How the land lies

Jutting like an orthodontic problem, the rocks of Hutton’s Unconformity are reached along a shingle path from Lochranza, at the crown of Arran. The crooked strata here mark one of several Scottish sites where geologist James Hutton discerned the deep, plutonic processes involved in land formation. Along the bracing coast these are easy to overlook, though Hutton did not. His visit here, in 1787, was an enlightened moment in an era curiously ready to see the world anew – and, by so doing, as ever more ancient than had been supposed.IMG_0808

Discovering the Unconformity was one of many attractions back to this luminous place, where (with a keen eye on ferry times after last year’s crisis) we stayed again at Brae Cliff, the decomposing farmstead inherited by my sister-in-law. Too preoccupied with England after writing ‘Parish’, some cross-border perspective was long overdue. So, abandoning Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, I pulled down instead The Highland Clearances, John Prebble’s vivid (if not uncontested) account of the enforced desertion of highland communities already underway when Hutton was hammering the schist on Arran.

The most striking impression made by this book is of contrasting types of ‘landedness’: that of the clan chiefs and (often English) aristocracy – whose property the land was, yet who appear uprooted from it – and their people, in ‘mystic unity’ with a shared soil of which they owned not an inch. For Prebble, a communist, this was deeply significant. Like most historians, he found in the past what he was looking for – which is not to say that it wasn’t really there, merely to affirm that we perceive those aspects of the truth which our traditions attune us to. The land itself equivocates, and sometimes bears false witness.

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The Twelve Apostles, from an original painting by Nikki Surridge

Nevertheless, even this far south there is evidence of a seismic social shift, discounted forgenerations until Prebble and others had the eyes to see it. Just down from Lochranza, there is a ridge of whitewashed cottages known as The Twelve Apostles, built to rehouse resistant islanders who, replaced on the hillsides by deer, now had to fish for their lives. Predictably, the parish church was complicit in this upheaval. The patronage system, whereby landowners would appoint malleable ministers, inevitably meant the muting of a more radical voice, one that would eventually be liberated as the Free Church of Scotland split with the established denomination in 1843. In the Clearances, it seems as if the main role of the parish minister was to lend moral support, seasoned with eternal threat, to the uprooting process.

Here on Arran, unconformity again broke the surface in 1815, with the appointment by the Duke of Hamilton of Reverend Crawford, ‘a man well stricken in years’, according to island historian Thorbjorn Campbell. His flock deserted the kirk faster than they had the hills, setting up an unofficial alternative in ‘The Preaching Cave’, just along from Blackwaterfoot, our home for Half Term. Learning of this on the last day, I scrambled down the shore to find it, an ecclesiastical Hutton (as I imagined), drawn by the out-of-place.

Such a holy moment when I did: a green, prismic hollow, in whose receding apex leant a driftwood cross, lashed with netting. I preached, naturally, though with none to hear my brief gospel but a few seals and the slick, slate sea.

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Sanctimonious drivel

First published in Strangely Warmed (Bloomsbury 2010)

By far the most enjoyable thing to issue from a more strident secularism in public life has been the enthusiastic airing of some of the most delicious and condescending put-downs the mother tongue has to offer.

Listening recently to BBC Radio 4 phone-in, which had featured some calmly non-flammable comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in whizzed a call bemoaning Dr Williams’ ‘moralistic hand-wringing’. Chances to employ ‘hand-wringing’ with any real vigour ideally require a senior churchman on the receiving end in order to convey the right sense of clammy-palmed paranoia about moral issues. Slip in ‘the good bishop’ before your criticism and the game is as good as over.

There is no point denying it: the church invites the best insults. These, like all the finest abuse, usually come double-barrelled and are extremely satisfying to say: ‘sanctimonious drivel’ pretty much takes the prize here, rolling round the tongue like wine before being disdainfully spat. Its close cousin, the neatly dismissive ‘pious claptrap’ is fairly irresistible, too. If you find yourself held in church against your will, there are few more cathartic things to do than mutter ‘sanctimonious drivel’ darkly under your breath during the sermon. Only make sure your microphone’s turned down.

