THE GOD NEPTUNE

Now that I have grown old and feeble (well, physically anyway), I am sometimes nervous about going places, especially if there are many people in a small place.

Actually I have always been disposed to be like this.   I once looked at the crush of people on Oxford Street (London) and just decided on the spot I could stand it no longer, and went and booked my passage home.   When I told my employer I was leaving him (I was paid handsomely for doing virtually no work at all, and I  never did grasp what he was meant to be doing either), he couldn’t understand my reasons.   I can’t stand so many people any longer, I told him.

If my pill coverage is below par, then even passing a group of people can make me stumble and freeze – the very thing I most want to avoid.   So, people would be reasonable to assume I was of a nervous disposition.

But there is one circumstance where I am always myself surprised at how lacking in anxiety I am, and that is the prospect of a voyage on water.   (I am no great swimmer either.)

We arrived last year for the ferry crossing to Arran, a journey of about an hour from Ardrossan to Brodick.   We drove up to Largs, John’s old haunt and the place he first took me out;  where his grandfather took him to buy a ice-cream (a knickerbocker glory, no less) and he has brought many grandchildren himself since.   These days Nardini’s, the ice cream parlour, is Nardini’s in name only, and can only offer an apology for a knickerbocker glory, yet John keeps calling forlornly in the hope of recapturing its former glories.   I have never seen the water at Largs as wild as it was in the wake of hurricane Katia.   The waves were smashing along the promenade and occasionally the spray was landing on the windows of Nardini’s itself.    The sea was boiling like a witch’s cauldron, black and noxious and spray rising out of it as if some foul spell were being brewed.

We stay the night at Seamills Hydro, and next day we make our way along to the ferry point at Ardrossan.    People who know anything about the island ferries understand that on days like today, the timetable and booking arrangements go overboard as it were.    The ferry if at all possible will make one crossing each way, but the captain presumably keeps his experienced eye on the sea and the weather, and when he gets a ‘window’, it’s all hands on deck to load the boat in a tremendous rush.   If you’re ready, and get on, good; if you’re not, there will be no other sailing and you’ll be left cooling your heels on the Ayrshire coast (not one of the places I’d choose to loiter) for another day.   We know about this, so we’re ready, watching the boat come in.

I am slightly taken aback at the captain’s breakneck approach to the harbour through the storms.   At the entrance he executes a ship’s equivalent of a handbrake turn, squeaks in an inch from the harbour wall and comes shuddering to a halt in the berth.    It’s breathtakingly competent and you get a slight feeling that the captain is saying, Thought I wouldn’t make it, did you?   Hah!

The doors open and the cargo of cars is ejected with great speed and small ceremony and the next load hurried on.   He’s exiting the harbour practically before we’ve left the car deck.   Actually, once we climb the mountain of wild water out of the harbour and get on the open water, things are a lot calmer.   The crossing takes less than an hour, so we can’t do our usual act in stormy weather at sea, of having a three course meal in an empty restaurant while other passengers are being sick over the side.

Perhaps my comfort on the water is because every day I walk to the bottom of our garden where we keep a large blue pot full of clear water, to which I have given the somewhat grandiose appellation, The Pool of Neptune.   I have a bamboo ladle that we brought back from Japan , and I solemnly pour a libation to the  guardian of the oceans, and remember my father, that priest of Neptune and guardian of his temple (a well shed and beautiful nine ringed well on his fields.)

Or maybe it’s  because our island forbears, who probably arrived on Viking longships, looked at the land and thought, This’ll do.

Whatever the reason, I always feel easy on the water, however wild.

PS  I wrote the above in September 2011.   Things move on.

I am happy to report that Nardini’s has got its act together and a knickerbocker glory there is once again the gross overindulgence it is supposed to be.

The show-off captain of the Arran ferry performed the handbrake  turn once too often, and when we returned in February 2012 we travelled in a horribly overcrowded vessel reclaimed out of mothballs, presumably because Jack the Lad on the boat had miscalculated and hit the dock.

And I walk my small grand-daughters to ‘the Pool of Neptune’ , hand them a Japanese ladle, show them how to pour a libation, and as they make the offering I tell them, say a little prayer.   A few days later I am reclining on the seat swing when they ask Joanna to hand them down the ladle.    Assuming the proper dignity, they carefully go through the entire ritual, but I am amused to hear them speak as they pour out the water, ‘Say a little prayer.’

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GRACE

A week of much kindness from many people.

But three little gifts from the natural world for me.

