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In Strasbourg — Clearing the Confusion.

29 Oct

I’ve just got back from a city break in Strasbourg, with my wife, Chris. We both were celebrating birthdays and mine was a significant one, so we went away to avoid the dreaded surprise party or, even worse, a trip in a hot air balloon or a free parachute jump. It proved to be a very interesting and attractive destination, albeit one that seems to sow confusion and even controversy in some people’s minds. One friend thought I was going to Belgium. I don’t think geography was ever his strongest subject! Others couldn’t make up their minds whether Strasbourg was in France or Germany. It sits right on the River Rhine, which forms the border between these two countries.  To be fair, when we were there, all the street names were in both French and German. It is actually the capital of Alsace, which forms part of modern France, but for a lot of its history, Strasbourg has been a German city. Much of Alsace is Elsassisch-speaking country, a German dialect known as Alemannic, which has waxed and waned during the region’s mixed up past. Today the city and its province are a fascinating mixture of the 2 cultures. But why is it a controversial destination for some? Well, that’s because it’s the site of important European Union institutions, namely — the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament. In the UK, which has voted to leave the EU, such institutions are regarded by some as a waste of British tax-payers money, especially as the MEPs have to travel between Strasbourg and Brussels on a regular basis with all the expense that that entails.

We travelled by rail from the north east of England, via London and Paris, our trains getting faster and more sophisticated as the journey progressed. The idea was to lessen our carbon footprint, compared to taking a flight. In this age of human induced climate change and global warming, these things have to be thought about in my opinion. This too caused a bit of surprise, as the first question usually posed about a city break is: which airport are you flying from? As past readers will know, I’m a rail-man’s son, so if there’s a chance of travelling by train, then it’s a no-brainer. We started on a slow, rattling railcar , nearly 40 years old, before catching  a faster, electric train to London, but which is over 30 years old and long due for replacement. Then it was the Eurostar, taking us at high speed under the English Channel to Paris, and finally, a swift, quiet and smooth TGV train to Strasbourg. The journey was like travelling forward in time with the French trains much sleeker, faster and more comfortable than their antiquated British counterparts, even though it was the British who originally invented the railways!

Strasbourg is a lovely city to explore on foot. It’s oldest part is on an island formed by the River Ill and connecting canals. The Ill is a tributary of the nearby Rhine. In the centre are 2 large, adjoining squares: Place Kleber, flanked by classical 18th century buildings and Place Gutenberg, surrounded by older, medieval buildings. In the centre of the latter is a statue of Guttenberg, the famous inventor of the printing press. Maybe that’s why we saw so many book shops and bookstalls on the streets of Strasbourg. If someone asked me in a quiz, what nationality Johannes Gutenberg was, I would say German. I would be right because when he was alive in the 15th century, Strasbourg was a Free Imperial City within the Holy Roman Empire, a loose conglomeration of German states and cities. Then in 1681, Alsace was conquered by the French armies of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, who as well as regarding himself as the greatest ruler on the planet, had decided that France’s “natural” eastern border should be at the River Rhine. I think his megalomania was fed by too much time spent poring over maps! So after many centuries of being German, the city and the region  suddenly became French. It must have been very confusing and galling for the local population at the time.

From Place Gutenberg, an atmospheric, pedestrianised road of half-timbered buildings leads to the magnificent Gothic Cathedrale de Notre Dame which dominates the entire old city centre. This spectacular edifice is built from pink-hued sandstone and is crowned by a soaring spire. Its walls and arched doorways are festooned with medieval stone carvings. Inside, it is equally impressive, with vaulted ceilings, wonderful stained glass, including an impressive rose window, a huge, ornate organ perched precariously above one side of the nave  and an intricate, 19th century astronomical clock. Tour groups stampede to see this clock when it performs its party pieces on the hour and half hour. When we were there, appeals had to be made for silence because of the constant tourist hubbub. The cathedral quite understandably is a major tourist honey-spot and any person wishing to worship or pray there has to be content with the odd side chapel. On another day, as we passed through the cathedral square, there was a long, snaking queue to get in. Strasbourg Cathedral is on most people’s bucket list.

The square and narrow cobbled streets around the cathedral are a great place to wander, even though they have been touristified quite a lot. It’s lovely to see a great variety of quirky, medieval buildings painted in quiet, pastel colours. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very narrow but very tall. Typically these ancient buildings are between 4 and 7 stories high. Most have an array of dormer windows in their roof space. We were told that these used to be open spaces for drying skins that had been prepared in the city’s many tanneries. We enjoyed seeing  a variety of shutters, intricate wrought iron balconies and the patterns made by the criss-crossing timbers. However it was not so great to see balconies festooned with teddy bears or streets clogged up with souvenir stands. Progress is quite slow, constantly swerving out of the way of tourists squinting into their smart-phones to take yet another picture. ( me included!) It’s interesting that smart phones have largely taken over from conventional cameras in the recording of holidays. We also had to frequently dodge cyclists whizzing along. Strasbourg is a big city for bikes and at times it felt as if we were in the Low Countries. One explanation is that it has the second biggest student population in France, after Paris. Eventually, after investigating some stalls of antiques scattered around a small, tree lined square and skirting the classical, 18th Century Palais Rohan ( now the home of 3 major museums), we reach the river and its beautiful quayside promenade.

