Hanging out with the Holy Rollers

Below (when I’ve finished wittering on) is an extract from Killing Hapless Annie. I think I can get away with offering it here! This bit’s about the attempts of its protagonist to find God, or at the very least to find a church. I have refracted my own experience (but not necessarily events at which I was present) through its description of a religious encounter. But I want to offer a counterpoint, drawn directly from my own experience yesterday, to this.

For reasons that shall remain opaque, or at least seen through a glass darkly, I spent this Sunday with Benedictine monks in their monastery (well, obviously; it’s where they live). That will probably sound like the scenario for a ‘Carry On’ film and you would be partly right about that, because they actually were quite saucy when they got going. I watched them as they conducted and participated in their Sunday service; there were only six of them, but they filled the chapel, devout and hands extended. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were brimful of joy. That is what they were.

After the service, I saw that prayers for my family were listed in the nave and I had to face the wall because, from within, came a big wall of cry. It was the sort of cry that I could not have stifled.

I wandered around their gardens – beautiful places, with the vista of open fields beyond; in the long grass were red campion and snapdragons: it was, to quote W.B. Yeats, a ‘bee-loud glade.’ As I’ve said before, I see metaphor in everything; sometimes, I look at the natural world around me  and I wonder if I am missing its language: that in front of me is the biggest metaphor of them all. Everyone, I think, wants some sense of meaning; at some point – or at multiple points – perhaps everyone experiences what is commonly referred to as an existential crisis. I might be wrong. For some, meaning is in no meaning; that is a meaning in itself, I might argue. Why should an atheist not use the language of grace?

At lunch, not today in silence, they laughed and didn’t stop; they had laid a camelia by the side of my plate, just for me – not because I was special or important, but because they noticed things. And Father Christopher (not his real name) said, ‘Beauty and happiness. Those are the routes to faith. And I am mad for beauty.’

It can’t be an easy life in some ways. The Benedictines’ life is founded on stability, but that means a repetition and, potentially, a lifetime enclosure – which is its own challenge. But I am coming to think that the state of happiness rather steals upon you. Perhaps it isn’t about searching for its roots, but about letting the sense of our demanding individual self slide away. I loathe with some uncertain passions those recycled ‘New Thought’ books, such as The Secret, with their emphasis on levering things towards oneself; with their drive towards consumption, with their anti-intellectualism which insists that the universe exists only to be bountiful to us as individuals. I wonder whether we find ourselves when we let go; when we surrender our greater selves. And that is where we find faith.

I say, I wonder. That is what I am doing. Wondering. This is no conversion on the road to Damascus.

And anyway, I can’t live secluded. I swear way too much. Below, I’ve got from conversion scenes, to orgasms with Albert Camus, to cake-making…..Here’s the extract from Killing Hapless Annie: it’s from a chapter called, ‘Hanging out with the Holy Rollers.’ PS: the bit about writing to Tony Benn and Glenys and Neil  and making rock cakes for CND protestors – absolutely true.

HANGING OUT WITH THE HOLY ROLLERS – FROM KILLING HAPLESS ANNIE

When Annie was fifteen, she struck up a friendship with a boy in a Christian fellowship. They used to have what she considered were extremely dry romps in the back of his Ford Escort and he was a great fan of the Conservative party, which Annie, writing a Christmas card to Tony Benn every year, asking Glennis Kinnock for advice on politics and boys (Glenys said, ‘Neil and I advise sticking with Labour and only courting the Welsh lads because they’ve got fire and sense. Tidy.’- which was fine by Annie) and making rock cakes and mufflers for the women protesting at Greenham Common, instinctively had a hard time reconciling with being, well, of God. It meant instead, ‘I am a wanker and I don’t care.’

The boy’s parents were kind and thoroughly respectable but had an unsteady relationship with immigrants, gippos, lefties and feminists, all of whom they tended to besmirch over a Sunday Roast. But the boy – let us call him Ichabod – and his respectably fascist parents brought her along to the Sunday morning gathering.

Now, Annie really tried, but then, as now, she is repulsed by Christian rock, being more of a fan of the censer, the dirge-like hymn and the furiously non child friendly service. It is like a phrase of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted: ‘I don’t want to go on a pilgrimage to enjoy myself, Father: I want to have a miserable time.’ This is exactly what Annie wanted from a church: to be penitent; uncomfortable – and for it to be very very long and with clouds of incense. She thought that all the twangy guitars and baggy bass were simply too joyful: it sounded like a Bon Jovi concert, but it was less funny and entirely lacking in camp and Jon Bon Jovi’s tight arse. And as for ‘Kum ba yah’ with an acoustic guitar! The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end – and not with pleasure. There was much groaning and mumbling from the congregation, however, so Annie launched herself into the song, feeling sick but still wanting, in some way, to feel the same happiness the others seemed to feel. But it didn’t work.