Sitting in a public space, surrounded only by kindness, but feeling rather agitated and conspicuous, a dog, a black and white collie, wandered past.   He stopped and came back to me, nuzzled my hands and let me stroke him.    Then he raised his head and looked me straight in the eye, a long, brown, intelligent, thoughtful gaze and it was as if he saw all my secrets and ‘said’, Sister, this too will pass.   Then off he went, sniffing, about his doggy business.

Driving along with one of my closest friends, oblivious to the breath-taking beauty of Sussex on a Spring evening, a movement to my left made me look across the field, and there to my astonishment, performing a bravura display of aerial skill in sheer delight, fast and low across the meadow, were the first swallows I’ve seen this year.

And on the South Downs, I sat and enjoyed the view while John had a walk to Ditchling Beacon and back.    In a white van beside me but an empty car space away, a young man shouted down the telephone a series of abusive, threatening calls to a girlfriend.   I sat in the sunshine, carefully not even glancing in his direction, and hoped some grace would fall upon him:  eventually he stopped, buried his head in his hands for a few minues, and then he drove away.   As the sound of his engines faded, I realised his noisy disturbance had masked what I could now hear:  larks, not just one but two at least, singing over the South Downs.

I thought, we have survived the winter.     Larks still sing in the clear air, swallows still return from Africa, a dog is still man’s best friend.

I believe in miracles.

THINGS THAT PASS ALL UNDERSTANDING

Last week we had the pleasure of a visit from my daughter Joanna and her husband and children.

We girls went on an outing to Uckfield, a small Sussex village near us. At one point, a few shops are recessed back from the street and up about 6 steps, and as we approached them a motley assortment of persons were setting up what turned out to be a Good Friday service, using the pavement in front of the shops as the platform, while the ‘congregration’ stood in the space between the ‘platform’ and the road. There were no barriers, nothing was cordoned off… they were creating rather a hazard to navigation, but it’s a free country after all and one has to respect the views and beliefs of others.

We went in to the shop behind all this curfuffle (the shop was not connected to the service) and got on with our business.

Some considerable time afterwards, we approached the exit of the shop to leave, but the clergy had backed in to the doorway, which was now blocked. I’m not sure of the fashion rules of cassocks and clerical garb – people were sporting different colours but I don’t know whether this has any significance – or if the service was multi-denominational. Anyway, we stood politely waiting for an exit moment while a man who couldn’t play guitar accompanied a woman who couldn’t sing on some modern happy clappy hymn I’d never heard of.

It became apparent to me that we could stand there to kingdom come for all the clergy cared. Eventually we sent out the children, who were allowed, grudgingly, to pass, but were treated with great disdain.

I’m still standing with my trolley that assists me to walk, when the caterwauling stops and one of the ‘be-cassocked’ launches into a very long prayer. I have been well brought up, so I remain standing silently, though I do get to the How long, O Lord, how long stage before he mercifully draws to a conclusion. I tap (very gently and when he himself is not speaking ) on the shoulder of the officiant nearest me, who turns and glares at me with undisguised venom. I am slightly taken aback by the unchristian ferocity of his look, but I smile, standing there with my trolley, and I mime silently that I’d like safe passage through their midst. He is about to issue some clerical reprimand, when something in me stirs slightly, and I think, firstly, that if he says a single word, I’ll point out that this is a public highway and he’s causing an obstruction. But then hard on the heels of that, the killer remark offers itself. Whatever he says, I think, I’ll just smile and say, And may the peace that passeth all understanding encompass your heart also on this Good Friday, dear brother.

But it’s not just the peace that passeth all understanding; so does the ability some of us possess – including him – to hear that which has not been actually spoken, and he thinks better of saying anything and, grudgingly and ungraciously, stands aside.

Then I do wish him peace from my heart, unloving brother though he may appear to be, let me not be an unloving sister, and I think (Dune fashion) that I can thank him for giving me the opportunity to practice forbearance. Perhaps he stood there in physical pain; perhaps he had suffered a loss of faith and wondered what the point in his labours was; perhaps he was distressed at the loss of influence and lack of interest and respect what he believes in now receives; perhaps someone he loved had passed away and he was in despair. Perhaps he was just an unhappy, grumpy, ill-tempered, bad mannered, ungentlemanly man who leads a miserable life.

