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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

North East England: desolate and void?

We’ve all done it: got on our feet, opened our mouth, heard the words come tumbling out and wished the ground would open and swallow us up. I don’t suppose Lord Howell meant to disparage the North East in his now infamous remark about fracking, though that seems to have been the effect. ‘There are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part [sic] of the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.’

But as psychoanalysts are fond of reminding us, you may not say what you mean, but you always mean what you say. In an unguarded moment, a whole set of attitudes towards the North East is laid bare. It shows how, in the southern mentality, the ‘idea of north’ is of a remote, strange and essentially alien place, a liminal borderland between what we know and feel at home in, and what we don’t know and are subliminally nervous or even afraid of.

The trouble is that it is a very confused perception. There is certainly ‘desolation’, but it is found not in the remote country but in deprived urban areas that are the opposite of uninhabited: densely populated environments where people feel forgotten and abandoned by a those in power who are supposed to care for the weak and voiceless. By contrast, the remote fastnesses are in no way the 'desolate' degraded places that no-one cares about and which are therefore available for exploitation. Far from it. For it is precisely these landscapes that constitute the North East’s wonderful treasury of national parks, heritage coasts, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic buildings and a great deal more.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of desolation. The Idea of North is the title of a brilliant book by Peter Davidson. Its elusive discipline of topographics links geography, culture, landscape, literature, art, social anthropology and the history of ideas. And it turns out that this Howellian southern fantasy about the north is in fact close to a widespread ‘myth’ that is found across many different cultures in which ‘north’ with its connotations of remoteness, darkness and cold is an eloquent symbol of what is alien, chaotic and threatening. ‘Here be dragons.’

Some make friends with it and embrace it. For example, W. H. Auden, a midlander, fell in love with the North Pennines as a boy. He was haunted by the wild astringent fell country with its untamed climate and the ghosts of its long-dead industries of fluorspar and lead mining. He would have said that the toughness and desolation of ‘north’ was precisely what pulled him irreversibly into its gravitational field,  'the solace of fierce landscapes'. He found his poetic voice in County Durham, at Rookhope in Upper Weardale where, idly dropping a pebble down a disused mine-shaft, he had a flash of recognition about ‘self and non-self’ and with his new-found awareness began to write. Would he have become a great poet without the North?

As a Londoner, I can echo Auden’s love for a part of England that is not only ‘North’ but is also ‘Not-South’. I wrote Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of the North East as a tribute. But as I said in the book, we must be careful not to romanticise either the landscape or the people and communities who have been shaped by it. It’s important that we speak accurately about the North East and not be seduced by easy cliché. It’s interesting that much of today’s response to Lord Howell has been to cite the canon of Northumbrian beautiful views rather than probe more deeply into what lies under the skin of the North East. The opposite of desolation may not always be consolation. With its complex history shaped by power and conflict, wealth and poverty, privilege and servitude, faith and politics, industry and its decline, there are more ambivalent readings of the region, and these too are aspects of its character.

I don’t know if Lord Howell in some obscure way has intuited this.  Possibly not.  But it is how we as North-Easterners react to this unexpected opportunity to put ourselves on the map that perhaps tells its own important truth about this region and those of us for whom it is our much-loved home. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

On Hearing Wagner at the Proms

This 200th anniversary year of Richard Wagner’s birth has been a great celebration for his admirers. I had better admit that I am one of them. I write this having just listened to a marvellous performance of Götterdämmerung from the Proms. For me, the greatness of Wagner is not so much the theatre as the music. The luminous orchestration, the seamless marriage of instruments and voices, the use of distinctive musical themes or leitmotifs that act as musical and emotional signposts – all this adds up to an incomparable experience.

