Look­ing for glad­ness in these times

Grace in the sum­mer of our dis­con­tent

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Carla Carlisle

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

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