Happily, you see, God-botherers can also use such fiery darts to lob at our over-inflated brethren. Indeed, whilst Christians have their own armoury against the world (‘filthy heathen’ still sounds rather good, for instance), they have tended to reserve their sniffiest epithets for fellow-believers of a different ecclesial hue. My late aunt, a nun, used to relish telling how my great-great grandfather, an anglo-catholic parish priest, had once been requested to take a funeral for the local Baptist minister, who was on holiday. ‘Would you bury a Baptist?’ they enquired, politely. ‘I’d gladly bury the lot of them’, came the disparaging reply. Touché, old ancestor.

Insults generally aim to make an opponent’s position appear fatuous or eccentric, while simultaneously painting one’s own stance as the acme of objective good sense. Very often, then, they have far more to do with us than those we are criticising, shoving another into the wings in order to stand in the spotlight ourselves. The best ones, however, are not quite so calculated and spring from moral outrage on another’s behalf.

Jesus’ own terms of abuse are interesting here. He did have some belters, usually aimed in-house at the Pharisees, that ‘brood of vipers’, whom he readily labelled ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘blind guides’. This invective erupts most dramatically in the gospel passage known as ‘the six woes’. Jesus, we learn, has been invited back to a Pharisee’s house for a meal. Before they’ve even served the soup, the latter observes that the Lord hasn’t washed his hands properly before the meal. This clearly touches a raw nerve, and Jesus proceeds to rain down a hailstorm of sarcastic abuse on these ‘unmarked graves’ who sit round the table.

After three woes – denouncing the Pharisees’ vanity and neglect for the poor – his flabbergasted host says, limply, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us’. Get away. Jesus – who is just warming to his theme – ignores him entirely and piles on another three woes for good measure. ‘Woe to you, ‘experts in the law’’, he sneers, ‘because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them’. And then – scripture doesn’t record the ‘Pah!’ – he walks out. Salad, anyone?

Given his evident loathing for all the Pharisees stood for, Jesus’ choice ultimately to yield to them is all the more arresting. When the Temple guard came for him in the garden, the logical climax of their feud was Peter’s ear-slicing sword, not the lamb-like submission. The way Christ silently soaks up insults is focal to the ensuing story of his Passion – the gormless mockery of the soldiers, the braying crowd, and, finally, the not-very-good joke hammered over his comedy crown. With the public cheering him on, and everything to fight for, the Nazareth firebrand suddenly allows himself to be stamped out, deliberately losing the argument.

Now, as Quakers and queers have found, there is something genuinely disarming about taking a decent insult and wearing it proudly. But the cross of Christ is something far rarer, and related to how St Paul explains the wrath of God – that is, not in terms of smiting the offender but (far more chilling, this) ‘giving them over’ to what they want. Letting people see the logical end of their action, without divine prevention. As such, Christ’s triumph on the cross is a martial art, letting the enemy overreach and exhaust himself, allowing the full force of the offensive to become the means of its own downfall.

Insults, well-crafted or otherwise, have limited range. Whilst they keep the derided viewpoint at arm’s length, crucially they don’t make it disappear. And although full-throated ridicule of all that is wicked and vain is vital to any good fight, it never really wins, partly because it’s what you are for that enables victory, not simply what you oppose.

The problem for Christianity’s cultured despisers in our own time is that much of what the atheists are for – scientific method, for example – most Christians are not against, and much of what they are against – religious violence, say – most Christians are not for. Christianity – let alone religion as a whole – is such a huge target, sprawling across centuries and cultures, that you can’t help but hit it. Infuriatingly for those who have it in their sights, it is also so big that you can’t help but miss it, like an elder brother who just yells ‘didn’t hit me’ every time you finger-shoot him at point-blank range.

Dry your hands, then, peddlers of pious claptrap, for you know you can take it.

 

 

 

 

 

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All the vain things

fullsizeoutput_1aa9I’ve owned this nice 1968 edition of Pascal’s Pensees for over twenty years: unread, though looking great on various bookshelves. Like other items in my fantasy vanitas (cars, guitars, record sleeves) the style and idea of the thing – where it leads my imagination – is always as attractive as actual knowledge, I have to admit.

But lately I’ve been reading a little of it each day – first thing, between sips of hot tea – and beginning to see why Malcolm Muggeridge often cited Blaise Pascal as one of a handful of luminous thinkers who convinced him that Christianity, shorn of ecclesiastical pretensions, was both reasonable and beautiful. Like a desk drawer of small but potentially useful items, many of which don’t have an obvious purpose or reason for being there, Pensees is really a commonplace book of thoughtful bits and bobs – representing the mathematician’s notes towards a rational defence of Christian belief, which were recovered after his death in 1662.

