24 June 2006

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of, wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark nor even eagle flew;
And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee 1922-1941

Emily gave me a copy of this poem because, she said, she loved it very much and hoped I would enjoy it too. It reminds me so much of her, especially of the times we sat in the green and blue peace and shelter of Wellington House garden - very happy, gentle and precious times.


Oliver's Poem


I will not lumber you with love
nor climb on you to measure you for sins
nor wipe you over with foregivenesses
nor kick your shins.

I know your eyes do not see out of mine
nor are your tears the tears I shed
but I don't care,
for I will take your hand and make a place for you,
because you're there.

Not for some complicated ploy
of pity, piety or private greeds
but for an older, simpler joy,
that, nothing wanting, nothing needs,
except to live.

for, as I see you feel the rain and breathe the air,
so just to know the sun that shines on you
shines on me too.
confirms the sunlight,
makes it sure,
tells us we live, are there.
that now will do,

and asks no more.

Oliver Postgate 1979

22 June 2006


Words per sese mean absolutely nothing. They are merely groups of aural or written alphabetical symbols arranged together in such a way as to indicate a sound or a combination of sounds which those of us who speak or read a common language tend to invest with more or less the same meaning. I think ‘discrimination’, a word many of us bandy around in a fairly indiscriminate fashion, is a rather difficult and possibly a rather dangerous word, whether written or spoken.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary the verb to discriminate in its first meaning is merely ‘to make or see a distinction’, a perfectly neutral action influenced rather often by innocent fancy. I like the colour red, I don’t very much fancy the colour turquoise, so I choose to buy a red jumper and I choose not to buy a turquoise jumper. Unfortunately some tiresome person then comes along and say: “Look at her, she always wears red and always ignores turquoise. She’s discriminating against turquoise. She’s a Turquoiseist!”

Next the politically correct brigade will arrive, write letters of outrage to the Guardian, boycott my tea-parties, hold silent vigils of protest outside my house, found MAT ( Movement Against Tuquoiseism) and generally attempt to ‘persuade’ me into renouncing my antisocial and immoral actions. The MAT might try to justify its campaign by citing the Concise Oxford’s second definition of to discriminate - ‘to make a distinction, esp. unjustly and on the basis of race, colour or sex.’ Its members would, I believe, in this be wholly wrong because they would have omitted from their reasoning the most crucial factor in this equation: my motive for discriminating between red and turquoise jumpers.

None of them ever asked me why I ignored turquoise jumpers. Did it never strike them that I might just, perhaps, simply have noticed that wearing turquoise makes me look like a swept up, faded, wrinkly old leaf which didn’t quite make it to the municipal bonfire? Or has aesthetic discrimination just become a piece of ‘unjust’ discrimination, non-PC? At least in red I still look like an almost vibrant, only slightly wrinkly old plum not yet quite ready for the municipal bonfire. Or maybe I have deeply held spiritual objections to displaying myself in turquoise - for that is the colour of the mystical and malevolent Greater Three-Horned Toad. Perhaps I am severely allergic to one of the constituents of turquoise dyes. One shred of the offending fabric wrapped around my person, and my skin erupts into a dreadfully uncomfortable and hideous purple rash. Are spiritual convictions and medical problems all now to be condemned as non-PC and to be expunged from a properly ordered society?

Ridiculous isn’t it! Like a story board for some warped fairy tale, quite silly really. But not only might this sort of nonsense conceivably happen, something very like it probably will happen. Indeed, maybe it is happening now, only all the sensible people like you and me just haven’t noticed yet.




‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.”
‘Scaramouche’ by Rafael Sabatini

Oliver and I got into terrible trouble once for making a small joke in The Friend about a medical condition from which I suffer. The author of the pompous article which had nudged us into this solecism became quite incandescent with rage that we should dare to laugh about Serious Matters. She wrote to us, and went on at some length listing our manifold iniquities and hoping fervently that we had not done too much Lasting Harm to her Cause. We were not at first exactly amused by this communication - although it did serve as a salutary warning to engage imagination and brain before opening word processing programme - but my bruised psyche was later much soothed by a vision I had of a first Quaker martyr about to be run over by my power chair.