The service worked in crescendo and diminuendos and with each ascent and descent, arms were raised, tears were shed, sometimes a body writhed on the floor and had to be helped up and everywhere people were speaking in tongues. To hear the language, if we call it this – a gift of the spirit – excluded her. She had no sense that she would ever ever be able to do such a thing. She plucked up the courage to ask someone about it and was informed that this gift could come to her if she truly believed. Like a child she screwed up her eyes and willed herself to, but no: week after week, nothing. Ichabod took her to his pastor, who sat her down on the velour sofa after tea and custard creams, with more Christian rock gently and painfully playing in the background and said,

‘Prepare, sweet child, to receive the Holy Spirit, as Ichabod did.’

All Annie could hear was the traffic outside and all she could think of was the fact that the velour sofa was a bit slippery and a bit squeaky and also that she had sat on a rather damp dog toy and it was digging into her arse.

Opposite her, above the gas fire with its fake stone fireplace, there were several wooden ornamental Name of Jesus jigsaws. Annie knew, in glancing at them, that the jolly little wooden ornaments irritated her. It wasn’t their fault: what she would have preferred, rather than this bright and optimistic room, with its zealous central heating, was a sepulchral cold and damp: a hard seat and some properly Catholic pictures of Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns and holding up the stigmata. Pine Christian knick knacks and all the rest of the twee God stuff just didn’t hold or enthuse her in the same way, but she found it hard to discern whether that was owing to an aesthetic predilection or a spiritual one. Perhaps Santa Maria had been right about the baby-in-the-bucket: because her daughter now entertained this ungenerous kind of thought.

‘Who do I ask? What can I do?’

Annie had a brief conversation with Dante; he had rejected her before, but she asked again,

‘Who will be my guide? How will I go and what will I see there?’

And up came Dante into the stuffy room, gently telling her to make the journey and come back through her weird Annie and Hapless Annie world to glimpse something else,

‘Yes I am here! I give up! If you will leave me alone afterwards, you can borrow Virgil; he will guide you. Remember these words, Annie, as you go’:

‘To get back up to the shining world from there

My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care

To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars…’

Then suddenly, with Annie thinking of how it would be to see something beautiful and know that it is ok for you to look at it, Dante was gone and the hand on her arm was not that of Virgil, but of a pastor – sweating; urging and mouth breathing heavily like the nasty dentist of her childhood:

‘You might feel it like heat, or get a buzzing in your ears. But feel it you will.’

There were no stars to see, no hidden tunnel to find and access or aperture to behold as the pastor spoke tongues and hissed all over her. Annie shuffled on the sofa and tried to shift the dog toy from under her left buttock and wondered if the pastor was making the whole thing up. The tongues sounded more like Esperanto than, say, Hebrew or what she imagined Aramaic might have sounded like. But she felt mean for having the thought and tried to dismiss it.

‘I know you feel it. I can see it in you. I am your guide; your conduit. Do you feel faint, loose limbed or dizzy? Ohhhh Spirit we welcome you.’

It sounded more like the séance she had once been to after a village show in The Land beyond the Sea, the Ohhhhh recalled the orgasms she’d seen on forbidden late night telly and tried to emulate with Albert Camus behind the sofa. Now Annie was getting restless (plus she was suppressing a snigger). So she said,

‘Yes to all those things’ as the glasses shuffled on the sideboard and the pastor announced that the Holy Spirit had been in the room with her and had entered her and we must all now rejoice.

The pastor laid her hands firmly on Annie’s head again and announced that again she might feel a kind of heat – or maybe the buzzing thing. Then she abruptly released her hands and it was all over, with a lie. Well, she had been very hot but that was because the central heating was jacked right up.  On the way out, verily skipping with the Spirit’s presence, she recalled painfully a particular section from Philip Larkin’s ‘Faith Healer’ and walked home, feeling lost and all the way there dreading a holiday, to begin that night, in The Fucking Caravan. She wished that hands would come, ‘to lift and lighten.’ Annie became acutely aware that this early adventure with the Pentecostal church did nothing to dull the ache she felt. It was the same lonely thing that had her scurrying for the bookshelf and The Wind in the Willows when she was younger or, for that matter, tracing through adequate space between the objects on the colour table in her bedroom. The impulse had been the same:

‘In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache..’