Strolling along the quaysides, which we did at length, was really enjoyable. No two buildings are alike. Colourful autumn trees sparkled in the bright sunshine and were reflected in the waters below. Stately swans glided and noisy coots scurried on the water. Glass topped tourist boats slid past with their running commentaries in 15 different languages, fed to the punters through their head-phones. We did the river/canal boat trip ourselves. It was a very enjoyable and informative experience. We learnt about the complicated history of the city, its buildings, churches and bridges. We sailed under one bridge which used to be the gruesome venue for public executions by drowning. Today it’s a favourite site for lovers’ padlocks, a modern custom that seems to have spread across the entire continent. One important feature was excluded from our commentary however although it was very obvious to the naked eye. Underneath each bridge was a community of homeless people, sheltering in makeshift tents amongst piles of plastic sheets and old blankets. Strasbourg, although quite prosperous looking, obviously has a poverty problem as well. We saw a fair sprinkling of beggars just sitting in the streets, hoping for a bit of tourist small change. It makes for a slightly uncomfortable experience although we were never harassed and felt safe at all times.

After a stop at a pavement café and a chance to use my school- boy French ( l’addition s’il vous plait), we strolled on to the tourist magnet of La Petite France. This is a particularly picturesque quarter where the river splits into different channels, creating tiny islands. There are many eye-catching, half timbered buildings overlooking the water and enticing narrow lanes and tiny squares to explore. This is the area where Strasbourg’s tanners, millers and fishermen used to live, using the plentiful supply of water in their different ways. Apparently the district got its name when 17th century French troops were billeted there. They kindly donated a huge dose of syphilis to the city. At the far end of Petite France are a series of 14th century bridges and towers called the Ponts Couverts. They used to form part of the city’s fortifications. They are no longer covered but provide convenient, panoramic views of the old city. Just beyond these is an 18th century covered bridge called the Barrage Vauban. It is actually a dam to further protect the city from attack. The southern side of Strasbourg could be quickly flooded to foil invaders. We walked across it but I didn’t fully appreciate how important and historical it was until I read about it later. Thus I committed the cardinal tourist sin of failing to take a photo of it! We strolled around, popping in and out of interesting little shops and had another coffee, this time at a waterside café. As we drank, relaxed and watched the world go by, a series of tourist groups passed, all of them stopping to take selfies and photos in front of  a particularly quaint 17th century house decorated with flower boxes and elaborate wooden carvings.

So far, I have only written about our adventures in the old city. Our hotel was actually located just outside the centre in the German or Prussian quarter. ( the Neustadt). In 1871, Alsace was taken over by Bismarck’s Prussians following the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War. ( 1870-71) In the mid to late 19th century , the German states were forcibly unified into one country under the domination of Prussia. After the surprisingly swift defeat of France, the states under French rule or influence were incorporated into the new Germany. This included Alsace and the Moselle valley forming the Reich territory of Elsafs-Lothringen. 100,000 French refugees were created. Most who remained spoke with German accents anyway. One could argue that Strasbourg and Alsace were being liberated from two centuries of French domination. Anyway the Prussians took over and between 1871 and 1918, embarked on a huge building programme. Vast, German neo-Gothic edifices were thrown up to remind everybody who was now in power. On our way into the old centre we passed through the Place de la Republique which features a park and war memorial surrounded by monumental stone buildings, complete with imperial eagles. These include the main Post Office, the National Theatre and the University. They are meant to symbolise brute power. The message from the new conquerors was not very subtle.

The bloodthirsty tug of war over Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine covered 3 major conflicts. In 1918, after the German defeat in the First World War, Alsace, including Strasbourg became part of France again. Between 1940-44 the Germans were back in town. This time the whole city was Nazified. The fanatical Nazi governor was answerable only to Hitler. The city was saturated with swastikas. The French language was banned. Even humming the Marsiellaise was a serious offence. Local men were rounded up and sent off to work- camps in Germany or to fight the Russians on the dreaded eastern front. Many of them didn’t come back. Following the liberation of 1944 Strasbourg became a French city once again and has remained so ever since. After the terrible tragedy of 3 major Franco-German wars in 80 years ( and not forgetting the Napoleonic conflict in the early 19th century) , enlightened politicians from the 2 countries concluded enough was enough. They decided to intermesh their iron, steel and coal industries so as to make another war economically impossible and thus highly unlikely in the future. The European Iron, Steel and Coal Community, also joined by Italy and the Benelux countries was the forerunner of both the EEC and the EU ( European Community.) It has helped to keep the peace in western Europe ever since. The whole continent has been mostly peaceful with the terrible exception of the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s, but which the European Union eventually helped to stop. Today 28 countries belong to the EU, with others clamouring to join, but the UK has become the first country that has decided to leave. It’s not surprising that Strasbourg plays host to important European institutions as it was on the front line of the tragic conflicts of the past. On our boat trip we went up to see the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Unfortunately it was raining so my snatched pictures didn’t turn out very well. Sadly I didn’t catch a glimpse of Nigel Farage, Anne Widdecombe or other British “Brexiteers” who believe that Britain has been enslaved by Europe and its independence taken away.  It’s ironic that they argue vehemently against the UK being part of the European project, while at the same time getting themselves elected as MEPs and presumably collecting an EU salary!

