Would you believe it, there are now wolves in The Netherlands. Apparently they sneaked over the border from Germany near Maastricht when no one was looking. Wolf enthusiasts suggest that the Land of Windmills can sustain twenty two wolf packs. That sounds a lot to me, given how much of The Netherlands is polder. Surely wolves and polders don’t mix? Anyway, please don’t tell Nigel Farage. It won’t be good for his health - just another reason to fear the perfidious foreigner with his primitive ways and pernicious pets.
Down in Rockingham Forest, the authorities did their bit for the highly successful reintroduction of the red kite, a bird about which almost no one has a bad word to say, although once I did see a RK go for a chicken in a Wadenhoe garden, and the chicken didn’t think too much of it. The conservationists are trying to get an adder population going in Fineshade, which won’t delight everyone, especially the chap whose dog was allegedly bitten in Northampton’s distinctly urban Lings Wood, although this was an event which has caused considerable puzzlement ever since because of its rarity. Then again, adders aren’t the biggest animals. It would be easy to miss a small survivor population, and I once saw what I think was a shed adder skin near Whiston. I’m not so sure about repopulating Scotland with lynx, but there was an encouraging telly report a few months ago about the recovery of pine martens, and another showing ways to support red squirrels. At a more mundane level there’s work to be done keeping favourite British species like the hedgehog and the kingfisher alive and snuffling/fishing. The latest conservation project in Rockingham forest is the Chequered Skipper butterfly, celebrated in the name of the once excellent Ashton (nr. Oundle) pub. It seems that’s now defunct too, more’s the pity. At this rate we’ll have to start conserving pubs as well, perhaps as community projects.
Does our love of diversity in the natural world, and our understanding of eco-balance and the sustainability of populations have any light to shine into how we conduct Church life?
On the subject of diversity (picking up from the previous post) the case of the Samoan Australian rugby star Israel Folau has been much on my mind this week, and perhaps yours too. He tweeted that hell awaited drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators, liars, thieves, atheists and idolators, and for his pains has had his contract with Rugby Australia terminated. The coach Michael Cheika, not exactly a verbal shrinking violet himself, said at a press conference, ‘Getting out in that disrespectful manner publicly is not what our team’s about. When you play in the gold jersey, we represent everyone in Australia – everyone. We don’t pick and choose…’ No sinners in Australia, then. I thought so. English cricket fans have always known this.
Is Folau entitled to his view, right or wrong? Of course! Is he entitled to express it on social media i.e. does this cross into ‘hate speech’? Opinions will differ. Personally, I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem, any more than there’s necessarily a difficulty with the quasi-technical expression ‘Zionist’, though that’s proscribed now if you’re a Labour Party member. Is he entitled to express it in his capacity as a representative of Rugby Australia? That depends on what it says in his contract. Can most of the public see the boundaries and intermeshing of these issues? Quite possibly not. There was a telling comment by a not-unfriendly commentator on Radio 5 the other evening who said that once upon a time ( 30 years ago?) someone from the mainstream might say defensively ‘Some of my best friends are gay…’ Now they might say, ‘Some of my best friends are Christians…’
How do you social pariah Christians feel about that? (regardless of whether you agree with Folau). I know I’m repeating myself, but the theme of this blog is that we’re better together as Christians (and society), Evangelicals, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Radicals, Seekers, The Lot. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Judge not, lest ye be judged, Michael Cheika! The subsequent problem, so well instantiated in the Brexit deadlock, is that we can’t remain paralysed, we still have to act.
I study the site map in the Fermyn Woods car park trying to make up my mind whether to stride out or wait ten minutes for the café to open. At my shoulder a ten year old girlwoman hovers, throwing some balletic shapes for the benefit of her unimpressed, distracted mum. ‘This is a ‘rond de jambe’, and that’s a ‘pas de chat’’, she says. ‘In a foreign language, then…why’s that?’ Mum asks. ‘They’re like, dance moves, innit,’ replies the daughter.
I give up on empty-calorie coffee and cake and hit the Lyveden Way for a few hundred metres before branching out across the fields in the direction of Sudborough. Most of today’s walk will be either in woodland or open rolling countryside, but the approach to Sudborough is by the verge of the busy A6116 Corby road. I was an early teenage trainspotter, and picking my way along the narrow strip of grass brings back memories of standing on the draughty platform at Hither Green as the diesel-powered Hastings express hurtled past towards Charing Cross. A forty tonner creates a deal of turbulence in its wake. Verge walking is the most annoying thing. The grass is usually thick, concealing all manner of hidden dangers from broken glass to rabbit holes: ‘And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil…’ Hub caps, discarded ‘L’ plates, plastic food cartons…
Sudborough’s very nice though, handsome cottages and pleasant gardens. All Saints church is open for a bit of psalm reading (please don’t miss out the ‘s’ in that last word!) I muse on the appearance of sheep in Psalms 78,79 and 80, and think how wonderful that Palestine and Northamptonshire are linked by my favourite farm animal. I sometimes worry that instead of the happy, loving, sorrowful relationship between God and his sheep, today’s clergy see only the alleged silly aspects of the animal. Do they view the laity as perpetually going astray or blindly following each other with themselves cast as the put-upon shepherd(esse)s? Is that a fair cop, Reverend Persons?