Later, in attempts to understand and feel what the others feel, Annie tried regularly to go to Church of England services, but there was a sense of a club; a group of people with whom she could at best flirt and acquiesce. Some of them were terrifying and territorial women who didn’t like her children. Or possibly just didn’t like her. She tried with a powerful but ultimately impotent insistence to be one of them: to feel the presence of God. But it never came. She tried to understand The Bible from an intellectual and theological perspective; she met immeasurably kind true believers, but nothing shifted the immense slackening ache; at its best it was watching the comfort derived by others that kept her trying – but were they deluded? Just desperately clinging to something that Camus would have suggested you slough off – and that after terror, there should come liberty and so Virgil, with Dante smiling kindly alongside, as he wrote him, would show her the firmament?

Chillies, rampant bell ringers and some amazing interviews to come!

In a diverse week, I was interviewed by ‘The Sun’ for an article on miscarriage (I also talked a bit about genes, you know), I wrote copy on Kashmiri chillies and what Rogan Josh was all about for a wonderful local company and I decided that one of the characters at the wedding day scene in Killing Hapless Annie was too similar to a ‘real’ person  – and so changed them into an aggressive wedding day bell ringer, cruelly thwarted by Annie’s subsequent rejection of him after a spot of post-evensong pleasuring in the bell tower. I also wrote to the AQA examining board because I got so excited that someone was imaginative enough to set some Samuel Beckett as an unseen text in Thursday’s A2 Literature (spec A) exam.

BUT MOST EXCITINGLY,

….I asked some début novelists if I could interview them for this blog. First up will be Joanna Barnard, who has been so generous with her time. Her novel, Precocious, which was the winner of The Bath Novel 2014 award, gained her the agent Juliet Mushens (who also represents Jessie Burton, author of the best-selling The Miniaturist – which I recommend that you read) and subsequently four publishers bid for her book. It’s out next month with Ebury: here’s the synopsis as posted on The Bath Novel page.

NOVEL SYNOPSIS:  As a schoolgirl, Precocious’s Fiona Palmer has an intense crush on Mr Morgan, her English teacher. She writes stories, poems and plays for him; he praises her talent and offers a glimpse of what life might have to offer beyond her council estate. The crush develops into a relationship which ends badly.

The novel opens with a chance meeting between the two fifteen years on. Morgan seems once again to offer a form of escape and they quickly begin an affair. A young woman visits Fiona, seeking her help in prosecuting Morgan who she claims abused her at school and Fiona finds she must re-visit her own version of the past.

Can’t wait. Back soon with an interview!

Sea poems – a submission

Just occasionally, I write poems. I have always loved reading poetry and, as a teacher, working with it, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried to write myself. This week, I wrote three poems, all based on experiences, of which I have told in both literal and rather more allegorical terms, in Pembrokeshire, which is where my family is from.

These poems were for a submission to an anthology of poems on ‘The Sea’. I was thinking, in the first, about  how landscape, water and journeys can rejuvenate a tired soul; the first line recalls both The Odyssey and Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Thalassa’, which is a favourite of mine.

In the second poem, I was thinking of forbidden journeys and how one person’s adventure is not another person’s; also, about how the sea is both dangerous and beautiful and how it calls to one. (The title recalls a phrase of Dylan Thomas and, more broadly, is a nod to his syntax – which I love and feel in my bones.)

The third poem looks at a particular place, my grandmother’s house, on the Cleddau estuary. I was thinking about how I wanted things and people back, about the multiple bereavements I have experienced, how I wished I could have shown her more of the world, gone out to sea with her (and she was, I remember, not one for the sea, preferring the creek and the estuary and the waves from a distance) and how I sometimes feel sad that places I have known all my life get their rougher edges polished off and prettied up, just so.

Sea Poems 
‘Cast out, my broken comrades’
St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.
It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –
And tumbled down through navy depths
And we were free, unbroken: still.
‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’
‘Oh never fill your heart with trawlermen’:
My Nanny told, then told: ‘You want
A man with both feet on the ground –
A man with roughened nails, from
Dirt and labour on the land,
Not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
Of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
Of danger in the stolen hull,
Of silver, limned above your head,
While thwart hands toiled through the night,
And washed me up and brought me home.
I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;
I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
The storied depths of sea and sea –
Limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
A man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
Your sailors leave you high and dry,
They catch and throw and pack in ice
The keenist heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
Of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –
She didn’t feel the azure pull,
The mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
She died a desiccated death, in clod
That choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
We drew the finest catch that day.