The advantage of staying in one place for a few days rather than constantly rushing on, is that one gets a chance to explore beyond the most obvious tourist sights. In this spirit we ventured south of the river, through Place D’Austerlitz and beyond. The traffic thickened and the noise level was ratcheted up once we got beyond the pedestrianised strolling area. We encountered traffic and sleek white trams. We came across shopping malls and ordinary people commuting to and from work. We spotted throngs of people in the middle distance and found that we had stumbled across the coach station. We also discovered the Bassin D’Austerlitz, an area of striking modern architecture and sculpture, clustered around a stretch of water.  It had a shopping mall, a cinema and a dance theatre. It was a bit like the Canary Wharf area of London except the skyscrapers weren’t quite as big. It was here that we had our biggest surprise. I was just taking a photo of a pair of ornamental ducks by the water, when Chris spotted two strange creatures swimming nearby.  They looked like small beavers or very large brown rats. As I focussed my camera on them, one came out of the water, causing shocked pigeons and people to scatter in all directions. It was too large to be a rat, thank goodness, but its long, rope-like tail indicated it wasn’t a beaver, which has a flat, rudder-like tail. I concluded it was a musk rat but later, after consulting people on WhatsApp, I decided it was a coypu. These are normally natives of north and south America. Only a week before I had learnt from a nature documentary that it was the favourite prey of the jaguar. So what was it doing in the middle of a French city? The pair of coypus were completely at home, swimming around and stealing the duck’s food. They were the very last thing we expected to see in Strasbourg. Maybe they had escaped from a zoo or a wild life park? Apparently, it was introduced into Europe and Asia by fur farmers and because of its destructive habits, burrowing into river banks it is now regarded as an “invasive species.” So I suppose it’s a bit like the grey squirrel situation in Britain.

We had a great time in Strasbourg. We also visited the Modern Art Gallery and the charming Musee Alsace in 3 old cottages by the river. Here we saw box beds, painted wardrobes and pictures of ladies in black dresses with amazing head-dresses that looked like black wings sticking up into the air. We were given a very warm welcome everywhere we went despite that fact that our country was leaving the EU. Unfortunately we didn’t have to explain to people we were over 65 in order to get the discounted entry price to places! We also made a side trip south to Colmar, another picturesque Alsatian town but perhaps a bit too touristy for our liking.

Strasbourg’s main rail station from where we got the TGV back to Paris, is a large early 20th century building. It now sports a modern glass extension on the front of it. Inscribed on this is a large sign commemorating the formation of the Council of Europe 70 years ago in 1949. It listed the 47 countries that are now members of an organisation formed to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Sadly I couldn’t see my own country on this important list. The 2016 referendum vote has led to the UK turning its back on its nearest neighbours. It must be very difficult for them to understand why. Luckily, geographically and culturally we are still very close to Europe and Chris and I will continue to enjoy our stimulating and enlightening trips across the Channel.


11 Feb

My childhood Sunday in the 1950’s : deserted streets, closed shops, roast dinners and church — or to be more precise: chapel.

  I come from a chapel family. Chapel folk are Christians but they don’t go in for the : fancy ceremonies, colourful robes, chanting or incense wafting of the Catholics or the Anglicans. As they refused to conform to all the High Church stuff, they broke away and were dubbed the Non-Conformists. This all happened in the later 18th Century. Their places of worship were small, simple buildings, mostly devoid of rich decoration or fancy ornemants. The non-conformists consisted of several different groups, the main ones being: the Methodists, the Congregationists and the Baptists. Their chapels sprang up all over the north, the Midlands and Wales, attracting bulging congregations.

  My family, on the maternal side, came from the Methodist tradition. Methodism had been founded in the 18th century by the brothers. John and Charles Wesley. It attracted an enthusiastic following partly because of its rousing, evangelical-style preachers, who travelled round the country delivering open-air sermons to huge crowds. John Wesley was one of the most popular. While at Oxford University, John and Charles formed the “Holy Club” which systematically tried to set out the “rules” for a Holy life. They were branded “methodists” by some fellow Oxford students, who derided the methodological way they ordered their lives. I suspect though that this was a clue to their popularity with many people, including my family. Instead of having to struggle to figure out how to live a decent life, all the church members have to do is follow the rules and regulations set down by others who are claiming to be speaking on behalf of God. This is a feature of most of the main religions. Their followers just have to submit to the rules, supposedly laid down by God, in order to live a good life and go to heaven, or whatever the after-life is called. For example, “Islam”, one of the World’s biggest faiths, literally means “submission” ( to the will of God or Allah.) Methodists are not Muslims, but they still willingly submit to the rules. This is easier and more convenient than trying to figure out everything for oneself.

  I grew up in a coal-mining and steel making area of North-East Derbyshire, near the town of Chesterfield. It was classic non-conformist territory. In the large village where I was born, New Whittington, there were at least 3 Methodist Chapels back in the 1950’s. They were all built from imposing red brick. We attended Wellington Street Methodist Chapel, a few doors up from my grandparents, Tom and Alice. A few years ago, faced with a dwindling congregation and rising costs, it was demolished. I vividly remember the shock waves that shuddered through my family, including myself, when we surveyed the sad pile of dust and rubble. It was as if an important part of our history had been wantonly wiped out!

  My grandad used to dominate much of that chapel’s life in its hey day. He was: the organist, the choir master, a hymn composer and a preacher. One of his sons, my Uncle Victor, was also a long-serving lay preacher as was my dad, Maurice, when he married into the family. Later, my younger brother, Graham, carried the family tradition of lay- preaching into yet another generation.

  Although they rejected much of the ritual and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, the Methodists were not short of rules and restrictions. These tried to control what chapel members could or could not do, both in and out of the chapel. It wasn’t just a religion but more like a whole life-style choice.

  When my dad joined the Methodists, having got hitched to my mum, one of the first things he had to do was to sign the “Pledge.”  This was a solemn undertaking not to touch a drop of the evil drink and become a life-long tee-totaller. The non-conformists churches had close links with the Temperance Movement which was also very strong in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alcohol was identified as being at the root of much that was wrong in society. I’m fairly sure that before he signed up, my dad used to enjoy a few pints in the pub with his mates after work. But after he became a Methodist he didn’t touch a drop, except for a small glass of port on Christmas Day, diluted by lemonade. Methodists don’t even have real red wine when taking the Sacrament, their version of Holy Communion. They substitute blackcurrent or grape juice instead, to represent the blood of Christ.

