CHAPTER 7 of PASSION FOR BEGINNERS
Chapter 8 appears tomorrow May 8th. Previous chapters are on the blog posts immediately preceding this one.
So much for spiritual trajectories. Though as everyone might acknowledge, these days only a minority of westerners can boast of such things, and very obviously manage perfectly well without them. So they think. Meanwhile, I have long lost count of the number of educated middle class people who po-faced, smile and assure me that, if anything (I love that lordly qualifier, as if they are talking about Labour versus Tory, or mashed potatoes versus chips) they are Buddhists or sympathetic to Buddhism. I nod politely and subtly change the subject. What they mean is their heads agree with the spartan tenets of original Hinayana ‘atheistic’ Buddhism (thus they believe) but their hearts and limbs and genitalia go on doing exactly whatever they want to do, and always have done. For that matter, and I don’t whether it should make one laugh or cry, way up in the English borderlands I once knew an idealistic organic farmer of public school background, who professed to be a serious Buddhist, but kept prime sheep and cattle and had them butchered on the premises in his own abattoir. Such a startling oxymoron, a Buddhist abattoir, meaning that ahimsa or doing no harm to any creature, was just an inconvenient dispensable, whereas arm and a leg organic beef and lamb were self-evidently not?
Buddhism is a great world faith demanding all sorts of things that few of these westerners deign to practice: abstinence, self-control, chastity, charity, strict vegetarianism. It also enjoins regular meditation, and to be sure they are usually very happy squatting down on their cushioned behinds on neat little mats and doing just that, if only because it is a proven balm for their restless minds. To that extent it is rather like blameless FE night class yoga, but with a respectable theoretical basis (meaning the subtle philosophy of Samkhya-Yoga, though they never get quite that far in their cautious armchair explorations). It is a quaint fact that for some, religion is not a way of life but an optimal therapy, demanding nothing much but reading a little comforting tome or two, and with minimum changes in one’s daily routine. None of them even think of the necessary discipline of prayer, or attentively reading sacred scripture, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or anything else. It is the equivalent of wanting to be an accomplished musician but never doing any practice, or ditto a cabinet maker but never studying zealously their craft, including knowing anything at all about wood. It is all in the head, and typically the cleverest of intellectuals will fail to see that the head is something not ideally equipped to understand the spiritual. They should reflect that the classical Hindu term for ‘philosophy’ is darshana, from the verb root drsh, meaning ‘to see’, and emphatically not meaning ‘to think’.
I was pushed out to afternoon Sunday school every week as a child, and cordially loathed it. Coming after the bleary joys of the Light Programme and the Two Way Family Favourites and the heavy beef dinner, it was as it were the premature finale of a day I always experienced as purgatory, not heaven. The vicar in his mid thirties had at least three dancing chins and a permanent hilarity, a native jolliness, that was not infectious, and he also had a lacklustre cohort of shy young women aged somewhere between 19 and 23, all without boyfriends, who were his Sunday School teachers. He boasted a new car which was a sign of affluence in the community in the late 1950s, but he preferred to whistle round the village on his bicycle, ringing his bell at everyone he met, whether churchgoer or not, and loudly announcing his presence. His surname was Reilly, which was not a particularly Protestant designation, but he softened things by adding his own nickname, which for wholly unfathomable reasons was Pom Pom. He didn’t wear any pom-pom hat, but it didn’t stop him bawling Pom Pom Reilly at even the roughest group of hard teenage lads, who leered uncomprehending, and once he’d passed gave him a jeering and obscene salute. Ever since that day, my first real experience of the church, I have thought of the clerical milieu as being peopled by the largely puerile and the outwardly sexless. Those Sunday school women, with their pasty skins and their plain faces and their yellow cardigans, had no struggle to be virgins, and no doubt ached for the dignified scenario of optionally dispensing with chastity. As for Pom Pom, he roundly annoyed the village early on, for despite zestfully ringing his bicycle bell, and shouting his name as everyone’s best friend, he chose the treacherous course of sending his two boys to the town school, rather than the village juniors. It meant he had to drive them there every day, and half the village sullenly watched his departure and noted that he did not parp his car as he shot past, and even looked slightly shifty as he drove to a place where the 11-plus passes were at least five times the village quotient. There they wore a smart uniform, and Pom Pom who believed in godly discipline (he boasted that he walloped his boys severely if ever he caught them telling an ungodly lie) had quickly noticed the shabby state of some of the impoverished village kids, and hastily discarded the Christian benediction, Blessed Are the Poor.
