“God keep my soul and England have my bones.”—T. H. White, after Shakespeare
I suppose we all have an idea of what constitutes real living. It’s not all those compromises we endure while we bridge the gap between yesterday and tomorrow. Real living is when we can say “this is it!” asking nothing from tomorrow at all. By this criterion, my real life has lately begun. The evening sun was calling me, so I went to Saunderton Lee. It’s a place K & I have got to know well over the last nine years without ever thinking of it as a place, having approached it in different seasons from different directions, and counted them simply as walks, among all the others. I went alone this time but she was with me in my mind. When you share a closeness over the years, you find yourself each bound to the other, able to share everything. And when you recall a shared moment, for example by passing through the same spot, it brings a lively sense of that person’s presence. And if you’re separated for any length of time you feel a pang of absence, which, when absorbed in busyness, you don’t notice consciously. Then it comes back strongly when you are carefree and fully attentive to the present. In such a state, I see that the days of our life are a pattern of union and separation, like the play of sunshine and cloud on these fields and copses, altering our moods accordingly.
It’s a network of footpaths between and through fields. After the recent harvest they’ve been left as stubble or ploughed. In any landscape there may be some routes we’ve actually trodden, and others we’ve traversed simply with yearning eyes—something I did for years when I could only walk for yards at a time. One such route runs southwards through this narrow plain till it disappears in a fold in the landscape and thence beyond the horizon. Many times I have looked in wonder, imagining that “beyond” as a cherished destination of our prehistoric ancestors, or a storybook picture from my childhood reading. In fact we’ve probably trodden those paths, coming here from the opposite direction. And if you follow that fabled route to beyond, through the fold and over the horizon, you reach our house in town, five miles away.
While I scanned these fields, the sun was planning its descent below the Bledlow Ridge skyline, but there was still time to follow one or two trails, and reach those wooded slopes still gilded with light. Each clod on the ploughed field stood proud with its own shadow. My own was fifteen foot long.
Despite a few modern houses scattered around, this place has a majesty and solitude, but you wouldn’t come here for any particular views, wildlife or scenic grandeur. Have no expectations, no thoughts of elsewhere. Then you may see Eden, freshly restored to its state before the Fall.
Many are those, and I am one, for whom heaven is to be on foot in a landscape. And when it’s not quite heaven, it still offers a meditation, one which bears fruit immediately. The best landscape to be in is one showing 360 degrees of skyline, encircling you in its embrace. No photo or painting can show how it responds to the observer; it swivels and transforms as you follow your route. Hidden parts are revealed, prominent features hide. The church spire to the left of the barleyfield is now on the right.
Perhaps I could survive here for a day or two, on these hedgerow blackberries, sloes, haws and apples. My riches could be the silver brooches of these dried thistle-heads shining in the late sun. I could be a clown’s comedy version of King Lear, not banished and lost but found, not blind like Gloucester but seeing as never before.
As I pass under the powerlines and round a pylon, I feel this is my home, if it will have me. Let England have my bones!
I don’t give a damn where they put my remains when I’m gone, but if they want they can scatter my ashes in this landscape, perhaps under this very pylon, where the public footpath goes over a little stile. Then they could come, park nearby, and walk across the fields, no matter the weather on that day. And then, who knows, they might share this feeling that I don’t know how to convey. If it’s a nice summer day, they could bring a picnic.
Now I’m at the spot where I did my first pastel, nine years ago. We were sitting together under this tree, and I drew—or is it painted?—from life. I proudly published it with these words alongside:
“I’m just learning how to use these chalks (oil pastels), but was quite pleased at the result. We sat on a rug with a hedge behind us, and I peered over the ripening wheat field (in case you can’t recognise it) to view this scene.”
They were very cheap pastels and I didn’t have a proper range of colours, and the intense effort of painting in this new medium was quite exhausting. The very next day my camera expired and it seemed as if the Japanese technology inside committed hara-kiri from shame at its inferiority. So I thought from now on I must master this new medium, take infinite pains teaching myself (like my namesake Vincent) to capture the dark mystery of those trees on the skyline, the colours, textures and above all the emotional truth, just as it struck my heart, of what I see, instead of this instant clicking. But my new mania didn’t last long and these days I just take snaps, as with this one, which shows how the same scene looks today. The copper beech in front of Chiltern Cottage has grown bigger.
I don’t imagine these farmers arranging bales of straw on trailers will see these fields as I do—a creation brimming with love—but there’s no way to be sure.