 I recently watched a documentary about the days of the Commonwealth, the 1650’s, when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, governed Britain and his Puritan Church set the rules for the nation. In order to “purify” the country from unspiritual and sinful pursuits, the Puritans banned many entertainments and amusements. I think they even banned dancing round the maypole and tried to abolish the festivities of Christmas. I think the Methodists partly took up this mantle two or three centuries later, although not pushing it to such extremes. Fun and entertainment were largely not approved of on Sundays. This was the case in my childhood. Sunday was a religious day devoted to worshipping in church ( chapel) and for us youngsters to go to Sunday School. For my sister, Glenys, and I, these special rules for Sunday made for a fairly miserable time. It was as if our much looked forward to weekend had been truncated to just one day. Most of our rest, relaxation and fun had to be crammed into Saturday. Then, on Sunday, it was back to being serious, wearing formal clothes and being forced to do things that we didn’t want to do.

  It must be remembered however that in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was young, the Sunday Trading Laws were still strictly enforced. The churches and religious pressure groups still had power and influence. So practically all the shops and places of entertainment were closed on Sundays. It wasn’t like the free and easy regime of today where Sunday is almost like a full-blown Saturday and the main thing being worshipped is materialism. Back then, town centres were dead on Sundays and the streets mostly deserted. We didn’t even have a bus service on Sunday morning and a very restricted service after lunch. There were no professional football matches and no “Super Sundays” on Sky Sports. Therefore, even without our Methodist strictures, it would still have been a potentially more boring and empty day with fewer opportunities for entertainment.

  However, my family took all this up a few notches thanks to the puritanical-style rules of the chapel. My sister and I were forbidden to play out out on Sundays. We could not see our friends. We were not allowed to have an ice-cream on a Sunday even when the chiming van drove temptingly down our street. We could not play any sport or even watch it on TV. In the 1960’s, ITV’s football highlights show “The Big Match” was screened on a Sunday afternnon but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. We had to go to morning Sunday School, afternoon Sunday School and then the evening service. When I got older I even got sent to Bible study class after the service finished.

  All day I would have to wear my Sunday best clothes, including shirt and tie. My father would ritually dollop Brylcream on to my hair and then comb a rigid parting into it. To this day I still have an aversion to hair-cream or gel! The rest of the day was spent: singing hymns, praying, listening to Bible readings, having Sunday School lessons and enduring long, boring sermons delivered in artificial, churchified voices. If the preacher had spoken to us in a normal, conversational voice, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. For a long time I couldn’t understand the sermons and coped by having a day-dream or by wriggling restlessly in my chair until told to sit still by mum or dad. When I got older, I found that many sermons were about us being sinners and that if we didn’t mend our ways, we wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven, know as The Kingdom of God. We in fact risked the eternal fires of Hell if we got tempted by Satan to leave the “straight and narrow.” Surviving the sermon became one big endurance test. Sometimes it went on for half an hour – a whole 30 minutes of being preached at. Even though Methodist services had been stripped of ceremony and ritual, they followed strict guidelines. A typical service consisted of: hymn, prayer, Lord’s Prayer, hymn, Bible reading, hymn, notices, collection, sermon, hymn and benediction ( closing prayer.) Sunday School was more relaxed but still felt like an unwelcome extra day of lessons just before we had to go back to the real school.

  Of course, church was not all gloom and doom. It would be unfair of me to paint too black a picture. I enjoyed some of the rousing hymns, especially when my grandad or my Uncle Ernie were belting them out. At Sunday School we enjoyed singing jolly little ditties with actions to go with the words. My favourites were “Happy, Loved and Saved” and ” Now Zacchias was a very little man.”  I met some of my friends at chapel. We had parties at Christmas and pea and pie suppers. I went to the chapel youth club where I learnt to play table tennis and kiss girls. Yes, my first girlfriend, Santia, was a Methodist! I met her at a chapel Valentine’s Day dance. Every year, we children received the gift of a book to reward our Sunday School attendance. I enjoyed reading these except for one year, when they presented me with my own Bible instead of the book about a Second World War bomber pilot for which I craved. ( “I Flew With Braddock.”) My parents kindly bought it for me later. Then there were the annual Sunday School Anniversaries when we were all kitted out in smart new clothes and proudly sat on a special tiered platform in front of our friends and families. We sang special hymns and recited special poems. The sermons on these occasions were especially child-friendly such that we could actually understand them. I used to perform duets with a boy who was tone-deaf. It was difficult keeping in tune but everyone praised him because they thought he was singing a complicated descant!

  I also enjoyed Christmas at church with its candles, carols and nativity plays. Once it was my turn to be one of the Three Kings and proudly wear my dressing gown and  tea-towel head-dress as I carried my shiny pretend- gift up the aisle. Then there were the Toy Services for kids in Children’s Homes and orphanages. We also sold books of childrens’ photos called “Sunny Smiles”. The proceeds went to the homes. It felt good to be helping others, which, to be fair, is one of the main teachings of Christianity and other religions. Yes, Church wasn’t all bad!

  Despite all this, a typical Sunday increasingly felt like donning a strait-jacket. My freedom was drastically curtailed and I was compelled to follow the church’s rules and routines. It all seemed a frustrating waste of my valuable time. I stopped going to chapel as soon as I left home to go to college at the age of 18. So did my sister. We have never gone back except for occasional weddings, christenings and funerals, plus the odd carol service to please our parents.