 

 ‘My grandmother: the Madonna of the Cleddau’

The sea coast was too far for you;
To keep inland was your advice,
Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:
Stay cloistered on this estuary.
Madonna of the Cleddau, come:
Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,
Retroussé  nose and powdered cheeks:
And born of earth, not briny downs.
You birthed eleven, stood back up,
With apron on and sleeves rolled high,
Delivered livestock, lipstick on,
With plaintive songs of field delight.
But, round the wall, the sea began,
Spoke not to you: you had no thought
To jump and best a warmer wave;
A voyage out was lost on you.
What did you care for them or theirs?
Madonna’s night world of the quay
Had supernatural force: the owls,
The rustle of the hawk, black elms,
The screech and call and elsewhere sound.
Such pale wings drew on navy sky
As you looked out across the flats
And thought that this was world enough,
The kelp, the wrack was only stench.
I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:
The summer quay was bunting dressed,
The village pub all polished up,
No gossip, snarling by the bar.
A ‘Country Living’ August snap,
All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,
Sent gentry, as you might have said.
And rag and bone man, gone to dust.
Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:
I sing to you from farther shores:
I wish that you had gone to sea –
We could have basked there, you and I.
It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods
Could not be altered, made anew.
I look at Cresswell now and wish
The sea would roar and cry and break
The tidy walls, the altered beds,
Bring wrack and shells to grace the walls
Where mortar tidily restrains.

The Snowflake Man

Although I am currently working on Killing Hapless Annie, I do have something else simmering away. I am not yet sure if this is something which will – or, in fact, should – come to fruition, but I am enjoying thinking about it. To start me off, I wrote a draft – very DRAFT – synopsis of what it was I thought I wanted to write; then, to begin exploring its subject, I wrote a handful of poems. I’m sure this is an unorthodox method, but think of it as scribbling. Much of it will get crossed out. The thing that is so very different from Killing Hapless Annie is that, there, I wrote about what I knew; here, I am writing about what I want to know. Does that make sense?

Anyway, may I introduce one of my heroes? He appears in Killing Hapless Annie (he’s one of Annie’s, the protagonist’s, imaginary friends), but because he’s shy and apologetic that he’s not a man of letters or for company, he gets a room of his own.

The Snowflake Man

In 1898, a young boy called Wilson Alric Bentley began watching the snow fall around the family farm in Jericho, Vermont; he watched it with an unusually rapt attention. He thought about its composition, about where it came from – about its auspices in both meteorological terms (although he was likely unaware of that word just yet) and those more divine: how could it be that something so pretty should fall so casually? Was it part of a conversation with God and creator – a dialogue which we could not translate and construe? The young Bentley also watched rainwater, seeing it composed in rivulets and torrents, looked at dew as it settled in exquisite beads and watched as frost formation drew delicate shapes across windows of ferns and feathers on the windows of his farm. But it was with the snow that Bentley was most in love: he wanted to understand how and what it was and to look at it more closely. That journey of discovery, separate and loving, is the story of The Snowflake Man. Times came and went; others laughed, but Bentley kept on watching the snow – and he remained the devout watcher of the skies until just before his death.

Bentley’s mother understood her boy’s fascination; his father thought him foolish and possibly unmanly for finding some diversions when, on the farm, there was much practical work to be done. That boy wrote, fifty five years later, that everything he was and had ever done, he owed to her – because she saved and showed considerable devious acumen in presenting her son, aged seventeen, with a microscope and then a camera. Over the next few years, Bentley, working alone in the woodshed, developed the science of photomicrography as he learned to connect the camera to the microscope and photograph the tiny snow crystals on his slides. The results were exquisite and remain, to this day, the fullest and most extraordinary collection of stunning snow crystals – of a myriad filigree stars, strange tiny pillars with hexagons at either end; things possessed of an inchoate beauty and, as Bentley wrote, ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’

When Bentley wasn’t photographing and cataloguing the snow crystals, he made fine studies of the frost formations and patterns of dew – looking at its beads strung along spiders’ webs; tying down a grasshopper atop a blossom overnight so that he could photograph the creature bejewelled with the dew. All this he did while remaining a farmer, playing his trumpet, providing holidays to city folk of slender means: he quietly became a world authority on snow crystal formation and, through his articles and published copies of his photomicrographs, became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley’ – or sometimes just ‘The Snowflake Man’. He saw and entertained worlds others merely glanced at: he was a humble, absorbed genius.

