Making signs

I didn’t go to church this year. I mean, I did. I went to a few. I like to look at how they were built, the small doors, the forgotten, blocked-off stairways and here, where I live in exile from my land of lost content, Wessex and its blue remembered hills in the mountainous coastal region of Suffolk, the evidence of the shrinking churches showing how even hundreds of years ago the decline began, when storms and shingle and sheep meant it just wasn’t worth hanging around here any more. The people drifted away and with them the money to keep the roof on huge churches once full to bursting; they pulled down parts of them to keep the bills down, long before Cromwell’s Puritan taliban came along to chop the heads off statues and desecrate fonts. God told them to do it, after all.

Aloysius was actually John Betjemann’s bear. No, really.

But I didn’t go to Midnight Mass. Now, I’m happy to admit that my only real interest in religion was sponsored by Sebastian Flyte in the 1980s TV Brideshead. I liked all the bit about the green hill far away because it reminds me of where I grew up; it had a white horse carved on it, as proper hills do.

But. But. I once delivered my own sermon of dismount to my mother, taking as my text the hypocrisy of people who did one thing and claimed another, who sang about being meek and mild and were the opposite, whose attitudes seemed to indicate to me that the bit about suffer little children to come unto me they took all too literally.

I railed about how people seemed to me to go to church to be seen to go to church, that the quality of their mercy was strained to non-existence, that they talked about and prayed about kindness and helping those less fortunate and didn’t do anything about it, the fakery of the compulsory church service for a boy at school whose family was wiped out in one fell swoop not as a freakish accident that predictably nobody could ever have predicted, according to our head of year, but because all too obviously, coming back from holiday his father had driven onto a roundabout thinking the lorry on it would get out of his way. It didn’t.

All pretty standard sub-Holden Caulfield adolescent stuff I pretended I’d forgotten I’d ever said, so I was a bit surprised when my mother, the church elder leader of the break-away church choir said exactly and precisely the same stuff at my step-father’s funeral.

I’ve tried to read Betjeman maundering on about religion positively and I just can’t do it. The more I read about other people’s religion the more it seems they just make themselves more and more unhappy. Maybe it’s just the people I read, but there’s enough potential for torment in every day without telling yourself that if you think this is bad, play your cards wrong and you could get torment for the rest of time. Don’t even get me started about people who think there is a right to live somewhere and throw other people out of it because a Bronze Age fairy story said they should.

Do they know it’s Christmas?

They wished it could be Christmas every day.

The last time I went to church for a service was 2014, appropriately enough a hundred years after the Christmas Truce. It was Blythburgh, one of the most beautiful churches I know, rising like the beacon of hope across the marshes that it must have been when this coast was even more waterlogged than it currently is.

Then as now it was Second Home Central, with all the temporary locals from Walberswick and Southwold (60% of Southwold is second-homes) trudging humbly to this freezing, shining church with about six million pounds worth of Lamborghinis, the occasional Ferrari (no Maseratis. They’re a bit, well, (cough) ….Essex, really) and the ubiquitous Porsche Cayenne shopping trolleys in the tiny gravel carpark across the hollow way.

I can deal with that. I had friends in Fulham and drank in the Sloaney Pony too, yah? Now and again, anyway. That wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t the carols; although there are a couple that bring a manly lump to my throat I was still a choirister, pal.

Towards the end of the service the vicar told us all ‘turn to your neighbour and make the sign of peace.’ I had no clue whatsoever what he was talking about. Like a hippy? Like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? Draw a CND sign? Apparently not. We were supposed to shake hands. Really.

This was supposed to be the Church of England. I don’t know these people. They don’t know me. I came here to sing some carols and get a buzz from the atmosphere and the candles (oops, that Catholicism sneaking through again…). Maybe if we were lucky, a bit of incense wouldn’t be too much to ask for, would it? I mean, if you’re going to do this stuff you might as well do it properly. But shaking hands? I’ve always thought the best sign of peace with a neighbour is a well-maintained hedge, preferably above head-height and definitely with a good proportion of pyracantha mixed in with the box and hawthorn. But shaking actual hands without even knowing their name?