  Mum and Dad still go to their local chapel every Sunday. They still believe they are destined to enter The Kingdom of God. Who’s to say that they are not right? The church has given their lives shape and structure. The other members of the congregation are their friends and provide them with a social life and support. To them it’s like a cosy club of which they are long term members. In some ways the church tells them how to live their lives and even what to think, especially in the spiritual sphere. This, I suppose, is the Methodist way.

  I have chosen to try to work out my own spiritual path. I have studied the beliefs of other religions, had many discussions on this subject and have read books about spiritual matters such as M Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” , “The Anatomy of the Spirit” by Caroline Myss and “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield. I have talked ideas through with Christians, Buddhists, agnostists, athiests and Humanists. I suppose I am a product of the 17th and 18th century’s “Age of Reason” and of “Enlightenment.” At that time, the black and white medieval sureties were challenged by science, philosophy and scepticism. For some reason I feel I ought to question rather than just accept. It’s not an easy process and I’m still not sure what I believe. However it’s an increasingly important task as I grow older and I become aware of questions to do with the Meaning of Life and issues surrounding Death. I don’t believe that I can solve my personal conundrums by adopting an off-the-peg religion which tells me what to believe and how to live my life. I don’t want to be told to exercise blind faith instead of actively seeking out enlightening evidence. Unlike church goers, I do not believe everything I read in the Bible.

  Church and chapel congregations have drastically dwindled over the last 50 years. The UK is still officially a Christian nation, but as well as the growth of other religions, there has been a big drift towards a secular society. I have been part of this movement away from organised religion. Many churches have been knocked down or converted into museums, warehouses, shops or even homes. Despite largely rejecting my religious upbringing, it still makes me feel sad to see an abandoned, derelict or converted church. I still feel sharp pangs of loss when I recall that pile of rubble where my grandad used to preach. I suspect it might be a block of flats by now.

  I left Methodism many moons ago but it has still left its mark on me. I have never been a big drinker or a going-down-the-pubber. I rarely swear ie -using the Lord’s name in vain. I love singing and am a member of a choir. Although it is not a religious one, I enjoy singing Gospel songs and Christmas carols. Finally, I strongly believe in: love, compassion, charity and forgiveness, all of which are major strands of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s just that I don’t feel I have to attend a church or chapel to put these into practice. Neither do I have to smear on Brylcream! Hallelujah and Amen.

The Circle Game.

20 Jan

Another one of my friends has very sadly died. Brian was 67 and I sang with him in Whitby Community Choir. He was a fellow bass and a lovely person to know.

 As they carried his flower-decked coffin into the packed chapel, they played Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” It’s a song that I know and love, but up to that moment I never fully appreciated what the lyrics meant. I had vaguely thought of it as being about the passage of time, with the seasons constantly turning round. However, I didn’t quite grasp, or didn’t wish to grasp, that it’s also about the inexorable process of ageing with its inevitable conclusion in death. The most chilling lines, I think, are:

       ” We’re captive on the carousel of time,

          We can’t return, we can only look behind

          from where we came….. ”

 It is the fatalism expressed here that is so dispiriting, I feel. It’s depressing to realize that we are trapped in an unalterable process. When I first heard these words, in my early twenties, I didn’t think about them too deeply, as I was armed with the arrogance of youth. I had my whole adult life still before me and didn’t want to get depressed by thinking of the inevitability of my demise. Death is something we largely avoid thinking about in our Western culture, unless we are suddenly confronted by the passing away of someone close to us or we fall victim of a life-threatening illness. Then we shed tears, and get sad, upset and depressed, even though we have known all along that death is one of the few certain aspects of life. What disturbs me is the fact that we have no control over this process. It’s just nature taking its course. As Joni says: we are “captives” of time. Our personal clocks are constantly ticking.

  At Brian’s funeral there were rousing hymns, prayers and eulogies. Even though people were crying and had sad, sombre faces, the service was billed as a “celebration” of his eventful life. Anecdotes, quotes, stories and songs, all brought Brian back to life again as we remembvered our times with him, and appreciated all the lives he had touched. Even though he wasn’t physically amongst us, he was still a powerful emotional presence. We were connecting to him once again through our warm memories. This served to lift the mood of sadness and fatalism that had accompanied me at the start of the service.

 The concept of a circle is very appropriate in thinking of our lives and deaths. First of all, there is the natural cycle of us returning to the earth from which we came via the burying of our bodies or scattering of our ashes. In this way, by enriching the soil, a death can lead to new life.

  Another circle, believed by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, is the cycle of the soul — in other words the process of reincarnation. Here death is not the end, but merely a prelude to a new beginning. The circle turns again as the soul leaves one spent body and enters another one in order to live a new life. This constant rotation will only end, it is believed, when a person can finally shed his/her ego and unite once again with “God.” Believers in past-lives also subscribe to this notion of birth-death- and rebirth. This idea sees life as cyclical rather than linear.

  Yet another idea is that of the ” social circle.” Most of us reside in the centre of a constant, swirling circle of social interactions. These encounters can be both direct and indirect. They can take the form of : one to one meetings, telephone conversations, letters, texts and emails. On a wider, less personal scale, we also interact with people who we have never met. Thus we may read a book that someone else has written, listen to a recording of someone else’s song or even cook a meal devised by a chef we have necer met. TV programmes, films and plays also contribute to our wider circle of interactions with others. Our lives consist of constant encounters with others that spread from the centre. It is only when this whirl of interactions stops that we can say that life has finally ceased. However, as we experienced at Brian’s funeral/ celebration, not even the apparant finality of death can prevent this circle of connections from rotating, because it continues to turn in the memories of those left behind. Whenever I listen to a String Quartet by Beethovan or read a novel by Jane Austin they live again even though technically they passed away a long time ago. Similarly when I look at a photo of my Grandma Alice or recall visits to her house when I was a child, she returns to life in my mind.