We have all found ourselves at some point wandering in distress, and some unknown person appears from nowhere, and merely by recognising us in our unhappiness, and perhaps saying a kind word, carrying our bag a little way, giving us a cup of coffee, tying our shoelace, has lifted our spirits and sent us on our way recovered out of all proportion to the small gift they appeared to give us; occasionally I have wondered (not very seriously, you understand) whether these people, who appear out of the mist when we need them, give us aid, and disappear again forever, are perhaps what was meant by the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’. Is it not possible, I wonder, as I wander down the streets of Uckfield towards a coffee shop, which my daughter who I am sure is fortunately thinking along much more sensible and practical lines than I am has sourced so that I do not have to walk too far – is it not possible that Fate as well as sending us ‘Angels of Mercy’ also sends us these little trials – trials of our faith, of our fortitude, of our loving kindness? I must in my lifetime have failed such trials far too often. The deadly javelin of hurtful words has always leapt unbidden to my hand. I have, with my capacity to aim for the jugular, mea culpa, flung it many many times, stepped over the fallen opponent, and walked on with barely a backwards glance. Perhaps thirty years ago I first recognised that though there was no amulet in life which would protect you from falling a little in love with some man who laid siege to you, never-thre-less, you were in no way obliged to do anything about it.    You just walked on by.   So it has taken me 60 years to understand that it is not necessary to destroy everyone who crosses you.   You have your lethal weapons, should it prove essential to deploy them, but in most cases, you can just walk on by.

I say a little prayer for my poor brother, the priest. May he find comfort. I say a little prayer of gratitude for my loving daughter, who has had thought and consideration for my comfort. I say a little prayer for the village of Uckfield: may it grow and prosper.

As we walk away, on the street behind us, the caterwauling begins once more. But if I listen very carefully, I can just hear, very faint and far away, from the farthest outpost of my imagination, the angel choir behind it.

MADAM PLEASES TO MAKE JOKE

MADAM PLEASES TO MAKE JOKE

We  women are wont to complain with varying degrees of good nature or shrillness, of the lack of manners, perhaps the general uselessness, of British men.   However it is only when you are brought face to face with the customs of other races that you realise that in general, and across all social categories, the Western man extends considerable courtesy to women, so much so that we tend to take it quite for granted.

For example, if you are in, say Singapore, or Japan, you discover that men do not defer to women in terms of space, and you take this courtesy so much as a given that you are completely taken aback when it is not accorded.      As you cross the lobby of the Hilton hotel, Singapore and a waiter’s path is going to intersect yours, you sail on in the serene assumption that, naturally, he will give way to you.   There are two reasons, a) you are a guest and he is an employee, and b) you are a lady and (you assume) he is a gentleman.    It never crosses your memsahib’s mind that he will not accord you  priority, and when he doesn’t, you are astonished and annoyed.

Foreign staff even in our own country can have different cultural expectations to ourselves, and when last in Bath I found myself completely irritated by the manners (or lack of them) of the staff.   The very name of the hotel was an irritation – Hilton, Bath City.    We don’t say, Bath City.   We say, City of Bath.       Service was not that good in general.   After waiting for a short time in Reception a male receptionist approached John, who gave his name.   Whereupon the response was, I’ll deal with you shortly, and he disappeared, as though we were not the guests he was expecting.   But eventually we achieve our room, which is fine.    The location is excellent.   In due course we go down to dinner, where the food is good.    The Head Waiter and some of his staff are of some Eastern Country, possibly Indian or Indonesian, I am not quite sure.    Now as we all know, under old fashioned rules, a lady being taken out to dinner never addressed the waiting staff at all, but made all requests or complaints to her host, who dealt with them as he saw fit.    However, this somewhat antiquated practice is rarely seriously observed in modern usage.   But here I find I am totally  ignored by the Head Waiter.    He addresses all his remarks to John.   It’s as though I am not present, or someone of lesser rank who does not require to be acknowledged.      When the food comes, John is served first with all presentation;  mine is plonked in front of me.  John’s food is cleared away first.   He is offered extra bread; I am not.    When his glass is empty, it is topped up but mine, which I do not empty, is left unattended.  I am made to feel that I ought to be  eating elsewhere, behind a curtain.   I complain in their complaints card that they do not observe in their restaurant the expected European customs of courtesy towards women, but I doubt anything will come of that.