Accordingly, quite a lot of it seems random and inscrutable, with odd phrases like Pensee number 107 – ‘The parrot wipes its beak although it is clean’ – being included as if requiring no further elaboration. However, just when you think you’re reading a four hundred year old philosophical shopping list, treasures like this turn up:

“Vanity is so firmly anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a rough, a cook or a porter will boast and expect admirers, and even philosophers want them; those who write against them want the prestige of having written well, those who read them want the prestige of having read them, and perhaps I who write this want the same thing, perhaps my readers…”

For Pascal, the internal conflict faced by men and women arises from the duality of human nature: that sense of our own greatness, always threatening to over-inflate our ballooning pride, vying with alertness to our abject failures, which leads so easily to despair. The resulting crisis confounds even those who appear to have everything: a king, writes Pascal, ‘left to ponder and reflect on what he is’, will soon grow morbid without the ‘limp felicity’ of constant distraction.

FullSizeRenderSo much of what we present to the world is just a dust jacket concealing an entirely different story within. The inner discourse, veering as it does between the vain and venal, needs (and secretly longs for) a third voice, telling us we are not God, yet calling us to God. The older I become, the more I realise this is pretty much the heart of my spiritual desire: a longing to surrender my overweening ego to a higher cause, a higher personality than my own. Early morning attempts at prayer, before glancing at the fairground mirrors of social media, consist largely of this – and a huge release it is, too.

Hard on the heels of another Good Friday, with Watts’ unsurpassed line from When I survey the wondrous cross – ‘all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood’ – still ringing in my ears, I long to do the same and increasingly wish (pace Ray Davies) I could be like Isaac Watts. To be put in my proper place: with God in his. ‘I have often said’, writes Pascal, ‘that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room’. He’s right, I think – and if I can do that without gazing the while at my groaning shelves, so much the better.

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Theodolite

tumblr_mrd80s7Zpm1snysgoo2_1280It was an especially soggy Good Friday, the sky grey as a pavement. Nevertheless, the small band of believers went ahead with their customary walk around the parish. This year, the mood was dampened not merely by the weather, but by the fatal shooting, five days previously, of a young man named Ezra Mills, on the Central Hill Estate, the huge (and now doomed) housing project that spreads in brutal beauty around the slopes of Gipsy Hill, South-East London.

With sopping songsheets behind a rough cross, we formed our familiar, quiet crocodile, halting here and there to read a scripture and arriving, finally, at the alley where the lad had been gunned down by six youths, on the day after his birthday. The significance of being on the precise spot, the wooden cross, the impossible command to love our neighbour – all converged in that one bedraggled moment, as we began to sing ‘When I Survey’. A couple of windows opened as the hymn continued, guttering the mood; a pause as all stood still, then mingled down and away.

This experience touched and tagged everyone present: and though we left SE19, a splinter of the scene still snags. Poignant as the brown flowers of a wayside shrine, such ‘acts of witness’ tap deeply into England’s Christian past. The high or standing cross was our original sign of hallowed ground and represents a unique tradition in British and Irish vernacular art. In the seventh century, as English kingdoms were converted, stone or wooden crosses became the local focus of spiritual meaning in most parts of the country, often pre-empting the building of a parish church. At their foot, prayers would be offered, the Eucharist celebrated, gatherings held. Unhoused – a spiritual commons predating later acts of enclosure – the standing cross mapped our places of worship, staking the claim that God was here, known or not.

15-44-100The cross is the church’s point of orientation in time and space: we return there to gain our bearing, our heading. Attractive or repulsive, it has always been magnetic: the Christian’s true north, setting their course for ‘a better place’, raising inevitably parochial sights towards an eternal home. When they survey, the authors of the New Testament find in the cross not only a key and compass, but also their sense of scale, linking locality to the broad, blurring cosmos. They portray Jesus as one pulled apart in a turf war, yet simultaneously drawing together a torn universe – such a stretching claim, far-reaching more than far-fetched.

