Notes from London part 2: Faith restored, Paradise found!

Whether one believes in ‘Fate’, ‘Serendipity’ or just plain old coincidence, there’s no denying that often, when one goes in search of something, with an open mind, doors miraculously open and unlikely paths somehow lead us directly to the answers we seek.

I began my quest; searching for confirmation that the rural English idyll of my childhood still exists, while out walking on a damp, drizzly afternoon, between the far-stretching wheat fields along a ridge overlooking a valley in the boulder-clay country in the old county of Huntingdon (now Cambridgeshire),

I stumbled upon a beautiful 14th century church; St Andrew’s at Steeple Gidding. Sadly it’s no longer in regular use, for the parish it served, no longer exists, it is however still beautifully maintained by The Churches Conservation Trust.

Surprised to find the heavy door unlocked and with a charming note pinned to it which read: “……This door is NOT locked – However – the door is sometimes difficult to open. (thinks -now there’s a metaphor!) Turn the handle a 1/4 to the left and push the bottom of the door with your foot………!):

I followed the instructions and entered. The air was heavy with ancient history and, with the late afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows I stood (for the pews had long since been removed) in the peaceful stillness

and considered that my fears were perhaps not unfounded after all; all that remains of this once thriving agricultural, thriving English community was this monument to glorious days long past. I left with a heavy heart and continued along the country path.

After a while another church loomed into view: St John’s at ‘Little Gidding’.

This time instead of an air of neglect and sadness, I sensed it was full of life, set as it is in the immaculately manicured gardens of Ferrar House which, I soon discovered, is the home of the T.S Eliot Society. Upon entering the tiny chapel, and finding books of this famous poet on display, I was delighted to find the last of his ‘Four Quartets’ was in fact entitled ‘Little Gidding’!.

Reading his beautiful, profound words:

“If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

and…..

“A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England”.

I began to understand that perhaps I’d been too quick in reaching the conclusion that the England I sought had all but disappeared. Still further clarity and proof was needed and, as luck would have it, later the same evening, it was to follow.

I attended an ‘open mike’ session at a nearby village pub. Several musicians and poets (notably the outstandingly talented, witty, and hysterically funny Tim Clare, writer, performance poet and musician) gathered in the large old barn at the rear and entertained us brilliantly with their music using a wide range of instruments that included guitars, a flute, eukelele and mandolin, singing both traditional and contemporary English folk songs.

It was also an opportunity for some of the artists to showcase their latest work. The lyrics of one song, written and composed by Mike Whitaker,

held particular significance for me and slowly I began to understand as everything fell into place, that my quest was over; I had indeed found, as his title suggests:

“A LITTLE BIT OF ENGLAND”

“I am Gaius Marcus, Centurion of Rome

In Brittania with the 20th, a thousand miles from home.

My soldiers guard the border, all under my command

Romans and invaders, marching up and down the land

I’m a little bit of England, that’s not English after all

Marching in the freezing cold, the length of Hadrian’s wall.

We’ve kept Brittania from the Picts through thunder and the rain

And when the Emperor calls us home, our legacy remains….

A band of Irish brothers, we set sail across the sea

All hoping for employment – Paddy, Fergus, Mick and me.

You’ll see me by the trackside, a hammer in me hand

Just a bloody navvy laying steel across the land

I’m a little bit of England that’s not English after all

Taking ship from Dublin just to heed the worker crew’s call

We’ll work here for a decade, laying track for Brunel’s trains

When we sail back to Ireland’s shores, our legacy remains….

Now me and Jake and Randy came across in ’44

A band of Air Force brothers flying bombers in the war

Chatting-up the ladies, take them dancing with a band

Just a bloody Yankee, flying high across the land

I’m a little bit of England that’s not English after all

Flown in from America: beside you, standing tall

The skies of England darken with a thousand of our planes

And when we fly back stateside, our legacy remains…

All the way from Poland, I’ve come over here to work

With Aleksy and Paulina, for the jobs the English shirk

You claim we’re taking jobs away, but I don’t understand

How come there’s no-one English working with me on the land?

I’m a little bit of England that’s not English after all

Across from Eastern Europe, far and wide we hear the call

Cheap labour, easy money, England’s loss is our gain

Do you wonder, when we leave here, just what legacy remains….?”

Hearing those words, it dawned on me that the England I had been searching for, didn’t really exist anywhere other than in my own mind. It was simply an ‘ideal’, rooted in fond childhood memories and nostalgia – just a moment in time that would never come again- just as I would never be able re-live those golden years.

I realised we have always been a nation of ‘foreigners’, ever since these shores were first invaded and occupied. Each group of settlers brought (and continues to bring!), it’s own culture and traditions and each in turn leaves its unique legacy behind.

That’s what makes Britain the richly colourful and diverse society it is today. Our ‘green and pleasant land’ certainly does exist – though who can rightfully claim its ownership? Well, that would appear to be open to individual interpretation!

I’ll sign off with a little prayer I came across in ‘Little Gidding Church’ – it seems a particularly appropriate note to end on:

PRAYER FOR PEACE

Lead me from Death to Life,

From Falsehood to Truth

Lead me from Despair to Hope,

From Fear to Trust,

Lead me from Hate to Love,

From War to Peace

Let Peace fill our Heart,

our World, our Universe…..

(Lyrics of ‘A Little Bit of England’ are reproduced here by kind permission of their author & copyright holder, Mike Whitaker)

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