At some point in my walk I recalled a woman in the market earlier that day, asking me if I wanted to be saved by Jesus. There’s an organized group. They give food and clothes to the needy, preach, sing “Bless the Lord, O my Soul” with guitar accompaniment. I’ve found a picture of her at the same spot, near their regular stall. She puts out chastely for Jesus. A certain type of Christian is so moved by the sacrifice of the Cross as to imitate in their own lives and I think it may impart a kind of erotic thrill, to be moved by the Spirit and move others. Thus they become in their own eyes beautiful, which makes them indeed beautiful. Up to this point, I see no losers. But then comes the decline and the exploitation, endemic in sects or regions; which gets worse when it feels threatened. Such is our humanity.
Time and again I’ve stood up for religion in the sense of it carrying some spiritual flame that must not be blown out, some connection to the Divine, whatever that is. And this in spite of my having no religion, no system of beliefs— nothing but Nature-meditation and a sense of universal oneness.
It’s easy for outsiders to think all religions are the same. After being accosted on the street by an invitation to the love of Jesus, I went into the Parish Church, its entrance being a few yards away. It dates back to 1086; was restored to its current state in 1889. Like the market square, which it overlooks, it’s a public space offering continuity through the centuries. Its role is civic as much as spiritual, with a dozen services each year for local and national commemorations. A meet-and-greet volunteer was there, sitting at a table. As my visit had no particular purpose—I’ve gone round often enough gazing at the antiquities—I joined the table, introduced myself as a non-Christian child of the Church of England. We talked of the building’s role in the community, preserving a common heritage, and how you don’t have to be a Christian to feel at home here. At some point I mentioned the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer, who suffered public martyrdom by burning at the stake. This was all fine stuff, and the lady knew where I was coming from. But a man at the same table who’d hardly spoken till that point fixed me with a baleful glare and asked permission to “say something”. And then he preached like Jeremiah, on the lines that pretty much everything in the past was terrible and we should not carry forward its iniquity but burn the influence of history in a cleansing fire. I tried to make clear that I wasn’t a congregation, just someone else like him; but he raged as from a pulpit in his anger and his shame—against his own country (South Africa) and Great Britain too. I felt it was time to go, before he went into detail. The traumas he still carried were burning hot, I should stop distracting the meeter-and-greeter, who was there to offer him needed balm. So we exchanged names and shook hands. I offer the vignette as an image of the Church of England today: a “broad church”, inclusive, kind, tolerant, not putting itself forward, not kicking out those who seem to decry its values.
The English in general are known for politeness and a sense of humour. We are pretty good at hypocrisy too. You need all three, perhaps, to calmly watch as our freedoms are threatened from all sides. Nothing new there. How though can one be tolerant of intolerance, and those who don’t believe in freedom as we know it, and reject our notions of a critical approach to beliefs and ideologies? It’s not my role personally to solve the world’s problems, but these questions have been causing me disquiet ever since coming to live in this part of town.
Such thoughts must have nudged me into reading a book by a Somali-Dutch-American refugee/politician/activist/academic, and to put the images of book and author on this post. She’s taken head-on a set of issues which I’ve glimpsed from my doorstep. I feel simultaneously horrified at her content, and relieved at her trenchant stance, her clear and compelling writing; and most of all her courage. These issues are spread world-wide, and are none of my business. Yet I cannot quite say that, for they are on my doorstep, literally. “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” So I shall try and practise lovingkindness, respect, cleanliness, tolerance—of the person, not his intolerance.
I did actually say to myself “England Have My Bones” when I walked under the powerlines, and it wasn’t just inspired by that sweet moment of communing with nature, it was all of the moments, all of the kindness and tolerance I’ve received; a sense of the privilege to be here. For I was born elsewhere, like many whose writing has been infused with love of England and Britishness, such as Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, T H White (author of The Once and Future King). Those three were all born in India, but educated in England. I’ve had White’s memoir for years, on my Tsundoku pile—see previous post—being impressed greatly by its title, but little else so far.
Then, when looking for its origin, I came across another book, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and found the following:
In England Have My Bones White wrote one of the saddest sentences I have ever read: ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either.
And if not for her book, I wouldn’t know about his affinity with my county:
In England have My Bones, he describes Buckinghamshire in a similar way, through what it is not. His county lacks outstanding qualities, beauty and historical significance, and so it avoids the attention of the world. It is safe. When White goes on to explain how Buckinghamshire ‘concealed its individuality in order to preserve it’ but is ‘secretly exuberant in its private way’ you realize that he is writing about his own character. More disguises. The mirror works both ways. The lines between the man and the landscape blur. When White writes of his love for the countryside, at heart he is writing about a hope that he might be able to love himself.
I’m saddened too that White had such a tortured life. For if he had found a human love returned, he could have loved himself, and then he might see that a great blank green field, at least in moments, can love you back.