Viewed through this theodolite lens, human locale becomes both more and less important than we are usually given to think, at once demoted and promoted to glory. And where no memorial, mossy cross stands, there we affirm Christ in our place: under the sky’s slab, propped up like an impromptu signpost for the lost.

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Glovebox Britannica

Up the Great North Road to Yorkshire in the spare, suspended days after Christmas. I’ve long liked the A1 and have been mulling the idea of a songwriting trip up and down it: maybe an album’s worth of tunes, flipping onto the b-side at Scotch Corner.

The way we see places being entirely conditioned by personal narrative, I realise that my love of touring England by car is partly down to that unsung psalter of British topography, The Reader’s Digest AA Book of the Road. First published in 1966 and remaining a glovebox staple for the next thirty years, it was emblazoned with the Association’s new yellow logo, which, along with the British Rail ‘double arrow’ design and Kinneir and Calvert’s iconic road signage, belonged to a mid-sixties typographical revolution that transformed our perception of the domestic landscape. We still don’t picture journeys without them.

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So, in a junkshop in Knaresborough, I was glad to pick up a 1967 edition for a pound – pristine, though lacking the groovy black vinyl jacket they originally wore. In an era when road atlases, if used at all, are flimsy and forgettable, the quality of the Book of the Road’s design and production is striking – especially its ingenious ‘continuity flaps’, map pages whose extra bulge is satisfyingly offset by the half-width sections before and after. A gazetteer of town plans and interchanges, these include a tiny blue portion covering the nation’s motorway ‘network’ – basically M’s 1, 4 and 5 and the A1(M).

When extended, the flaps not only aided navigation but also were crammed with useful information about the culture, customs and scenery of the page you were on. Travelling in September up the A44, for example, you would be alerted to the Chipping Norton Mop Fair, or (if you already possessed a mop), join the likely tailback making for Orange Rolling at Dunstable Downs. With irresistible headings like ‘dark soil’, ‘broken character’ and ‘secretive river’, this commentary sparked the imagination and unfurled the place you were throttling through, turning the metalled miles – and the British Isles – into a land of boundless curiosity. ‘On the road map you won’t drive off the edge of your known world’, wrote geographer Doreen Massey. ‘In space as I want to imagine it, you just might’. In the Book of the Road, you did.

The transfiguration of ordinary routes – from ‘non-places’ (French anthropologist Marc Auge’s term for transient spaces that hold little significance) into what might be called ‘deep’ places, with a texture of memory and association, is usually enhanced by linking human activity to natural ecology. In this respect the Book of the Road also functioned as a roadside primer, illustrating the wild flowers, fossils and creeping things innumerable to be found along the way. In the seventies, poring over these charts in the overheated queues alongside Stonehenge, it seemed to me that Britain was a teeming playground of curlews, cowslips, coypus and and ammonites: an inexhaustible place.

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The Ordnance Survey, whose peerless mapping was adapted for the Book of the Road, are national guardians of this kind of deep topography. Given the soullessness of much satnav space – bleak blocks of primary colour between cartoon routes – it is encouraging that the OS are developing new apps to bring alive the storied landscapes that belong to all. In the meantime, I’m keeping my Book in the MG, and seriously considering restricting my trips to the road system as it was fifty years ago – in antithesis to Google Maps, who only show you paths vehicles commonly go down, so that you miss the ones less travelled. Those, by contrast, will be the only ones I see. Meet you at the mop fair.

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A cold coming

We arose to snow: a great creaking carpet laid over yesterday’s green and grey streetscape. So, unknown neighbours are out, working to the bark and spark of spade on driveway, rallying like a curling team to assist the antic, skimming motorists. A man I have never met before (or since) grins over the gate: ‘hilarious isn’t it? The snow gives us that sense of belonging together’, ‘…which we crave’, he adds, before trudging up the hill. It’s the ‘which we crave’ that stays with me – he probably knows I’m the vicar, but it was quite far to go, for a momentary exchange. Extreme conditions build neighbourhood, little doubt about that. We behave differently when deluged: familiar territory is transfigured, new routes are taken: the myth of independence thawing instantly. Different place: different rules.

According to American sociologist Erving Goffman, prevailing norms of local behaviour tend to be suspended at times of ‘crisis’ and ‘festival’. Parish priests, it strikes me, spend a fair proportion of their time inhabiting these contrasting states – explaining, perhaps, the curious permission we retain to act in public as if it was always snowing. That, in one sense, is the vocation of the local church: to live as if, in Christ, normal service has been permanently suspended. The old has gone: the new has come.