Behold the Anglican church in candid summary, exactly as experienced by outsiders. Surpassingly dull, eternally juvenile, far too plain faced and ungainly, whether male or female, to be obliged to wrestle with the problem of abstinence. Which explains why in my late forties, as well as continuing with the village church, I started to attend an impressively remote Debatable Lands chapel where the denomination might have been termed a Free Church. It was a stark eye-opener, inasmuch as there were no dog collars, and the venue was a virtually unchanged nineteenth century country school, you might even say a hedge school, straight out of Thomas Hardy, or the querulous dissenters of George Eliot’s Felix Holt, Radical. This extraordinary place of worship looked exactly like an ancient barn, even down to being stuck out in a small and bumpy field. It had electric lights, but no cooker nor power points nor sockets for preparing food or drinks in the tiny kitchen. The ancient odour was most heartening, a fine, comforting musty smell, and we sat amazingly in what were the original 1820’s benches. Week by week a humble dozen folk listened to a rotating fund of preachers, predominantly male, dressed in tidy suits or very occasionally the younger ones wore denims. They were in turn Evangelicals, Free Church of Scotland (a country of a very different spiritual calibre, lying only fifteen miles off) and Methodists, usually of the Primitive as opposed to Wesleyan kind. For the first time ever I heard speakers who effortlessly knew the Bible backwards, quoting chunks of it without a pause. I beheld the enigma of some preacher whose day job might be a shopkeeper or a town hall clerk, expounding on a single verse of Colossians or Revelation for a full twenty minutes, without drawing breath, as riveting as any charismatic orator throughout.
These speakers in confounding manner, really meant what they said, that is, they preached what they felt, and they preached it from, according to them, the Spirit, or perhaps one might say from the inspired heart, which allowed them a torrential exegesis of a single gospel verse. In conversation, some of them were bashful and barely articulate, and it was nothing short of a miracle that they had suddenly become as fluent as the most famous preachers of yore. One iron proof of their spiritual mettle, was that they were wholly unafraid of the most daunting parts of the Bible. They could expound on Revelation and its apocalyptic fire and passion, unabashed by the hallucinatory imagery, as if they gladly welcomed those blazing eyes of fire and awesome eschatological signs. They feared nothing in Scripture, which was of course proof of their godly fear, and is not the same as profane fear, but is compounded of reverence and respect, awe and adoration. By contrast, an elderly Anglican priest on the abandoned preaching course, had told me one night in the bar with great assurance, that he never had and never would preach on the last book of the Bible.
“Why?” I asked in wonderment.
“No one knows what it means, even the brightest theologians haven’t a clue. It’s all over the place in my view. It’s impossible to expound on it, because it could mean almost anything.”
