Writing

  • To be, or not to be...

    The sun is setting on Assynt, in the North West corner of Scotland. Orange light warms a cold April. The mountains, Suilven and Ben More are iced with peaks of snow. Feathered friends make a snuggery, while a glistening otter gallops up the slipway with a wriggling trout in its mouth, its rainbow fate sealed. The white-tailed eagle has hovered over the loch for a day, searching for a salmon that escaped from the farm. Just when she smelt freedom, this god of the air snatched her away. So many worlds spin in pain.

    At Cape Wrath, angry in the quietest weather, the Ministry of Defence carry out military exercises and propagate the news that they are also preserving the wildlife, flora and fauna of this special place. Meanwhile submarines creep into sea lochs doing what they do. Is there any place on earth not compromised by humanity?

    I walk beside the stone remains of townships long since abandoned, kinship fragmented because of greed. Roofless churches in these parts tell the story of an ecclesiology and its earnest guardians who preached a misplaced morality and threatened doctrinal punishment and excommunication. The clergy banished the original spiritual beliefs of the people and yet somehow, the early Celtic Christian movement which managed to weave holy place names and traditions into the fabric of indigenous belief, survived. Over the centuries, many have heard an ancient song and harmony.

    ‘April is the cruellest month’, writes the poet, T. S. Eliot. Especially so, as we hallow the memory of  New Zealanders and Australians killed in war. Such remembering is gathered to our hearts, not to glory the indescribable carnage of war nor gloss over the brutalising and crushing of the human spirit. We do not gather the dead and dying, the grief and sadness, the memories, stories, tragedies, the comradeship in life and death, to dis-member them. Rather we re-member them. This is restorative, moving us, not only to give thanks for the gifts of life and freedom which we take for granted, but to bring to birth, in our own hearts and lives, a harvest of goodness, justice and peace.  

    Every Sunday morning before going to Church, I listen to Sunday Worship on the radio while eating a breakfast of poached eggs on toast. Today the service was broadcast from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where William Shakespeare was born and lived and the church in which he was buried.

    He died 400 years ago on the 23rd April 1616 and throughout the world, words, music, art and place honour the legacy of probably one of the greatest writers that ever was. William had a lot to say about war: its  legal, ethical and religious justifications, the ties between church and state in promoting and waging war, the costs to humanity, and the political strategies used to downplay internal problems and unite a nation around a leader whose legitimacy is in question…’ to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels’[i]

    He also knew the devastation of grief. His only son, Hanmet died at the age of 11. We know little about his faith yet he writes in The Winter’s Tale, ‘then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory’. He also knows the inner voice of doubt, ‘Ay, but to die, and to go we know not where’.[ii] Resurrection, the deepest hope for our common humanity, was often in his mind. Lives could also be changed because of love, loyalty and miracles. [iii]

    I made a visit with my late father to Stratford-upon-Avon in my salad days.[iv]  Days when I thought that the ancient houses were higgledy-piggledy and the very fat swans on the river were hungry.  I fed them and they obligingly ate what they were given. Dad took me to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and we drank hot chocolate with lots of cream on top. 

    I cherish a tiny leather book of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays which he gifted to me on that day. I did not understand the words then. Now I realise that the Bard’s words are embedded in our language…   

    The course of true love never did run smooth[v]; For goodness sake[vi]; Neither here nor there[vii]; Eaten out of house and home[viii]; A wild goose chase[ix]; Too much of a good thing[x]; The world’s mine oyster[xi]; Not slept one wink[xii]; Send him packing[xiii]; Own flesh and blood[xiv] ...and so many more.

    On this Sunday evening, snow is lightly falling as I look out of the window of the Clergy House. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his partner roost on our roof after spending the day making a home for their young. They are our guests every year and we welcome their wisdom:

    Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and help them to see it in themselves. That way you’ll see the way to fly and that’s what I mean by love.[xv]

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    April 2016

    [i] Henry IV
    [ii] Measure for Measure
    [iii] Sunday Worship BBC Radio 4, Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
    [iv] Anthony and Cleopatra
    [v] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    [vi] Henry VIII
    [vii] Othello
    [viii] Henry IV
    [ix] Romeo and Juliet
    [x] As You Like It
    [xi] The Merry Wives of Windsor
    [xii] Cymbeline
    [xiii] Henry IV
    [xiv] Hamlet
    [xv] Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

     

  • Northern Lights in April

    Northern Lights in April

    Travelling is in the DNA of most New Zealanders. Over a million of them live overseas and thousands holiday around the world each year. Families love nothing better than packing up the tent, caravan or camper van and hitting the road to enjoy some R and R. If you’ve got an iconic V Dub, all the better.

