The Lost Words event at The Sheldonian Theatre on Friday 23rd November was without one of the strangest and most memorable events I’ve ever been involved with. We’ve been talking about it since July but nothing prepared me for the power of event. I think it staggered us all. I spoke at the event representing people whose relatives had spent their last days at Sobell. You can read what I had to say here
The Sheldonian Theatre is a Grade One listed building on Broad Street in Oxford. It’s not really a theatre in the commonly understood sense. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, best known for his work on St Paul’s Cathedral in London, it serves as the location for Oxford University ceremonies and feels very grand indeed. It really is a charged space and I’m sure that played a part in the power of the evening. Despite living in Oxford for thirty years or so I think I have only entered The Sheldonian four times – once for matriculation, once for graduation, once when someone paid me to put leaflets on all the seats ahead of a concert and once when I heard Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes reading together – an event from which I retain only two memories; the extreme discomfort of sitting on a window sill instead of a bench as it was so overcrowded and Ted talking about hearing the lions in Regent’s Park Zoo roaring from his house not far away. The Sheldonian is simply an extraordinary space to be in – here’s what it looked like inside minutes before the evening got underway.
Jackie’s blog here explains the format of the evening and I very much hope that Dr Rachel Clarke who organised the evening will blog too. I want to use this blog just to think through a little of what I learned and thought about before during and after the event.
Before the show started, so to speak, I gave Jackie and Rob a charm of goldfinches that the children in my Friday class had made – each child had made a little goldfinch and we had stuck them on to a sheet of gold. The gold is actually made from the paper that lines cigarette packs but nonetheless Jackie and Rob seemed genuinely pleased with the gift and we spent a while looking at the birds and choosing our favourites. Rob reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s lines:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
As a humanist I have to find ‘God’s Grandeur’ in the world, through nature, through the environment that humans have made and through human relationships. At times I find that easy and at times I find it very hard. There’s something about Rob and Jackie – just as people – which radiates kindness, love and generosity. I felt that in their books before I met either of them and the contact I have had with them since has only reinforced my feelings that these are special people. The idea of the world being ‘charged’ with glory is exciting – a charge like the charge in a battery is there, resting, ready to be accessed when it is needed. In the natural world, Hopkins is saying, is a power which is ready for us when we are ready to receive it. Of course Hopkins might be thinking of another meaning of ‘charged’ – you can be charged with a responsibility. It is the duty of the world – and Hopkins is just SO excited by the natural world, he is a vital player in the long stream of English nature writing – it is the responsibility of the world to bear God’s grandeur. The themes of the world having a charge of divine power and having a responsibility to bear it gave an undercurrent to my reading of the evening.
Hopkins came into my mind again a little later when Rob spoke about his double vision of the dandelion. ‘spin me, tiny time machine’. Rob said he’d started with the perhaps obvious thought of the Dandelion clock blown by a child to tell time breath by breath. He went on to say that Jackie’s painting of a dandelion seen from above – perhaps as a hovering kestrel might see it – with it’s lion toothed leaves outspread, had taught him to see it as a clock in another way. As a diagram of a clock with limbs reaching out to the hours from a tap rooted centre. Rob said he hadn’t seen it that way before but for me Hopkins line from ‘Spring’ carries that meaning ;
‘When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’
Here again is that life force which Hopkins, as a Christian, sees so vibrantly in the natural world and which I, as a humanist, sense with equal passion. On a good day. On a bad day when grief is laying me low it can be harder for me to perceive that force – to access that charge.
Without a shadow of a doubt, and I know Rob and Jackie would agree with this, the most powerful speaker of the evening was Joe, a man living with cancer who is living a life enriched by a new found love of painting despite knowledge that his time is limited. Joe spoke with quiet passion and power. We felt privileged to be in his presence and to hear his words. Joe told us that he was not afraid of dying – hard enough to say and harder to say with such apparent sincerity – and that the natural world was a great source of comfort to him. Joe talked about laying his hands on the trunk of a tree and feeling its ‘thrum’ – life energy, charge running through the living wood. My wife Diane, who died in August of this year, also said that nature was a solace to her. Diane dug a little deeper, she said that her knowledge that the natural world would certainly carry on unchanged once she died gave her a very steadying sense of continuity. As part of the evening at the Sheldonian we played a song that Diane wrote and recorded with Tom Crook, the music therapist at Sobell house a few weeks before she died. You can hear that song here. It was moving to hear Diane singing her song in the beautiful and impressive surroundings of the Sheldonian. She knew about the event and knew we planned to share her song.