Luckily there was no chance of that this Christmas. I didn’t want to stand at any distance enclosed with strangers in a cold stone barn at midnight. Not when I know there isn’t any incense involved.

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High on a hill

There is a green hill far away. We sang about it in Sunday school, but it’s more true now then when I first sang it, back where all the hills were green and not far away at all, just a cycle ride away.

I wrote this today about something over a year ago. I don’t know if it works or not. I thought it did when I wrote it.

This is the place I grew up, the place I'm from, this land of green hills far away. But somehow, very close to me all the time.
This is the place I grew up, the place I’m from, this land of green hills far away. But somehow very close to me all the time.

High On a Green Hill


I met her in a pub when we were younger

Half our lives away; I met her on Facebook when she was ill.

I gave her a book of mine to read, while she lay

Under a blanket in the chill of an Andalucian winter,

Thick patterned wool around her thin shoulders,

Cold tiles under her long feet. She had a plan

To start a marmalade factory but something happened

To the farmers collective or the orange crop,

I didn’t really know.

And then there was the husband

And then there was the son and it was complicated,

You know how it goes sometimes.

I thought of her all that winter, pale and cold

Her light burning lower.

You can die when you’re our age.

Or anytime, it’s just we know that now.

She had pneumonia, she had blood tests,

She thought she had something else and

We shared the great day when she could walk in the sun

Three clicks to the village and rest and back again

On her own, by email, the way people do now.

After the marmalada corporation somehow didn’t happen

We met face-to-face the second time in our lives;

A university reunion.

She was the only reason I wanted to go.

She didn’t drink any more.

I was about ten years too late for that plan

But I didn’t know that when I offered her a glass of wine

And as she said “if I drink I have no limits,”

As I tried so hard to catch the waiter’s eye

For a whole bottle her friend kicked my leg under the table,

Hard and then harder until she said

“And this time I’ll probably die, so no,

I won’t have a drink. Thanks.”

She drank fizzy water.

Apparently there are different tastes,

Just not the ones I thought she meant.

We ate while I tried to hide the tinted sin of my glass

And talked and went quite early to our separate rooms.

When someone doesn’t drink, what else do you do?

But in the morning, fresh, we walked through sacred damp Bath

To the café I’d found that I thought she might like.

And she did. And I did, when the waitress assumed

She was my wife. It felt like it could have gone that way,

In a different life. After breakfast we walked along the canal,

Early Spring and suddenly it’s May and maybe,

Just maybe everything would turn out ok and

After she told me where she’d been and I didn’t need

Or even want to top her stories and win,

Because just walking there with her,

It felt as if I had for once,

As if I’d already won,

Although what that was

I didn’t really know.

She played electric bass and me, I played

A bit of guitar and sax.

Our first gig was outside the city, later.

I thought I’d need to drink but somehow I didn’t.

In the shadow of a church up there on the hill,

In the mist outside the pub door.

I didn’t finish my drink, blowing warm

If not hot and maybe close to cool.

She was taking a taxi to the airport at four.

After we’d all judged the gig a total success

And packed away our rocknroll music stands,

Our funky bifocal reading glasses,

She zipped her Hofner into its flight case

As I said don’t call it, I’ll drive you there

And she said ok. We both knew

It wasn’t really the right direction

But part of her wanted to stay.

A little bit. Just a little bit.

We bought factory-made hummus

Second-hand in a Sunday supermarket,

Some grapes and bread on its sell-by date,

Flavoured water I’d never drunk,

Something with a hint of lime and ate

Parked on a grass verge in my car,

High on a green hill in the sluicing rain,

Next to a stone barn grey against the black sky,

The food unimportant until it was time

For her to catch her plane, nearly,

Or anyway drive her to the airport.

We parked again and haggled again

Over petrol money I didn’t want from her,

Paid the car park, carried her bags

Then watched her smoke a cigarette outside.

Before we hung around Departures

Until it really was time for her to go.

We’ll do it again some time.

All of us, maybe. Sooner than before

We’ll be high on a green hill again.

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