  So, although in a purely physical sense we are all “captives on a carousel of time”, in another sense, through the recollections of all those we interact with, directly or indirectly, we can defy the clock and live on indefinitely. This is especially true if one is a particularly social animal. Brian met many people through his teaching, singing, choir leading, play writing, acting, cycling and charity working. So he lives on in the minds of all those he taught, entertained and helped as well as in the hearts and minds of his family. Brian’s personal participation in the circle game has now sadly ended, but the circles still surround him like  ripples in a pool — circulating memories activated by the many memory-joggers that he left behind. I made the same point about the importance of memory when I wrote about the death of another friend, Clive, a couple of years ago. That made me realize why ancestor-worship, was/is so prevalent in Ancient China and South-East Asia. By keeping pictures and mementoes in family shrines, a family can keep the memory of their departed relative alive.

  This is perhaps why a funeral is traditionally followed by a “wake” in our culture. I’ve never thought about that word before — “wake.” Now it seems obvious. The friends and family of the recently departed, resurrect or wake-up him/her through their shared stories and memories. Perhaps death is not just one big full- stop afterall. The circle game swirls on and on and on. From being depressed about the inevitability and finality of it all, I now find it all quite comforting and reassuring.

Getting up from the Couch and Walking with the Spirit of Clive.

6 Oct

Just over 5 years ago I retired from full-time teaching. I also retired from stress, exhaustion and getting up at 6-15 in the morning! At first everyone congratulated me and wished me many years of rest and happiness. However, it was not long before the questions came: “What are you going to do with your life?” “How are you going to fill your time?” “Won’t you get bored?”  People didn’t seem to be satisfied when I told them I intended to relax, have leisurely cups of coffee and read the newspaper. Neither did they appear to be very interested when I talked about writing my memoirs or catching up with my reading. The questions persisted with an increasing note of concern. I needed to say something to shut them up!

So one day, while undergoing yet another gentle third-degree, I suddenly announced that I intended to tackle the Coast to Coast. This is the famous long distance hike from St Bees in Cumbria, across the Lake District, the Pennines and the North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. It had been devised and popularised by the legendary Arthur Wainwright. That dramatic declaration stopped my inquisitors in their tracks! Clearly this was regarded as an eminantly acceptable retirement project, much more challenging than having a lie-in or enjoying a relaxing breakfast in the conservatory. From then on, my questioners adopted an air of admiration and excitement when I told them of my plan, and their previous concerns about me wasting my life and slowly going to seed, quickly evaporated. Even I got quite excited and found myself looking proudly in the mirror from time to time. By completing this epic challenge I could transform myself from zero to hero! I swiftly acquired the maps and guide-books, including a copy of Wainwright, the hallowed bible of all serious walkers. I talked knowledgably about routes, mileages, equipment, communication and back-up plans.

However my initial enthusiasm soon wa(i)ned ( sorry about the pun Arthur), and I increasingly succumbed to the twin attractions of the couch and Sky Sports TV. This had the added appeal  of not having to wear: hiking boots, thick socks, over-trousers, waterproof and wind-proof jackets, hat, gloves and scarf. All I needed was a dressing gown. Also, I did not need an OS map or compass to navigate myself between the sofa, the kettle and the telly.

But all good things come to an end. I started to tire of the daily inanities of Sky Sports news, and got sick of stuffing salted peanuts down my throat. I even got fed up of coffee after about the 8th cup of the day!(very bad for me I know.) Worst of all though, was that I started to put on weight! I developed a sort of spare tyre around my middle, which was a big shock for someone who had always been slim or even skinny  and who actually had been nicknamed “OXFAM” at school after taking his shirt off for PE. Something had to be done. I resumed running — dragging my extra bulk around the local streets. I bought a bike and even took up swimmimg. I also resolved to do more walking.

The walking group I had once belonged to, the “Gateshead Boghoppers”, had now broken up, but my saviour came in the shape of my dear friend Clive. Once he had retired from his stressful job in the NHS, we agreed to go out walking together . We went out every month irrespective of the weather and were soon joined by a mutual friend: Colin. Soon Colin dubbed us  the MATES — the acronym standing for Men Against The Elements. This was because we battled against : rain, wind, snow, fog and whatever else nature decided to throw at us.

It was on these MATES walks that the subject of long-distance footpaths cropped up again. Colin had done several including the Pennine Way. I had already broached the subject of the Coast to Coast ( as opposed to the Couch to Couch) with Clive and we had agreed that it would be good to have a go at it. Once Colin got in on the discussions, he sensibly suggested that we cut our teeth on the Northumberland Coastal Path, a mere 66 miles! There was no escape for me now. I had painted myself into a corner. My impressive but deliberately vague pronouncement that I intended tackling a long distance trek was now hardening into reality. With the impressive efficiency as befits an ex-teacher and ex-military man, Colin set about organising our 6 day walk. Dates were fixed, routes worked out, accommodation booked and deposits paid. I graciously accepted my fate and willingly crossed the Rubicon. We were all looking forward to our first major MATES expedition.

