I’ve not seen many wasps this autumn, but they’re everywhere on the ivy which decorates Pickworth’s walls and fences. The sky is blue, the sun warm, and like me they’re making the most of the shrinking hours of daylight.
Iwalk westwards looking out for the lime kiln where (possibly) John Clare made a living while every evening he wrote about hedgerows and flowers by the light of a whickering candle. I can’t see it because, and maybe the poet would have found this apt, the likely location is covered in bushes, general scrub…and wasps. There’s also a sign saying ‘keep out’ so perhaps too many Clare-freaks have been anxious to stand where the great man did. The path crosses a field on the angle and enters some woodland beside small pits where stone was once extracted for building or crushing, and then over a rise on the far side, my goodness, I’m not expecting the size of the more modern quarry which lies between me and Clipsham. It’s not quite on the scale of Ketton’s, but still pretty vast, with huge piles of spoil and impressive cliffs. The stone from here has ended up in King’s College Chapel, York Minster and the Houses of Parliament. Where the path leads down to its floor, a six-strong family of deer crosses left to right no more than thirty metres in front of me, the older females flanking at least one junior. One by one, with that peculiarly deft, precise agility, they leap a fence and disappear back into the trees. It’s a lovely unexpected moment. I’d been wondering whether to give the shorts one last pre-winter outing, and think to myself that the decision to remain in trousers was sound. No good avoiding Covid only to succumb to Lyme’s Disease.
I’m la-la-la’ing the hook from Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’ as I climb the steep exit from the quarry (yes, I know, this is something of a jump-cut from the bucolic to the bathetic…) I’m a fan of eighties music but the ‘Best of Clapton’ CD I was listening to earlier on in the car is a dreadful-sounding record IMO: gross drum sounds mixed far too prominently, too many notes, self-obsessed lyrics. I saw the all-star Clapton band in Birmingham at about that time, Phil Collins and Chester Thompson behind twin drumkits, Fairweather-Low on second guitar, big-bear Nathan East playing an apparently toy-sized bass and the excellent Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Robert Cray supporting. I don’t remember them sounding all that bad…I was rather excited at the time. Sigh!
Pop music has always been rather ‘look at me!’ Perhaps all music contains an element of that – we love to hear virtuosity, and my love for the piano was fuelled by hearing my wonderful teacher Robin Harrison hammering a school upright to within an inch of its survival with massive Liszt transcriptions e.g. Wagner’s Tannhauser overture (Robin’s speciality); more notes per minute than seemed humanly possible. But of course, at its core music is much more than this: careful listening between participants, the control of dynamics to make others sound good, the sympathetic placement of notes, the matching of harmony, tuning and rhythm, the acknowledgment of other people’s skills. It’s about ensembles as much as solos.
My wider search at present, and particularly in the Church, is for the communal, for consensus, for inclusion, for togetherness in the Spirit, for harmonious disagreement in God’s concert, a societal and spiritual version of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony where dissonance magically dissolves into majestic, deafening concord. What we currently experience politically and sometimes ecclesiastically is aggrieved division and dissent, with interest groups recklessly pursuing their own agendas. Collective improvisation in insensitive hands becomes the competing assertion of egos. I know I’m repeating myself, and regular readers may be groaning at this insistent riffing, but post-Trump - as we must pray - and post-Johnson (ditto) there’ll have to be healing.
· I’m an only child. It’s odd for me to be saying the foregoing. Isn’t that ironic? (thanks, Ms. Morissette.)
· The Virus spreads because of togetherness, but its aftermath is division. Isn’t that ironic too? (enough already, Alanis…)
· This is one reason for the Eucharist – to hear the words: ‘the body of Christ’. So act like a body, dear people, not a bunch of dry bones.
· ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’. This is becoming increasingly funny as a slogan/cliché/joke because spelling like the understanding of geography is becoming a lost art. Or perhaps the saying’s completely irrelevant, because Thatcher’s gnomic ‘there’s no such thing as society’ has turned out to be prescient. Apparently the only team now is my team.