It being Advent, this symbolic blizzard – unifying crisis and festival – will be in the air whether or not the real stuff melts by morning. December deals in belonging, after all: shovels it on in deep, muffling drifts. We become attuned to our displacement with every keening carol, each cultural sign directing us homeward. Snow on snow. And though a cold coming for so many, the path to Christmas is the right one for rearranging our ideas of society. Here along the Surrey Hills – ‘the place where London ends and England can begin’ in G.K.Chesterton’s somewhat miscarried phrase – we have, for several years, engaged in a kind of festive psychogeography called the Oxted Adventure. Every night in Advent, for an hour in the evening, one small space (a garage, perhaps, or porch) opens its doors like a calendar to a gathering of locals. On some nights there is live music, or a seasonal story; on most, the familiar, indigestive blend of warm wine and mincemeat. The Adventure aims to be a journey home by another route, a parish map in the making. This year the North Downs are appealingly portrayed in Tolkienesque style: Middle England as Middle Earth.

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It’s the opening night, but I’m delayed in another small space: a recess in the wall of the boiler house behind Morrison’s supermarket. Here abides Simon – a man become, in the psalmist’s words, a monster unto many. A kind of local portent or parable, Simon made and lost a fortune developing the sizeable homes that decorate the A25, just yards away. Beside an acrid barbecue, attended by Magi firefighters, he now raves in the car park, para oikos.

‘You do not believe, because you do not belong to my flock’, Jesus chides the Pharisees, inverting the usual criteria for religious community. Believing in belonging is an attractive idea, perpetually frustrated by our desire that the world should belong to us (for ‘belongings’), rather than to the Lord, thereby finding our place as the people of his pasture. However, if creation is defined, not by an almighty accumulation, but a kind of divine allowance, stepping back to make space for another, then let it snow, let it snow.

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Small void

‘Men go out into the void spaces for various reasons’, began Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoirs, which I picked up last week. ‘Some are incited by a love of adventure, some have a keen thirst for scientific knowledge and others are drawn away from the trodden paths by the mysterious fascination of the unknown’, he continues. Still others take the chance because it’s Half Term, so we settled for a few days under the vast skies of the Isle of Arran, at a softly rotting farmhouse in Blackwaterfoot.

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I was last there the week Elvis died, our asthmatic Austin Maxi overheating all the way and me stuffed between the suitcases in the boot. Punk’s zenith had somehow reached the Western Isles and I recall the front page of the local paper, The Arran Banner, fulminating at a brick having been thrown though the windows of their office, wrapped in a note complaining at the lack of punk coverage in their editorial. I found this hilarious then – still do – so I was glad to find the Banner resolutely upholding its musical embargo nearly forty years on.

Capsule-shaped, like a human head, Arran appeals by easily accommodating to the imagination. Covering an area roughly that of South London, but with only two principal roads – one a coastal circuit, the other a bisection of its highland and lowland halves – the island is small enough to know intimately, yet large and untamed enough to remain obscure. In the seventies, bikers from the mainland would set up semi-permanent camps on the beaches: our taxi driver to Glasgow was one of them, newly landed from thirty years on the rigs and yearning to be stranded on Arran again, with a just a tent and the scent of two-stroke.

While there, I read The Leaping Hare, George Ewart Evans and David Thomson’s fluentfullsizerender profile of a creature that, more than any other on the British scene, symbolises our need for a kind of domestic mystery, at once familiar and utterly remote. I didn’t spot any hares, though the lairds of Brodick Castle, their hallway a thicket of antlers, appear to have made a decent fist of de-wilding the island: some ninety stags’ heads are jammed onto the walls (or through them – I didn’t check the other side), in an overplayed charade of nature’s conquest. If these monarchs were never secure, happily the red squirrel still reigns on Arran and we were briefly ecstatic to see one scratch up a nearby tree, its fur an ersatz auburn, like Jeff Beck’s barnet.

Staring at the sea’s silver jubilee, we nearly missed the ferry for our departure. With seconds to spare, our party trundled up the gangplank in a steam of apologies, as the moorings untied, leaving behind a small void.

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