors
sing, burgeoning from chaos
conjures vision timeless as
Theia with shadows dancing
the light fantastic
is baritone, the plumbed stave
sounds close melody
Incident on an ordinary Monday
Crimson rose, your Ruby Wedding,
not a gift to me,
jewelled rose, your bounty bleeding
blossom from the tree.
Velvet bee that sweet heart singing,
trapped inside the glass,
on pane of death, your life-force squand'ring,
echoes of the Mass.
Limpid wall of stings and sighing,
God by woman's hand supplying
rescue from the curse.
Wings upswept on morning gilded
home on smiling rose,
in her silken petals folded,
bee his purpose knows!
Charles Napier Hemy
week saw the Glorious Twelfth of August, the date on which the grouse
shooting season begins and is celebrated, or at least noted, in the
British Isles. In times past when bloodsports was an accepted feature
of rural life and there was a reverence for the disciplines of nature
conservation, no thought of political or ethical correctness entered
anyone's head. There were races to get the best grouse from Scotland
on to London's top restaurant tables within a few hours and the
winner would have been headline news.
The season for the shooting of other game begins respectively on September 1 for partridge, and October 1 for pheasant, and goes on until February. There are different dates for other species, with seasons overlapping. Game licences have now been abolished both for keepers and dealers in Britain, and all game, except hare, can be sold year round, thanks to freezer technology which wouldn't have been available when the original Game Act was passed in 1831. It's interesting that the law forbidding shooting on Sundays and Christmas Day still holds good in a country whose Christian heritage, incorporating sacred bloodshed, is largely forgotten.
This reminds me of Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party, a novel of jaded mores and pursuits among the late Edwardian aristocracy. It mirrors the ritual of blood-letting and the drive to outwit and conquer the lower orders. The tale is a microcosm of what happens within groups of the human species when arrogant assumptions about entitlement run riot. It is an ominous metaphor for the triggers in the psyche that precipitated World War 1 and saw a whole way of life swept into oblivion.
Such are the imbalances of nature, culling may sometimes be necessary. But the thing I note on walks with my dog, Jack, through the woods and fields of southern England, is the aggressive dedication with which game is conserved for sheer sport and greedy profit. (I am told there are fortunes to be made.) The birds are kept in pens, hidden deep in the woods, and artificially fed on a regular basis. “I'm back and forth all day,” says one keeper in a country journal. “My poults are eating like it's going out of fashion.” Actually, it is. They're eating like there's no tomorrow because they're terrified. Man is their enemy. These periodicals are plastered with legal advertisements touting for clients among those accused of breaking animal welfare laws.
Shooting goes on in season and out. (Who is doing the shooting and what they are shooting, I cannot say.) It takes place dangerously close to public footpaths and sends wildlife into a frenzy for miles around. Increasingly, walkers are deterred from using any but the safer long distance hiking routes. Paths are allowed to become rampantly overgrown, either by nature, or by tall crops, maize or rape, for instance. Stiles fall into disrepair and laths are rigorously trimmed with barbed wire. Occasionally, an electric wire will be continued beneath a stile step so that dogs can't pass through unless they are agile and confident enough to hurdle the barrier.
As some readers will know, Jack is a Springador. A pedigree cross-breed! A gun dog. He can roll uncooked eggs off the kitchen counter, carry them in his mouth, and disgorge them intact where he chooses. He can strip feathers from dead birds. He can catch rabbits in lightning retreat. It's what he does, what his ancestors did from time immemorial. His head lifts and his shoulders brace when he meets a pack of gun dogs on the foray. He wants to show them he knows what they're about. But as a domestic animal, he's been trained not to scare the birds and small mammals which visit the garden. Among them, we have a large family of wood pigeons, and one of collared doves, which are no problem at all. Jack understands that his job is to care for them on our patch because, in their gratitude – and they are trusting and interactive – they are helping to protect our fruit and veggies from micro pests. It's very touching how proudly they show off their raggedy new offspring who have yet to learn how to forage and how to take flights of distance. Perched on the fence, they croon their coos and reflect peacefully on life, keeping seagulls well at bay, whose plaintive din knows little abatement and very little night if they decide to roost nearby. Believe me, Larus Occidentalis is up well before the lark!
When Jack was a puppy beginning to investigate the sounds, scents and sights of his environment, he would bring in small pieces of granite from the garden and deposit them on my lap or at my feet. It took me a while to understand that these were treasure trove. He'd seen chunks of rose quartz, calcite and amethyst glinting on my desk. When, a few weeks later, he started exploring the English landscape, he'd retrieve used cartridge cases dropped in the grass. He loved finding them. Somehow, he knew what they were, that they were significant to his identity. But how I dread the sight of those articles now! And they are strewn everywhere! I know there will be dead carcases, heaps of torn feathers.
A couple of years ago, I came across a beautiful teal duck with its head tucked under its wing, who had died from a gunshot wound. When something like this happens, Jack will bury his nose in the feathers and snuffle up the smell like a truffle hound. A look will come into his eye and his demeanour change, his metabolic chemistry suddenly altered. He'll race across the fields looking for rabbit prey. And he'll catch one. Thankfully, now that he's on the threshold of his golden years, although he can still outrun his juniors, he's grown more laid back about the whole thing and seems to appreciate the 'big picture'.
Nature is red in tooth and claw but only mindless in the sense that it's ruled by the exigencies of survival. These instincts are heightened and subverted by panic through disregard of the eco-system by plundering, blundering, human primates who have the reasoning power to subdue their baser drives and employ their energies in constructive management. It seems that a proprietorial attitude to guns slackens our grasp on the awfulness of killing. And the ether becomes charged with our ethos.