The path arrives in Clipsham opposite The Olive Branch, a clearly superior nosh-spot. As I turn left up the road to Stretton, Range Rovers cruise by, before turning into the restaurant’s car-park, engines quietly purring and salivating prior to a not-so-trivial lunch. Deferring my lunchtime gratification for a while longer, I yomp up the road, admiring the autumnal colours in the roadside trees, and jumping out of the way of passing Chelsea Tractors, like an elderly Henry VIII doing a galliard, but less stylishly.
Clipsham’s church, St. Mary’s sits on the edge of the Big House’s grounds in a gently pretty location. Sheep feint to pose for me in the field to its south, and then, as sheep are wont to do, move at the last moment to spoil the photograph. I stick my tongue out at them, and pray for the human inhabitants of the village, wondering as always who they are and what they do with their lives amidst this pastoral loveliness. Leaving the village to the east, for the first time this autumn I find the fieldpath has changed from tacky to muddy. The Met has just pronounced October 3rd the wettest day ever recorded, if you take the UK as a whole. The total precipitation made for a volume greater than that of Loch Ness. The path becomes a track beside cover where there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of pheasants and their chicks. Being not the brightest things in mental plumage they scuttle on in front of me for hundreds of metres before finally diving and crashing away into the undergrowth. Others chuck and squawk their way out of the undergrowth as I pass so regularly that I stop reacting to their sudden avian eruptions. By a farm I say how-do to a lady in a natty felt hat. A few minutes later as I climb into the cool green of Pickworth Great Wood, she passes me in a golf caddy driven by her man. They’re exercising a lively, young black lab, and stop to ask me if I’d like to say hello – to the dog, not them. I decline the kind invitation. I suppose for elderly folk it can be the only way to keep their companion hound fit. I remember once passing a driver in a Kent lane, who was steering his Land Rover at a steady 20 mph with one finger, whilst holding a greyhound on a leash through the side window with his other hand. Don’t try that at home, children…
When I’m within a hundred metres of the car, I overtake a couple who are looking intently at their map. They generously remark that I look as if I know what I’m doing – which could of course be a paraphrase of ‘You look dirty and a bit knackered…’ They’ve walked from Clipsham, but the other way - through the quarry - and are now wondering as I did about that lime kiln. I explain where I think it is and we fall into conversation. I tell them what I’m doing, and give them one of my cards. They ask if I’m a bishop or something. I laugh and say they’re quite right, the previous Archbishop of York did something similar but no, I'm just a bloke. Seeing my name on the card they double-take because they’re also Crosses. Geoff tells me that though they live near Lichfield, they have family origins in Bermondsey, London, and I say that’s funny because some of my people peter out genealogically in that part of London. Truly it’s a small world, and I wouldn’t at all rule out the possibility that we’re related. Such coincidences happen more than at first seems feasible. I once met my dad in Chappells of Bond Street’s record department, him having travelled twenty miles in one direction, and me sixty from another, with no collusion. Oddly, although I was banjaxed by this event, he seemed entirely unphased. These new Crosses tell me that this is their first outing on the back of a Julia Bradbury collection of ‘a hundred best walks’, and it is a good walk that they’re going to do, through Great Wood and all those pheasants back to Clipsham. But I know how imprecise some walking books can be, and as I’m driving home, I hope they find their way safely, despite my well-meaning but probably unhelpful tips about following the field margins where the diagonal path gets sticky.
*The title of a Joan Armatrading song and album c. 1977
Our Father in Heaven
This is a familiar conundrum.
Did you put me here to ‘do’?
Or simply to ‘be’?
Am I defined by what you made?
Or should I be struggling to turn myself into something more –
Like washing powder
A new improved me?
And what about other people
Whom Descartes and others have suggested
Might all be mental or social constructs?
(Though really we all know that’s a load of bunkum, don’t we?)
I know there should be less ‘me’ and more ‘You’.
But what about more ‘we’ and less ‘I’?
And does it make any difference
Being an introvert?
(I mean, do you cut me more slack
Because I so often want to hide from people?)
I’m so good at excuses
Lord, help me through all my self-deceptions
To a better understanding of your will.