He was spouting downright heresy, though he didn’t know it, and was indeed an amiable white-haired chap whose forte was half hour sermons about green issues, conservation and ‘custodianship’ of God’s planet. Meanwhile, he often forgot to include the noun God before the planet, and he could arguably have been giving an affable after dinner talk to the Rotarians or the WI. Had I quoted him to these country chapel preachers who wore no badge of dog collars, they would drily have pointed out the obvious, namely that God has no cause to be a deliberate obscurantist. If Revelation is apparently obscure, then reflect the nature of the afterlife is hardly likely to be something akin to a realistic film documentary, given that beyond this world people no longer possess bodies, but only have the refuge of their spirits. This studied avoidance of what is deemed to be uncomfortable, is all too consistent with the temper of the times, and the conflation of eco-politics with religion, and, so to speak, Jesus becoming a fierily outspoken community worker, or alternatively a charmingly tousle-haired bow-tied Tory addicted to the ancient Common Prayer Book and none other, is all symptomatic of a transcendent thickness apropos the comprehension of matters spiritual
That was some excursus, but so too was my absence from the church, a Biblical quantity of 3 x 7 or 21 years. In 1967, a few months after my Confirmation, aged only 16, and turned communist atheist, I ceased to go to church, and did not return until the summer of 1988, when Angie and I went along after the ugly miscarriage. We were both very raw, and after rapidly getting pregnant again, she was terrified of losing what would become our daughter Janie. This was our first experience of a very countrified church, where they all had thick North Cumbrian cadences, and where there was a heaving surplus of warm-hearted ‘canny bodies’. In their sixties in the main, they might even have been our parents, and indeed by handy assimilation became their replacements, especially when they learnt of the reason for our return. ‘Body’, in both Cumbrian and Geordie parlance, means ‘woman’, and ‘canny’ is a resonant Scots and Northern adjective so nuanced and comprehensive, it can mean virtually anything that is admirable. In these countrywomen’s cases, it signified resourceful, affectionate, shrewd, and above all hard working. Each of them might a dozen times a year, bake a trifling fifty scones and fifty tea cakes for a rummage sale, to help secure the church‘s leaking roof. They would stump up for the costly butter, the best ham, the quality cheese, and also produce tasty little quiches, fancy cakes and gingerbread by the lorryload. They would chivvy a church-avoiding husband to man the car park for the country crowds that flocked there, starved of any peaceable non-bloodsport diversion of a Saturday afternoon. All Friday evening, they would scrub the village hall, then purge it thoroughly on the Saturday night. All that on top of the skivvying in the huge farmhouse, and labouring endlessly on the farm itself, and all the cold weather milking and shepherding, when the overworked son was away at distant auctions and the husband so typically was laid up with flu.
This quaint rustic piety was a matter of visible, tangible deeds, and there were none of the fervent public avowals of faith you witnessed from the Free Church adherents at the chapel. The canny bodies would have been far too mortified, just as they couldn’t stand sung services where the vicar sounded exactly like some fluting and pansified Benny Hill. Even when they suffered personal tragedies, the loss of a spouse, the divorce of a son, and maybe cruelly limited access to grandchildren, they understated their sorrow, and never sought nor wished for pity. They said very hastily, there’s nothing to do about it, you have no choice but to soldier on, and if with a full herd of pedigree Charolais, and no man left to help, sure enough they had no choice. They didn’t want bereavement counselling, they saw to the hungry cows who needed them and sought them, when the widows came their way. They understood this thing called ‘bad nerves’, but did not understand that reified totem, Stress, the household deity, a mysterious quantity that floated in the air and dropped malignly on your shoulders if you didn’t watch it. The way to avoid it and shun its power, was to labour every minute that God sent, to crawl out of bed in the winter dark, when at first you would sooner succumb to eternal oblivion. Thus and thus and day by day, and with many small agonising setbacks, you would, with passing time, the only assured balm that is absolutely free for everyone, find yourself an even keel again.