Someone once told me off when I was an undergraduate for listening too much (as he thought) to the Ring and trying to play parts of it on the piano. ‘It’s like a drug’ he said: ‘before you know it, you’re on a high and risk taking leave of your senses.  Look at Ludwig the Second who was seduced by Wagner’s music and went mad as a result. It’s what led to Hitler (a notorious admirer) and the death camps. Stick to Bach and Beethoven. At the very least, try to have an uneasy conscience about it’   

I’ve blogged on this site about my semitic background, and have paid tribute to my German-Jewish grandmother who was one of the most important influences of my life. Before the Third Reich, her family of assimilated Jews loved opera, especially Wagner. And even after she had survived the holocaust and made her home in England, she could never quite get it out of her system though I think she tried. When I was old enough, she asked me to play for her the ravishing Quintet from the last act of Meistersinger. Then it had to be the Prize Song, and then the Prelude. This gave me the permission I needed.

At theological college, one of my lecturers (Dr Jim Packer) asked if I would like to listen through the Ring cycle with him, one act every afternoon on the 24 (or so - I've forgotten how many it was) LPs of the legendary 1954 Fürtwängler version. (You have to have a lot of time for Wagner.) After each act, there was tea and then an hour’s conversation (more a tutorial) about the significance of Wagner and the Ring. JIP loved the cycle because, he told me, it was a profound myth of redemption. Its central theme was salvation through suffering: sacrifice offered so that the era of the corrupt gods could be ended and a new humanity be born. What could be more Christian than that? he insisted. Coming as it did from a highly conservative evangelical theologian, this was a remarkable insight for me as a raw young biblicist student barely out of his teens. I don’t think JIP ever wrote it up, but I have never forgotten it.

Rossini once said unkindly that Wagner had good moments but bad half hours. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially not, perhaps, those who are just as enthusiastically  marking this year’s other bicentenary, the birth of Verdi or the centenary of Britten's birth. I can only say what his music does for me. And that is, to touch me in places few other composers can reach.

I once went to a performance of my favourite of all Wagner’s music dramas, Tristan and Isolde. My wife bought me a ticket for the front stalls as a birthday present but didn’t come with me because, she said, she doubted if she would stay awake. It was staged in a self-conscious symbolist way that for me lost the naturalness of this profound story of human passion. So I decided to close my eyes and listen, lose myself in the waves of sublime music rising up from the orchestra pit a few feet in front of me, and imagine the 
drama in my own way. It was one of those experiences I knew I would never forget.

Should I as a Jewish-Christian man have an uneasy conscience about something that has touched me so deeply? To love the music is not to endorse the notorious self-serving egotism the composer was famous for, let alone the anti-semitism he purveyed. But the Jewish Daniel Barenboim, conductor of the Proms Ring, has had to negotiate this issue for himself. That he could give us such a rapturous series of performances speaks for itself. At the end of tonight’s Götterdämmerung it was several seconds before anyone could bear to break the long pregnant silence that followed the final cadence.  It was truly spellbinding. (Listen to the last 20 minutes on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer and judge for yourself.)

Like Caiaphas in St John’s Gospel, I think that Wagner’s music-dramas speak beyond anything the composer himself could know. Their universal vision gives the clue as to how our broken humanity can be put back together again.  Wagner spoke about the ‘music of the future’. It is – not just because it was artistically ground-breaking, but because of the range of its perspective and embrace. Like all great art, it speaks into our contemporary lives and dilemmas. It recognises who and what we are.

But for now, as the continuity announcer gently reminded us after the broadcast, ordinary life goes on. Tomorrow it will be Monday morning.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Summer in Rookhope

Up here at Rookhope in the North Pennines, we are a thousand feet higher than Durham. The height brings the temperature down by 3 degrees, though that is still unusually warm for these uplands. Below the tree line, Pennine zephyrs lightly rustle leaves and branches. Fair weather cumulus floats lazily across the sky.  In the distance, the bluish fells mark the watershed that closes off the dale. Beyond is Northumberland, another country.