    Clive and I are currently working in Scotland and have been missing the camping adventures that we enjoyed in New Zealand. A wee camper van has now been added to our life and after Easter, we set off on a tiki tour…

    By the lakeside at Windermere on an April evening, the water mirrors the still sky. Trees are not yet in leaf. Buds await with quivering intensity. A few boats are about. The day has been one of hot sun and a cold wind. Late snow fell on Helvellyn in the early hours. The daffodils, so redolent of this rugged and wild landscape, are in their dying days.

    Nesting for endless hours in the reedy bank is a cob Mute swan. His mate has been swanning around all day looking for food. Non-native Canada geese honk here and there. Conservationists say that they are compromising the habitat and need to be ‘managed’. Waterskiers on the lake fall into the same category.

    William Wordsworth wandered here, lonely as a cloud o’er vales and hills. Daffodils inspired him to write some words which have earned themselves a place in popular poetic consciousness. He wrote better poetry though. Mystical, spiritual poetry, most of it, glimpsing divine unity in all living things.

    When the rain teemed down and made the black slate houses blacker, the far distant mountains sang ‘the still sad music of humanity’ he wrote. When he felt the loss of that visionary light, his ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, revealed that the memory of it never left him.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friend of his wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the village of Grasmere, a place described by Wordsworth as ‘the fairest place on earth’. Like so many of his contemporaries, Coleridge was addicted to opium, commonly prescribed then for everything from a cough to vague aches and pains. He scribbled Kubla Khan after dreaming of the stately pleasure-domes of a Chinese emperor.

    Another Lake poet, Thomas De Quincey wrote an autobiographical account of his addiction, Confessions of an English Opium Eater which became an overnight success. The opium dreams did not last for these poets of the Romantic School though. Such imaginings may have presented them with unique material for their poetry but it gradually took away from them the will and the power to make use of it.

    There are two villages called Near and Far Sawrey.  Between the far and the near, is Hill Top, a 17th century farmhouse that brought the kind of childlike imagining I had put away. Beatrix Potter, the writer and illustrator bought the property with the profits from selling her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, written first as a picture and story letter to cheer up a five year old boy who was ill.

    Most writers have to learn to deal with rejection at some time or another and she was no exception. After several snubs from publishers, she finally landed a publishing deal for the story of this rebellious rabbit.

    Potter’s own remarkable tale was that of a young woman who finally freed herself from demanding and possessive parents and achieved independence and fulfilment by her own efforts. The farm became her sanctuary, a place where she could draw, paint and write about lovable and villainous anthropomorphic animals and the triumph of good. Her stories are not only for little children.

    And then on to rural South West Scotland and the ordination of a good friend. Farms and houses are  scattered far and wide in his new parish and I was reminded of the 18th century diaries of Norfolk clergyman, James Woodforde who led an uneventful and unambitious life except that for 45 years, he kept a diary chronicling the minutiae of life in the parish. His was an endearing pastoral ministry by all accounts, that went hand in hand with a liking for roast beef dinners washed down with copious amounts of claret and port and always shared with friends. His legacy is a jewel of a diary that illuminates the darkest of times.   

    Wordsworth worshipped at St. Oswald’s Anglican Church in Grasmere. He found it a comfortless place apparently. I can see him sitting on a hard bench, his feet on the earth floor which would have been covered with rushes, with the only heat coming from a tiny grate in the vestry, burning wood and charcoal. In his later years he warmed to the church when he wrote Ecclesiastical Sketches, a history and defence of the Anglican Church. He had grown to like its moderation and tolerance which he regarded as its strength, tempered through centuries of conflict and trial.

    In the churchyard at St. Oswald’s, lie his remains and those of his wife Mary, sister Dorothy and his children, Dora, Thomas and Catharine. The poet Harley Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor is also a neighbour. Alfred Lord Tennyson said that ‘next to Westminster Abbey, this to me is the most sacred spot in England.’ He may well be right.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    April 2015 

    Image Northern Lights at Bow Fiddle Rock, Portknockie, Scotland. Alexander Dutoy