I wonder as I wander....

Last week I heard this lovely Appalachian folk carol sung in Gloucester cathedral, where the extraordinary acoustics made the voices of the St Cecilia's Singers soar and echo and resonate between the vaulted arches...they sang many wonderful works that evening but this simple and poignant piece was one of the most moving.

There is much to wonder about in this world, especially at this time of year when, for those who celebrate Christmas, spiritual attempts to see the past in the present, to transcend time and ponder the meaning of Bethlehem, come up against the crass consumerism all around. Not to mention the ongoing horrors of terrorism and war.

"And is it true? And is it true/This most tremendous tale of all...." so wrote John Betjeman in his famous poem "Christmas," juxtaposing the humour of the "tissued fripperies" and "hideous tie so kindly meant" with the mind-blowing possibility "The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?"

I cannot tell, I do not know, but I would like to celebrate Christmas as if it were indeed true. (And I would like to consider Christmas as lasting for twelve days from Christmas day onwards, not starting in early December and ending on Boxing Day!).

One of my three children is already with us, two are wandering in from abroad and I wonder if they will arrive in time, despite storms and strikes. Then we will have an enormous Christmas gathering with my many siblings and their families, and our mother. Even through this ghastly cold I have been fighting, which as colds do has been making me feel as if the end is nigh, I have the sense to know how very fortunate I am, in so many ways.

We have a candle in a glass jar behind our lovely German advent calendar, a cut-out of San Marco in Venice, with angels by great artists in every window. As the light shines through the windows, the angel paintings glow. But the candle is burning low, and stammers like my own faith or spirituality or whatever name I can give the thing within me that keeps flickering, but feebly.

Blessings on us all, whatever we believe, trust in, or hope for; and now it's back to a few more tissued fripperies, bed-making, and nose-blowing. May "a star's light" fall on everyone this Christmas, and may the New Year bring a more peaceful world, and hope of a home for all.





Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new.  We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.

Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.

The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture.  Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline;  "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."

Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there.  There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so.  (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in  Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).

Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece  HERE  prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern."  I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.) 

Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern. 

Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?  

That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.

*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).