Years ago   we were entertained in Singapore by a native of that place.   Unlike many of his sophisticated and charming colleagues, this man had not had the experience of working in Europe or the USA.   Elisabeth, then a teenager, was with us as my companion, and this man’s wife joined us.   He chose a restaurant that seemed fashionable and highly rated but which proved to be the most unattractive dining experience that I have ever endured.   Food was served according to your ailments.   You told the waiter you had a sore knee, sluggish bowel, headache, whatever, and he then served you what was deemed appropriate.   I found this a wholly unattractive proposition.    There was no way I was going to discuss, in a public restaurant, with an unknown waiter in S’English – as dire a corruption of English as you will ever have the misfortune to hear – anything to do with my health.    I promptly withdrew to the convenient position of the English milady who doesn’t address the waiter –  and left John to deal with it.   I think he said we were tired and jet lagged.   The food was truly horrible.   I had some muddy soup with what appeared to be snails with shells on drowning in its murky depths.   I had difficulty not retching.    Meanwhile I realised that our hostess had been brought along for the specific purpose of entertaining Elisabeth and me in order to leave the men free to discuss lofty business matters unaffected by the silliness of women.    Her method of entertaining us was to be extremely solicitous about our food, worrying about each and every mouthful we ingested, and to agree immediately with everything we said.   I reflected Dictator’s wives were probably treated like this, in which case it was no fun at all being a Tyrant’s spouse.

Eventually I asked her about her domestic arrangements.    She herself worked, and she had a Philipino maid as housekeeper and who looked after the three children.   I asked if the maid had children?   Somewhat surprised, she said yes, she had 3, in the Philipines.     And how often does she see them, I enquired?     Oh, every 2 or 3 years.   After a short pause, I observed that it must be sad for this woman to look after someone else’s children and never see her own.   Our hostess gave a little shrug.   “She come from a poor country.”

When it came to the dessert, I did address the waiter.    “I want a pudding that’s very bad for you.”   The waiter looked at me sourly.   “Madam pleases to make joke.”   We declined dessert.   Our host drove us back to our hotel, but when we reached his car, he simply got in, and left us to follow suit.   No holding doors open for him.    When we got back to our hotel, and our hosts had left us,  we ordered Death by Chocolate, and enjoyed every last decadent mouthful.

It is important to note, I told myself, that our host by his lights was not discourteous.   He had invited us to dinner and paid for it (charged it anyway).    He had chosen a restaurant which presumably he thought of interest and benefit.   He had provided a companion for his guest’s wife and daughter and she had applied herself diligently to the task.   He had driven us to and from our hotel.   The fact that I am left thinking him a little lacking in good manners is not his fault.   By his lights, he has done all that could be expected of him, but we have different cultural expectations, and with typical Western arrogance it does not occur to us there might be other views than our own.

However, I am still decidedly under-impressed and when I return I view the British male with greater appreciation.   He may not be a great romantic, seduce you with flattering words, but on the whole he’s a kind and decent fellow, courteous and good mannered, gallant to women, and he doesn’t think you should eat your dinner in invisible silence behind a curtain, and preferably not with him.

KEEPING THE QUEEN’S PEACE

Watching the Queen’s recent attendance in parliament as part of the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, it appeared to me that she reacted with distaste to The Speaker, John Bercow’s ill-considered remark that she was a kaleidoscope queen of a kaleidoscope country.    I do not think her (assumed by me) disapproval was in any way a rejection of our multicultural society and commonwealth, over which the Queen has presided with discretion and dignity for six decades.   Rather it may have been because the word kaleidoscope suggests that the colours were constantly changing, whereas she nailed her colours to the mast long ago and has remained true to them ever since.

I also recently watched an old film about the English civil war and reflected what an extraordinary period of history it was, and how it illustrates certain characteristics of the English.     (I must remind readers in my observations below that I am a Scot which is an entirely different thing to being English in ways both obvious and subtle.)

I am not an historian, but let us consider here four pivotal points in English history:   their conquest by Rome;  their fall to William the Conqueror;  their challenge to papal authority under Henry V111;  and their rejection of the unimpeachability of kings in the person of Charles 1.

Of Ancient Rome, whose conquests have been labelled ‘glorious’ by those who had no distaste for their ruination of other nations, nor their profit through the misery of those whom they enslaved, I shall say little.   When, briefly, I studied Latin, I was surprised by how impoverished a language it appeared to be compared with the great subtlety of English, and wondered why for generations we have wasted time studying an unusable language of an unedifying people, unless perhaps among our educators were descendants from this doubtful patrimony.

William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England had no legitimacy whatsoever (supposing such a thing exists), except by that bully’s charter, Right of Conquest.   I recently warmed to General the Lord Dannatt when he listed William the Conqueror as an enemy of England.