This long ago episode, however, did absolutely nothing to alter my firm conviction that laughter and humour are good for you: they lower the blood pressure, assuage the effects of anger, deflate pomposity and generally restore the equilibrium of the body and of the soul.

Regard these two men -they just happened to be persons of the male gender, nothing sinister in my choice. The first, a very senior cleric and distinguished peace campaigner, I met striding through a meeting hall with what my agnostic and slightly less distinguished peace campaigner partner described as "teeth gritted into a dazzling smile of Christian good humour and loving kindness" spreading unease wherever he looked. The second, an Anglo-Catholic priest I once knew, one memorable Sunday morning in the Sanctuary tripped on his overlong alb up the altar steps, then, burdened with overmuch ecclesiastical iron-mongery and blinded by 'holy smoke', fell down the steps again and finished up on the floor with the Gospel Book clasped to his bosom and his feet inextricably entangled with the base of the Paschal candlestick. He struggled there a second or two in the face of a silent and horrified congregation until he lay back again convulsed with laughter. Everyone laughed, and remembered why they so loved and respected this holy and humble man. Which of these two would you rather sit next to at a dinner party, or entrust with your most intimate problems?

Maybe, as I am reliably informed, there isn't much explicit humour in the Bible, but if we are indeed made spiritually in the image of God, then God himself, herself, itself or themselves must have laughed first and given us an example we should follow. Listen to the chuckle of the beck as it runs down off the high moor or the gentle teasing of a soft wind in the leaves. Look at the sunlight laughing on the tops of the waves or the wide smile of a fenland sky, and be glad.


November Morning


“...Not the intense moment
Isolated with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment.”
T S Eliot: ‘East Coker’

One amazing November morning when the sun shone with that sharp, pale golden, early winter light so clear and pure that you can almost hear the sound of an invisible finger stroking crystal, I rode down to the Harbour and parked myself on the quay. A run of gales and very high tides had coincided and the receding waves had left great lagoons abundant with small fish stranded across the top of the beach.

Three Great Black Backed Gulls were fishing. Even two of these, the largest of our native gulls as big as Barnacle Geese, are not often seen together on the South East coast, so the presence of three of them on our beach that morning was pretty remarkable. Accompanying them was a crowd of eager juvenile Herring Gulls as large as their watching, elegantly feathered white and grey parents, but themselves still wearing their speckled baby plumage.

Each time one of the visitors came out of the pool with a fish, some of the juveniles gathered round with shrill calls trying to harry the huge adult into feeding them. Exasperated, the Great Black Back dropped its fish and, just like a goose, raised its beak to the sky and honked a warning. One of the juveniles, quite unintimidated, darted across, seized the abandoned fish and flew off hotly pursued by the Great Black Back. Another Great Black Back emerged from the pool, fish clamped in beak; the remaining juveniles gathered round, and the drama began all over again.

The action was fast, the dialogue simple, and the villain triumphed every time. It was a lovely piece of natural theatre: the backcloth immaculate, the lighting stunning, the air conditioning superb, and the performance was free - a beneficence from a laughing God.

I laugh too all my small miseries forgotten, and thus by some miraculous osmosis an elderly lady in a wheelchair and a few dozen preposterous seagulls are absorbed into a piece of glory. It doesn’t last, that blinding flash of perceptive lightning - that amount of intensity would be too much for humankind to bear for more than a moment; but the enlightening remains, like a bright golden thread woven into the fabric of memory.


Brownman & Crippleduck

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen: "Anthem"

Edward Greestone did not really like people. Not that he was aggressive or obsessively withdrawn, but he had an air of apartness about him, of being a man who stood always to one side. He was a pale brown man with a palely sallow skin and pale mousey hair, wearing fawn trousers and a brown jacket. He was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, neither obviously happy, nor obviously sad - altogether a man whom no-one much noticed and whom no-one ever knew. He lived in a modest house with a biscuit-coloured front door on the edge of the city at the end of a short track, muddy or dusty according to the season. Beside the neat front gate was a locked box in which the postman left his few letters and on top of which, in the plastic folder provided, the boy with the red cart left his Free Papers.