Inside the church, I’m unexpectedly moved by the tiny brass set into the wall dating from 1390 commemorating the West family: William, Joan his wife, and a quiver full of children. Last Sunday we celebrated forty Aprils to the day since we took a party of thirty young dancers and musicians to the East Coast of the US, performing in the foyer of the ill-fated Twin Towers among other venues. That event has the quality, increasingly familiar with the passing years of seeming at the same time like yesterday and an aeon ago. The Sudborough brass is 630 years old, but the intimacy and love of the West family stretch out towards the viewer, and time collapses as one makes friends with them through their graceful, touching memorial.
Out of Sudborough I cross the road on a dangerous bend (nb!) and very soon find myself on a wondrous, greening, woodland path fringed with primroses and a few first, uncertain bluebells. It climbs slowly to the top of the rise, culminating in the broadest of views over the Nene valley, the hedges covered in snowy May blossom, the woods to either side shimmering a little in the mid-day sun. I can see one of Aldwincle’s churches and think I’m heading there to pick up the Nene Way, but get confused and end up on my Plan B route which after a green lane takes me across the flat through a friendly, sheepy field to a favourite Northamptonshire spot by Wadenhoe’s St. Michael and All Angels church with its comforting, monasterial, saddleback tower (which is a survivor from an earlier phase of building).
Next to it are the mounds of a once substantial castle. Looking east over the river from the Millennium Sundial, one can see three other churches. It’s Wadenhoe that provoked my earlier solemn melody for the vanishing village pub. The King’s Head here has been a regular haunt for a decade. You’d think it had it all: a pluperfect, picturesque village with river moorings, not so far from the A14 and half an hour’s drive from Peterborough, a nice garden, friendly staff, locally-sourced produce…but now the King’s Head too has shut its doors. Let’s hope for a revival (which is something I’d normally say in a church connection. Perhaps the two kinds of revival go together.)
From the village I pick up the Lyveden Way along a track past an attractive farm at Wadenhoe Lodge. As often at this time on a walk, I stop noticing and start turning over the refuse in my mind’s dustbin. At the moment I’m reading AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, a book which excited a great deal of debate when it was published in the early nineteen sixties, including a spat of almost Snow/Leavis proportions between Taylor and Hugh Trevor Roper, another leading historian of the day. Taylor’s overall thesis was that Hitler wasn’t a madman, but a mainstream German politician pursuing traditional German foreign policy aims, and that what we call the Second World War (in reality a conjunction of at least two, perhaps three, separate conflicts), was largely the result of miscalculations on all sides. Most other people disagreed then, as I think they would even more today. I’m trying to understand the current European dilemmas by looking back, to see what resonances there might be in the past, and what’s different now. One uncomfortable theme is that not only was the pre-New Deal US isolationist in the very early nineteen thirties, but Britain was too, or so Taylor claims (though it was still administering the end of Empire) – and surely those world views mirror current popular sentiment? Clearly Taylor (in 1960 and against the background of the Soviet bloc!) saw Poland as a non-viable political entity, which with some crossing of fingers, seems an outlandish thought now. I’d forgotten that Gdansk, then Danzig, which seemed so irreducibly Polish when we visited fifteen years ago, was once seen as a sine qua non German enclave to the point of being a casus belli in ‘38/39. The idea that the Italians might think Nice was really theirs, rather than French, came as a shock to me. And what do we make now of a mutual defence pact – which came to nothing – between France and Czecho-slovakia, with or without its hyphen? Can we as ‘Britons’ ever get over our history as an ‘island race’? Like many others, until ten years ago I thought that a thing of the distant past, but am now far more pessimistic. Taylor’s book is uncomfortable reading.
Down and up, and through Lilford Wood, into the grounds of Lyveden New Bield. If you’ve not been, it’s a very strange place, a perfectly unfinished seventeenth century house standing on the middle of a wide plain, in its own weird way as evocative a setting as Stonehenge. We’re in Thomas Tresham territory again, he of Rushton Hall and the Triangular Lodge, so all over the shop there’s mystical symbolism with a Catholic slant. On a bright day like today, you half expect a bunch of builders to turn up and begin finishing the job with merry quips and whistles. On a dark winter’s afternoon with the wind blowing, we’re talking Cathy and Heathcliff. I can’t come away from Lyveden at any time of year without a certain emptiness of spirit and sense of foreboding, hopes unfulfilled, plans thwarted, vision overwhelmed.
Have I got this right?
I find The Truth to be a slippery thing.
I’m no post-modernist.
I’m not going to go along with Baudrillard
And say the first Gulf War never happened.
But aren’t there enough grounds for humility
In what we don’t know about the universe,
In understanding that I comprehend the world around me
Only through unreliable sense-data,
In repeatedly being shocked by my foolish misapprehensions
And in confronting the certainties of others?
So how do I ‘preach the Gospel’?
And what do I do about the feeling
That my ‘truthful’ uncertainty
Has never won anybody for
The Kingdom of Heaven?
Sanctify and bless my doubts.
Give me the simple faith
‘like those who heard beside the Syrian Sea’
To rise up and follow Thee.