However, with just 2 months to go, tragedy struck! Shortly after one of our regular walks during which we excitedly discussed our final plans, Clive was involved in a terrible, fatal moter-bike accident in Scotland. Colin and I were shocked and stunned. Clive had been retired for barely 2 years and we had so many plans for our post-work future together. The news was so shattering that for some time we didn’t know what to do or say. It was only when Clive’s funeral was approaching that Colin and I realized what we had to do. We agreed that we wouldn’t cancel the walk, but would go ahead with it in Clive’s memory.

So it was that at the end of September, 2011, Colin and I set off on a lovely sunny day from Berwick-uopn-Tweed, heading south. Ahead of us lay 66 miles of beautiful Northumbrian coast and countryside. To the unknowing people we encountered there were just 2 of us. But we knew that there were really 3. Clive was with us in spirit every step of the way. He was constantly in our thoughts. We even mistakenly called each other Clive at times. At the end of each day we toasted him. In a funny sort of way the 3 MATES were still together.

On the second day, en route from near Lindisfarne to Seahouses, we detoured on to the St Cuthbert’s Way, another long distance path. The highlight of this was a visit to St Cuthbert’s Cave. We were on part of the route taken by the monks of Holy Island while carrying the coffin and remains of their former Abbot- St Cuthbert, famous for his inspirational preaching and his miracles. They had left the island in 875 AD to escape continued Viking raids and were to wander around for decades before finally bringing the Saint’s remains to rest at Durham.( where the cathedral stands today.)  St Cuthbert’s cave is a special, atmospheric place. It is an overhanging outcrop of sandstone supported by an isolated pillar of stone. It lies in the middle of a sloping pine wood and is flanked by boulders which guard its entrance like silent sentinels. The cave sits in a peaceful, beautiful setting. Knowing its religious connotations, it seemed in my mind to have a spiritual aura about it. Not only had the monks laid the body of the saint in the sanctuary of the cave, but much later, in the 1930’s, the local Leathers family had had the ground consecrated to serve as their burial ground.

Before we left, Colin took a photo of me standing in front of the “sacred” cave. At the time we thought nothing of this and walked on. However, when I later showed this picture to my wife Chris, we noticed to our surprise that it revealed a strange, ethereal glow all around the top half of my body. Straight away Chris declared: ” That’s Clive!”  Maybe it was just the sunlight slanting through the trees, but the light hovering around me had such an unusual luminosity about it, that it is tempting to think that at that moment I was enveloped by the energy of my departed friend. He wasn’t with us in the flesh but maybe his spirit was accompanying us on our trek. In a funny sort of way, that strange, ghostly glow may show that our old MATE Clive, completed the Northumberland Coastal Path with us afterall!

On Grief and Caring.

6 Aug

When someone close to me found out that people were gossiping about a serious misfortune, it led to the following memorable phrase being uttered through the resultant sobs:” They care, but they don’t really care!” These people were well-meaning and DID care to a certain extant. However, they weren’t close in so the unhappy development had been relegated to an interesting topic of conversation, squashed inbetween the weather and what was on TV last night. This is perhaps a bit oversensitive and unfair, but that phrase does have a lot of truth in it I feel and keeps reverberating round my head.
When a sad or tragic event occurs, the only people who care deeply are those intimately involved. The other gradations of caring, slowly but inevitably lessen according to how close to the situation a person happens to be. A sad event is like a stone plunging into a pool. One minute the water is smooth and calm, but the next minute, the sudden, shocking arrival of the stone causes a hole to violate that serene surface. Then ripples fan out from the centre in wider and weaker circles. So it is with life. One moment everythingg is smooth, placid and happy, but the unexpected arrival of a tragic event shatters this contentment and creates a deep and painful void. Others however are merely rippled or ruffled by fleeting feelings of sadness and sympathy. The event or the person is discussed, cards, letters or emails are despatched ( all no doubt well-meaning), but then it’s only human nature for these people to want to get on with their lives.
I know we cannot care or grieve for everyone. That would leave us all exhausted, emotional wrecks! In this age of instant, world-wide communication and 24 hour, rolling news , we get to hear about all the: droughts, floods, crashes, wars, atrocities and murders. What can we do apart from talk aboutan awful event, find out about it on the news and perhaps donate to a charity which is trying to help? We care in a superficial, generalised way, but then the protective barriers slide down in our minds and we get on with our day-to-day lives rather than allowing ourselves to become paralysed with grief. I have done this filtering- out process myself. While recently looking up the details of a friend’s tragic accident on a certain stratch of road, I completely ignored other fatalities on the same stretch of road in the very same week, that were revealed in the Google search. This selectivity is understandable as it would be impoosible to properly grieve and mourn all the people who have died in our own town let alone the whole world! It would be overwhelming.
However, then come the exceptions to this rule. We do seem to care more if a lot of people perish at the same time in the same place such as on so called 9/ 11 in New York or in the terrible Asian tsunamis. These events are so shocking that they dominate our headlines and saturate out television screens until the next big event displaces them.
The other exception is when a “Royal” or a “Celeb” dies. For some reason, probably because of our all pervasive and persuasive media, these deaths are deemed more important than those of “ordinary” folk. I felt sorry for the friends and family of the singer Amy Winehouse after it was discovered that she had died alone aged only 27. But was this more tragic than the sudden death of my dear friend, C, on the same weekend? There will be no outpouring of public grief for C, no headlines and public tributes, no turning of his home or grave into a “shrine.” Again, maybe I’m being a bit unfair and irrational, but it seems that there is inequality in death as well as in life.
The vicarious grieving for deceased Royals or celebrities,or for the victims of dramatic, newsworthy events, is at first difficult to fathom. I was flabbergasted to learn that a colleague at my school had spent her entire weekend travelling down to London from the North-East, to deposit flowers at Princess Diana’s “shrine” after that tragic Parisian car crash. Maybe my colleague was genuinely shocked and saddened, as were thousands of others up and down the country, but maybe also, she wanted to be part of a “national” and so-called “historical” event.
Vicarious grieving probably performs an important function in our society. It acts as a safety valve. As we cannot grieve for everybody without breakiing down, we instead grieve for certain “chosen ones” who are the representatives of everybody. It’s practical and understandable, but it can get pretty ridiculous in my view. I have heard of people who grieved for The Archers’ character Nigel, who fatally fell off a roof, and who then tuned into his “funeral” in hushed silence.