Henry VIII challenged the authority of Papal Rome and although his motives were entirely dishonourable, he freed his countrymen from the tyranny of submission to an external religious authority.   He challenged the notion that one section of Christendom was a true instrument of the divine, and chose to nominate his corrupt and venal self as a suitable head of the church in England, which peculiar state of affairs last until the present day.   (NB: In England only.  The Queen is not head of the church in Scotland.)    He then set about achieving the real objectives of his ‘heresy’ which was less to do with religious theory and more about getting rid of a wife of whom he had tired, and getting his hands on the wealth of the church, both of which aims he accomplished with speedy efficiency.

Charles 1 had not considered carefully enough the nature of the people over whom he was, for a time, king.   They were pragmatic enough to survive under tyrants when there was no alternative, but they were of an independent spirit.   He assumed that because he was king, he could claim to be anointed and chosen by God (whereas in fact kings hold their position due to an accident of birth, the aggression of their ancestors possibly long ago, and crucially by acceptance of the inhabitants of their kingdom.)   However, it appears that he could have held on to his crown (not to mention his head), had he only been sensible.

The religious choice of kings appears to me to be largely pragmatic, though not many are as frank as Henry of Navarre,  later Henry IV of France, (‘Paris is worth a mass.’)   Henry VIII had at different times cast into doubt the legitimacy of both his daughters.   Mary Tudor was daughter of a catholic queen, and according to that religion she was the only legitimate heir, so her loyalty to the church of Rome was never likely to be in doubt.    Had Elizabeth espoused Catholicism, that would have been to declare herself a bastard and ineligible to be queen, so she had no alternative but to support the Protestant cause.   James VI of Scotland, later lst of England, had seen his mother lose her head over her claim to the English throne by Catholic legitimacy, plus he came of the Scots brand of Protestantism which is an entirely different thing to the English.    But by the time it came to Charles 1, his legitimacy in terms of birth was not an issue and he appears to have been catholic in all but name, and indeed Charles II declared himself catholic on his deathbed.   Of course an individual’s private faith should be his own business, but Henry VIII had left English kings in the invidious position that they were head of the established church, and therefore their view was of national significance.   It appears that the majority of the king’s subjects wished to practise protestant variants of Christianity, while being prepared (mostly) to tolerate individual practising of personal belief.   I suggest that the attraction of Protestantism to the English was that it left you much more free to think for yourself, and certainly not in a position where foreign clerical authorities could interfere with your affairs.   Charles should have pondered this conundrum with caution.    As it was, he appeared to believe that he could not be challenged on his assertion that he was chosen and anointed by God, and was answerable to no other authority.   It appears that what angered his opponents into accusing him of treason against the people was discovering that he was prepared to open England’s gates to foreign armies in order to subdue his own people;   for this they declared him unfit to be king;   and they had found him to be so arrogant, dishonest and perfidious that his word was worthless;  and so he was executed.

Whereas Henry VIII and Cromwell appear to be opposites – one enhancing his personal power through the monarchy, and the other king in all but name for so long as he lived but refusing the crown; in fact what they had in common was that, broadly, the majority of the English were in support of their actions.     The English have long memories; and after their experiences with Rome and Roman Catholicism, perhaps they were no longer willing to accept that any unimpeachable authority could be applied to them.   (Exerting authority over others was of course a different thing.)  Charles I either never saw this, or he forgot it.

This is why, some time ago, during the recent visit of the present Pope, I was absolutely astounded to hear the Speaker of the House of Commons, still the sorry John Bercow, who is supposed to speak as the House wills him, refer to Charles I as ‘Charles the Martyr’.   Charles the Martyr, I thought.   How dare he?    Charles I was not a martyr to anything but his own arrogance, selfishness, intransigence and stupidity.

If ‘The Speaker’ is supposed to be a man of cautious and accurate words, as befits one who speaks on behalf of the English (and that’s not counting the other nations of Britain) then I think in his giddy attention-seeking silliness the incumbent has proved a poor choice.   Perhaps the House of Commons should remember what Cromwell said in addressing an earlier House.   ‘Consider, in the bowels of Christ, that ye might be mistaken.’     Then with that swift action after long deliberation which characterises the English, they might chose another Speaker who might better speak on their behalf and by extension, represent us all.

Meanwhile we should follow the good example of the protestant Queen Elizabeth 1 and the (presumably) catholic Charles 11, and follow our personal beliefs with gratitude that we are free to do so, and in mindful tolerance of the alternative views of others.

Keeping the Queen’s peace, one might say.