Looking for gladness in these times
Grace in the summer of our discontent
Carla Carlisle reflects on the state of Britain today and counts her blessings
LET me start with good news. The spotted flycatchers are back. These hard-working migrants have flown all the way from Africa and, night and day, they dart about with the speed and grace of stagehands shifting scenery. Thanks to their determination, we’ve had a summer free of fly swatters and sticky strips covered in flies. If the gift of citizenship was in my hands, it would be theirs.
More good news: rain. Two weeks ago, we had what Delta farmers call ‘a milliondollar rain’. Before, the crops resembled flotsam on a beach. After three days of gentle rain, the sugar beet and potatoes met in the rows and the wheat and barley had backbone. Farm prices being what they are, it’s more like a ‘ten bucks’ rain, but it’s better than a shoeshine.
Another blessing: roses. The garden has been as lavish as a homecoming parade. I’m a believer in old-fashioned, sweet-smelling varieties—what my grandmother called ‘High Church’ roses. These one-bloom-only roses give me an excuse to stay put so I don’t miss their brief appearance and the felicity of summer evenings drinking wine in the company of Fantin-latour and Mme Alfred Carrière.
The garden has had another, unexpected role. It’s been a refuge, a patch of guilty peace during this summer of our discontent. Three terrorist attacks, an election nobody wanted that ended with a wheel falling off a wagon that was heading who knows where and, looming over London, a blackened mausoleum, emblem of a tragedy that affects everyone who claims a beating heart. In East Anglia, the sky is empty save for church towers and grain stores. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be told: ‘You are not safe. Leave your home.’ Each morning, we greet each other with the same question: what’s next?
My constant companion, in good times and bad, is the radio, but in this uneasy season, it’s provided little comfort. Farming Today tells the early riser of record dolphin deaths from fishing nets and warns that the 80,000 farm workers who pick and pack the nation’s summer fruit and salads are put off by the Brexit message and the pound being worth 20% less than last year.
Then, Today. Don’t the presenters know the news is sad enough without their pushing and shoving? However many times I say ‘Down, Nick!’ or ‘Stop it, John!’, nobody gets the message: you can’t bully the truth out of folks.
In the afternoon, I shell broad beans in the courteous company of Matthew Bannister on Last Word, the obituaries programme. In a summer when so many anonymous people have died, I compose a letter in my head: ‘Dear Mr Bannister, May I request an alternative Last Word? No one we’ve ever heard of, just names we should know: the young Italian architect, Gloria Tevisan, who was about to start conservation work on Wren’s Royal Hospital, and her partner, Marco Gottardi, an assistant at the Anglo-italian practice CIAO. The young couple were excited about living at the top of a tower with its views of London. And could you include the two soldiers who died in a tank explosion, Corporals Matthew ‘Hattie’ Hatfield and Darren ‘Daz’ Neilson, both fathers of two-year-old daughters…’
I’m still mulling over my letter when Mr Bannister says that the last words on Last Words will be a poem by Helen Dunmore, the writer who died of cancer, aged 64. I expect to hear the poem she wrote in the last week of her life, but it’s an earlier one, Glad of These Times:
Driving along the motorway
‘Because I possess a much newer British passport than citizens born here, I have a fiercer, more territorial sense of Britishness
Swerving the packed lanes I am glad of these times. Because I did not die in childbirth Because my children will survive me I am glad of these times.
Glad of these times? When did you last say that? What I say, what all my friends of a certain age guiltily admit, is that we have lived in the best of times and we’ve been careless with our legacy. Dunmore names things that give her gladness: she is not hungry; she can lock her door with her own key; she is the beneficiary of central heating, email, keyhole surgery, polio inoculations and cashback, of power showers and 20 types of yoghurt.
In her honour, I begin a list of my own. I start small—the broad beans in my lap, Silver Queen corn ripening in the fields, sweet peas, a kitchen in which I can sit, chop, peel, read and listen, a blue bowl that has held the homegrown tomatoes of three generations of women.
I’m glad for the three Jamaican midwives at Hammersmith Hospital who were strong and kind when I felt neither and who were guests of honour at Sam’s christening. For a husband whose Englishness has endowed him with a knowledge of wild flowers and a passion for John Buchan, cricket and devilled kidneys that I’ve never shared. I’m glad he tolerates the things that fill me with gladness: peacocks, chickens, turkeys, the recordings of Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Glenn Gould and Elvis played on a loop.
Because I possess a much newer British passport than citizens born here, I have a fiercer, more territorial sense of Britishness. I’m not glad that Qatar Holdings owns the British jewels—the Connaught, Claridge’s, The Berkeley, Harrods, 95% of The Shard, 50% of Canary Wharf, one side of Grosvenor Square (the former American Embassy), the Olympic Village—and are building a megapalace out of three houses in Regent’s Park. I’m not glad that the white stucco homes of leafy London streets are unoccupied, bought with funds from Russia, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.
I know, I know: one minute I sound like the Daily Mail, the next like Jeremy Corbyn, but I want Britain to reclaim its heart and soul and neighbourhoods. I know no one who wants Hinkley Point built by the French and the Chinese. How did we reach this strange disjunction in which we speak of sovereignty and sell the deeds to the highest bidder? What do we have to do before we can write ‘glad of these times’?
We are an old country that has moved with the times, but never abandoned the past. The monarchy is proof of that: from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, there have been bumpy times, but ‘steadfast’ and ‘survival’ stand out. When The Queen begins her Birthday Message with ‘It is difficult to
escape a very sombre national mood’, we are reminded that her presence humanises and unifies us, whether we know it or not.
Many things give us a sense of who we are. We like black taxis, red buses, Antiques
Roadshow, Bake Off, Foyle’s War, English apples, Irish sweaters, Scotch whisky, Welsh singing. We’re proud that Harry Potter is English, but relieved that Scottish independence has hit a lull. We’re amazed that Downton Abbey is as famous as Big Ben. We lip-sync Churchill’s speeches, get married to the vows in the Book of Common Prayer and hope to go to our grave with the same perfect, powerful language, aided by Auden and Larkin, Shakespeare and Rossetti. The murdered MP Jo Cox got it right when she said in her maiden speech that we have more in common than things that divide us and it begins with our common language.
John Donne wrote ‘no man is an island’, but it turns out that even an island isn’t an island. The world beyond is in turmoil and, like the butterfly that flaps its wings a continent away, we feel every tremor. And yet, despite a season of chaos, ours is a complex history of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasise in our history determines our capacity to repair, to heal and to create a more equal land.
I once saw the words of the poet Alasdair Gray painted on the walls of a converted church in Glasgow: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ If we heed the advice of poets, I believe the time will come when we can say with a clear conscience: ‘We are glad of these times.’
‘I start small–the broad beans in my lap, Silver Queen corn ripening in the fields, sweet peas, a kitchen where I can sit, chop, peel, read and listen