It was one of those “whisperings” that I get occasionally when the conscious mind is quiescent. The brain can do funny things. Shostakovich had a fragment of shrapnel lodged in his, left over from WWII. When he held his head at a certain angle he heard music. All he had to do was write it down, or so the legend goes.* In the Bible, long before neurology was a word, the whisperings would come from angel or devil; sometimes the Lord himself.
Thus I woke up in a strange bed with a phrase in my head: “outnumbered by blessings”. I recalled we were staying in the Blue Piano Guest House, on Harborne Road.
It was the first time we’d slept away from home since our trip to The Island at the end of January. We meant to visit Jamaica on September for a special occasion, but were forced to give it a miss. If we’re going to make it early next year I’ll have to get used to being away, for days at a time, far from the security of these four walls. My doctor thinks I should be OK for it, but I have to assure myself and get into training. So we decided on a tentative venture: two nights in Birmingham.
Aunt Avis lives there, she’s actually Karleen’s cousin. With looks like that, you wouldn’t think she was eighty. Being black helps, the skin doesn’t wrinkle. She’s frailer of late, less mobile, but still her blessed self. We didn’t stay long, didn’t let her fuss and treat us as guests. Before leaving we held hands while she prayed over us, invoking God to keep us safe comprehensively and in many detailed particulars. I do not mean to make fun of her religion and its mannerisms. She is living witness to the blessings of grace, radiating from her to other souls far and wide, the hundreds she has practically helped. Yet in earlier life she endured hardship, after being grievously wronged. When Karleen asked about an aspect of this, she said it was not to be spoken about; there being no good in digging up bad memories.
Her words stuck with me as we crossed the city back to Edgbaston, to visit the campus where I’d been an undergraduate from 1960-63. I had some good memories of the place but they were eclipsed—outnumbered indeed—by others; whereof I shall not speak. Five years ago, when we’d come up for Aunt Avis’ 75th birthday, we’d done the same thing. The campus had changed so much it was like an archaeological dig to try and uncover relics which had survived the years. The most moving thing for me that time was the Arts Faculty building where my studies had been based. Most importantly, it had smelt the same, fifty years later. I’m guessing that for our pre-human ancestors, what we call “memory” was little more than a hard-wired encyclopaedia of aromas. It had made me feel almost that I’d left something of myself there. Suddenly I’d thought that some molecules of my DNA remained in the building, dust fallen into crevices that generations of cleaners hadn’t succeeded in hoovering up. The nostalgia of that visit five years ago was deep-dyed in sadness. I’d gone to wrestle with ghosts but couldn’t find enough of them.
This time was quite unlike five years ago. I’ve embraced everything, and seen how tired and tawdry the university had become by 1960, despite the new buildings that had recently sprung up even then. It’s a Birmingham thing: half the city centre has been razed, yet again. As you weave around the barriers, along temporary paths between earthworks and constructions sites, sometimes the only way to guess where you are is the lie of the land, from memory, as not much of it is level.
To embrace everything. I’m tempted to list the wonders and beauties of our trip in detail. The vibrant energy leading to visible renewal in every aspect of the university. Wonderful encounters with strangers. The way they’ve made everything better but kept the best of the old. I’m glad they razed the old library: many good reasons, some personal.
The Arts building has been completely refurbished. The nostalgic smell has gone. The Students’ Union has been transformed. I see now that the changes I hated five years ago had to be made, though you could not see the full result. Now there has been further progress. It dazzles with brilliance.†
Finally, we went round the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, a gallery and concert hall on campus opposite the Union. This is one place whose changes are few and imperceptible; where the past is cherished and illuminated with insights and scholarship. We loved it so much, I wished we lived near. I’d go once a week, and eat at Joe’s Bar in the Union. It felt like a second home, Unfortunately it’s 86 miles away. .
Then on Sunday evening I got a phone call from a student there, inviting me to participate in a project—their 10,000 Lives Appeal. As if my desire to participate, to reconnect, to dwell there in spirit, had been heard. I’ve volunteered for their mentoring scheme & signed up for a regular donation.
That whispering in the night : “outnumbered by blessings”. My unconscious mind was touched by Aunt Avis and her prayers for us. have What that meant to me was: the blessings are more than the curses. This immediately struck me as wrong. I don’t see blessings that way. Other than blessings there is nothing. Curses are all in the mind. Where we can’t see blessings, it’s a kind of darkness, emptiness, vacuum, something we cannot understand. There is much of this void in the world, always has been. It will drag us down if we let it.