He worked from his house, something to do with computers, or so it was said by the gossips in the smart terrace up the road into the city. He was a regular church goer, but not to the little Saxon parish church at the end of the city road. Instead, he walked every Sunday across the wide green acres where once the Roman city had stood and was now a huge public park where swans and moorhens swam in the the lake and children played in the stream while their parents sat in the shade of the ruined walls which were two thousand years old. Then he climbed the long hill to the massive Cathedral which dominated both the cities, old Roman and “new” Saxon. He liked the Cathedral. There he could sit behind a pillar, bothering no-one, unbothered by anyone, and commune with his God in his own individual and solitary way. The clergy, both the local Rector and the Cathedral canons, had tried to visit him pastorally, but none had ever got further than his front doorstep from which after a few moments’ desultory conversation they had been politely but definitively dismissed.

One weekday morning he walked down the hill from the Cathedral - it was Ascension Day and he had been to Choral Matins - and stopped at the bridge over the little stream. He could see a red-headed girl of about eleven or twelve with two quite small boys. ‘She should be at school.’ he thought. One of the boys pulled a small loaf of bread out of the bag the girl was carrying. He held it up over his head and shouted excitedly. Attracted by the shrill calling, a group of Mallard ducks clambered up the low bank and, in a wetly glistening feathery herd, hurried purposefully, as one duck, towards a late breakfast. All of them that is except for the last one to get out of the river who hobbled, one foot shrunken and malformed, slowly along the path behind the rest of the group. The children tore up the bread and offered it to the ravenous group jostling and gobbling around them."Crippleduck. Crippleduck!" they yelled at the straggler. As the lame duck caught up with the rest, the boys broke away and ran down the path, pieces of bread still in hand, laughing and shouting to the ducks "Come on, come on, chase us!" The ducks broke into an untidy slow gallop, leaving their lame cousin yet again way behind and still unfed.

Edward Greestone felt an uncomfortable and wholly unfamiliar anger rising within him. How could these children behave with such unthinking cruelty, how could they run away laughing from this pathetic deformed little creature? How was it that the God whose power and glory and love just twenty minutes ago he had remembered and affirmed could allow such wretchedness, such pain, such casual disregard? He wanted to run after the children and shout at them that he hoped one day they would be left behind, that they would be hungry, that they should know what it felt like to be isolated, an outsider, to be in the world but not a part of the fabric of it. But the children had gone, down the path, through a gap in the hedge, lost in the bright sunshine of the morning.

In his frustration he kicked the bridge, and scuffed his well polished brown shoes. The ducks, finding there were no more crumbs to be had, took themselves back to the river, slid down the bank and into the water. They gathered themselves into formation and swam slowly up stream, whistling softly as contented ducks do, eyes bright, beaks busy snatching and filtering. He watched them as they came towards the bridge - eight mallards, a watery squadron as confident and precise as the flight of Hurricanes he could hear thousands of feet above the city. He counted them again. What had happened to the lame duck, why was she not lagging behind? His anger subsiding, he realised that in the water, in her own environment, in her own world she was not isolated, not an outsider, not a lame duck at all. Whereas himself...

He walked on slowly, thoughtfully, beside the lake, across the soft grass under the old oaks, past the lovely eighteenth century houses in their quiet old gardens and the gentrified Edwardian terrace, up the slight rise to the Saxon Church, then along his own dusty lane. The postman had leaned his bike against the wooden fence and was pushing letters into the locked box. “Good morning,” said Edward Greestone, “it’s a nice day.” The postman, who was very big and very black, was amazed by this greeting from a man who in five years had never acknowledged him with more than a barely polite nod. He swung round, knocked over his bicycle, seized his helmet from his head and held out out his hand. “Brother,” he said, “it is indeed a beautiful day.”