In The Snowflake Man, the reader is made an offer: we have the extraordinary images of the snow crystals he recorded; we have some letters and the transcripts of some interviews and the texts of articles he wrote for meteorological journals as his work became known. But here is the story that remains to be told, because we do not, yet, really know him. The Snowflake Man offers you a story of his life as he sat for fifty winters, alone, in silent thought and study. It explores intriguing questions: who were the three impressive women in his life – one ‘Mina,’ for whom he once scratched ‘Window frost monogram, Mina’, a beautiful but timid declaration of love to the girl the neighbours called ‘sassy’? The story ponders how does an individual can sustain, over a lifetime, a brilliant interest in something others – even his own father – called foolish? Bentley saw in the snow crystals a numinous, spiritual quality: he saw them as a metaphor for heavenly life. The book unfurls a tale of a boy mocked, an interest passionately abided by, of loneliness and love lost and found and celebrates in its story that it is Bentley who is also a metaphor – for those who were laughed at, chided or mocked for what they believed: the Snowflake Man never gave up and the book that is named after him seeks to introduce a greater number of readers to him for the first time. For his is an extraordinary story.

Four poems for Wilson A Bentley (1865-1931)

Horae

How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape –

Which seems to say, “I am the first

You are the last, to see me in my perfect form,

The only man to sit and wait

For what this moment must become.”

The snowflake falls; he catches it

On worsted cloth of deepest black:

It takes a place – but not alone,

For, ferried from beloved sky,

The crystal specimens collude

To give a pattern to a world

Through Vermont’s still and patient man.

For fifty years he sits and holds

The architecture through his glass:

Dendritic crystal, needle fine,

A bullet, hexagon or flower.

He does not mind if they should laugh

At Sisyphus in snow and ice.

So all is well, but glances ask:

The man with camera, microscope –

With evanescence in his heart,

Is he lonely, sat out there,

With slide and board for hours and hours?

A splint of broom to hold each one –

The snowflake man who gathers up

Each tiny plan to hold it dear:

It will not come again to us.

The horae, hours of prayer or joy,

But not with words, this silent man:

His goddesses the six point stars:

He sits and worships, reverent still,

A lucent world and what it tells.

He checks the hoar frost and the glass

To see the curlicues of line –

The ivy leaf or comfrey stem,

The miracles of build that come.

He  does not care to go, for now,

Beyond the cloth, the hands that serve

To show us all a myriad frames

Which coalesce within his grasp.

How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape

Which seems to say “I am the first,

You are the best to see me in my perfect form.”

“Window frost monogram Mina”

Mina, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Mina – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Mina, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and went away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

The evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

For you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

Spoke truth to us – that you could stay.  The frost had crept along the span

To show you how this foolish man had said the most that he could say. And then

I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke:  my love; my one;

My word –oh mono gramma, mina gramma. Hush – a clumsy, unschooled man.

When I essayed another length to keep you here – pellucid worlds for us to share,

Yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

The shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

Was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

A simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.

Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want an artless snowflake man?

 

In Jericho

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, of Jericho on winter nights:

The sweets of patient maple taps, a sugar house and amber lights

Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms; please do not break the splint of broom,

But hold the snowflakes page by page, arranged as I have left them now;

Consider this – why should they be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

In nature’s fragile crystal frame I see a world beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, brook and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

Mother: snow queen

My mother in her housecoat grey;

Her deep set eyes and sunburned face

Were set against the world that day:

A year of  stringent, creeping grace –

She would provide by hook or crook

A camera for her foolish boy

By winter next. If all forsook,

That should not vex her, seeing his joy.

My father laughed and thought me weak

To study crystals, quite unmanned;

My brother saw me fey and meek:

We must provide and work the land.

But Simple, gifted with such hope,

Sought fine connection, lens to slide –

With camera and microscope

The flake and image to elide.

The photomicrograph crept through:

I tweaked its edges; sharpened; limned.

Arranged it with five thousand new

And held my breath as beauty dimmed.

Still father mocked, but mother saw

The useless craft would last a life;

She saw her boy as metaphor

For human spirit; outpaced strife.

And she could see the shapes I held –

My inscapes in that freezing cage;

And she could know the transient meld

I had transported to the page.

So inchoately grasp the words

Formed by the boy who took her name,

Let us release them – free as birds:

No two snowflakes are the same.