Diane loved the natural world – whether it was the long tailed tits that throng in the old apple tree overhanging the fence at the bottom of the garden or the newts in the pond I dug in its shade – but she could be curiously unsentimental. Rob and Jackie spoke about this aspect of our engagement with the natural world, a great tit is beautiful, a sparrowhawk is beautiful. The moment when a sparrowhawk takes a great tit in the air is beautiful in another way. Not one which is particularly pleasant for the great tit perhaps. This sense of nature as being almost cold hearted – it will continue whether you want it to or not – comforted Diane in a way that was determinedly non-anthropocentric. She didn’t think the Blackbird that sang on the chimneypot sang for her, or that it would mourn her, or that it sang for joy or to praise for it’s maker. We had a long standing joke between us regarding what the birds in the trees would be singing in the dawn chorus if we could understand them “Fuck off! Fuck off! This is my tree! Anyone want a shag? Come over here if you think you’re hard enough.” And so on. And they’ll carry on shouting and yelling when we’ve gone. In life we often think the world is about us rather. As we approach death we have to renegotiate our understanding – soon enough it just won’t be about us. Recognising the aspect of nature which isn’t cute and isn’t kind but which is so very alive takes us some little way along that journey. Joe’s blackbirds with their quizzical look and that odd blue leg that reminded me of Cy Twombly’s colours were definitely that sort of bird. Like The Dude they would endure and they wouldn’t mind calling out your bullshit.
The week after Diane’s funeral I met this sparrowhawk on a road in Devon – she had brought down a pigeon and mantled to guard it’s prey from me and the three other people in the car. Her eye pierced us, she stood her ground.
Now there’s something rather hard here. Rachel asked Rob and Jackie if their engagement with the natural world and the work around the Lost Words had caused them to consider their own mortality. I thought a little of that obscured skull in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ and wondered just briefly if the loss in The Lost Words wasn’t just the lexical disappearance but also a deeper loss. Peered at from the right angle might Jackie’s work reveal a momento mori? Was there a deeper acrostic in Rob’s words saying ‘and this too shall pass’? Jackie was pleasingly direct – ‘yes. And that’s a good thing. There’s always something I need to do. Always a painting that needs to be painted. Knowing your time is short keeps you keen.’ Rob was more circumspect, he said that the work kept him focussed on a much bigger loss. Perhaps he was thinking of the dreadful culling of trees that has been going on in the city of Sheffield of late – I know he has been involved in the ongoing campaign to stop that needless denuding of a great city. Perhaps he was thinking of the global destruction of the natural environment. Perhaps he was thinking of the loss of hope that suffuses our socio-political environment at the time of writing whether it’s Trumps vandalism, Brexit’s sickening freefall, complicity with atrocities in Yemen – the list could go on. I too have been more and more aware of a great sense of loss in the air around me. As a teacher I’m keenly aware of the effects of what the government were pleased to call ‘austerity’ but which I would rather call wilful destruction of the welfare state. It is genuinely hard to remain optimistic and positive. For me finding this loss to be intensifying at the same time as I am facing this period of grief is almost intolerable. We’re it not for my son, my family and my friends (amongst them I count Rob, Jackie and Rachel) I think it would be absolutely intolerable. But the blackbird will still sing tomorrow: not because he sings for me, not because he sings for joy, or to praise his maker – but because he sings and that will do.
Of course there is another loss to negotiate here. The plants and creatures that populate the pages of the Lost Words are not critically endangered species. Some – like the dandelion – are hugely successful and have absolutely made the most of a human dominated world, champions of the Anthropocene. Others, like the otter, have been through a bottle neck in the British Isles and seem to be on the up – I’m told otters are seen in the river not far from the school I teach at in the east of Oxford though I have only seen them in Norfolk. On stage Rob mentioned the huge success of the goldfinch which has become, in a remarkably short time, one of the most common of our garden birds – perhaps due to the expense gardeners are prepared to go to in order to provide them with expensive niger seed. Despite this good news we are living in a time where creatures that were once absolutely common and a part of every day experience are becoming less and less common. Numbers of hedgehogs have crashed disastrously in recent years to the point where one wonders if the species still has a future in Britain. The goldfinch may be prospering but other garden birds have become so scarce they might as well have disappeared. I remember the starling murmuration we used to see in Leicester Square each evening, in the heart of London and unremarked by most who passed through the square though always fascinating to me. Now such a surging, whirling, melting thing is worthy of a pilgrimage to the cold heart of Otmoor a few miles to the North east of Oxford (a strange and powerful landscape threatened by construction a corridor route through to Rob’s home town of Cambridge). Loss is all around, politically, socially and in the urban wildlife of our own back gardens. The blackbird that sings on the chimney and which seemed to Diane – and which perhaps seems to Joe – to be such a sign of the permanence of the flinty life force is perhaps not as safe as we think it is. I am quite sure that Blackbirds are not as common in our area as they were a decade ago. Is this another species which seems unquestionably common to us but whose song will seem as distant to our children as the nightingale is to my generation?
More than once on Friday reference was made to walking under a sky full of larks, that power which seems to ‘rinse and wring’ the ear. I teach at Larkrise Primary school – so named we are told because the first head teacher, Mrs Whitely, driving up to the school when it was under construction would surprise skylarks on the school field who would rise up (little astronauts) and sing. We have not seen or heard skylarks around the school in my fifteen years on the staff.
The deeper loss beyond The Loss Words was a theme in my short part of the evening. I referred to Diane’s loss of speech prior to her death at Sobell House. Her loss of speech only happened in the last two days or so of her life. It was quick. Her last sentence was ‘I hate prunes’. Diane’s loss of speech hit me hard. Remember I knew her first through her letters and her songwriting. I fell in love with Diane’s language before I knew her. Losing language does feel so very close to losing the breath of life. In Diane’s case one came very close after the other.