I am grieving at the moment. A very close friend has died. He has been abruptly snatched away from me and the others who loved, like and respected him. I know my grief is real and not vicarious.
My loss has revealed that I don’t really have have any religious belief. My lost friend probably agreed with me as he was given a Humanist funeral ceremony. I don’t think he is in heaven, where I can join him later. To me, he has just disappeared into a black hole.
I am going through all the usual emotions of: shock, disbelief, denial, anger and most of all, a deep lingering sadness. Once again, the range of people’s reactions to the news has been very revealing. When I told a mutual friend about the loss of a very special person, he was in tears. That upset me as it replicated how I felt inside. The pop lyric: “Raining in My Heart” now has a potent new significance. On the other hand, when my wife told one of her friends about our loss, the friend automatically expressed sympathy but then quickly changed the subject. She cared , but she didn’t really care!
When i was just 17, my dear Grandma Alice died. I was very close to her. We had a special bond. Even though I was supposed to be a rebellious teenager, I still visited Grandme most weekends, usually staying over on both Friday and Saturday nights. One weekend I couldn’t stay through to the Sunday and during the night, Grandma passed away in her sleep. Back then, I had a completey different reaction and coping mechanism. I was shielded from seeing her body and then I refused to go to the funeral. I explained that in my view, it would be full of mourners who did not know real Alice, as I did. I refused to subject myself to such “hypocracy.” This I suppose was an extreme reaction. I was shocked and distressed by the sudden loss of my Grandma, but dealt with it by burying the grief deep inside me. I then vented irrational fury at the poor people who were turning up to respect and remember her! In other words, I never got past the “head-in-the-sand” denial stage, my surface thoughts and feelings being taken over by a warped and unfair anger.
Only 20 years later, while talking to a friend who had been through a similar experience, did I finally release the feelings that were trapped inside me. My heart opened and an endless torrent of love poured out, connecting me once again to my long-lost grandma. Amidst the tears I felt she was back with me again and it made the “loss” easier to bear. I still feel connected today and often think of her.
That was over 40 years ago. In the interim period I have been lucky in that I have not suffered much loss of loved ones in my life. I was shaken up a few years ago by the premature death of a friend on a Lakeside fell. I went to his funeral and joined the choir that we had both been members of, in singing 2 of his favourite songs. I did some writing about him and thought about him a lot. I’m pleased that this time, I didn’t go into denial and pretend, like a child might pretend, that he had just moved away.
Now comes the loss of an even closer friend, C. We did lots of things together, supported each other through thick and thin, and even lived at each other’s homes in periods of traumatic marital and relationship breakdown. It’s hard to accept that C has suddenly died. But I know he will no longer ring, write or turn up at the door. He has disappeared into the void. That’s how I see it — it’s just a vast nothingness that has suddenly swallowed up my dear friend.
Buddhists must laugh at us for getting so upset about a death. Why get worked up by the one thing in life that is inevitable? Some cultures view death as a happy event as it has released the deceased from the trials and tribulations of life. I think of the joyous, jazzy funeral processions in New Orleans. A friend has suggested that death is like a door that opens to let one through but which then slams shut on all the problems and worries that have been plagueing one through life. In other words : death can be seen as both a release and a relief. This is a comforting notion. Hindus and Sikhs believe in re-incarnation and that if a person is really good, he or she will eventually merge with the “Divine Being” or whatever they call god. I’m not sure sure about Muslims, but I think that like Christians, they believe in Heaven and Hell. The native Americans believed in the after-life of the “Happy hunting grounds” so were not frightened about the prospect of getting killed in battle against the invading whites. Just about everyone seems to agree that death is NOT the end.It is really a new beginning they say. So why are many people in the “West” so distraught when a loved one dies? Could it be that like me, they don’t REALLY believe? It is difficult contemplating oblivion, so we invent all these screens — religion, spiritualism, ghosts etc — to distract ( or delude) ourselves and hide its finality away from our minds.( or we just keep being “busy.”)
So, I am grieving and doesn’t everyone know about it? I have been accused of self- indulgence to which I plead “guilty.” But what I’m trying to do is to buck the trend. I don’t want to avoid thinking, talking or writing about death because it is a “depressing” subject.( as I did back when I was 17.) Neither do I wish to put my head in the sand about my own mortality, as I have done for most of my life.
In a way, I believe that my lost friends and relatives have not really gone because they live on in my memories of them. That’s why I think a funeral should be about the celebration of a life rather than wallowing in misery about a death. One’s loved ones are vitally important in death as well as life. For it is through them and their memories that one lives on — even after death! To them you are much more than a fading photograph or a name and some dates on a family tree.
That is why LOVE, in my opinion, is the most important thing in the World. It sustains us in life and it sustains us in death. Earlier I was very unfair about those whom I said “didn’t care”. When a person dies, it is the people who love him/her who really care. The rest are just getting on with their hectic lives. But one day, they will genuinely care and grieve too. It comes to us all!