19 June 2006

Lady Elizabeth Gull

"John Palmer, merchant, to Sir Edward Gull...
...there is much talk here of the Witch Finder Matthew Hopkins being lately in Norfolk where it is rumoured some 40 women have been seized and tried. We are sore afraid that soone he may be here in Lynn and we must look to the safety of Anne Greenfield the bastard daughter of our servant Alice who being brought to bed of the child this two years since was taken into the arms of Oure Saviour leaving the care of her child to My Lady yr. sister. The childe was born with a redde weal beneath her arm which we fear the midwife who attended Alice may swear to be the Devil’s Mark. Therefore I entreat you to take this child into yr. household....
Kings Lynn, 3rd Aug. 1646”

Sir Edward sent directly for the child to come to his home near Lincoln where his eldest daughter Elizabeth and her nurse would care for her. Elizabeth who was just 20 had been betrothed the previous year to Sir Thomas Delamore of Southwell but in January the baronet, twice her age, had succumbed to an ague and Elizabeth, far from heart broken, had resumed housekeeping for her widowed father and her two young brothers. Anne flourished but, as Hopkins spread his net throughout East Anglia, wild accusations swept like some evil miasma northward across the Fen country to Lincolnshire. There were many rumours and questions asked in the City about the motherless child who recently had been brought so suddenly and secretly from King’s Lynn. Late in the Autumn of 1646 Elizabeth and Anne fled into Derbyshire where an old friend of Sir Edward had found them a cottage close by his estate. Elizabeth, her betrothal ring on her finger, set up house as Mistress Eleanore Gardner. .

All went well for more than two years, but in September 1649 Elizabeth wrote to her father:
“...my minde is muche taken upp with recent troubles. Anne two days since was playing with our hound on the greene beyond the cottage and in their romping her dresse was torne and her red weale made cleare to all. Two of the servants from the Manor saw, and even now are gossiping and questioning Annes birth, my Marryage and all the other detailes of our historye. I chastise them mightilie with my tongue but memories of the witches of Bakewell who were executed fortie yeares since in Derby are very present in mens mindes. I love Anne as if she were indeed my daughter and as Oure Saviour exhorted us to protect His Little Ones I must protect this childe. So I beg of you that Kit who has brought your giftes and gold to us may for a brief time stay with us and assist our removal into Yorkshire where I may by the Grace of God find a safe refuge for us...”

The next letter Sir Edward received from his daughter was sent from Thornthwaite, a small hamlet some miles inland from Whitby high up on the North Yorkshire moors. There she had found a suitable cottage and yet another chance for a new life. But Lady Elizabeth’s most painful rejection of everything she had been brought up to hold proper and sacred was still to come. She had already chosen to abandon her comfortable home, privileged life and expectations of marriage to some wealthy man, children of her own and high social status within the community. She had lived a lie pretending to be a married woman and had had to defend herself and little Anne against the spiteful tongues of greedy and superstitious women and the serious danger of betrayal to witch hunters. Now she believed she must choose between risking the salvation of her own immortal soul or putting at risk the safety of the child she so much loved and whom she saw as put into her care by the God whom she also so much loved.

She wrote to her father in April 1650:
“...The families amongst whom we dwell in this small village are Papists who are ministered unto by Fr. Nicholas Poskett who daily travells the Moors baptysing and instructing the children, bringing the Sacraments most secretly and reverendly to all who desire them. His People have been gentille with us but if we wish to live honestly amongst them and bee protected by them I believe that I must abandon my Protestant Faith and embrace that of the Popish Religion. My Little Maide is so precious to me that I will willingly riske any danger even to my immortal soul that she might be secure in the shelter of this isolated place and grow unharmed into womanhood. All my Joye is in her safetey and happinesse. Fr. Poskett knows of my secrets and Annes troubles and will receive us bothe into the Churche this coming month. I beg of you my dearest Father to pray for me. If you and my Churche cannot forgive my apostacie and betrayal of our Protestant Faithe then I hope and trust that Oure Most Merciful Lorde will see fit to do so....
I remaine ever your most loving and devoted daughter E.G.”

There are no further letters extant from Elizabeth to her father and we have no other record of her. Father Nicholas Postgate was denounced in 1679, found guilty of illegally baptising a child and was executed in York. Of Thornthwaite there is now almost no trace. Only a solitary farmhouse with sixteenth century bricks walls and a few low mounds in nearby fields, where probably cottages once stood, still remain. Anne “Gardner” survived until May 14th 1716 when her name was entered in the Parish Death Register - an entry which in a way may serve as an endorsement of the Lady Elizabeth’s success in her constant and indomitable struggle to make the child’s life safe and long and also, I trust, of her own consequent joy.