Strangely, and this may seem contradictory, I think it's why we have to support our troops. We are asking them to expose themselves to all that, and what it will do to their lives if they survive. The ostensible causes of war are another issue, but, like charity, even they begin at home.
Peace within our walls and palaces. It may sound like a high ideal, but it's one that can change the world, and, if you look closely, is already happening.
'In my beginning is my end...
In my end is my beginning.'
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Minutes off the beaten track it hides, an unassuming parenthesis in what we call civilisation, but now a candidate for a world heritage site, an old Roman gem at the core of a threaded maze of roads amid the furling bean green and golden hills of Somerset, straight out of a picture book of fables. You would easily miss it if you weren't on a quest for Eliot, or ancestors, or the groves of Eden.
East Coker is out of this world. No wonder the good folk who live there are engaged in chronic combat with developers threatening to beleaguer the south Yeovil meadows, diggers at the ready, hard heads further conserved by hard hats. It's where my maiden name rings out, and not only there, throughout the area. I cannot claim kin with Eliot. In fact, I only discovered a native connection with the village as a result of a recent visit, and have yet to investigate names common to our respective genealogies. My nearer forebears lived at Montacute about four miles from East Coker, another unspoiled village of the same stamp, built in beautiful ochre Ham stone and home to Montacute House, a concept Elizabethan mansion now in the hands of the National Trust.
Epiphany is the only way I can describe my first sighting. This was the place. The state of being. Past and future, sense and senses, dissolved into irrelevance. Afterwards, when I returned to the poems, they were fluent with illumination. Do not look for him in his Missouri birthplace, nor around his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, nor yet where a plaque, blue as the quivering Somerset flax woven by our ancestors, marks his residence in London, 'the timekept City'. Although he cherished the mystique of the river culture of St Louis where he was bred, the Four Quartets breathes the spirit of this corner of quintessential England and strongly inspires many of his poems in other settings. It was a revelation for him, too.
Today, he blesses the habitation of his forebears who ventured out to the New World after the English Civil Wars, the Puritan rebellion and subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy in the 1660s. (His maternal Stearns line is said to have sailed with John Winthrop's fleet circa 1629/30, a voyage brought to life by Anya Seton's vivid novel The Winthrop Woman.) This is where he felt he belonged in the grand scheme of earthly things, and chose to have his ashes interred at the church of St Michael and All Angels.
Eliot's American upbringing was Unitarian, but, as the youngest child, with a congenital double hernia, he was often left in the care of his Irish Catholic nurse who did not scruple to take him to Mass on occasion. When he came to Britain as a young man, escaping the tentacles of his 'terrifying' mother, and later acquired British citizenship, he found his equilibrium in the Anglo-Catholic church, thus completing a circle of centuries. This wing of Anglicanism, I think, he saw as capable of bridging the jagged schism which has bedevilled the history of these islands.
As with the virulent Spanish 'Flu in the wake of WWI and the epidemics following WW2, Black Plague followed the Civil Wars and from June 8th to September 10th of 1645, it took the lives of seventy parishioners who were buried in a common grave. East Coker and its manor were staunch Royalists and Cromwellian destruction of its sacred stones and memorials, silver and altars, was especially severe. At the restoration of Charles II, a new Royal Arms was installed in the church four times the size of the original. From that small village, over the centuries, pioneers, adventurers and servicemen travelled to every continent.
For me, unseen presences gathered in the shimmering, hypnotic haze, echoes of voices, hints of memories beyond recall, fragments of another tapestry, no doubt the subjects of 'daguerrotypes and silhouettes'. I do not call them ghosts, for that is too chill and remote, as though their life is gone forever, not dwelling alongside the generations since, sowing and reaping, conserving and striving, tending flock and cattle, fleeing the deadening and driven horizon of stockbrokers and bankers, 'the desert...squeezed in the tube-train next to you'.
is strange that East Coker, where I do not know that I have
ancestors, speaks to me on multiple levels and exerts a pull which
Montacute does not, love it though I do. It must have something to do
with the contours of this landscape because I've also realised how
subliminally influenced I was by Eliot's poetry in Dreams of Gold,
my long-ago first published novel, how similar in rhythm, inflection
and sentiment some of the phrases are in the more poetic sequences.
It was an experimental literary piece when I was finding my feet in
the genre after three or four youthful apprentice works in
historicals. Imagism and Ezra Pound was mentioned by a publisher's
reader (whom she did not like!) but I had not read him, and had only
a brief acquaintance with Eliot who seemed somewhat obscure back
then. Even when a new edition of Dreams of Gold came out in
2007, it was almost an accident that a quotation from The Rock
was chosen for the rear cover beside one from Kahlil Gibran.
Eliot's genius for subtext, for timeless arcs, for pinning implicit truth amidst an alchemy of ideas while sifting to the rock bottom of things, is, in the pristine meaning of the word, awesome. He explores the compelling mysteries of our existence within architectural forms as august as the pillars of Greece and Rome. His life was one of pain, frustration, anguish and disillusion, but he managed, through creative striving, to navigate towards an era of supreme happiness in its closing chapters, after marriage to his secretary at Faber, Valerie Fletcher, almost forty years his junior. He would have counted that real success, and worth the journey, his method vindicated. He was no recluse, loved dancing and was naturally sociable, but drew back from the fireworks of fame, enduring book-signings with good grace even when ailing and exhausted in his latter days.
'For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.'
Needless to say, there are only whispers of Eliot in my writing,
but I must own a modest share in the same influences. When twilight
falls and mist rises above the flowing fields, and the
pre-occupations of our little day are done, then the spirits stir and
the vapours seep into our bones... We know that nothing, but
nothing, pledged to Life and regeneration, is lost and forgotten.
All is ongoing, perpetual motion. The passing generations are still passing...
'In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie -
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.'
You know what I'm wondering, don't you?
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