Angie and I would look at each other in our beautiful and tiny North Cumbrian cottage, painted a tender flaking pink, and whose garden was full of siskins and bullfinches, and wonder if we were suffering from creeping brain softening. This was not the dubious courtesy of our weekly worship, but of the ancillary things that came in its wake. Way out in the North Cumbrian Uplands, entertainment options were scarce, so it was as if under tranquil hypnosis we found ourselves attending humble revels like church rummage sales, whist drives, quiz nights, and even beetle drives. Our so called brains did us no good at all on the quiz nights, as even the few theoretical questions, being so monstrously obscure and pathologically precise (how many different sub-species of South Asiatic mosquito have been identified to date?) we both failed miserably. Mostly because she was pregnant, Angie even joined a knitting group and started to click click (and chat chat) industriously for her baby. It was also a deliberate act of faith that the baby inside her was going to see its course. The canny bodies campaigned to have her in the Women’s Institute, though she baulked at that, even if by 1988 it was no longer a somnolent affair, but conducted major campaigns on matters of child poverty and world famine. Yet one night we surpassed ourselves, and chose to visit of all things… a Demonstration of Flower Arranging. Angie loved gardening and adored flowers, as did I, though in my case at an extremely perspicacious distance from any personal involvement. It had been organised by the WI, but was an open event, and the village hall was packed to the gills. Everyone was a red-faced countrified canny body, apart from ourselves, and an agreeable woman of 40 with thick glasses called Amy, who was a classical musician living in a beautiful North Cumbrian farmhouse. She had been forced to stop performing, as her chronic arthritis had got to the accelerating and horrendous downhill stage. Living alone Amy now wore a rigid neck brace, went around on crutches, yet always managed a pungent and acidulous wit. She had just embarked on her treatment of injections of gold, though she snarled comically when we asked after her, and said, exotic as it sounded, it didn’t seem to be doing her any fucking, oops (looking round the blush-red farming faces) good…
The flower arranger, Reggie Albright, was a diminutive man of early forties with a pencil moustache and a permanently hovering grin of possible amusement, though more likely low level vigilance. We were told he was a wealthy local florist, with a chain of shops in Cumbria and South Scotland, though this was the first time I‘d seen him. He was openly and theatrically gay, a patently florid florist, though in a dated 1960s way, flamboyantly queenish rather than permanently hapless, as if to say whatever I do it is a struggle, and you must forgive me and my ineptitude. This was absurdly belied by his skill as flower arranger, which left us blindly dazzled, as he was a self-taught genius. The sad thing was that, living in North Cumbrian obscurity, I doubt he even knew as much. With his unerring choice of delicate colours, his elegant dyed reeds, his wispy ethereal ferns, his deft and casual touches and tiny, fussy and brilliant adjustments, he took every WI breath away. I thought of Japanese Zen and the transcendent skills of all such abstract arrangements, of the allied notion of watchfulness and meditative concentration in the present. Yet we were amongst weather-beaten puce-faced farming matrons in their sixties, in the Debatable Lands, and what price Zen meditation in their singular, lives where the ominous present tense of perennial financial anxiety was definitely best blanked out? Their innocent crimson countenances were confusingly like so many spanked backsides, even though spiritual adepts as we are regularly assured tend to be pale rather than rubicund?
I have omitted something crucial. Reggie Albright happened to have a severe cold and a very sore throat, and had almost totally lost his voice. Hence though his visual demonstration was unimpeded, his ad hoc mincing commentary was given with a ludicrous squeaking echo. Had we been school kids, we would simply have guffawed insolently from start to finish, but the sea of beetroot-faced housewives just smiled at him gently, in the same way they had so easily accepted his gayness. Only one burst out laughing, and that was musician Amy with the neck brace and the crutches, who might in theory have been the best behaved person there. She had once been a music teacher in a giant comprehensive school, and would surely have bawled at chortling, tittering, disruptive youths. She only laughed the once, and it was not derision but helpless hilarity, in the same way she would have laughed at herself if she’d been conducting a class with the voice of a dyspeptic ewe or goat.
It could not go on forever, this honeymoon infatuation with umpteen North Cumbrian village halls, and the innocent activities of all four tiny churches. We stayed with the church but soon stopped turning up at the jumble sales. Never again did we attend a whist drive or a beetle drive or a floral extravaganza. It is right enough as with so many delicate matters, and in so many circumstances. You cannot transmute into a thoroughbred local, no matter how hard you try, for to parody Flann O’ Brien, you have to be an ineffably local local in the first place. We were at root, in-roaders, despite being a complex variant, professional West Cumbrians, amongst the lonely farmers of North Cumbria. Regardless of class and education, those two regions are universes apart. The irony was the canny bodies, the farming women, gladly accepted us as we were, were glad that Angie was a senior social worker, and most impressed that I was a teacher and a writer. They had no possible gripe with either, and the tortuous problem was ours, as we acknowledged we had had more than enough of treacle scones and raffles and treasure hunts… and felt painfully guilty and embarrassed as a result.
But what were we to do? What could we have done otherwise?