We were blessed that Diane’s last few weeks and days were so well and wisely managed by the wonderful staff at Sobell. I bore witness to some of that in my talk – particularly to the work of Tom and Neale both of whom enriched Diane’s life so much in her last months. I regret that I didn’t make reference to the staff who opened their hearts to the possibility of friendship and connection in her last weeks knowing that the friendship would not be long and that its end would bring heartache but who, nonetheless were true friends as well as professional carers – how they do that again and again through the months and years I cannot begin to imagine. When she awoke in the night Diane was sometimes disorientated, scared and distressed. A nurse would sit with her, hold her hand, chat and maybe watch an episode or two of ‘Brooklyn 99’. These are special people. I pay tribute to them now.
Although the great loss that Rob alluded to was there, for me at least, as an undertow throughout the evening it did not cancel the joy of the evening. I was very aware of huge love in the room. At the reception afterwards and throughout the weekend I have been astonished again and again by the number of friends who were in the Sheldonian Theatre and bearing witness to the event and to the power of the Lost Words. Some knew I was speaking and came in part to support me. Others had no idea I was to speak and must have been sorely amazed when I stood up – I hope it wasn’t too much of a shock. There is an aspect of the natural world which is not biological, not living and it ran as surely through the evening as plants and animals and as surely as friendship.
The tide of the event turned when Rachel spoke of her father’s death and of the stone that Rob sent him from the arctic circle. In Diane’s last weeks Rob sent Diane two beautiful rounded stones that he’d picked up on the beach at Orford Ness and which seem to contain galaxies (we know their atoms were put together in the hearts of dying stars) Jackie sent Diane a pebble from Pembrokeshire on which, in gold leaf, she had inscribed a labyrinth. For a while Diane pushed those pebbles to and fro, up and down the garden and into the woods in the little carrying compartment beneath the hinged lid of the wheeled walker I mentioned in my talk. These unliving things of the natural world can hold – yes, presumably through the power of the human imagination – a good dose of Hopkins’ charge of grandeur. The mineral speaks to the spirit even when the Blackbird fails. During the Q&A section toward the end of the evening a member of the audience (I almost wrote congregation) told Rob about a fossilised twig that he had sent her. The twig had metamorphosed, alchemically, through it’s process of preservation into some strange new compound which, left in the oxygen of the air in this woman’s study, had spontaneously combusted. This extraordinary and unexpected contribution to the running current of storytelling in the evening underlined the life in the land. Hopkins charge – not under the divine command of God but wild and of itself – and content to burn if burning was how it expressed its ‘isness’. Rob reminded us of the deep time of our planet – deeper than the time of the blackbird which sings on the chimney and deeper than the time of the oak tree which thrums through its centuries. In an aside he mentioned his great respect for stratigraphers, those remarkable earth scientists who map the layers and levels of the rock making up our world and thereby give us insight into the long time of our planet. A timescale in which life itself is a newcomer and in which humanity with its art, culture, ritual and belief is a barely a blip. In the record of this deep timescale Diane’s life, my life and the lives of the people in the Sheldonian Theatre last Friday will pass without making a mark.
Jackie conjured an otter from water and stone. And I think I’m getting close when I say that for Jackie an otter is fairly close to being water with a spirit (pour your outer being into water). Water came again in my talk (the ocean in Diane’s treasured story of Sere and the Mosque Under the Island, it’s absence in the waterless seasons, the subaquatic light of the woods, my river swim) and, powerfully, in Rob’s choice of ‘Where Water Comes Together With Other Water’ by Raymond Carver.
I love creeks and the music they make.
And rills, in glades and meadows, before
they have a chance to become creeks.
I may even love them best of all
for their secrecy. I almost forgot
to say something about the source!
Can anything be more wonderful than a spring?
Water seems to be alive, is not alive, travelled to our planet on comets, is older than life, is the bearer of life and progenitor of life. Water running with rock is the very stuff of life whether in the mountains or in the tame English river I rejoice to swim in. When Jackie grinds her Sumi Ink she is grinding the ash of pine needles, as an alchemist she grinds making the black blacker and mixes with gin clear water taken from a creek, rill, stream, spring and conjures the otter or other from the paper. On the mantel now I have a pair of hares Jackie conjured in the Sheldonian on Friday. With her combination of experience, wisdom and deep humanity she has allowed the water to carry the grain of the Sumi through the fibre of the paper in such a way as to create a galaxy in the hair and flesh of the hare. Jackie, I am quite convinced could conjure the auroch, the mammoth, the great bustard, and have them breathe before us.
Friday night absolutely knocked the stuffing out of me. The sense of the great loss had been hanging over me through the week and came to a head in the Sheldonian. Thankfully friendship and love carried me through that and to a place where water, stone and great human spirit found a different sort of permanence. For me the night was some sort of ritual that carried me from one place in my grief to another. As yet it is still mysterious but I am confident that, like water, it will find a way.
(I am aware this does not make much sense – if I get any further I shall come back and update!)