The landscape has altered since we were last here in June. The vivid green hues of midsummer are yielding to less saturated yellows, mauves and ochres. The heather is turning purple.The riot of wild flower colour in the hay meadows is subsiding (but instead, come and see beautiful planters and hanging baskets all over our village-in-bloom). The burn runs low and lazy off the flank of Bolt's Law. The school has closed for the summer holiday. Torpor is settling in as August draws near. The land is still beautiful, but in a languid way.

It would take a Delius to do justice in music to the sights and sounds and scents of high summer in the countryside. Not so much 'Summer Night on the River' or 'In a Summer Garden', music we courted to one summer 40 years ago, as my parents-in-law apparently did 40 years before that.  One of Delius' less well known works is called 'A Song of the High Hills'. For me, it perfectly evokes long summer days in the Pennines: the fells shimmering in the dreamy heat, the aroma of warm yellow grass, the song of a lapwing momentarily breaking the silence, sheep dotted among the drystone walls running up the steep valley walls. Delius knew the moods, colours and textures of the Pennines from his West Riding upbringing. No-one could paint them better than he does.

Is there a better landscape anywhere in England? This North Pennine wilderness is one of the country's last truly remote places where, if it is what you are looking for, you can be silent and alone as you roam these undiscovered hills under huge skies with just the sheep and the curlews for company.


PS this was yesterday. You have to travel out of Rookhope to get a mobile signal. As I post this today, the sky is overcast. Wisps of mist cling to the fell tops. There is a hint of moisture in the air though it is still warm. You never quite know what the weather will do in these hills.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Railway Adults

So The Railway Children has attracted its first complaint in 42 years. Someone has alerted the British Board of Film Classification to the risk that the film could encourage children to play on railway tracks and harm others and themselves.

Quite right. And this is not the only railway film that poses moral hazard to the young. In response to a BBC Radio 4 tweet request to nominate films for the censor’s scrutiny, I put in my candidate: The Railway Adults, aka Brief Encounter. I gather this suggestion got read out on the air waves, so I thought I had better expand on it.

The fact is that David Lean’s famous black-and-white film, released in 1945 and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, is dangerously subversive of high moral values. I have tested this out through having shown it once to a group of senior clergy and laity, two of whom, including a bishop, were definitely Not Amused.  

Think about it.  All those steam engines thundering through Carnforth Station, their clouds of smoke billowing up to such great effect. It is marvellously atmospheric, of course, but at what cost to the atmosphere itself?  It’s cynically calculated to encourage the extravagant use of fossil-fuels that pollute the planet and contribute to climate-change. When we are trying to help children have respect for the environment, this is hardly a film to promote wholesome values.   

Then take its attitude to ophthalmology (thanks to another tweeter for pointing this out). The smoke from a passing train drives a speck of soot into Celia Johnson’s eye. Trevor Howard extracts it by inserting his handkerchief into her eye. This is hardly good hygiene, and the fact that a doctor behaves with complete disregard for accepted medical procedure makes it much worse. A young person considering a career in medicine could be badly corrupted by this disgraceful example of clinical practice.

Celia Johnson, in a memorable homage to Anna Karenina, reaches such a pitch of misery that she contemplates throwing herself in front of a train. No comment on the sheer unsuitability of this scene for the young is needed from me. Anyone viewing it, not just a child, might need intensive counselling. At the very least, parents should be warned.

Inside the café on platform – what number was it now? – things are no better. I am not thinking so much of ticket-collector Stanley Holloway’s crude humour and innuendo. It’s more café-manageress Joyce Carey’s snobbery, her unpleasant assumptions about class, her condescending de haut en bas manner with everyone who does not share her Daily Mail world-view. It is attitudes like these that are so corrosive of etiquette, courtesy and societal cohesion. The young should definitely not be exposed to them.

I forebear to speak about the film’s storyline, or its Rachmaninov score calculated to inflame the passions of the young. Nor will I comment on its self-evidently risqué title. That in itself should be enough to warn anyone that Brief Encounter is strictly for adults only.  Certificate 18 please, BBFC: nothing less will do. 

As for another subversive railway film The Titfield Thunderbolt, that will have to wait for another blog. 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Two Books and a Train: the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

Last week Durham’s Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition opened to the public. I have already visited four times. It would need a twice-daily visit to do justice to it. The Famous Book is the centrepiece of an array of marvellous books, manuscripts, sculptures and treasures that shed light on the Gospels and the world in which they were created. Will we ever see so many Saxon gospel books in the same place?  And Cuthbert’s cross, ring and personal gospel book of St John in the same room as the Gospel written in his honour? Come and see for yourself. It’s open all summer, till 30 September. I never use this phrase lightly, but it is not to be missed.

One of the things ‘not to be missed’ is the location of the exhibition. We can see the Lindisfarne Gospels at the British Library in London where it will not cost us a penny. But that is not the same as seeing it on the Durham peninsula, in the shadow of the Cathedral that not only contains but is Cuthbert’s shrine. His coffined body, together with the Gospels, were the most precious objects the Lindisfarne community possessed. When they left their island, they carried them round the north of England until finally arriving in Durham in 995.  Here they stayed, in each other’s company, until irrevocably parted at the Reformation. Yet they belong together and should never have been separated. We have Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries to thank for that. This summer gives us the remarkable opportunity to bring the Gospels back ‘home’ not just geographically but culturally, intellectually and above all, spiritually, near St Cuthbert in his very own place. The message to those visiting the exhibition is simple. You've seen the Book; now come and see the shrine of the man for whom this huge labour of love was created, whose place is the Cathedral itself. 

For me, visiting this exhibition has been an emotional and spiritual experience. To re-learn the history of how Saxon England embraced Christianity is one thing. To see and enjoy some the highest achievements of 'Northumbria's Golden Age' is deeply satisfying. But what is so memorable about Durham 2013 is how it witnesses to the remarkable devotion of our forebears: Cuthbert and so many other native saints and their communities. It's a cliché to put it like this, but I think I have glimpsed the 'gospel' in the Gospels in a new and, I want to say, compelling way. The exhibition is not only celebration and interpretation.  It is evangelism.  

There have been other events this week that have celebrated the Gospels in Durham.  Here are just two. On Wednesday, on the platform at Newcastle Central Station, we named and dedicated a locomotive ‘Durham Cathedral’. (For those who like to know, it’s a class 91 East Coast electric 91114.)  During the summer, it will also carry imagery from the Lindisfarne Gospels and invite people up and down the East Coast Main Line to come to Durham and see the book for themselves.  In addition to the name, the loco also has a silhouette of the Cathedral as seen from the railway viaduct which is also depicted. So here’s another way in which Cathedral and Gospels are linked. You never saw a happier dean than when I was presented with my own replica of the large (and heavy) nameplate that now adorns ‘our’ engine. My best thanks to East Coast, Stephen Sorby, railway chaplain, and many others for a great partnership that I am sure will continue in the future.

The second event was to launch my new book Landscapes of Faith during the week.  This too is published to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham. Like the exhibition, my book is a celebration of the rich heritage of Christianity in North East England. I blogged about it last week, so I’ll say no more here except to thank the team who worked so hard on it, especially Third Millennium for producing a large and beautiful book that is a joy to handle, even though I say so myself. And thanks to the large number of friends from north and south of Tyne who offered encouragement by coming to the launch. I am doing a book-signing in the shop at Alnwick Garden on Friday 12 July from 1230-1400 if you happen to be in the area.

And this is just Week 1!  It promises to be an extraordinary summer in Durham.

**I preached about the Lindisfarne Gospels at the launch service.  You can find the sermon in my Sermons and Addresses Blog on this site. Go to: http://deanstalks.blogspot.com/2013/06/on-lindisfarne-gospels.html?spref=tw